Friday, August 22, 2008

Thoughts on convention coverage

I've been fortunate enough to have covered three national political conventions: One in New York in 1980, and both in 1988 (Atlanta & New Orleans.) When veterans tell you this is the Super Bowl of the news business, they're not kidding. It is a chance for you to not only make your mark, but you'll never have a better networking opportunity. And you'll never work harder... but you'll never have more fun.

Many years ago convention coverage ran on every network, all day. And I do mean all day. I'd get home from school and every station would have nothing but wall to wall coverage. Much of it was dull, but there was also a lot of mystery, as many times things weren't so settled ahead of time as they are now. There are still plenty of back room deals, but I suspect most of those have already taken place.

In the 80's it was pretty much prime time coverage, and it has been cut down now to sort of a recap in the late evening. The instant gratatification society simply doesn't have the patience to spend all night watching convention coverage.

So if you're new to all this, here's what you can look for:

-Politicians love the sounds of their own voices, and that rule is truly in effect at a convention. No politician ever dodged me or didn't give me a sound bite. I even got one from Gary Hart after his scandal in 1988. (Wouldn't count on anything from John Edwards, though, if he even shows up, which is doubtful.) You'll run into famous politicians on every corner, so be ready, because they really want to talk.

-Standups look best if you can do them in a sky box. These are perfectly lit, and offer a fantastic background, especially at night.

-Standups on the convention floor will offer a tremendous amount of energy. If you can manage a walking standup from the floor, do it.

-Logistics can be a nightmare, and just getting through security and getting to the delegation you want can often take awhile. Leave plenty of time and know where you're going. If you can do a walk-through the day before the convention starts, do so.

-Make sure you have all your cell phone numbers of your contacts programmed into your phone before you get there.

-Take as much ID as possible. Passports, station badges, whatever. Security will be very tight.

-Celebrities will be everywhere at the Democratic convention, and they also love the sounds of their own voices.

-Media people go out of their way to be helpful and you should do the same. Most of the vets working the convention are at the top of the food chain, and they didn't get there by being jerks. People will have dead batteries, run out of paper, tape, pens, whatever. If you can help someone, do so. It's the right thing to do, and you'll make a contact.

-Take a bushel of business cards and hand them to everyone. You should also collect as many as possible.

-Network people and big market stars are happy to talk to young people if they have the time. I had a wonderful conversation with Charles Kuralt when I ran into him shopping for tee-shirts. Don't be afraid to ask for advice.

-Take a still camera. You'll want stuff for your scrapbook.

-Photogs get worn out during conventions. Carry as much as you can and help them as much as possible. Take care of getting the food, drinks, running errands, etc.

-Booze flows freely at these affairs, and sometimes at night you can find those "loose lips" will provide you with a great soundbite.

-At some point you'll say, "Is there anyone in politics who doesn't smoke?"

-Have some snacks in your pocket or purse. Food is notoriously bad at these venues, and ridiculously expensive.

-If you're a one man band, ask a photog to shoot your standup for you.

-Don't get caught up in the excitement so much that you look or sound biased. It is easy when thousands of people are cheering and balloons are falling to get caught up in the moment, but don't. Remember to be objective. Media bias is a huge story this year, so don't become part of it.

Friday's story ideas

College rankings. How exactly is this done, and what does it mean to high school seniors looking for a college?

What is "medical marketing" and how can you find out if your doctor has ties to a health care company?

Does what you charge with your credit card affect your credit? Apparently some credit companies deduct points for what they consider frivolous and extravagant purchases.

High def rooftop antennas. Many people think you need a converter box to get high def, but you can pick it up with an antenna... or even rabbit ears.

Study shows tobacco use in movies inspires teens to start smoking. (The current film "Pineapple Express" is a movie featuring pot smokers, if you need b-roll.)

Just a thought.... Obama to notify people via text message of his VP pick. How much is this making for phone companies?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Thursday's story ideas

What is dyspraxia? The kid who plays Harry Potter has it, and what can it mean to your children?

How has the housing market affected rentals in your area? Some places have no more apartments available.

Foreclosure & divorce... who gets stuck with the house in tough economic times, and who gets stuck with the bad credit?

Local freebies. So many people are unable to pay bills, so show them how to get a helping hand in your community, as well as spotlighting government programs.

Corporal punishment in schools.... what's the deal in your market?

With so many people looking to avoid driving, online degrees are more popular. But how do you know if a school is legit or just a "diploma mill."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Mailbag: You can observe a lot just by watching

Grapevine,

I'm a reporter paying my dues in a small market, and to be honest, there's really no one here to teach me very much. Everyone is a rookie and the ND doesn't offer any feedback. I'm just looking for advice as to how I can do better standups and packages if I don't see anyone in this market who really stands out. I watch the competition every night and I'm just not inspired.

-Willing to learn

Dear Willing,

Well, I used the classic Yogi Berra quote in the headline because, in reality, it speaks volumes.

To continue with the baseball analogy, a good player on a lousy team isn't as good a player when he's surrounded by other guys in the lineup who aren't very good. Trade him to a team with a solid lineup, and he'll get better just by picking up little things from his teammates.

So in your case, you're playing in the Rookie League and want to make it to The Show.

Your big problem is that you're trying to learn from people of your own talent level. Your solution is two-fold. Forget watching other entry level people and start watching the networks. In fact, start taping the networks and breaking down how successful reporters put packages together, do standups, use nat sound, write to video, write in and out of sound bites. Then listen to the packages without watching and pay close attention to the delivery and inflection.

