Saturday, September 11, 2010

The souls of 9/11

Whenever the calendar gets close to 9/11 I find myself thinking about Sara Low, the flight attendant killed in the attacks whose story I did back then. I often wonder how her life might have turned out had fate not dealt her such a horrible blow. I can see her face in my mind as clearly as that of my best friend.

While I arrived in New York City to field produce the 9/11 anniversary two years later, I discovered my hotel room had a chilling view looking directly onto the land that once held the World Trade Center. The night before the anniversary I couldn't sleep, and took a walk down to the site. People were quietly standing around, some with lit candles, some praying, some just staring into the space from which thousands of souls departed. It was quiet, much too quiet for Manhattan, as if some sound barrier kept the city's never ending noise from intruding on the grief of those who were there.

I thought of Sara that night. I thought of her the next morning; when her name was read along with those of the other victims, it was like someone had slugged me in the gut. Firemen had set up a giant bell to be rung that morning. When I was offered the chance to pull the rope and ring it, I thought of Sara as the bell rang and its rich sound echoed off the tall buildings.

And I think of her today. Even though we never met.

It's easy to simply state the number of lives lost on 9/11. And with the potentially explosive events of the past few days, it's easy to turn our attention away from the memories of those who died that day.

But every number represented a life, unique and special in its own way.

I encourage you to take a moment today to pick one soul to remember. Go online and find a photo of one of the victims. Read the story of that person's life. Familiarize yourself with that person's face. Imagine that you've lost a friend.

Then don't forget that person. Take time to remember next year on 9/11.

In a business that spends too much time covering tragedy, it's important to understand the lives behind the numbers. Reporters often talk about victims getting "closure." It's important to realize that for many, achieving closure is impossible.

In those first weeks after the attacks, reporters and anchors showed more humanity than ever before. The tragedy allowed a brief window to be opened, offering a view of human beings not afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves.

We haven't seen that since. We've gone back to the jaded attitude, the tired concept of "if it bleeds, it leads."

Perhaps if we all pick one soul to remember today, we can remember that as news people it's acceptable to be human.


Friday, September 10, 2010

Memo to General Managers: the most important asset of any television station is its staff

A while back I was talking to a new client who told me I could watch some of her stories on the station's website. Upon visiting said website, I started looking for the news staff bios, to learn a little more about the person I was talking to and see the face that went with the voice.

"I can't find you," I said.

"Oh, our station doesn't put our pictures or bios on the website."

Huh? If ever the cluegun needed to be fired, this was the time.

Since that call I've noted more than a few stations have this policy. Apparently this conversation goes on between general managers and webmasters when launching a website:

Webmaster: "I'll need photos of all the on air staff for the bios."

GM: "Ah, but we're not going to put those on the website. I want no information about our people anywhere! Nothing!"

Webmaster: "But viewers want to get to know the people they watch--"

GM: "Then keep 'em guessing! No photos, no bios, nothing! Hey, they'll spend lots of time looking for the on-air staff and that will give us more page views! Maybe you could create some sort of infinite search loop so that they think they're getting close to finding what they want!"

We've heard about "branding" for years now, and it's time some managers realized that people are the brand. Sure, you may have catchy slogans and a slick logo, but the main reason viewers tune in to watch a newscast is because they like and trust the people on it. Hello, McFly! Your anchors and reporters are the "face" of your station, whether you beancounters want to admit it or not.

On the other side of the coin are the stations who have bios on the behind-the-scenes people; the photogs, producers, and all members of the news staff. That's not only cool, it builds morale. It tells those who are not on camera that they're just as important as those in front of it.

Not putting your people on the website is like a restaurant running a TV ad without showing the food.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Stats that blew my mind

Hard to believe this blog has been around almost three years. I've often wondered about the people who read it; especially those who send in anonymous questions.

Who are these guys?

Last week I noticed the blogging service had added a button to my account called "stats." Now there was already a thing that told me how many people visited the site without getting a RSS feed (whatever that is) so I had a ballpark idea of the size of the audience.

What I didn't know was where the audience was.

But now the "stats" page told me.

I figured 99 percent of visitors were from the United States. Wow, was I ever wrong.

Check out a list of other countries that house visitors to this blog:

United Kingdom

Okay, that's not far fetched. I've had a few emails from people in those countries. Here's what really surprised me:

Hong Kong
Burundi (full disclosure: I had to break out the atlas)
South Korea

Are you kidding me? Is there some producer out there using some tricks while putting together Latvia Tonight? Might there be a reporter who is using more nat sound while putting together packages for the Swedish version of Nightline? Or are the underpaid reporters in this country taking exotic vacations and logging in from the Outback?

Well, whoever you are, I want to hear from you. Seriously, if you're reading this outside the US, drop me a line at and let me know a little about you and what you're doing in the TV industry.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How to find a story

In 1988 photographer Rick Pennington and I were hustling back to the station when we both spotted a school playground filled with dozens of kids playing.

No big deal, but they were all playing with hula hoops. I hadn’t seen anyone with a hula hoop since the 60's.

The next day we drove back and discovered the school had a very low athletic budget, so the phys ed teacher had gotten creative with a stash of hula hoops she’d found. The woman had created some bizarre backyard games that the kids thoroughly enjoyed. Rick shot some great video, I found some vintage black and white film of hula hoops, we edited the thing to some doo-wop music, and we had a package.

It won the Associated Press award for best feature. All because we were paying attention.

That’s just one way to find a story.

