Friday, May 15, 2009

"Embracing Reality" : A Photog's Theory of News

(This is from Drew Cook, a photographer at WAVE-TV in Louisville. There are some very interesting ideas here...)

My philosophy is ridiculously simple. We provide a service. We do not sell a product. Newsrooms have forgotten this. If we sold a product our goal would be the same as anyone's who sells something... make it as good as possible for as little as possible. You make a quality product, people will buy it, you make that same quality product inexpensively, you will make money.

Unfortunately we have only information to offer people and we do not charge them for it. Therefore there is very little perceived value related to news. We do not have the benefit of lowering our prices to increase sales. The only other option is to have the best service.

Think of it like gift giving: Your appreciation for any gift depends on two things; who's doing the giving (obviously a crayon drawing from your child means more than a tie from a coworker) and the need you have for the gift. So, a gift with little to no value might be a tie given by a complete stranger.

The only way to not be strangers handing out ties is consistently provide the highest quality, most useful service and do so in a familiar way.

Word of mouth is the best form of advertising. We know this because we try to do "water cooler"' stories. Every element of our shows should be talkable.

We must get away from categorizing stories as "hard," "feature," etc... to get those water cooler moments we must simply fill our shows with the best stories possible. Folks at home neither care nor know the difference between feature and hard news stories. They only know if something is interesting, informative or entertaining. If it is, they will talk about it.

I have yet to be in line at the grocery and overhear someone say, "I can't believe they lead with the armless badminton player... that was more of a kicker, I thought."

If we start and end strong we're more likely to get people talking. The "primacy and recency effect" teaches us we remember what we're exposed to first and last most easily. We want to be remembered.

I have a step by step guide I've created to help decide what gets covered, how and where to place it in a show if you're interested.

There’s a shortcut to this, it’s what I call "embracing reality."

Embracing reality does several things. First, it distills journalism: a rally is being held to protest, oh I dunno, those ridiculous form fitting plastic wrappers no one can ever open. The crew gets to the location and three people are there. In most newsrooms one of two things will happen - the crew calls back and says, "no one's here, this isn't a story." The producers either change it to a vosot or demand a pkg. anyway because that's what the crew was assigned.

Both are wrong. It is wrong to make this story a vosot because that will lead to the crew being assigned an alternative story of lesser value simply because it "CAN" be turned. But remember we initially sent them to pkg the rally because everyone previously agreed that was a more important story than option two. Either it's worth 90 seconds or it's not.

In the second scenario, most reporter/photographer teams would now get ticked off. "Why is this a story?!? There's only three people here!" There is ALWAYS a story. In this imaginary case I suspect it would be about passion and commitment. EVERYONE'S passionate about something. THAT becomes the story. The plastic wrappers are incidental. Maybe the people are a little off their collective rocker. THAT becomes the story. Find the "universal truth." Journalism is about documenting lives and events. Nothing more.

“B-roll" is dirty word (like "feature" and "hard news") I'd like to see it removed from our industry. Packages are called such for a reason. They are all inclusive. They are linear. There should be no distinction between video, sots and track. It is one unit.

This simplifies writing, focuses the story and eliminates the confusion caused by "wallpaper" video. Remember what Al T. says.. and he's right..."When the eye and the ear compete, the eye wins."

Knowing what to shoot and how to write become clear and honest.

Embracing reality also gives talent an outlet to become more accessible to viewers. Remember, we don't want to be strangers handing out unwanted ties. We want the same familiarity that comes with the gift given by the child. Talent must find their own voice, be themselves. Every news operation looks and feels basically the same, because the talent are "expected" to act and look a certain way.

Being the same provides no incentive for a viewer watch one station over another.

For example; when a prompter goes down, anchors attempt to muddle through scripts attempting to pretend it didn't. They look foolish and awkward, skipping and combining words as a result of trying to constantly look at the camera and their copy. Who wants to watch someone be that uncomfortable? 'Don't seem so trustworthy now that they appear to not have a clue what they're saying. Not to mention if a person were to stick around they'd be so distracted by the antics they'd never hear word one.

Embrace reality says, "Oh, hey folks, our prompter just went out. We're gonna have to read from this paper now."

Embracing reality reestablishes trust. Viewers do not trust the media. They need to.

Imagine that an anchor or reporter is late getting to the set... no last minute camera or script changes.... just roll with it. "Jane, 'you get your hair fixed the way you like it? 'took you long enough to get out here." "No, no. This whole day's been a bear... I hope you guys like this story 'cause we worked our tails off trying to get it together... I've been behind all day." People can relate to that. Full disclosure is important.

Think about this.... anchors toss to missing reporter. Director takes shot of missing reporter. Anchors joke and wonder the same things as the folks at home... "Where's Frank?" Why isn't he there? Will he ever show up?" Now the viewer at home has a built in reason to watch. John Larson calls it "quest." Take viewers on a journey of discovery. Obviously this applies to storytelling as well, not just AWOL talent.

Embracing reality applies to all aspects of producing shows. Obviously, these are just a few examples, but I've taught it and those that do it produce far better, more interesting, pure, entertaining and informative work.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mailbag: Those big meanies with the Y chromosomes


Simple question. Have you found that it's better to work for a male News Director or a female News Director?

Yeah, like I'm going to answer a no-win question like that. The point is moot, as I've never worked for a female ND. (Remember, I grew up when dinosaurs ruled the earth, and the only women in news operations were known as "weather girls.")

