Friday, April 29, 2011

Training the viewers

My cat knows that around dinnertime she can look at me through the window and I'll drop what I'm doing and give her something to eat.

She's been trained. (Though most cat owners would argue that I'm the one who's trained.)

For years viewers were trained to turn on the news at dinnertime. They'd get the national stuff, then the local, or vice versa depending on where they lived. And, for the most part, television news people didn't waste their time.

On a recent flight I sat next to a young married couple, probably in their early thirties. They asked what I did for a living, then I asked them if they watched local news. Bottom line, it was a waste of their time. Nothing but crime and car chases. "Their stories don't interest me," said the woman.

They've been trained to expect that, because in the past few decades news organizations have, for the most part, taken the easy way out. Oh sure, we're in sweeps now, so you'll see all sorts of enterprise stories. But the minute the calendar hits late May, bada-bing, they're back to chasing the scanner and combing through press releases.

There have never been more news outlets in our history. People have unlimited news sources from which to choose.

It's time to train them like we did thirty years ago.

How can you make your newscast appointment television again? By providing stories that viewers have to watch right now. Stories so good they won't want to wait for your webmaster to load them on the website. Stories that truly affect their lives, tell them something interesting, or show them a different angle.

You can't do that chasing the scanner or pouring through the assignment file.

News Directors in big markets and great stations are always looking for enterprise reporters. They can send anyone out to cover a disaster; the story is right in front of you. But reporters who can make viewers stop and watch are becoming rare. Those reporters are the ones who will move up the ladder. And these days, you can do it quick because those reporters are so hard to find.

But you need to train yourself to find those great stories before you can train a viewer to watch them.

The enterprise story has never been more important in the history of television news. Because it is so rare. If you want to really stand out, find those stories.


Thursday, April 28, 2011

Covering severe weather: how to make your stories different

Being sent out to do a tornado or hurricane story is no fun. There's devastation, people without homes, loss of life. Some of the most depressing scenes imaginable.

And yet, probably 99 percent of all severe weather stories look the same.

This week you can't tell one tornado story from another. (And please, don't stick these on your resume tape.) Sure, you might have the video from the airport that got whacked, and a cell phone shot of a funnel cloud, but for the most part it's the same old story. Sound bites with people who lost their homes, shots of rubble (always including a child's toy), home video of the storm.

Big story, sure. But how can you handle it to make it different?

-Instead of just talking to someone who lost a home, follow that person to the insurance company if they have one. If not, to the Red Cross or other relief agency. Don't just interview people who are now homeless... tell the viewer what happens to them next. Viewers will wonder, "Well, these people lost their home... where did they go?"

-Spend some time with a utility worker who has to work 24/7 to restore power. Kind of a hazardous job with no sleep, don't ya think?

-Someone benefits from an ill wind. Maybe visit a construction company that now needs to hire more people. Sign companies make big bucks off storms. All that broken glass in business locations? Someone's gotta replace it, and quick.

-Profile someone who is volunteering at a shelter... or find someone who has taken in a family that finds itself homeless.

-No power? Gas pumps don't work. How do people get to work if they can't buy gas?

Get the picture? You can always set up your story with the basics, but then think outside the box and look for other points of view.

It's easy to state and show the obvious. Not so easy to make it interesting.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The battle against internal candidates

Ever gotten a job where you were up against people already working at the station? Notice the chilly air when you arrived?

Well, it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the decision to hire management.

Here's the deal on openings and candidates within the newsroom. Any time an anchor job is posted you always have a bunch of reporters who want to toss their hats in the ring. That's true in every station. And every News Director, when faced with a parade of reporters who want the anchor gig, pretty much has to tell every single one, "You'll be considered." Even if the reporter doesn't have a prayer.

The reason is simple; the ND doesn't want hard feelings in the newsroom during the weeks of the search and has to appear to be fair to everyone who is already working there. In most cases he already knows who the legit internal candidates are and who is getting the courtesy consideration.

Meanwhile, if you're an outsider and get the job, you're often treated as a pariah when you arrive at your new job. Not your fault, but it doesn't make for a pleasant transition.

So if you run into this situation, remember, it's not you. People can't dislike you before they even meet you, so the reason points to the decision.


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Hair today, gone tomorrow


I'm about to graduate and start looking for my first job. I've got very curly hair, but I've never seen any woman with curls on an anchor desk. Are curls taboo?

