Saturday, January 10, 2009

Quick tip for one-man-bands

Okay, I'm seeing lots of work from those of you who are one-man-bands in which the person being interviewed is staring directly into the camera.

You can avoid this (and you should, as it always looks weird) by framing up the person, rolling tape, then standing next to the camera as if there were a photog next to you. Make sure the person talks to you and not the camera. Your interviews will look a lot better.

Of course, this only works if you use a tripod, and you always should do so anyway.

As an added bonus, NDs looking at your tape won't be able to tell if you're a one man band... so you won't get "typecast" in that role.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Mailbag: Here's the pitch...


Can you please write a post on how to pitch a story at an assignment meeting.

I can see the value in the stories I'm working on--but sometimes my news managers cannot--and I fear it might be the way I'm pitching it. I'm pretty straight-forward with my pitches, no hype.

However, I've heard other reporters going into meeting with written teases of their stories and reading them aloud before giving more details.

What have you seen that works the best?

Well, I've been in that situation before. You find a great story and can't get anyone to bite.

I was once working in a very cold climate and we'd gotten buried with snow that year, so much so that it was around till April. The funny thing was that it had turned to ice and frozen people's Christmas decorations on their lawns. Since many people had these things on electrical timers that they couldn't access, you saw Santa and flashing reindeer on Easter. I thought it would be a hilarious feature, pitched it every day for two weeks. No one wanted it.

Then the newspaper did a long feature about it on the front page and one producer (the one who blew it off every day) said, "We should have done this." Ya think?

Sometimes management just doesn't like you and will shoot down everything. You could come in and say, "I've found Jimmy Hoffa's body in this old lady's basement along with her canned peaches," and the response will be, "Nah. Go do a follow up to a car wreck."

But in a normal world, you have to "sell" your story. It needs a "hook" that will make the viewer sit up and notice... and make the ND do the same. Find out the one detail that no one can resist and make that part of your pitch. Suppose you pitched a story this way: "Hey, I found out that Picasso's grandson lives here." Well, I'd probably shrug at that. But if you added, "And he paints houses, not pictures." Well, that's something I've gotta see. (Imagine a house with four noses and three eyes.) Same with hard news. Don't just tell me the local high school is sending a band to the Macy's parade, tell me they are raising the money for it by collecting aluminum cans along the highways and cleaning up the town since the town had to lay off its street workers.

Every story needs an angle. These days so many newscasts look the same, you really need to be different.

Dear Grape,

I've got until December of 2009 before my 3-year contract expires. I'm in a medium market and hoping to move up a bit. When do I start sending tapes and resumes? I've seen a few jobs I'd like to apply for, but I'm afraid it's too soon. I don't want to tick a news director off by saying I'm not available until the end of the year.

And also - what about moves within the company? Are contracts still binding, or will my ND let me go to work for another station in the group?

Well, first off, you never tick off a ND by sending a good tape. He or she might by frustrated by not being able to hire you, but you are actually helping a ND by sending tapes far in advance. Your cover letter might indicate you'll be available in a year, and the ND knows that one of his reporters will be retiring at the same time. So you get put into the "box 'o good tapes" for future reference. You might also get feedback from the ND asking for you to work on some thing and to keep in touch. "Keep in touch" is code for "send me another tape."

Otherwise, it is generally accepted that six months from the end of a contract is a good time to start shopping.

As for moving within the company, you have to approach this delicately. I didn't one time and was told, "This isn't the Army. You don't just put in for a transfer."

When you see an opening posted within the company, approach the ND and say, "You know, I really like working for this company and would like to stay with it. I noticed that our flagship station has an opening and I've been thinking about applying." Just be very casual. The ND might offer some insight as to the makeup of the other ND or what sort of reporters they like.

But by all means, don't pull an end run and apply without letting your ND know about it, because he or she will eventually.

Contracts simply transfer within the company, but more than likely they'll write you a new one at the new station.

Dear Grape,

OK, this may seem silly but it is turning into a war on the evening shift. Our main anchor is a coffee-holic and never makes a new pot in the break room. He leaves the empty pot and the machine on, which of course burns the pot and forces someone to clean it.

What to do?

Well, when I worked in my dad's store years ago, the rule was, "He who pours the last cup makes the next pot."

But in your case, this is actually a power play, and in this case you must be devious. (Can you tell I love this kind of stuff? It's a Sicilian thing.) You have several options. Get everyone to switch to tea for awhile so that he is the only coffee drinker left on the evening shift. Hide the sugar, sweet and low, creamer, or whatever else he uses. Or you can simply make one cup at a time for yourself.

But here's the best thing you can do. Hold out until he is forced to make a pot, then as soon as he pours his own cup, descend en masse on the break room and drink the rest of the pot. When he goes back for the second cup, he'll have to make another pot.

Then sit back and watch the guy start to twitch. Guaranteed to provide hours of fun.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

In case you hadn't noticed, your station broadcasts in color

Back in the 60's when studios stopped producing prime time shows in black and white, the announcer would start a show with something like: "The FBI... In COLOR!" Disney's Sunday night show was called "The Wonderful World of Color."

So I'm baffled as to why I'm getting so many tapes from women who dress in nothing but black, white or both.

