Friday, October 17, 2008

Why you need to know a little about a lot

Charton Heston's passing reminded me of a story. Nearly 20 years ago I happened to be anchoring one Sunday nite. I arrived in the newsroom about two in the afternoon and asked the very young producer if anything interesting was going on.

"Nope," he said. "There was some actor in town that I never heard of, so I didn't send anyone to cover it."

Always being interested whenever Hollywood people dropped by, I asked, "Who was the actor?"

The producer picked up a piece of paper and read, "Some guy named Charl....ton Heston. You ever hear of him?"

Incredible. I rolled my eyes, amazed that anyone in the country, much less the news business, didn't know the guy who'd played Moses. I was ticked off that he wouldn't be in our newscast, and also upset that I didn't get to meet a true Hollywood icon. I played what would have been a great package in my mind, getting Heston to play along. "Get your stinking paws off me you damn dirty reporter!"

This story brought to mind another classic from a friend who worked at a California station. One day in the late eighties there was a newsroom discussion about how everyone remembers what they were doing during big events. People who were old enough to remember 1963 were discussing where they were when Kennedy was shot. A college intern chimed in, "Ted Kennedy got shot?"

Sadly, young people often think nothing is important except what is important to their own generation. Many times people who major in journalism don't bother learning anything about history and couldn't tell a State Senator from a US Senator.

If you're one of those people, time for a reality check.

I was waiting at the doctor's office today. I noticed the people my age and older were reading in the waiting room. The young people were sitting there, staring into space. What a sad waste of time.

When you have free time, read and learn something. Buy an old fashioned almanac and learn some interesting historical stuff. Watch shows like Jeopardy. Living alone? Read something while eating dinner. Listen to talk radio once in awhile instead of what passes for music these days.

When I was a kid and didn't know something, my dad would say, "Look it up." I'd go to our 1958 version of the World Book Encyclopedia ("Someday man will travel in space!") and while I was looking something up I'd read about some other interesting things.

While we cover he events of the day, history is always a factor. Read and learn.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Top 10 ways to make your newsroom a happier place

I once worked with a photographer who had a New York sense of sarcasm even though he grew up in a small town. One day, fed up with the way management was treating us, he put the following on the newsroom bulletin board:

"The beatings will continue until morale improves."

While that sign got a lot of laughs, it also spoke volumes.

I got into the business in the early 1980's, and newsrooms were actually a lot of fun. Of course I wasn't paid much and had a second job moonlighting as a public address announcer for the local minor league baseball team. But there was a team spirit in those newsrooms, not the "us versus them" concept which pits the rank and file against management these days; or the more damaging scenario of late, on-air people against one another. If your career now feels like a job, you're in one of those newsrooms.

Of course it is easy to blame the atmosphere today on money. TV is not the cash cow it used to be. Still, no excuse for treating people badly whether they are your subordinates or co-workers.
But let's not throw all the darts at management. Anchors & reporters are as good with knives as those guys at the circus. I worked at one place where you could walk down the hall and end up with enough cutlery in your back to host a dinner party.

There was once a terrific News Director named Carole Kneeland who coined the phrase "it is never the wrong time to do the right thing." Sadly, Carole passed away at a young age. But if you apply that one phrase to everyday stuff in your newsroom, just watch what happens.
So, with apologies to David Letterman, and in no particular order, here are ten things you can do to make your world a happier place. Some for managers, some not. By the way, none of these have anything to do with money since we can't realistically change that. And some concern people in other departments. (So you'll just have to slide this under their doors.)

10-Stop fighting internally. The competition is across the street, not in your own newsroom. I once worked as a manager at a station in which a main anchor submitted his resignation. "Just watch," my supervisor told me, "within an hour you'll have every candidate in your office. They'll eat their young to get the job." Sure enough, the parade started that afternoon. What amazed me is that every person coming into my office took a cheap shot at someone else in the newsroom who also wanted the job. Trying to make a co-worker look bad does two things; it makes you look bad, and someday it will come back to haunt you. Ten years down the road you may be applying for a job and the co-worker you stabbed in the back might be working at that station. Think you'll get a good reference?

Meanwhile, don't hate the person who got the job for which you applied. I hear this constantly from anchors who were hired from outside the station. Those who simply assumed the ND would promote from within give the new person the freeze-out, making the new person feel as unwelcome as a case of the flu. Be an adult. The new person might be a valuable friend in the future.

