Friday, August 27, 2010

Some often missed sources of story ideas

I've had a few News Directors who loved to follow the local newspapers, the theory being that television stories were different than newspaper stories. That may be true, but taking stories out of the paper is pretty lame. And it's not what a real reporter does.

That said, there are regular features in every newspaper that are often chock full of ideas, but often ignored by reporters.

There are stories known as "watercooler stories" or "talkers" which mean they're hot topics of the day. They may not be the most important stories, but they're the ones people are most interested in at that particular moment. They may not be on the front page.

But they're easy to spot when you read the editorials, the op-ed page, and the letters to the editor. If you want to know what's foremost on people's minds, you'll find it here. People don't write letters or editorials about things they don't care about.

Need a feature? Check out the classifieds. Look under "items for sale" and "services." You might find someone selling an antique horse and buggy or a craftsman who makes something interesting by hand.

And don't limit yourself to the local paper. Check out out of town publications, many of which are free online.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Follow-ups: the lost art

Raise your hand if this has happened to you. You break a decent story, an exclusive, and while you're basking in the glory the competition does a follow-up a few days later.

Before you've done your own follow-up. Oh, wait, you forgot.

That's just one way a station can steal another station's thunder. Because once an exclusive hits the air, it's fair game as to what happens next.

Follow-ups are no-brainers when it comes to the news business. How many times have you asked yourself, "I wonder what ever happened to...?" Well, viewers ask that all the time, usually because reporters don't follow up.

Following up is a good way to turn one story idea into two or three or more. It's the way you and your station can "own" a story.

So, today, take a look down the list of stories you've done in the past few months. I'll bet several of them are worth a phone call to see what's happened. And I'll bet those phone calls will turn up another story or two.

And in the future, use your calendar to "schedule" a follow-up. If you do a good story today, make a note to check on things in the near future.

Remember, if you break a story, it's yours... unless you let someone else take it from you with a follow-up.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Menus belong in restaurants

More and more resume tapes are wandering into my mailbox in the form of DVDs. The term "resume tape" will probably survive long after VHS tapes are dead since it is so ingrained into the business. Kind of like telling people to "dial" a phone even though push buttons have been around for decades.

That said, I'm also noticing the tendency to make your DVD menu more cluttered than the ones in a 24-hour diner.

So, what should a resume tape menu look like?

It shouldn't look like anything, because it shouldn't exist.

Put yourself in the NDs place. You have to watch a few hundred of these and the last thing you need to do is put a DVD in a machine and have to navigate through a menu. Why should a manager have to click on "standups" or "packages" or "anchoring?"

If you're sending DVDs, you should burn them so that they start to play immediately as soon as they are put into a machine. The ND shouldn't have to push a single button to watch your best work.

Menus won't knock you out of the running, but they just make a ND roll his eyes and shake his head. Make a News Director's job as easy as possible; he shouldn't have to spend any time searching for your best work.


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why your News Director might not be as cheap as he acts

Imagine if you got paid once a year instead of every two weeks. You'd have to really budget your money, and set aside an amount for emergencies. And if you ran out of money there wouldn't be any place to go for more.

That's basically what a News Director faces with an annual budget. So if you're wondering why he worries about nickles and dimes, it is because he wants to get to the end of the year without spending everything. And that emergency he's saving for is the big story.

Let me take you through the budget process so that you can see how this works. Let's say our hypothetical station gives our ND a budget of five million dollars. Once a year the ND has to submit a budget proposal to the GM and the beancounters who control the purse strings.

There are "fixed" items that are easily planned, things that tell you exactly what you'll be spending. The biggest one is salary. If you've got people under contract, you know exactly what you'll be spending. You might also know what you'll be spending on things like toner, paper, etc.

The trick in budgeting is trying to figure out those intangibles, like these:

-Overtime: How in the world can you predict this figure? Well, you look at the previous years, and then add a bit in case the big story whacks your market. For instance, if you're a gulf coast market this year, you've blown out the budget covering the oil spill and probably don't have much left for the rest of the year. So you tuck away a few dollars for election night and tell the staff you can't pay any more overtime for the rest of the year.

-Gasoline: Throw a dart at the wall for this category. No way of knowing what gas will cost, so aim high. If prices stay where they are, you might have extra money. If not, you're outta luck.

-News Cars: You have a pretty good idea if you're going to need a new car or two. But what happens if one of your crews gets into a bad wreck and you suddenly need another car?

-Equipment: You might think you know how long your gear might last, but again you have the breakdown factor. If an editing system suddenly dies, you can't exactly wait around for the next budget cycle. You'll have to buy a new one immediately.

-New hires: You look at your contracts and see that two people will be leaving next year. That means you'll have to spend money on plane tickets, hotels, moving expenses to hire new people. Then again, someone local might be the perfect fit and you can save that money. And what happens if two other people suddenly quit? You'll have even more expense for this category.

-The "override" factor: Here's one you probably never heard of. Many News Directors will get some sort of bonus if they come in under budget for the year, which is known as an "override." They might receive five percent of whatever they saved. So let's say our ND with the million dollar budget spent 950k. He'll get a Christmas bonus of 5 percent of the 50k he saved, or $2,500. Yet another reason to pinch pennies during the year.

But for the most part your ND is trying to figure out how to make it to the end of the year with the money he's been given. Remember, this isn't Congress where you can just print more money and figure out how to pay for it later. And bear in mind that NDs are under tremendous pressure from the beancounters to remain under budget.

So that cheap boss you have? Well, he might just be planning for the future.