Friday, April 23, 2010

The elusive story idea

Perhaps the biggest challenge for young people is the ability to unearth workable story ideas. Of course, it helps if your News Director has a morning meeting that is actually receptive to ideas... some NDs just shoot down everything on principle, in a pathetic attempt at conveying power. Others like to clip things out of newspapers and hand out "assignments" in this manner.

Still, you need to come to work every day with two or three good ideas that aren't in the local newspaper and haven't been done by the competition. And you need to have an angle that will make the story different than what you'd expect.

Notice I said stories that haven't been in the "local" newspaper. There's nothing to prevent you from reading out of town papers on the Internet to get your creative juices flowing. My dad used to mail me batches of New York papers every week, and I'd often find interesting pieces that I could localize or take in a different direction. Sometimes articles from out of town can send your mind off on a tangent that will result in an idea that had nothing to do with the original article. Bottom line, if you read a lot, you'll come up with ideas.

But that's just part of the equation. To be in touch with your local community, you need to have a plan of attack.

-Develop and touch base regularly with sources
-Hand out business cards to everyone you meet
-Take a different route to work and back to your home
-Ask everyone you interview if they have another story
-Look for the different angle, or the "third side" of the story

Sources: At my first station, we had a veteran reporter who didn't do packages every day, but when he did them they were really good. The ND told me he was our "snoop." He'd work his way through the courthouse, police station, and various political offices every day and come up with all sorts of gems. It was old fashioned reporting you probably can't do now due to time restrictions, but you can do the same thing with your cell phone. Touch base with your sources often, and don't just "use" these people. Have an interest in their lives and let them know you're actually a human being.

Business cards: You should be burning through these quickly. Every person you meet needs to get one, whether it's an official you interview, a man-in-the-street, or the woman in the line at the grocery store. Hand them out with this simple line: "If you ever have a good story, give me a call."

The commute: When you take the same route every day, you don't really "see" anything. Everything is wallpaper. Taking different routes forces you to notice different things, and what you notice might lead to a good story. I can't tell you how many stories I've found in this manner. If you take the same route every day, you'll never see anything new.

Tangent stories: So you're interviewing some guy on an economic story and you finish asking questions for your package. Are you done? Nope. While you're packing up your gear, ask the person if there's anything else of interest he might know about that might make a good story. The guy might have a great political tip, a human interest story, or a lead on something big. Every person has varied interests and knows lots of people; it's silly to assume the person you just interviewed is only versed in your topic for the day.

Different angles: (Lots of math terms today, I know.) Every story has two obvious sides, but there are often third points of view that aren't being considered. You need to think of other consequences to the story besides the obvious.

Example... You're doing a story on the Iceland volcano and stranded travelers. On one side, you have the airlines losing money, on the other, you have people stuck in airports. What's the third side?

Well, all those people stuck in the airport are spending money in the airport restaurant, which is doing a booming business. As are the airport hotels. Meanwhile, all those people that would have been headed to popular vacation spots are causing a negative effect on the other end.... how much money are the restaurants, hotels and shops in the destinations losing since their customers are stuck in an airport? What happened to the cruise ship leaving from the UK when half its passengers couldn't fly to London?

Story ideas are everywhere, you just have to dig for them. Read a lot, talk a lot, work the phones, and think out of the box every time you see something interesting. Eventually gathering story ideas will become easier, and something that becomes second nature.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Interview with average viewers

Today we're spending some time with Joe and Mabel Sixpack, average viewers who live in an average home and work at average jobs. They are in the key demographic these days, which is classified as "breathing."

Grape: Joe, Mabel, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us today.

Joe: Thanks for listening. I often wondered if the networks have a clue as to what average viewers are thinking.

Grape: So what are you thinking?

Mabel: They never should have killed off Rex on Desperate Housewives.

Joe: Heck, she's still mad about them killing off Roz on LA Law twenty years ago.

Mabel: Yeah, like you don't miss Paula Abdul.

Grape: Can we talk about local news? Specifically, what are your viewing habits?

Joe: Well, when we watch, we watch Super Action Eyemissedit News. That's the station with the nuclear super-collider doppler radar that can tell the direction you combed your hair and the effect of the wind vortex you've created by doing so.

Grape: So you don't flip around the channels at six o'clock, to see who has the best lead story?

Mabel: You can't be serious. Why would anyone do that?

