Saturday, December 13, 2008

The 2009 crystal ball

While the Grape will make his own fearless predictions on New Year's Eve, you are invited to send your prognostications as well. What's in store for the industry? Will the business turn around, go in a different direction? Will stories about the economy magically turn positive after inauguration day? Will stations finally realize one-man-bands don't work, or will the bean counters win out? Will your News Director find a soul in his Christmas stocking, or simply continue to channel Lord Voldemort?

Fire off your 2009 predictions to

Then, at the end of 2009, we'll look back and find out if we are true mystic seers.

Challenge for the upcoming week

Perception is reality.

Is the economy as bad as all the reports? Who knows? But when you bombard the public every day with "sky is falling" stories, people are bound to shut their pocketbooks.

So are we being "fair" to the economy by only broadcasting stories of doom? The old saying about the ill wind blowing someone some good is always true.

So this week, find a positive economic story in your market. Many businesses out there are doing a booming business. People are fixing their cars instead of buying new ones. Homeowners are buying energy saving devices to cut utility costs. Thrift stores and consignment shops are packed with bargain hunters.

Being objective means telling both sides of the story... and that applies to the economy as well.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Mailbag: Chill out


I'm in my first job and I'm really scared reading about all these layoffs. Say something encouraging so I know I didn't waste four years of college on a career that's dead.

-Second Guesser

Dear Second Guesser,

Well, there will always be local news. And someone has to gather it.

What's happening now is basically a "shake out" which has happened to many industries. The older, higher paid veterans are being phased out for a new generation of younger, cheaper people.

Bottom line, if you're talented and smart, you'll find work. As to what forms television news will take in the future, I have no idea. But you'd better have good writing skills, regardless.

Right now I think you're seeing stations eliminate a lot of "dead wood" as far as air talent is concerned... those older one-market anchors who have survived on longevity rather than talent, who are simply cashing big paychecks and doing little work. (You know, those people who died in 1998 but no one told them.) If you had a job fair, most of these people wouldn't get hired because they have little in the way of talent. However, the older anchors who are talented are valuable to a station, and will be kept around. They just might have to take a pay cut.

Unless bound by seniority rules, no News Director in his or her right mind is going to lay off the most talented people. But every news department has people that wouldn't be missed. Look around your newsroom and you'll see them.

The days of pageant queen newscasters and "piece of the furniture" anchors are coming to a close. I honestly think the business will go back to quality, not quantity. Fewer newscasts, but better newscasts. (Most stations have too many hours of news and not enough news to fill them.)

Hang in there. I know it is hard when surrounded by a crumbling building, but this business will survive and turn itself around. It may even flourish in ways that we cannot comprehend right now.

Meantime, work hard to polish your craft, be a team player, be old school.

Talent always survives.


All this news of layoffs and I still see ads for job openings. Someone's hiring, right?


Dear Confused,

Someone is always hiring. Someone is always looking for their next star.

Layoffs are one thing, but there are always openings as people move up the ladder, retire, get out of the business, whatever. Keep sending your tapes.

And when you see a station that interests you laying off people, send a tape their way. Trust me, they'll be hiring soon. Some people who didn't get a pink slip might see the handwriting on the wall and bolt, creating openings. It might be on a freelance basis, but they'll be hiring.


I'm anchoring on Christmas Day. Is it okay to wish viewers a Merry Christmas, or will the PC police descend on me?


Dear J.K.,

Not sure. It may be a Festivus violation.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

How to cut the budget without cutting people

Many News Directors are faced with some very tough decisions these days, and they have nothing to do with news.

We read of layoffs every day. Last night I found that some very good people at one of my old stations had gotten pink slipped. It made me wonder... do stations cut the obvious before cutting people?

So here are some suggestions for News Directors who find themselves with a mandate to cut the budget. If this even saves one person's job, it's worth it.

-Consultants. The number one biggest waste of money in the industry. Need advice? Send your newscast to other ND friends and get feedback. Need research? Write the questions yourself and get a bunch of interns to make the calls.

-Travel. That trip to RTNDA? Outta here. Sending your sports guy to the bowl game, World Series or Super Bowl? Fuhgeddaboudit. Local news becomes local again. If you can pick something up off the feed, do it. If you don't have good relationships with other stations in the state, set them up now so that you can share resources.

-Overtime. It is high time for someone in Congress to write legislation regarding comp time. Many people would rather have comp time than overtime, yet there is always that undercurrent that it is "illegal" in some way. If neither side complains, who cares? It is one of those victimless crimes. The system worked well years ago and can work again.

-Perks. If it is not a trade out, it goes. No more free lunches for anyone. On the other side of the coin, if you have to keep salaries down, get your sales people to trade out for more perks.

