Friday, May 7, 2010

Covering the oil spill

Living on the Gulf Coast these days means your thoughts are dominated by the massive oil spill. This will end up being an economic and environmental disaster of epic proportions.

Locally, it's easy to see and feel the effects. Like most people, we ran out to stock up on local seafood last weekend, as we don't know if we'll be seeing 10W40 shrimp in the near future. Friends who rent out condos at the beach are going to take a bath, as vacationers are canceling their trips here. Seafood restaurants? I can't even imagine what they'll go through. Will the air along the coast be breathable, and will this cause a whole bunch of respiratory problems?

Now if you're a reporter in Kansas or Idaho or Indiana you might think the oil spill doesn't really affect you that much.

Think again. Remember, every action has a reaction. The ill wind always blows someone some good.

If restaurants can't serve seafood, they'll cook something else. And maybe that means the Nebraska beef producers make a fortune. So if you're a reporter there, you might look in that direction. Or maybe you're in a place that has a fresh water catfish farm, and orders are through the roof.

Where will people who no longer want to cruise the Caribbean go on vacation? You might be a reporter in a tourist destination that is seeing bookings pick up all of a sudden.

And have you cruised by a convenience store that sells BP gas lately? Not a whole lot of customers. That's a story you can do anywhere.

The effects of this story will be far reaching, and chances are that no matter what market you're in, there's something that will change. Just take time to think, and you'll find an oil spill story you can localize.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

News Director's playbook: planning WAY ahead

Every News Director has someone on the staff he wishes would leave. Many managers deal with this by making these people miserable hoping they will quit. But others simply bide their time, waiting for the day when that person's contract expires.

So let's say I'm a News Director and I've got a worthless reporter I want to replace, but the contract doesn't end until June of 2011, thirteen months from now. Do I start looking next April to replace this person?

No. I start looking now.

Why? Well, it's all about timing.

And that's why you, the job hunter, should send tapes out to target markets anytime, even if the end of your contract is a long way off.

Let's say your contract ends in thirteen months as well. You should always start looking at least six months out, but why not send tapes to your target markets right now?

Remember, I'm a ND and I know I'm going to need a reporter next June. Your tape wanders in today and I like it. In your cover letter you've told me that your contract has another year to run.

Timing? Perfect. So I start a dialogue with you. I ask you to keep in touch, send more tapes. Maybe I critique your tape. Maybe I give you a phone call.

And when next April comes up, I've got you in mind for that job.

I've had many people get jobs this way. And trust me, News Directors all have a stack of "good tapes" in their offices for openings that will come up in the future.

So don't wait for jobs to be posted before sending a tape. You, as the job seeker, have no idea what the ND has planned down the road, or what expiring contracts might create openings in the future.

If you do this, make sure you are totally up front about any contract situation in your cover letter. If you've got thirteen months to go, say so. Your letter might look like this:

"I still have a little over a year left on my contract but I'd eventually love to work in your market. I'd appreciate any feedback you might have on my work."

You might not get a response, but if you do you've started a relationship with a manager. You can then send tapes every two months to keep yourself on the back burner of the ND's mind.

Remember, there will always be openings at every station in America. Waiting for them to occur is fine, but getting your tape in the door ahead of the inevitable flood can lay the groundwork for something in the future.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Great story

Here's a beautifully told story by one of my clients. For those who insist packages longer than 1:30 don't hold viewers interest, I challenge you to look away from this seven minute piece.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Mailbag: Pitching change


I always bring stories ideas to the morning meeting but the powers that be don't seem all that excited. They always seem to want to know what angle I'll take. But how can I know that if I haven't done the story?

Well, what makes a story really "sellable" to a manager is when a reporter knows exactly where he's going to take the story. For instance, if you had a new angle on the oil spill and the effects it might have on cruise ships, you might say, "I was talking to a travel agent yesterday and he said this could be a nightmare if cruise ships have to re-route their itineraries." Now you've told the ND you've done a little research on the story, and that you'll be starting with the travel agent. (Those of you on the gulf coast, feel free to steal this idea.)

