Thursday, December 30, 2010

A resolution suggestion for 2011: find a new angle

I spent a good part of the summer covering the oil spill. It started with oily beaches and fishermen, and gradually moved on to the trickle down effect of the disaster.

When you cover the same thing every day for weeks, eventually you have to start looking for new angles. You can only show oily beach b-roll so many times. You can only talk to out of work shrimpers so many times. And that oil covered pelican was on so many newscasts it should have been paid royalties.

By the end of the summer we'd run the gamut of sidebar stories, everything from dolphin rescues to beach weddings that had been canceled. But every day we strove to come up with something new and interesting.

The problem with local news is that I keep seeing the same stories told the same way over and over and over. I can almost predict what stories will be in a newscast and how they'll be covered. A few examples to illustrate the point:

-Hurricane preps: Live shot from Home Depot or Lowes, generator sales, stocking up on food. B-roll of boarding up homes, evacuating, cleaning out supermarket shelves.

-Murder: Live shot from scene, interviews with tearful family members and police official. B-roll of police lights, yellow crime scene tape, and a mug shot.

-Government meeting: Live shot at night outside closed City Hall, interviews with city officials. B-roll of angry people at meeting.

-Tornado aftermath: Live shot with devastation in background. Interviews with people who lost their homes. B-roll of chain saws cutting fallen trees, cleanup crews, and shots of childrens toys in the rubble.

And you wonder why people aren't watching? You're basically giving viewers what the entertainment division provides during the holiday season: reruns.

The sameness throughout the local news industry is staggering. Reporters do the same stories, talk to the same people, take the same approach. Sure, you get the facts and the basics, but the story you're telling is the same.

The industry has gone on auto-pilot. Insert tearful sound bite here, edit compelling b-roll there, throw in standard nat sound, add a standup for good measure.

So how do you switch back to manual from automatic?

You have to put yourself in the shoes of the viewer. What questions does the viewer want asked? What does the viewer want to see? But you have to take things a lot farther. What is the angle of the story no one has considered? What would make this story unique and interesting?

You consider different angles by putting yourself in different pairs of shoes. That hurricane is coming, but it affects everyone differently. It affects an adult differently than a child. It affects a construction worker differently than someone who works at a zoo. It's an ill wind that will blow a lot of bad and someone some good.

The more shoes you try on, the more viewpoints you'll see.

This year, take the time to consider viewpoints other than your own. You may be obsessed with technology while old people couldn't care less. You may like rap music while the majority of adults find it grating. You may think health care is the most important issue in our country while others think it is the economy.

View the world through the eyes of others, and you'll find more angles.

The more eyes, the more angles.

Find the interesting ones, and run with them.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Caveat emptor

That's Latin for, "Let the buyer beware." (They made me take Latin in high school. Ugh.)

Anyway, you can't be too careful these days, especially when someone promises you a shortcut to a better career. There are some great people out there who truly want to help young journalists.

And there are some that simply see you as an open checkbook.

Full disclosure: I charge for my mentoring services. If you've ever checked my rates you can tell I'm not getting rich off this.

On various television news websites you'll see ads for resume tape services, mentoring, agents, talent coaches, you name it. Some will help you a great deal, others will not. Some will promise the moon and tell you that you'll be in a major market if only you'll sign up as a client. Others take a realistic approach and tell you that while they can help, most of your success will come from you.

When you're young and trusting (if you're not from New York) you're often a salesman's dream. Those blue skies seem appealing, and it's so simple to have someone else take your raw talent and do all the work.

News flash: You still have to do the work yourself.

I hear comments all the time about people who are in the business of helping careers. I've heard about the great agents who take a personal interest and those who sign up clients never to be heard from again. I've heard about resume services that turn out a terrific product and others that will give you something that looks like it was shot by a fifth grader. I've heard of some companies that charge a reasonable fee and others that make some of the loan sharks in my old neighborhood look like amateurs.

If you're shopping for help, do your homework, and treat it as you would the biggest story of your life. If you're going to put your career in someone else's hands, make sure that person has your best interests at heart. Get references, talk to previous and current clients, look at samples of their work. Find out if you're going to be a name, not just a number.

By the way, if you're hiring someone to help you, you're the boss. If you're paying the bill, that person works for you, not the other way around.

Remember, you are ultimately responsible for your own career. Be extremely careful when hiring anyone to help.


Monday, December 27, 2010

Closure: the most overused and misunderstood term in television news

Every time I start to watch a package about some crime followed by a trial, I know it's coming.

Person murdered, criminal convicted, interview with family member.

And then the "C" word.

How many times must we hear these gems?

-The family has now achieved closure...

-They are looking for closure...

-Now that the trial is over, there's a sense of closure...

Let me tell you a little about closure. It doesn't really exist. Because the past never goes away.

I have a good friend who had a family member murdered years ago. Man who committed the crime went to jail forever. Yet every year on the day of the crime, he turns into an exposed nerve. Closure? Not hardly. Sure, the guy is in prison for life, but does that bring back the victim?

Stop and think a minute about something precious you've lost. Maybe it's a parent, a beloved pet, a friend. Maybe it's a true love who went off and married someone else.

You may have moved on, but you haven't achieved closure.

People we love leave invisible fingerprints on our souls. When they're gone, it leaves a hole in the heart... and no amount of justice or revenge or time can repair it.

Closure doesn't exist. Find another word to use in these stories. Sure, people feel better when the bad guy's in jail, but that doesn't bring things back to normal, and never will.


Friday, December 24, 2010

The one-man-band's Night Before Christmas

'Twas the night before Christmas,
and all thru the station,
the photogs were gone,
on permanent vacation.

Reporters all stared
at the equipment with fear,
and hoped a new job offer
soon would be near.

When out from the scanner
there arose such a clatter.
It was a big story,
one that truly would matter.

The reporter then loaded
the car she would drive.
The gear weighed one fifty,
she was just a buck-five.

She drove to the story,
and hoped things would jell,
one hand on the steering wheel,
the other on her cell.

It took her four trips
to set up the gear,
then she turned on her camera,
and cranked up the fear.

Was the video in focus?
Was the audio clear?
The interview subject
soon would be here.

Would her standup look good,
and the shot be in frame?
She did not want
to return looking lame.

The man started talking,
she pressed the red button.
The lights started flashing,
but then she got nothin'.

The levels weren't moving,
her camera stopped rolling,
the battery was dead,
the producer was calling.

"No Video! No Audio!
No B-Roll! No Nats!
This technical garbage
is driving me bats!"

She swapped out the battery
and answered the call.
Her mike gave out feedback,
her mike flag would fall.

She started to feel all stressed out and bitter,
as the producer reminded her about Facebook and Twitter.
Her camera was dead, her mike was still screaming,
she hoped against hope that she was just dreaming.

She started to tremble and kept on trying,
a photog looked over and thought she'd start crying.
He reached for her camera, and flipped just one switch,
then everything worked, without nary a hitch.

She smiled at the photog,
turned back to the story.
She'd ask a great question,
go home with some glory.

But the man had stopped talking,
he was no longer there.
She'd missed the whole story,
the cupboard was bare.

The photog came over,
gave her shoulders a rub.
He said, "Don't worry, kid,
I'll make you a dub."

"One person cannot
do the job of two.
It isn't your fault,
shooting is what I do."

He handed her the tape,
and wished her the best.
She gave him a hug,
felt a tug in her chest.

On that Christmas Eve,
as she watched the yule log,
the one gift she wanted
was a job with a photog.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sound bites

One of the biggest rookie mistakes is the use of a "single source sound bite" in a package. That means taking one interview and chopping it up into several parts; the reporter goes back to the same person over and over again.

Sometimes when you're doing a piece profiling a single person you'll need more than one sound bite. But it's the way veteran reporters use those bites that can set them apart.

Instead of going back and forth between voice track and sounds bites, you have two options.

-The easiest (and one that takes the least effort) is to simply cover all the sound bites after the first one with b-roll. What, you didn't know you could do that? Well, if the viewer has already met your interview subject earlier in the story, there's no reason to see the talking head again. And we all know there's nothing duller than a talking head. So if you've got that same face popping up over and over, cover it.

-The best (and one that takes real style and effort) is to chop up one sound bite and break it up with nat sound, voice track, or both. The best storytellers do this with regularity.

Let me give you an example. Let's say we have a sound bite about a man who sells Christmas trees for a living. You're profiling this guy who is out in the cold all day on a tree lot but loves his job anyway. Here's a sound bite:

"I love the sent of spruce. I'm not stuck in an office, people who come to see me are happy, and I send them home with the Christmas spirit.'

Okay, so if you're a rookie reporter, your package might look like this:

"Joe Holiday has a unique job every time December rolls around. He runs the local Christmas tree lot, and says it's a great gig."

Sound bite

Nothing wrong with that, but if you want to stand out from other reporters, let's take that bite and have some fun with it:

"This time of year, Joe Holliday isn't pining for another job, because..."

Sound bite: "I love the scent of spruce."

"He's the tree lot guy. Out in the bitter cold..."

Sound bite: "I'm not stuck in an office."

"Collecting smiles..."

nat sound child looking at trees "I want this one"

Sound bite: "People are happy to see me."

"And passing out holiday cheer."

nat sound: putting tree on car roof

Sound bite: "I send them home with the Christmas spirit."

In this case we've taken the same ten second sound bite and chopped it up. Using nat sound and writing to both our video and sound bites, we've taken what could have been a slow moving package and picked up the pace. Instead of two edits in the first 20 seconds or so, we have ten. The package will now move quicker, look and sound more interesting. And, for the job hunters out there, his technique will make you more marketable as you show off your writing and editing skills.

You can do this with most any story. When you review your sound bites, don't just look at them as complete sentences or thoughts. Look for opportunities to break them up with copy or nat sound. It will force you to think more creatively and take your work to another level.


Monday, December 20, 2010

Mailbag: What are NDs looking for?


I'm totally puzzled. I've been looking for a job for nine months and have seen others move on, some with more talent than me, others with less. Sometimes the people who seem totally clueless get great jobs, and yet here I sit, still shopping. Can you tell me what in the world News Directors are looking for, because I can't figure it out?

Well, you're not alone in your confusion. I remember years ago the entire newsroom's jaw dropping when our weakest reporter scored a great job.

There's no common denominator. Over the years I've seen incredibly talented people go nowhere and others who are just ordinary zoom up the ladder. I know, it's not fair.

Every ND has personal preferences. Some want take no prisoners reporters, others want storytellers. Some want perfect looking people, others go for credibility. Some value great writing, others want pure personality. It's all a matter of taste, and there is no formula.

But keep pitching, and eventually you'll connect with the ND who is looking for what you've got. As long as you strive to improve and do a solid job, you'll improve your chances.

Hey Grape,

I know you're a sports fan, but please, enough of the sports metaphors, okay? I hate sports and every time you do this I have to look up stuff to know what you're talking about.

Sorry. I didn't mean to pull an end run on you.


Friday, December 17, 2010


I guess we can continue our sports themes of late, since pitcher Cliff Lee made a very interesting point by signing with the evil Phillies this week.

Lee, in case you didn't know, is one of the best pitchers in the game and was a free agent. He was thought to be in a bidding war between the Yankees and the Rangers, then, out of the blue, signed with the Phils and left about 30 million on the table.

Apparently it was the comfort factor that outweighed the bucks. He'd played in Philly before, liked the team, liked the city. And really, how many millions does one need?

When job hunting, we always envision the perfect scenario; good salary, quality newsroom, great photogs, equipment that works, supportive management, a nice place to live. While you can generally find one or more of those at any station, it's pretty hard to find them all.

Sometimes you get a great job offer for big bucks, but it's in a war zone. Sometimes it's a great place to live, but not a lot of money. Great ND, but a one man band shop. Terrific shooters, but lousy salary.

These days you have to set your priorities, and they're different for every person. For some, money is and always will be number one. For others, it is quality of life.

And if you're young and relatively new in the business, your top priority should be this: which job will help my career most in the long term. You may take the job with photogs that pays a little less, but your work will look a lot better the next time you're job hunting. You might take the job in the smaller market, but get to do better stories.

When you're young and broke and frustrated, it's easy to grab what seems to be a lifeline that will improve things immediately. But if it doesn't advance your career and help you realize your potential, it might not be the right move.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Clock management

On Sunday the Metrodome roof collapsed, which meant instead of an afternoon watching the Giants I was stuck flipping around the dial looking for a decent game. I settled on the Redskins-Buccaneers, which was going down to the wire and looked like it was headed for overtime.

At one point in the game, the Redskins called timeout. As they lined up for the next play, the clock ran out and they were called for delay of game. I'm not sure I've ever seen a team called for delay of game after a timeout, but that was about the worst case of clock management in football I'd ever seen.

Clock management in television news is crucial, and, if you're not good at it, may be the reason for a lot of stress in your life. The two most stressful things for young reporters are deadlines and coming up with story ideas.

These days reporters are more time crunched than I ever was, as the days of two hour lunches are long gone. But even with today's demands, you still have to manage your time carefully or you'll be a bundle of nerves at the end of every day.

Having observed young reporters from the management side, I can tell you that there is a ton of wasted time early in the day that can come back to bite you as you get closer to news time. Here are some of the biggest time wasters that can get you in trouble:

-The Internet: Mindless surfing, emails, social networking, etc. You can do this stuff anytime, but it seems to be the first thing people do when arriving at the station in the morning and coming back from a story.

-Personal phone calls: I never cared if people made personal phone calls while on the clock, but when those calls make you push the envelope as you get closer to news time, they're a problem.

-Get your story and get going: As soon as you've gotten your assignment, set things up and get moving. The quicker you're done in the field, the quicker you can get back and edit. I've seen too many reporters get late starts on stories because they're wasting time on the computer or chatting with co-workers.

-Taking a break when you get back from a story: You've just shot a story and you're back at your desk. Have some coffee, shoot the breeze with the co-workers, and all of a sudden it's three o'clock and you haven't started looking at your video and writing your story.

The big problem occurs when most of the staff does these things and then there aren't enough edit booths at the end of the day. If you get your assignment done as soon as possible, you'll have plenty of time to relax at the end of the day... instead of being stressed out about possibly missing a deadline.


Monday, December 13, 2010

Don Meredith

Much has been written about Don Meredith, the broadcaster who helped make Monday Night Football appointment television even for those who didn't like football. He was a character, no doubt, and someone who changed the way color commentators approached the game.

The thing that made the MNF crew so special was especially evident during a blowout. Today you'd turn off a game that wasn't competitive, but you'd hang in there till the final gun with the Monday Night Football crew. That's when Meredith and Howard Cosell would go off on hilarious tangents. Viewers loved it when Meredith could put Cosell and his wild vocabulary in his place.

Has there been a Don Meredith since? John Madden comes close, though his partner was the classy Pat Summerall (who had nothing in common with Cosell) and it was obvious the two were on the same page as former players.

What we have seen since the Meredith era is an endless parade of sportscasters who try to come up with that perfect schtick that sets someone apart. Chris Berman did it with his clever nicknames, but for the most part there's not a whole lot of originality out there. It's pretty much a homogenous mix.

While there are still characters out there (think Tony Siragusa, who could easily fit in during one of my family's Italian weddings), the common denominator is that these unique people are born, not made. You can't set out to become something you're not. You can't become a down home character like Meredith if you don't have that in your makeup.

While I often write that your work has to be unique, it also has to be you. Trying to be something you're not is obvious, and it doesn't work.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

The ratings are in, but what do they mean?

Just about every market in America should have received their November ratings by now. You can generally tell how things went by looking at the faces in the sales department... or checking out the mood of your News Director.

But very often ratings are not made available to the staff. If you work at a station that subscribes to the theory that ratings books must be guarded like government secrets, you're probably wondering why. Well, a few reasons. First, if the ratings are good, you don't want to tell the staff because they'll start asking for raises, and, heaven forbid, think they're actually doing a good job. If the ratings are bad, well, it's obvious you don't want to run around showing off plummeting numbers.

By the way, if you want the ratings and work in one of these stations, you have a few options. One, make friends with someone in the sales department. Two, ask a a staffer from another station in the market. Three, see if the local newspaper has them; very often a media columnist has access to the numbers.

Now, what do they mean? Well, there are two ways to look at ratings: book to book, or year to year. For instance, you might compare the November book to the May book. Or, you might compare this year's November book to last year's November book.

Stations usually look at both and choose the method that best serves the sales department. For instance, let's say last November book was lousy, May was great, and this November was somewhere in between. You don't want to show the drop from May to November, but you do want to show the increase from last November to this November. Got it?

Confusing, I know, but that's the way things work.

What do numbers mean for you? Well, if you're an anchor or producer and things are heading up, you'll want a copy of said numbers to include with your resume tape. Showing that you can build an audience is a good selling point when looking for a job. If you're a reporter it's hard to show that you had a specific impact on the numbers.

Got it?


Thursday, December 9, 2010

My record player can beat up your iPod

For the past couple of days I've been tinkering with my record player. This thing called a drive belt snapped... it's the part that makes the record platter spin around. And since there aren't exactly a whole lot of turntable repair shops out there, I ordered the belt and took the record player apart. Now I'm back in the vinyl business.

While playing a few records to test the thing, I started reading the album covers and the dust jackets... and realized most of the young generation has never experienced these little bells and whistles that made old fashioned records more enjoyable than today's music downloads.

Years ago you'd walk into a record store and, get this, you could actually take a record into a booth and listen to it before you decided whether or not to buy it. Then when you played it for the first time, you'd put the record on the record player. You'd read the album cover, a friend would read the dust jacket, and it made for a nice experience.

The term "flip side" comes from the record industry. What was on the other side of that hit record? If you bought one, you took home the other. Sometimes you'd get a clunker, sometimes not.

Then there were records, like the "Best of Bread" which had theme sides. There was the mellow side and the rowdy side. I remember a party in college where a gal held up this record and asked the group just that. "Mellow side or rowdy side?"

In this era of instant gratification, we've lost the wrapper that comes with music. It's like getting a Christmas gift handed to you, with no package, no wrapping paper, no bow, no cute tag.

Television news has gotten the same way. The bells and whistles are pretty much history, victims of a time crunch, lack of creativity, or both.

Back in the day you'd be working on a package and a photog might say, "You know what would make this better?" And then he'd talk about a certain clip of music, or a sound effect, or a clever graphic. You'd actually get excited adding these unique elements to a story.

I've posted the story of our hula hoop package on this blog before. It was a package that took twenty minutes to shoot and it won the AP award for best feature in the state. But what took it to another level were all the elements we added to it. The vintage black and white video of hula hoops from the 60's, a clip from the American Graffiti soundtrack, some clever editing and great nat sound breaks.

Ninety percent of the time, that package today would look like this: voice track, sound bite, voice track, standup, sound bite, voice track. No bells or whistles.

When you do that, you're just handing the viewer an unwrapped gift.

It's those little things that take your packages to the next level, those little things that tell a News Director looking at your resume tape, "This reporter really got creative and took the extra time to make the package special."

A television story is called a "package" for a reason. Wrap yours up like an old fashioned record album, give the viewer lots of elements and things to think about, and watch the quality of your work zoom to another level.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

How to make your News Director's life easier

I know, some of you read that post title and said, "You gotta be kidding. Why should I?"

Well, you need a little insight into the job to understand why your ND looks stressed, might have a short fuse, or seems preoccupied all the time.

The job is not fun. Well, it probably used to be, but these days the parameters have changed. The big culprit is money. Years ago NDs had massive budgets and worried about important stuff, like, you know, news. Now News Directors have beancounters and sales people hovering over their heads, and have been turned against their wishes into glorified accountants.

Trust me, no one wants to become a News Director because he wants to study a balance sheet.

The other bad thing about the job is that invisible line you can't cross. Wanna be friends with the staff? Well, you can and you can't. Get too close and you're seen as a pushover. Stay too far away and you're considered aloof.

A News Director's day begins when he walks out to the driveway to pick up the morning paper. Then he cringes as he unfolds it, hoping against hope that there's not a huge front page story his staff has missed.

So how do you fit into the picture? Well, every News Director has favorite people, and you can become one of those making things just a little bit easier. NDs love people they "don't have to worry about" and you can become one of those with a few easy steps.

-Bring solid story ideas to the meeting every day. When a ND comes to work and knows it's a slow day, he can count on the fact that certain reporters will always have good story ideas. (And those people will get the plum assignments down the road.)

-Stay out of the drama pool. Every News Department has drama, and some are like running soap operas. Do your best to avoid gossip, backstabbing, and the other little things that can tear a newsroom apart. Do the opposite and be a team player.

-Once in awhile, ask your ND something personal. You might ask about the NDs spouse, kids, what he did on vacation, etc. Anything to take his mind off the job is always welcome.

-Volunteer for the stuff no one wants. If you're not going home for the holidays, volunteer to work. One of the toughest thing a ND has to deal with are holiday requests for days off.

-Take care of the news car. As a reporter, I never left anything in a car and left it as I found it. As a manager, I was amazed at the stuff I'd find when I had to borrow a news car. Half eaten lunches, rotten fruit, cigarettes, shopping bags, you name it. The other pet peeve about news cars concerns the gas tank. Make sure you don't bring it back to the station running on fumes. The next person might have a breaking story and that five minute stop for gas might be the difference between getting the story and missing it.

-Respect the equipment. You wanna know why half the equipment in the station doesn't work? Because people don't treat it like their own.

-Answer the phone. I worked in one shop where the phones would ring forever and no one would answer. Grab the phone as soon as possible. Might be a great story on the other end.

-Don't complain. This is a tough one, but a NDs day is filled with complaints. If you want something, ask. Don't complain and demand.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The high cost of dreams

While most kids rode a school bus to high school, I took the train. It gave me a look at the future that few fourteen-year-olds see.

We'd be working on homework or talking sports while sharing the train with commuters. Occasionally I'd take a late train home and see what those same commuters looked like after a work day.

We called them the "commuting undead."

They looked like lifeless zombies, worn out and fried from whatever careers they'd chosen. I swore "this will not happen to me."

As a young reporter I met people in average jobs, and thought about them every time I thought about doing something else. In particular, I wondered what it must be like for someone who works on an assembly line. Doing the same thing, day after day, year after year. Imagine doing that for forty years or so.

Then it hit me that many people simply don't have dreams. For them a weekly paycheck, a six pack of beer and a big screen TV are all they need to be happy.

Which is fine, but not enough for anyone who's creative.

I hear a lot from people who are looking to do something else, who think life will be better outside the business. It may be true in some cases, and not in others.

The one thing you have to keep in mind is that at this point in time, not many people are happy in any career. The economy is in the tank, there's no loyalty anymore, and companies treat employees like dirt. Some of the people with whom I rode the train got what I thought were great jobs years ago...and now they're facing the same hardships like the rest of us. Pay cuts, layoffs, doing more work for less pay.

Back to dreams. Several years ago I was considering leaving the business for a job that wasn't the least bit creative. A friend of mine who was a creative director for an ad agency posed the best question: "What are you going to do for a creative outlet?"

All creative people have dreams. It's the way we're wired. We're not satisfied working nine to five and doing the same thing every day.

If you're considering leaving the business, make sure you take that into account. You may end up with more money and better hours, but if you lose your dream you may lose part of your soul.

I once got a fortune cookie that read, "Without dreams you have no future." Truer words were never spoken.

Dreaming isn't free, despite what Debbie Harry said in song. They may keep you in a career that will make you pull your hair out, but the alternative might be worse.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Attention college students

Regardless of whether you like or dislike Fox News, this is an opportunity to take a whack at your student loans and maybe get your foot in the door somewhere:

But you gotta sign up by Tuesday.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Make a resume tape in your own home!

Okay, I'm not the most technical person in the world but I know a lot about editing. And a friend turned me on to something that can help you make a resume tape with your computer, provided it has a simple editing program.

It's called mpeg streamclip. Don't ask me what it means, but it works.

Here's the free download:

It's great if you have a lot of work on DVDs as it can "rip" clips of video or whole packages and then send them to your editing program. I just did a few projects and it works great. And it works on my Mac as well.

Merry Christmas.


Friday, December 3, 2010

Show-and-tell homework

There was a great line in the show "Burn Notice" the other day. (A terrific show, by the way. Very well written.) The lead character, a spy named Michael Westen, says, after something blows up, "I prefer show over tell."

In other words, telling his enemies he'll blow something up isn't nearly as effective as showing them what he can do.

So it puzzles me that I keep seeing package after package from markets of all sizes that might as well be broadcast on the radio. Because the video never seems to match the copy. Or the video doesn't even exist.

One of the very first things you learn in this business is "write to the video." But if you never bother to shoot the video, you won't be able to write to it. You'll be stuck with all "tell" and no "show."

This is fourth grade stuff. You brought something to class to show it off. You didn't stand up there at the blackboard and talk about something without showing it.

So here's a little exercise you can do this weekend. Take the topics I'm going to list and come up with five visuals that will show rather than tell. I'll give you an example:

It's cold.

So, rather than do a package on the frigid weather and just talk about it, how might we show it? Some examples:

-frozen lake
-person walking outside all bundled up
-seeing someone's breath as they stand outside
-scraping ice from a windshield
-time and temperature clock at a business
-visible exhaust from a car

Got the idea? You could edit all those shots together, and if the audio on your station suddenly went out the viewer would still know it is cold outside. Take that concept and apply it to every story. Learn to think visually, and your packages will go to another level.

Take some of these topics and write as many visuals for them as you can think of. Some of these might not seem visual, but trust me, every story has possibilities. And while you're at it, make a list of nat sound possibilities as well.

-School bus safety
-Property tax hike
-Health care bill
-Mailing gifts for Christmas
-Crackdown on drunk drivers
-Home construction prices

Remember, you need to let your video carry the story. Any reporter can tell a story, but a good reporter has mastered the art of show-and-tell.

There's a reason a great piece of video is called a "money shot." And it has nothing to do with your written copy.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Mailbag: Buyouts vs. out clauses


I sent my first round of resume tapes out to about half a dozen of my "ideal" stations last week. I explained in my cover letter that I am under contract until summer 2011. A few days later a News Director called me and asked about contract status and if I had any outs. I explained that I didn't and I had a buyout. His interest seemed to cool very quickly at that point. I didn't know if I should say that I'm willing to buy myself out of my contract because I am concerned that throws up red flags with future employers. At the same time I'm worried about being too tentative and missing an opportunity with a station that's looking to fill a spot right now. Any suggestions on how to handle this one?

Well, since we were just talking about out clauses, let's get to this question first. Out clauses and buyouts are two very different things.

A buyout is technically known as "liquidated damages" which is a nice way of saying "breach of contract." What this means is that the station has invested in you with promotion, training, etc. (even if they haven't) and you have cost them money by leaving early. At many stations the amount of damages can be staggering, especially if you're not making much money.

It bears repeating that you really need to have a lawyer look at every contract, and this clause can be a killer if you need to leave for something other than another job. Let's say mom or dad get sick and you need to move home... wanna pay several thousand dollars for that privilege?

As for why the ND's tone changed in this case, well, when you admit you'll use a buyout you're telling a manager that you have no qualms about breaking a contract... and if you did it to someone else, you'll do it to your new station. Now some NDs don't have a problem with this, and occasionally you hear of a station willing to pay the liquidated damages to hire someone. But tread carefully in any discussions about breaking contracts.

All the more reason to have an out clause in your contract. You're not breaking a contract when using an out clause, but in the eyes of a News Director you are when you use a buyout.


How many years do you need to spend at your first job? Some people tell me three years, but I know of people who have moved on in one.

Well, it's different for every person and the situation at every station is different. Personally, if you don't "get it" in three years you probably never will. Most rookies make a quantum leap between day one and the end of the first year, providing they are working in a good mentoring environment and getting help from management and the veterans. Others get thrown into the newsroom and never hear a word.

At some point in your first job the light bulb will go off, the clouds will part and the ray of sunshine will light up your career. You'll realize that your work has reached a certain level and you're not going to get any better working at your current station.

But that focal point is different for everyone. The key to a successful first job is to get feedback while watching the work of people in bigger markets. Combine those two things and you'll move up the ladder fast. Nothing wrong with looking for a new job after one year.

And please, rookies, don't sign a three year contract for your first job.

Hi Grape,
Do you think broadcasting is in better shape than it was a year ago?

Yeah, I really do. I think 2009 was the year of the shakeout. We're not seeing those mass layoffs anymore, and that four billion politicians spent this year was a nice infusion of capital.

The business will still never reach the levels it did years ago, but at least things are staying afloat.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

An old trick to break into anchoring

There are two things in this business that can be terribly frightening: your first live shot, and your first time on the anchor desk. If there's a deep end of the pool in broadcasting, this is it.

When it comes to live shots, there's no easy way to slowly break in. You can't do part of a live shot, then work your way up to a full live shot.

But with anchoring, there's a way to slowly dip your toe into the waters.

This is an old method that worked very well years ago. Why News Directors don't do this anymore is beyond me. Some have an aversion to anything from the "old days." But this is how I, and many others of my generation, broke in on the anchor desk.

Morning cut-ins.

Years ago reporters took turns doing the morning cut-ins for a week at a time. Once every six weeks or so you'd see yourself on the schedule for cut-in duty. This served two purposes. It gave the morning anchor a break, and let reporters have a taste of anchoring. By the time you did four cut-ins per day for five days, you were comfortable with the set, the prompter, and how things work in the studio.

The best part of doing cut-ins is that they're so short. You read a quick story or two, toss to the weather person, then maybe read a tease for the evening newscast. All together you might have sixty seconds of copy. Not too much to get stressed over.

Compare that with a maiden voyage on the anchor desk doing a full newscast. All sorts of disasters can happen in thirty minutes, and the size of the script can make you break out in hives. It's too much, all at once. The other problem with breaking in on a full newscast is the snowball effect; once a rookie makes a mistake, the newscast becomes a snowball rolling downhill, with errors piling up on themselves.

If you're doing a sixty second cut-in, how bad can it be?

Trust me, this works. If you wanna break in on the anchor desk, ask your ND if you can do it in this manner. It's easier on you, easier on the viewers, and you'll develop a comfort factor that will make your first real newscast a lot easier. Your ND will develop a comfort factor as well, and he's more likely to "risk" letting you do cut-ins than a whole newscast. Nothing makes a ND break out in hives like throwing a rookie on the set for a main newscast and hoping everything doesn't crash and burn.

The deep end of the pool is no place for a rookie anchor. Wade in slowly if you can.


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The ins and outs of outs

How do you ask for an out clause without making it seem like you want to leave?

Got this question yesterday and it bears answering, as many people don't understand the deal with out clauses. I would venture to guess those of you in college have never even heard the term.

An out clause is something in your contract that permits you to leave before the end of the contract, provided you meet the parameters of the clause. For instance, let us say you signed a two year contract in market 80. You have an out clause that lets you leave after 18 months to go to any station market 40 and higher. That is known as a "Top 40 out." So if a station in market 34 offers you a job in the last six months of your contract, you can leave. If a station in market 41 makes an offer, you can't.

There are no rules for out clauses, as they can be written in any manner. A good friend of mine had a "specific market out clause" for his hometown, since that was the only place he wanted to go. When he got an offer there, he was legally entitled to leave. Most times out clauses are based on market size, and kick in toward the last part of the contract. Some people negotiate out clauses with a bunch of markets, or a specific state.

Now, back to the original question. Usually when a ND wants to hire you, he will offer the worst contract and salary, in hopes you'll say yes. He might say, "three year contract, and we don't give outs." Well, guess what. EVERYTHING IS NEGOTIABLE. Remember that phrase. Because if someone wants to hire you bad enough, they'll bend. Some people won't, but it never hurts to try.

So let's say you don't want a three year contract, but the ND won't budge on that. You can say, "How about a two year contract with a top 40 out during the third year?" Therefore, you've effectively cut your contract down one year, provided you can find a job in a top 40 market. If you can't, you're stuck the full three years. (By the way, three year contracts are way too long for a first or second job.)

Let's say you're from Texas, and you want to go back home. You might ask for a Texas out, or an out clause that states you can leave to go to Dallas, Houston, or San Antonio. And you might want to include cable operations in your out clause. For instance, if a Dallas cable outlet offered you a job, you might not be able to leave unless your out clause included cable. That's a gray area, so make sure everything is spelled out.

Now, if you're doing a market size out clause, you'll want a realistic number. For instance, if you're in your first job in market 150 and your ND offers you a top 10 out, that's ridiculous, because odds are you won't make that kind of jump. Make sure your market is attainable.

As always, it is imperative that you have a lawyer review any contract, and especially any out clause you have in the contract. Stations can play hardball when it comes to contracts, and unless you follow the parameters to the letter, you might be stuck.

Back to original question again. News Directors know that just about everyone will leave at some point, especially if you're from another part of the country. It is ridiculous to assume someone from New York has a lifelong ambition to work in Peoria. As long as you ask for an out clause politely, and don't make it seem as if you'll bolt in a few months. Out clauses generally kick in toward the end of a contract, so as long as it appears you'll work out the majority of a contract, most NDs won't have a problem with that.

One more tip: Many NDs will say, "This company doesn't give out clauses." Well, it's up to you to put on your reporter's hat and find out if that is true. Check with some other stations in the group and find out if other people have outs. If they do, you know for sure that getting an out clause is possible.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Supply, meet demand

As a lifelong Mets fan, I despise the Yankees. Therefore, Derek Jeter makes me sick. The smug look, the supermodel girlfriends, the damned clutch hits. Please.

So I'm greatly enjoying sitting back and watching the chess game being played between Jeter and the Yankees regarding a new contract. Jeter, in case you don't follow sports closely, just finished a contract during which he made 189 million dollars. The Yankees, meanwhile, seems as though they can print money faster than Congress.

Jeter wants a raise. I'm reminded of the line from Wall Street in which Charlie Sheen asks Michael Douglas, "How many yachts can you water ski behind?"

Seriously, Derek, how much cash do you need? Notice that little thing called a recession lately?

On the other side, the Yankees can't mistreat a guy who has been their soul for so long. Their stance is that he's gotten old and his talent is fading. They just paid him 189 million. Should they pay for part performance, reward a guy for being a great player and staying off the police blotter?

This is going to be fun to watch.

Which brings us to the television news industry. (You're saying, "It's about damned time, Grape.") When negotiating a salary, you have to always keep in mind one simple fact: in this business, supply always exceeds demand. One job opening brings hundreds of resume tapes. A News Director knows if his first choice is too expensive, there are plenty of other choices out there who will jump at an offer.

A few years ago I worked with an anchor who had been at a station a long time. He was popular, made a terrific salary, and was well liked in the community. He liked the market and didn't want to move. Yet for some odd reason, he and his agent decided to play hardball at contract time. Instead of taking the station's fair offer he held out for a lot more. And held out.

And ended up out of a job.

TV stations and popular anchors often end up in the same situation as the Yanks and Derek Jeter. And sometimes pride gets in the way and both sides lose. The station loses a popular anchor, and the anchor loses a job.

It's important to bear this in mind when negotiating any contract. When you play hardball, you can get drilled, just like in baseball. Keep any negotiations civil, and don't ask for the moon. Because everyone is replaceable.


Friday, November 26, 2010

Merry Christmas, here's your pink slip

Well, now that sweeps are over you're going to see a whole lot of movement in the job market. Already we're seeing a few News Directors have gotten the boot, and as the ratings come in for various markets, that trend will continue.

As for non-management openings, you'll see more of those as well, as we head into December. Usually anchors get more pink slips than reporters, as they are the "face" of the station... and if said station tanks in the ratings, the anchors are often held to be at fault.

Throw in the fact that many reporters have contracts that end after November sweeps and you've got an open job market. By the way, the fact that many contracts ending after November is no accident; corporations know it's harder to find a job around the holidays, so they make it harder for you to leave.

But that holiday job hunting myth is fading. This past month I've had a few clients go on job interviews during sweeps. That happened last year as well. And last year I had a few people hired in December. This kind of stuff used to be rare; now, it seems, the rules are out the window.

One thing to keep in mind this time of year; don't wait for job openings to be posted. Many stations have a good idea what they're going to do today even though the ratings for some markets won't be in for a few weeks. Best to get the jump on things and have a tape in place when openings occur. And there are plenty of people out there who will either leave or make a move during the next few weeks.

The period between May and November sweeps was long held to be the best time to look for a job. While that's still probably true, nowadays you can look for a job anytime. So don't say, "I'll start sending tapes after Christmas." Do it now.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Moving for the sake of moving

It happens to just about everyone in the business. You reach a point in a job where you know you've been there too long. You're not learning anything new and your work has plateaued. Other people are beginning to leave, moving on to better places.

And suddenly you just have to get out. Right. Now.

And what often happens is you jump on the first available train out of town. Doesn't matter that the train might be a broken down old locomotive, doesn't matter where it's heading. Anywhere but here.

That happened to me once. A bad situation made it imperative that I bail at the first chance I got. I'd been there too long, friends were leaving. And so I jumped at the first offer that came my way.

And ended up in a situation that was actually worse than the one I'd left. It was one of the worst career decisions I'd ever made, and actually set me back a few years.

Patience may be the most difficult virtue for creative people to develop. We send out a great tape and expect News Directors to ring our phones off the hook. And when it doesn't happen we get desperate, like a teenager who dreads the thought of a Saturday night without a date.

When considering any move, you need to do two things. Take off the rose colored glasses that make any offer look terrific, and seek the honest opinions of people who know you well. Remember, a News Director is like a guy on a first date when conducting an interview. If he really wants to hire you, he tries his best to hide all the warts of the station and put his best foot forward. When considering any offer you need to step back, take a breath, and honestly assess whether moving is going to do your career some long term good... or if you're just taking the job to get the hell out of Dodge.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Mailbag: It's the most wonderful time of the year...

I hear most companies don't hire during the holiday months, is this true for the News Business as well?

Funny you should ask, as I was getting ready to do a post about old rules that are being broken.

Years ago you never, ever sent a tape out during sweeps because you'd never hear anything until after sweeps because the ND didn't look at resume tapes during this period. But this is the second year in a row I've had clients actually go on job interviews in the middle of sweeps. So that old rule is outta here.

Last year I had two clients get jobs in December, and that rarely happened as well. I actually got a job once in December, but that was a management job. So rule number two is history.

So these days you can look for a job anytime. Yes, there are good "hiring seasons" like March-April and June-October, but if you want to start your Christmas job shopping now, knock yourself out.

One thing to keep in mind: many people have contracts that end after November sweeps. So lots of people get pink slips during the holidays. (Lovely timing, huh?) That means there are openings that need to be filled.


Since you work for a network, I was wondering if it is even more cutthroat at that level. I'm at my first station and it is filled with back stabbers and I'm worried it is only going to get worse as I move up the ladder.

Well, strange as it may seem, the bigger they are, the nicer they are. The network people I work with couldn't be more professional or polite.

The problem with small markets is that people often get frustrated when they can't get out, then start throwing knives. And some people aren't talented enough to get out, so they backstab the people who are.

While there are jerks at every level, my experience is that it gets a lot better as you move up the ladder.


A News Director called me a few weeks ago and seemed interested, and now nothing. Does that mean I'm out of the running?

Impossible to tell. The ND may have gotten bogged down in sweeps (very possible), there might have been a hiring freeze since he talked with you, the task got pushed to the back burner (likely), or the GM may have overruled him.

But sitting around waiting doesn't do you any good. Keep looking. Always keep hooks in the water.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Please shoot enough b-roll. I'm begging you.

During one of my trips last month I was staying in a hotel, and, as I often do, I checked out the local newscasts. This was not an entry level market, so what I saw rather amazed me.

One package in particular was moving along when I saw some b-roll repeated. And then it happened again. Three times in one package. Inexcusable.

Later in the newscast there was a long voiceover. Same deal. B-roll repeated three times.

Yeah, that's what viewers want. Video on an infinite loop.

The other trick I've seen a few times (since non-linear editing makes it so easy) is b-roll in slow motion. Don't have enough cover shots? Slow down the ones you've got.

And I know photogs aren't doing this. Shooters always make sure they have plenty of video.

So I'm likely talking to those of you who are one man bands. If you've run into this situation even once, you need to get into the habit of shooting more b-roll than you currently shoot. When you're on a story and you think you've shot enough, shoot some more. If there aren't many video choices, shoot a sequence, or shoot the same thing wide-medium-tight.

There are no excuses for repeating b-roll. It makes you and the station look lazy.


Friday, November 12, 2010

How to politely back out of an offer: don't burn the foot bridges

It never fails. You send out a bushel of tapes and post your work on or medialine, and after months of hearing nothing you get multiple job offers at the same time. Or you get a call from a station that doesn't really appeal to you.

This is such a small business that you can actually burn a bridge at a place without ever working there.

I'll give you an example of something that actually happened. Reporter sends me a tape. I really like it, so I call him up. Then he tells me he really doesn't want to live in that part of the country. (Then why the hell did you send a tape here, McFly?)

I remember that guy and his condescending attitude on the phone. It was obvious he had another offer, and he could have been more polite or at least come up with a decent excuse. I'd be reluctant to hire him anywhere else.

And that's the key: News Directors move around as much as reporters and anchors. So if you're gonna turn down an offer, you need to use some tact in doing so. Because if the ND liked you once, chances are the ND will be somewhere else in the future and like you again.

So, how do you tactfully get out of a job offer, or brush off some interest? There are all sorts to ways to do this, the key being that you are polite in doing so.

-The location excuse: You're from Vermont and get a call from a station in Arizona. For whatever reason you have no desire to live in Arizona, so you might say you need to remain closer to family.

-The significant other location excuse: You would love to work in Arizona but your spouse or significant other can't deal with blistering hot weather.

-The significant other job excuse: You would love to work in Arizona but your spouse or significant other has a great job with a maple syrup company, so you need to stay close to the Northeast since there's no maple syrup being produced in Arizona.

-The better offer excuse: You're talking to another station which has made a better offer.

Get the picture? There's no rule that says you have to accept any offer. But in turning down any offer or interest, it's imperative that you keep those bridges in place, because you may want to cross them in the future.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Don't forget to thank a veteran today

Over the years I've had the privilege of working with many fine veterans, most of them photogs. Occasionally, a few of them even told me war stories that gave me chills.

Recently I worked on a project for the military that dealt with some of the things military people have to deal with out in the field. It was about as frightening as the opening scenes of "Saving Private Ryan."

Over the years this country has been involved in unpopular wars. There was great anger in America during the Vietnam era, and there are plenty of questions regarding our involvement in the middle east today.

Even if you don't support a war, you can support the military. These people put their lives on the line every day. And if you're covering any kind of Veterans Day function, you'll see some of the results. People in wheelchairs and those with missing limbs are obvious victims, but there are plenty of unseen wounds, like post-traumatic stress and broken families.

You can give your life without dying.

It's perfectly appropriate to thank a veteran for his or her service. Not just today, but any day.


Monday, November 8, 2010

The meanings behind job postings

The most classic job posting story goes back to the early 1980's, when videotape was replacing film. 3/4" tapes were expensive back then. One station was known for running bogus job ads when there were no openings. The reason? To build up a stock of videotape without having to pay for it. Tacky, huh?

Of course that doesn't make sense in the era of DVDs, but the mystery behind job postings continues. What are the rules, what do the postings actually mean, what does it mean when they disappear...and re-appear?

You can drive yourself nuts trying to figure this stuff out, and the big piece of advice here is...don't try to figure it out. Because there are no rules, and postings mean different things at different stations.

Postings fall into all sorts of categories, and I'll try to give you some of the more common ones:

-The job posting with an expiration date: The most common posting, and often reflects the rules of the corporation. For instance, the beancounters in charge may have dictated that jobs remain posted for two weeks. So let's say the job posting reads November 1-15. Does this mean you can't apply after November 15th? Of course not. Does it mean this particular station adheres to the hard and fast rules of the dates set forth by corporate? Maybe, but probably not. So send a tape.

-The blind ad job posting: Usually used by small markets in undesirable places to live, but sometimes by News Directors who are trying to avoid phone calls. So send a tape.

-The now-you-see-it, now-you-don't job posting. You've been watching one particular station and a job that you've applied for. Then, one day, the posting disappears. Does this mean the position has been filled? Maybe, maybe not. In many cases postings have expiration dates. Sometimes the ND has gotten enough tapes and pulls the post. Sometimes the budget changes and the job no longer exists. Sometimes a secretary screws up and deletes it by mistake. So send a tape.

-The I-sent-a-tape, the-posting-disappeared, then-came-back job post. So you're thinking, "Okay, I sent a tape, they didn't like it (or anyone else's) so they re-posted the job." Again, not necessarily. Maybe corporate has a rule to keep the job posted until the new person starts the job. Maybe the ND is still looking. Maybe the secretary screwed up again. So send a tape.

-The posting for the job you applied for months ago. So, you sent a tape and didn't get the job in the spring. There's an opening in the fall and you don't send a tape because you figure, "I didn't get the job last time, why would they hire me now?" Hello, McFly! Every situation is different. Did it ever occur to you that maybe you came in second for that last job and might be the first choice this time around? Maybe they wanted a lifestyle reporter and you did hard news, but they want a hard news person this time. Maybe they needed a guy last time and now they need a gal. So send a tape.

-The posting requiring a ridiculous amount of experience for the market size. Do you really think News Directors in tiny markets get a lot of applicants with three years experience? If you're right out of college and have talent, you've got a good shot. So send a tape.

Get the picture? There's really no way to figure out what's behind every job posting.

So....wait for it.... send a tape!


Friday, November 5, 2010

Too many questions, too little time

Occasionally I'm on a story and there's a rookie there among the media horde. And if it's a situation in which everyone gets a one-on-one interview, I know that if the rookie goes first I can go out to lunch and come back.

Why? Because many young reporters are so afraid of missing something they'll ask every question in the book. And then they'll ask variations of the same questions.

I also noted this in various newsrooms when new reporters would come back to the station and have to wade through a twenty minute interview to get one sound bite.

And these days, you don't have that much time to put your packages together. So to save time, you need to simplify your interview.

You can do this in two ways. The first is to really pay attention to the answers you're getting. Many of you are writing your questions down on a pad, and then, after you've asked a question, you're too busy reading the next one to hear what the person being interviewed is saying. Many times there's a great bite early in the interview, and if you heard it, you'd know it. But if you weren't paying attention, you'll keep asking every single question on your list.

So pay attention to your answers... you might get two great bites in the first two minutes, and then you're good to go.

The second way to shorten your interviews is to truly consolidate your questions. Ask the most important questions first, those most likely to get the good sound bites. And if you've got questions that are very similar, then combine them or eliminate one of them.

Too many reporters spend too much time wading through tape when it's time to edit. If you'd shortened the interview process and truly listened to your answers, you'd hear the bites as they were being spoken and would know exactly where to find them when you sat down to edit.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

In case you didn't notice, the voters sent the media a message as well

Beyond the numbers of the election are the reasons people cast their ballots. If you take the time to look deeper and truly analyze the election, you'll find your story ideas for the next year or so.

And if you think you can go back to chasing the scanner today, you obviously missed the whole point of the election.

It is said that people vote their pocketbook, and that was certainly true this year.

But viewers often choose their television station based on the same factors that makes them cast a ballot one way or another.

Bill Clinton rode to victory on the slogan, "It's the economy, stupid." Television stations might do well to post that on every newsroom wall.

If you want people to watch your station, do stories that truly affect their lives. Right now that means finding a job, making ends meet, dealing with new health care regulations, and other issues that pushed the hot buttons of voters. Do stories that explain, that help, that make lives easier. Show viewers you care about them and you'll get their votes in the ratings book.

Here's your chance to do stories that truly impact people. Because the voters have spoken, and they're not only talking to the politicians.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Tonight, check your opinion at the door

On this election night, you'll be able to flip around the dial and find countless examples of why the public trust has been violated.

Oh, I'm not even talking about the results from the polls. I'm talking about media bias.

Slanted news coverage has never been worse in this country. It has always been around, with a rich history in the newspaper business. Funny how newspapers can "endorse" candidates but television news organizations aren't supposed to.

Since that isn't exactly fair, some TV news people take it upon themselves to slant coverage. Bias filters into coverage in many forms, from blatantly slanted coverage to bias by omission, in which important stories are simply not covered. It can be conveyed by body language, by simply appearing happy when one candidate wins while looking like someone ran over your dog when your guy loses. It can take the subtle form of lighting a candidate to look bad, using an unflattering still frame for an over-the-shoulder graphic, or using adjectives like "popular" or "embattled" to describe candidates you like or dislike.

And then there's the first inductee into the media bias hall of fame...taking something out of context.

It's one thing to host an opinion show and have a bias toward one party or another; it's a very different thing to be a journalist and show it.

Tonight, many of you will be working your first election night. It's easy to be swept up with excitement when the balloons fall at a winning campaign headquarters, or to be sad when a good candidate loses. It's hard to ask fair questions of someone you know to be a total sleazebag, easy to lob softballs at a candidate you like.

Tonight, we must set an example, and turn the tide of public opinion. Not about politicians, but about us.

We must be fair, objective, remain even keel in a winning or losing situation. The voters are speaking tonight, and it is their voices, not ours, that viewers want to hear.

The numbers speak for themselves. You can offer all the analysis you want, but please, leave your opinions out of any coverage.

If enough reporters and anchors did that, maybe the approval numbers for the media will be up the next time an election rolls around.


Monday, November 1, 2010

Election eve: Thanks for the bailout, because the rent really IS too damn high

Last year I jokingly posted a request to Nancy Pelosi asking Congress for a bailout of the broadcast industry.

Indirectly, they gave it to us.

Remember a year ago when everything you read about television was doom and gloom, how the news business was going to be dead in the very near future?

Well, thanks to the politicians in this country, that's no longer true. It is estimated that politicians and those who wish to influence voters spent 4.2 billion dollars in TV ads this year.

You read that right. Four-point-two billion. Talk about a bailout.

So years from now, historians will look back and talk about 2010, and how one group saved the industry. How a bunch of people wanting control produced television ads trumpeting their integrity while calling their opponents a bunch of slimeballs. Who knew that setting the bar lower than ever could save us?

Isn't America great?

But it's almost time to start worrying again, because next near there are no Congressional elections.

So we need another bailout. Because stations probably didn't pass any of that multi-billion dollar windfall on to its employees. Maybe this time the bailout could be for starving reporters who live in apartments.

Because... wait for it... the rent is STILL too damn high.


Friday, October 29, 2010

Career change advice from Al Pacino

Many of you who read this blog on a regular basis probably think I've been a broadcasting lifer. In reality, I'm like many people in this business, because I've left it and come back.

Three times, in fact.

Surprised? You shouldn't be. Because at some time in your career you may get so frustrated, so burned out, that you'll just want to chuck it all and do something else.

Problem is, nothing else really compares if broadcasting is in your blood. Oh, you can certainly be successful, but you may never recapture the magic that exists only in this business.

I remember one time I left the business and yelled, "That's it! I've had it with this business! Never again!" And then someone calls with a tempting job offer, and back I go.

I feel like Al Pacino in Godfather 3 when this happens. "Just when I think I'm out... they pull me back in!"

Yeah, I guess broadcasting is like the Mafia of the heart.

If it's in your blood, going to another career is like witness protection. You end up like Ray Liotta at the end of Goodfellas (here we go with the Mob analogies again) when he picks up the paper, complains he can't get decent Italian food and feels like a schnook. If it's in your blood, you can't get it out.

How do you know? Well, if you change jobs and find yourself doing things you'd never do in the news business. Watching the clock. Being bored. Having time on your hands. Watching newscasts and knowing you could do a better job... or that you wish you were at the scene covering the story you just watched.

If those things don't haunt you, then you're cured. You can move on and look back at a time in your life when you did something unique. But if you can't get the business out of your head, resign yourself to the fact that you're probably going back.

Trust me, very few jobs offer the rush that TV news does. Yes, there's also the low pay, the stress, the occasional whack-job manager. But you don't see too many offices out there with the family atmosphere you find in a newsroom that clicks.

By the way, plenty of people have left and come back. Nothing's forever in this business, and talent doesn't fade because you've left the business. If you wanna try something else, fine, but don't be surprised if the life calls you back.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

How to read your News Director on the first day of November sweeps

You think Halloween is scary? Try looking inside the mind of a News Director whose head might be on the chopping block.

Yes, NDs fear for their jobs like everyone else, some more so than others. It's strange that some NDs are so disliked by their employees that the staff actually hopes for a bad book so he'll get the boot. Though most of us have too much personal pride to tank it out in the field.

But tomorrow is a good day for body language if you wanna know where your ND stands with upper management. Here's what you can look for:

The ND who knows he's safe: This News Director cheerfully brings donuts to the morning meeting to kick off sweeps in a positive manner. There's no frantic running around the newsroom during the day, no micro-managing, no looking over shoulders. Chances are the ratings are good and his job is secure. He treats this day like any other.

The ND on the bubble: Let the twitching begin. This News Director shows up early the first day of sweeps looking like he took a bath in itching powder. He goes over the top in the morning meeting telling reporters exactly how stories should be covered, and demands producers schedule tons of meaningless live shots. In and out of the newsroom all day, he turns into a helicopter manager, hovering over desks, checking every script before air, and not even going out to lunch.

The ND whose head is about to be lopped off and rolled down the steps of the Mayan temple: You get a few more clues in this scenario, as the newsroom is usually graced with the micro-managing presence of the General Manager in the morning. This ND arrives with Samsonite under the eyes from lack of sleep and frantically runs the morning meeting like a crazed dictator. Never leaves the newsroom all day, refuses to take suggestions that he go to lunch, or at least eat it at his desk and get out of the newsroom. When news time arrives he stands in front of the bank of monitors, firing remotes like Clint Eastwood in fear of seeing a story his staff missed on another station.

By the way, if you're new at this, November ratings arrive for most stations a few weeks after the book ends. So Christmas can come early for just about everyone, depending on your point of view.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

10 rules for sweeps pieces

1. Tell me something I don't know. Surprise the viewer.

2. Show, don't tell.

3. Find a point of view that makes the piece unique. If your story has multiple sides, find the third side.

4. Put yourself in the viewers' place and ask the questions they want asked.

5. Write in and out of your video and nat sound breaks.

6. Don't interview the obvious people.

7. Make your standup bridge integral to the story.

8. Don't sensationalize the story.

9. If you're shooting with a photog, discuss the story before you begin.

10. Remember to follow up. If it's a sweeps story, chances are it's interesting enough to warrant a follow up.

(And in case you hadn't guessed, these are rules for any day.)


Monday, October 25, 2010

Excuses, excuses...

I used to work with a producer who had a great comeback when reporters would come back with various excuses about story coverage. Not enough time, interview fell through, forgot to do a standup, whatever.

The line is this: "Excuses are little lies we tell ourselves."

You hear excuses a lot as a manager, and when you're a reporter excuses are an easy crutch. They're a convenient way to blow off a day that didn't go exactly right, because, let's face it, it wasn't your fault.

Which brings me to great football coach Bill Parcells. He once made a famously tacky quote regarding complaints from players:

"Don't tell me about the pain, show me the baby."

Which, in a nutshell, means that the only thing that counts is what hits the air. The viewer doesn't care if you were running late, if your camera had problems, if your photog was in a bad mood, if you forgot your notepad out in the field, or if you ran out of tape.

We once had a consultant visit our station and invite everyone to bring a few stories to a Saturday session. One reporter played a story that was just okay, then boasted about the fact he'd shot nearly an hour's worth of tape and had worked really hard, only to have the story turn out in a mediocre fashion.

"Who cares how much tape you shot or how hard you worked?" said the consultant. "Is the viewer ever going to see the raw tape or know how hard you worked?"

Back to Bill Parcells again: "You are what your record says you are."

In our blameless society, we have become conditioned to blame outside forces if things don't go perfectly on any given day.

Little lies we tell ourselves.

If you want to be successful, to really achieve your goals, there are no excuses. Sure, stuff happens in the field and unforeseen circumstances can change your story, but it's the reporter who can adapt and go with the flow who will make it to the top.

Key interview fell through? Find another.

Story isn't what you expected? Take it in another direction.

Not enough time in your day? Take care of your text messaging and Internet habit when you're off the clock.

Your standup didn't record because of a crease in the tape? You should always shoot a safety.

Not enough b-roll? Get in the habit of shooting more than enough.

Just as excuses can become habits, so can good work habits. Learn to get all the basics while planning for the stuff that might happen. Photogs always have extra tapes and batteries, a spare microphone, and a clunker tripod in case their good one falls apart. They pack their news cars with rain slickers and boots for foul weather, shorts if it gets hot, sunblock if they're shooting at the beach. They're prepared for every contingency. By the same token reporters need to equip themselves with spare ideas and backup plans. You need to pack your brain like photogs pack their cars.

While stories can and often do change during the day and equipment can make you pull your hair out, there's no excuse for having a sub-par story.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Mailbag: Atmosphere is overrated


Our building is an absolute dump. The place is falling apart, the walls need a paint job and the carpet is worn thin. Even though we're a strong number one station no one seems to care that we're working in these conditions. Why doesn't management do something to improve the environment?

There used to be a chain of restaurants in New York called Horn & Hardart. They were actually automats, in which there were no waiters, but a wall of doors behind which you'd find food. You'd put change in a slot and pull out a bagel, a sandwich, or a slice of pie. Their slogan was, "You can't eat atmosphere."

Guess what... the viewers can't see anything but the set. They don't care if your desk is falling apart or your computer is out of date. All a viewer cares about is content and what's visible. Same strategy as the's substance over style.

And if you're already number one, management sees no reason to change anything. So they pump money into sets and equipment and anything that will improve the on-air product.

Dear Grape,

Our station is adding an hour to our morning show but no people. What's the deal?

Ah, the old news-expands-to-meet-its-needs strategy. To understand this, we must look at spaghetti sauce. (I'm really into analogies today.)

Say you've got a pot of thick, rich sauce and some extra people are coming for dinner. So you add a little water to stretch the sauce. It's a little thinner but still good. But if you added a lot of water eventually you'd have tomato juice.

Same deal with staffing. Eventually you stretch people so thin they become tired and ineffective. But the beancounters don't see it that way. They figure people are already in the building in the middle of the night producing two hours of news, so why not let them produce three? Since morning shows are basically the same stories over and over again on a half hour wheel, the beancounters don't see this as a problem.

Meanwhile, the viewers get tomato juice for breakfast.


Consultants say no one cares about local sports and yet stations go all out to cover Friday night football. Isn't this a contradiction?

Excellent observation! What's even more puzzling is that the people who care are at the games and not home in time to catch the late news. Why stations don't create a half hour Saturday morning show with all these highlights is beyond me.

But that would actually make sense. Forgive me.


You keep mentioning "Palookaville" in your posts. Where exactly is this place?

It's down the road a short distance from Podunk.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Anchor checklist

Since I got a good response from the reporter checklist, thought I'd do one for anchors.

Over the years I've worked with a wide variety of anchors; some who were top of the line and others who phoned it in and picked up a check. You can find great anchors in small markets and lousy anchors in big markets. Some are leaders in the newsroom, others feel it is their job to read the prompter and do nothing else.

If you're new to the desk it can be a daunting experience. The toughest thing for a young anchor is not getting a big ego. That anchor title can do weird things to normal people, and turn friendly co-workers into monsters. Great anchors are still team members, still "one of the guys" who will do everything from knocking out a package to changing the toner cartridge in the printer. Lousy anchors look at the rest of the staff as underlings, and won't even make a fresh pot of coffee in the break room.

Being a great anchor is a combination of talent and psychology; you need the gravitas to carry the newscast while maintaining your humanity to treat even the newest intern with respect.

That said, here's the checklist:

-Write your own copy, or at least re-write the stuff you've been given. If you've ever seen an anchor who regularly stumbles while reading, you can be sure that's an anchor who is always reading another person's copy. While some anchors can do it, most are a lot better at reading stuff that originated in their own heads. You talk the way you write, and if you're writing your own stuff you're going to talk normally.

-Know what you're talking about. (And with election night coming up in two weeks, that's a must.) If you find a story in your rundown and don't know anything about it, take some time and do a little research. The Internet is an encyclopedia at our fingertips, so there's no excuse for reading a story and not knowing what it is about.

-Get a pronunciation guide. If you can't pronounce the President of Iran's name, learn, lest you sound like an idiot.

-Learn to mark your script. If you've got a camera change coming up, note it in bold magic marker on the bottom of the preceding story. You don't want to get to the next story and then realize you're on the wrong camera.

-Read your copy aloud before air. If you run out of breath at any point, your sentence is too long. Cut it in half.

-Learn to change cameras seamlessly. Finish story number one on camera one, look down at your script, and then look up at camera two. Easier for the director to punch, and a smoother look for you.

-Ask reporters about their stories when they get back to the station. Don't depend on your producer to do it. Stories change, and what looked like the lead in the morning meeting might really be a story that belongs in the second block.

-Take responsibility. The producer may be putting the newscast together but your face is the one on camera. If there's something wrong in the script, fix it before you go on air.

-Don't take a two hour dinner break. Nothing separates anchors from the rest of the staff more than this. If you're one of the guys, act like it.

-Go over the newscast with the director before air. He'll let you know if there are any problems in the script.

-If you find any stories that might be questionable, discuss them with the News Director. If the ND isn't around, pick up the phone.

-Do the menial stuff. Make coffee, take the script to the director, bring food back for the staff members who don't have time to get something to eat.

-Remember that interns are not your personal servants. They're there because they want to learn something. Take time to teach them.

-Take your producer and director to lunch once in awhile.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sweeps pieces: the last gasp of quality reporting?

One of the most common complaints I hear from people is that they simply aren't given enough time to do a story justice. I don't mean run time, but time to put a story together. Obsession with live shots has "shortened" the day for reporters, and if you have to interrupt your day to do something for a noon show, you're really pushing the envelope to do a decent job.

Getting a sweeps assignment might be your last chance to do an old fashioned job of reporting. You get your story in advance, get a little extra time to set it up, and more time to shoot and edit it. Since NDs consider sweeps pieces sacred, they'll usually give you carte blanche to do your best job.

Funny, it used to be that way every day of the year.

Years ago you'd run into a story that demanded extra time and you'd usually get it. We didn't have wall to wall live shots. (I did about two a month.) We weren't required to stop what we were doing for the noon show, if we even had one. But bottom line, News Directors trusted reporters, and if a reporter said he needed more time, the ND knew there was a reason.

Might be interesting if we treated every day like a sweeps day.

What consultants have failed to realize over the years is that viewers simply don't care if someone is live unless something is actually happening live. And let's face it, 90 percent of your live shots are after the fact with absolutely nothing happening live.

Imagine if you could use that time to make your story better.

Well, things probably aren't going to change so take this opportunity to turn out some special packages. If you've got the extra time, don't waste it. Your resume tape will thank you.


Monday, October 18, 2010

The November 2010 sweeps ideas are in!

Yes, back by popular demand (or at least the hit count the last time I did this), the great sweeps list is ready for distribution.

While many of you have already been assigned pieces or series for November, some managers wait till the last minute and then demand ideas. With that in mind, here are some sure fire winners if you're tapped out in the enterprise story department.

-Trick or Treat, it's Lady Gaga: Okay, this is a pre-sweeps package, as it must air in late October, but it's a great consumer piece for these troubled economic times and will get viewers pumped up for November. Cash strapped parents no longer have to spend a small fortune to dress up their daughters on Halloween; simply combine anything that falls out of the back of the closet and poof! You've got a Lady Gaga costume. Since the singer doesn't wear the same thing twice, you've got an unlimited supply of options. Platform shoes, chest waders and a pith helmet? You're Lady Gaga! 3-D glasses, a leisure suit and bowling shoes? Lady Gaga again!

-New stuff that can kill you: The classic sweeps favorite is back! You think viewers are scared of infected eggs or worried about disinfecting shopping cart handles? Please. That is so five minutes ago. Time to take them to a new level of fear and send them cowering under the bed for the entire month. This year's series focuses on a business traveler who hits the trifecta of death when he deals with an unsanitized steering wheel in a rental car, leans back on a bacteria laden headrest on an airplane and caps off his day when he arrives home and unpacks his checked suitcase which was sneezed on by a airport baggage handler not wearing a mask. Feeling ill, he crawls into bed, but a surprise awaits as bed bugs have hitched a ride on his suitcase and jumped into the mattress when he unpacked. He later develops a fatal case of restless leg syndrome when the bed bugs bite him, forcing him to jerk awake and thrust out his leg, thereby knocking over a lamp on his end table which hits him in the head and sends him into a permanent dirt nap.

-Will my teenage daughter ever talk again?: A two-parter focusing on teen girls obsession with text messaging. In part one, parents lament that their 16 year old daughter has not actually spoken in three years. After spending two thousand dollars consulting with a psychologist, they contact their cell phone provider to turn off the text messaging plan on the daughter's phone. In part two we see the daughter's reaction as she tries to scream but is unsuccessful, as her vocal chords have atrophied due to lack of use.

-Make your own Snuggie for Christmas: Viewers are taken through a step by step process as they are shown how they can wear a bathrobe backwards and pretend it is a Snuggie.

-The Eliot Spitzer career advancement program: In this series a frustrated anchor who has been trapped in Palookaville for ten years puts together a horrible resume tape and sends out 100 copies with no response. In part two he cheats on his wife with an escort, leaves his job in shame, and is offered a network gig as a talk show host.

-Thanksgiving without Tiger Woods: Reporter goes in search of the most high profile local celebrity with the most mistresses in order to fill the holiday void created by the golfer's divorce.

-Thanksgiving with Brett Favre: In this piece a middle-aged male reporter shows people who are bored spending time with family over the holidays how to have fun with a cell phone. The reporter sends text messages to Brett Favre, pretending to be an attractive woman, then waits to see what he gets in reply.

-"It's a teenager's worst nightmare!": Time to retire the all-time most overused story intro, "It's a parent's worst nightmare!" since it now applies to about a dozen scenarios. In this series we turn the tables on the kids as we strive to find out what is truly the most horrifying incident to teenagers. In part one parents show up at the senior prom to watch their children, then take to the dance floor themselves. In part two moms open twitter accounts and sent tweets to the close friends of their children with messages like, "Make sure my son wears his hat on the way home, it's cold outside!" Finally, in part three, helicopter parents tail their sons on a date, then show up at the same movie theater and start making out in the front row.

-Convert your social networking to the real world and save at least ten hours per week: Reporters should find an agoraphobe living in his mother's basement who is obsessed with Facebook and Twitter and force the person to apply the principles in the outside world. Cameras must follow the subject as he is forced to take a photo out into a crowd and ask every person, "Do you like this?" Once this task is completed, the person will be required to speak in very short non sequiturs to complete strangers. "I just fed the cat." "My coffee is cold and I'm out of milk." "The new Star Trek movie rocks." In part two of this series, the agoraphobe is shown the folly of his ways, acquires a rocket science PhD with all his new found free time and gets a telecommuting job with NASA, albeit while still wearing a set of Spock ears in his mother's basement.

-"You may find our next story disturbing...": In this social experiment, every single story aired during the first three weeks of sweeps month is begun with this phrase even if the story is not remotely disturbing. For instance, a script might read, "You may find this next story disturbing... city officials have scheduled a special zoning board meeting," or, "You may find this next story disturbing... drinking orange juice every day may lower your cholesterol." During the final week of sweeps we show the station's ratings have skyrocketed during the experiment, necessitating the name change of the station newscast from "Eyemissed It News" to "Disturbing News Live."

-Hurricane Roulette: In this one-parter the Chief Meteorologist tries to explain why the National Hurricane Center has been so far off in predictions the past few years, focusing on the fact that the storms are being predicted by people living in Colorado.

-The vampire next door: A clever ruse designed to capitalize on the recent vampire craze and hopefully attract young female viewers who never watch local news. The key to this series success is a promo featuring a shirtless hunk detailing the fact that vampires exist; and trick is to run the promo every day as if the series is coming up in the next newscast. Then, after running teases throughout the newscast, the anchor will apologize at the end of the newscast and say, "Sorry, but we've run out of time. Our series on vampires will air tomorrow at 6." Then, simply continue the pattern of running promos all day, teases throughout the newscast, and a run-out-of-time apology. The vampire obsessed with continue to watch day after day in the hopes of seeing a piece on bloodsuckers which, in reality, has never even been produced.


Friday, October 15, 2010

Reporter checklist

People often send me links to packages and ask me to give them a quick look. I often find myself saying stuff like, "You forgot a standup," or, "You forgot to add the nat sound," or "You forgot to use some tight shots." The key word is often "forgot."

With that in mind, I've put together a little checklist that reporters should have whenever you're heading out to do a package. Veterans have this system on auto-pilot, but if you're new, it always helps to double-check the things you need before heading back to the station. Some of this stuff is obvious, some not.


-Do you have a clear picture of what your story will be about? If not, talk with management before you leave.

-Do you understand the story you have been assigned? If not, do research before setting it up.

-Have you discussed the story with the photog and gotten his ideas on how to approach it before you start making calls?

-Do you have good directions and contact numbers? Don't trust the GPS or Internet mapping services.

-Do you have a pre-conceived notion about the story? If so, check it at the door.

-Got your makeup and IFB? You might have to do a live shot and not get a chance to come back to the station. In fact, always assume you might not come back and take everything you might possibly need.


-Have you gotten both sides of the story?

-Have you looked for a third side, or point of view, that will make your story different from those done by your competitors?

-If you can only get one side of the story, can viewers see you trying to get the other side, or are you just going to tell them you couldn't get in touch with someone?

-Have you done a standup that both shows and tells? Or shown some reporter involvement?

-Got a money shot? Got a great opening shot?

-Did you use a tripod (and lights, if necessary?)

-Does your story show and tell, or just tell?

-Does your story have natural sound that adds to the story?

-Are you being objective in your questions?

-Do you have enough b-roll to cover your story? (If you're a one man band, do you have a variety of wide, medium and tight shots?)

-Did you thank the people who took time to give you an interview?


-Did you watch all of your video before writing your script?

-Did you write the anchor Intro before writing your package?

-Are you writing to the video you've got? Are you writing into and out of any sound bites or pieces of nat sound?

-Do you have several pieces of nat sound in your story?

-Did you watch your story completely after you're done to make sure there are no bad edits, flash frames or jump cuts?


-Have you thanked your photog? (If you're a one man band, look in the mirror at the end of the day and say, "Helluva job, kid.")

-Have you left gas in the news car? Nothing is more frustrating for the next person to jump in a car for breaking news only to lose precious time having to stop at a gas station.

-Have you left garbage in the news car? If you want to get on a photog's bad side, leave some fast food bags in the car to fester overnight.

-Have you watched the competition to compare stories, and have you noticed anything you might have done differently?

-Have you asked for feedback from the ND or a veteran on staff?

-Finally, if your story turned out really good, did you make a copy and take it home?

Any more suggestions, fire away. I'm sure I've missed a few.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Enough with the jump cuts already!

Lucky for me I received my first editing lesson from a CBS producer in New York. He told me there was a lot of latitude when it came to editing, but there were a few rules you never broke.

The big taboo was called a "jump cut."

Most of you know the term, but for those who do not, let me explain. A jump cut is something that cannot physically happen. For instance, if you go from from a shot of Senator Jones at his desk and cut directly to him shaking hands on the campaign trail, that is a jump cut. In effect, he has "jumped" from the desk to the campaign.

Jump cuts don't have to be that drastic to qualify. You might go from a shot of the Senator on the phone and cut directly to one of him with his hands folded. His hand has jumped from the phone to his other hand.

Hence the creation of "cutaways." The CBS guy taught me the importance of having shots to "cut away" from your subject; something to put between shots to avoid a jump cut.

The only other way to get around this was a dissolve, which implies a time change, and back then it took an act of congress and a friendly director to get a dissolve made. It was too much time and trouble, so we simply shot enough cutaways to deal with jump cuts.

Why the rule against jump cuts? Well, they're jarring to the viewer. And since we want to make our product flow seamlessly, we avoid anything that's jarring.

So it puzzle me that I'm seeing so many jump cuts on resume tapes these days. I have to assume that half of you don't know about them, and the other half don't take the time to throw in a dissolve. Which, in these days of non-linear editing, takes about ten seconds.

If you've ever seen a great sequence in which all the shots match up and it looks like it was shot with two cameras, that's the result of a photog painstakingly trying to avoid a jump cut. He might tell the Senator on the phone to freeze while he changes the angle and gets him hanging up the phone. That's a small sequence, which is another way to avoid a jump cut.

Some NDs don't care about this, but many do. You can impress an old school ND who values production values by keeping the jump cuts out of your stories. It's so easy to avoid, there's really no excuse.