Saturday, June 26, 2010

Mailbag: Don't hate me because I'm on TV

Grape,

I'm new to the business and I've noticed that when I attend a news conference the newspaper people barely talk to me. I'm always friendly to them but it seems like they all hate me. They won't talk to the photogs either. What gives?


Ah, it has always been thus. Print journalists, for whom I have great respect, often run into the situation in which the TV crew is late and the news conference is held up until they get there. Nobody holds up a news conference for a print reporter. Plus, TV people get a lot more attention, we're recognized, etc. So it's probably a jealousy thing. Don't take it personally, as it really has nothing to do with you.

I'll never forget meeting a print reporter on a story. I'd been in the market three years and had met just about everyone, but not this reporter. So I went up and introduced myself. She left my handshake hanging in space and said, "I may have heard of you," then walked away.

What's interesting is that many newspapers now offer video on their websites, so you're starting to see print people with video cameras. Let's see how the dynamic changes.


Grapevine,

When starting a cover letter, do I need to say, "I'm applying for a reporting position," or do I just leave the letter generic?


Generic is fine, even if there are multiple openings. Two reasons: News Directors know why you're sending tapes, and they might consider you for a different position than the one you're applying for. For instance, if the station is hiring an anchor and reporter, you might think you're applying for the reporter job but the ND sees you as just the right person for the anchor slot. Never pigeon-hole yourself.

It's like putting "Objective" on your resume. Hello, McFly! Your objective is to get a job, that's why you sent a resume. It is obvious to the person doing the hiring what your objective is.


Grape,

I'm in a small Florida market covering the oil spill and see network and big market people every day. So far I haven't said much more than hello to them as I'm somewhat intimidated, being a one man band and all. Should I "know my place" or is it okay to make some contacts?


Oh, by all means, make contacts. Veterans love helping young people who are willing to listen. For instance, you might ask a network photog for advice on shooting... those guys love helping rookies. The rest of the crew members are the same way, as long as we have time. Collect as many business cards as you can. You might later touch base with people who show an interest in helping you and send them your tapes.

By the way, it pays to chat up everyone you meet, not just those in high places. Other rookies you befriend might turn out to be good contacts down the road.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A perfect example of why this business can make you pull your hair out

Apparently the new recipe for getting a network anchor job is this:

1. Run for Governor

2. Cheat on your wife with a call girl

3. Leave office in disgrace

In case you hadn't heard, Eliot Spitzer, former governor of New York best known for his escapades while off the clock, has been hired by a network to co-host a political opinion program.

Was John Edwards unavailable? Does Mark Sanford not have cell service in Argentina?

Then you've gotta wonder about whoever gets the co-anchor job. "Yeah, honey, I'm gonna co-host a network show! My co-anchor? It's...uh...well... Eliot Spitzer."

Back in the day when I was mailing out tapes by the bushel, news like this drove me crazy. You work your tail off only to see someone with no television experience land a gig you'd love to have... in this case, because the guy cheated on his wife. But the same feeling applied to beauty queens, former sports stars, celebrities who decided to "try out" the news business. I'd go home furious, wondering why hard work and experience didn't trump celebrity or superficiality.

But these are simply "life is not fair" moments, and you'll have many of them as you go through your career. Yes, you're entitled to roll your eyes when they hire the drop dead gorgeous ditz who thinks you need a passport to visit Hawaii, or the Ken-doll who thinks he's buying great baseball tickets because they're right behind second base.

But all you can do is focus on your own career and hope the right people notice. And by "right people" I mean those who don't go the gimmick route when choosing new members of a staff. Thankfully, there are still plenty of them out there.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Producers don't need to eat at their desks

(reposted by request)

The year was 1982. My first reporting job was in Roanoke, Virginia. The staff consisted of reporters, photogs, and anchors, a News Director and an assignment editor.

No producers.

"What?" you ask. "How did you ever get a newscast on the air?"

Well, the anchor produced the show. Reporters wrote and edited the packages, intros, v/o's and vosots. The anchor wrote copy stories and teases, then tied everything together. We had one IBM Selectric typewriter that had an "Orator" font typeface. We typed scripts on these five part carbon sheets that had to be split before the newscast, then taped together so they could be run on a conveyor belt under the teleprompter camera. Rundowns were typewritten, and we dealt with changes by using White-out. The anchor picked out color slides that served as over the shoulder graphics. During the commercial breaks the director would tell the anchor how we were doing on time, and the anchor would decide which stories to drop if we were heavy.