9-Creative people don't punch a clock. There are bean counters at every station who make a big deal out of news people taking an occasional long lunch, leaving early, reading at their desks, etc. Once when I was a reporter a manager told me "You news people are always laughing back there. You need to get to work." (Oh, sorry, I didn't get the memo that we were all supposed to be miserable.) If we'd wanted to work on an assembly line we'd have done so. A creative person cannot "turn it on" for ten straight hours. Sometimes it may look like we're just relaxing but trust me, the wheels are always turning upstairs. Don't forget there are plenty of times we're off the clock when we're at home working on stories, talking to contacts, etc. Sometimes we need to talk baseball, play a practical joke, plan a party. Remember, it is the end result which hits the air that counts. Does it really make a difference if that great package took twelve hours or two? If people in the newsroom actually enjoy each other's company? Go count your beans and leave us alone.

8-Before you yell at someone in front of the whole newsroom, stop for a moment and imagine how your loved ones would feel if they saw you. And if you're an on-camera person, imagine what your viewers would think. I've worked for some people who were so mean at work I could never imagine them with a spouse and children. (Many had neither, so my instincts on this were sometimes correct.)

7- The assignment editor is not your mother. Sadly, the morning meeting in many stations is backwards. People look to see what the assignment editor has instead of pitching enterprise stories. You end up with a press release and police scanner newscast. Every news staff member should bring story ideas everyday. Start your meeting with story ideas, then finish with what the assignment editor has that must be covered. You'll end up with a better newscast. You also don't tend to complain about stories you're assigned if they are your own.

And speaking of content, stop chasing car wrecks. They aren't news. Photogs don't want to shoot them, reporters don't want to cover them. They are video wallpaper. After awhile the viewer doesn't even see them. The police scanner is an easy crutch because you don't have to look for stories. Don't burn out your creative people on stuff like this. People die everyday, but we don't cover the man who died falling down the stairs, do we? Ever wonder why local news viewership has been in decline for years? You're giving viewers the same parade of death and destruction every single night. Put real stories in your newscast and see your staff get challenged again. I once worked for a number one station that never, ever chased a car wreck. Trust me, quality works. Once the viewers discover you're doing real news, they'll stick around.

6-Stop harassing people who look for jobs. I swear some managers have developed resume tape sniffing dogs that patrol edit booths on nights and weekends. ("You ingrate! How dare you look for a job when I pay you eighteen thousand a year!") Guess what? It is the nature of people to want to better themselves. It is the nature of business, especially this one, to want to move up the ladder. Wanna know why your people don't trust you? Knock off the "Big Brother" act and stop employing CSI teams to investigate your own staff.

5-Reverse roles. Ours is a very unusual business in that we often put very young people in supervisory positions over veterans. You end up with a 22-year-old producer giving orders to a 40-year-old reporter. Over the past ten years I've seen a resentment build between producers and field crews. The problems are two-fold. Producers who have never worked in the field have no idea what goes on there, and field crews who have never produced can't understand another point of view. Producers should spend a day in the field once in awhile with a crew. Field crews might spend a day with a producer. Walk in the other guy's shoes and you might have a better understanding of the other guy and his job.

4-Don't let power go to your head. This is probably the biggest problem in newsrooms. If you're a News Director, you have the ability to, in effect, sometimes play God. You are dealing with people's lives, affecting their families, helping or hurting their careers. Be honest with your people. And please, once and for all, get rid of the "let's make him miserable so he'll quit" strategy. You just end up with a miserable person in your newsroom. If you don't want someone on your team, have the guts to tell him it would be in his best interests to look for another job. Release him from his contract, and, here's a wild concept, actually help him find another job. You'll be happy, he'll be happy. Remember, you're all on the same team. Treating a teammate badly only helps the opposition.

Fear and intimidation don't help either. For those managers who subscribe to the theory that people who are afraid of losing their jobs work harder, well, you're right. They work harder at finding another job. Walking on eggshells worrying about making mistakes only makes news people more tentative. Creative people are wired differently; we thrive on taking a blank page, then weaving a tapestry of words and pictures and sound into something wonderful. We do not respond well to threats; it simply sends our creative muse into vapor lock. (If you don't know what a muse is, go back to counting your beans.)

3-Praise in public. This isn't just for managers. Did a reporter knock out a great package yesterday? Tell him in front of someone else. Has a photog shot some killer video? Make sure the whole newsroom hears about it. The old phrase "I must be doing OK because I never hear anything" is heard much too often. If people are doing a great job, let them know it. Doesn't matter if you're a News Director or an intern.

