Saturday, December 29, 2012

A New Year's Resolution every member of the media should make: It's time to retire the "If it bleeds, it leads" philosophy

Since the horrific story of mass murder in a Connecticut school, there has been much discussion about what we as a nation can do to prevent this from happening again. Members of the media have been very diligent in raising possible solutions. We need more gun control. We need to ban assault weapons. We need to revamp our mental health system. We need to crack down on violent video games. We need cops in every school.

While every one of those ideas may have merit, members of the media have missed the obvious element that contributes to our culture of violence. And all they have to do is look in the mirror.

All those crime stories that often lead national and local newscasts have a very definite effect. It's called "desensitization." In other words, when you see something horrible over and over, when it becomes so routine that it results in nothing more than a shrug, you've become desensitized to it. When we air stories of violence every single day, viewers begin to think murders and other violent crimes are no big deal.

And when kids grow up with that, when they grow up seeing the "murder of the day" on the local newscast, the result is that life doesn't have as much value. Another murder? Eh, what else is new.

The violence we cover as journalists may not be as graphic as that in a movie or a video game, but here's the big difference: it's real. It's not entertainment, it's not escapism. It's real life. And we broadcast it nightly without any thought to the ramifications, yet hypocritically get up on a high horse and slam Hollywood or the NRA for exposing the country to violence.

Look in the damn mirror.

As media people we have an incredible amount of influence, and it goes beyond the in-your-face bias that has permeated our industry. We create a perception of what life is like in a particular community. If we fill our newscast with stories of murder and mayhem, viewers may assume the entire market is one big war zone.

I think back to a time when I worked for a scanner chaser. We were covering a shootout that resulted in two dead drug dealers. A cop was smiling as we arrived, and said, "Hey, some good news for you guys. Two less pushers on the street."

With that story in mind, ask yourself this question: Do stories like that really matter to the average viewer in your market, or are you simply chasing the scanner with the belief that if it bleeds, it leads?

Look in the damn mirror.

If you want to make a difference as it pertains to violence in this country, do your part. Don't sit there in your ivory tower and point the finger of blame. There's plenty of that to go around. But we are just as much to blame for creating the perception that there is nothing but violence in our country.

Perception is reality.

Here's what we're saying to the viewers: "You want fifteen minutes of fame? Do something violent, and we'll tease the hell out of it and lead our newscast with it."

There's a reason you never see fans running onto a field during a baseball game. Broadcasters have realized that showing these people would only encourage more people to do it, so they have a policy of not showing them. With that in mind, what are we encouraging by broadcasting stories of violence every day? It's an easy way to get yourself on television, to gain a bit of fame in our reality TV obsessed society.

When you fill your newscast with real stories, when children stop seeing blood flow across the screen every night, then you've got the right to point that finger of blame. Until then, you're just as guilty.

Look in the damn mirror.

You don't have to see violence to know it exists. In the old movie "From Here to Eternity" Montgomery Clift and Ernest Borgnine engage in a fight to the death toward the end of the movie. The fight begins in a dark alley, then moves behind a wall. But the camera never moves, never follows the actors. We know what's happening, but we don't need to see it.

We know what's happening in real life as well. We don't always need to see it. Children really don't need to see it.

The "if it bleeds, it leads" philosophy needs to be retired. Local news ratings have been on a steady decline for years, and one big reason is the tendency to load up a newscast with blood and gore. But this goes beyond ratings.

You want a happy and safer new year for the children in this country? The next time you want to point the finger of blame, look in the damn mirror.

-

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The first (and possibly annual) Grape Awards

What the hell... every magazine has its awards issue. So we'll take a shot at some of the good (and mostly bad) things that flashed across the tube or had an effect on it in 2012.


Presidential moderator who could apply for a job as an extra on "The Walking Dead"- Jim Lehrer

Funniest line about the Presidential debates- Bill O'Reilly, who cracked that Lehrer sprained his wrist during the coin flip.

Video proof of what your News Director means when he says, "Get your head out of your butt" - Mark Sanchez, New York Jets         http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JxVa6V304f4

Missing the obvious award- (tie) Chris Collinsworth and Michele Tafoya, who claimed the above was caused by Vince Wilfork pushing the Jets lineman into Sanchez. Uh, no, Sanchez ran face first into the guy's butt. The video don't lie.

Prime time show that jumped an entire school of sharks- Revenge. Great the first year, more convoluted than the health care bill this year.

Creepiest commercial that made every woman say "Ewwww" and every man cross his legs- The one featuring the old guy offering a free sample of a catheter. Operators are standing by.

Most useless new gimmick during election coverage- Fox News "partnering" with Twitter to add up the number of tweets on a certain issue. And this meant... what?

Best new gimmick during debate coverage- Focus groups.

Incredibly talented Broadway star who finally brought her talent to television- Sutton Foster

Dog ate my homework award- Candy Crowley, CNN, for having a transcript on the Benghazi story and still confusing the issue.

Best moderator of the Presidential debates- Seriously?

Great new show that missed the obvious- Revolution. C'mon, can we have one, just one flashback of teenage girls freaking out when their cell phones died?

Funniest stat during a football game- NBC, during a December Eagles-Cowboys game in which it was stated that the Phillies had won a game more recently than the Eagles. Ouch.

Story I can't wait for Jon Stewart to skewer in 2013- Anthony Weiner's return to politics.

Anthony Weiner award for most appropriate last name in a sleazy story- Suzy Favor-Hamilton, the olympian who admitted to being a $600 an hour escort. With a stripper name like Suzy Favor, it was a matter of destiny.

Most puzzling love affair, sports division- National media's fawning over Michael Vick while slamming Tim Tebow. Guess they missed that right vs. wrong discussion in kindergarten.

National story that Americans got sick of real quick- Penn State. Important, yes, but the creepiness of this tale made me change the channel after a couple of days.

National story on which reporters dropped the ball- Benghazi. Not a Woodward or Bernstein in the bunch.

Undercover story that's begging to be done- The sheer ineptitude of the organization known as FEMA.

Best pinch hitter on the Sunday morning shows- Jake Tapper, who just left ABC for CNN.

The Dick Stockton award for the NFL play-by-play guy who seems to be watching a different game than the one being broadcast- Dick Stockton

Most insensitive piece of "journalism": The New York Post, for running a photo of a man about to be run over by a subway train, and every news organization that broadcast the photo.

The "I'd rather be first than right" award: Tie... The reporters who announced that the health care law had been ruled unconstitutional when it hadn't, and the reporters who broadcast the massive amount of mistakes on the Connecticut school shooting (wrong name of the shooter, wrong name of the school, wrong occupation for mother of the shooter, the list is endless.) But hey, you were first, right?

Biggest cause of the "I'd rather be first than right" problem: Twitter.

Worst addition to NFL pregame shows- Rob Riggle, Fox. The comedian who never made me laugh. Not even once. 

The "everyone's wonderful, so let's sing Kumbaya with Chuckie" award- Jon Gruden, Monday Night Football

Hospitality award- The staff of the Gulfport, Mississippi Marriott who opened the breakfast room for our crew late at night during Hurricane Isaac when every restaurant in town was closed.

Biggest surprise- Showing up at Graceland at four in the morning to do a live shot for the Today Show and seeing about a thousand people holding a candlelight vigil for Elvis Presley. At four in the morning.

Nicest celebrity I met this year- Priscilla Presley.

Video that made my flat screen explode- The Pittsburgh Steelers "deranged bumblebee" throwback uniforms. (Yeah, I can see Steel City hardhats putting those on their Christmas lists.)

"Analysis" that added nothing to the story- news organizations bringing in psychologists to find out why mass murderers do what they do. (Answer: they're just plain evil.)

Classiest move by a network- NBC postponing its staff Christmas party in light of the Connecticut tragedy.

And finally...

Best Christmas present I received from MTV- Cancellation of Jersey Shore, which will hopefully end the endless questions I receive as to whether Italians from the Northeast really talk that way. What, youse gotta problem wit da way we tawk?

-





Monday, December 24, 2012

Your packages need to be like my Christmas Eve dinner

The Christmas Eve dinner is the event of the year for old Italians. It's known as the "Feast of the Seven Fishes" and features seven different kinds of seafood. It is my favorite dinner, trumping Thanksgiving and Christmas.

