Friday, December 4, 2009

When shooting interviews, mix things up

I saw an obvious one man band package the other day (you can always tell when the interview subject looks directly into the camera) on a local station and all the interviews were done in the exact same spot. When edited together, it looked awkward.

This is TV 101, something I learned on my first day on the job from a photog. We had to get some man in the street comments and were camped out at the post office. After I did my first interview, the photog moved his tripod a bit and pointed his camera in another direction. Then he told me to get on the other side of his camera. "You want to mix up your shots, and have people looking in different directions." When I edited the piece, I noticed how nicely if flowed with different looks and different backgrounds.

I realize some of you who have been handed a camera and thrown into the deep end of the pool haven't been taught this stuff. So, a couple of rules:

-If shooting a one man band interview, frame up your shot, hit the record button and step to the side of the camera. Tell the person to talk to you, not the camera. Never, never, never have someone look directly into the camera.

-If shooting multiple interviews at one location, mix things up. Stand on different sides of the camera and change your angles and backgrounds.

Did you notice this forces you to use a tripod? Ha, tricked you.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Your first job can be like being on "Survivor"

I was watching the clever Fox show "Glee" last night and in one scene the guy leaves his wife and needs a place to sleep. Long story short, he rips the plastic cover off a new mattress and sacks out.

All I could think of was, "That plastic was my first shower curtain."

My first job was an adventure, and the fact that I had almost no cash made it ever more so. When I arrived in my two-seater, I had all my clothes, a ten inch black and white TV, and a record player.

No furniture, no nothin'.

The apartment had a tub/shower combo, but no curtain. So it was baths for awhile.

I slept on the floor the first two weeks, waiting for my first paycheck so I could buy a mattress. When it arrived I carefully cut the plastic down the side and slid it over the shower curtain rod. It worked fine as a shower curtain until the next paycheck.

My new neighbor came over to introduce himself and noticed my tiny television set. He had an interesting job; he swapped out television sets in hospitals. He told me the ones he took out were perfectly good color sets that the hospital let him take.

One problem: hospital TV sets have no sound. The speaker is in that handset near the bed.

He told me I could have a color set if I wanted, and I knew exactly what to do. I got a cable splitter and hooked up the black and white to the color set. The black and white provided the sound, the color set provided the picture. I hooked it up to a cable box and when I turned the knob it would change the channel on both TVs.

Another neighbor laughed and said I had created the world's first true stereo TV system.

Being broke isn't much fun, unless you can step back and laugh at the adventure of it all. Every paycheck would come and I'd take a few bucks to buy something I needed. Nice towels one week, a toaster the next. Little, simple stuff like that seemed to get me through.

Many of you are in a similar boat, but unlike me, many of you have student loans. Sometimes it can seem like there's no end in sight to the financial woes, but it does get better. You simply have to look at the big picture.

Even if it has no sound at the time.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Your personal life needs to be on flash paper

These days the smoking gun is rarely a gun. It's an email, a text, a facebook note, a tweet.

Yep, putting stuff in writing can really come back to bite you.

Today's news is filled with alleged Tiger Woods texts, emails from the White House to the couple that allegedly crashed the party.

No gun, no gunpowder, no CSI forensics. Just words.

Which reminds me of a very valuable piece of advice I got as a kid from the neighborhood bookie. We'll call him Sal.

Sal used to amuse the kids by giving us pieces of flash paper. It's the stuff used by magicians, special paper that when touched by a flame goes up instantly in a flash. It leaves no ashes.

No evidence.

It was cool stuff. I used to impress my friends at school with it. Then one day I asked Sal why he had so much flash paper.

Bookies, for the benefit of those who don't have a vowel at the end of their last names, use flash paper to write down the bets from their customers. They also always have a burning cigarette nearby, even if they don't smoke. "If the cops bust through the door," said Sal, "you just touch the cigarette to the paper and there's no evidence." He touched the cigarette to a sheet of paper and poof! it was gone.

Then Sal gave me a great piece of advice. "Never write nuthin' down, kid. Then it can't come back to bite you."

So it amazes me how people in newsrooms write down personal feelings all the time on their computers and cell phones.

