Saturday, July 25, 2009

Can't find a story this weekend?

Many moons ago, when reporters actually had time to put together quality stories, Monday thru Friday types were asked to leave "hold packages" for the weekend. So when the weekend anchor came in, he or she didn't have a newscast filled with weekend festival fluff. There would be a half dozen local hard news packages from which to choose.

While "hold packages" have become a thing of the past, there's no reason that a weekend reporter can't knock out a great news story that isn't a bunch of fluff.

How? Simple. You just have to plan ahead.

Let's say you're the Wednesday thru Sunday reporter. On Wednesday take a look in the weekend files.

Suppose you find what looks like a Saturday feature. A bunch of people are holding a fundraiser to help a school system buy supplies, since the budget is tapped out. Sounds like a nice vo/sot, right? Yeah, too bad school isn't in session on a Saturday, or you could get some b-roll. But if you plan ahead, you can visit a school on a weekday. Get some video of teachers using scrap paper to print stuff. Show some students using books that might be out of date. Visit the school library that only has a couple of ancient computers.

Now all of a sudden you have a nice hard news story.

I've worked plenty of weekends, and nothing is worse that coming in and desperately looking for a story, especially on a Sunday. So it is imperative that you plan ahead. It not only makes your life easier, but makes your station's product look better.

So take a look in this weekend's file and figure out which items could have been turned into solid packages with a little advance planning.

Sarah Palin, friend of the American photog

While on vacation (a cruise) I happened to run into the ship's photog in one port and struck up a conversation with him. (Cruise ships all have video departments, as they shoot video in port and on the ship and then sell DVDs at the end of the cruise.) He was from the UK and mentioned that he was allowed to shoot anywhere except Alaska. When I asked him why, he told me that it was because of Sarah Palin. Apparently she made the visa requirements so strict for foreign photogs that cruise lines have to use American shooters for Alaska cruises. Palin, you may remember, worked in local news years ago.

So you American shooters have a friend in Sarah Palin. Who knew?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Your career biologial clock

When you hear the term "biological clock" you usually think of women and child-bearing, but make no mistake, your career in television has its own biological clock. The damn thing ticks loud in the early part of your career, sounds like Big Ben as you reach landmark birthdays.

Time is the fire in which we burn, and in television news, we live in a blast furnace.

Thing is, the clock can make your life miserable, and cause you to miss some really good moments in your life.

When we get out of college, we set goals, and we always seem to attach them to birthdays. "By 25 I want to be in this market. By thirty I want to be at the network."

Sound familiar?

Well, the TV biological clock also comes with a snooze button. So when you hit 25 and you're still stuck in Podunk, you can hit the button and slide your goals back another year.

And another. And another.

Then you see some beauty queen start out at a major market and the clock sounds like a Chinese gong in your head.

Hit the snooze button often enough and one day you'll wake up, find a birthday cake with forty candles, and throw the clock against the wall. And if the clock has ruled your life, you'll wonder where the time went and what you've been doing since the thing started ticking.

What you've more than likely been doing is missing the best parts of your life.

Sure, the business is in a sorry state now, but would you rather have a real job, working nine to five, clock watching as the day drags on? While few other careers can be as frustrating, few offer the special moments that television news does. The great stories, those moments in the newsroom when everyone is part of a family, the relationships you have with photogs (for those of you lucky enough to work with them.)

So pull the plug on the TV biological clock. Yank the thing out of the wall and smash it to bits.

Success has its own timetable. For some people it's right out of the gate, for others it takes time.

If you like what you're doing, you've already attained a degree of success, because most people in this world hate their jobs. Remember, it's not what someone else has attained. What they do has nothing to do with you.

If you're happy, you don't need the clock.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Old school homework

It's been kind of interesting this past week, seeing vintage television clips on the various networks. Between Walter Cronkite's passing and the fortieth anniversary of the moon landing, black and white has been creeping into our newscasts.

Then I realized that all this stuff is easily accessible online, and represents a treasure trove for you guys who have never seen this stuff.

Watching Cronkite for several minutes as he broadcast the news of JFK's assassination was quite impressive, as he continued to say "unconfirmed" until he was absolutely sure the President was dead. Compare that to many of today's newscasts, in which being first rather than right is often the guideline.

You might check out ABC's Frank Reynolds broadcast when Reagan was shot, as he gets a bit huffy with the staff while on the air, demanding that they get the story right.

There's a video history book online at your disposal, from Edward R. Murrow to Mike Wallace to Harry Reasoner. It would do you all a lot of good to spend a day watching this stuff. Too often we are directed to news bloopers online, but there are plenty of examples of classic reporting for you to see.

The other day Mitch Albom had a great commentary about Cronkite, about how the news business is no longer about the story, but who is bringing you the story. To the viewer, content is still king, and it's worth keeping that in mind. While many of the clips you watch will seem very dated, pay attention to the content, to the story structure, and to the way the anchors conduct themselves. In many cases, class seems to have gone out the window in many of today's newscasts.

So, for your homework assignment, watch some old school anchoring and reporting. You might pick up a trick or two.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Ratings don't often translate to quality

Someone recently asked me how to find the ratings of a station when applying for a job. The thinking here is that if a station is number one in the market, it must be the best place to work and have the best news product.

Uh, no.

Ratings are perhaps the most deceiving statistic of any station. In some cases, the station that has been on the air the longest is number one because it is the first station people watched in TV's early days. In some markets one network is dominant and it trickles down to the local station. Stations in hyphenated markets (in which stations can be in different towns many miles apart) can often divide the audience geographically, especially if the market extends across two states. And in some cases, the audience just likes trash. (All you have to do is look at reality TV to support that statement.)

I worked for one last place station where I had a ball. Everyone cared, everyone hustled, everyone laughed and cried together. (Some of us would actually meet on Saturday morning in the newsroom to watch the episode of Dallas that the anchor had taped the night before, since no one could afford a VCR in those days.) The ND taught me a lot of good stuff. We did some great stories, but never managed to get those ratings to move. The audience was too set in its ways.

On the other side of the coin. I worked for a number one station which featured reporters that phoned it in, photogs that wouldn't use tripods (I'd never seen that anywhere else) and a newsroom atmosphere that resembled a library. We could have run color bars and still been number one.

When looking for a job, forget ratings, as they mean nothing when it comes to your career. Your only concerns should be the following:

-Will this station offer me the opportunity to develop my talents?

-Does this station offer a supportive atmosphere, one in which people help one another?

-Do the veterans or the ND at this station mentor the young people?

-Does the company treat people well?

-Does the newsroom have positive management? (In other words, does the ND motivate people without using fear and intimidation tactics?)

-Does the current product look good? Is the newscast filled with quality stories, or just a parade of scanner items?

Ratings? Who cares. Find a station that will be good for you and your career, one that will appreciate your contributions, and the ratings won't mean a thing.