Well, I've never seen an anchor with curls either. Not that curly hair isn't attractive, but tradition says it does lack the gravitas necessary for the desk. (Don't blame me, I didn't make the rules.) If I were you I'd straighten it.

The subject of hairstyles is a touchy one in the news business. Of course, we're talking about the women here, since the men are pretty much all stuck with the same style... traditional, parted on the side, and conservative. About the only change you ever see in a man's hair is when it falls out.

But women are subject to a different standard when it comes to hair. Unfair? No argument here. It has nothing to do with your journalistic abilities. You never hear anything about Brian Williams' hair, but Katie and Diane are under constant scrutiny. Over the years I've seen more viewer reaction to a woman's hairstyle and/or color than anything else. It's either, "Wow, she looks great!" or "What the hell did she do to her hair?"

Two things seem to make women drastically change their hair... management, and the inability to find a job.

I worked in one shop with an anchor who had gorgeous hair that hit her shoulders. It looked professional, but management thought she would look better as a pixie. In reality, she would have looked ridiculous, and thankfully she didn't cut it.

I worked with another reporter with a Nordic heritage. She was as fair skinned as you could be, with nearly platinum hair that was her natural color. The ND went up to her one day and asked her to dye her hair brown, since we had too many blondes on the staff. Thankfully, again, she didn't oblige.

Then there's an anchor I see when I work in a market that I visit on a fairly regular basis. She's known as "garish hair woman" and every time I see her it's a new color, style or both. It's as if she's trying to find the right combination of style and shade of blonde that will get her another job. But the end result is that she looks fake. I noticed her when she first broke in and she looked great as a brunette with terrific brown eyes to match.

Any changes in hairstyle or color should be subtle and gradual, so as not to shock the viewer. And if you think going blonde will improve your chances, well, let's just say there's a glut of fair haired girls out there. There's no such term as a "cookie cutter brunette."

If you're a natural blonde, fine, but if you're not, you're taking a big risk in trying to go lighter. It works for some people, but for most it doesn't.

If you're going for a new style that demands a serious cut, think twice. Change it gradually if you're going to do it.


Monday, April 25, 2011

Mailbag: Do News Directors talk to one another?


I recently had a News Director call me and say he really liked me, but that I did not get the job. He added that he would call other stations on my behalf, and if I understand right, he will call any ND, not necessarily one he knows. How do I take advantage of this, without abusing this privilege and also, making sure I don't do enough that he forgets about me.

Well, this is a good sign. First, send the handwritten thank you note thanking him for the positive feedback and letting him know you appreciate his help. Then drop a tape in the mail every two months or so with some new stuff so it will jog his memory.

News Directors who are part of a group of stations usually have conference calls every few weeks or so. One of the things they talk about is the openings they have. So one might say, "I need a weekend anchor...anyone got any good tapes lately?" And that's when your name would come up.

You guys should all have a rolodex and keep the names of NDs who are nice to you and like you. You never know when your paths will cross in the future.


I'm worried that if I send a tape to a station and I'm not ready for that market, the News Director will think badly of me and never look at another tape again. Is it worth the risk?

Trust me, NDs don't remember the tapes they don't like, usually because they eject them so quickly. They don't log names of applicants who don't have what they're looking for. Just send it and fuhgeddaboudit.

Out of all the tapes I've seen over the years, I can only remember one that I didn't like because it was so incredibly bizarre. In a really bad way.

Hey Grape,

Where you been? No posts for several days! I'm going through withdrawal.

Sorry, I was in airport hell. It's sort of like purgatory. Someone has to pray you outta there.

Dear Grape,

Can you explain why News Directors only watch ten or fifteen seconds of a tape before deciding to watch more? What can you possibly learn in that short period of time?

Very good question. It's a first impression sort of thing. Since the montage opens the tape, it gives you a quick glance at the person's look, personality, voice, energy, and the ability to show and tell. If a person doesn't have the particular combination of things you're looking for, you move on.

Lots of little things can cue the eject button. The ND might not like any one of the above traits. But remember, every single News Director has different tastes. That's why you can send the same tape to two people, and one will love you while the other can't hit the eject button fast enough.

But this does illustrate why you should put your absolute best clip on the front of your tape.