Friday, May 8, 2009

Why every newsroom needs a little Star Trek

Growing up in the 60's you couldn't help but be excited by the space program. So when Star Trek hit the air in 1966, I was hooked... first by the sci-fi concept, then by the characters. Often, in the back of my mind, I wondered if there was a real life career out there that offered the camaraderie and teamwork that seemed to come with serving on a starship. Wouldn't it be cool to work with people all working toward one goal?

Other than the military or a sports team, I couldn't think of anything. Until I got my first look at a newsroom in college. Then it hit me. A newsroom, a really good newsroom, is just like the bridge of the Enterprise.

Some of my newsrooms were like that. I've had a few News Directors like Captain Kirk, firm but fair. (We'll leave Kirk's skirt chasing tendencies out of this discussion.) Every good newsroom has a walking encyclopedia like Spock, a logical voice of reason. Maybe it's the Executive Producer, the Chief Photographer, or the Assignment Editor. Maybe it's the senior anchor or reporter. And every good newsroom has a team of people working toward a common goal.

Trust me, if you ever end up in a newsroom like this, it's like the best job in the world. You come to work energized. If the reporter at the next desk needs help, you pull out all the stops. You pull your own weight, focused on the goal of being part of a great product. You'd do anything for the ND, and he'd do everything to protect you.

Of course if you don't have a Captain Kirk running your newsroom, you may as well defect from the Federation and hook up with the Klingons.

Too many newsrooms these days have a "me first" mentality, and granted, much of that is due to the fact that employees are treated like dirt in some stations. Why should you kill yourself for someone who is mean to you? But you have to bury to factors that can make a newsroom dysfunctional and look at the big picture. Be part of the team, and eventually you'll find your way to a place that appreciates you, because you'll have that reputation.

For those of you who have never watched Star Trek, I encourage you to check out the movie opening today. Then imagine what your newsroom could be like with the same kind of team spirit.

One of Spock's most famous lines is, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one."

Think about that for a moment, and maybe you'll understand the basic concept of a great newsroom.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

I know you're broke, but...

I recently talked to someone who had worked in the business for more than 30 years and was recently laid off. Since he was close to retirement anyway, I figured it would be an excuse for him to hit the beach and golf course early. I was shocked when he told me he needed to find another job, as he hadn't saved anything at all for retirement.

My dad drummed the importance of saving into me, and I still clip coupons to this day. I always took advantage of company 401k matches, or opened my own IRA at stations that didn't have a match. Sometimes I put away a lot, sometimes just a little.

I know most of you are making peanuts, but when you're young it's even more important to put something away for the future, even if that future seems light years away. The power of compounding over time can be amazing, and since most of you are 30-40 years from retirement, even a small amount squirreled away today can grow to a sizable amount over the years. I don't care how broke you are, you have to find even one percent to stash away.

About fifteen years ago I'd explained the 401k system to a rookie reporter and recently got a thank you note from her telling me she had a nice retirement next egg. And she's a long way from retirement.

Putting money away for retirement is also a tax deduction, so if you're not taking advantage, you're missing one of the few bones the government will throw you.

Save now. Don't end up like the person who has worked thirty years and has nothing to show for it.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Photog's Lounge: A shooter's point of view

Today we turn the soap box over to Drew Cook, a photographer at WAVE-TV in Louisville, Kentucky. Drew has a half dozen Emmys in his pocket and a bunch of NPPA awards as well. (NPPA, in case you don't know, is best described as a terrific finishing school for shooters.)

Anyway, Drew has some thoughts from the other side of the camera... along with some comments from one of his favorite reporters....

I love watching resume tapes. I love making fun of the bad ones and learning from the great ones.

Five years ago my News Director handed me a box of tapes to check out. He knew I liked watching them as much as he hated it. "Find me four or five reporter candidates... no one with an agent."

I left work, bought a bottle of my favorite bourbon (Jim Beam Black if you're interested), ordered a pizza and readied myself for what, for me, is an evening of sensations most folks only feel around Christmas, birthings and prom.

The first tape stunk, as did the second. The third was a tiny little Asian guy that showed a lot of promise, but the kid was right out of school. I work in Louisville, Ky. - market 48, we're not NYC, but we don't hire rookies... next. The fourth tape stunk... gotta pee... fifth was awful, six, seven, AAAAAGGGHHH!

I believe it was the eighth or ninth tape that finally made me smile... this guy was pretty good. One of those rare combinations of talent and competence ('seems to me you typically only get one or the other, though more often than not, neither).

