Friday, July 16, 2010

Tales from the oil spill

I spent most of the month of June working on oil spill coverage in Florida. Now that I've had a chance to cool off (from the heat) I need to get these thoughts down that have been kicking around in my head.

-On several occasions the coverage from the same place differed widely depending on which network you were watching. At one point we were in Destin, Florida, which had not seen a drop of oil. A man came up to me and asked if we were from another network. He was angry that the other guys were saying the beaches were "oil covered" when in fact there was no oil in sight.

Each morning I'd walk down to the water and look for myself. If there was oil, we reported it. If not, we reported that. Journalism 101.

Meanwhile, the other network's name was mud around that town.

-While oil soaked beaches are sickening, dead animals or sea creatures can make the toughest journalist choke up. One one occasion we had video of people trying to save a baby dolphin. We were all in the sat truck when we heard the poor thing didn't make it, and there were a lot of misty eyes.

-If you touch a tar ball, the stain won't come off your skin for days.

-Gatorade G2 rocks.

-The cleanup crews have to take frequent breaks because of the heat. Why all the cleanup crews don't all work at night is beyond me.

-We discovered that carrying equipment in sand is an incredible workout. Throw in the over-100 heat index, and it beats anything in a gym.

-Neutrogena makes the best sunblock, hands down. They have this stuff called "Age Shield Face SPF 110" which is incredible. After a full day in the sun my skin didn't even feel warm. I think SPF 110 will protect you on the planet Mercury.

-If you wanted to take a vacation along the Gulf Coast, please do so. The people there are really hurting, and there's still plenty to do away from the beaches. By the way, any oil stains only go as far as the high tide line. The rest of the sand is still sugar white in Florida. So if you just want to lay in the sand, you're good to go.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Can we please have some live shots that don't state the obvious?

One of the bad habits I had to break in my first reporting job was my tendency to forget the intro. My package would be done and the anchor would have to track me down as ask me to write an intro to my story. Finally, I realized the intro was the actual beginning to my story... it wasn't the first few seconds of the package. When you write a package and then write an intro as sort of an afterthought, you end up with one of two problems: you have a story in which the intro sounds like the first line in your package, or you've burned all your info in the package and can't do anything more than state the obvious in your intro.

Nowhere is that more apparent in live shots. Since stations have become as obsessed with live shots as Lindsay Lohan is with partying, we're ended up with a bunch of young people thrown into the deep end of the pool. You put together your story, then realize you need an intro and a roll cue.

And you end up with anchor tosses like this: (the responses I'd love to hear are in italics)

Anchor: "Joe Goodhair is standing by live at the scene of the murder. Joe, are the people in this gated community shocked by this crime?"

No, people on this cul-de-sac barely looked up from their tiramisu at dinner.

Anchor: "Barbie DarkRoots has been covering the oil spill today... how did the locals react when the tar balls showed up this morning?"

Well, they danced the macarena and shot off fireworks.

Anchor: "Big layoffs at the car plant today...what's the reaction among those who were laid off?"

Most were thrilled that they could now stay home and watch the Price is Right and soap operas during the day.

Get the picture? It seems that many live shot tosses from the anchor and intros from the reporter are just thrown together without any thought. Stating the obvious doesn't just make you look silly, it makes the viewers roll their eyes and wonder if you're a totally clueless news organization.

So let's take our examples and see how changing just a few words makes the stories stronger and no longer laughable...

Anchor: "Joe Goodhair is standing by live at the scene of the murder, which occurred in one of the safest neighborhoods in the city."

Reporter: "That's right, there hasn't been a serious crime in this community since 2005.'

Anchor: "Barbie DarkRoots has been covering the oil spill today...where locals took immediate action when tar balls washed up for the first time."

Reporter: "Residents here didn't wait for government help, as they formed a clean-up crew on their own."

Anchor: "Big layoffs at the car plant today... where might these people who lost their jobs be able to market their skills?"

Reporter: "Well, according to the local employment office, there are plenty of manual labor jobs available in the area."

Basically, we've stolen some info that would have gone in the package and put it in the anchor toss and intro, making the beginning of the stories a lot stronger.

So when writing a story, start at the beginning. The beginning starts with the first words from the anchor, so make sure the lead to your story is as strong as the first piece of video.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Mailbag: I got your occluded front right here...


My ND asked me to fill in doing weather a few weeks ago and I discovered that I not only liked it a lot but it seems really natural to me. I was thinking about taking some weather courses but I'm nowhere near any university that offers them.

Any suggestions?

Right this minute you should buy the USA Today Weather Book, which is a very easy to understand basic meteorology book with terrific graphics. You can get a copy on (links below)

For a formal education, consider Mississippi State's Meteorology program, which is offered online. I went through it years ago and found it to be excellent. (Back then they mailed you boxes of VHS tapes)

If you're serious about doing this and your station is serious about keeping you for awhile, you might ask the ND for the company to foot the bill or at least pay for some of the tuition/books.


Do people actually get jobs posting their tapes on places like Medialine?