There are many others, but you have to know how and where to look. So stop looking at the Assignment Editor.

The AE has the toughest job in the news department, and these days many people assume this person has the duty of coming up with all the story ideas and handing them out. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. It is a reporter’s responsibility to find stories that will interest the viewer. One month into my career, I complained to my first News Director that the assignments I got from the desk were boring. He told me, “Then come up with something better.” From that day on, I found my own stories.

Now that you’ve stopped looking at the Assignment Editor, put down the local newspaper. That’s not the answer either.

The one thing they don’t seem to teach young reporters is how to dig. The reliance on the local newspaper and the police scanner has become a crutch, which results in the typical press release/scanner driven newscast that bores viewers to death. To get the viewers back, reporters have to give them something unique.

Finding stories is really simple. You just have to do three things.

Open your eyes, talk, and read.

Reporters spend a lot of time in the car, so make good use of it. Don’t just fall into highway hypnosis, look around and really see. Recently one of my clients found a great story when he spotted a man sitting on a toilet in his front yard. Turned out the guy was protesting a proposed sewage plant. He got the attention he wanted, and the reporter got a good package.

People post signs for just about everything these days, whether they’re selling something or protesting. Check out the light posts and telephone poles. Rick and I once found a great story that way when he spotted a sign that read “Handmade Rifles” with an arrow pointing down a dirt road.

Take a different route to work if you can, then pay attention. You might see a story, or just something that inspires you to think of one. When you’re in a news car, take a different route back to the station if you have time.

Did you just see a group of people assembled outside? Stop and ask why. Did you spot a person doing something unusual? Don’t just keep driving, stop and ask.

Which brings us to the “talk” part of this assignment. As a reporter, you should know that everyone has a story to tell. But you’ll never know unless you start a conversation.

Stopping for gas? Ask the attendant if there are any good stories in the area. Eating lunch off the beaten path? Chat up the waiter or waitress. Going grocery shopping? Wear something with a station logo and you’ll be amazed at how many people come up to you. Talk to the person next to you in the checkout line.

And for goodness sake, those business cards the station gave you aren’t doing you any good in your desk. Hand one to every single person you meet with the phrase, “If you ever have a good story, please give me a call.”

You interview several people every day, but that doesn’t mean you only have to talk about one topic. When you’re finished interviewing the guy about high gas prices, just ask, “Got any other good stories I should know about?” Rick and I were wrapping up a story with a guy who designed fiddles for country music stars when Rick simply asked the guy, “So, do you play?” Turned out the guy did and was playing a benefit for a handicapped children’s summer camp. We added that to his story, then did a series on the camp... which we didn’t even know existed. One story can turn into another, and another.

And finally, you have to read. A lot. Yes, you have to read the local paper, but taking stories from that source doesn’t count. With the Internet at your disposal you can read just about every newspaper and magazine in the country. Take a story from another city and localize it. Read the little weekly papers from the outlying towns in your market; they are usually chock full of features. And don’t just read the news section. Be well versed in money matters, pop culture, consumer issues and anything that would interest the average viewer. And check out the local classifieds. You can find anything from wild court cases to great features.

You won’t develop this skill overnight, but eventually these tactics will become second nature to you.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Agent qualifications


Quick question. Do agents need a license to do what they do? And are they required to go through any sort of training before becoming an agent?

No. And no.

Anyone can call himself an agent. No rules, no degrees, no training required. You don't even need experience in the industry. If you want to be an agent, poof, you're an agent. There is no regulatory agency. While organizations like the NFL require agents to be registered with the league and meet certain specifications, television news has no such rules.

That said, most agents have experience in the industry. Some are former reporters, News Directors, producers, etc. Others worked as assistants to veteran agents.

You have to keep a few things in mind when considering an agent. There are very good agents and very bad agents. And getting an agent is no guarantee of getting a job. Even the best agent cannot wave a magic wand and create a job for you.

Many young people are lured by the prospect of getting an agent. It's impressive to say, "I have an agent," but it doesn't mean anything if you have a bad one. And just because an agent contacts you, that doesn't mean you're talented or ready to move up. Some agencies sign everyone in the hopes of getting a commission by using the "volume, volume, volume" approach. When you've got a kazillion clients, some of them will find jobs and you'll get a commission.

Another thing that clouds the issue is the "moving on" section of websites like It seems that every single person has an agent. But people who get jobs on their own don't bother sending notices about their career moves. And there are a lot more people without agents than people who have them.

Remember, a good agent knows your talent and your goals. He'll send your tapes to stations at which you might be a good match. He doesn't send your tapes to Minneapolis if he knows you hate the cold. He doesn't send your tapes for morning show openings if he knows you have no desire to work that shift. He returns your calls or emails promptly and is realistic about your chances. Hopefully he has contacts that can open a few doors that might otherwise be closed.

A bad agent puts your tape in a box with every other client in the hopes the ND will pick someone and create a commission.

Be very careful when choosing an agent. Do your homework, talk to other clients, and even ask your former News Directors.

Signing with the wrong agent can be devastating to your career.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Quick tip

Okay, I've now received three DVDs in a row that won't play in my computer. I got one to play in my living room and two on my old portable DVD player.

When sending out DVDs, it's a good idea to check them on a few different computers or DVD players to make sure they'll play. A News Director doesn't have time to do what I do for clients, so make doubly sure your DVDs play easily.

There's no industry standard for DVD burners, so the chances for problems are a lot greater than with old fashioned VHS tapes.