Friday, January 16, 2009

"All hands on deck"

This is an old term you don't hear much anymore. It used to be used a lot for things like election night and other major events.

Of course you can't predict when those major events will happen. Yesterday's miraculous plane landing in the Hudson River is one of those.

On days when the country's heart skips a beat, that's when you find out who is really in this business for fame and fortune and who is in it for pure journalism.

On days like 9/11 and the two shuttle disasters, people turn to their television sets. They not only want information, they want the local newscasters who make them feel comfortable in times of trouble.

As a manager I was always surprised at who simply came into the station without being called on those days. And who couldn't be reached by company cell phone and didn't even bother returning my calls.

My first News Director says of these moments, "You shouldn't have to be called." He's right. You should want to be part of the big story, and you should know that your station needs as many staffers as possible.

I'll never forget a very unusual act on 9/11. Our sales manager, who had been a sports anchor in a previous life, came down to the newsroom and asked if he could help. We gave him a photog, sent him out, and he knocked out a good package. On the other side of the coin are the people who simply don't answer the phone.

So what did you feel yesterday when you first heard of the plane story? Did part of you want to be in New York, or did you change the channel? Did you go to your station and suggest tracking down a local pilot to describe what had happened? Did you call to see if your station needed any help?

You may think that your station is thousands of miles away, but events like these are when stations can make their mark. You have so many people who don't watch television news suddenly tuning in. You can take any big story and localize it. Yesterday's story had so many sidebars that you could do anywhere: how to land a plane on water, flying gliders, hypothermia, what to do if you're in that situation.

You have nothing to lose and everything to gain when you simply put yourself in play during a big event.

And if you don't feel that pull when you see a big story, maybe you're in the wrong business.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Honeymoon periods: politicians are counting on reporters to send a gift of laziness

We're not just getting a new President in a few days, but a whole bunch of other new politicians as well.

And they're all counting on journalists to give them a honeymoon period.

It's natural to cut the new people some slack. After all, they're learning the ropes, they're gonna make mistakes, right?

Trust me, they all know that the honeymoon period is the best time to sneak stuff past reporters.

If you want to find good stories in politics, you have to shadow these people from day one. Challenge every move they make, check every piece of legislation, and keep an eye out for the alliances they form.

And follow the money. You know those campaign disclosure forms politicians fill out showing who donated to their campaigns? Time to match those names with the contracts handed out in new administrations. Generally there are connections, as people are getting paid off for their support during the campaign.

It's fine to welcome new politicians to the scene, but let them know you'll be watching from the minute they take office.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The package repair shop is open

I'm seeing lots of packages with many missed opportunities, especially in the writing department and the use of natural sound.

So I'm willing to try an experiment.

Find a package you've done recently that you weren't entirely happy with.

Send me the following:

-the script, including lead-in
-shot sheet listing the video you had
-list of nat sound that you had, even if you didn't use it
-transcription of sound bites
-description of your standup (what you did: did you just stand there, walk and talk, etc.)

I'll post your original (without your name) and the revised version, hopefully pointing out opportunities you missed. Feel free to change the names of the people who provided the bites, the location, whatever.

If you're up for it, fire away.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mailbag: Should I use a cattle prod on my lazy reporters?

Hey grape! Long time listener, first time caller, so I'm just going to dive right in...

I'm a photog in a mid-30's shop. We're a hyphenated market in a somewhat rural area, so I knew going in that every day wouldn't be a breaking news bonanza. What I didn't expect was to find myself in this culture of mediocrity and laziness.

One of these reporters is a "piece of the furniture". He's been here forever and seems to be writing his stories from a mad lib tablet. Every story starts the same, runs about two-and-a-half minutes, and is guaranteed to bore the pants off of anyone within an arm's length of a Nielsen diary. He's also the self-appointed ultimate authority on every subject known to mankind, especially if it isn't relevant to the story we're covering.

I can cut an old dog some slack for being set in his ways, but this next reporter has no excuse. She was recently passed over for the weekend anchor job, and has been phoning it in ever since. She didn't have much talent before the snub, so her day turns have gone from pretty bad to ridiculously awful. She's always had trouble with the concept of beginning/middle/end, but now her scripts don't even make sense! I can be a collaborative fellow, but all my ideas and directional input are ignored. Just getting her to leave the building has become like pulling teeth, and those late starts wind up putting me closer to missing slot than I am okay with.

There are a few bright spots in the shop (our last two hires have been real go-getters), but the problems with these two overshadow just about every issue I have with the newsroom. Not helping matters is the lack of managers that have any experience in the field. They all moved up through the ranks as producers, and thusly, our shop is a very producer-driven environment. I don't think our producers care what airs as long as it doesn't make their show heavy, and wouldn't know a good story idea if it bit a hole in the bottom of their tall double mocha latte.

How can I work inside this culture of laziness without it rubbing off on me? Is there anything I can do to change the attitudes of my bad-apple coworkers? Is there anything I can do to change the culture in the newsroom? Should I just keep my head down and tough it out until the economy has improved and ride my escape tape to greener pastures?

Also, I know of a few news directors who started out as photogs. How can I put myself on the right track to be one of these former photog ND's?

-I still have a work ethic

Dear Ethical Photog,

Well, I hadn't heard the "Mad Libs" analogy, but now that you mention it, it does fit a lot of reporters who work from a template in their heads. Too funny. ("Let's see, I need a verb here, a sound bite there...") Let me guess...every single anchor intro ends with "Joe Reporter has the story."