You can go to a seafood buffet, but there are a lot of things that make the Christmas Eve feast unique. It's the bells and whistles. The decorated tree and Christmas music in the background. My hilarious aunts arguing over whether the fictional doctors on ER are better than the ones on Chicago Hope. The parade of desserts after dinner when you sit down to watch a Christmas movie. Everyone gets to open one present on Christmas Eve. It's those little bells and whistles that make this night more than just a seafood buffet.

I know at this point you're waiting for the television analogy, so here goes. Are there bells and whistles in your work? Is your package just a bunch of sound bites and voice track, or have you added the flavor provided by nat sound, music, graphics, clever writing, a solid anchor intro? Is your resume tape montage a bunch of similar standups, or have you varied your locations, styles, and types of stories?

I can buy you a Christmas gift and put it in a brown paper bag. Or I can find a nice box, glittery wrapping paper, a pretty bow and a cute tag. If you see both under the tree, which one do you pick?

Television, like life, is all about bells and whistles. Make everything you do interesting, but add some spice. Be different, be daring, try new things.

Think about it... we call a television story a "package" for good reason. Wrap it up in an attractive way that makes the viewer excited and want to open it first like the prettiest Christmas gift under the tree.

-

Friday, December 21, 2012

If this really is the end of the world...

...It's been fun. See you on the other side. (Well, most of you anyway. The elevator down could get quite crowded with management.)

And if not, see you Monday.

-

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Beancounter's Night Before Christmas

(In light of the impending apocalypse, we are publishing the annual Christmas Eve bedtime story a bit early this year.)


'Twas the night before Christmas
and all through the station,
the beancounter's heart
was filled with elation.

The balance sheet showed
she'd picked up the slack.
The red ink was gone,
now all was jet black.

The GM dropped by,
his face was just glowing,
since fewer employees
were coming than going.

He saw the beancounter's
demeanor was sunny.
But Christmas was coming,
could she save more money?

She said, "Don't you worry,
if staffers are mocking,
'cause I've got some coal
for each Christmas stocking."

"The bonus is history,
forget Christmas parties,
they all get a coupon
for a free Coke at Hardees."

"And thanks to the trend
of all one-man-band,
we've got half the staff now,
and more cash on hand."

"And look at the money
I've saved on the gear!
Our news looks like crap,
but we still do make air."

"The news cars are ancient,
as everyone knows,
but I've given each staffer
a new siphon hose!"

"The cameras are garbage,
they're all out of focus,
I've promised them new ones,
with some hocus pocus."

"The computers still work
though they're all out of date.
We can last five more years
till we need Windows Eight."

"You've done a great job,"
said the GM with pride,
"Now what about me?
How much can you hide?"

The beancounter gave him
a really big check.
She said, "Corporate won't know
the whole station's a wreck."

The GM said, "Thanks,
no one has to know.
Now pack up your beans,
I'd say you can go."

The beancounter put
all her ledgers to bed,
while visions of cutbacks
danced in her head.

She walked through the newsroom
bidding all a good night,
"Merry Christmas to all,
and please turn out the light!"

-

























Monday, December 17, 2012

Countdown to the Mayan apocalypse: this week's to-do list

Just for the hell of it, let's assume for a moment the Mayans are right and that the world will come to some sort of screeching halt on Friday. Now if we were absolutely sure of this we'd all quit our jobs and spend our last hours with the people we love the most. (Though a few managers I know would not, since the concept of love and human kindness eludes them.)

But the rules of this little game we're going to play this week do not allow you to hang it up and wait for grim reaper. No, you have to stay at your post, doing packages and live shots until the clock strikes twelve. I can see the teases now. "Fireball on the way! After the game!"

So seriously, what would you do if you only had one week left? If you knew that on Friday you're going to come face to face with the great News Director in the sky?

You know damn well what you'd do. You'd be on your best behavior, like a five year old trying to make Santa's nice list by not being naughty. You'd do your best to impress the man upstairs, pulling out all the stops to avoid a trip on the elevator that's headed down.

So this week, just assume we're all checking out on Friday. And try the following:

-Find at least one story that makes the world a better place. It's Christmas, so that shouldn't be too hard. Maybe you'll even find more than one.

-Do a random act of kindness for someone in your station who needs it.

-Put the knives away in the newsroom. No jealousy, no snide comments, no gossip.

-Ditch the bias. Be an actual journalist.

-Help someone in your station. An intern, a rookie reporter, whoever.

-Do every story as if it were your last. Doesn't matter if it's a chicken salad package; put your best effort into it. Knock out a great standup, use tons of nat sound, and write like there's no tomorrow. Literally.

-Praise someone in your newsroom, and do it in front of the staff. A photog who shot some great video, another reporter who did a great story.

We'll all probably wake up on Saturday and the world will still be here. But it might not. Why take the chance? If we're all gonna check out, why not do it on top?

And if we're still here next week, your apocalyptic to-do list might have changed you for the better.... in fact, it might become your permanent to-do list.

-




Friday, December 14, 2012

Anchor tip week: life force and "the rule of 22"

Resume tapes for anchors are a little different than those for reporters. While reporters need to show their versatility in a montage with live shots, standups and set pieces, the anchors need to do so in a different way.

Here's the key. While reporters need to show a wide range of reporting skills, anchors need to show a wide range of personality. And a ton of life force.

This goes back to our "talk, don't read" rule of anchoring. A great anchor not only talks to the viewer, but also conveys his or her personality. Viewers don't want someone who just reads the prompter well, but someone who can do it with the right tone, the right amount of emotion, the facial animation that shows a life force which jumps through the screen.

It's like going to a party. There's always someone who is the center of attention, someone with such a strong life force it attracts everyone.

Anchoring is the same way. But here's the problem: anchors work in a business in which they have to have our most energy at the end of the day. When most people in the real world are getting ready to pack it up for the evening commute, anchors need to bring that life force to the front in a big way. Many times you're tired, your muse is sluggish, you're ready to head home and relax... but you know you've got a newscast to anchor. And you might not have the energy to do it.

So here's the rule of 22: In every thirty minutes newscast, there are eight minutes of commercials. Which means you're on the air for just 22 minutes. Subtract maybe six minutes for weather and sports and you've got even less face time. But during those 22 minutes, you're the focal point of the newscast.

So don't think about the newscast you have to anchor at the end of the day as something to do before the shift is over, think of it this way: "I really only have to be up for 22 minutes every day."

Several years ago I worked with an anchor who was always dragging at the end of the day, and it came through on the air. I took a big black magic marker, wrote the number "22" on it, and taped it above her computer. She used it as a reminder to make sure she was up at the right time of the day. Her anchoring got a lot better.

If you have to pace yourself and conserve energy to do this, then do so. But great anchors manage to bring that life force to the forefront every day for those 22 minutes. They may be absolute slugs the rest of the day, but when the red light goes on, their energy level is at its peak.

Remember, the viewer, and the News Directors you're trying to impress with your resume tape, don't care how hard you worked all day before the newscast. They just want to see the end result. It goes back to Bill Parcells' tacky quote: "Don't tell me about the pain, show me the baby."

Can you be at your best for just 22 minutes every day? If you think about it that way, and save your best for the studio, you'll take your anchoring to the next level.

-






Thursday, December 13, 2012

Anchor tip week: breaking in


Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth they broke in reporters on the anchor desk by having us do the cut-ins. It was basically ninety seconds, toss to weather, and that was it. Throw in a vo/sot or two, and you were basically on camera for less than a minute. Do that four times a day for five days, and by Friday you were pretty comfortable on the desk.

Why News Directors don't do this anymore is beyond me, as it is one of the best ideas of the past that has disappeared. Why throw someone in the deep end of the pool when you can let them wade in from the shallow end?

Anyway, after a few weeks of doing cut-ins, a full newscast wasn't a big deal for me.

But since you probably don't have the luxury of practicing during cut-ins, some suggestions.

-Schedule a practice session, perhaps between newscasts when someone can run the prompter for you. Then look at the tape to see how you're doing.

-On the day you anchor, make sure you read your script aloud. By doing this you'll spot the places you might run out of breath, and then you can re-write accordingly.

-If a producer is going to write your script, you need to re-write it to your own style. It's easier to read your own words than those of someone else.

-Go over the script with the director before the newscast. He'll point out any problem spots and make you feel more comfortable.

-Learn to read off the script. Prompters die all the time and you need to keep up the old fashioned way when they do. And you'll be able to see those breath marks and camera changes.

