Friday, December 5, 2008

Interview with a (news) vampire

Grape: We're here today with Virginia Ham, who works the overnight shift for an affiliate in a medium sized market. Virginia, good morning. Virginia?

Virginia: Huh? (rubbing her eyes) Sorry. Dozed off for a moment.

Grape: So, tell us about yourself. How long have you been working the overnight reporting shift?

Virginia: Oh, ten or twelve years. Wait, wait, it just seems that way. Seventeen months.

Grape: Sounds like you're counting the days.

Virginia: My contract is up in 152 days.

Grape: Doesn't sound like you want to renew.

Virginia: I want my life back.

Grape: So tell me about your typical day on the overnight shift.

Virginia: Well, I get here at eleven thirty when the evening people are going home. Then I sit by the scanner waiting for something to happen.

Grape: Can't you do something other than scanner stories?

Virginia: Well, they told me that when they hired me, but who the heck is available for an interview in the middle of the night? The only non-scanner story I've done is Black Friday. I'll tell you, the opening at K-Mart was a real thrill.

Grape: You just got off your shift. What did you do?

Virginia: Car wreck at one a-m. Then a live shot at the top of the show at six telling people there had been a car wreck five hours ago and it was all cleaned up and wouldn't affect their commute.

(At this point our breakfast arrives and Virginia tears into her pancakes.)

Grape: Hungry?

Virginia: You kidding? You're always hungry on this shift. You snack during the night, then you eat breakfast, go home, take a nap, wake up, eat lunch, take another nap, eat dinner, go back to sleep. Gained ten pounds on this shift.

Grape: I've heard some people say that being off in the daytime gives you lots of time to get things done.

Virginia: Yeah, if you want to go to the dry cleaners every day. I mean seriously, how much time during the week do you need to run errands?

Grape: So how's your life away from the station?

Virginia: Ha. I nice man took me to dinner Friday night and I was so tired I did a header into a bowl of lobster bisque.

Grape: Please don't do that now. I don't think you'd look good covered in syrup.

Virginia: I'm good. Sugar high.

Grape: So the social life...

Virginia: Social life? What social life? I'm always tired, parties start when I'm going to bed and my dates think I'm bored with them because I fall asleep during dinner. Then on the weekend I want to sleep late but I wake up at four in the morning anyway. By the time Sunday rolls around I can't fall asleep and then I'm exhausted on my first workday of the week.

Grape: So, bottom line, your advice to any reporter offered an overnight job is...

Virginia: Unless it is in a great station or a way to get your foot in the door at a network, leave skid marks when you are offered this job. No stories for your resume tape, no social life, and at this rate I'm going to put someone's eye out when the button on these jeans finally gives up the ghost.

Grape: Thank you for your honestly, Virginia.

Virginia. No problem. You gonna eat your bacon?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Mailbag: Does this business have a future?


With the economy as tumultuous as it is, and layoffs being announced in newsrooms across the country, I’m worried. I have a year left in college and have been dedicated to a broadcast journalism career since I was 14, but after reading forums online, it seems that the majority of posters say that up-and-coming TV reporters are simply walking into a big mistake. With several years experience of one-man-banding, will I have any shot of landing a job in December 2009, or will every newsroom be skeleton-staffed with interns and part-timers like the pessimists online make it seem.

- Concerned Guy

Dear Concerned,

I get asked this question a lot, and when I'm doing freelance stuff for the network the topic comes up since we're all veterans. Invariably someone says, "I'd hate to be a young person getting into the business right now."

While I have no idea what the future will hold, I do have a few theories about the business. So here, in no particular order, are some thoughts on what's about to happen in broadcasting:

-People of my generation are getting out of the business. If I was still a reporter and a ND told me I'd have to be a one man band, I'd quit on the spot. Not because I don't want to carry gear, but because I enjoy working with photogs, I'm not a photographer, and you can't put a decent story together without one. As the middle-aged people leave the business, this will create more opportunities for young people in bigger markets. I've had three clients under the age of 25 get jobs in markets 29, 18 and 11. But, you'll have to be very talented.

-Layoffs are happening because stations are realizing that we need to go back to the 1980's. OK, I hate to say this, but this business has become producer heavy. If your newsroom has more producers than people on the street, you've got a real problem. Bottom line, you can't put on a local newscast if you don't have people out there gathering news.

My first station had no producers. The anchors produced their own shows. The reporters and photogs cut all the video: packages, teases, vo/sots. The directors timed the shows. The system worked fine. There are simply too many layers in production. What is amazing is that back then we didn't have computers... now things are much simpler and yet we need more people to do the same job. Producers that remain will have to do more than one show; having a one show producer is a luxury no one can afford, and honestly, it doesn't take all day to produce 22 minutes. The reporters do the packages, the anchors write most stories, and there are five teases. What the heck is so hard?(I know I'll get mail on that comment.)

-Young people work cheap. (Wow, Grape, what a revelation!) So, if you're an ND and you need to cut some money out of the budget, you can let a veteran reporter's contract expire and hire a talented kid for half the price. Again, more opportunities for young people.

-Perception is reality. If you don't think the economy decided this election, you've been living under a rock. And since the mainstream media wanted a certain person in the White House, stories about the economy had a negative tint. They will get a more positive slant next year. That will loosen up the purse strings a little. Don't look for stations to go on a hiring binge, but I'll bet those freezes disappear.

-Hiring freezes don't mean you can't replace people. If your main weatherperson quit, you'd have to hire another one. You just can't hire anyone for new positions.

