Friday, October 29, 2010

Career change advice from Al Pacino

Many of you who read this blog on a regular basis probably think I've been a broadcasting lifer. In reality, I'm like many people in this business, because I've left it and come back.

Three times, in fact.

Surprised? You shouldn't be. Because at some time in your career you may get so frustrated, so burned out, that you'll just want to chuck it all and do something else.

Problem is, nothing else really compares if broadcasting is in your blood. Oh, you can certainly be successful, but you may never recapture the magic that exists only in this business.

I remember one time I left the business and yelled, "That's it! I've had it with this business! Never again!" And then someone calls with a tempting job offer, and back I go.

I feel like Al Pacino in Godfather 3 when this happens. "Just when I think I'm out... they pull me back in!"

Yeah, I guess broadcasting is like the Mafia of the heart.

If it's in your blood, going to another career is like witness protection. You end up like Ray Liotta at the end of Goodfellas (here we go with the Mob analogies again) when he picks up the paper, complains he can't get decent Italian food and feels like a schnook. If it's in your blood, you can't get it out.

How do you know? Well, if you change jobs and find yourself doing things you'd never do in the news business. Watching the clock. Being bored. Having time on your hands. Watching newscasts and knowing you could do a better job... or that you wish you were at the scene covering the story you just watched.

If those things don't haunt you, then you're cured. You can move on and look back at a time in your life when you did something unique. But if you can't get the business out of your head, resign yourself to the fact that you're probably going back.

Trust me, very few jobs offer the rush that TV news does. Yes, there's also the low pay, the stress, the occasional whack-job manager. But you don't see too many offices out there with the family atmosphere you find in a newsroom that clicks.

By the way, plenty of people have left and come back. Nothing's forever in this business, and talent doesn't fade because you've left the business. If you wanna try something else, fine, but don't be surprised if the life calls you back.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

How to read your News Director on the first day of November sweeps

You think Halloween is scary? Try looking inside the mind of a News Director whose head might be on the chopping block.

Yes, NDs fear for their jobs like everyone else, some more so than others. It's strange that some NDs are so disliked by their employees that the staff actually hopes for a bad book so he'll get the boot. Though most of us have too much personal pride to tank it out in the field.

But tomorrow is a good day for body language if you wanna know where your ND stands with upper management. Here's what you can look for:

The ND who knows he's safe: This News Director cheerfully brings donuts to the morning meeting to kick off sweeps in a positive manner. There's no frantic running around the newsroom during the day, no micro-managing, no looking over shoulders. Chances are the ratings are good and his job is secure. He treats this day like any other.

The ND on the bubble: Let the twitching begin. This News Director shows up early the first day of sweeps looking like he took a bath in itching powder. He goes over the top in the morning meeting telling reporters exactly how stories should be covered, and demands producers schedule tons of meaningless live shots. In and out of the newsroom all day, he turns into a helicopter manager, hovering over desks, checking every script before air, and not even going out to lunch.

The ND whose head is about to be lopped off and rolled down the steps of the Mayan temple: You get a few more clues in this scenario, as the newsroom is usually graced with the micro-managing presence of the General Manager in the morning. This ND arrives with Samsonite under the eyes from lack of sleep and frantically runs the morning meeting like a crazed dictator. Never leaves the newsroom all day, refuses to take suggestions that he go to lunch, or at least eat it at his desk and get out of the newsroom. When news time arrives he stands in front of the bank of monitors, firing remotes like Clint Eastwood in fear of seeing a story his staff missed on another station.

By the way, if you're new at this, November ratings arrive for most stations a few weeks after the book ends. So Christmas can come early for just about everyone, depending on your point of view.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

10 rules for sweeps pieces

1. Tell me something I don't know. Surprise the viewer.

2. Show, don't tell.

3. Find a point of view that makes the piece unique. If your story has multiple sides, find the third side.

4. Put yourself in the viewers' place and ask the questions they want asked.

5. Write in and out of your video and nat sound breaks.

6. Don't interview the obvious people.

7. Make your standup bridge integral to the story.

8. Don't sensationalize the story.

9. If you're shooting with a photog, discuss the story before you begin.

10. Remember to follow up. If it's a sweeps story, chances are it's interesting enough to warrant a follow up.

(And in case you hadn't guessed, these are rules for any day.)


Monday, October 25, 2010

Excuses, excuses...

I used to work with a producer who had a great comeback when reporters would come back with various excuses about story coverage. Not enough time, interview fell through, forgot to do a standup, whatever.

The line is this: "Excuses are little lies we tell ourselves."

You hear excuses a lot as a manager, and when you're a reporter excuses are an easy crutch. They're a convenient way to blow off a day that didn't go exactly right, because, let's face it, it wasn't your fault.

Which brings me to great football coach Bill Parcells. He once made a famously tacky quote regarding complaints from players:

"Don't tell me about the pain, show me the baby."

Which, in a nutshell, means that the only thing that counts is what hits the air. The viewer doesn't care if you were running late, if your camera had problems, if your photog was in a bad mood, if you forgot your notepad out in the field, or if you ran out of tape.

We once had a consultant visit our station and invite everyone to bring a few stories to a Saturday session. One reporter played a story that was just okay, then boasted about the fact he'd shot nearly an hour's worth of tape and had worked really hard, only to have the story turn out in a mediocre fashion.

"Who cares how much tape you shot or how hard you worked?" said the consultant. "Is the viewer ever going to see the raw tape or know how hard you worked?"

Back to Bill Parcells again: "You are what your record says you are."

In our blameless society, we have become conditioned to blame outside forces if things don't go perfectly on any given day.

Little lies we tell ourselves.

If you want to be successful, to really achieve your goals, there are no excuses. Sure, stuff happens in the field and unforeseen circumstances can change your story, but it's the reporter who can adapt and go with the flow who will make it to the top.

Key interview fell through? Find another.

Story isn't what you expected? Take it in another direction.

Not enough time in your day? Take care of your text messaging and Internet habit when you're off the clock.

Your standup didn't record because of a crease in the tape? You should always shoot a safety.

Not enough b-roll? Get in the habit of shooting more than enough.

Just as excuses can become habits, so can good work habits. Learn to get all the basics while planning for the stuff that might happen. Photogs always have extra tapes and batteries, a spare microphone, and a clunker tripod in case their good one falls apart. They pack their news cars with rain slickers and boots for foul weather, shorts if it gets hot, sunblock if they're shooting at the beach. They're prepared for every contingency. By the same token reporters need to equip themselves with spare ideas and backup plans. You need to pack your brain like photogs pack their cars.

While stories can and often do change during the day and equipment can make you pull your hair out, there's no excuse for having a sub-par story.