-Make sure you have plenty of breaks in the first newscast. Packages and vo/sots give you a chance to regroup. Nothing is worse for a rookie anchor than to have two straight minutes of copy at the top of the newscast, because if you stumble out of the gate you'll be a snowball going downhill.

-Read normally. Psychologically you'll speed up, since you want the thing to be over with as soon as possible. What this does is make you stumble and causes your voice to get higher, same as a record played at a faster speed. (Sorry for the dinosaur reference, but it's the only way I know to explain it.)

-Make sure you have water on the set. Cotton mouth is a really common problem among rookies.

-What the heck, ask the ND if you can do some cut-ins before your debut. Your morning anchor sure won't complain.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Anchor tip week: Chemistry and avoiding the dead fish

Chemistry is one of those intangibles you can't predict. When a News Director puts co-anchors and anchor teams in place, he has no idea if those pairings will click or not.

And even the best anchor in the world can look average when paired with the wrong people.

A few years ago I had a client who was very talented, but couldn't get any decent cross talk with her co-anchor. She was loaded with personality and he made Jim Lehrer look like an extrovert. Luckily she managed to get some decent chatter going with her sports and weather anchors.

Very often a problem like this one is caused by pairing people who have little or nothing in common. And when this happens, you can get handed what is known as a "dead fish" in the middle of a newscast. That's when another anchor makes such a bizarre toss that you have no way to come back, as if someone handed you a dead fish and you say, "What the hell am I supposed to do with this?"

I've had this happen to me a few times, as we had an anchor who liked to hand off with lines that made absolutely no sense.

So, bottom line, you need chemistry and no dead sea creatures.

Sometimes chemistry is natural, as you connect with the people with whom you're anchoring. But sometimes you have to work at it.

The easiest way to do it is the most obvious. Get to know the people you're anchoring with. Go to lunch or dinner, spend some time together off the clock. (I'm not suggesting you date anyone at the station, which is usually a huge mistake.) And if you can't spend time together away from the station, take some time to talk during working hours about stuff that has nothing to do with news. Find out what your co-anchor does off the clock, wander back to the weather and sports departments and shoot the breeze.

The better you know the people you work with, the better your anchoring will be. Viewers can tell if the people on a news team actually like one another, and so can your future News Director.

-

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Anchor tip week: Marking your script

You can always tell the anchors who are solely dependent on the prompter. When the thing goes out, and it always does at some point, it's a parade of "uh...well...uh..." and a bunch of stumbles.

The old fashioned paper script is your friend. It's your safety net, your guide. The sooner you get that idea through your head, the better you'll be as an anchor. It's like the rear view mirror in your car. You need to check it every few seconds. As an anchor, you want to glance at your script the same way.

Yesterday we talked about marking your script for camera changes. But there's a lot more you can add to a script to make your anchoring better. Remember, the black Sharpie is your friend.

(By the way, this assumes you actually rehearse before your newscast. This means reading it out loud. More about why this is crucial later.)

-Underline words or phrases you want to punch. There are keys in every story, since you don't just read the script in a monotone. Identify the keys and highlight them.

"We could go over the fiscal cliff this week if Congress doesn't start working together."

"Lindsay Lohan is in trouble again."

-Use arrows to indicate your tone. Some anchors use a down arrow for a somber story, and up arrow for a happy feature.

-Use breath marks if you have a really long sentence or want to pause for effect. You'll find these places when you read aloud. Remember, if you run out of breath when reading a sentence, the sentence is too long. Chop it in half. But if you're one of those people who runs out of gas with sentences of normal lengths, or if you want a slight pause in a sentence, you can put slashes in your sentences called breath marks / which look like that.

-Note which camera you're reading to on the top of the page with big, bold numbers and which camera you're turning to on the bottom.

-Write the names of your weather and sports people on your pages for those segments. You'd be amazed how easily you can forget this stuff.

-Write ideas for cross talk on those same pages. You might write "freeze warning" for your toss to weather and "Mets make stupid trade again" for your chit-chat with the sports guy.

Finally, don't always throw your script away after the newscast. If you had trouble with a certain story, go back and take a look at the script. Was your sentence too long? What words made you stumble? Could you have avoided it by rehearsing more?

Remember, luck is when preparation meets opportunity. When you get the opportunity to anchor, make sure you're prepared. Marking your script can go a long way toward that... and making your own luck.

-


Monday, December 10, 2012

It's anchor tip week: first up, the camera turn

Most young people getting into the business dream of the anchor desk. Then, one day, your shot comes.

You're given a script and told to read the prompter.

That, boys and girls, isn't remotely the definition of anchoring.

It's an art, one that is often natural, but one that can be improved upon. Some people "get it" right away, some never do.

So this week, we're going to focus on little things that can take your anchoring to the next level, make you more comfortable and therefore more marketable. Today we're starting with something so basic that it's almost never taught: the camera change.

Every newscast has them. You read some stories to one camera and the rest to another. And invariably, rookies finish a story on camera one and simply turn their heads to face camera two. This not only looks awkward, it makes it hard for the director to punch cleanly.

First, you have to know a camera change is coming, so marking your script is crucial. Let's say you have a story on an election on camera one and the next story will be one on the economy which will be read on camera two. Take a black magic marker and on the bottom of the election story draw a big, impossible to miss arrow pointing in the direction of camera two and write a big number 2 next to it. (This assumes that you actually look at your script occasionally, instead of just relying on the prompter. More about that later in the week.)

So now you've started reading the first story and you already know the next one will require a camera change. When you get to the end of the story, look down at your script, then look up at camera two. This will give the director a natural cue to change cameras, and make your anchoring smoother.

One more thing... just because you're looking in a different direction doesn't mean your whole body has to shift. If you want a different look, simply turn your head toward camera two and keep your body facing camera one. It will give you a different, slightly three dimensional look and make your anchoring more interesting.

Remember, anchoring often requires baby steps. You learn a little at a time, and hopefully bring it all together at some point.

Tomorrow, more tips.

-

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Christmas story for Chicago & Madison, Wisconsin area reporters

Okay, this would be a nice holiday story if it actually happens. Apparently there's a young woman from Madison, Wisconsin who is desperately ill and wants to meet Justin Bieber at a December 15th concert in Rosemont, Illinois.

She's too old for Make-A-Wish, and is trying to extend a hand through social networking and YouTube.

Anyway, nice story if you can make it happen. Publicity on your station would no doubt help.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSxPiahzUr4

-

Friday, December 7, 2012

Reporters Tricks: Getting past the receptionist

Sometimes you need to get in touch with someone for a story and you can't because that someone is avoiding you. Or maybe the receptionist won't put your call through, or won't give you the email address. Maybe you left a message and the call hasn't been returned.

So you give up and put this in your story. "Attempts to contact Joe Sleazeball were not successful."

But maybe if Joe Sleazeball knew what you had, he might give you an interview. But he can't know if you can't contact him.

There's a reason houses have back doors. If your knock on the front isn't answered, walk around and try the back. Same deal applies to reporting.

Phone calls: Let's say Mr. Sleazeball works for the Acme Corporation. (You know, the one that makes anvils for cartoons.) You call 555-1000 and get the receptionist, identify yourself, and she won't put the call through.

You hang up and dial an extension that has a number close to the main one. Perhaps it's 555-1001. Then, when whoever answers, you simply say, "I was trying to call Joe Sleazeball. Guess I dialed the wrong extension." Chances are you'll get the call transferred since the person answering has no idea you've been stonewalled by the receptionist.

Emails: You need Joe's email but they won't give it to you. You note on the company's website that there's a customer service rep named Helen Waite ("You need help? Go to Helen Waite."). Anyway, Helen's email address is HWaite@AcmeAnvils.com. Simply take the format of the email, and substitute Joe's Name. More than likely JSleazeball@AcmeAnvils.com will work. While you can't know if he will read the email, chance are if he does and sees the info you've got, he might want to give you his side of the story.

Snail Mail: The last resort when you've hit nothing but dead ends. Print an envelope with Joe's address, and do not put a return address on it. Then, under the address, in capital letters, add PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL. Trust me, the mailroom boy won't open it, and chances are neither will his personal secretary.

By the way, I wouldn't try this stuff when you're job hunting and trying to get in touch with a ND. These are just tricks you can use when you're wearing your reporter's hat.