-Custom tag and satellite expenses. Paying the network a few hundred bucks for a custom tag is a real waste. It's another one of those things that doesn't fool anyone. Viewers in Podunk know that their local station doesn't have a reporter in Washington, DC. And satellite time isn't cheap. Use it wisely, and only for stories with real merit.

-Single anchors. If one of your co-anchors leaves, don't fill the position. That salary can be used to save the jobs of probably two or three other people. I'm not telling you to fire anyone, but if the opportunity presents itself, go the old fashioned single anchor route.

-Friday night football. This extravaganza has blown out more overtime budgets than I can count. The people who care are at the games... and guess what... they aren't home by the time the newscast airs anyway.

-Salary cuts. In every station there are a few people who are overpaid and under-talented. Or overpaid and lazy. Ask them politely to take a modest pay cut. If they realize they can't go anywhere else, they'll agree. Ninety percent of something is better than one hundred percent of nothing.

Meanwhile, call a staff meeting and be honest with your people. Tell them they can save a job or two if they all pitch in to cut corners. Don't abuse the telephone. Don't call information when you can look up a number on the internet. (I can't tell you how many times I've seen that one, and it calls a couple of bucks a pop.) Turn off lights in the edit booths at the end of the day. Save gas where you can, because rest assured the price will go up again. Take better care of the equipment so it will last longer. Don't print out anything you don't absolutely need. (Although you can print this out and slide it under your ND's door. But I'd rather you just send him the link.) Shake the toner in the printer when you get a "low toner" reading; you'll get another week out of the thing. Refill your own inkjet cartridges... one dollar versus twenty.

Many NDs feel it has always been a matter of "us versus them" when it comes to management and employees. Many employees waste company money because it isn't theirs. Time for everyone to be a team again. Get on the same page and save money.

You might just save a job.

And it might be yours.

The Jay Leno ripple effect

NBC's decision to put Jay Leno on during prime time five nights a week could turn out to be a stroke of genius or one that backfires. While there has been much written about what this does to prime time and how the other networks will react, little has been said about what this does to local news.

If you work the late shift for an NBC affiliate, your job just got a lot harder. Especially if you're a producer.

(Well, one thing will be easier... I can write part of your late news promo right now: "These stories and more, right after Jay Leno." That one will work every night.)

Your late news will now follow the same thing every single weeknight. Makes it harder to cross promote with prime time topics. For instance, if the drama that ran before your late news did an episode about adoption, you could run a local story about the same topic. Can't do that with a talk show.

How will you make the transition from Leno's style of comedy directly to death and destruction? 10pm hasn't traditionally been a home for comedy/variety shows. I think the last successful one on a weeknight was hosted by Dean Martin about 20 years ago.

Will Leno siphon the comedy audience from Conan O'Brien, who takes over the Tonight Show? If that happens, this affects your morning show, as studies have shown that the station people turn off at night is the one they watch when they get up. And if they're not watching Conan....

It might be interesting to see if NBC stations change their approach and the style of news presented at 10pm. Might this actually mean the return of the feature story... something that would be naturally promotable during Leno?

We'll find out soon enough. Meanwhile, I've given consultants something to do.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Interview with a photographer

Grape: We're continuing our up close and personal conversations with assorted members of the broadcasting fraternity. Today we sit down for lunch with veteran Chief Photographer Dave Lenscap. Dave, thanks for stopping by.

Dave: Hey, nice to eat lunch outside of the car for a change.

Grape: You've spent twenty-five years in the business. How are things going these days?

Dave: Well, as you're aware, there are a lot of changes going on. The reporters are getting younger and less experienced, and in most cases, they think they know everything when they get out of college.

Grape: How do you deal with that?

Dave: One blue video standup and they get with the program real quick.

Grape: I knew you guys had a vindictive streak.

Dave: Hey, it saves a lot of headaches down the road. Though I once had a reporter who simply ordered me around like I was her slave. You should have seen her standups.

Grape: Blue video?

Dave: Nah, she was too smart for that. Just a little creative lighting. She resembled Nicole Kidman but by the time I got through with her she looked like the cryptkeeper.

(At this point the waitress arrives)

Waitress: Are you gentlemen ready to order?

Dave: Uh, what kind of soup do you have?

Grape: I'm buying, Dave.

Dave: Shrimp cocktail, lobster thermidor, creme brulee for dessert.

(The waitress takes my order and leaves)

Grape: Let's play a little game, Dave. If you could build the perfect reporter, what qualities would that person have?

