Thursday, April 23, 2009

Backtiming your day

I've gotten a few notes from people who feel they are now swamped with a new workload due to cutbacks. What's interesting is that the business has come full circle. When I broke in we did two packages each day along with some vo/sots and voiceovers. We still had time for lunch. We never really felt burned out. True, we didn't have hot and cold running live shots all day, but we knew how to backtime.

If you're not familiar with the term, backtiming goes way back to the days of radio when people had to have a song end precisely when they were going off the air. If the transmitter was being shut off at the top of the hour and you had a song that ran two minutes and thirty six seconds, then at two minutes and thirty six seconds before sign off you started your song.

But the principle is still the same. In order to start your day, you have to look at the end of your day and work backwards.

I'm going to take a typical day shift for a reporter working from nine in the morning till six at night, and I'm going to assume you have a live shot at six. That's nine hours with an hour for lunch. And yes, with this system you will be able to avoid eating in the car and sit down in a restaurant. You won't feel frazzled because you'll have little mini-deadlines throughout the day that will keep you on course.

9am: Morning meeting. If you're smart, you've got some story ideas to pitch and you've already made calls the previous day. So if you're assigned one of your stories, you don't have to spend as much time tracking people down. If not, you'll still be OK.

9:30: You've got your assignment. Go directly to setting it up, do not pass "Go." Do not read the paper. (You should have done that already before you came to work.) No personal calls, no gossip. Set up your story. Now.

10:30: Your story should be either set up or you should be on your way to it. Talk to the photog on the way to discuss how to cover it, get his ideas for video, etc. (If you're a one man band, turn off the radio and figure it out in your head.)

12:00: Lunch break. By now you should have at least part of your story in the can. It is very important to take a lunch break, as you really need to relax for a little while. The wheels are still turning in your head, but your body needs a break from stress.

1:00-2:30: Story should be in the can and you should be on the way back to the station. Again, talk to the photog about what you've got. Start writing your script in the car if you're not driving. If alone, work it out in your head.

3:00: Script should be done. Turn it in for approval. (This is for your own benefit, as you always want a manager to check your copy just in case. And any ND who doesn't require script approval is just asking for a lawsuit down the road.)

3:15: Start editing.

5:15: Package and other stuff in the can and you're probably on your way to a live shot.

5:30: Work out with the photog what you're going to do in your live shot. Rehearse what you're going to show, if you're going to move, etc.

6:00: Live shot. Now you can go back to the station and waste all the time you want.

Granted, our days don't often fall into place like this. Sometimes it takes forever to set things up, sometimes we have to drive a long way. But whatever the case, if you backtime your day you won't be racing the clock all the time. Because when you do that, you end up more stressed out.

The traps that I often see young people fall into are those that waste time at the beginning of the day. Talking on the phone, surfing the Internet, texting... all those things add up in the time wasting department. Then all of a sudden it's noon and you've done nothing.

So hit the ground running as soon as you have an assignment. Once you get the hang of this, you can start thinking about stories days in advance, pitching them early, and setting them up the day before. Then you can really start to relax. Imagine how nice it would be to drive to work knowing you didn't have to track down someone to interview, knowing exactly what you were doing, and having ideas for your story already in place.

When you reach that point in your career, this job will be a breeze.

Till then, backtime.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mailbag: I got your twitter right here


Okay, so I've got this journalism degree and I'm wondering what I do if the whole business suddenly collapses.

What's a good backup plan?

Well, here's a backup plan I had that had a little flaw in it. I figured I'd teach in college when I was done on the street. So when a College President asked me if I was interested in teaching at his school, I jumped. Then I found out you needed a Masters Degree to teach in that state. Didn't matter that I had two decades of experience... I wasn't qualified to teach thanks to the state legislature.

Okay, so you wanted some backup plans:

-Get a Masters Degree in your spare time. I'm not saying to drop what you're doing or quit your job, but you can do this online one course at a time at many universities. Then you can teach! However, if you're still in school and thinking a Masters will help you get that first reporting job, uh, nope. It's still the tape. Degrees mean nothing. (And neither do your grades, for those who insist on putting their GPA on their resumes.)

-Public relations. This used to be the most common escape hatch for media people, but companies are cutting back there as well. But you can set yourself up by being active in the community, and being professional with the PR people you currently deal with.

-Law school. If ever there is a recession proof industry, this is it.

-Hone your writing skills. The Internet may be killing TV jobs, but it's still a monster that has an insatiable need for copy. Write well and you can always find work.

-Marry rich.


Is there a school for News Directors? Where do these people learn how to do what they do?

This is a trick question, right?


What if a news director puts their e-mail address in their job posting. Why in the world would they do that? Do they want to hear from some of the more persistent applicants? Or is this just company protocol?

I have no idea why any smart ND would include an email address. Doesn't matter anyway, as the tape is the only thing that will get you a job. Persistence is actually annoying in the job hunting process. Just send the tape and if the ND likes you, you'll get the call.

Hey Grape,

Love the blog. Do you twitter?