-


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Crossing the line in a life or death situation

By now you may have seen the New York Post cover photo of the man about to be run over by a subway train. The incredibly tasteless headline reads, "Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die." And under that in big, bold capital letters: "Doomed"

What made this even worse is that so many news organizations either re-printed the photo or broadcast it on a newscast.

Shame on you all.

Have we become so desensitized, so lacking in decency that this horrific moment is shared with the world? This is stuff out of a horror movie, but it's real life.

Of course, after the fact, the photographer who took the shot has written a column about the experience, since he apparently got hammered by readers of the newspaper. In the middle of the column he shares the experience, how he saw what was about to happen and started running, how the camera wasn't even on the right setting and he just started shooting as he ran.

Really. Amazing how the photo was perfectly framed and in focus.

So put yourself in his position. You see someone about to die. Do you drop the camera and stop to help, even if it might be in vain, or do you keep shooting and bring it back to the newsroom for a lead story?

If you answered the latter, you have no business in this business. You're a vulture.

The photog in question may have been too far away to help. But he might have yelled for someone closer to offer assistance, might have dropped his gear and waved frantically in an attempt to get the motorman's attention. Maybe someone would have rescued the man, maybe the train could have stopped.

We'll never know. Meanwhile, the victim's family not only has to go through the grief of losing someone who died a horrible death, but they have to endure the fact that someone profited from it. And that so many news organizations are sharing the moment.

Put yourself in the victim's place. Someone just shoved you in front of a train. And you look up and see someone about to take your picture.

If you run this photo, you're no different than the man who shot it.

-

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Quitting on live TV: or, why you should have your desk cleaned out before giving notice

Recently a pair of Maine co-anchors decided to quit during a live newscast. The video made the rounds and got a lot of attention, probably because the anchors decided to rip management while the little red light was still on.

First, I don't know any of the parties involved or anyone at that station. But there is a definite trickle down effect that affects everyone in the business.

Over the years this is nothing new. People have occasionally gone rogue on their last day and decided to lob a grenade at the boss on the way out the door. While this may or may not be career suicide, it is at least the equivalent of a consultation with the broadcasting version of Doctor Kevorkian. But the result is that other  managers see this, and in the back of their minds think, "This could happen to me." (Of course, if you guys weren't such big meanies you wouldn't have to worry.)

Anyway, the result is that anchors who give notice may be suddenly pulled off the air and turned into reporters for two weeks. Reporters may never see the live truck again. Or you may be unceremoniously shown the door as your two-week notice turns into a two minute notice.

This has happened to me and to a lot of people I know. And it illustrates the importance of an exit strategy when you know you're heading out of town. If you think you might have two weeks to dub off all your good stories, you might find yourself in a tough situation if you can't get into the building.

So, before giving notice, just in case:

-Make dubs of anything you want to keep
-Print out or forward to yourself any emails you might need
-Make sure you have a copy of your list of contacts and phone numbers
-Take anything valuable out of your desk and bring it home

While this might sound paranoid, trust me, I get calls all the time from people who suddenly find themselves locked out with no way to get dubs of their best work. Management can get awfully spiteful when people leave, so make sure you're prepared when you do.

And if you want to go live and have the last word, remember, it might be the last word you ever say on television.

-

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Buy a book, get a critique

Okay, class, time once again to support my fiction habit and in the process get some feedback on your career.

Here's my latest, a young adult novel called "Destiny's Hourglass" about a kid who can control the future. (Sorry, he can't find you a job.) If you've been going through Harry Potter withdrawal, or know a kid who is, this might be the perfect Christmas gift.

Same deal as before: buy a book, send a copy of the receipt (screen grab or whatever) to tvnewsgrapevine@gmail.com and I'll critique one package or one anchor segment free. Buy two books, double the freebies, etc. This applies to both paperbacks and e-books.

This one's only available on Amazon:



-


Friday, November 30, 2012

Top ten mistakes people make when looking for a job

Hindsight is always 20-20. Over the years there have been plenty of times I've looked back and said to myself, "Why didn't I see that?" or "How did I miss that in the contract?"

So you need 20-20 foresight when dealing with management, especially when you're about to sign with someone new. Remember, any deal you take is always in management's favor, even though you may think it isn't. But you can make it a more level playing field with 20-20 foresight. It's your own little time machine designed to help you avoid problems in the future.

1. Have a lawyer read your contract. More people get screwed by the fine print in contracts than by everything else combined.

2. Remember that everything is negotiable. You may hear "We don't give outs" or "Everyone signs a three year contract" but that doesn't mean anything. Every person's situation is mutually exclusive.

3. Do your homework. Find out all you can about the ND, the station, the staff. Watch the product online before you send a tape. Track down former employees and contact them.

4. Make sure you're clear on EVERYTHING before signing. When do the health benefits start? Will you pay moving expenses? Do I get a hair and clothing allowance? Will you put me up in a hotel while I look for a place to live? Remember, you've got one chance to sign a contract, so make sure everything you want is in it.

5. Ditch the rose-colored glasses. Yes, you desperately want to get the hell out of Dodge, but taking anything can often land you in a bad situation. If you hear a lot of bad things about a station, just keep in mind that where there's smoke, there's fire.

6. Be clear on the job description. If you're applying for a reporter job and you hear, "You might have to produce once in awhile," run like hell. That's a classic bait and switch and you'll probably end up as a full time producer with no way to make a new tape.

7. Don't be afraid to ask for more, but do so politely. You don't have to take the first offer, because, it's just that, an offer. If you'd like more money, a shorter contract, etc. don't be shy. However, if you're looking for your first job, your bargaining position is pretty limited.

8. Don't sign a three year deal for a first job. Just don't. Please.

9. Consider the shift, especially if the job is for the morning show. If you're a night person like I am, trust me, the morning shift will kill you. And keep in mind that morning show reporter is the worst job in television because you rarely get to do stories of substance.

10. Make sure the job is one that will help you reach your ultimate goal. Think long term, not short term instant gratification.

-



Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Jedi Mind Tricks; It's not a coincidence if your contract ends this week

It's been a long standing belief that the hardest time to find a job in this business is in December. November sweeps have just ended, the holidays are coming up, people are taking vacations, the staff is a skeleton crew for a few weeks.

Naturally, if you're a News Director, you want the contracts for your people to end in November because it makes it that much harder for them to leave.

It used to be that no one got hired during sweeps, but that seems to have changed. I had three clients gets jobs this month, and the same happened last year.

Still, it pains me when I hear from people with contracts that run out on November 30th. You may say, "Well, that's probably because that's when they started, right?"

Uh, no. Once again, grasshopper, these aren't the droids you're looking for.

Here's the latest Jedi Mind Trick from those ne'er-do-wells who come up with these devious tactics. People are getting hired in the middle of summer yet getting contracts that run for very odd lengths of time. Like two years and four months. Curiously, these odd contracts all seem to magically end on the last day of November.

Since most News Directors like their new people to start before sweeps, this hampers their efforts to hire you. The end result is that you've gotten interest on your tape, but the timing is off. You end up being stuck, perhaps signing another contract (which will no doubt end on the same date) with a station you want to leave.

Beware of contracts with unusual lengths, and always pay attention to the end date. While the end of February or May sweeps is not a problem, the end of November is. If you sign one of these, you could be staying a lot longer than the length of the contract simply because of the timing.

-


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Most arguments aren't worth having

If you're like me, and like most people in this business, you're passionate about what you do. You care deeply about the stuff you put on the air, especially if it has your name on it. And sometimes you end up in a disagreement over how to cover a story or what to put into it.

Over the years I've gotten into plenty of arguments over story coverage. We all have. And in most cases, reporters lose the argument to management. Looking back, it's hard for me to remember the stories I argued about.

In fact the only valid argument I can think of was when we once had solid information about a Presidential candidate that would effectively kill his campaign, and management killed the story. Had our info been about a candidate in another party, the outcome might have been different. That one was worth the argument, even though I lost.

In the grand scheme of things, you have to take a step back before making your case. Is the argument worth it, and will it do irreparable harm to your relationship with your boss? Do you have a snowball's chance in hell of winning the argument anyway, even if you effectively make your point? And finally, is the story that important that anyone will remember it a few days from now?