Showing that you've done a little homework on the story you're pitching tells the ND you'll be able to hit the ground running on the story instead of having to work the phones for an hour or two.


What exactly is the definition of "hard news?" We seem to have a disagreement in our newsroom.

While some people believe hard news has to be something that originated on the scanner, hard news can be just about anything that has a significant impact on people's lives. Things like politics and the economy fall into the hard news category.

A lot of people confuse spot news with hard news. While almost all spot news is hard news, most hard news is not spot news. (Got it?) Some major news stories, like the oil spill, start out as spot news (the accident) and spawn a ton of other stories which fall into the hard news category. Generally, you might not think of the environment or tourism as a hard news item, but don't tell that to the people of the gulf coast.


I'm in my first job and have been handed the weekend anchor position. I have to produce my own show. The other night I had two stories that were both leadable and it was hard to decide what to do. Any suggestions?

Well, apparently no one has taught you about the "umbrella lead." This means you can put more than one story under the "umbrella" of the lead story slot. It might sound like this...

"Police make an arrest in the New York City attempted bombing... we'll get to that story in a moment, but first..."

In this manner you've touched on both stories in the first ten seconds, letting the viewers know you have two very important stories.

You can do this with more than two stories as well on really busy days.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Rest in peace, Evan Hill; in praise of the ultimate teacher

I didn't know I wanted to go into broadcasting until I got out of college. It wouldn't have mattered if I'd discovered microphones and cameras as an undergrad, as my school, the University of Connecticut, didn't offer broadcasting courses. What it did offer to a student who wanted to do something creative was a world-class college daily newspaper and four journalism courses. Since I loved newspapers and burned to write, I signed up for both.

As I walked into the classroom for the first time, I knew this was no ordinary course. The room was set up with tables arranged in a horseshoe, various brands of manual typewriters sitting in front of the chairs. A neat stack of yellow paper sat next to each typewriter; I later discovered this was for the benefit of editors and typesetters, as yellow was easier on the eyes of those who read for a living.

The teacher was a kindly, white-haired middle-aged magazine and newspaper writer named Evan Hill, who might have been described as a Southern gentleman if we weren't in New England. That first day he explained the parameters of the class; rule number one was that we checked our opinions at the door, and heaven help the student who let said opinion trickle into a news story. We were now journalists, and as such we were observers whose job was to tell our readers what we knew, not what we thought. We also had to respect our fellow students and call them by proper names. Everyone was Mister or Miss something-or-other. We would be polite to anyone we interviewed. We learned the meaning of "off the record." Within one hour I knew that wearing tee-shirts and bell-bottoms to this class wouldn't cut it.

Because Mr. Hill had created an actual newsroom. He was not only training us to write, but to be professional.

He warned us about his one pet peeve: the lack of a thing called an "end mark." This was a simple code to tell editors and typesetters when they'd reached the end of a story. We were to simply put the number 30 surrounded by hyphens at the end of our stories, like this:


Naturally I forgot this on my first assignment. It was handed back to me, covered in so much red ink I wondered if someone had attempted suicide and bled all over my copy. There was a big red "D" at the top of the page, but what caught my eye was the notation at the bottom of the page.

"End mark, dammit."

End mark, dammit? Oh, I could tell Mr. Hill was gonna be my kind of teacher.

I politely knocked on his office door later that day and asked if my writing was that bad. "You have good writing ability," said Mr. Hill. "But you can do better."

"Would you give me a chance to re-write this?"

"Of course," he said.

So I re-wrote it and handed it to him after the next class. I later got it back with two notations.

"Better" and "End mark, dammit."

It quickly became apparent to all of us that this was not a course for those obsessed with grade point average. There were some really sharp minds in that group, many of whom went home trying to explain C's and D's to parents while telling them this was the best class on campus.