2-Not every story deserves a live shot. Years ago, live shots meant something special. Now we seem to think the viewer will get excited if we are LIVE! Doing "live for the sake of live" creates two problems. It often puts reporters at scenes where nothing is going on, and takes valuable time away that might be spent making the actual story better. Just imagine the quality packages you might have if you didn't have to worry about doing two or three meaningless live shots each day. If you need another excuse to cancel meaningless live shots, just think of the environmental impact of running a live truck generator.

1-Make a difference. When was the last time your newscast contained a story that actually made the world a better place? You can't find these gems everyday, but don't dismiss stories like this because you view them as "soft" news.

Try some of these suggestions. Today. You might just look forward to coming to work tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Where has all the money gone?

We've all heard it from various managers. "We don't have the money." Whether you're asking for a raise or hearing that a News Director can't afford to fly you out for an interview, it makes you wonder if the money in broadcasting is that tight.

Believe it.

Cutbacks in the industry started around 1990 and they haven't stopped. The most telling fact is that starting salaries for reporters today are the same as they were twenty years ago.

Now let me explain where the money has gone. There are five basic culprits: cable, satellite, network compensation, the switch to digital and gas prices.

Back when I was a kid and watched the New York City channels, there were only six commercial stations. And they divided the viewership pie. Now flash forward to the present. There are hundreds of stations on cable & satellite, all vying for a tiny slice that even Jenny Craig would consider small. The networks, which used to have more than 90 percent of the prime time audience, saw that figure dip under fifty percent a few years ago. And it continues to drop. That means the sales department can't charge as much for commercial time.

Gas prices? Well, just imagine filling up a dozen news cars and live trucks. That has blown up the budget of many local newsrooms.

But you probably know all that. Here's what you might not know.

Thirty years ago you could be a crash dummy and make a huge profit running a network affiliate. The reason? A nice check called "network compensation" or "network comp." The networks compensated affiliates for running its programming. As cable & satellite grew, network comp began to get smaller and smaller until it was gone. So a giant source of revenue disappeared.

Then Congress mandated the switch to digital. Without going into the engineering aspects of this, I'll simply state that the switch ain't cheap.

So, television stations and networks have lost revenue while increasing expenses. (Think of a two income household that loses one income while getting hit with a huge property tax increase.) The result? Salaries that don't even approach the level of the 1970's & '80's.

Ah, but there's the Internet, you say. Well, that is a growing source of revenue but right now it doesn't compare with what television stations have lost. And when you see NBC closing bureaus and ABC laying off staffers, it makes you wonder.

Will it all get better? Is there a future in this business?

Well, if you'd told me ten years ago that I could carry a phone in my pocket, shoot video with it and send it to the network from that phone I would have told you that you were out of your mind. Ten years from now? Who knows. I wish I could time warp to the future like the characters in "Lost."

With that in mind, here's some advice. Be versatile. Learn as much as you can. Pick up a masters degree in your spare time so you can teach. Polish your writing skills, as the Internet devours copy at an alarming rate.

One thing is certain. There will always be a news business. Just don't get caught short when it changes.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Making scanner stories real

Personally, I've never liked scanner stories. Crime, house fires, and various tales of human misery just never appealed to me, either as a reporter or a viewer. But depending on what your News Director wants, sometimes you've gotta cover that stuff.

My first News Director always told me to look for the human side of scanner stories. On one occasion we rolled on a house fire and arrived just in time to see the place engulfed in flames. It was obvious the house was a total loss. When we were done shooting b-roll we noticed a woman and her children across the street, sitting on the curb, crying. I went over to talk with her and asked if she'd gotten everyone out safe. She had. Then I asked the question that took the story in another direction.

"You've got insurance, right?"

The floodgate of tears opened. The woman, a single mom, had no insurance and eleven dollars to her name. Social services would put her up for awhile, but after that...

We turned the story into an appeal for help, as I told viewers to give the station a call if they'd like to lend a hand.

The next day I arrived in the newsroom and immediately got a call from the receptionist. "You wanna come up here and get all this stuff out of the lobby?"

Viewers had cleaned out their closets and brought all sorts of items to the station, and it was really nice stuff. But I had to figure out where to take it.

One phone call answered that question. A kind landlord had given the woman and her children a house to live in.

We loaded up our biggest news car and headed to her new home. We found a happy woman, unpacking a really nice set of china someone had donated. Her kids were checking out the new clothes viewers had sent. She told me the things that were donated were nicer than the things they'd lost.

Naturally the follow-up story was a happy ending, one in which our viewers played the major part.

Local newscasts are filled with so much tragedy these days. But if you look for the human side, you can turn the story into something positive... involve the viewers... and help out someone in need.

Think about it the next time you chase the scanner.