Friday, May 27, 2011

File tape can be an old friend

I found a tape in my closet this week that has been sitting there for more than 20 years. I have no idea if it will even play, but it is in pristine condition in a box, so I'm betting it will.

The tape has never aired.

It's a tape of a public figure making a comment to me that is so bizarre that if the guy ever did said bizarre thing, I'd have an incredible sound bite from the past.

Those sound bites from the past can come back to bite you, whether they're a few months old or much older. Lately we've been treated to Ahnold and Maria's file tapes which proves he wasn't telling the truth and she was in a horrible state of denial. (Either that, or she was just playing the time-honored Kennedy wife role.)

Most reporters save notes in their desk drawers, and many save tapes. There's a reason for that. Sometimes you need proof someone said something, and if you've got it on tape, there's nothing better.

This is very true of politicians, as the term "flip-flop" becomes very popular when these politicians find their own words from the past coming back to haunt them. This is very different from "gotcha" journalism, which constitutes asking a question designed to make a politician look bad, like the classic no-win question, "When did you stop beating your wife?"

When a public figure gives you an interview and takes a stand on an issue, or says something unusual, it's a good idea to either toss that tape in your desk drawer or dub off a copy before putting it back in service. You may never use the tape, but better to have it when you need it than need it and not have it.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

OK, sweeps are over, so everyone can stop trying

Many news executives are under the impression that the average viewers sit at home, remote in hand, furiously switching channels to find the best lead story. In reality, viewers are very slow to change habits, and pretty much stick with a newscast they like.

They now know our secrets. They know about sweeps periods, and that when those months roll around news departments will go all out to impress viewers with investigative stories or simply scare the hell out of them with the latest thing in your home that can kill you.

And then the day after sweeps hits and we see the downward curve. No more special stories, no more two-part series, no more monsters on your dish scrubbie to send you into a dirt nap.

Smart News Directors know that most people exhale when sweeps are over, and start phoning it in. And that's the reason for something called the "follow-up tape." If you're not ready for it, it can cost you a job.

Many people tend to sit back and relax once they've got their resume tape in place. They've got the perfect montage, three solid stories. Out it goes. No reason to try hard anymore until the next job offer.

And then you get a call from a smart ND who says, "Send me your last three stories."

Uh-oh. You're in trouble.

You're last three stories were a one-sided package with a single-source sound bite (that means you only interviewed one person), a piece in which you took a bunch of network tornado video and did a standup, and a story in which you did nothing but interview officials and didn't bother to dress nicely. The News Director sees this and realizes you're only good for three stories in the last two years, and it's hasta la vista, baby.

One of my first News Directors told me, "We're in sweeps every day." That means you can impress a viewer in the middle of August or on Christmas Eve in the same way you can do it during sweeps. The same applies to job hunting. The story you do today might not fall in a sweeps period, but suppose it's one of those three stories a News Director wants to see?

You're on a job interview every day, even if you don't know it.

You don't think the network people checked out the local talent in Joplin, Missouri or Tuscaloosa, Alabama these past few weeks? Or the many stations along the Gulf Coast last summer during the oil spill? You can get spotted many ways without even sending out your resume tape, and dozens of household names have seen their careers take off because they did a great job while someone was watching. Trust me, when I'm on the road for the network, I always check out the local news.

Great stories don't magically fall during sweeps periods. They're out there every day. It's up to you to keep digging as hard as you can, and doing the best job you can.

Your next great package shouldn't wait till November. Do it today.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hat rack

I'm a News Director and I need a reporter. I've waded through a few hundred tapes and hung up on a few people who didn't understand the meaning of the words "no phone calls" in the job advertisement. I'm down to two people I really like.

Jennifer is a solid reporter, has a good on-camera presence, is attractive, and writes well. Her packages flow smoothly and she knows how to use nat sound and editing to make her stories interesting.

Gina is also a solid reporter with the same traits as Jennifer.

I could hire either one and be happy. Their talents are so even I could flip a coin and not make a bad decision.

But Gina has something on the end of her tape that tips the scales in her direction.

Gina has filled in doing weather. She's not a meteorologist, but she did a credible job on her resume tape, and would do fine as a substitute.

And in a world where skeleton crews are the rule rather than the exception, having a reporter who can do weather in a pinch is a valuable commodity. In this case, the more versatile person gets the job. Not because she's necessarily the better choice, but because she can wear more than one hat.

Hats are in vogue again, whether you watch Mad Men or simply stroll the streets of Manhattan. And they're really popular in newsrooms. The more hats on your rack, the more marketable you are.