Remember, most stories are "gone to Pluto" the minute they air. Unless you're doing something major, you need to pick your battles, because when you take on management, the point spread is always in their favor before the game even starts. And you could end up in the doghouse for quite awhile.

--

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Black Friday book sale for starving journalists

Okay, you don't even have to get out of bed for this one.

Smashwords, the people who offer electronic downloads of my book, are offering 25 percent off on it thru Monday. The book is regularly $19.99, so for those who are math challenged that means you'll save five bucks. Help your career and have enough left over to buy a cup of overpriced coffee.

You can link to the page here, scroll down, and find the appropriate download:

Broadcast Journalism Street Smarts / Smashwords edition

Then enter ES34Z at checkout.

Meanwhile, Happy Thanksgiving!

-

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Who wrote this?

Those three words form the most common complaint I've heard from anchors over the years, and they usually follow something that makes said anchor look bad. Maybe the script is written awkwardly or not in the style the anchor prefers, maybe the facts are a little off. If you're an anchor who's said this, there is a simple solution.

Write the damn script yourself.

But before we get to the advantages of "writing the damn script yourself" we're going to explore the root of the problem.

"Stumbling anchor syndrome" is becoming a more common problem these days, and there are several reasons. (This also results in "rolling eyes anchor syndrome" which occurs during commercial breaks after an anchor has yelled, "Who wrote this?")

-Too many kids right out of college writings scripts. Yes, for some bizarre reason News Directors continue to put 22-year-olds in charge, and many of them are writing the scripts for anchors. Few young people can write well. (A lot of older people can't write either, for that matter, but for the most part experience does improve your skills.)

-Too many anchors still take two hour dinner breaks, then read their copy cold on the air, or after glancing at it once.

-Not very many people in this business can write well. Sadly, most of them are not writing anchor scripts.

-Anchors are not taking the lead in the production of the newscast.

Back to our original question. Everyone has a writing style, and it is a given that it is easier to read your own copy than that written by someone else. When you write your own copy, you're already reading it aloud in your head. You know what's coming, you know when you're turning a phrase, you know what tone to take, what inflection certain phrases need. When you write your own copy, you're less likely to make a mistake because you're more familiar with it; after all, it originated in your own head.

When you have someone else write your copy, you have no idea how they were reading it aloud in their own mind. They may have turned a phrase that you don't get, they may write a sentence that you interpret the wrong way.

If you're an anchor who either doesn't write copy or doesn't edit it before going on the air, you're asking for trouble. Trust me, writing your own stuff will improve your style and delivery, your stumbling will be minimized, and you'll get your information to the viewer in the way they can understand it.

And if you do it yourself, you won't be able to ask, "Who wrote this?"

-


Monday, November 19, 2012

Twinkie math: 80 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing

During the time I worked in my dad's store, I sold a lot of Hostess Twinkies. I'm proud to say that in eight years I never ate a single one of those things. For one, they were sickeningly sweet. But we also sold TastyKakes, which any kid from Philly knows is an off-the-charts great sugar fix.

So when the news broke that the Hostess Twinkie was gone forever, it didn't bother me a lick. If, for instance, news had broken that Ghirardelli was going to stop making chocolate, I'd simply check myself into an institution as a pre-emptive measure for the withdrawal that would be sure to come.

But I did feel bad for the 18,500 workers who lost their jobs. Once again, management and labor can't agree, nobody will budge, and everyone loses. I dare say a lot of those people would rather have a pay cut than no salary at all. Down the road someone will buy the company and relocate it to a place where they don't have to deal with unions, and 18,500 other people will have jobs cranking out junk food.

It's a great illustration of bargaining power in the current economy. If you're one of those people who faces a pay cut to keep your job, or you're thinking about playing hardball in your next contract negotiation, take a walk through the grocery story and look for a box of Twinkies. That could be you. You could be gone.

And if you're a long time "one market anchor" and think you can get a better deal elsewhere, you're really in for a shock. You may have been a big hit in one market because you've simply been there forever, but you're nobody in another market. New employers don't care if the people in Palookaville still like you, because you won't be in Palookaville anymore.

Think long and hard before playing hardball in any negotiation. Because unlike the managers who ran the Twinkie factory, broadcasting managers can always find someone else who will be thrilled to take your job at the salary you don't want.

-

Friday, November 16, 2012

Why Petraeus is a big story and Benghazi is not... yet

The big stories of the past few months tell us a lot about viewers and their interests.

Imagine you're doing a man in the street interview, and you have two questions:

-Who is David Petraeus?

-What's going on with Benghazi?

Thanks to the revelation of Petraeus' sordid affair in the past few days, you'd get a pretty high percentage of people who could answer the first question.

The second question? Half the people are more likely to think "Ben Gazzi" owns the pizza parlor down the street.

Ironically the first story is about to make the second story the bigger one. All because of that one intangible that makes viewers stop what they're doing and watch: a sex scandal.

The Petraeus story is a made-for-supermarket-tabloid tale. This isn't just a guy cheating on his wife, this is also a wife cheating on her husband. It's become an affair that tests your knowledge of geometry, going from a love triangle to a polygon at the Pentagon. Throw in a book title that's a hanging curveball over the middle of the plate for any comedian, and you've got a story that isn't going away for awhile. The public can't get enough.

Ironically, it's taking a sex scandal to get the bigger story rolling. Let's be honest here, Benghazi is bigger than Watergate, and Watergate was huge. The big difference? Nobody died during the Watergate burglary. Americans were murdered in Benghazi. Somebody screwed up, and it shouldn't take this long to figure out who.

You can argue why Benghazi hasn't taken off as a story. One argument is that the story was buried before the election. Another is that Americans don't care much for foreign affairs news. It could be a little of both. But now you tie in a guy involved in a racy affair, and Benghazi suddenly becomes more relevant, because you've added spice to the story. Did a General's "distraction" cause Americans to die? Now Benghazi trumps Watergate.

It's sad that a sex angle is needed to gain interest for a story, but that's the culture in which we live. It's too bad that so many journalists didn't see Benghazi as the huge story it is now destined to be.

Remember, there are no such things as boring stories, only boring reporters. If you have a good story, you have the ability to make it interesting, despite what you perceive as a lack of interest from viewers.

-




Thursday, November 15, 2012

Burnout or bad boss?

I sometimes shake my head when I get phone calls and emails from people in their mid-twenties who say they're "burned out."

The phrase was coined in the seventies, and usually used to describe people in their forties and fifties who had been on the same treadmill a little too long. When I used to ride the trains in the New York area I'd see it during rush hour; the long faces of the "commuting undead" that told you they were sick of their jobs without saying a word.

I thought I was burned out around forty, having gone through a few years with a boss I couldn't stand. His management style sucked the life out of me, often putting my muse into vapor lock. I left the business for awhile, then came back. Because I wasn't burned out; my creativity was stifled by a boss who didn't understand creative people and how they're wired.

For those of you who think you're burned out, I know exactly how you feel.  You drag yourself out of bed, don't arrive in the newsroom one minute earlier than you have to, dread the bad assignments you're given. You walk on eggshells, trying not to make mistakes yet get criticized even if you don't make any. You're a member of the television undead.

Here's how you know you're not burned out. You say you don't care anymore about your stories, but you've got too much pride to phone it in. You still get a rush from knocking out a good story, or breaking an exclusive. You're looking for another job because despite the horrible conditions, you still love what you do.

There's a big difference between "Get me outta here" and "Get me outta this business."

We are ruled by a muse and challenged by a blank page. If you still want to do what you're doing, only do it somewhere else, you're not burned out. You're just working in a bad place for a bad boss.

-

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The snowball

Even if you didn't grow up in the northern part of the country, you probably know what the term "snowball rolling downhill" means. As kids we loved making a decent sized snowball, rolling it down the very large hill near my house and watching the thing grow and grow and grow and end up like a boulder.

There are snowballs that roll downhill in television news, and they only appear in the middle of newscasts. I'm talking about what happens when some idiot in management thinks it is a good idea to get on the phone and ream someone out while the person is still on the air.

I've seen this countless times. Anchor, producer or director either screws up or does something management doesn't like. Rather than wait for the newscast to end to discuss this, the helicopter manager waits for the next commercial break, then grabs the phone and calls the person.

At this point you may as well put color bars on the air, because the newscast is shot to hell.