I was amazed when I was a manager that some employees wanted to argue in writing rather than come into my office. Naturally I always printed out everything, in case I ever needed a paper trail. (Yes, managers cover their own tails just like everyone else.)

Over the years I've seen a bunch of people get into serious trouble for putting things in writing.

So, bottom line, don't. If you think your ND is a jerk, fine. Just don't write it down. In fact, don't write anything down.

And if you're not sure, ask yourself this question. "Can what I've just written ever come back to bite me?"

In reality, if you have to ask the question, the answer is usually yes.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Mailbag: Looking back into a crystal ball


Just curious...looking back to the time you got into the business, what was the common denominator for the people you worked with who made it to the top, or at least to a great market?

Wow, excellent question. I often am asked if there is some sort of formula for success. If there were, I'd write a book with the recipe.

But since you asked me to look back, I took some time to think about the people with whom I worked who were getting their feet wet at the same time I was. (Bear in mind that my memory isn't what it used to be, and that yesterday I actually put the coffee pot in the refrigerator.)

-One of the most talented people I ever knew had his career take a bizarre turn simply because of a change in management. I really thought this guy would hit it big, but life threw some real wild cards in his direction and he got out of the business.

-One of the biggest airheads I've ever known made it to a major market. And yes, she was drop dead gorgeous.

-Two guys who were very talented made it to a network but couldn't stay there. Not sure why, but their careers peaked early and then headed downward.

-One very talented woman made it to a major market, had kids, and got out of the business to be a mom.

-One incredibly talented woman simply had no desire to move out of a small market, and made a career there despite offers from big markets.

-One clueless reporter who had just about every script re-written by management got a major market job on the strength of his writing.

-Two of the best reporters I've ever known who were both health nuts came down with catastrophic illnesses after making it to major markets.

-One of the worst human beings I've known who cheated on his wife and hit on everything in a skirt made it to a network and is still there. (As a good friend said of this, "Cream and jerks often rise to the top.")

-A terrific anchor got out of the business because she simply got sick of job hunting.

-And a whole bunch of people who were at best mediocre made it to big markets or the network. Each time this happened, people in the newsroom who knew them simply shook their heads in amazement.

So, bottom line, there's no way to predict whether you'll be successful or not. Sometimes the stars align, sometimes they don't. (I have another idea for a book called "Why good things happen to bad people.")

The best thing you can do is to always do your best so that your odds of being successful will improve.

Monday, November 30, 2009

December's a good time to see what's on the other side of the fence

Several years ago I was doing the traditional Salvation-Army-kicks-off-kettle-drive story and I was grabbing a soundbite with the public relations person. This was turning into an auto-pilot story until she said something that surprised me.

"We might not have enough money to pay our bell ringers this year."

"Huh? You guys pay bell ringers?"

"Well, we don't have enough volunteers, so we have to pay people to ring the bell."

I was floored. I mean, who knew? I simply assumed all those people you see at supermarkets and malls were just nice people who volunteered. The story suddenly took a different turn. Then we got into a discussion about why certain large venues didn't have bell ringers. Again, not enough money, not enough volunteers.

So naturally, guilt took over and I offered to ring the bell for a few hours.

A few weeks later I was assigned to do it at a super Wal-Mart, and, as luck would have it, the weather was absolutely miserable. Cold and pouring rain. The store manager took pity on me and let me bring the bucket inside.

Then I wished I had a camera with me.

The people who were well dressed and obviously not broke wouldn't make eye contact with me when I said, "Merry Christmas." The people who looked as if they were one step above being homeless stopped and put something in the bucket.

Anyway, two hours, a little over two hundred bucks in miserable conditions. I walked away with a new insight into human nature.

A few years later we worked out a deal with the Salvation Army where our staff would take turns for an entire day at one location, ringing the bell. I think it had the same effect on a lot of people.

We've all done stories on helping people during the holidays, but many times we really don't take the time to understand a different point of view. What's it really like to be poor? What's it like to run the Salvation Army and not have enough bell ringers?

Just some thoughts for a slow news month. Then again, it might not be a slow month for someone with a different point of view.