Saturday, September 5, 2009

Need a journalism role model? Read this.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Need a new point of view? Try sitting in a wheelchair

Twenty years ago I was working as a television reporter and did an inspirational story about a disabled Vietnam Veteran. This war hero was paralyzed from the waist down, yet incredibly had achieved a black belt in Tae Kwon Do using only the upper half of his body. The story was beautifully shot by the photographer. He framed up several shots of the man from the waist up, keeping the wheelchair out of the shot so the viewer couldn't possibly know that the man had no use of his legs. Then, about thirty seconds into the piece, we cut to a wide shot of the vet in the chair, revealing the fact that he was paralyzed as he broke a board from a sitting position. I thought the effect of the camera work and editing was powerful, and went home feeling we had lifted some spirits.

But in writing the story I had used the phrase, "He is confined to a wheelchair."

The next day I heard from a viewer who told me, "Paralyzed people are not confined to wheelchairs. We're liberated by them."

I never quite understood that comment.

Until I landed in a wheelchair myself for twelve days.

Knee surgery dictated I would have to stay off my feet for a while. Since I couldn't seem to master the balance of crutches, I dragged my mother's wheelchair out of the basement. During the days before the procedure I was dreading the days of confinement to either my bed or the chair. I also knew that laying around reading, writing or watching TV would no doubt add a few pounds to the reading on the bathroom scale.

The day after my surgery I was already feeling the cabin fever of the bedroom. So my other half helped me hop into the chair and I ventured out, banging into walls and furniture along the way.

At first it was hard getting around the house. I discovered that navigating a wheelchair on carpet is a lot harder than on tile or wood. I could get between the kitchen counter and the refrigerator, but since the fridge door opened the wrong way I couldn't get anything inside. (Thank goodness for the invention of ice and water through the door.) I was thrilled to find that whoever had built our home had installed wide doors, so I could go anywhere except down the stairs to the basement.

Then, after about two days, something else happened. I discovered I wanted to do everything for myself. Sure, I cheated, hopping around on my good leg to get stuff out of the fridge and from high shelves. Besides, it was good exercise. I mastered 360-degree turns and stopped banging into things. The chair was making normal, everyday life possible. I had been liberated. I discovered muscles in my arms I hadn't used in years, and even lost weight.

After a week my journalistic curiosity got the best of me and I decided to try a "point of view" experiment. I wanted to find out what I could and could not do without cheating while staying seated in the chair. I learned that you can cook from a wheelchair in a frying pan, but a tall pot made seeing inside impossible. You can load a top loading washing machine but can't reach inside to unload it. And when a fluorescent light blew out in the kitchen, I had absolutely no clue as to how someone would replace it from a chair.

In the days after I was done with the wheelchair, other obstacles that had become visual wallpaper to me suddenly became crystal clear. How does someone in a wheelchair get something from a top shelf in a supermarket? Why do so many stores have handicapped parking but narrow aisles that make it impossible for anyone in a wheelchair to shop? Why are the tables in some restaurants so close together? Sidewalks without ramps made no sense.

I realized the term "handicapped accessible" falls a little short. Actually, a lot short. What we need in this country is "handicapped friendly." This concept won't be found in the Americans with Disabilities Act, but it doesn't need to be there. It's just common courtesy, that, I'm sorry to say, those of us who can walk don't think about.

Do supermarkets really need three rows of corn flakes on the top shelf? Why not stack things vertically, with one row on the bottom, middle and top shelf? They already put candy on low shelves for children; why not take care of those in wheelchairs with limited reach?

Why doesn't all new construction of both homes and businesses require doors made wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs?

Can't every place of business just buy a yardstick and make sure people in wheelchairs can get around?

And would it kill some cities to get a jackhammer and some cement to fix every sidewalk?

Little stuff, sure, but it could make life so much easier for so many.

I'm walking again, but I now know that if I ever end up in a wheelchair, I can still do a lot.

Funny, how surgery on my knee really opened my eyes.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Principal's office

The News Director wanders over to your desk, wearing a stern look. "Can I see you in my office?"

Your heart jumps into overdrive as you follow your boss into the office. The newsroom goes quiet. You're told to take a seat. The ND closes the door and closes the venetian blinds, a semaphore code to the rest of the newsroom that you're about to be chewed out. Your mouth goes dry and you break out in a cold sweat as the executioner takes his seat behind the desk.

And just like that you're back in the third grade, sitting in the Principal's office for chewing gum in class.

Sound familiar? Some of you probably broke out in hives just reading that.

I once went to a management seminar and we spent a good deal of time discussing office meetings. Specifically, we wanted to get across to the newsroom staff that just because the door is closed, it doesn't mean anything bad is going on. Lots of people offered lots of suggestions.

