Saturday, May 2, 2009

Wearing a virtual wire

I've reached the point where I am getting really tired of hearing people tell me about News Directors who have suffered "selective memory"... you know, that convenient malady which kills those brain cells containing a promise regarding your career.

Over the years I've often wished I had a courtroom stenographer who followed me around so I'd have a record of what exactly what was said... and what was promised... only to be conveniently "forgotten" when the time came to collect.

When I got into management I learned the importance of documentation. Anytime I had any sort of conference with an employee, I had to write down the date, time, and the parameters of what was said. It might look like this:

"Met with Joe Reporter on May 1st at 10 am. We discussed the fact that he never uses a tripod and I impressed upon him that he must use it whenever possible in the future."

The reason for this? If it ever came time to fire someone, documentation could back up your decision.

Now, it's time for you guys on the other side of the fence to start doing this.

Since you can't walk around wearing a wire and tape recording everything that was said, you must get into the practice of documentation. Anytime a manager has a personal conference with you, write it down. Anytime a co-worker says or does anything offensive, write it down. In fact, anytime anything happens that could come back to bite you in the future, write it down. For those who work for News Directors who are cylons, it might look like this:

"ND called me into his office on May 1 at 11am and called me an idiot."

But along with the bad stuff, you have to document everything that can affect your career:

"ND and I discussed plans for me to take over anchoring in June, 2010. Said he would give me a five thousand dollar raise if I would sign a one year extension to my contract. I would also have a top 20 out."

Then when that day comes and the ND conveniently "forgets" you can simply pull out your documentation and say, "This is what you told me at this date and at this time."

You might also get into the habit of taking a notepad with you anytime you meet with a manager to "take notes"... just let them think you're being thorough.

And remember to write everything down while it is still fresh in your mind. Waiting a day or two clouds the memory.

As for those of you who get job offers over the phone and find they mysteriously change when you get there, you should know that some states allow you to tape record phone conversations. (Often known as "one party states.") But you must check the laws of your state before you can do that.

You guys already take notes on a daily basis for your stories... now it's time to take them to protect yourself.

For those of you who are new to the business, I hope this doesn't scare you too much. But the reality is that there are a lot of people out there who simply cannot be trusted.

Friday, May 1, 2009

In the very near future...

Consultants have discovered that the only thing that will attract viewers to newscasts is fear. With that in mind, news departments have been given a mandate to scare viewers so much they'll never leave their homes... and therefore have nothing to do but watch TV.

A glimpse into the future takes us to America's most popular newscast...(with both anchors wearing surgical you will only need beautiful eyes to get hired)

Ken Goodhair: Good evening everyone, I'm Ken Goodhair...

Barbie Botox: And I'm Barbie Botox. Welcome to "America Freaks Out!"

Ken: Coming up this hour... we'll continue our two part report called "Shopping cart handles.... the silent killer"... and tell you how to protect yourself from germs in the supermarket.

Barbie: And we begin a new series on pistachio nuts... "Red fingers of death"... you won't want to miss that one. But first let's check in on the latest swine flu news.

Ken: Our medical correspondent Doctor Vinny Goombatz is standing by live.

Barbie: Doc, what's the latest on the swine flu...

Vinny: I'm here at the local synagogue as I wanted to get as far away from pork products as possible.

(Rabbi enters the shot): Excuse, me, what are you doing here?

Vinny: Well, we wanted to know how it feels to be immune to the swine flu since you don't eat pork...

Rabbi: (rolling his eyes) Oy....

Vinny: And there you have it... the word for the day is "Oy!" So be safe, head to your local synagogue... surround yourself with your Jewish friends. Back to the studio.

Ken: Good advice, Vinny. Thanks for that report.

Barbie: Meanwhile new developments at the airport. With Vice President Biden telling people to avoid mass transportation, frequent fliers are getting creative. Joe Backpack is standing by live at the airport.

Joe: Well, Barbie, things have certainly changed if you're flying. Joining me is TSA inspector Ed Strippum to tell us about the new procedures.

Ed: Well, after we check the luggage, we then put every passenger through what we call a "Silkwood Shower"... the same kind of scrubbing you'd get if you were exposed to a nuclear reactor. Then we burn off a layer of skin in this machine. We got the idea from watching the movie "Andromeda Strain."

Joe: Kind of like a whole body chemical peel, huh? Thanks, Ed. (Walks to baggage check line.) Meanwhile this guy who is zipping himself into a suitcase is getting lots of attention. Sir, what are you doing?

Passenger: I'm shipping myself to San Diego. I don't want to get near any other passengers, so I figured I'll be safer in the cargo hold. I've got a sandwich and something to read, so I'll be fine.

Joe: Very clever. So if you're heading to the airport, you're advised to leave at least four hours for inspection, and that will include being deloused. Back to the studio.

Ken: Well, I'm sure those passengers feel a lot safer after that process.

Barbie: Meanwhile, with schools across America closed forever, parents are wondering what to do with their children. Joining us now is soccer mom and self-proclaimed helicopter parent Judy Suburb. Judy, thanks for joining us tonight...

Judy: By the way, I'm a former soccer mom.

Barbie: Really?

Judy: You think I'm going to let my kids play outside? Who knows where that dirt has been!

Ken: What about school, Judy. How are you going to educate your kids?

Judy: We've set up a system where teachers and students just Twitter all day. Let's face it, kids weren't speaking anyway...they'd rather text message... and this keeps them away from any human contact.

Barbie: Judy thanks for joining us. Oh, I see our weathercaster has a severe weather update. Let's check in with Jim Doppler in the weather center.

Jim Doppler: We are now under a cumulus cloud warning! A white, fluffy cloud has been spotted downtown and it is headed east! Run for your lives!

Ken: Good advice, Jim. We'll check back with you later.