Now flash forward to the present. Newsrooms are top heavy with producers, usually with one for each newscast and with an AP. Computers have replaced typewriters. White-out? You gotta be kidding. No scripts to split, no taped together paper sliding off the prompter. Everything is electronic. Changes to the rundown are made with a few keystrokes.

So when I hear young producers, who have all this incredible technology at their fingertips, tell me they have to work eight straight hours and can't stop for lunch and have to eat at their desks, I honestly don't get it. (And yes, I have produced many newscasts. I still don't get it.)

The problem may be that you are the product of your environment. Or you can't write fast enough. But I'm betting the main culprit is time management, or the lack thereof.

Regardless, I'll show you how to knock out a great newscast and have plenty of time to eat like a normal person. Take coffee breaks. Creative types need to get away from the desk and recharge, and this will make your work and your newscast better if you're fresh during crunch time instead of exhausted.

As an old anchor once told me, this is the only business where you have to be at your absolute best at the end of the day.

OK, so you're a producer for the 6pm newscast. You've just left the morning meeting, you know what the packages are, where the live shots will probably be, what your lead might be. As always, everything is subject to change, but we'll get to that later.

Let's say it is 10am. Make a quick check of the wire to make sure nothing major has broken, then get cracking. (And by the way, there are plenty of other people in the newsroom who check the wire as well. All the anchors, reporters, photogs, and especially the assignment editor... so don't tell me you have to watch the wire every single minute.) Check the network feed rundown to see what might be interesting, or coming down later.

Now, start your rundown. Put in your commercial breaks. Now you're responsible for 22 minutes.

Put in weather and sports. Now you're responsible for 16 minutes.

Let's assume you are going to have three packages, two in the first block and one in the second. Let's assume two of them, one in each block, will have a live shot. Put all three packages and lives in your rundown. (Obviously blank till the reporters get back.) While you're entering the live shots, put in the location supers if you know them and obviously the reporter supers. Three packages and two live shots ought to knock out another five minutes, so you're down to 11 minutes, one of which will be taken up with teases.

Now you've got a skeleton of your newscast. Now, look at your vo's and vosots that are on the board and figure out which ones "flow" with the packages. Sometimes the "news pyramid" doesn't coordinate with having flow. In other words, don't lead with a political story, then go to crime, the back to political. Think of your topics as "mini-blocks." If you're leading with politics, look at the board and find stories that relate.

Let's say the President is in town and that's your lead. You might also have a vosot with a local Congressman about a new bill. And you might have a vo about school construction that has just begun with shots of politicians breaking ground. That last story may not be the third most important story in your newscast, but it "flows" with the first two.

Now you're up to your second package, which is about consumer spending. Doesn't seem like it relates to the first mini-block, so simply write a line that will tie the two together when the stories are in house.

"While kids will soon enjoy their new classrooms, they might not be wearing hundred dollar sneakers, as consumer confidence is low."

Okay, you'll write that later, but just start thinking about how to tie things together.

Now, go thru the rundown and create your mini-blocks. Now you may look at your show timer and see that you are a few minutes light. And here's the trap that many producers fall into. They think "It's early. Something will move on the wire or on the feed."

You don't know that, so start collecting things to fill in the blanks now. Make a list of wire stories and things ALREADY on the feed that you can use IF NOTHING ELSE HAPPENS or if the feed goes down. The problem with early morning feed rundowns is that they change, and if you depend on a piece that ends up being a bust, you'll be scrambling in the afternoon.

It's probably around 11am if you're organized. Now you can start writing your teases.

"What? How can I write teases if none of the reporters are back?"

Well, just look at your rundown, but I want you to work backwards.

Find your kicker, and let's face it, your kicker isn't likely to change during the day. Kickers are worth teasing twice or three times, at the top of the newscast and with the weather tease.

Let's say your kicker is about our friend the water skiing squirrel. You already know what the story is about, and you know you'll have a weather forecast. Those two things will not change. So go ahead and write the tease before weather.

"Coming up... John has the very dry forecast... but things are all wet for one creature at the beach."

Bada Bing. One tease out of the way.

The squirrel will come after the last break. Write the tease.

You can "pencil in" this tease at the top of the show as the last tease of your open. You know the President will be first, and you might look for something to get you from politics to the squirrel. (Sounds weird, but work with me here. That's the challenge of producing.)