Grape: So why do you watch that particular channel?

Joe: Well, let's be honest. We only watch it if nothing else is on. If Seinfeld or Everybody Loves Raymond doesn't have a particularly good episode, we'll watch the news.

Mabel: We watch that channel because they're the least of three evils. Kinda like going to vote on election day.

Grape: What do you mean?

Mabel: Well, one of the other channels runs nothing but car wrecks and fires. The second one loves tape from convenience store robberies. I mean, seriously, who cares?

Joe: None of that stuff affects us.

Grape: So you've settled on one station. Is there anything you like about it?

Mabel: Well, they do some decent stories about stuff other than crime. Consumer news, things that can save you a buck. Decent health stories, although you can tell they're from out of town since all the doctors and patients have New York accents, and we're a long way from New York.

Joe: Plus the brunette anchor is cute.

Mabel: Like I said, he misses Paula Abdul. We met that anchor once in the grocery store. She was very nice and actually talked to us. Seemed like a real person. Gave us her business card and told us to call if we ever had an interesting story. The anchors on the other channels look fake, and they're overly dramatic. They make a car wreck seem like the end of the world.

Joe: You know what I really hate? When someone dies, and they send a reporter to interview the family. Would you want a camera in your face if you lost a loved one?

Grape: Let's talk about weather. Consultants say it is the most important part of the newscast.

Mabel: I wouldn't say that, but you need to know the forecast, or if some hurricane or tornado is coming.

Joe: Yeah, but they can really ruin the rest of the programming. We don't really need those constant interruptions or split screens. Just run a little warning on the bottom of the screen. We can read, you know.

Grape: Do all those promotions about weather equipment influence you at all?

Joe: You'd have to be a rocket scientist to understand that stuff. They talk like the average family has a nuclear reactor in the garage. I just want to watch someone who knows what he's talking about, and I don't need an endless forecast. I can look that up in ten seconds on the Internet... why do I have to wait four minutes to find out if it's gonna rain or not?

Grape: How about sports?

Joe: One of those other channels canceled local sports, so there's no chance we'll ever watch them.

Grape: Consultants say sports fans watch ESPN.

Joe: And does ESPN have stories about our local teams? No.

Grape: What about the Internet?

Mabel: What about it?

Grape: When stations tell you to go to the Internet for more on the story, do you do it?

Mabel: I shouldn't have to. If you can't give me the whole story on TV, what's the point of local news?

Joe: You know what I hate? When they do those things during prime time about big stories and they turn out to be nothing.

Grape: You mean teases?

Joe: Whatever they're called, but they rarely deliver the goods.

Grape: Anything else you'd change on local news?

Joe: Why do they go all out during sweeps?

Grape: You know about sweeps?

Joe: Sure, TV Guide talks about it all the time. It's like when sweeps are over, they all stop trying. I know about jumping the shark, too.

Mabel: Like when they pushed Roz down the elevator shaft. They jumped a great white in that episode.

Grape: Anything else?

Mabel: You know, I'd ditch those commercials when they talk about how great they are, or what a good job they did covering a big story. If you did that in real life, people would call you conceited. Tell us what stories you're going to do, not what you already covered. But don't make them sound bigger than they really are.

Joe: I like the live shots they do at eleven o'clock in front of some place that's closed and pitch dark. Like there's something happening at that hour at the county courthouse or city hall. What is the point of being out there at that hour?

Grape: Don't look at me, I have no idea.

Joe: You know, when I was growing up we'd all watch the news every night. We never missed it.

Grape: So what's changed?

Joe: The news they're covering doesn't affect me for the most part.

Grape: Would you start watching more if it did?

Joe: You bet.

Grape: Well, it's almost six o'clock. Let's see what the big story is.

Mabel: Oh, I'm sorry, but tonight they're running the Seinfeld episode where Kramer gets the rickshaw.

Joe: Yeah, we never miss that one.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dress code

When I got my first television job, my dad took me down to what was known as the "anchor clothing store" because all the New York anchors shopped there. I told him we couldn't afford to shop there, but he said we couldn't afford not to. (Of course, he knew the sales guy and had cut some sort of deal.) "You wanna go on TV lookin' like a slob?" he said. Dad may have worked in a deli, but he knew how to dress.

