Saturday, November 8, 2008

February sweeps alert

In case you didn't know, the traditional February sweeps for 2009 has been moved to March due to the digital switchover that will no doubt be the biggest meltdown in television history.

In any event, mark your calendars because this will change the job hunting season...and add an interesting twist in the spring.

The Sweeps dates are:

March 5th- April 1st

April 23rd- May 20th

This creates a longer job hunting season after the holidays, but things really get dicey in April with only three weeks between books. I'm going out on a limb here and I'm going to say most of the hiring will be done before that first book, as there will be so little time between the two books.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Merry Christmas, here's your pink slip

The end of November sweeps usually comes around Thanksgiving, and while it might put many of you in the holiday spirit, those who have contracts ending in November might be feeling some anxiety.

You see, companies want contracts that end after November sweeps. Since few people do any hiring in December, this means you don't have much in the way of leverage if your current station wants to re-sign you. (Next time you sign a contract, try to get one that doesn't end after November sweeps.)

But even though a lot of hiring doesn't take place in December, a lot of looking does. There are always plenty of changes after sweeps, so it would behoove you to keep an eye on movements in markets you're targeting. You'll see some News Directors canned as soon as the ratings come in, so you know the new person will be making some hires. And you'll read about other people being let go as well.

The point is not to get caught short. You should have your resume tapes ready to go by the time sweeps end (with copies at home, not in your desk.) Should you be one of the unlucky ones to find coal in your stocking, you don't want to be scrambling. And if you are out the door, know that you're not alone. Read the trades and find out who else is on the beach and has created an opening.

For those who live to fight another day, the time right after sweeps is when you need to do your homework as well. Find the openings that are being created before the jobs are even posted. People will be hiring in January for the February sweeps, so you need to be in position.

I've seen too many people ushered out the door who weren't prepared, and I don't want that to happen to you guys. Not trying to scare you, but warn you. This is a cold business, and you always have to protect yourself.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

News Director's Playbook: What does your ND do all day?

We hammer News Directors pretty good on this blog, and Lord knows many of them deserve it. But there are lots of good ones out there.

And a lot of good ones who have left the business. The main reason? Depending on the company, the job might not have anything to do with news.

Several years ago I came to work and found the ND with a big smile on his face. "Ratings come in?" I asked. "Nope," he said. "The GM is out of town all week. I can work on news!"

That might sound like a bizarre comment until you've spent a day in the ND's chair. Years ago News Directors were in the newsroom a lot. My first one taught me to edit with nat sound, and even had a camera in his car. Most were hands on.

Until bean counters, consultants, and corporate people who never worked a day in the news business took over. Now the job can be an endless parade of meetings, memos, and putting out fires.

So let me give you an idea of why you might not see your ND so much...

The day begins like every many episodes of the Sopranos... walking down the driveway to pick up the newspaper. But in this case you can get whacked in a different way. A News Director can't relax and read the sports page with a cup of coffee. Noooo. You gently unfold the paper and cringe, hoping some screaming headline doesn't tell you that you missed a big story.

After that lovely wake up call has given you agita, (that's Italian for heartburn) you arrive at the station and are followed into your office by either the secretary, the assignment editor, or a disgruntled employee who must, right this moment before you even take your jacket off, tell you about the brush fires that have erupted in the newsroom overnight.

Then after 30 minutes or so of putting out fires, its time for the morning meeting. That might be the only news related thing you do all day. After that, any and all of the following can eat up time like you wouldn't believe.

-Meetings. By far the worst offender. There's usually a department head meeting once each week. But there might also be a promotions meeting, sales meeting, one with some charity that needs help, you name it. Nothing actually gets accomplished during most of these meetings, but they do serve to schedule more meetings.

-Amateur psychiatry. Years ago you actually shuddered if you had to go into a NDs office with a complaint. Because you'd usually hear something like, "Deal with it or I'll find someone who will." Now there's a revolving door which admits all sorts of complaints and office politics issues. You have to do everything from break up fights to soothe egos of those who didn't get to anchor.