Now let's say your B Block story is a consumer piece on how to change your driving habits to save gas. That's not going to change either, so go ahead and write the tease at the end of the A Block for that story.

So now you have three teases done and one outlined. You have your packages, live shots, and stories in the rundown. You have a list of wire stories and feed pieces that you may or may not use. It still isn't noon.

Just before noon, you might touch base with your field crews to see how their stories are going. Check the wire again. Check with the assignment editor. Look at the board.

Now, go to lunch. Out of the building. And go with someone. Relax and talk about stuff that isn't related to work.

Okay, you're back. Check all the stuff your checked before lunch to see if anything has changed.

Now as the reporters and photogs trickle back in, it is time to shine. Don't just tell them "You've got a minute twenty." You need to ask about the story, and in the cases of teases, you need to ask the photog what the best video would be. Many a "money shot" misses the top of the newscast because a producer didn't know it existed.

2pm. Your anchors arrive and there's probably an afternoon meeting. Bring your anchors up to speed on what you've got, as well as the 10pm producer so you don't go over the same tracks.

Your anchors should now be your first line of defense. They should be keeping an eye on the wire while helping you write anything that needs to be written or rewritten.

3pm. Go to the break room, get some coffee, then hunt down your director and give him a preliminary rundown of the show to see if there are any problems from his point of view. Make sure he knows where the live shots are.

The rest of the afternoon: Actually look at the video that is being cut, especially for vo's vo/sots and teases. Nothing makes a newscast appear more stupid than copy that doesn't even come close to matching the video. Adjust your copy accordingly.

Add any breaking news that happens, but remember to adjust your copy if it has disrupted your "flow." Look at the stories before and after to make sure the intros and outros make sense.

If all goes well you should have no problem printing your script at 5pm. Remember, the earlier you get the script to the director, the more technically trouble free the show will be.

While I realize this is not an exact science, hopefully you've learned to get the stuff that isn't going to change out of the way early so that you have time to adjust when the big stories do hit late in the day. I've seen too many producers waste those precious morning hours surfing the net, talking with friends on the phone, or wasting time when they could be getting the easy stuff out of the way and making time for...

Lunch. Bon appetit.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The third annual "take a photog to lunch" week

UNDATED-- Television news photographers around the country went home for dinner tonight, but many weren't hungry. The reason? They were treated to a great lunch by a reporter this afternoon.

"Take a photog to lunch week" was launched three years ago when a reporter realized he'd get better video if he treated his photog like a human being. Reporter Dick Goodhair shocked Chief Photog Rick Lenscap when he said he wanted to eat lunch in an actual restaurant. When Goodhair reached for the check, Lenscap was so amazed he passed out and did a header into his apple pie.

Since that date the annual recognition of photogs is growing exponentially. Across the country fast food drive-thrus reported a ten percent decrease in business during last year's observation of the week. Reporters around the country burned up websites with tales of grumpy photogs suddenly pulling things like umbrella lighting out of the newscar.

"I had no idea I could look this good," said consumer reporter Carmen Denominator. "For seven bucks I got a great package that will be first on my resume tape."

Photogs say they appreciate the thought, even though it is a thinly veiled bribe. "It's nice to spend a week not wiping ketchup off the steering wheel," said one photog.

The rules for observing the festival are simple: Reporters and anchors must treat a photog to lunch, and the lunch must be eaten in a restaurant while seated at a table.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Handwriting, meet wall

Sometimes I hear from people who wonder how long they should "hang in there" waiting for a "promised" promotion that never seems to come.

Well, the old adage of "Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me" applies to broadcasting quite well.

Promises by News Directors during the hiring process often rival those of politicians. If you hear that you'll be next in line for an anchor job, "but we don't need to put anything in writing," well, get ready for a case of selective memory sometime down the road.

Let's take a look at this very common example. You're hired as a reporter and told you'll be used to fill in on the main newscast when one of the anchors is off. If anchors have been off several times and you still haven't been asked, well, that should tell you that smoke has been blown your way.

If you're told you're first in line for the next anchor opening and you're passed over for someone else, that's a red flag.

And if the same promise is broken more than once, rest assured it will never be kept.

Sometimes you need special glasses to see the handwriting on the wall, and they're not rose-colored. If you look at the handwriting honestly and it tells you that you're never going to be promoted, it's time to move on.