Friday, July 30, 2010

The new, all-time record for resumes kept on file

Back when I was a reporter sending out tapes I once got a call from a News Director regarding a tape I'd sent him two years earlier.

Five years ago I started freelancing for the networks, and at that time contacted people and told them of my availability. I sent resumes and contact info after the phone calls.

So this week I get a call from a manager I talked to in 2005 who had kept my resume on file. This is the first time I'd heard from her in five years.

You know how I'm always telling you guys not to worry if you don't hear anything for awhile? This is proof that people actually do hold on to resumes and tapes... and sometimes it's for a very long time.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The "lazy" package

One thing News Directors don't want (and can't afford) these days are lazy reporters. You may think you're a hard working, nose-to-the-grindstone journalist, but your final product might suggest otherwise. If your legwork or digging doesn't show up in a package, you might end up with the lazy tag; in this business, that's someone who phones it in, who does just enough to get by.

Here are some of the most common "lazy tags" that show up in packages:

-Single source sound bites: We've discussed this before, but this means interviewing one person, and one person only, and then chopping the interview up into several bites. A ND looks at this and thinks, "So, six billion people in the world and this reporter only talked to one of them." Remember that "two sides to every story" thing you learned about in college? Well, if you only talk to one person, you're... wait for it... only getting only one side of the story!

-The b-roll repeat: Nothing annoys me more than seeing a package with lots of video possibilities and seeing the same b-roll more than once. If you have limited b-roll, at least get wide, medium and tight shots so you can mix things up. If you run out of b-roll because it is very limited (a perp walk, defendant walking out of courtroom) then use that wonderful non-linear function called slow motion. Or throw in a graphic.

-The lame close: The reporter who can't think of anything to wrap up a story often just throws together a basic sig-out that falls right out of a sound bite. Would it kill you to write one sentence and tie the package together before saying your name and location?

-The official-could-not-be-reached-for-comment line: Can't find the other side of the story? Don't tell me, show me. I want to see you dialing the phone, knocking on the door, asking the secretary.

-The missing graphic: A story with too many numbers and no graphic doesn't make sense to the viewer. Graphics are one of those great elements a ND looks for to make confusing stories understandable.

-No standup: Unless you're covering a funeral, every package needs a standup.

-The dreaded meeting video: Yep, we've all been stuck covering meetings, and if your package has nothing but meeting video, you were too lazy to get the agenda before the meeting, find out the topic, and get 90 percent of your story before the meeting. For example, if there's a meeting to determine the location of a sewage plant, go to the neighborhood, show the location, and , what a concept, talk to the people who live there. Meeting video should be kept to a minimum.

-The dreaded official sound bite: Apparently no real people live in some neighborhoods, as some reporters only talk to officials. Again, McFly, that's one side of the story.

-Earthquake video: As a News Director you might think the United States is plagued by constant earthquakes in all fifty states. You have a tripod for a reason. Use it.

-Mood lighting: You wanna have dinner by candlelight, fine. I don't need to see a news package that looks like late night on Cinemax. You have a light kit for a reason. Use it.

-Shotgun interview audio: Ah, the lovely sound of someone being interviewed in a barrel. Shotgun mikes are for natural sound, not interviews.

I realize that many of you are time crunched these days, but this is basic stuff. If you want to grab a News Director's attention, show that you care about the basics.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Restless knee-jerk syndrome

Restless knee-jerk syndrome: (noun) A malady affecting television managers who cannot resist the urge to change something at the first sign of bad news. Side affects include unhappy staffers, weird memos, draconian station rules, and an increase in resume tapes leaving the building.

There's a great line in a movie (and I can't remember which one) in which someone says something to the effect of, "American businessmen look at the next quarter. The Japanese look at the next quarter century."

What that means is that those who run American companies don't necessarily look long term when making changes. And those who run television stations or companies can be a lot worse.

I used to work at a station in which both the GM and corporate knee-jerked so much they probably practiced in their offices with a soccer ball. A viewer calls with a complaint about an anchor's hairdo? Knee-jerk! Tell her to cut it immediately! A ratings book shows a dip in the ratings on Wednesdays? Knee-jerk! Load up Wednesdays with all your best sweeps stories! Someone forgot to turn off the coffee machine in the break room last night and burned the pot? Knee-jerk! No more coffee for anybody!

The most common time to see knee-jerk reactions is right after the ratings come in. You might be the brand new co-anchor on a morning show, but if your first book comes in and the numbers have taken a dip, you might be the victim of a favorite game played by those affected by restless knee-jerk syndrome...