-There will always be local news. Yes, ratings are down from years ago, primarily due to two factors: a scanner-driven news product that intelligent people don't want, and 200 other choices on cable or satellite. But people still want to know what's going on in their neighborhood. And people are going back to rooftop antennas. I've had a few people tell me they simply can't spend money on cable or satellite anymore, and are just going with the local channels.

As for the pessimists online, you have to consider the lifestyle we had in the news business 20 years ago. Need a plane? Charter one. Need to spend five days on a story? No problem. Hey, the network wants someone to go to Hollywood to interview its stars... who wants to go? When you compare that to the penny pinching and the consultant driven need for meaningless live shots, you've got a business that used to be a lot of fun and isn't anymore. At least, it isn't for those of us who lived through the good old days.

What should young people do? Ride the wave as far as you can. Stations will weed out the "dead wood", those people who are just average and the support staff that isn't really necessary. But if you have talent and a lot of it, there will be a place for you. The great salaries of yesteryear won't come back, but you can have a comfortable lifestyle.

Meanwhile, have a backup plan. Once you're established in our career, work on a Masters Degree so you can teach someday. Maybe work on a Law degree. Make good contacts with the corporate people you cover... you may need a PR job someday. Get involved with the community so that if a pink slip lands on our desk you'll have people to call who can help you.

As for those of you with a dream, trust me, you will kick yourself the rest of your life if you don't at least try for the brass ring. But if you haven't caught it in ten years, or aren't well on your way to doing so, or aren't totally happy with what you're doing, find something else to do.

And remember... all those layoffs, all those freezes, the bad ecomomy... these are things that apply to dozens of people. But you are just one person who might have a unique gift. If you are very talented, someone will find the money and a place for you.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Hey Nancy Pelosi, how 'bout a bailout?

Dear Nancy,

While I know that the correct way to address you would be "Madam Speaker" I figured, hey, we're both paisans here. Anyway, I've noted that since all those bailout requests seem to cross your desk at some point, I thought I'd run an idea up the Capitol flagpole and see who salutes.

You know what industry really needs a bailout? Broadcasting. While rich CEOs are flying private jets to ask you for a few bucks, news people are laboring in the trenches for salaries that often fall below the poverty level. Over the years cable and satellite have killed the golden goose, and now our slice of the advertising pie is a crumb.

You want proof? Starting salaries for reporters today are the same as they were twenty years ago. But the cost of living isn't the same. If someone wrote a book entitled "One Hundred Ways to Cook Ramen Noodles" half the reporters in America would buy it.

See, you're probably thinking we all make salaries like those network people who cover you in DC. Not even close. We're shooting standups off the high beams of SUVs because we don't have enough portable lights. We're selling our live trucks and buying really long camera cables. We can't even deduct meals as business expenses because vending machines don't give receipts.

And, oh yeah, that little digital switchover you guys mandated that will create the biggest ball of confusion in the history of this country wasn't exactly cheap.

C'mon, Nance, what's a few billion for the industry that (and I hate to play our marker) let's face it, put your guy in the White House? In the language of our old neighborhood, here's how it's gonna work: you bail us out, and watch the amazing amount of positive economic stories that start airing on January 21st. Perception being reality, the stock market will rise, gas prices will drop to a buck, consumers will start spending, and life will be fun again.

Then you can go back to really important issues, like making cable and satellite channels a la carte so local stations can make a little more money and the thousand shopping channels a little less.

Please consider our request. I didn't charter a private jet or even fly commercial to plead our case. I'm just saving money and being green with this nice little email.

If you agree to this, I'll work for a salary of one dollar next year. (Wait... come to think of it, most of us in this industry already do!)

And if you're in the neighborhood, please stop by for lasagna and tiramisu.


The Grape

Monday, December 1, 2008

Dress codes: What's "cool" is not necessarily what you should wear


I see a lot of men on local news being very non-traditional these days. Goatees, no neckties, jackets with tee-shirts. What's your take on this, and would being "non-traditional" affect your chances for a job?

-Trendy guy

Dear Trendy,

Well, call me old school but conservative and traditional still rule. I often wonder what some on-air people are thinking when I see some of the "outfits" that pass for newscaster wardrobes these days. It is one thing to wear jeans when you're doing a story on a farm; but if you're in a studio there's no excuse for an unprofessional look.

For whatever reason it seems that all the fashion mistakes are made by those with a Y chromosome. Women don't seem to fall prey to dressing down.

Anyway, you asked for my opinion, so here goes:

Goatees: Honestly, they make most men look sinister. They may be in style now (they won't be in a few years, trust me) but they just look weird on people delivering the news. And by the way, if there's any gray in your facial hair (hence the term "graybeard") you ought to shave it off. You will improve your chances if you look conservative.

T-shirts instead of collared shirts: This is really a pet peeve of mine, and it seems that all sorts of sportscasters are going this route. When Don Johnson wore t-shirts and a suit on Miami Vice it worked, but that was 1986 and this is broadcast news. Get a shirt with a collar and wear a tie. If my dad were around he'd say, "So, you're going to work in a five hundred dollar suit and a five dollar undershirt?"

No neckties: I don't care how hot it is or how casual you want to appear, if you are doing a serious story you need a shirt with a tie. I don't mind the lack of a jacket in the dead of August, but a man without a tie just seems to leave a little credibility on the table.

Monochrome outfits: I've seen a few outfits that consisted of black jacket, black shirt, black tie. Unless you're trying out for a vampire in the next Twilight movie, you need more than one color.

Goodfellas extra outfits: Black jacket, black shirt, white tie. Great if you're applying for a job with the neighborhood underboss.

As for the women, you all dress so nice. (Now please, stop dying your hair.)