Dave: Oh, that's easy. Someone who wants to be part of a team. Low maintenance. Offers to drive the car once in awhile. Carries the tripod. At the end of the interview asks me if I might have a question for the person we're interviewing. Wants to talk about the story on the way back to the station. Actually looks at my video before editing, then asks for my advice while editing. Brings a box of donuts to the photogs lounge once in awhile. Says "thank you" when I've shot something good.

Grape: Pet peeves?

Dave: You got about an hour? Seriously, one trait I notice with all young reporters is that they need twenty minutes of tape to get one sound bite. I'll hear something good and they'll go on and on and on forever, afraid that they'll miss something.

Grape: Do you have any unbreakable rules?

Dave: Touch my car radio and you'll pull back a bloody stump.

Grape: Okay, I'm going to say some things and you say the first thing that comes into your mind.

Dave: Fire away.

Grape: Consultants.

Dave: $%**)!!

Grape: I can't print that on the blog.

Dave: You asked me for the first thing that came into my mind. You didn't say it had to be clean. If you wanna hold hands and sing Kumbaya, you got the wrong guy.

Grape: Producers.

Dave: Stop ordering me around and get out in the field once in awhile so you know what we actually do. Get a map and drive around the market once in awhile so you'll know logistics. I can't shoot a vo in ten minutes if I'm thirty minutes away. Unless you've got a transporter and can beam me there.

Grape: Live shots.

Dave: Doesn't fool the viewer. 99 percent of them are a waste of time. And it is rare that something is actually going on.

Grape: One man bands.

Dave: Well, blue is my favorite color. May as well have video to match.

Grape: Storm coverage.

Dave: I'm not dying for this station. But it is only a matter of time before someone gets whacked by a two-by-four during hurricane coverage. And it will be a cowboy reporter who doesn't know the difference between bravery and stupidity.

Grape: If your station should actually ask you to become a one man band, would you do it?

Dave: Well, like most photogs I've been asked hundreds of times to pick up vosots by myself, so I've sorta been doing it anyway. Not sure how I'd feel about voice tracking a package.

Grape: Would you do a standup?

Dave: If I can find my necktie.

Grape: Christmas is coming. What's on your wish list?

Dave: My News Director's picture on the side of a milk carton.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Check out the results of the poll on the right of this page. While this is an admittedly small sample and unscientific, the results kind of blew me away.

We talked about protecting your privacy after that poor Arkansas anchor met her untimely death, but I'm convinced it is now more important that ever.

Before the Internet and station websites existed, people would occasionally send a weird letter or make a strange phone call. But now, you guys are really making it way too easy for those who might seek to do you harm.

There's simply too much information out there that is available to anyone.

Anytime I get a new client, the first thing I do is google them. I want to make sure there isn't anything out there that might hurt their chances at getting a job. I've noted that almost all young people have a personal page, which features everything from pictures to inner thoughts. You might as well just draw the bad guys a map.

Delete it all. Now.

The creeps out there can be real detectives when they target someone to stalk. They can find out the places you like to hang out, likes and dislikes, and the big one, your marital status. Maybe it's time for all the single women out there to include a fake husband (who is a former NFL linebacker) on all station bios.

Having a personal page does nothing for your career, and nothing for your personal life. If you want to stay in contact with friends, you can call or email. They can do the same. If a News Director needs to find you, he won't do it through a personal page.

Delete it all. Now.

As for your station bio, keep it very simple. Where you went to school, where you worked, not much else.

Make it hard for the people who might want to do you harm to find out more about you.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Mailbag: How to dodge a layoff


I fear layoffs are coming at my station. Anything I can do to dodge the bullet?

-Afraid, very afraid

Dear Afraid,

Well, sure. We've talked about making yourself "fireproof" in the past.

Now if you're in a situation where your station shuts down, you're pretty much done. But if a ND gets a directive from above to "cut five people" or "trim $100k in salaries" then there's some hope.

Because decisions have to be made.

In every station at which I've worked, there were some people I could live without. Some people I hoped and prayed would find another gig because they were such headaches. (In some cases News Directors want someone to leave so badly they'll help find them a job.) On the other hand, there are those key people you simply have to have. Those people who are the first ones you'd call if you got another News Director job.

Who are they? The versatile ones, the ones that don't complain, the ones you can depend on to show up when the big story breaks without even being called. They're team players, low maintenance. They don't create drama in the newsroom and don't get involved in gossip.

Did you notice I didn't say anything about talent?

Sometimes you'd rather have a solid, no-frills reporter who is a joy to work with instead of someone with tremendous talent that the photogs avoid like the plague.

Things in this business are in the process of a shakeout. When they settle down, the last people standing are the ones that make News Director's life easier.

You wanna keep your job? Shut up, knock out some good work, and be old school.