Musical anchors.

Yep, if one book shows a downward trend, let's blow up the entire news team and try something else. And if that doesn't work for the next book, let's nuke it again.

If you're the victim of knee-jerk reactions, don't beat yourself up, as you may be the victim of managers who simply cannot look long term. It is generally accepted that true ratings actually run on an 18 month delay. The groundwork you lay today will show up a year and a half down the road. Viewers are slow to change, and what they don't like... is change.

Keep the style of management in mind when you see changes made or get caught in the middle of one. It may actually have nothing to do with you... and everything to do with who is pulling the strings.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Houston, you have a problem

First, read this, and pay close attention to the quote toward the end of the article regarding a newscast with no people:

A little bit of history about the news business before I comment on this premise. Back in my black-and-white childhood we didn't see commercials when we went to the movie theater. We had things called "newsreels" which were voiced-over clips of film. You'd get some news from overseas, some domestic stuff, and usually a funny clip of something bizarre. There was no anchor, just a dramatic voice. If you're curious, you can see these things on YouTube.

Before our current TV news model, there was one solitary anchor sitting on a desk. (You can also find this on YouTube.) One guy with a deep voice who took care of everything. News, sports, weather, kickers, you name it. You never saw a reporter.

Then my friend Al Primo came along in the 60's and put reporters on the set and created the Eyewitness News format. You can read about it in our book Eyewitness Newsman. (Forgive the shameless promotion.)

So now someone wants to try to turn back the clock to the fifties and present a newscast with no people. Here's the job posting:

Some thoughts:

No one would love to wake up in the 1950's more than me. Trust me, life was a heck of a lot better when milk was delivered to your home and the Good Humor man rolled by with ice cream on hot summer nights. Sadly, unlike Rod Taylor, I do not have a time machine.

But while it would be nice for society to roll back to the age of innocence, I'm not sure television news would work in that manner.

We are a personality driven culture, and the product we deliver in a newscast had a big dose of personality. Taking that element out of the equation would leave a hole in the product.

But the biggest problem here is this: who would want to work there? Are you telling me there are TV reporters out there who don't want their faces on camera?

Yes, content is king and always will be. You can throw all the bells and whistles you want into a newscast, but unless you have content and compelling news people delivering it, you're not going to get the viewers.

It's a lot like picking a bank for a mortgage. All banks tell you that you can trust them, that they have your best interests at heart. Banks are brick and mortar faceless operations. But if you meet a banker that you like, who truly has your best interests at heart, that puts a face on that company.

By the same token, a faceless television station in this day and age is just another company without a personality.

Television news is "broken" because the content is bad, not because of the people presenting it. Throw out the wrecks, fires, crime, convenience store robbery tapes and meaningless live shots and you'll fix it. You want a new model for a newscast? Try one with real stories that actually affect people. Forget about story count, package times and airing five weather segments in 30 minutes and viewers might actually tune in.

If you want to resurrect something from the 1950's, try content. Mix that with quality people, and you'll own the market.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Want feedback? These days you have to ask

Perhaps the most common complaint I hear from young people is, "I never hear any feedback from my News Director unless it's bad."

So you wander through your job, figuring that if you don't hear anything, you must be doing okay.

Well, your ND may think you're doing okay, but a lack of feedback isn't doing you any good.

Here's the problem with feedback; you need to be able to sort out the good from the bad, and by that I don't mean hearing that your story was great or it was lousy. I mean constructive criticism that is justified.

A few years ago I had a very talented client who had taken her tapes back to her old college instructor. She was told she had no business being a television reporter.

You guessed it, she has a very nice career going.

So, in order to find out how you're doing, you need to do two things: ask for feedback from several people, and find the common denominators in that feedback.

Who do you ask? Well, after you march into your ND's office and ask him to go over your recent stories, seek out the veterans on your staff. Trust me, those of us who are older really appreciate a young person who admits he or she doesn't know it all.

Then, sort out the feedback. Toss out the comments that aren't specific, such as, "That was a great story" or "That story didn't work." You want to hear stuff like, "You needed a nat sound break or two" or "too many soundbites with officials" or "pick up the pace on your delivery." When you start to hear the same thing from several people, you know it is something to fix or keep doing.

Sitting around waiting for help isn't going to work. The thing about help is that most people won't offer, but don't mind if asked. So don't be afraid to ask.