The sales guy took measurements, then picked out several suits he thought would work for me. While trying them on, I was amazed at how different they looked from off-the-rack stuff and how wonderful the fabric felt. Dad bought me two suits, which, more than 20 years later, still look great. Classic never goes out of style.

Then there's the smoke-damaged Halston suit I mentioned in an earlier post that was found in a salvage shop for two dollars. That too, is still hanging in the closet.

Good clothes aren't cheap. And while many of you are barely getting by on meager paychecks, you need to think of your wardrobe as an investment in your career. You may be working in Podunk and thinking, "Well, this is how the people in Podunk dress, so I can get away with these old college clothes." But that's the wrong approach.

Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.

If you're willing to spend time hunting, you can find great deals in close out stores or discount shops. Sometimes a woman just needs a colorful silk top to go with a blazer, and ten bucks can do the trick. I have one client who buys designer stuff on eBay... a little risky if it doesn't fit, but she says it works for her. And if you live in a market that has a well-to-do neighborhood, thrift stores are often filled with new stuff (still with tags) bought by rich people on a whim and never worn.

Finally, a few tips for the guys. I'm seeing way too many tapes from men with no neckties (totally unacceptable, unless you're doing a "dirty" story) and sloppy knots. If you don't know how to tie a necktie, go to a nice clothing store and ask someone to teach you. Get a dimple in the knot and make sure it's all the way up to your collar. And no more wrinkled shirts....ironing takes little time and makes a big difference in your look.

Same rules apply for interviews. Wear your best outfit.

Remember, when you send out your resume tape you're making a first impression. And in such a superficial business, how you dress is a big part of your success.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Things that aren't on your resume can get you a job

I'll never forget the young woman who strutted into our newsroom for an interview. And yes, I do mean strutted. I half expected her to stop at the office door, do a 360 turn, and say, "Dress by Herve Leger, shoes by Manolo Blahnik, bag by Louis Vuitton."

Get this... after her catwalk act, she sits down, looks me in the eye, and says, "Hey, I know I'm really attractive."

She had an impressive resume and a good tape, but she didn't get the job because of what she didn't have. Modesty.

(That's something often missing from cover letters as well. If your letter talks about how great you are, it's time for a re-write.)

One of my all-time favorite people got the job because she sat down and said this. "I need someone to help me take my work to the next level." In this case the gal had a lot of raw talent and she knew it; she also knew she needed help, and was big enough to admit it. Nothing changed after we hired her, as she was often in my office asking for an opinion or dragging me into an edit booth to check out a story in progress.

When job hunting, your talent or potential is obvious on your tape. (And if you're attractive, that's obvious as well.) So your interview is the opportunity to show a News Director you don't know everything and are willing to take direction. You may actually be a great team player who brings a lot to the table, but the "show and tell" aspects of television apply to interviews as well. Your tape shows me what you can do. Your words tell me what kind of person you are.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The package clinic is open

Okay, we're going to try something different. I've heard from a bunch of people who say they read all kinds of suggestions yet still aren't "getting it" when it comes to package construction.

So here's the deal... Send me the script of a package that you felt missed the mark. Take out your name and location, because we're going to post examples. List the video and nat breaks that you have available. And tell me what you'd like to have done with the package that didn't work out.

I'll "re-package" your story so that you can see how things might have turned out differently.

The clinic won't be open forever, so fire away. Send all materials to I'll be waiting with the red pen.

A package needs a bow

When you give someone a gift, you generally put it in a box, wrap it with colorful paper, and put a bow on the top.

A television package should be thought of in the same manner. That's why "package" is such a good name for the stories we do.

Lately I'm seeing a lot of packages without a bow.

It bad enough that so many packages are starting off badly, with either a standup (the worst way to start a package) or a sound bite. But the endings are even worse.

Because they're often missing.

There's a reason childrens stories end with, "And they lived happily ever after," before, "The End." If you just said, "So Prince Charming put the slipper on Cinderella's foot and it fit, the end," it would feel like something was missing.

When many young reporters get to what they think is the end of a package, they can't think of anything else to say, so they slap the equivalent of "the end" by simply adding a sig-out. When it follows a sound bite, it's just awkward.

When you get to the end of a package, you need at least one sentence, preferably two, to wrap things up, to tie the ribbon around the package before putting your name on it. It will flow smoother and make more sense to the viewer.

So take a few minutes when writing your stories and end them properly.