The victim becomes the proverbial snowball, thinking, "I'd better not screw up again" and ends up walking on eggshells. And you can't do your best work when you're concentrating on making not mistakes. The result is often the opposite. You just make more of them, as the problem rolls downhill and gets bigger and bigger.

I've seen anchors go into vapor lock when this happens. I've seen a director get so twitchy he could barely punch the rest of the newscast.

What can you do if you're a victim of what I consider rather transparent attempts to get under your skin and gain power over you? You have to be tough and consider the source. Consider the tactic, and what the management person is trying to do. And then you have to say to yourself "whatever" and move on.

Criticizing someone during a newscast is one of the most pathetic tactics used by managers. Grow a thick skin and don't become a snowball.

-

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Mailbag: Attack of the neutron News Director

Dear Grape,

Our station recently got a new news director. Did the new boss wait a few months before making changes? Nope! The new ND started making changes immediately, before learning ANYTHING about the station. Work schedules changed at random, and many don't make sense. Anchors have to one-man-band it now.  No more feature stories. (Not that we did much of that anyway). We're now expected to turn "60 Minutes" style investigations every night. Bottom line: I used to love my job but the new ND is making it very hard. I've had some hard ND's before, but this is one is quickly taking the cake! I still have a couple of years left. Any tips? 

Sincerely,
Frustrated Reporter
 
Ah, you've brought back some memories, and not good ones. We went through that once, same deal; changed schedules, job descriptions, etc. It became clear the guy didn't want any of us. More than fifty percent left in the first six months of his tenure, and I have a hunch he let some out of their contracts because he didn't want them.
 
You have a "neutron" News Director, the theory being he's the same as a neutron bomb: leaving the building standing while killing all the people.
Here's what I suspect happened: the guy watched a bunch of airchecks before taking the job and decided the following:

a. Who he wants to keep (if anyone)
b. Who he wants to get rid of, and how to make those people miserable enough to quit

You can endure two years of hell or ask to be let out of your contract. If you have a buyout clause, it might be worth it just for your own mental health.

Sorry you're going through this. I remember how painful it was for our staff and wouldn't wish that on anyone.
 
As for the guy I worked with, I put the Sicilian "evil eye" curse on him and his career went into the dumper.

 
Grape,
 
I know most journalists thought the election process was exciting. This morning I'm feeling a bit of withdrawal. Is this normal?
 
Elections are exciting and so is the political process. But now you have to go back to finding stories that aren't laid out for you. Start breaking a few good enterprise stories and you'll get your mojo back.
 
Meanwhile, I sure as hell miss the robo-calls.

 
Dear Grapevine,
 
Just wondering if you encountered any gimmicks when you were a News Director that made you pay more attention to a tape?

Not really. I've seen all sorts of attempts to gain attention, the most common of which was a bag of microwave popcorn. (Get it? Lay back, eat some popcorn and enjoy the video.) A woman once sent a three foot poster of herself in a revealing costume. Other people vetted me and would put stuff about the Mets or Giants in the cover letter.

None of these made me more likely to look at a tape or hire anyone. I looked at all the tapes anyway, as do most NDs, so save the trickery.

But the best thing you can do to improve your chances besides your tape is a clever cover letter.



 
 
 
 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why America's best days really are behind us, why it's partially our fault, and how you can turn things around... regardless of who wins the election

I use the phrase "back in the day" a lot. Sometimes it refers to my childhood, when a ticket to a Mets game cost a buck thirty. Sometimes it refers to the eighties, when reporters didn't have to worry about meaningless and endless live shots. It rarely refers to any time period earlier than 1990.

Let's be honest here; this doesn't have anything to do with either political party because both are at fault. This country has been headed on a downward spiral for twenty years. It started slowly, subtly. The beancounters turned us into a bottom line society. Quality went out the window. The telephones that lasted our entire childhoods were replaced by Chinese garbage that breaks every two years. We've gone from solid metal to plastic, and I'm not just talking about manufactured goods. It's an attitude of a disposable society, one that produces goods with planned obsolescence rather than quality. An attitude that makes you believe your six month old iPhone is hopelessly out of date and should be thrown away even though it works just fine. It's an attitude that has taken the class out of everything, from the way people dress to the in-your-face garbage that often passes for news these days. It's an attitude that looks to file a lawsuit in court because your coffee is too hot.

The downward spiral became a full-fledged swan dive during the 2000 election, and that marked the time that bias became blatantly obvious. Liberal newscasters looked as though someone had run over their dog when Bush was declared the winner over Gore, while conservative news people couldn't contain their delight. And thus began the division of this country by bias: people are no longer people. They carry labels now, conservative or liberal. You're either one or the other, with no gray area. And if you don't agree, you're an idiot.

Bias has always existed of course, but it was quiet and subtle, sneaked into your news with a pointed adjective here and a supportive adverb there. But once it got out in the open it gained steam, and that steam has been the anger that has boiled up out of the newsroom and over the airwaves. It's no longer enough to be biased; now you have to be biased and angry, to demonize those who don't think as you do, to not respect the opinions of everyone. To shout down anyone who isn't on the same page.

That anger has filtered down to viewers, who no longer see their neighbors as people, but label them when they see a particular yard sign or bumper sticker. Years ago people were defined by their professions. Now they're defined by their beliefs, and heaven help them if they don't agree with you.

The word "polarized" has never been more applicable. So is the word "gridlock." And a lot of it is our fault.

Go ahead, look in the mirror and be honest with yourself. Have you been totally fair in your coverage? If so, you're a journalist. If not, if you're one of those who slants stories, who sits on stories you don't like and trumpets those you do, then you're nothing more than a hack. Doesn't matter if you cash a network paycheck, that doesn't validate your actions. You're still a hack.

And if you honestly believe politicians of both parties care about anything other than getting themselves elected and that your biased support will make a difference, you're a really naive hack. You may think you're smarter than the average viewer, that they're too stupid to understand the issues. They may not all be mental giants, but they're smart enough to realize the media isn't playing fair. And why would anyone want to watch a channel featuring a newscaster who tells you that you're not intelligent because your views are different? Insulting a viewer is a wonderful promotional tool, don't you think?

Many of you are young, and didn't have the chance to enjoy this country when things were great. They can be great again, but it starts with you. If you want to see things continue to go downhill, embrace your bias and share your anger with the world. If not, do your best to be fair and portray people as people without giving them labels.

This should apply regardless of who the next President will be.

A recent Gallup poll in September showed that 60 percent of Americans do not trust the media. That's an all time high. Is it any wonder ratings for news programs have constantly gone down in recent years? Yes, your bias is killing the business. Because when you take one side or the other, you're losing fifty percent of your potential audience.

I learned this years ago working in my dad's store. A good customer came in one day, asking to put a political sign in the window, but my dad politely told him no. After he left I asked my dad why; the customer was a great guy, we liked him and wanted him to win the election. My dad said, "If I put his sign in the window, the customers we already have who aren't voting for him might not do their business here." He said it was best to stay neutral when you're in business.

And make no mistake, broadcasting is a business.

Be fair. Help bring the country back together instead of dividing people and pitting them against one another. Then maybe you'll get to see what "back in the day" really meant.

-





Friday, November 2, 2012

My one and only fearless election prediction: or, why Joe Biden's flight delay will cost the Democrats North Carolina

About a month ago I'm flying home from New York and I had a connecting flight in Charlotte, North Carolina. I'd never flown through Charlotte before, and would later discover the airport gates were laid out by an architect thinking it would be cool to separate the gates by about five football fields.

Anyway, on this day the flight is going smooth. We actually took off on time (A small miracle flying out of New York) and were getting ready to land. Not a cloud in the sky. Beautiful day.

Until the pilot came on the intercom. "Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to be in a holding period indefinitely because Joe Biden's plane is on the ground. No one is permitted to land or take off right now."

Now over the years I've heard the typical groans when announcements of weather or equipment delays were announced. But this little bit of information really struck a nerve with the passengers, many of whom were business travelers who had appointments to make. And more importantly, like me, connections to make.

The comments that floated around the cabin were priceless. The old Jewish man with the yarmulke sitting behind me called Biden an unflattering Yiddish term. Some guy from Charlotte wondered aloud why the VP didn't use a private airport where he wouldn't have to inconvenience everyone. Another man said, in a pretty loud voice, "He just lost my vote."

Forty minutes later we were given clearance to land. I looked at the board, and of course, the domino effect had taken place. Everything was delayed by forty minutes. Which of course would no doubt create another domino effect across the country.