Barbie: Coming up after the break... the latest in hazmat suit fashion... find out the latest colors and accessories to keep you safe while looking fashionable.

Ken: You're watching America Freaks Out... Don't be scared, we'll be right back... so don't go outside.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Mailbag: Pitching is an art


I have a question about story ideas - sorry if you've already answered this in a previous post I couldn't find.

I interned/currently work in a top 50 market and I noticed that most of the time when reporters pitch story ideas I hear less enterprising stories and more "let get an update on court cases, bills that might pass..." things along those lines. It seems as if the stories I would want to pitch (I'm a college grad working on finding a reporter job in a starter market) are the ones we do during sweeps, like deadbeat dads, how to live on $10 a day - stuff like that.

So I guess I'm a little confused about what types of stories I should be pitching. I know I need to keep up with all the hard news going on wherever I go, but is there ever an appropriate time to pitch more enterprising stories besides during sweeps? Is it even possible to complete an enterprising story in 1 day? The reporters in the city I work in do them over the course of a few days or weeks.

Well, coming up with story ideas is the same everywhere. Getting permission to do them is another story.

Morning meetings are different in every station. I've worked in one in which the ND rarely showed up, and another which only included producers (incredibly, reporters not allowed.) It all depends on what the ND wants to do.

Many like to maintain a dictatorship, and some seem to take perverse joy in shooting down ideas, only to assign their own tired stories. In those cases, it is simply a power trip for the ND, and has no reflection on the quality of the ideas pitched.

In many stations, the meeting is run backwards. By that I mean that the meeting should start with story ideas from reporters and photogs... but in many cases the meeting starts with the Assignment Editor going through the file. You always want to see what the field crews have before talking about the stuff in the file.

Anyway, off my soapbox and back to your question. The stories you need to pitch are things that aren't in the local newspaper, that haven't been done by the competition. Stories that you've found on your own that will make viewers sit up and take notice. Find the interesting, the unusual, the different angle to something. Often you can find these by taking a different point of view than your own... how do other people see things?

And you can find these anywhere. Yesterday I got my car insurance bill and there was a little newsletter in with it. It had a warning about people who "jump in" on a car wreck...people who claim to have been passengers in the other car who then try to cash in on a settlement. The newsletter told me to always count the number of people in the other car after an accident. I've never heard of that... so I would pitch it as a consumer story.

By the way, you're always in sweeps despite what some NDs think. Viewers don't simply say, "Hey! It's May! I'm going to switch channels!" Viewership is built over time by putting out a good product every single day, whether it's the middle of August or the middle of sweeps. Give people something to watch every day and they'll be there for you in sweeps.

Random thoughts

Well, I guess someone at Fox heard me... they're not carrying Obama's primetime speech. The ratings should be really interesting, though Fox is airing something called "Lie to Me" (pretty ironic since it will appear opposite a political speech... is that a little tweak at the White House?) But if American Idol had been up against the Prez it would have really raised some eyebrows when the numbers came in.... and possibly made the other networks think about changing their policy.

Was your station one of those that went into "sky is falling" mode over the swine flu? I happened to be flipping around the dial and noted that our market's "everyone hide under the bed" station had declared Defcon One. I guess I'm supposed to run out to Home Depot and buy duct tape so I can seal myself into my home like the Seinfeld bubble boy.

Good news! Another of my clients got a job offer yesterday! And another is on an interview this week! Things may actually be moving again.

If you have a contact at a station and you're applying for a job, ask that person if you can mail the tape to them and have them walk it into the NDs office. Much more effective than having your tape be one out of hundreds.

Tired of not getting feedback on your tape? Try this old trick...include a self addressed stamped postcard with your tape and ask the ND for feedback. You might actually get some.

One look at the poll on the right side of this page made me just shake my head. Will you people please take time for lunch?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Editorial: It's time to pool national political coverage

This has bugged me since I was a kid. I wanted to watch Star Trek, but nooooo... the President had to pre-empt my favorite show. And to make matters even worse, he was on every other channel as well.

I have never, ever understood why every major network has to carry the same programming, even if it is important. Oh, I understand the thinking that each network wants its anchor and "experts" to provide analysis of what has just been said. But times have changed. This may be the only holdover from the golden days of television.

George W. Bush ticked off the networks when he would speak on Thursday nights, thereby blowing out an hour's worth of the most pricey commercials. And now Obama is getting flak from the networks since he's making a habit of regular prime time speeches. Since these are all commercial-free, every network carrying a speech loses millions. And every local station takes a major hit as well. The local avails for a hit show can bring in a small fortune.

And in this economy, it doesn't make sense to lose that revenue.

So here's my solution. It's time for the networks to cover Presidential speeches on a rotation basis. And before you network people start firing emails at me and saying, "This is important. We have to cover it," please listen to part two of my plan:

Each network will have a representative provide analysis for the pool feed.

So here's the deal. The President speaks, and the speech is carried on one network. Then we get a roundtable discussion with Brian Williams, Charlie Gibson, Katie Couric and Brit Hume. Trust me, that would be a heck of a lot more entertaining than what we have now. The stations that aren't running the speech run a crawl that the speech is available on the network carrying it.

The viewers who want to watch this can do so. Those who want entertainment, can find their regular shows on the networks not carrying the speech. Instead of every network and all its affiliates taking a financial hit, all but one avoid it. But since they're taking turns, they cut their annual losses by 75 percent, as do their affiliates. The important speeches and issues are still covered, and, since this is a free country, those who don't want to watch have other choices. It will save the networks and affiliates a ton of money.

Hey, they rotated the moderators for the Presidential debates and it worked out just fine. What's the difference here?

Trust me, this will work. The viewers won't complain, stations and networks will save money.

And maybe some jobs in the process.