-Phone calls from people looking for jobs. You know how I'm always telling you guys not to call NDs? Many of you don't listen.

-Phone calls from angry viewers. Half the time they didn't actually see your newscast, or their complaint concerns a story from a different station.

-The Sales Department. In all my years I only worked with one sales guy who actually brought story ideas to the news department. (Probably because he was a former news guy.) But generally when you see these people in the newsroom, they want something. "Can you, uh... do a story about this subject? And if you need someone to interview, I have a new client." (wink, wink.) If you ever wonder why you've been assigned a story that is a blatant commercial, well, chances are it didn't come from the ND.

-Conference calls with other NDs in the group. Another "meeting" in which little is accomplished. A few of the NDs like to suck up to corporate and do all the talking. The others put the phone on mute and play spider solitaire on their computers.

-The drop-what-you're-doing-because-corporate-called interruptions. You wouldn't believe some of this stuff. Once, a corporate person called a station, was put on hold, and didn't like the music or the message. The ND had to drop what he was doing, write a script, then pick "appropriate music", then get an anchor to record the message, then get the Chief Engineer to install it in the phone system. During the middle of sweeps. On another occasion a manager had to research the activities of news cars because someone in corporate thought "photogs were joy riding through toll booths." (Yeah, I know lots of shooters who get a cheap thrill doing this.) So he had to match the toll booth charges with the stories. Another ND would get a phone bill dropped on his desk every month and was instructed to go through it and find charges that might be personal calls.

-Stuff that has nothing to do with news. Once, some staffers wanted to play football on their break in the parking lot. No problem. But they didn't have a football so they used a heavy key ring. "Director goes back to pass... he's going long... and the key ring goes through a news car windshield!" Guess who gets the call about that stuff?

-Hiring people. Not as easy as it used to be with all sorts of regulations, which include federal, state, and corporate. Watching tapes takes time, then you have to show them to the GM and you might have to send them to corporate. Wanna fly someone in? You'll have to book the plane tickets and hotels yourself.

-Budgets. This is like doing your taxes to the tenth power. And then when things like gas prices go through the roof, your budget can explode in your face.

-The disappearing newsroom secretary. These people used to handle tons of work that freed up the ND to work on news. Sadly, this position is disappearing.

-Lunch. After all this, you've gotta get out of the office.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Mailbag: I made the feed, now what?


Your website has been an amazing resource for me. This is my first reporting job, in what used to feel like market 4,000. Your input has unquestionably helped me add great depth to all of my stories. Even my news director has told others I am doing a good job. I say "used to feel like market 4,000" because lately, myself and other reporters here at the station have had our packages aired on CNN quite often. In the last 10 days, 5 of my own stories, either video or the full package, were aired nationally. Should I be as excited as I am, or is that just CNN trying to get voices heard from small markets? Also, are those stories an automatic for the resume tape? They are a mix of some enterprising, tragic and shocking stories.

-Pessimistically Optimistic

Dear Pessimistic,

Well, perhaps it's time for a little history of the feed. And this is going to make a lot of you young people mad.

When I broke in as a reporter in 1982, every network had a feed as they do today. But back then if you didn't have a satellite uplink and wanted to get your story on the feed, you needed to dub it, drive it to the airport, and put it on a plane. But before you did that, you had to "pitch it" to whoever was in charge of the feed content. A phone call would go like this:

Me: I've got a really unusual story about a water skiing squirrel.

Feed guy: We'll take it on spec.

That meant they'd look at it, and if they bought it (here's where you're gonna start getting mad) you would get $210 to split with the photog. Pretty nice chunk of change back in those days. If your piece made the network morning show or evening newscast, you'd get up to $600.

But wait, there's more. You could also sell it to outlets like CNN and ESPN, who paid $125. CNN didn't take pieces with music, as they didn't want to deal with music rights. So if you had a really good piece you could sell it in several venues.

Then around 1990 some bean counter decided, "Hey, let's not pay these people. We'll just put everything on the feed. Reporters will line up to get on the feed because their egos are so big."

Uh, no.

