Friday, November 13, 2009

November, 1963: The best examples of nat sound carrying a story

I've been reading Joe McGinniss' terrific book on Teddy Kennedy (The Last Brother) and it brought back memories of JFK's assassination. Those few days are widely regarded as the turning point for television news; when America turned on the TV for big news instead of the radio.

So lately I've been watching some of the vintage coverage of those days online, and it's amazing how much television news has changed. The most obvious difference is that these days anchors just don't know when to shut up and let the pictures and the sound carry the story.

Talk to anyone who lived through that period and ask about JFK's funeral. Ask what sound comes to mind.

It's the unmistakable rat-a-tat of the drums during the funeral procession. I can hear it like it was yesterday, like a song stuck in your head for a lifetime.

And it was nice that the anchors of that day knew enough to say very little, because they didn't have to. They were as quiet as America's living rooms. That was the definition of viewers being riveted, not something regarding a silly hoax involving a balloon.

Riveted, and no one on an anchor desk had to say a word.

I encourage those of you not old enough to have lived through this to spend some time watching the coverage of those four days in November, 1963. It's all easily accessible online. Pay attention to the lack of sensationalism, to the way the pictures and sound were more powerful than anything an anchor could say.

There are three parts to every story: words, pictures and sound. Many times the latter two are enough.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sometimes the biggest story you've covered is way too common for your resume tape

I noticed it right after Hurricane Katrina. Resume tapes started leading off with Katrina packages, even from faraway places that didn't get a drop of rain. Most focused on relocated victims. Each package had a tearful story of a lost home and file tape of the storm for B-roll.

As far as resume tapes go, those stories were a big yawn.

Why? Sure, Katrina was a huge story. But if everyone is doing the same thing, what's the big deal? Most of those out of market Katrina stories took absolutely no reporting skills. Setting up an interview and using network file tape is not exactly challenging. If everyone's got the same b-roll and the same story, I'm gonna hit the eject button.

After a while, stuff like that becomes "video wallpaper" which means you just don't see it anymore.

So think about the first story on your tape when you're putting your resume together. It may be important, it may have been a lead story... but are other people going to have the same thing? Your lead story may have been huge in Podunk, but unless it has some truly unique element to it, a News Director will pass.

It's the days when nothing is happening and you turn a huge story that will get you noticed.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Thank a vet today

Many of you will be doing Veterans Day stories today. No, it's not just a holiday or an opportunity to score a bargain at the mall. It's a day to honor those who served and still serve our country.

And if you don't know the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day, well, as my dad would say, "Look it up."

It is absolutely appropriate as a news person to thank a Veteran at any time, but especially today. "Thank you for your service" is always a nice gesture.

If your station let's you wear flag pins, fine. If not, you can always sneak some red white and blue clothing into your outfit.

Just don't miss the real meaning of the day.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The great sweeps promo decoder

Someone always throws a switch in the promotions department when sweeps begin... and that trickles down to producers who have to write teases and updates for riveting stories like "How escalators can kill you" or "Shopping cart handles... lingering death awaits in the supermarket."

Anyway, in case you didn't know, here are the actual meanings behind sweeps promotional terms.

"In a story you'll see ONLY on this station..." actually means, "It's a story no one else wanted to cover."

"We have MAJOR breaking news tonight..." actually means, "We have breaking news, but add an extra adjective for sweeps."

"In an EXCLUSIVE interview..." actually means, "No one else wanted to talk to this joker."

"We interrupt this program for a weather alert from the Super-Dooper Doppler Center..." actually means, "There's a cumulus cloud in the viewing area."

"Eye-Missedit News has learned..." actually means, "We read the paper this morning and wanted to pass this on."

"We have special team coverage..." actually means, "We could only think of two good packages for today, so we split one in half."

"It's a parent's worst nightmare..." actually means, "The economy is so bad you can't afford hundred dollar sneakers for the little munchkins."

"We should warn you that what you're about so see is disturbing..." actually means, "We searched YouTube all day to find some bizarre video to promote."

"New tonight..." actually means, "Here's a story we couldn't fit into the six o'clock show."

"It's a story we've been following all day..." actually means, "The story moved on the wire at 9 this morning, and we wrote it at four o'clock."

"My co-anchor Joe Goodhair is on assignment..." actually means, "Joe Goodhair called in sick during sweeps and the ND doesn't want the GM to know it."

Monday, November 9, 2009

Baa, baa, baa. You don't have to be a Yale alum to bleat like a sheep

Sometimes I think news departments would be a lot better off if they didn't monitor other news organization.

You know the managers. Call them sheep, or lemmings. They don't act, they react. They wait for some other station to go wall to wall with some story (See: Boy, Balloon) and then they drop what they're doing and blow out the rest of the newscast.

Just because someone else thinks it's a story.

On the other side of the coin are the politically biased managers, who basically think, "If they're covering it, I'm not."

And now, with Hurricane Ida, it's a contest to one-up the other guys with coverage of the long awaited storm that has had Gulf Coast weather people treating it like the last available date for the Senior Prom.

I realize that most of you who read this aren't managers. (Well, the ones who send me comments aren't anyway.) But if you're a reporter who regularly looks to other news organizations for your story ideas, you might as well put a bell around your neck and join the rest of the flock.

And eventually, you'll get shorn just like the other sheep.

If you want to stray from the flock, you'll stand out.

Strive to be different. I've worked with a lot of great enterprising reporters who always had a knack for finding stories no one else had. I went to a party once and heard someone say, "I like that reporter. She always has interesting stories."

That should be you.

And if it is you, you'll get noticed when you look for a job.

Otherwise, you're nuttin' but mutton.