Friday, August 14, 2009

Mailbag: Why don't News Directors return calls?


I've been looking for a job for awhile and I've noted that when I leave messages for News Directors they never call back. I make it a point not to call when the ad says "No phone calls" but it seems that phrase applies to all jobs. What's the deal?

The deal is that there is simply not enough time. Trust me, people who don't return calls is one of my pet peeves, but in this case you have to let the ND get a pass. Imagine if everyone who applied for a job wanted to talk to you. Do you have time to make 200 phone calls and still do your job?

The other problem is that you can't really answer the person's question. Every caller wants feedback on a tape, and if it's not on the short list, you're not gonna remember it.

Once again... send the tape and fuhgeddaboudit.


Are people still sending VHS tapes?

Yes, though more and more people are using DVDs. The problem with DVDs, and I seem to run into this at least once per week, is that sometimes they simply won't play. The old trusty VHS is usually fine unless the post office has done its baggage handler routine on it.


I seem to have a problem when interviewing politicians. They tend to "hijack" my interview and take it in a different direction instead of answering my original question. Any suggestions?

If you ask a question of a politician and he or she tap dances around it without answering it, ask it again. And again. And again until you get an answer. And if you don't, edit all of your attempts together and show the public that the politician refused to answer.


I've often heard you should send a thank you note after an interview. What exactly do you say?

Well, handwritten is always nice and "old school." Something like this...

Dear ND,

Thank you for your hospitality during my recent visit to your station. I enjoyed meeting you and the staff and am excited about the opportunities there.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Deconstructing a package

I often hear young people say their goal is to work for a network. Very soon I'll tell you about what these people do during an average day (and if you think it's a cushy, dream job, you'll be in for a rude awakening.)

But anyway, it is generally regarded that people who have made it to the network know what they're doing, and they're very good at it. That said, there are people working in local TV who are just as good as those on the network.

So what's the secret handshake to knocking out a network-quality package? Well, the best way to do this is to deconstruct a package so that you can analyze exactly what makes it so good.

To do this, you must first find a package that really stands out. So roll your tapes or VCRs on networks that you like until you find a package that just blows you away.

Now, get a legal pad, play it back, and transcribe the entire thing into a normal script.

More than likely, you'll be surprised to see how much it looks like the packages you do every day. But if you look closely, you'll no doubt see elements that you often forget or simply don't consider.

-Natural sound: Great pieces always have great nat sound breaks. How many does this package have, and does the reporter write into or out of them?

-Standup: Is the reporter just standing there holding a microphone, or is he actually doing something. Does the standup help the story shift gears or make a transition?

-Sound Bites: Are they typical, or do they really add something special to the story? Do they create a mood, set a tone? Are they the usual sound bites you expect to hear, or has the reporter asked an out of the box question?

-Graphics: Do graphics support the story, and add an element you hadn't considered? Remember, show and tell.

-Music: You won't find this on many stories, but it's another element to consider for some pieces.

-Writing: The big "X" factor. Did the reporter obviously watch his video and sound bites before writing the script? Did he write to the video, write to the bites and nat sound? And remember, a package begins with a solid intro, so don't forget that as well.

Now get a script from a package you've done recently and deconstruct it. Did you take advantage of all available elements? How does your writing compare with the network piece? And did you do a standup for the sake of doing a standup, or did it add to the story?

Do this a few times with network packs and you'll begin to see a formula. You may never get to the network, but there's nothing that says you can't knock out network quality stuff.

Monday, August 10, 2009

When setting up interviews, avoid the obvious

One of the things that turned television news around in the 1960's was the concept of "personalizing" the story by talking to the "average Joe." (Shameless promotion: you can read about it in our book. Operators are standing by.)

Still, one of the most common tactics among many reporters is relying on "official" sound bites. Why? Well, it's easy.

So you have to train yourself to think like an average Joe if you're going to find one for your story.

So, let's play with some scenarios and give you some out of the box ideas on ways to approach stories.

Story #1: Property taxes will be raised in your community next year. It will cost the average homeowner 500 dollars more annually. Should you:
a: Interview the Mayor and members of the City Council
b: Do a man-in-the-street package and solicit opinions
c: Avoid interviews with politicians and find an average homeowner, showing how a family will deal with increased taxes

Story #2: School bus service is cancelled to a remote area due to budget cuts. Should you:
a: Interview the Superintendent and budget officials
b: Go door to door, talking with people who live in the affected area
c: Find a carpool organized by parents and ride along

Story #3: Unemployment benefits can now be applied for online. Problem is, many people out of work don't have a computer and/or internet access. Should you:
a: Talk to unemployment official
b: Talk to people at the unemployment office
c: Follow someone who heads to the public library to use one of its computers.

See the trend here? If you're still doing "a" most of the time, you're doing the obvious, and not really "showing" what the story is about and who it is affecting. You're "telling" instead of showing. Remember, TV is all show and tell, emphasis on the show.

So when you get an assignment, simply do two things. Figure out who the story directly affects. Put yourself in that person's shoes.

Then all you have to do is find one of those people and show how the story is affecting that person.

This often takes thought and legwork, but trust me, your stories will be a lot better.

When teasing, don't give away the store

One of the principals of the tease is to keep viewers sticking around, to simply give them a taste of what's coming up later in the newscast. If you give away the entire story, there's no reason for anyone to stick around.

But with the growth of the internet, we now have a new problem. How much do you "give away" on the net before your newscast?

Years ago, when crews used two-way radios to communicate, we'd have our scanner tuned into the frequency used by the competing stations, and they did the same. Every once in awhile someone would slip up and give away a story, and if you had time you could jump on it.

The same is true when using the internet. Stations routinely monitor the competition, and if you give away too much, two bad things will happen; you'll lose your story to the competition, and viewers won't have any reason to tune in for your newscast. If it's breaking news that everyone has, you can give away a little more, but if you're working an exclusive, it's dangerous to even hint at what you're doing. Many stations do not post anything on the net until a story has aired.

While people have come to expect everything on the internet, the net still aint paying the bills. You still have to drive people to the television sets, because your newscast is still your bread and butter.

The principles of a good tease apply to the internet. Whet the viewer's appetite for more without giving away what you're doing to the competition.