So let me get this straight... the networks wanted to stop paying us for something they'd been paying us for, and expect us to make dubs, drive to the airport, etc.

And that's when the quality of the feed went into the dumper. Vets like me would get calls all the time from the feed people (who now sounded like a bunch of interns), but it was no longer worth the time, trouble and gasoline. Then they started calling assignment editors, who knew that reporters and photogs wouldn't be bothered.

That's why you now see so many average pieces on the feed. Memo to the networks: you get what you pay for.

That is not to diminish the work you've done. Your piece still has to be fairly decent to get on the feed, but it no longer has to go through the weeding out process of the 1980s. But CNN isn't going to put garbage on the feed, so your work obviously met their standards.

As for a feed piece being a resume tape piece, the "Grape Rules" still apply. Just because a story is a lead story or an important one doesn't make it a resume piece. Stories must be unique, show enterprising and reporting skills, and be memorable. Katrina stories were important but everyone has done one. A triple murder in your market may be a huge story, but it's just another scanner piece to a ND looking to hire someone.

Remember, show a News Director you can dig up something interesting, write well, do a clever standup, and use natural sound.

One good thing about getting on the feed... your piece will end up on someone's newscast and a News Director might look you up. So basically it is another hook in the water when you're looking for a job. Sometimes reporters can actually get a "reputation" for doing good feed pieces. I've heard producers say, "Hey, there's a John Smith package on the feed," since they know John Smith has done good work before.

So keep working hard and if your work makes the feed, fine. You never know who's watching.

I just feel bad that you guys aren't getting paid for it.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Don't hold your breath waiting for government to change your life, or you'll turn blue

JFK was a role model when I was a kid, and I was devastated when he was killed. Years later as an adult, I learned he was a very flawed human being.

The first time you vote, you actually believe some of the campaign promises you hear. Then as you get older you learn that most of what is promised will die in Congress, simply because of party politics. Then, if you get into the news business, you get to meet some of these people and realize many are simply in it for themselves, and have little interest in helping the people. Most of them aren't any smarter than the rest of us.

Tuesday we will elect a new President. Both candidates have promised a great deal. Regardless of who wins, many of those promises will die in Congress.

When I was growing up one parent could work and support a whole family. Watching television didn't cost anything. A ticket to a ballgame was a buck. You could take a Sunday drive and not worry about breaking the budget. Man walked on the moon. You had the same telephone in your house for thirty years and it worked every time. I remember going to the 1964 Worlds Fair in New York and having my jaw drop at all the incredible inventions that would change our lives by the year 2000. Flying cars, matter transporters, you name it. Life would be lived in a Utopian society of peace and prosperity.

And none of it came true because government got in the way. We may have technology, but the quality of life in this country has gone steadily downhill. Most products are plastic, disposable, and basically junk. The bottom line is all that matters. And we still haven't gone past the moon.

Which brings me to my point. As media people we have an incredible amount of influence. We can do a simple consumer story that tells a mother how to find a scholarship for her kid, and change someone's future. We can save a life by broadcasting medical information. We can raise money for a good cause in no time.

We can change the world in ninety seconds while Congress can filibuster a good idea to death.

Information is the world's most important commodity, and we own it all.

Making the world a better place doesn't start from the top down, but from the bottom up. You can't wait for the government to save you, you have to save yourself... and as news people you have a responsibility to help others along the way.

Look for the stories that change people's lives. Some are simple tidbits of information, some are a major influence. Get out of the newsroom and get involved in the community. Don't just do the story about Habitat for Humanity building a house, pick up a hammer and help. Don't just cover the car wreck that was the result of a DUI... hold the justice system's feet to the fire and find out why this problem isn't going away. Don't look the other way when you see something wrong; do what you can to make it right.

You have an incredible amount of influence as a news person, and it is not meant to be used to tell people how to vote or think. It is a privilege that must be used to both inform and help.

You may never know how some of your stories affect lives, but that's not the reason to do them. If every reporter did even one story per week to make the world a better place, all those campaign promises wouldn't be necessary.