After getting in my two mile run to my connecting gate, I noted Senator John McCain was in line to board my flight. This part of the story will come into play later. I had never met him so I went up and introduced myself. Nice guy.

So now we board the flight and we've taxied down the runway. And then the dreaded intercom again.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are not able to take off because of Air Force Two. There will be an indefinite delay."

A guy a few rows in front of me, who had obviously been delayed on a previous flight, yells, "Again with Joe Biden!" The guy next to me says, "He's just doing it to get back at  John McCain."

So, after all those delays, I'm just wondering how many passengers got ticked off that day in North Carolina. Granted, not all of them live there. But if Romney carries that state by a handful of votes, you can trace it back to the day the VP tied up the airport.

And that's the only prediction you'll get out of me.

-

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Everything's on hold

If you're sending out tapes right now and not getting any response, fear not. There are three major reasons:

1. November sweeps

2. The election

3. Hurricane Sandy

The election will be out of the way in a week. Sweeps will be out of the way in a month. Hurricane damage won't be out of the way for a year. If you're applying to a station in the Northeast, fuhgeddaboudit.

-

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The "duh" factor of hurricane coverage

So this morning I'm calling all my East Coast friends and family, and I've been through enough hurricanes to know I shouldn't waste time with cell phone calls and emails. Land lines always work, though, but the others are iffy when the power's out.

And yet two days ago I saw anchor after anchor tell viewers to check the Internet for updates to the storm. Even those geniuses at FEMA told people to use social media to stay informed.

Well, DUH!!!!! If there's no power, your desktop computer won't work, your laptop will eventually die, cell service is out in lots of places, and your Internet connection is most likely dead. Unless you have a battery powered TV, you're looking at a dark screen.

What works? Old fashioned land lines will generally always work when the power goes out.

But in our technology obsessed society, news people and the government miss the obvious point: it takes power to run technology.

Did I see anyone suggest that people get those hand crank radios to stay in touch? Nope. Did I see anyone remind the public land lines will work, and what number to call for information? No.

DUH!!!

-


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Hurricane warning

Many of you in the Northeast have never covered a hurricane, so time for the semi-annual warning not to get killed covering the storm.

Don't underestimate Mother Nature. Case in point: while I was covering Hurricane Isaac in August, at one point I actually had to get down on all fours to cross the street because I was being blown off my feet. And this was only a category one hurricane.

Getting too close to the water is another big risk. Water can trump anything: brick, steel, and easily the human body.

Flying debris is another danger: 75 mile per hour winds can send wood and metal flying at you like a rocket.

So don't be stupid. You may think doing a live shot on the water's edge is more dramatic, but it's just dumb. And you may think that kind of shot on your resume tape will get you a job, but News Directors have seen hundreds of those.

Safety first. No story is worth dying for.

-

Saturday, October 27, 2012

When producing a local newscast, you don't have to follow the network's lead

I don't have too many posts for producers, but this one is necessary. In addition, many anchors are now producing their own shows.

This has to do with local newscasts that include national and international news.

There has always been a tendency to look at what the network is leading with, and following suit. That rule has now gone out the window, thanks to bias.

The prime example this week is the Libya situation, or scandal, or coverup, or whatever you want to call it. Two networks are devoting serious coverage to it. Two are totally ignoring it.

This should not have any effect on your local newscast.

Just because someone at the network level thinks a story is big doesn't mean you have to think the same way. Just because a network producer thinks this story should be ignored, doesn't mean you have to ignore it.

As always, put yourself in the shoes of the viewers. Your personal opinion means nothing. Is this a story the local viewers want to know about, or not? And remember, not covering a story you don't personally like is bias by omission.

You don't have to be a bunch of sheep. It's okay to stray from the herd.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

Mailbag: The care and feeding of photogs

Hi Grape,

I'm a rookie just starting my first job. My question is simple: what's the best way to get in the good graces of the photogs? Many of them are veterans and I know they're suspicious of young people. Thanks.

Well, this is an easy one:

-Treat photogs as part of a team on every story. On the way to the story, ask for their ideas on how to cover it. Ask for advice.

-On the way back from any story, ask them about what shots they got that might be "money shots" or provide great nat sound.

-Pick up the check for lunch on a day when the photog has really gone the extra mile for you. Buy a cold drink for him on a really hot day and a coffee on a cold one.

-Say thank you after a good story, and make sure the newsroom knows who shot it.

-Keep your hands off the car radio, lest you pull back a bloody stump.



Grape,

Just curious on your take regarding the bias in our business. Is it worse this election cycle than in 2008?

Well, sad to say but I think the bias has gone over the top this year.  What's amazing is that it's more obvious than it was four years ago and the viewing public is wise to it.

I find it odd that one network's lead story isn't even covered on another network.

You'll find this interesting: you can't find a certain cable network in hotels in red states and can't find the opposite network in hotels in blue states.

In my opinion the polarization in this country can be traced directly to bias in the news business.


Dear Grape,

I'll be covering my first election and wondering if you have any tips.

Oh, I've got bunches:

-Wear a poker face. You can't appear happy if a certain candidate wins or sad if that candidate loses.

-If you've been assigned to cover a certain race, make sure you find time to personally introduce yourself to the candidates in the days before election day.

-If you're anchoring, you'll need index cards with info on each candidate. These should contain background info, maybe some interesting tidbits about the candidate. Make sure you know how to pronounce all the names. Election night really separates the great anchors from the ones who can't do anything without a prompter.

-Understand the issues. If you don't know what sequestration means, or what happens if the electoral college ends up in a tie, look it up now.

-Get an absentee ballot, as you might not have a chance to vote on election day.


-








Thursday, October 25, 2012

The News Director liked you but you didn't get the job. Now what?

At some point you'll probably find yourself on a short list. You may have been brought in for an interview, the ND liked you, he was very encouraging. You liked the company and the station.

And then he hired someone else.

Just because you didn't get the job this time doesn't mean you're out of the running.

Huh? But the job was filled. How can I possibly still be a contender?

Ah, grasshopper, because there will be other openings down the road at that station. Because that News Director will at some point move to another station and need people there.

Because he liked you once, and he can like you again.

But here's the important thing you have to do. You must remain in the back of his mind.

You all need a separate rolodex (forgive me, old school) of managers who have given you positive responses.

In the case of the job you just missed, you need to do two things. First, if you haven't already, send a thank you note for being considered. Second, you must continue to send tapes once in awhile to keep your name in his head.

Sending a new tape every two months is a good idea. Doesn't matter if there's an opening, you just need to let the guy know you're still out there turning out (hopefully) better work. Then when he has another opening or moves to another station, he's more likely to remember the reporter who sends a tape periodically.

Remember the old saying, "out of sight, out of mind." It also applies to resume tapes. If they don't see one from you every so often, they'll forget you.

-

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The stall

Occasionally you'll have a very nice problem: more than one job offer. Maybe one station is pressing you for a decision, maybe both. Maybe one has an offer on the table and you're hoping for an offer from a station you like better.

You need time, but News Directors are pressing you for a quick answer. (This is ironic since they usually move at the speed somewhere between continental drift and Jim Lehrer.)

This is when you employ some sports strategies. The stall. Killing the clock.

Let's say you get a job offer today and the ND wants a quick answer. (First, note that any ND that does a car salesman type full court press is usually trying to hide something.) The very first thing you do is ask the ND to send you a copy of the contract so that you and your lawyer can look at it. Since we all know lawyers move at the speed somewhere between glaciers and Jim Lehrer, this will give you a few days to let things play out.

You can use the ND's speed, or lack thereof, against him. You can ask for a simple change in a contract, a few more dollars, perks, whatever. This now buys you more time as he has to take the contract to the GM, corporate, the beancounters, or whoever. That'll kill a few more days.

The stall is a very subtle tactic, and you cannot overplay it and stretch things out forever. But when you need a few days for other factors to play out, you can always buy a little time with some sensible requests.

-

Saturday, October 20, 2012

"Binders": the biggest non-story of the election

When Mitt Romney said his now famous line, "binders full of women," I knew exactly what he meant.

Because I used to have a box full of women.

And a box full of men.

And a box full of sports anchors.

And a box full of meteorologists.

Oh my God, I had boxes full of people. The horror! Yes, this makes me an evil, evil man.