It seems as though every station has a "piece of the furniture" reporter. What these people fail to realize is that eventually every piece of furniture wears out and gets thrown away, and if it doesn't work anymore no one wants it. These "one market" reporters and anchors will find themselves out in the cold soon enough. Stations are looking for more of those "go-getters" who are younger, cheaper, and hungry.

You could go all Jack Bauer on this guy and he's probably not going to change. But you might talk to the Assignment Editor and tell him you really have a conflict with this guy and would prefer to work with anyone else. I remember one time there was a photog I worked with and we couldn't stand each other. I went to the AE with a request and we never worked together again. Everyone was happy.

As for the passed-over gal, you might take her side and use some psychology, like, "If I had your potential I'd really start busting it, get a great tape and get the heck out of here. And I can help you." Sometimes getting rid of a problem is finding the problem another job. Since management passed her over they won't care.

Moving on to the lack of street experience with management... frankly, I don't understand how people who have never, ever worked on the street can possibly understand what goes in to putting a newscast together. I believe it is one of the biggest problems with local news today. I remember applying for one ND job, and getting a call. The person said, "You really need more producing experience." Huh? But you can thank consultants for that one. While some producers understand the process, unless you get out of the building you never really grasp what goes on and how a story is put together. I wish all NDs would send producers out with crews once in awhile. Making line producers field producers on occasion can really open some eyes. (To be fair, I encourage all the street crews to hang out in the back of the control room every now and then.)

I've known a few shooters who went into management. A good career track is to start applying for Assistant ND jobs. It helps if you are the Chief Photog or the Assistant Chief. If you can knock out a great cover letter and are good on interviews, you should be OK. You already write well, and your letter took me back. I so miss the pointed sarcasm of photogs. But when you see a job in management, go for it. (Of course, this will require you to wear a suit and tie, and I know how much you guys love that.)

By the way, I can pretty much guess your location from your market size and description, and if I'm right you're in a really laid back spot. Sometimes the surrounding attitudes trickle down into the newsroom. It's all right to be comfortable, but don't ever let it temper your ambition. Shoot lights-out stuff for those hungry kids, plant the seeds that you want to get into management some day, and when they move on they might just put in a good word for you.

Next caller, Vinnie from Queens...

Monday, January 12, 2009

How many reporters does it take to turn on a lightbulb?


I'm a reporter 6 months into a 3 yr. contract and I've progressed tremendously since starting here out of school. I've got the fundamentals for a package down: show don't tell, nat breaks, rack focuses, etc. My stories get the job done... but aren't the best in the market. I feel like I've hit a plateau. I can shoot my own video, write and edit but I need to get better... I'm just not sure how to take my stories to that next level and give them the "it" quality.

Any pointers on how to make my packages "come to life"- polish them to the point of perfection? A list of 5 prescriptions for improvement maybe?


-Package Plateau

Dear Package,

Geez, five prescriptions? What do I look like, Walgreens? (Sorry, I'm having a New York meltdown after watching the Giants yesterday.)

You are going through what many reporters do. You seem to progress in steps. Once day you figure out how to write copy out of nat sound bites, and you say to yourself, "Cool. I'll master that for awhile." Then you'll figure out how to wrap up a package with a clever phrase instead of a sigout directly after a sound bite.

But as to what makes the light bulb go on all of a sudden, I have no clue. (For some people it never does. For others, the bulb is a five watter that belongs in a refrigerator.)

For those who are truly determined to hone their craft, it will happen. Sometimes you'll see or hear something while doing a package and all of a sudden what seemed like Japanese is suddenly perfect English. Sometimes a veteran will take you aside and point out something to help you. Or you read a blog and get an idea.

But like a good fluorescent (I'm really getting into this light bulb metaphor) sometimes you just need a little spark to turn on the light.

Since you asked for five ways to improve your work, here goes:

1. Watch big market and network reporters. Go online and watch resume tapes from people in large markets. Watch the network news every night, and don't just watch the same one. Watch newscasts from big market stations that put their newscasts online. If you're in an entry level market, you're never gonna get better watching the other rookies in the market.

2. Practice turning phrases. At the end of the day, pull a rundown out of the trash, take it home, and pick the two stories that have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Then write a line that links the two.

Example: The two stories are an angry council meeting and our old friend the water skiing squirrel.

"The fur was flying at the City Council tonight, but it was all wet at the beach."

While this is a great writing exercise for producers to improve tease writing, it can help you stretch your mind so that you can spot clever links within your packages.

3. You have to sound like you're interested in the story, and talk conversationally. Many times I see potentially great packages with deliveries that make Ben Stein look like Chris Tucker. Animate your voice... be up when you need to, somber when the story calls for it. Let your voice carry your emotion as much as words and pictures. Delivery is a major problem with many young people. Just remember three simple words. "Talk, don't read."

4. Don't just stand up during a standup. Do something. Make a stand up sequence... there's no rule that says a standup has to be just one piece of video. Try new things, walk around, show and tell while you're on camera.

5. Look for the third side of the story. Most times two are obvious, but really think out of the box... where is that unusual point of view?

Example: The Board of Education will require kids to wear uniforms next year and they'll be ordered through the school system. The teachers and parents love the idea; the kids, who want hundred dollar sneakers and designer outfits, hate it. Are you done? Nope. What about the town's only children's clothing store which now loses its best customers?

Finally, and this is after the fact in your case and has nothing to do with putting a story together, you kids coming out of college can all do yourselves a favor by not signing three year contracts for entry level jobs. That's just ridiculous. Two years, tops. Unless you're a dim bulb (one more incandescent reference) you sure don't need three years before you move on.