Friday, February 20, 2009

The telephone: an untapped source of story ideas

It seems that half the time I call a newsroom no one answers. It rings, and rings, rings and I give up. Trying to call a newsroom on evenings or weekends is even worse.

In my last few management jobs, I noticed there seemed to be a trend among young people. The basis for this was, "Someone else will answer the phone." Lots of times it ended up being a veteran or a manager. In many cases, young people don't pick up the phone in the newsroom unless it specifically rings at their desk. (Maybe with the text messaging obsession, people have forgotten how to do it.)

Working the phones is a lost art. The best example is in the movie All the President's Men in which Robert Redford makes a string of calls to follow leads.

But you have to pick up the phone to start.

Years ago phones in newsrooms rarely rang more than once. Reporters jumped for the receivers when the phone rang, because you never knew if the person on the line was going to give you a great story. Now, the attitude seems to be that it's just another viewer calling to complain.

If you're one of those people who has problems finding ideas, you need to jump when the phone rings. About half the people that call television stations call to complain, and the other half call because they have a story to tell.

One other point: people who try to call a station and don't get a pick-up will get disgusted and call another station... then that great story you could have had, the one that might be first on your resume tape, will go to someone else.

So when the phone rings, jump. It might be nothing, but lots of times there's a great story on the other end, just waiting to be grabbed.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Memo to political consultants and crisis managers

As a big baseball fan, I tuned in yesterday for A-Rod's news conference, hoping he would come clean but deep down knowing this was just another dog and pony show.

If you're one of those people who runs political campaigns or works as a crisis manager, get a tape of what happened yesterday. It's a great example of how to dig a bigger hole for yourself.

If you're a reporter, you should watch it as well. Once again, lots of softballs thrown in with a few decent questions. Of course, the Yankees set the rules: one question per reporter, no follow-ups. Which negated the chance for any reporter to say, "You really expect anyone to believe that?"

The best non-sound bite of the year, and it's only February, came when A-Rod "choked up" when looking at his teammates. Guess he thought he was eligible for next week's Academy Awards. Amazing how reporters who never use nat sound jumped on this sound of silence.

Two things: if you're working to spin something for the media, the only thing that works is the truth. No rules for reporters, none of this "no follow up" garbage. Right off the bat you look like you've got something to hide. Sure, your job is to spin and make your client look better, but you have to at least make it look like you're not hiding anything.

If you're a reporter, and you run into a situation like that, include the rules in your story. "We're were only allowed to ask one question."

Incredibly, people who work as crisis managers make a lot more than most of us. Yet they still don't get it. (Maybe those of you leaving the business need to look into that as a career... at least you know what news people are looking for.)

You should also note how polite many of the questions were. Once again, Mike Wallace, where are you when we really need you? There's a time to be polite and a time to shove a question in someone's face. Remember, sometimes you need to act like a prosecutor, like the bad cop in an interrogation. Sometimes you need to go all Jack Bauer on someone with a microphone. Especially if the person already admits he's guilty.

Next time you're covering a situation like this, fire away with both barrels. The crisis managers and consultants think news people have gone soft and are easily manipulated.

And every time you play along, you prove them right.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Can a viewer hear your voice?

In fiction writing, voice is that special something that makes one writer distinctive from another. I could probably take a page from a Stephen King book and read it aloud to a bunch of people, not telling them who wrote it, and anyone who had read King would be able to identify it. His style, the way he uses words and strings them together, the "attitude" of his writing; those things make up his "voice."

While you need a good speaking voice to be a successful anchor or reporter, letting your "voice" come through in your copy can make you distinctive as well. If someone in your newsroom took one of your scripts and read it, not knowing who wrote it, would that person be able to tell you were the writer?

This blog has a "voice" and if you're a regular visitor you could probably pick it out from the dozens of television blogs just from my sarcasm alone.

This might sound confusing as it applies to news, so let me give you an example. Let's take a passage that you might write on an average news day:

"The council passed a resolution that will result in a five percent increase in garbage fees. This means you'll be paying twenty-one dollars instead of twenty."

Okay, pretty basic, right? Anyone from Journalism 101 could have written that, and there's nothing wrong with it. Except it has no personality.

No voice.

Now let's give that information some punch, a little kick that let's you know the reporter is a real person who understands that any increase is unwelcome in this economy:

"You may as well throw a dollar bill in your trash each week, because that's how much more it's going to cost you when you toss your garbage. City council members, who risked being kicked to the curb themselves in the next election, voted unanimously for a five percent increase."

See, that's got the Grape's brand of sarcasm in it. My own unique view of the world (and the soulless politicians who run it) came through in just two sentences.

Take some of your scripts home with you on your days off and read them aloud. Do they have your "voice" or do they sound as though anyone in your newsroom could have written them?

These days you really have to stand out to move up the ladder. Put yourself into your copy and the way you deliver it. Make your voice as distinctive as your personality.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Mailbag: What's a good annual raise?


I'm about to negotiate a new contract and I know this is probably the worst time to do it. What's the going rate for raises these days?

Well, you're right, the timing is way off for you. Many people are actually taking pay cuts to keep their jobs, though many of those are anchors. I'm hearing of raises from one to five percent.

But none of this applies to you, since you are unique. What is your value to the station? Are you one of the newsroom stars, and do you have the ratings to back it up? Got any other job offers? Lots of times you'll get low-balled if the ND thinks you'll never leave.

The big thing is to not play hardball in this environment. If you're offered two percent, don't ask for fifteen, ask for five. Be reasonable.


Is it true that most resume tapes are ejected after thirty seconds? Doesn't a News Director want to see my packages?

Actually, tapes can get the thumbs down in as little as ten seconds. You get a pretty good idea of a person's talent off that first standup, and since it is assumed you're putting your best work first, it should tell you a lot. In many cases, tapes don't make the cut because the person doesn't have the right look, has a bad accent, or just looks uncomfortable on camera. I know, it sounds harsh to have your tape ejected after such a short time, but when you have hundreds of tapes to look at you have to be quick.

Dear Mr. Grape,

What's the best way to pitch a story in the morning meeting? It seems like I have good ideas but the ND never wants to do them. I hand in the story idea sheet, he reads it to the group, and nothing happens.

Well, in most stations you go around the room in the morning meeting and ask each reporter for ideas. In your case, you have to write things down and hand them in. I would suggest when the ND gets to your idea, that you convey some real excitement about the idea. Tell the group why this would make such an interesting story, your ideas for video, etc. If you look and sound upbeat about the story, you'll help sell the idea.


I'm a producer right out of college who is working with a lot of veterans. How do I order people to do things without alienating them?

You don't "order" anyone, you ask. That's a big problem with newsrooms today. People who are put in positions of power who have no business being there often find themselves the victim of resentment. Best thing to do is admit you're a rookie, ask for help, ask for opinions. You'll win over the veterans who will understand the situation and appreciate the fact that you're willing to learn.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Television Armageddon

If you think the digital switch is for your benefit, you're wrong.

Some of us who work in the television industry are convinced there is a sleeper cell in the FCC who came up with the idea of the digital switch. His mission was simply to drive Americans crazy by messing with our TV. If you control TV, you control the country. We can live with four dollar gas, no power for awhile, and a crazy stock market. But take away our TV and watch the country implode.

Here's what will happen on Tuesday. My condolences if you are a station engineer.