Saturday, May 29, 2010

Unanswered questions abou the oil spill

I've been working in New Orleans the past few days and it's clear that we're in uncharted territory when it comes to this story. Beyond the obvious stuff about ways to plug the leak, I'm just wondering how hurricane season is going to be affected by the spill... along with some other stuff I've not seen discussed.

If your station does environmental stories or if you're a meteorologist who knocks out an occasional package, these might be some topics to explore.

Since most oil floats on top of water, and hurricanes need evaporating water for energy, will a large oil slick keep water from evaporating and therefore stall a hurricane? Or would the hurricane plow through it and scatter drops of oily water several miles inland?

How does the oil affect the heating of seawater? (The warmer the water, the better for hurricane development.) Does crude oil absorb sunlight faster than water? Will it then heat the water underneath faster, or keep it cooler?

What are the respiratory and other health aspects of vacationing close to an oil spill?

What are the real differences between crude oil and motor oil?

Since shrimp are bottom dwellers, are they somewhat protected from the oil until it is cleaned up? (Full disclosure... got that one from a guy at the fish market.)

This is a story that won't go away for awhile, so look for new angles. I'm sure there are plenty more along with those I've listed.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

My black-and-white childhood was loaded with color

The other day we ran out of milk and I couldn't help but think about the days when that never, ever happened.

Because Eddie the Milkman always kept our Philco fridge stocked with moo juice.

Images from that era are seen these days via grainy black-and-white film, making it seem as if we lived the dark ages before the world embraced color.

In reality, those days of Eddie giving a cheerful "Good Morning!" through the kitchen screen door as he walked in, opened the fridge, and filled it with milk, eggs and other dairy products, are as vivid as if they happened yesterday. If he had time, he'd sit down for coffee and ask me how I was doing in school.

Imagine a world in which you never ran out of dairy products, in which your fridge was magically filled with fresh stuff. Nope, not sci-fi, just the way things were fifty years ago. So much for progress.

If Eddie happened to come by before we were up, he'd leave the milk on the porch. During cold weather it would freeze and expand, creating a vivid image that's impossible to create today: a brown bottle featuring the face of Elsie the Cow, two inches of frozen milk sticking out the top, with a wax cap perched on top like a hat.

Sadly, today, life is as homogenized as milk.

Back then the colorful characters made up our neighborhood and shaped our lives. Mike the Bus Driver was a protector, and made it safe for eight-year-olds to ride mass transit alone. (Imagine today's helicopter parents allowing that.) Bobby the Cop kept an eye out for us, and let parents know if we were headed down the wrong path. Lou the Bookie would give me flash paper so I could impress my friends, and taught me the meaning of vig. (Life skill for all New York area kids.) Father Donnelly doled out guilt during old fashioned one-on-one confession.

Flash forward to my trip to Walgreens for milk. A very nice store, which looks the same as just about any other in the chain. Just as every Outback Steakhouse, Target, and Home Depot are built from a template.

And just like almost every newscast and news story. (Thank you, consultants.)

Despite the fact that we live in a high-def 3-D world, the color has gone out of our lives. Yes, it's nice that I can watch every New York Giants game on my satellite dish, but there are no rich characters anymore. Those wonderful Norman Rockwell people whose last names were simply their professions are gone. I couldn't tell you what Eddie the Milkman's surname was, but he got a bottle of liquor from us every Christmas, as he was part of the family.

The challenge for you as news people is to seek out these people for your stories, fill your stories with color, and make your stories different. We're so stuck in the mode of voice track/sound bite/standup/voice track/sigout that packages all start to look the same. Imagine being a News Director watching 200 tapes... after a while it all runs together and becomes video wallpaper.

If you want to truly stick out and make a name and career for yourself, dare to be different. Try new things. Look for the point of view that isn't obvious. Do two standups. Knock out a package with so much great nat sound you don't need a sound bite. Do a story for once without talking to an official.

It's your chance to be colorful in what has truly become a black-and-white world.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Who do you trust?

In many ways, a newsroom is like an episode of "Survivor."

There are backstabbers, alliances, manipulations, gossip, and all sorts of behind the scenes chicanery in just about every newsroom that would make a soap opera writer proud.

And when you move from job to job, you're often dropped into a small society of news people without any idea of their inner motivations. How can you know who really wants to be your friend and who is merely sharpening a knife? Who might be the newsroom mole for management? And who will take anything you say and twist it around to make you look bad?

Sorry if I'm scaring you a bit, but "watch your back" is very good advice for anyone in this business. There are people in this business who just aren't very nice.

When you arrive at a new station, people are curious about you. What are your goals? Do you have an eye on someone's anchor job? Is this just a stepping stone and will you be making resume tapes in six months?

So it's important, until you can really determine who the trustworthy souls are, to play your cards close to your vest.

If someone asks how long you're going to stay, just say, "I just got here. I may meet Mister or Miss Right and stay forever."

If someone wants to know if you're gunning for an anchor job, just say, "I'm happy being a reporter."

If you're asked where you're sending resume tapes, just say, "I haven't even put one together."

Remember, you're in a room full of nosy people who snoop around for a living, so any little tidbit of information becomes a juicy bit of gossip that can go viral in a newsroom. Innocent comments can get twisted. Keep your opinions of others, future plans, and really personal stuff to yourself.

You can be friendly and have a good time without being an open book.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Behind the scanner

Since so many of you have to chase the scanner, I thought I'd share a series done by one of my clients who took the time and effort to dig behind the story. This is a great example of old school reporting and legwork.

This is also the kind of work that gets laws changed.... and eventually saves lives.

And for those of you who complain nothing ever happens in small markets, consider that this was done in market # 155.