Okay, that's one. Or so I thought... as I placed the tape in the spot I'd cleared for what would eventually become my "yes" pile, I saw the all too familiar blue and white logo of a prominent talent agency. "No agents," the ND had said. Damn it!

It didn't matter. This was the only good tape. I began my "yes" pile.

One hour, three pees and countless belches later I had two tapes in that stack, both with blue and white logos.

Was it possible that out of 20 something tapes there were really only two viable candidates? I eventually decided to take in the best two (despite having agents) and the tiny little Asian who showed promise.

The next day I handed the ND my picks. He threw the logos in trash and the little guy in the deck.

Two weeks later Jeff Tang, me and the rest of the WAVE 3 shooters were having burgers and beers to celebrate our new hire's first day.

Jeff was inexperienced, but bright and ambitious. Not ambitious in the annoying Katie Couric way, but more like a squirrel frantically gathering nuts ("nuts" is a metaphor representing knowledge).

Jeff would gather nuts from wherever and whomever he could, periodically removing his nuts to nibble on them, then cautiously and carefully store them safely away for use another day.

As it turned out, one of Jeff's favorite sources for nut acquisition was the photography staff.

Now, ya gotta understand, this guy didn't know anything!

But, the one thing he did know... was that he didn't know anything.

Now, at age 26, Jeff as moved on. He's in a bigger market (Nashville) at a good station (WTVF). He has eight Emmy nominations (three wins) and was last year's AP Reporter of the Year. He still gathers photographer's nuts.

I asked Jeff if he felt he'd learned any lessons that other young reporters could benefit from. Here are Jeff's own nuts (I'm particularly partial to the last one)...

-It's a 50/50 deal. YOU ARE NOT MORE IMPORTANT THAN YOUR PHOTOGRAPHER. Treat him/her as an equal in news gathering and the creative process. Why not use two brains in the field instead of one brain and a guy who points the camera around? Also, your photographer is probably smarter and definitely more experienced than you, so take advantage of it.

-Each photographer is different. Each is motivated in a different way. Find what works for each photographer. Some might respond to encouragement, others need only to feel like they're real a contributor to the story, not just a camera jockey. Be flexible.

-Get to know your photographer! Talk to them about their kids, their interests. If they like spending time with you, they'll work better with you.

-You can't bring it hardcore every day. Some folks in this biz aren't programmed for it anymore. As Drew Cook once said, "some days you just give 100%." Get the facts right. Tell all sides. Make slot. Have lunch with your photog, talk to him about his weekend. Go home peaceful.

-I know you just graduated from a good college. I know you think you're a pretty big deal. But if you get your head out of your behind, you'll find that you'll learn more from your photographers than any snooty college professor.

-CARRY THE DAMN STICKS. Your arms work. Your legs work. Don't be a prima donna.

Also, Drew Cook is a mentor and hero. Listen to him.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Jack Kemp

Sad to see Jack Kemp passed away, and you can't say that about too many politicians.

Back in the 80's I was assigned to interview Kemp, and to be honest I knew more about him as a football player than as a politician. I didn't feel anything about him one way or another, as I've always tried to remain open minded about any politician.

While interviewing him I noticed that his answers were anything but canned; he was actually talking, not reciting. And he had thoughtful answers to my followups. We chatted for about five minutes, then for my last question, I asked him about football and who he liked for the next Super Bowl.

Jack Kemp turned into a regular guy, going on about the game like a neighbor who had come over for a beer. On the way back to the station, we talked about the fact that Kemp didn't seem like an average politician.

In 1988 we were convinced George Bush was going to choose Kemp as his running mate, and brought b-roll with us to the Republican National Convention in New Orleans. Then of course, Bush picked Dan Quayle and sent us all scrambling.

I remember only a few other instances when I got to see politicians without their game faces. In 1980 John Anderson was running for President, and we were all waiting for him in a meeting hall. I was leaning up against a table while some technical people were having problems with the microphone. Anderson walked in, was told it would be awhile before he could speak, grabbed a drink and headed in my direction. He leaned against the table right next to me and said, "Hey, how you doing?" I was new to the news business so I was blown away that a Presidential candidate wanted to talk to me. We chatted about all sort of things, none of them political, while Secret Service men stood by.

Flash forward to today when every politician has a staff of spin control people who create stock answers that can be regurgitated like a download from a computer. I often wonder what would happen if a politician just ran a campaign by winging it, just saying what he or she thought, and letting the voters see the real person behind the candidate.