There were no quizzes, no final exams, no textbooks. Mr. Hill tested us every day with real, hands-on experience.

One day he started the class with, "You have one hour to find a story and have it on my desk."

We sat there, puzzled. "Find a story…where?" asked one student.

"I don't care," said Mr. Hill. "Get out and find something, write about it, and be back here with it finished in one hour."

We all bolted out of the classroom and went in a dozen different directions in search of anything that would make interesting copy. Amazingly, everyone completed the assignment on time.

And just like that, Mr. Hill had taught us how to find a story and hit a deadline. It was the first of many "wax on, wax off" moments.

He also stressed the little things, the elements that gave a story life. "I want you to feel your feet on the floor," he said. "Did you notice how the floor felt before I told you to do that? You didn't." He wanted us to look past the obvious, to find those special things that took an average story to the next level. A story was a tapestry beyond mere facts, and we had to find the threads that would weave it into something special.

Despite the lousy grades, no one ever cut this class because you knew every single session was different. Mr. Hill often brought his friends from newspapers and magazines into the classroom, to give us a taste of what it was like in the real world. He took us on a field trip to the Hartford Courant, to meet reporters and see all the behind-the-scenes stuff that went into producing a newspaper.

Evan Hill was king in the classroom. He never yelled, never called out a student in front of the class. On one occasion he gave us one of his unusual assignments and he caught me rolling my eyes. He then hit me with the greatest line I've ever heard from a teacher. "Mr. Tatano, don't look at me in that tone of voice."

While other kids looked forward to spring break, we couldn't wait for Mr. Hill's one week adventure at a newspaper called the New London Day. For five days we played reporter, going out on actual assignments which ended up in a special supplement to the paper. Mr. Hill sent me to a dusty, dark courthouse in North Stonington, Connecticut, to look up century-old stuff from the archives.

That taught me to dig.

Those who completed all four classes were invited on a special outing. Mr. Hill handed out the invitations, and we wondered if this was another clever ruse designed to teach us something.

Kite flying on Horse Barn Hill followed by dinner.

Kite flying? With a teacher? I'd never flown a kite but I knew this had to be code for something else. Surely Mr. Hill was going to send us off in search of Jimmy Hoffa's body.

But when we arrived at the appointed location we were each handed a kite and spent the afternoon appreciating the simple pleasure provided by Mother Nature's winds. Was that a lesson? Mr. Hill would never tell. But sure enough, we had dinner at his home later that evening.

For our last class we all decided to dress as a team. We had shirts printed up with "Hill's Angels" on the front and a big number 30 on the back.

One of the students wrote a wonderful piece about our teacher in the campus newspaper before graduation, but Mr. Hill felt it was unnecessary, telling me, "That sort of stuff belongs in an obituary."

A few years ago I caught the Richard Dreyfuss movie "Mr. Holland's Opus" on cable. It's the story of a teacher who thinks his life has been a failure until all his former students return to say thanks for touching their lives. The next day I called the University, got Mr. Hill's address, and wrote him a long letter. I told him what a great influence he was on my life. He wrote back, telling me to drop by if I was ever in the neighborhood.

I wonder what he thought of what passes for journalism today. He had such class, such impeccable ethics, such devotion to the printed word and getting the story right. I'm sure the bias that has filtered into our profession made his blood boil. He remained a decent human being in an industry that chews up souls and ethics and dreams like a meat grinder.

When I learned of his passing, I started doing Internet searches of the classmates I remembered. Every one had pursued a career in journalism or something media related. The few articles I found that had been written by my cohorts still had a touch of the style he'd taught us so long ago.

Christa McAuliffe once summed up her profession perfectly. "I touch the future. I teach." God only knows how many futures were touched by Evan Hill.

I'm sure his family has something profound in mind for his headstone. But knowing Mr. Hill's incredible modesty and dry wit, I'm sure he'd appreciate the following:

Evan Hill
End mark, dammit