Saturday, March 14, 2009

Small market mentality will keep you in a small market

This week I spent three days working for NBC on that Alabama multiple murder story. I'd guess there were probably close to one hundred media people covering this. At one point while we were setting up for a briefing I couldn't help but notice the stark contrast between the network crews and those from the small markets. I was so fortunate to work with photographers, audio people, producers, a sat truck operator and a reporter, all of whom were totally professional. Standing next to me was some hundred pound gal right out of college loaded down with gear like a Sherpa, trying her best to be a reporter while worrying about being in focus.

But that's not the difference between the network and a small market. It's all about attitude.

One thing I love about doing work for NBC is that they are so polite and professional, but they've very appreciative as well. It seems that any time someone from the network calls you while you're on the scene, the first thing said is, "Thank you so much for helping us." On the way to the story I heard, "Thanks for dropping what you were doing and getting there so fast." On the way home I got another call thanking me. When I arrived I found three emails from network people thanking us for doing a solid job.

And it's not just management. I can see the arrogance of some small market people, a sharp contrast to those who work for the network. Some of the biggest egos I've ever encountered have been in small markets. If you think the network reporters are prima donnas, you're not even close. They're always pitching in, taking care of hotel arrangements for everyone, doing as much leg work as anyone, asking if anyone needs something to eat or a cold drink while making a snack run. Most of us are middle aged, we've been through the wars, and we have no desire to go there again. In three days working with a dozen bone tired people operating on two hours sleep, I never heard a cross word or a raised voice.

Contrast this with local newsrooms today. If your News Director isn't screaming you've got a co-worker sharpening knives and aiming for your back. Reporters are competing with one another instead of trying to do a better job than those at the other stations. Producers are on a power trip trying to order field crews all over the place. The result is a product that is often less than the sum of its parts, when it should be greater.

You wanna make it to the network? Bury the small market attitude if you have one and rise above it all. Put the product ahead of yourself. Be the team player and don't worry about who gets the credit. Help your co-workers and if one makes it to the network, you might tag along on the coattails.

Have a network mentality, and you'll have a better chance of getting there. You might also just do a small part in turning this business back to what it used to be.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Rest in Peace, Stan Bohnhoff; terrific photographer and a great guy

These past few days I've been in Samson, Alabama, working for NBC on those horrific murders. Whenever I'm sent to something like that, I know I'll run into some old co-workers and friends. A photog I know named Robert came up to me and said, "Did you hear about Stan?"

"No," I said, thinking he'd won an Emmy or something. He was that talented with a camera.

"He died."

Suddenly, I was grieving as much as the people I was covering.

So let me tell you about one of the best photogs I had the pleasure to know and work with.

I met Stan when I was doing some work for a company that produced fishing shows for ESPN and The Nashville Network back in the early 90's. I was writing scripts and doing some field producing while Stan was the principal photog and editor of a show called "Sportsman's Challenge." I, like just about anyone who watches television, assumed that a fishing show was sort of slapped together as content was probably the only thing of interest to the people who watched fishing shows.

Was I ever wrong. These shows were pure art.

I would see a guy in a boat casting into the water. Stan saw a backlit man gently tossing a line so that it caressed the lake, which was no longer water but a bed of shimmering crystals. To Stan Bohnhoff, light and shadows were simply forces of nature to be manipulated by his camera so that the rest of the world could see what he saw; nature in its raw, pristine, powerful beauty. Stan could shoot a blade of grass and make you feel guilty about cutting the lawn. A blank tape was a canvas, and he wielded his electronic brush like a master. His work resembled the cinematography of the movie "A River Runs Through it"...taking something simple, something we'd take for granted, and showing us the hidden beauty we'd missed.

I'd think we were done, and he'd always spot another shot. Or I wouldn't see anything special and he'd be putting his camera at some weird angle, getting ready to capture something with his 20-photog vision that was invisible to the rest of us. He treated every shot like a money shot, and the results always backed up that philosophy. His work was top quality, pure artistic genius.

Stan was in his element on the water, and he even looked the part. Part Jimmy Buffett, part Beach Boy, his sandy hair and devilish eyes were complimented by a shirt that was rarely tucked in and a pair of sunglasses that always hung on a cord around his neck. The guy was born to work and live on the beach, as if salt water flowed through his veins instead of blood. Laid back, even tempered. His company even reflected his love for the sea: Castnet Productions.

I once put together a political commercial that needed a little flair, and I asked Stan to shoot it. It turned into a work of art, something rarely seen in that genre. As always, he saw what I could not.

Stan loved Florida State football, loved and bragged about his only daughter every time I saw him. He had that sarcastic wit that seems to be a dominant gene with all photogs. The last time I saw Stan we'd gotten together in a sports bar to watch the Giants one Sunday afternoon. He wanted me to come see his new house he'd bought on the water and we talked about getting up a poker game with some old cronies. I hadn't heard from him for awhile, but just figured he was busy.

A heart attack took Stan from us. He was only in his fifties. He deserved the chance to literally sail off into the sunset or just float around in a boat docked at his house. While his life was much too short, he left the world a better place than he found it, and showed those of us who don't carry a camera just how beautiful nature really is.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The hook

In fiction writing, every plot has a "hook" or something unique that makes it different from anything else. For instance, you could say that John Grisham's "The Firm" is a legal thriller. But the hook is "Young lawyer gets what he thinks is dream job only to find out the firm is in cahoots with the Mob."

