Friday, March 25, 2011

Is your story age appropriate?

A while back while I was traveling I watched a late local newscast air a lead story and I had no clue what they were talking about.

It was some national clip about a rap star getting in trouble.

I'd bet good money the producer and anchor were under 25.

Here's a newsflash... lead with a story like that, and you've totally lost most of your audience. Because most of your audience is over 35.

Here's another newsflash... you may be a young person working in TV, but most young people don't watch local news.

You have to step back a moment and look at your station's audience. While things like text messaging, tattoos and body piercings may be an obsession with young people, stories about that stuff is a major turnoff to most of the audience.

Yep, we're old, but we're your most loyal viewers.

Stories should have as broad an appeal as possible. If you're going to do a story that skews young, make sure it has some interest to older people. By the same token, if you're doing a story about senior citizens, make it interesting for young people.

How do you do that? Different points of view, grasshopper.

That tattoo story might feature teenagers... and maybe some parents who later had to foot the bill to get the tramp stamps removed. That story on caring for old people might feature a couple of seniors... but the trickle down theory shows that parents who are caring for their older parents no longer have money to send their kids to college. So how does little Johnny feel knowing his college fund is being used to take care of Grandma?

So broaden your appeal and put yourself in the shoes of someone from another generation. If you're young, what would make this story appeal to your parents? Or grandparents? If you're older, do the reverse.

As for how to make a story on a rap star appeal to my generation, I have no clue.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The future of the television news industry

(Since the most common question I hear is, “What is this business going to be like in twenty years?” I decided to find out. I have an actual time machine, so I took it into the future to see what the television news industry has in store for us. Turns out I now own a magazine, so I brought back one of the articles about a top local anchor.)


April 25, 2034


By Paige Turner

We’ve come a long way since the days when news anchors actually read scripts from a teleprompter and reporters went out into the field to gather stories. But while the industry has drastically changed, the qualities that make television personalities and newscasts popular really haven’t.

You’d never expect New York’s most popular anchor to show up for work in sweatpants and a tee-shirt, but that’s exactly what Madison Morgan is wearing today. Despite the casual attire, she’s hard at work putting together tonight’s newscast. In the next eight hours she’ll report on a few stories, feed copy points into the script computer (known as the Oracle), and meet with the hologram director to determine her look for the evening.

It’s ten in the morning, and she’s already gotten her assignment from the Oracle, which has determined that a story on a cheating politician will be of interest to 58 percent of the viewers. It will be the lead, narrowly beating a tale about a Junior League chair-throwing brawl which scored 51 percent.

“The Oracle’s assignment editor program is usually dead on,” says Madison, sitting down in an edit suite with her photographer, Mike Level. “Though it sometimes has a tendency to miss the human element in a story. That’s where we come in.”

Today’s story will take Madison’s hologram to a congressional office in Washington, a brothel in Queens, and a swanky hotel in upstate New York.

“In the old days,” says Mike, “a photographer and reporter would actually have to go to those locations to shoot the story.”

“Can you imagine?” says Madison. Suddenly her phone beeps. She taps the implant on the side of her head and takes the call, listens, nods, and then hangs up. “My mother,” she says. “Says my hologram looked fat last night.”

“Will you please buy her a new projector?” says Mike.

The photog will be using three hovercams for this story, cameras the size of a golfball which use the earth’s magnetic field to defy gravity. “You always want at least two points of view; the reporter and the interview subject. But for a lead story, we like reaction shots from anyone who’s around, so I send the extra hovercam.” He shakes his head. “My dad was a photog, and tells me he actually had to carry heavy equipment out in all kinds of weather. And use some contraption called a tripod.”

“Ugggh. I would hate being outside,” says Madison. A screen in the edit suite comes alive and beeps. “Ooooh, here come my questions!” The screen fills with questions that Madison will ask the Congressman, madam, mistress, and everyone connected with the story. When I ask if Madison would ever want to ask her own questions as reporters did years ago, her face tightens as if she were being fed Brussels sprouts. “Please. How could any reporter ask better questions than the Oracle?”

The Oracle takes care of assignments, questions, the order of stories in the newscasts, and the placement of the fifteen weather segments in the 30 minute newscast. “I don’t even know why we do weather anymore,” cracks Mike. “No one has lived outside since the third World War. Every night it’s partly cloudy with chance of fallout.”

“Damned consultants,” says Madison. She notes Mike has gotten the hovercams up and running. “You ready to go?”

“Sure,” he says. “Pick your outfit and let’s roll.”

Madison turns on the wardrobe selector and chooses a bright red suit. One click adds it to her hologram.

“Skirt’s too long,” says Mike. “Remember, you’re interviewing a politician.”

Another click takes the skirt up several inches. She then chooses “serious” for the tone of her questions. “Ready,” she says.

Mike transports the hovercams to Capitol Hill, where it catches the Congressman leaving his office. Madison’s hologram materializes right in front of him. The Congressman stops, smiles, and checks out her legs.

“Told you the skirt needed to be short,” says Mike. “That guy’s a sleazebag.”

Madison smiles. “Photogs always know best.”

The Congressman looks up and Madison reads her questions into the microphone. As she does so, her hologram speaks. “Why did you cheat on your wife?”

“Damn, great question,” says Mike. The Congressman stammers, as Mike deftly maneuvers the three hovercams; one catches the politician, the other gets Madison’s reaction shots, and a third gets video of a very attractive woman who has just left his office. “It’s his mistress!” says Mike. “Quick, get a question!”

