Saturday, October 11, 2008

Backtiming a contract

Dear Grapevine,

My contract is coming up in eight months. I know where I want to go, but what happens if there aren't any openings at the right time my contract is up? Am I stuck re-signing? Do I work without a contract? Leave my job? Please help.

-J.D.

Dear J.D.

If you know how to edit, you know about backtiming. It's the process by which everything gets tied up neatly exactly where you want it.

Sadly, this rarely happens when it comes to the timing of contracts. But with a little backtiming, you can makes things easier. In your case, you have eight months to play with, so start planning now. Waiting until a month or two before your contract ends can only send you into a state of panic, and the odds are you won't find a job and get an offer in a window that small. The hiring process moves very slowly.

Start sending tapes NOW. It doesn't matter if there's an opening. And this will be a good time, with sweeps just about over. At this point in your search you want an ND to know who you are, even if he/she is not looking for anyone at the moment. Having been in the manager's position, I can tell you that you are always keeping an eye out for good people, because in this business someone inevitably will leave. I used to have a box in my office where I kept tapes of good people. Then when we needed someone quickly, I'd contact them to see if they were still looking.


In some cases you'll send a tape and get some constructive criticism. That tells you the ND might be interested down the road, and since you have those eight months, you can work on your craft and follow up with an improved tape.

Meanwhile, if you're thinking of getting an agent, do so now. An agent needs plenty of lead time as well when shopping a client.

And if you happen to visit one of your target markets before your contract is up, make some personal visits and hand deliver your tapes. Even if you can't get to see the ND, talk to someone in the news department. Make a connection.

At this stage you are laying the groundwork for your job search. But trust me, those eight months will fly by.

As for what to do if your contract expires and you don't have an offer, well, that's up to you. You can ask to work without a contract and if you have a good relationship with your managers it might happen. You might also have to deal with a similar negotiation if your offer comes a few months before your contract. Some stations will let you leave a little early, others play hardball.

Good luck.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The "do not have to call" list

When the space shuttle exploded a few years ago, I was outside doing yard work at the time. The Executive Producer tracked me down, told me the news, and I headed for the station.

The question today is, would you?

When I arrived that day I already found several staffers had arrived and were already brainstorming about ways to localize the story. Then I pulled out the telephone call sheet and began dialing the numbers of the staffers who weren't already there, though I knew there were some I didn't need to call. I simply knew they'd come in.

Many called before I had the chance to touch base and told me they were on their way. But some never bothered to answer the messages I'd left on their station-issued cell phones. In this day and age, it was hard to believe.

When big news breaks, and I mean the kind of news that brings the country to a screeching halt, you shouldn't have to even ask. Get dressed, get in your car, and head for the station. (If you're a young person, you probably don't know this. You do now.) First, you should want to be a part of a major story. And second, it will show the rest of the staff you're really a news person.

My first news director always said of these situations, "I shouldn't have to call anyone. You guys should know enough to just come in."

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Salary vs. Happiness

It never fails. You send out tape after tape after tape and hear nothing. Then, out of the blue, you get two offers in the same week. I once got nothing for a year and then got two calls within an hour. Nice problem to have, but it makes you want to pull out your hair and let loose with a primal scream.

And very often, when you get two offers, they're very different.

And every time, the first thing you consider is the money. It's just natural. Most of you are young, broke, sick of clipping coupons and eating macaroni and cheese. A few thousand dollars a year is the different between steak and peanut butter.

But you still need to look at the whole picture.

So when you have to make a choice, take a legal pad, draw a line down the middle, and, along with the salary, consider these:

Contract length: A shorter contract offers more flexibility, a longer one more stability. (Well, sort of.... they can still fire you on a whim.) But you need to check out the parameters of the contract. An out clause is extremely valuable. Perks like clothing and makeup can really save you a bundle. And always, always, always have a lawyer look at a contract.

Market size: The other elephant in the room. Many market sizes are deceiving, and we've touched on this before. Memphis and Spartanburg, SC are similar in market size, but one is a big city and other is a collection of smaller towns. Many times "big city" news "looks" a lot better... especially if you still have an eye up the ladder.

Location: Nothing, and I mean nothing, trumps working in a nice place or close to home.

Company: You know what the bad companies are, so be careful. Is the company one that treats employees well, or is it a bottom line company run by bean counters?

Quality of newscast: Another biggie. Money and market size mean nothing if you're going to be turning out garbage. It won't help you make the next jump.

Quality of photogs: Huge consideration. Can make a good reporter a great one.

News Director temperament and morale: On your interview, notice if people in the newsroom are smiling or look like they're on death row.

Benefits: Does the health insurance start on day one or do you have to wait three months and buy your own insurance? It aint cheap. Does the company have a 401k match? You don't think about it when you're young, but you'll thank me when you're ready to retire.

There are more intangibles you can add when making your decision, but those are the biggies. Finally, don't make a quick decision. You can always buy more time to think by telling a ND you want to have the lawyer look at the contract.

Look long term when making these decisions. Take the job that will help you get where you want to go.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

When you panic, chances are the viewers will as well

I remember years ago a local reporter had showed up at a location just a few minutes before ten. There had been some sort of shootout between police and some men at a bar, and details were very sketchy. The reporter went on the air, having "heard" a few things in the few minutes at the scene, and basically gave out some information that jacked the situation up a few notches and really raised tension in the neighborhood. The information turned out to be false.

Viewers can sense panic in your voice and your body language. In this case the reporter was over the top, and the viewers picked up on that.

But you don't need false information to raise a panic. You may have all the time in the world before your story, but if you put the wrong information in it, or even convey it in a manner that seems panicked, you're sending the wrong message.

I believe we're seeing that quite a bit today, even on national newscasts. So many stories almost seem designed to make you afraid. Stock markets, crime, housing foreclosures, you name it. Panic sets in. Do you think the Southeast would have a gasoline panic if the media hadn't fueled it? Even though we had plenty of gas where I live, I saw a story one night and knew there would be a run on the local stations. Sure enough, I drove by an hour later and there were long lines.

Take care in not only gathering your facts, but in the way you present them. Some stories are the equivalent of yelling "Fire!" in a theater.

Tuesday's story ideas

Golden parachutes: who has them and how can stockholders help stop this practice?

Bottled water sales. With all the fear about plastics, and the desire to help the environment, is this the end of the bottled water craze?

TSA looking at new ways to test people for explosives. Will this make things better or worse at the airport?

Sports betting online... is it legal, and how can you get yourself in trouble?

Funds to play unemployment claims are running low in some areas. What happens if there's no money to help people who are out of work?

Feature: Apple cider season is here. How do you make it, and is it healthier than apple juice?

The next two weeks

Just to note to let you guys know I am working on a special project for the next two weeks. Internet service in this location is iffy at best, so you may find the usual posts, and you may not.

Please bear with me. The Grape has not abandoned you.