Yes, in fact one of my clients got a very good job going that route. It's a way for NDs to see who's out there without running an ad and getting deluged with tapes.


I've been watching the "on the move" sections of various websites and I see people getting hired but I have no record of ever seeing an opening... and I spend a ton of time scouring job sites. What's the deal?

Well, some NDs don't post jobs with national job services. It all depends on the company rules.

Yet another reason for you to send tapes to places you want to work, even if you don't see an opening. And there will always be openings.

Dear Grapevine,

What's a polite way to ask for a raise?

Well, the fact that you're asking tells me you're polite. You might start things off with, "I know these are tough times for the industry, but I was wondering if you might have a few dollars in the budget for a raise."

Demanding anything, especially in this economy, will get you nowhere. I remember one anchor who had asked the ND for a very large raise and he had turned her down. So she announced to the newsroom that she was going over his head to the GM. The GM's response was classic:

Anchor: "I need to make $50,000 a year."

GM: "Then get a second job."


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

News Directors aren't the only ones who should be checking references

Any time you apply for a job, you're asked to provide a list of references. Most of the time a good News Director will spend some time on the phone, checking with these people. Since they are people who obviously like you, they'll be asked questions like, "What's his greatest strength....and biggest weakness?"

And sometimes a ND will dig a little deeper, calling former co-workers who aren't on your list. Many times managers get calls about people who worked for them two or three jobs ago.

Meanwhile, you're the job applicant. You've applied, had an interview, and your references are being checked. So all you can do is sit back and wait, right?

Wrong, McFly. If you're on the short list for a job and you're waiting for an offer, this is the perfect time to check references on your own. Specifically, you want to see what you can dig up on the News Director and the newsroom in general.

Since a ND is not going to give you a list of people to call, you'll have to put your reporting hat on and do a little research. Track down some people who have left recently (note I said "left" not "fired"... people who have been let go won't give you an objective review.) Then do some reference checking on your own.

Some questions to ask:

-What kind of person is the News Director? Is the ND a raving screamer, or one who acts like a normal human being?

-Is the newsroom run like a dictatorship, or is the ND open to story pitches?

-How does the company treat its employees?

-What's the newsroom atmosphere like? Is is filled with supportive people who are members of a team, or a bunch of knife-throwing backstabbers?

-Will you get feedback on your work, and not just hear something when you've done something wrong?

-Finally, ask the person, "Why did you leave?"

It's up to you to pull off the rose colored glasses when job hunting. Determine any potential problems before you're under contract and it's too late.

Actually, you don't have to wait until you get an interview before doing some homework. But whether you wait or not, you owe it to yourself to do the same kind of checking on the station as the station is doing on you.

Monday, July 12, 2010

How to blow up your career

Gently tucked away in the fine print of just about every television news contract in America is something known as a "morals clause." It's an all-encompassing term that basically says if you embarrass the station, you're outta there.

Lately, that clause is getting a workout in our industry. From drunk driving to public marital infidelity to videos on the Internet, we're seeing some striking examples of how you can shoot yourself in the foot and find yourself without a job, and, in some cases, without a career.

You need to play close attention to two recent examples and file them under, "Don't let this happen to you."

Let's start with former Giants running back Tiki Barber. A terrific football player who seemed to have the world by the tail. And when you're a Giants hero in New York, you can pretty much spend the rest of your life having some fan pick up the check in a restaurant or bar.

So here's a smart, good looking household name who gets a network gig and immediately alienates Giant fans by ripping his former teammates the minute he retires. It didn't help that the team went on to win the Super Bowl the first year he was gone.

Then he has a public affair while his wife is eight months pregnant. Not a good thing when you're on a show that has women as its target demographic.

The result? See ya. Who's gonna hire this guy? Chances are, he'll be back playing football in a few months.

Example number two is that jaw dropping video produced by some news staffers in Arkansas. Apparently they thought it would be funny to produce a profanity-laden piece detailing the fact that one guy hates his job and the people in the community he covers. (They also hadn't heard an old comedy club rule; comedians who have to resort to profanity aren't really funny.) Apparently they hadn't figured out that anything posted on the Internet never goes away.

The result? See ya. Chances are this incident will follow these people for a long, long time.

The public eye never blinks. With the Internet and cell phone cameras, you have to be ever-so-vigilant about behaving in public. And if you think you're being cute by posting something outrageous on the internet, chances are your boss will have something even more outrageous waiting for you; a pink slip.

Sure, years ago we produced funny spoof tapes, but we only played them at the Christmas party, and they never contained anything that would offend anyone. We've all hated our job at one time or another, but we didn't broadcast our feelings to the whole world. People have always behaved badly off the clock, but society is different now; privacy no longer exists when you walk out the front door. We're held to a higher standard, because we are supposed to have the public trust.

I was once writing a script for a story that had a lot of legal implications. I took it to the News Director for script approval, pointed to a particular line, and said, "I wasn't sure if this would get us sued." He took his pen and crossed it out. "If you have to think about it," he said, "don't do it."

That's great advice for anything relating to this business. If you're considering something that could come back to bite you, and you have to think about it, don't do it.