Friday, November 6, 2009

Mailbag: America's newsrooms freak out!


This is my first job and my first sweeps period. It's like someone flipped a switch and all the managers freaked out. Our ratings are decent but not great. So what's the deal?

Ah, nothing sends managers to the edge like those three months of November, February and May.

These days upper management and corporate pretty much have knee-jerk reactions to everything, so one bad book can send your ND packing right before the holidays. "Merry Christmas. Here's your pink slip."

The problem is that most beancounters don't give NDs enough time to turn things around. (They also don't understand the news business.) One bad book and they'll blow up the whole format and make drastic changes. And if that doesn't work they'll do it again next year. That's why you see so many stations with marginal ratings constantly changing their names, slogans, and people.

That doesn't help NDs, who are at the mercy of a ratings point here or there. So much of the twitchy attitude is justified.


I'm in college and saw that news challenge on Fox. What's your take on it?

Well, I posted that awhile ago. For those who missed it:

Basically it looks to be a great opportunity for some college kids to get a foot in the door by knocking out a solid package. There's scholarship money involved, but let's face it: if you win this contest you'll probably have a job waiting for you when you graduate.

Take a shot. You have nothing to lose.

Hey, Grapeman!

Just curious about newscar etiquette. Should a reporter offer to drive the car, or is it the domain of the photog?

Well, I used to offer to split the driving on long trips. Photogs will appreciate the offer even if many don't want you driving their car. (And for goodness sake, leave the radio alone!)

I've also driven live trucks, which is scary in itself.

Even if you don't drive, you can impress the photog by jumping out to pump the gas or buying coffee while he fills it up. Any break you can give these guys will greatly improve the quality of the video you receive. Plus, it's the decent thing to do.


Why are "sweeps" called "sweeps?"

Because if you have a bad book a GM will come by the newsroom with a very large broom.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Need a good sweeps story? Here's one almost no one is covering

I'm fortunate in that I know a few good mechanics. When I started seeing little stickers on gas pumps which read "contains 10 percent ethanol" earlier this year, I asked one his opinion. He didn't think it was good for older cars (since I have one) and isn't kind to plastic and rubber parts. And putting it in a lawn mower really isn't a good idea. Fine. I started cruising past stations with ethanol for ones that were ethanol-free.

Yesterday I was in Florida and zipped through seven gas stations, all selling gasoline with ethanol. Finally I saw one with a sign. "No ethanol!" I went inside and talked to the owner, who was doing big business selling ethanol-free gas.

When I got home I started reading articles about ethanol online, how it can affect your engine, how it will give you lower gas mileage. (Wonder how your station's newscar gasoline budget is doing with that factored in?)

While I understand we must reduce our dependence on foreign oil, this trend seems like it bears looking into.

And let's face it, it's a story that affects everyone in the country.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Articles for your library

I've written a number of articles for along with other industry veterans.

There's a lot of good information in all of these pieces, so you might want to bookmark this page and check 'em out.

Home for the holidays? Lay some groundwork

This time of year you may be preoccupied with sweeps, but many of you are looking forward to going home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Hanukkah. And if you're one of those people who dreams of working in his or her home town, there's a valuable job hunting opportunity you can tack on to your vacation.

While most stations don't do any hiring during the holidays, that doesn't mean they aren't on the lookout for talent. And the days after Thanksgiving until the new year offer the most relaxed atmosphere in a newsroom you'll ever find.

So, if you're heading home soon, now is the time to set up a station visit. Doesn't matter if the station has any openings, your object here is to let them know who you are and drop off a tape.

To start, get a list of the stations back home you'd like to work for. Then compose a letter. Let's say you're from Chicago. It might sound something like this:

Dear ND,

It's always been my dream to work in my hometown of Chicago. Right now I'm working in East Podunk, where I've been doing general assignment reporting and filling in on the anchor desk.

I'm coming home the week before Christmas to visit my parents and would like to bring you a tape and introduce myself.

I realize your time is very valuable, but is there a time I might drop by for a few minutes while I'm home?

Something like that is professional but casual. You're not hammering the ND for a job, just asking for five minutes to shake hands and say hello.

Managers are pretty relaxed this time of year, and more receptive to this kind of stuff than they are at other times.

So take a shot, as you have nothing to lose. You may not get hired, but if they like you they'll keep you in mind. And that's the whole point.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Thinking too much can get you in trouble

If you watch a lot of sports, you'll note that it always seems to be the easy, routine plays that cause the most trouble. That slow ground ball hit right at the shortstop goes right through his legs. The perfect pass that hits a wide open receiver dead in stride is dropped.

Athletes will tell you that they'd rather react to a play than think about it. That receiver waiting for the pass to come down has time to think. "I'm wide open and the whole stadium is watching me. Don't drop it."

And then he drops it.

Many times when you don't have to think, when you just react, you make the play.

I remember one time when I was doing morning weather. It was five minutes to air and the producer walked back to the weather center. "I need a huge favor," she said.

"Okay," I said.

She handed me the script for the one hour newscast. "Someone gave the anchor the day off and didn't schedule a replacement."

Now you have to understand I'm not a morning person. I'm not even in my body till noon, so filling in doing weather was always a chore. Now I was being asked to do both news and weather, with a script I'd never seen. (Meanwhile, I was pretty ticked that no one seemed to notice there wasn't an anchor in the building till five minutes till air.)

Not having a choice, I sat in the anchor chair with the script. The sports guy gave me a pat on the back and the red light came on. I read the prompter cold.

Next day a member of management told me I'd done a really nice job. "Really?" I said. Remember, I'm still asleep at that hour. But he was being sincere in his praise.

On that occasion I didn't have time to think and things went fine.

It seems that when you over think stuff, particularly on live shots, you run into trouble. Or you sound robotic. Or both.

When you're trying to be too perfect, you'll never get there. Oh, you may get through your script without a mistake, but when you look at the tape something will seem a little off.

So don't think too much. Relax as much as you can. Rehearse, but don't overdo it.

Eventually things will come naturally, and seem more routine. And when you're not thinking about it, that's when you'll nail that perfect live shot.