Black of course, is a New York thing, but it seems to have taken on a life of its own lately. I'm not sure what TV shows are setting the fashion standard these days, but women should know that the absolute worst colors to wear on television are black or white. Sure, you can wear a dark jacket, but make sure you have a brightly colored top. Colors do so much for your appearance... adding color to your face without makeup.

Black is just stark and white just reflects to badly that you should really avoid these colors on camera. Earth tones aren't much better.

If you want to stand out from the crowd, wear some primary colors. Because there's a reason no one broadcasts in black and white anymore.

Do you owe your soul to the company store?

Sometimes I wonder if corporate people have mirrors in their homes.

Considering some of the tricks they pull on young people, you have to wonder how they look at themselves in the morning. (Maybe they're vampires and have no reflection.)

I continue to shake my head in disgust every time I hear of a young news person signing a contract and then finding out there is some astronomical buyout clause buried in the fine print.

On one side of the coin, I can see the station's point. A company has to protect its investment, especially if the employee is an anchor. These "liquidated damages" a company will charge you to leave are supposed to compensate the company. Let's say you're an anchor and the station just bought five thousand dollars worth of billboards. If you break a contract shortly thereafter, the station would be within its right to recover those funds.

This would seem fair if the amounts were fair for rookie reporters, and no one is putting up billboards for anyone right out of school. Some companies I've worked for had buyout clauses in the contracts (usually a corporate decision,) but they were fair amounts. I didn't expect anyone leaving to have to fork over a pint of blood and their first born.

But in some cases entry level reporters have buyout clauses that amount to six months salary. I've known a few people who paid two or three thousand dollars to get out of contracts, but some of the amounts I'm hearing borders on the ridiculous. Take that back, it is ridiculous.

While you always want to honor a contract, and I will never advocate breaking one, there are some times when people feel that exercising the buyout clause makes sense. If you're making 18 thousand per year and someone offers you 35, then paying three thousand dollars to move on doesn't seem like a bad idea.

So, one more time, always have any contract reviewed by a lawyer before signing. Many of these buyout clauses are numbers pulled out of thin air, and are negotiable. The day you sign the contract you never think you're going to break it, but sometimes you get a great offer, or you just plain hate your job. I think that some NDs secretly make people miserable so they'll collect buyout clauses.

Lots of industries have non-compete clauses, but not too many charge people six months salary to quit.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

There are times you should be glad you didn't get the job

About a year ago one of my clients was taking a cross-country vacation and decided to visit some stations along the way. She was in a small entry level market, had a good tape, and was looking to move to a medium market. While she was well received at many stations, she got quite a rude treatment from one ND.

"This is a big market," he told her, drawing the word "big" out into a few syllables. "You need years of experience to work here."

The market was in the 60's. Big market? Oh, please, get over yourself.

I did a little checking. The station was a perennial number three in the ratings. Then I checked the station website and saw that they streamed their newscast, so I watched.

Lead story: car wreck.
Second story: car wreck
Third story: house fire

Yeah, that's a real big market product.

Obviously my client didn't get hired there and she was glad she didn't. Who wants to work for someone like that?

I hear stories like this from time to time, about rude treatment during interviews, and it's a red flag for you guys when you run into a huge ego that has no business being a huge ego. Funny, you see them more in small and medium markets than you do in large ones. I guess some NDs need to validate their existence by making young people feel inadequate.

In any event, don't get your heart set on a certain station or a certain job. You never know what to expect until you actually meet people face to face.

If someone is rude or condescending to you during an interview, can you imagine how you'd be treated as an employee? Beat your feet and leave skid marks.

If nothing else, you'll save a stamp by not sending a thank you note.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The dreaded meeting story

Perhaps the worst thing about being a reporter on the evening shift is the fact that you often get stuck with meeting stories. Public hearings, council gatherings, school boards, whatever. You get handed a press release at three in the afternoon for a meeting that starts at seven. So you kill time, go to dinner, and knock out a package that features video of people sitting in chairs and speaking at a podium.


You have just missed out on a great opportunity.

A great meeting story takes a little planning, and a good assignment editor knows these things are in the file several days in advance. If I know there's a meeting about a proposed steel mill on Tuesday night, I'm going to give that assignment to my evening reporter a day or two ahead of time.

But, you're thinking, if the meeting doesn't take place till tomorrow, what's the big deal?

The point is to avoid as much meeting b-roll as possible. So if I know I'm going to be talking about that steel mill tomorrow, I need to get my mill video today. If there's already one in town I go there. If not, I call the network for b-roll or an affiliate in a market that has steel mills. Then I go out to the neighborhood that will be affected and talk to the people while they're at that location. I want to know how they're going to deal with the pollution, the traffic, and whatever else a new business might bring. I'll hear about it at the meeting; I'll see it out in the field.

Let's say you have a school board meeting to cover about the system buying new computers for the classrooms. If you got that assignment the day of the meeting, well, school's already out for the day. If you got it the day before you can go to a school and show what the kids are currently using and what new computers might mean.

Sure, you can pull a bite or two from the meeting and use one set-up shot, but 90 percent of your story needs to take place away from the meeting site.

Remember, it's all show and tell. If you're going to tell what the meeting is about, you've got to show what any decisions might mean.