Okay, I'm old so I actually had to ask someone what that was. So the answer is no.

However, I have agreed to a partnership with the 30 year old guy next door who lives in his mother's basement. We're developing a website called

This is going to be huge! Here's the deal: after you join you should immediately begin posting detailed descriptions of how you wasted time that day. So, and here's the beauty of this... you're wasting more time telling people how you originally wasted time! We're gonna make a fortune!

Honestly, I have no idea why any of you would want to know what I put on my bagel this morning or which episode of Star Trek I watched while folding laundry.

Oh, gotta go feed the cat.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Interview with a News Director

Grape: Continuing our talks with people in the industry, today we sit down with News Director Mike Stand, who runs a newsroom in a medium market. Mike, thanks for taking the time today.

Mike: No problem. It will be a nice break from--

(Reporter enters the Nd's office)

Reporter: Mike, how come Brenda gets to anchor the noon on the Fourth of July? I thought I was next in line?

Mike: Aren't you getting married that day?

Reporter: That's besides the point.

Mike: I'm busy. We'll talk about this later.

(Reporter leaves in a huff.)

Grape: You get that kind of stuff all day?

Mike: Every day. If I didn't have silly interruptions like that I'd get a lot more work done.

Grape: So what's the worst thing about being a News Director?

Mike: You just saw it. I had no idea that psychology was so much a part of this job. What's really funny is that I worked my way up in a major market and didn't see this kind of stuff. Then when I get my first News Director job I run into massive egos, even though we're in the middle of nowhere.

Grape: So how do you deal with it?

(Mike opens desk drawer, takes out giant bottle of Tums and shakes it at me.)

Grape: Let's move on to what reporters want to know. What are you looking for in a resume tape?

Mike: Well, you've got to knock my socks off with something memorable. Remember, I grew up in a big market so I know what really good stuff looks like. I don't expect people at this level to turn out network quality stuff, but you can always tell when someone has that potential. I want to see a reporter who can enterprise stories, who can dig up stuff, who doesn't just show up and collect soundbites.

Grape: How important are live shots?

Mike: It's nice when a reporter can actually show something instead of just talk about it.

Grape: How about the montage?

Mike: Your absolute best piece of work had better be first. Give me several different looks, mix up the live shots, standups, any anchoring. And let me see some some personality.

Grape: Cover letter?

Mike: Make it clever. Don't just tell me you'll work hard, you're a team player and you're willing to do whatever it takes. Every single letter says that. Tell me what makes you different, not the same as everyone else.

Grape: Do you have any openings right now?

Mike: Yes, we're looking for a reporter. (The phone rings. Mike hits the speaker button.) This is Mike...

Voice: Hi, Mike! My name is Holly Wood and I sent you a resume tape last week and I wanted to get your first impressions...

Mike: Did you read the part of the ad that said "No Phone Calls?"

Voice: Yeah, but I figured that just applied to people who weren't aggressive...

(Mike hits the button and disconnects the call.) Mike: Now you see, that gal will go online and tell people I was rude, when she was the one who simply couldn't follow directions.

Grape: So is Holly out of the running?

Mike: She can't follow simple directions, she can't be a reporter in my newsroom.

Grape: Let's talk about economics. How are you dealing with cutbacks?

Mike: Well, it hasn't made my job easier. I really don't want to let people go or cut salaries, but I can only operate with the budget I'm given. I'm trying to cut corners so I can save people's jobs. But sometimes people have to meet me half way. I had an anchor who was grossly overpaid for this market and to be honest wasn't very talented. I asked him to take a small pay cut and he walked. He's still out of work. I took that salary and spread it around to other people who deserve it.

Grape: So who deserves a job these days?

Mike: Well, not people who complain about being passed over for anchoring on their wedding day.

(A flustered weatherman walks in.)

Weatherman: Mike, last night Corinne introduced me as James Doppler.

Mike: Uh, that's your name.

Weatherman: She's supposed to introduce me as "Chief Meteorologist" James Doppler. It's the second time this year she's done that.

Mike: I'll talk to her.

(The weatherman leaves. Mike opens his desk and takes out the bottle of Tums.)

Mike: His title is about to be "unemployed Chief Meteorologist."

Grape: So, back to people who deserve jobs...

Mike: I know it's cliche, but I love team players. People who come to the morning meetings with good story ideas. People who want feedback and don't get mad when you give it to them. People who don't waste my time with petty junk like what you just saw. Who realize this is not the network and don't have a big ego. And I love reporters with a photog mentality.

Grape: What do you mean by that?

Mike: Reporters who carry the gear, realize they're fifty percent of a team in the field. Who will go the extra mile. Trust me, I'll reward those people and when they move on I'll wish them well.

Grape: A lot of stations treat people like ingrates when they look for another job.

Mike: Well, it's the nature of the business to want to better yourself. I don't begrudge anyone who wants to move up the ladder.

Grape: One more question. How much does your station consultant play in your decisions?

Mike: (picking up phone) Let me call the consultant and ask him how to answer that.

Grape: 'Nuff said.