Saturday, January 22, 2011

Time to stop blaming the 24 hour news cycle for mistakes

Here's your weekend homework:


Friday, January 21, 2011

If you want the real story, get it yourself

While covering the oil spill I made it a habit to walk down to the water every day to see what, if anything, had washed up overnight. Sometimes it looked like the whole world had changed the oil on its cars, some days I saw nothing.

I happened to be in one Gulf Coast town that had pretty much dodged a bullet. It had seen a few scattered tar balls a week earlier but nothing since. When I walked the beach I saw white sand, clear water, and no sign of oil.

While we were setting up a resident came up to me and asked why we were reporting the fact that the beaches were "oil soaked" when no oil was in sight. I explained that we weren't the only media in town, and someone else had obviously made a terrible mistake.

Later that day I walked by a young reporter doing a live shot and overheard him say that the beaches were loaded with tar balls. When he was done I approached him and asked why he had reported that when there was nothing in sight. The answer blew me away.

"I saw it on the local news."

Wow. Let me get this straight... you work for a major news organization and you can't walk fifty feet down the beach to look for yourself?

Needless to say, that false report spread like wildfire and really hurt the tourism for that town. All because a reporter had been too lazy to check things out himself.

We saw this during the Tucson shooting. Someone reports something, so it must be true. And when you don't check the facts, you end up looking silly.

During coverage of major stories, crews often discuss what was overheard and what rumors are floating around. But we always check things out before reporting anything.

You may arrive late to a story and pick up some information from other crews. Or you may find some stories on the Internet while doing research. Bottom line, all facts that you report need to be checked. By you.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Let's make a deal

I often hear reporters tell me, "We can't get the time to work on a story that might take more than a day."

Well, that may be true in these days of too much news provided by too few reporters. And if you're working in a shop where quantity outweighs quality, you're probably frustrated by the fact that you can't get the time to do a really great story.

Well, you have two options; make the time (work on your time off), or make a deal with the News Director.

Your station may have a hard and fast rule that you have to turn one package every day, but that doesn't mean said package needs to take the entire day to put together. There are chunks of time you can carve out of your day to work on something special. That great story you've been wanting to do might come along in bits and pieces. But you can do it, if you can sell the project to your ND.

Let's say you've got an investigative story you'd like to do. If you did it all at once, it might take you three days. And you're unlikely to get three days off the street to work on it.

So put on your enterprise reporter hat and find some good stories that don't take all day to do. When you're assigned these, talk to your ND and let him know that you can still do a solid job on today's assignment but would like an hour to go get some b-roll for another story. On another day you might shoot some interviews, and maybe a standup. Collect all these bits and pieces and suddenly you've got that great story you've been wanting to do without upsetting the daily apple cart.

If you want that great story for your resume tape, you might have to find a creative way to do it. If you can sell the News Director on the idea that it won't affect your daily package requirement, you'll probably be able to make a deal.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Producers need to "ask" instead of "order"

Someone recently wrote in asking for any insight I might have about the relationships producers have with the rest of the newsroom staff. These days, producers end up being in some very contentious relationships, especially with field crews.

The reason, to most of my generation, is obvious. But first, a little history.

When I broke in during the early 80's my first station didn't have any producers. Those of you who just fell off your chairs are now wondering how this was possible. Well, the anchors produced the show. (Some of you are doing this on mornings and weekends right now.) The director timed the show, told the anchor the status during every break, and the anchor decided from the set whether to drop or add anything.

Then, in the late 1980s, something changed, and I think consultants (here we go again) had a big hand in said change. News departments became "producer driven" rather than "reporter driven." In other words, producers had more clout. Years ago a reporter would come back from a story and tell the ND the story deserved to be the lead. Or a reporter would bring in a great story idea to the morning meeting. Or a source would tip off a reporter to a big story. Then, all of a sudden, producers started coming up with stories, and (here's where the problems all started), started killing story ideas presented by reporters who were actually on the street digging up stories.

You see where I'm going here?

Now, let's add in the experience factor. Since there weren't enough experienced producers around and few people coming out of college wanted to be producers, rookies started being hired to fill the post. All of a sudden you had someone 22 years old making management decisions.

And giving orders to people who had been in the business for years.

That's where the animosity started.

I remember calling in on several good stories and having them killed by kid producers. I remember being pulled off great stories to cover garbage that a rookie producer thought was better. This happened to just about every veteran in the business. The rookies started giving orders, and in many cases, that power went to their heads.

So now, rather than have a tight knit news team, stations became divided. Producers versus everyone else.

Bottom line, here's what everyone who works in the field thinks: How can someone who has never covered a story make decisions about news coverage?

But back to the original question: how can producers develop better relationships with the rest of the news staff?

The answer is that they must treat the rest of the staff as equals, not as subordinates. They must ask the crews in the field to make judgments since they are not there. They must seek the opinions of everyone else. And, if they are rookies, they must show respect to those who have been around.

You may have the title of producer, but that doesn't mean you're an expert in the field of news gathering. It doesn't mean you're more important to the news department than anyone else. It means that you are assigned to organize all the news that has been gathered into something coherent and appealing.

Producers are simply parts of a team. When they accept that fact and become team players, relationships will improve.

And here's a really wild concept: if you're a producer, spend some of your days off with a crew in the field. When you actually experience what goes on out there, you'll undertstand reporters and photographers a lot better.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Shameless promotion, electronic version

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Disclaimer: In the event some country drops the big one and the electromagnetic pulse fries your electronic reading device, we are not responsible for the loss of any manuscript.

Download away!