Madison feeds the hovercam telemetry into the computer and it spits out a question.

“Is that your mistress?” she asks.

“Wow, another great question,” says Mike.


Thirty minutes later the team has gotten interviews and video from the three locations. Mike feeds everything into the Oracle and it instantly spits out a script, which Madison reads into a microphone. A few seconds later they have a completed story.

After a four hour lunch it’s time for Madison to meet with her hologram director, a young fashion consultant named James. The holo-office consists of two chairs, a console, and a pedestal, upon which Madison’s image will appear after the consultation.

“We’re running the gamut tonight,” says James, looking at the newscast rundown. “Serious, thoughtful, funny.”

“Yes,” says Madison. “I agree. We’ll need all three emotions.”

James enters the factors into the holo-computer and Madison appears on the pedestal.

“Do you ever get used to this?” I ask.

She shrugs. “It’s just like looking in the mirror.”

“I’m going with electric blue tonight,” says James. “78 percent of the viewers liked it last week.” He hits another button and suddenly Madison is wearing a bright blue halter dress with matching heels. “Let’s lose a few pounds and see if we can hit 80 percent.” He hits another button and her hologram slims down instantly.

“Looks good,” says Madison, who then proceeds to read her entire script in a monotone. The Oracle records it, then James adds any appropriate emotion and voice inflection.

They watch the finished product. “You like?” asked James.

“I could smile a little more on the kicker,” says Madison. “And I’m not sure I’m sad enough on the plane crash story.” He makes an adjustment and both stories look perfect.

The newscast in the can, it’s time for the crew to kick back and relax. When I ask if they would have liked working in the news business in, say, 2011, they all shudder with fear.

“I mean, seriously,” says Madison. “Reporters and photogs had to brave the weather, carry gear, and write their own scripts and questions! Then they used that dated stuff to alert people… what was it called?”

“Social networking,” says Mike.

“Right. They never realized that all people wanted was an image in their living rooms and good solid content.”


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Bottom line, journalists are the last line of defense

It was sometime in October when I was sent back to do a follow-up on the oil spill. Only this time we didn't go near the beach; it was a town meeting for people who hadn't received any money from BP or Ken Feinberg.

We were setting up our gear when a woman walked up to me and gave me a hug. "Thank you for coming," she said. "You're all we've got left."

That statement really hit me. At that moment, I knew we were the last line of defense between the people who had suffered so much and those who controlled a check book that could save their lives.

It's times like these that define what you are. If you can walk away from something like that and just consider it another package on another day, get out of this business. Now. If you realize that you can help in your own small way and change the world for some people, then you can stay.

If you covered a car wreck today, or a murder, or a fire, then journalism really didn't enter into your day. Yes, I know, it was your assignment, and that's what your station does, but I could pull any guy off the street and teach him to ask a question of a fireman or a cop.

If you spent time digging up illegal activities by a politician (without bias, of course) and held said politician's feet to the fire, then you're a reporter. If you took time on the phone to point a caller who needed help in the right direction, then did a story to help others with the same problem, you're a reporter. If you learned of an injustice and brought it to light, you're a reporter. If you kept an eye on a situation that needed a follow-up, you're a reporter.

I can't tell you how many times I picked up a newsroom phone and heard, "I didn't know who else to call." While people don't necessarily trust those in our profession, they know we have the ability and the clout to right wrongs when necessary.

We have incredible clout in this business, but sadly, we often waste it chasing the scanner and doing stories that are obvious time fillers.

If you're going to play defense for the public, you can't do it sitting on the bench.


Monday, March 21, 2011


Most people think that getting an agent ends their job search. After all, if an agent wants you, surely that means you're good enough to get another job, right?

Uh, no.

Welcome to the world of agents, where anyone and everyone can hang out a shingle and call himself or herself a representative.

Oh, you thought these people needed training, a special degree, and years of experience in order to qualify as an agent?

Uh, no.

I can post an announcement here tomorrow and declare myself an agent. (Don't even ask. Aint happening.)

At one end of the spectrum are great agencies and agents. People who truly believe in your talent and care about your career. People who stay with you long term because they see a great future for you.

And then there are those who sign everyone and anyone. Their main objective? Getting a commission. You're just a potential cash cow in their massive herd.

A good agent places calls like this on your behalf: "I know you're looking for a female anchor and your last one had a really quick wit. I've got someone similar who might be a good match with your male."

A bad anchor dubs off every tape of every client, shoves them in a box, and mails the whole thing to a ND with this note: "Here are my clients. If you're interested in any of them, give me a call."

A good agent returns calls and emails promptly.

A bad agent is someone you have to call because you never hear a damn thing for months.

A good agent is polite on the phone, to both you and News Directors.

A bad agent is rude, plays too much hardball and can cost you a job offer.

A good agent knows your talent and doesn't send you somewhere that you'll be playing out of position.

A bad agent doesn't care that you hate doing features and sends your tape out on a feature reporting job.

A good agent sends your tapes to places you'd like to work, and knows your geographic preferences.

A bad agent sends your tapes anywhere.

Here's the one thing you need to realize about agents. Any agent, good or bad, cannot wave a magic wand and get you a job. The stars still have to align for you, and it's your work, not the agent's, that closes the deal.

So if you think getting an agent will solve all your problems, think again.

It depends on the agent.

But, bottom line, it really depends on you.