I have, however, worked alongside many women in various management roles. Just like the guys, some were good, some not.

If you're asking whether the "crazy, screaming whack-job News Director" gene is only dominant among the male of the species, I do not know.


I'm a weekend anchor looking for a job, and I'm very flexible. I'd be happy with another anchoring gig or a straight reporting job. So what do I do with my tape? What goes first... reporting or anchoring?

In your case you need two tapes. You can leave the montage alone, but on your anchoring tape the anchoring goes first, and on the reporting tape the reporting goes first. Then you send the appropriate tape to match the opening. If you're applying for another weekend anchor job, send the anchoring tape, as your abilities on the desk are more critical than those in the field.


I'm graduating in a few days and I know the market will be flooded. Is there any way for me to get an edge?

Road trip. Pack up a bunch of tapes and drive around to the markets you're targeting. Call ahead and say that "you'll be in the area" and ask to drop off a tape and say hello. You'll be amazed at how many interviews you can create for yourself.


What's the most ridiculous thing you've seen in a cover letter?

The reporter who wrote, "I look forward to meeting you at your conveyance."

I waited at my car all day, but she never showed up.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Among the Italians, the word means "code of silence."

When job hunting in this business, it is best that you adopt this code, lest your career get hit with a management torpedo. In other words, don't tell anyone, and I mean anyone, where you're sending tapes, who you've talked to, what markets you like, or where you might be going on your day off.

I have two good friends who had offers in major market stations. Neither was breaking a contract. The NDs doing the hiring loved them, had made offers, and were preparing contracts. They had both gone through fantastic interviews and were making plans to move. In both cases their current ND found out and the offers mysteriously disappeared. The NDs who were ready to hire them no longer returned their calls.

Both of these people were very competent, had a ton of talent, and didn't have any ego problems. They were well liked in the newsroom.

So what happened? What was said? Who knows? Maybe the ND told the guy making the offer a contract existed when it didn't. Maybe he said the person was difficult to deal with.

Doesn't matter. The job offer was torpedoed.

Oh yeah, this happened to me as well.

Maybe your ND doesn't want you to leave. Maybe he's just vindictive.

Doesn't matter.

If the ND doesn't know where you're going, he can't launch a torpedo.

That's why you all need the code of Omerta.

So, here are the rules when hunting for a job:

-Tell no one where you've sent tapes.

-Tell no one what markets you like.

-Tell no one what openings you've just spotted.

-Only make job related phone calls on your personal phone. (Don't put your station's phone number on your resume.)

-Do not send emails from a station computer. (While they cannot hack into your email, they can print out every word you've typed and figure out what you've sent.)

-Do not do job related research on a station computer. If you want to look at station websites, do it at home. A manager can easily call up your history.

-If you have an interview and you're an on-camera person, don't talk to anyone that you don't have to at the airport.

-Don't even imply that you're looking for work.

-If you have to fill out an application, make sure you check the appropriate box which prohibits the new employer from calling your current employer.

-If you get an offer and turn in your two week notice, you do not have to tell anyone where you're going. You can do that when you get there.

Does all this sound like paranoia? Well, as the old saying goes, you're not paranoid if they really are out to get you. And sometimes they are.

Lots of people have had good jobs torpedoed. Don't let yourself be one of them because you cannot keep a secret.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Your resume tape is in the can, so why should you care?

I don't get too many comments from people who are happy in their jobs these days. With increased workloads, pay cuts, and benefit losses, it is understandable that many employees don't feel any loyalty to the companies for whom they work.

But this is about being loyal to yourself.

In case you hadn't figured this out, you have to watch out for your own back in this business, because no one else is going to do it.

I've often heard, "My tape's in the can, so I can just cruise until I find another job." You're ticked off at the company, the ND is a blue meanie, and the stories on your tape are certainly good enough to get you out of the ninth circle of hell. So why not phone it in?

Two reasons. The ultimate story may be heading your way like a runaway train, and you never know who will be watching.

Some reporters can be defined for a lifetime by a single story. And what if today is the day the stars are aligning for you? Will you fail to grab that opportunity because you're ticked off at your boss? These opportunities are rare, so you have to be in the correct mindset to tackle them full force when they come your way. Your resume tape may be done, you may have fifty copies, but the national watercooler story may fall in your lap today and be on everyone's mind tomorrow. And be watched by every ND in America tonight.

The second reason has nothing to do with the ultimate story, it's about doing a solid job every single day. Today may be the day some big market ND is driving through your market, his car breaks down, and he's stuck in a hotel with nothing to do but check out the local product. If he sees you, will you make a good first impression, or will he see a reporter who is phoning it in? Will the solid story you do today make the feed, be grabbed by a producer in a big market, and capture the interest of the ND who is watching his own newscast? You'll never find out if you're on autopilot.

There used to be a service that would tape airchecks of every station in America. I remember this because I saw an aircheck of my station on one occasion... and it was taped on a day when I did a mediocre job at best. I remember being embarassed that some ND saw what was not close to my best work.

So never phone it in. No matter how bad your current situation, the only way you can make it better is by going the extra mile every single day. Do that, and the odds will be with you when the stars align and the right person is watching.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Definition of a memorable story

You guys are always asking me what sort of stories belong on resume tapes.

Watch this: