Friday, March 26, 2010

Network feeds: the accidental resume tape

We used to make lots of extra money selling stories to various network feeds.

Did your jaw just drop? Did you say, "Whaaaa.... network feeds pay for stories?"

Well, not anymore. Yet another perk of the "good old days" that has gone by the boards.

Yes, when you had a good story you could call up the network and pitch it to the feed people. The feed people were these hard-boiled veteran news people who had the personality of a New York State Thruway toll collector, so you really had to do a sales job. The conversation went like this:

Me: I've got a package on a Klan rally.

Feed guy: You got sheets and hoods?

Me: Yeah.

Feed guy: Burning cross?

Me: Nope.

Feed guy: We'll take it on spec.

So they would look at it "on spec" and if it made the feed, they sent you a check that you split with the photog.

Making the feed: $200
Making the network morning show: $500
Making the network evening news: $600

And, if your network didn't want it, you could sell it to CNN for $125. Got a sports story? ESPN would pay $100.

The feed used to be filled with nothing but great stories. Of course the quality of the feed went into the dumper when they stopped paying. Because we stopped pitching. Back then we had to make a dub, cut a network tag, take it to the airport, and send it up to the network. Way too much trouble for nothing. The feed people started calling, getting desperate. "We haven't seen your stories on the feed lately." Yeah, well we haven't seen any checks in the mail lately either.

But now you don't have to go through the trouble of making dubs, cutting a new tag, etc. Now you can just uplink the thing or send it via the Internet or whatever.

I know, I know. You still don't get paid.

But you get seen.

Trust me, people have been hired because News Directors have spotted them on the feed.

I don't know what every network's system is these days for filling the feed, but if they don't call you, you should call them if you have a great story. Let me define that: a great story for the feed is one that puts you in a good light and shows off your talents, not one that the feed people would take regardless of who the reporter is. The feed might want your UFO landing story, but unless you do a great job on it, it won't advance your career.

If you make the feed often enough with quality stuff, producers start to recognize your name and look for stuff you've done. Show up enough times on someone else's newscast and you'll get noticed.

Back in 1988 I was covering the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. A couple of reporters from another market came up to me and told me how much they liked my stories. I'd never worked in their market and didn't know anyone there. But it turned out their producers regularly ran my feed pieces.

Yet another reason to always do your best and not phone it in. You never know who's watching in your market... or around the country.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Mailbag: Save the best for last


What can young reporters learn from the Tom Rinaldi interview of Tiger Woods conducted for ESPN? It seemed like he handled it very professionally with a blend of respect and hard questions.

Celebrity interviews are different than others. And in this case, Woods' handlers dictated all sorts of rules; a five minute limit, the interview must be done standing up. (The last one puzzled me. Then again, everything Tiger's handlers have done since the accident doesn't make much sense. I would have said, "Sorry, we're doing the interview in the yoga warrior position or not at all.")

Having interviewed many celebrities, I can tell you that you are sometimes intimidated; the bigger the star, the more intimidation. Usually you can tell in a few seconds if the celebrity is a real person or someone who plays by different rules. When I interviewed Jay Leno he put me totally at ease, asking me if I wanted something to drink and offering me a tour of his car collection. With other celebs, it was clear that I was the lowly reporter.

Back to the Woods interview. As I started to watch, I noted the very low key, almost sympathetic tone of the interviewer. I'm thinking, "What is this... a session with a psychologist?" But then again, the reporter probably knew that if he came at Tiger hard and fast, the golfer would bolt, and that would be the end of the interview.

Then he did something that surprised me, and probably did the same to Tiger Woods. He saved his toughest question for last. "Why did you get married?" Wow, what a great question. (I would have asked, "What the heck were you thinking?" but I admit the marriage question is a lot better.)

By saving the tough question for last, you've at least assured yourself of having sound bites from the previous five minutes. Had the reporter asked this first, Tiger might have yanked off the mike and stormed away.

It reminded me of the time I had to ask a politician about an extra-marital affair. I saved it for last, and he stormed away, but at least I had some stuff to work with. And, when you ask the easier questions first, the interview subject gets comfortable and let's down his guard a little.

Of course, if I should run into Sandra Bullock's husband, I'd still ask, "What the heck were you thinking?"

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How to cut time out of your package

Every station has rules about package times. Some like stories that run about 1:30, while others prefer what I call "packlets" that run 1:10 or less. Personally, I allowed stories to run more than two minutes if they were really good.

Regardless of your station's parameters, hitting time limits is often difficult for young reporters. You've got a good story, but it runs too long... so what do you cut? A sound bite? Your standup? Nat sound breaks?

Nope. The easiest thing to cut is your voice track. Trust me, packages are loaded with tons of extraneous words. You may look at your script and think it's impossible without changing the meaning or taking out facts, but it's easy if you know how to do it. Your package will be tighter and just as informative while keeping management and producers happy.

So, let me give you a few examples of how to "red pen" your script.

Let's say we're writing a story on health care. We've got our bites, nat sound breaks and standup in place but we're still ten seconds too long. So take a look at your copy.

"Opponents of the health care bill say that many doctors will stop taking Medicare patients. And that could make it harder for seniors to get a doctor's appointment."

Okay, there's really nothing wrong with those two sentences, except everything could easily be said in one. There are plenty of extra words in there... do we really need to say "health care bill" when our entire story is on the subject?

Now try this:

"Opponents say seniors could face problems since many doctors might stop taking Medicare patients."

Five seconds, outta here. Did the story change? Nope.

Now let's try some really simple stuff and deal with lead-ins to sound bites.

"Senator Knowitall, who chairs the committee that is reviewing the bill, says the new system will bring big changes to the country's health care system."

Hmmmm... do we really need you to tell the viewer what the Senator is going to say? So let's try this to lead in to the sound bite.

"Committee Chairman Senator Knowitall."

Wow, that's pretty simple. Another five seconds, outta here. Did the story change? No, because the Senator's sound bite is untouched. You didn't need to paraphrase the bite if you didn't have the time.

Remember, the last things to go in a package are your standup, nat sound, and critical sound bites. When seconds count, the easier things to cut are your own words.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Inside the mind of the politician, part two

To understand politicians, you must understand what drives them.

When they're campaigning, they're trumpeting all the things they're going to do for you. But for the most part, their number one concern is getting re-elected.

True story: I had done a few stories on a guy running for public office. In the middle of the campaign his mother passed away, and I thought I'd put the journalist hat away for a few minutes and drop by the wake to pay my respects.

So I visit the funeral home, offer my condolences, etc. As I'm leaving I notice a whole bunch of politicians clustered a few feet away. As I pass them I overhear a conversation that just made me ill. They were in the middle of a political strategy session. With the guy's dead mother lying in an open casket a few feet away.

If that doesn't speak volumes about politics, I don't know what does.

There are, of course, some politicians who are decent human beings and are truly interested in doing the right thing and making the world a better place. And sometimes it's hard to sort them out from the rest of the self-serving majority.

But most are driven by ego, and, in many cases, change once they get into office. I've known people who changed dramatically once elected, adopting the bullet-proof attitude of a teenager. It's why so many politicians like John Edwards and Mark Sanford make such stupid decisions; they think they're above the law and the basic principles of morality no longer apply to them.

Several years ago I was walking to the station and a viewer came up to me and shook my hand. "I want to give you something," he said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a two-dollar bill. Across the top he wrote, Follow the money. "That's your guide to covering politics." I don't know why the guy was handing out two-dollar bills, but I thanked him and put it in my pocket.

I have that two-dollar bill in my wallet to this day. If you want to find out if a politician is the real deal or just another guy out for himself, that's great advice.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Inside the mind of the politician

There are those who listen and those who wait to speak.

The latter describes politicians perfectly.

In light of the seemingly endless health care debate, it's time we talked about politics. Because Americans have a big problem these days; they're watching a group they don't trust (Congress) being interviewed by another group they don't trust (the media.)

Part of the reason is the lack of straight answers by members of both parties, and part of that problem can be traced to the lack of tough, persistent questions by reporters.

Back to our original statement. If you've even interviewed a politician, especially one on the campaign trial, you'll note something interesting while you're asking a question.

The politician isn't listening.

You can see it in the eyes. You may be asking the question the viewers want you to ask, but the eyes are far away, rehearsing a stock answer designed to avoid the question.

Trust me, you could ask something that doesn't even make sense, and you're going to get the stock answer. Because they aren't listening.

Reporter: "So, what's your take on the fact that male members of Congress are going to vote on health care while wearing capri pants?"

Politician: "What the people need to know about health care is...blah, blah, blah..."

Most politicians, and both parties are guilty of this, have mastered this art. Especially when your interview is live. They can basically kill all of your air time without giving you what you really need.

That's why political interviews are best done on tape. You've got all the time and tape in the world.

That's why I've always liked starting an interview with something totally off topic and light. It breaks their train of thought. "So, who's in your bracket for March Madness?" They've got stuff ready to go, and you've derailed them with something they don't expect. Then, when they're relaxed, go for the tough stuff.

So when a politician tap dances around your question, ask it again. A good reporter will say, "Let's get back to our original question..." and ask the question again. And if you get the run around, ask it again. And again. And again. "Yes or no? Do you support this statement?"

The only way the media is going to get off the hook with the public is by not letting politicians get off that same hook.