You may not like weather, but if you ever have any spare time you ought to hang out with the Chief Meteorologist and find out how things work. (You might also pick up a copy of the USA Today Weather book, which is a great way to learn the basics.) You may be a sports fan, so spend a little time in the sports department. You may be a Sports Director, but you'd better start reading the other sections of the paper because sports jobs are getting harder to find. You may be an investigative reporter, but you need to knock out a feature once in awhile.

Try on different hats when you get a chance. Some may fit well, and you may find you like wearing them.

The more hats in your wardrobe, the more marketable you are.

And on this, the last day of sweeps, marketability gives you an edge.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sometimes a reporter has to turn into a regular person

As a reporter you usually ask questions of a politician that are related to politics. Economic stuff, foreign policy, etc. But when a politician does something that comes out of left field, it is often imperative that you ask the question the public wants answered first.

I worked for a station years ago that ran a promo saying, "We ask the questions you want answered."

Examples of questions that fall into this category:

To Arnold Schwarzenegger: "Seriously, you're married to Maria Shriver...and you're having an affair with the maid?"

To John Edwards: "Let me get this straight... your wife is dying and you're having an affair... and you expect people to vote for you?"

Which brings us to the CBS Sunday morning show with Bob Schieffer. Having met the guy, I can tell you he really seems to be a regular person. And if you missed this week's show, you missed him turning into a regular guy while interviewing Newt Gingrich.

Yes, if a guy is running for President we want to know where he stands on the economy and foreign affairs... but we also want to know how a guy who says he can balance the budget can run up a half million dollar tab at a jewelry store. Regardless of your political affiliation, it's a juicy tidbit that viewers want answered. ("Are you that generous with your wife? Is she high maintenance? Or is this one of those Tiger-Woods-I'm-sorry-gifts-because-I-did-something-bad type of deals?")

Anyway, if you haven't seen this interchange, you need to watch it because it is a classic example of a regular guy asking a regular guy question in the middle of a serious interview. In between the talk of job growth and Israel are two guys in the den talking about a jewelry bill.

Viewers want their reporters and anchors to be regular people. If you act too high and mighty, you're not perceived as warm and approachable. But if you act like a regular person when the situation calls for it, you can score points with the viewers.


Monday, May 23, 2011

Please fix the websites

The other day I was checking out a story that interested me on a station's website. I clicked on the little video thingy, hoping the screen would expand from a postage stamp so that I could actually watch the story.

But no, the thing ran in a one-inch square screen, the anchor's face the size of a pencil eraser.

Now I know many young people actually watch TV on the tiny screens of their cell phones, but the rest of us buy big screen televisions for a reason. It's because we actually want to see what's going on. You think I can read a super on a one-inch screen?

So this goes out to those who put station websites together. I know some stations have webmasters, some outsource the whole thing, others have all members of the staff contribute. Doesn't matter. These things are, for the most part, a disaster; a busy, cluttered mess that resembles an electronic garage full of junk.

So let's have en electronic garage sale. Toss the useless stuff and put the good stuff where you can actually see it:

-Station bios: It absolutely boggles the mind that some stations hide the bios of their on-air staff. Hello, McFly! These people are the faces of your station! You need to put them front and center, so that viewers can get to know a little about the people they invite into their homes. I know of a few stations that remarkably don't have bios anywhere on their site. Duh.

-Lame polls: Here's one that I just couldn't wait for the results...

"Are you looking forward to summer?"

Wow, call Gallup and Rasmussen and get them to do a focus group on that one. Make your polls interesting, timely, or just plain fun. "Would you marry Newt Gingrich for a half-million dollar account at Tiffanys?" "Which will get more air time this week: Senator Chuck Schumer or the Snuggie commercial?" Give people a reason to vote, whether it's just for fun or actually interesting.

-Top stories that aren't
: A "top story" is just that... the biggest story of the day. It isn't the latest story you've got. If you buried Osama bin Laden under a car wreck two weeks ago, you get the idea.

-Too much information
: Websites with hundreds of stories on the front page just send visitors into vapor lock. Organize them into categories, then put the strongest ones on the front page.

-Weird banners across the top of the page: If you have to really look and say to yourself, "What the hell is that?" then you need something else. Your anchor team would be nice, and a lot better than a skyline that doesn't really exist in some markets.

-Video players that actually work: Along with the tiny screens you often run into...players....that..just...hesitate so much Captain Kirk. Do whatever geeks do to speed things up.

-A "contact us" link you can actually find: I know most people send negative comments, but lots of great story ideas come from viewers. They can't send them if they can't find a way to do it, and many viewers are too shy to pick up the phone and call a TV station.

-Weather radar, temperature and brief forecast: Should be "above the fold" and one of the first things you see.