In reporting, even though you're dealing with non-fiction (well, at least some news organizations still are) you still need a hook, something to make the viewer glance up from a Sudoku puzzle and think, "Hey, I've gotta see that."

Sadly, about ninety percent of what I see on local news doesn't have a hook. The stories have become so similar that it's all video wallpaper. Thirty minutes go by and I can't even remember what stories I just saw, because they're exactly the same as the ones I saw yesterday and the day before. (And you wonder why I keep watching Seinfeld at six o'clock.)

If you as a reporter have fallen into this trap, you need to learn how to recognize a good hook in order to make your stories more interesting. I'm not saying you have to change any facts, you just have to develop that third eye which can spot those little hidden details that can turn an average story into a great one.

(I know, at this point you want an example.)

Right now economic stories are dominating the news. But every single layoff package I've seen lately has these elements:

-Video of cars driving away from a business.
-Sound bites with people who lost jobs saying, "I don't know what I'm gonna do."
-Video of restaurant across the street from closed business with no customers.
-Sound bite with restaurant owner saying, "I don't know what I'm gonna do."
-File tape of the business during its heyday.
-Sound bite with realtor saying, 'I don't know what I'm gonna do."

Get the picture? If you've done this story, you've done it without a hook.

Now, let's say someone got a decent severance settlement from the company. That someone is going to take that money and start a small business... and probably would never have done so without the severance check or the lack of security. The story might look like this...

Reporter: "For twenty years Joe Lineworker assembled cars. But when he found himself on the unemployment line, he turned to his first love... fixing cars.

Sound bite: "My dad was a mechanic and I still love working on cars. I took my settlement and bought a one-bay garage."

Reporter: "Business is already good. With people not buying cars, they need someone to fix them... and you know how hard it is to find an old fashioned mechanic."

Get the idea? Here's a guy who, back to the wall, turned his situation into a blessing in disguise.

Of course, you have to look for those stories. Too many of you just "show up" and shoot what's available.

That's not what a reporter does. Your job is to dig, to talk to everyone, to find the hidden nugget of information that will turn your assignment into something special.

Great stories are out there. But you'll never find them unless you do some old fashioned reporting and find the hook.

Newsroom Saint

Journalists have a patron Saint. Who knew?

Mailbag: Do I have to major in journalism?


I'm finishing up my second year in college and about to pick a major after getting all the required courses out of the way. I really want to be a television reporter or producer, but I've been reading about the state of the business and I'm concerned I'll end up with a worthless degree. Your thoughts?

-Class of 2011

Well, I've never thought anyone in this business needs a degree in journalism. Honestly, some of the greatest reporters in history are self-taught or majored in totally unrelated subjects. I got into the business with an English degree when a customer in my dad's store invited me to her radio station. I'd never had a single broadcasting course.

I've always felt that the best majors are history or political science for those looking at a career in news. I've seen so many J-school grads who couldn't tell a US Senator from a State Senator. Many are so schooled in presentation they have no idea how things in this world actually work. The good thing about those degrees is that if you change your mind or discover you don't like the business, you can go to law school, work in politics, whatever. If you have a journalism degree and discover it isn't for you, the options aren't very wide.

I've always felt the best thing to do is major in something practical while engaging in as many journalism related activities as possible. If your school has a TV station or a newspaper, you should be working there. A summer internship at a good affiliate will generally teach you more than you could possibly learn in four years. Hands on experience always trumps book experience.

These days people have to be flexible when it comes to careers. A lot of talented people cannot find work, and if you can't do something else you'll find yourself in a tough spot.

That said, there are many fine journalism schools out there that will prepare you well for a career in the business. Just be dead sure it's what you want to do before going that route, and make sure you've spent some time in a real TV station. I've heard so many young people this past year express their frustrations that the business isn't what they'd expected.

Is there any point in fighting news decisions at the morning meeting--like having to do ONE MORE unemployment story (I think people get it....there's no jobs) and continuing to talk to "real life" people who don't have jobs. Or will I just be pinned as a complainer and a trouble maker?

Well, fighting the boss in a dictatorship makes no sense. You need to have a preemptive strike ready... a solid story idea or two that will blow away anything the ND has in mind.

And when you do get stuck with the same story every time, don't do it the same way. Think outside the box, search for the new angle. Find someone hunting for a job in an unusual way, or someone who got tired of looking and started a business that's now successful.

You start every day with a blank page. Regardless of the assignment, it's up to you how that page is filled.


I have eighteen months experience and I just saw an ad for a job I really want, but it requires two years. Can I apply for this job?

Of course not. The resume tape police will cart you away and charge you with being overconfident, throw you in the drunk tank where you will be fed bread and water for ten days.

Seriously, any job out there is fair game. You have NOTHING to lose by sending a tape. You have ZERO chance of getting the job if you don't send one.

I've seen people with one year of experience with talent that blows away twenty year veterans. If you're a natural, no one will care how long you've been on the job. Send the tape and fuhgeddaboudit.