The second thing you have to do is watch a lot of other people's resume tapes. (But Grape, I'm not a News Director, I don't have a stack of tapes to look at.) Ah, but there are all sorts of people who have posted their resume tapes online, on sites like tvjobs.com and many others. You can literally watch hundreds of tapes, but I want you to concentrate on the people who have a decent amount of experience... don't watch other rookies to begin with. Then, after you've watched all the vets, check out the people with the same level of experience as yourself. Now you're seeing the competition, and you know that you have to be a little bit better. So take all the things you've learned watching the network and the veteran reporters and start incorporating them into your own work.

And no excuses about being a one man band or having lousy equipment. A package is the same in New York as it is in market 200. It needs good writing, a great standup, nat sound, effective sound bites, and a solid delivery.

Wednesday's story ideas

That college drinking age campaign isn't going away. Talk to MADD members, police, Alcoholics Anonymous, and people who run liquor stores.

Some hybrid cars don't make much noise, which means they are a danger to blind people who can't hear them. Studies are underway to "add noise" to cars that are too quiet.

Proposal to lift ban on guns in national parks is being considered.

School supply wars in department stores. Haven't seen prices this low since.... well, since I was in school buying a slide rule.

State fair and fall carnival season is coming, and the economy is forcing the cancellation of some. Meanwhile, those rides for the munchkins aren't getting any cheaper. What can a family expect this fall?

OK, weather people.... what's up with tropical storms that strengthen over land and then make U-turns? Explain this.

Ebay is lowering its fees. What are they, and compare the fees of other websites that allow you to sell stuff.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The most overused term in television news

You can probably guess this one. And if it shows up in your station's newscast every day, that's a problem.

The term is "exclusive," and it has become so overused that you might as well cry wolf. It's right up there with weathercasters who do "the sky is falling" routine every time there's a cloud in the sky, complete with squeezebacks and crawls that make TV unwatchable.

When I broke into the business, true exclusives were rare. The term was only used for truly big stories, and the term was used sparingly and after a discussion with the News Director. If a reporter had a handful of exclusives every year, that was a good year.

Of course now it seems every newscast has an "exclusive" on an almost daily basis. And half of those seem to come right off the scanner. Just because you have a story first doesn't make it an exclusive.

An exclusive should be reserved for those stories that have required a good deal of actual reporting. Stories with credible sources, facts that are double checked. Stories that really make the viewer sit up and take notice. Important stories that you know for a fact are yours and yours alone.

Calling the news of a murder or a car wreck an exclusive is an absolute joke. So, because the sheriff called you first, you think you have an exclusive? Uh, no. Because your newscast goes on an hour before anyone else's, do you think you have an exclusive because you've broadcast something first? No, again.

It's an electronic cry of "wolf" and nothing more. If its something you do on a regular basis, and the payoff isn't there for the viewer, the viewer doesn't think anything of it. If, however, you reserve the term for those times when your station really has something special, and have a solid journalistic reputation, viewers will take notice.

Remember, every story is "broken" by someone. That doesn't make it an exclusive.

Now if we can get the weather departments around the country to dial it down a notch.

Tuesday's story ideas

How are diesel prices doing in relation to gasoline and oil prices?

Buying stuff online can be fun but sometimes risky. What can you do to protect yourself, and how good are those guarantees with places like ebay and paypal?

Now that you can get a speeding ticket from an electronic camera, there are devices that can warn you about an upcoming "cop in a box."

Computer experts say mass transit fare systems can be easily hacked.

Several college presidents are actually asking legislators to lower the drinking age.

Car auctions. At some point dealers can't hang onto gas guzzlers and send them off to be auctioned. This is a great nat sound story that is also a good consumer piece.

Democratic delegates are getting ready to head off to Denver. Might be a good time to touch base with those in your area.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Mailbag: Can the station's "disco version" of my story help me get a job?

Grape,

I work at one of those stations that is obsessed with the Internet. Reporters are required to create a longer, more "in-depth" version of our packages that air. Most of us pretty much phone it in when it comes to this duty. It's still the TV product that gets you a job, right?

-Nothing but Net, and sick of it

Dear Net,

I too am one of those who still doesn't understand the concept that tells viewers "for more on this story, go to our website" fifteen times every newscast. (In other words, turn off the TV and turn on the computer.) Yes, I know things are changing and that many people get their news via the Internet. Personally, I'd like to see stations drop the "high story count" premise and put the longer "disco version" on the air.

(By the way, for those who didn't work in radio in the 70's, a "disco version" is simply a long dance mix of a popular song. It was also popular with DJs of the period when they needed a bathroom break. Thank you, Donna Summer.)

But back to our topic and your question: can these longer versions of your packages help you get a job? Well, yes and no. Let's put it this way, you still have to send a resume tape. But what can give you a little edge these days is the ability to write for the web. So many stations are seeing the website as a revenue source, they want to put as much news on it as possible. And if you can do that, and do it well, it will help.

If you make it to the short list and the ND doing the hiring is one of those Internet obsessives, he or she might take a look at your current station's website to see how you handle things.

Bottom line, it is a major pain for reporters, but it can't hurt to do a good job. However, your best stuff still needs to hit the air.... and your resume tape.

Monday's story ideas

"Tropic Thunder" was the number one movie this past weekend. Is this the end of political correctness?

One Texas school district will let teachers carry guns.

Some states are considering Medicaid cuts to deal with budget shortages.

Bipolar disorder may be genetic.

Body wraps: are these really effective or just another scam?

Digital cameras can really drain batteries quickly. Which ones take the least juice?

Green story: how can you cut down on the amount of junk mail you receive?