I tried them all. None of them worked. You close the door, and an employee gets a white knuckled grip on the chair, awaiting a shot to the heart.

Or someone wanders into your office to simply discuss something private, closes the door, and the rest of the newsroom assumes management is unhappy about something.

Finally, I bought a coffee pot and put it in my office. I brewed a pot every afternoon, and various people would wander in for a cup, many just sitting down for a quick chat about stuff other than news. A few started buying flavored coffees, so we had our own little Starbucks. After a while, people would start coming back from the field and asking me, "Uh... you gonna make some coffee?"

That broke down some barriers, but there is still always an element of mistrust, an "us versus them" mentality that pervades newsrooms. Funny how we're supposed to be a news team and often have better relationships with the competing crews in the field than with our own co-workers.

It all goes back to a statement I hear from just about every client. "The only time I get any feedback, it's bad. If I don't hear anything, I assume I'm doing OK."

And that makes people actually afraid to go into the ND's office.

A while back I had a spunky intern. On her first day she poked her head into my office, looking terrified as she introduced herself. "Uh, I hope I'm not bothering you. But could you assign me something to do?"

In that case, she took the first step, and dropped by just about every day.

Since I don't expect managers to go out and buy coffee pots, maybe it's time for the rank and file to take the initiative like my old intern. Perhaps wandering into the ND's office (assuming he or she is not a confirmed cylon) just to chat might help break down the barriers between management and employees. Trust me, News Directors who have worked their way up into management miss the social interaction of a great newsroom. Having someone drop by to talk baseball, or to discuss the latest episode of Star Trek, or to show off an engagement ring always made my day. Because in those moments we were just people, not managers or employees.

You guys want feedback? Looks like you'll have to take the first step. Perhaps turning the ND's office into a classroom instead of a punishment chamber might turn things around a bit.

Monday, August 31, 2009

So you wanna be a network reporter....

Every time I get a new client, I always ask the "What do you want to be when you grow up?" question. Invariably, the answer is, "I want to work in a major market, or for a network."

Ah, the network. The glamour, the exposure, the fame, the money. The brass ring.

Surely the people who do this for a living have it easy, right?

Ah, grasshopper, be careful what you wish for. Because if you want to work for a network, you'd better get your track shoes on.

Having been a field producer for two networks for the last four years, I've had a chance to work with several network reporters. I, like many people, figured these people basically showed up and did a standup while everyone else did the work.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Because there are several factors involved in network reporting that take stress and stamina to a whole different level.

It all starts with the assignment. Network reporters are just like you, as they get their stories from the desk. But unlike you, they usually head to the airport instead of a news car. (And if you've traveled by air since 9/11, you know the charm went out of air travel long ago.)

So now they're working the phones, talking to people like me who are already at the location (or on the way) and trying to figure out what's going on while sitting in an airport terminal. (And if they're not in an airport, they're in a car driving several hours.)

I remember one case in which the reporter landed at the location at 4 in the afternoon. The photog and I had logged the bites and video, and the reporter had to get to the sat truck, assess the situation, and absorb all the info being thrown at him by the crew already on the scene. The guy knocked out a great package and did a live shot for the evening news. Done? Not hardly. His day was just starting, as he had to do stuff for the West Coast, overnight, the feed, etc. So now he's out doing legwork with the rest of us. In that case, it was pouring rain, so he got soaked.

And oh yeah, he has to be back on the scene, all dressed up, at four in the morning for another live shot. Sleep? Maybe four hours after a thirty minute drive to the only hotel with available rooms.

In that case the guy wrapped up his day about nine that morning. We all went to breakfast, then he headed to the airport, off to his next assignment. At least I got to drive home and go to sleep.

On other occasions I've worked with reporters who went door to door in 100 degree heat, carried the gear like any other reporter, made a food run for the crew, pulled cables for the truck, and slept in a rental car. Reporting in itself can wear you down at times, but when you throw the daily travel factor into it, it takes fatigue to a whole new level. An assignment in a location for more than one day is welcome, as it takes the travel out of the equation.

Oh, they're on an expense account, but it's rare when the crew can actually sit down in a decent restaurant. Instead of lobster by candlelight it's often fast food by the glow of a sat truck monitor.

What's amazing to me is that these people haven't turned into monsters. They are the most professional, nice people you'll meet. I'll never forget driving home and having a household name call me and thank me for my help.

So, still wanna work for the network? Well, get your frequent flier numbers ready, sign up with every rental car company, become a member in all the hotel programs, and buy some durable luggage. Pack your bag and have it sitting by your desk. Then bury your ego and get ready to work harder than ever.