When you're staffing a newsroom, as I once did, you have to divide up the resume tapes. So I got a bunch of boxes and put the tapes in the appropriate box. Male anchors, female anchors, etc. Most NDs do similar stuff. Consultants and agents do the same thing. Call up an agent and tell him you need a female anchor, and poof! You've got another box full of women.

Sometimes you can even take a box full of women home with you, and your wife doesn't bat an eye. Then again, she didn't bat an eye when I brought home a box full of men so I could watch tapes in peace.

Of course, in any other business that doesn't use resume tapes, the people who work in Inhuman Resources collect paper resumes and store them in... wait for it... binders.

There are two points to be made, one about quotas and the other about non-stories.

First, if you don't think there's a quota system in this country, you've obviously time-warped here from the fifties. Just look around your newsroom and you see a melting pot. Every station in American looks for a certain demographic when hiring. They might need a white male one time, a minority woman the next. Of course, no one will ever admit that, as it's the dirty little secret of the business and will get you sued. But it's true of every business in America.

Second, we live in an era in which someone, somewhere, will be offended no matter what happens. I once did a heart warming story about a guy in a wheelchair, a very inspirational piece. During the story I used the phrase "confined to a wheelchair." Some viewer who was in a wheelchair called and reamed me out, saying she was horribly offended because she was "liberated by her wheelchair, not confined." It didn't matter that I was trying to do a nice story. She wanted to be offended.

And so do a lot of people. Some people just look for words to twist to make someone look bad.

So do some news people.

When the Sopranos first started airing people asked me if I was offended by it. After all, it stereotyped all Italians as being in the Mafia. After breaking their kneecaps I responded that I was not bothered by it at all.

Look, I'm not trying to stick up for one candidate here, but be honest: this "story" is ridiculous. We have a big election coming up, and in the coming weeks our news coverage needs to focus on the issues: the economy, foreign policy, health care. In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter if Romney looked at resumes in a binder or Obama likes to play a lot of golf? Does anyone really care about a poll that asks which candidate would be best to babysit your children?

Can we please stick to real issues?

-

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

As we head to Del Boca Vista, we're oh-for-three on moderators

After watching three moderators either channel an empty chair, get steamrolled, or both, I've decided to throw my hat in the ring to moderate one of the 2016 debates since I figure I cannot possibly do worse. Today I'm sitting down for lunch with one of the decision makers in that process, Maude R. Aytor.

Maude: So, you'd like to moderate of the debates in 2016. Tell me why.

Grape: Well, so far all the debates have gotten totally out of control of the moderator. I think I could do a better job enforcing the rules and keeping things fair.

Maude:  How so?

Grape: Well, in television we are very much in tune with time limits. If a package cannot run one second longer than a minute-thirty, it doesn't. The six o'clock news doesn't start at five minutes after six. The first thing I would do is strictly enforce time limits for the candidates.

Maude: Our rules state each candidate will get two minutes for a response, With that in mind, how much time would you give each candidate?

Grape: This a trick question?

Maude: No.

Grape: Then I would give each candidate two minutes.

Maude: (shakes head in disgust) Oh, I can see we're gonna have a problem here.

Grape: What's the correct answer?

Maude: There is no correct answer. The two minute limit is bogus. Nobody enforces it, and the candidates don't pay attention to it.

Grape: So what's the point of the rule?

Maude: It's just there to make the general public think we're fair. Now, moving on. Who are you going to vote for in November?

Grape: I'm not telling you that.

Maude: Why not?

Grape: Because as a journalist I'm supposed to remain objective and not reveal any personal opinions.

Maude: Uh-huh. (Shakes her head and writes some notes on a pad.)

At this point a waitress arrives to take our order.

Waitress: Hello, my name is Mindy and I'll be taking your order today. Our lunch specials are grilled salmon with a creamy dill sauce, pasta primavera--

Maude: I'll need a list of any politicians who attended your wedding.

The waitress glares at Maud.

Grape: Uh, she's still talking.

Maude: Oh, interrupting is no big deal and is encouraged. I'm just preparing you for the debate if you're selected.

Grape: (to waitress) Give us two minutes.

Maude: Or five. Or ten. Whatever! Time doesn't matter! Meanwhile, politicians at your wedding?

Grape: None. Thank God. My wedding was not a photo op. Except for the bride.

Maude: (Writes more notes down on her pad.) Give me a few examples of your best "gotcha" questions you've posed to politicians.

Grape: I don't believe in using gotcha questions.

Maude: So how in the world do you make politicians look stupid?

Grape: They do that quite well on their own without any help from me.

Maude: I see. Your opinion on Big Bird?

Grape: Seriously?

Maude: So, bottom line... you're not biased, have no personal friends who are politicians, and don't use gotcha questions. You have opinions but won't tell me any of them. And I take it from your tone that you apparently don't watch Sesame Street. Have I left anything out?

Grape: Well, I think the moderator of any debate has to be in control and run it with a strong hand. You can't let it become a free-for-all with no rules.

Maude: (Writes more notes and closes her notebook.) Well, thank you for your time, but I'm afraid this isn't going to work out.

Grape: Did I say something wrong?

Maude: Look, I'm sure you have good intentions, but we have certain... qualifications... we require.

Grape: And those would be?

Maude: Oh, it's a secret. But I'm sure you can figure it out. (Big smile.)

Grape: Thanks. That was a gotcha question, by the way.

--


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What constitutes a "gaffe" in politics?

Google the word "gaffe" and you get a bunch of definitions ranging from "an unintentional remark causing embarrassment" to "a clumsy social error" to a "faux pas." (Scroll down a little and you'll see something called the "Joe Biden gaffe-o-meter.")

During this political season, the word is being tossed around with regularity, for even the slightest missteps by any candidate.  Whether something is a gaffe or not is open to interpretation.

Examples: Some journalists saw Mitt Romney's comments about the London Olympics as a huge gaffe while others thought it was no big deal. Others saw President Obama's quote on Egypt not being an ally of the United States as a major gaffe, while others say it wasn't.

So who decides? If you're doing the deciding, you might be showing bias unintentionally.

Best to avoid the word gaffe altogether. When you say one candidate or another has committed a gaffe, you're telling viewers that the candidate said something stupid. That's your opinion, and might be that of many others, but it's up to the viewers to decide. Labeling sound bites as "controversial" or "raising eyebrows" injects opinion into the story, something I hope you're trying to avoid in this era of media bias.

Let the sound bites speak for themselves, and let the viewers decide.

-

Monday, October 15, 2012

Clock management

That's usually a football term, and often coaches who are bad at it can lose a game in the crucial moments because they don't manage their timeouts corrctly.

But it's very important in the news business as well, touching everything from the length of your packages to managing your time during the day to letting Presidential candidates run over their allotted time as you channel Clint Eastwood's empty chair as moderator. (Memo to CNN's Candy Crowley: Will you please, please, please control tomorrow night's debate? The last two reminded me of those days when we ran roughshod over substitute teachers.)

Back to that clock. One of the more common concerns I hear from people in smaller markets is the package length question. They're worried that their packages are too long, that a two-minute piece will be dismissed because they're applying to stations that demand nothing longer than a minute-fifteen. Or they're worried they won't be able to cut down the time to what will be the standard at the next job.

Let's deal with the first part: News Directors in bigger markets know that packages often run longer in smaller ones. They know you've got limited resources, a small staff and often few stories to fill the allotted time. So they're not going to eject your tape simply because your package runs a little long.

As for learning to cut down your time when you get to that new job, you might start doing that now. Take some of your scripts home tonight and look at them. Are there extraneous words you could do without? Too many sound bites that say the same thing, or soundbites that are too long? Too much voiceover stating the obvious? Could you have used two seconds of nat sound to convey the setting instead of two sentences?

Personally, I love longer stories that let the package breathe. But many NDs are obsessed with story count and package length, so you have to give them what they want. Best to learn how to do it in case you have to comply with those standards.

--

Friday, October 5, 2012

Whether you're moderating or interviewing, you have to remain in control

After the first Presidential debate, I was wondering if Clint Eastwood's empty chair had returned in the guise of a moderator.

Rarely have I seen a so-called network journalist (don't get me started about PBS) get steamrolled as badly as the moderator did in this debate. He had no control over either candidate while having as much energy as a potted plant. I was wondering if he died in 1995 and no one's told him yet. Why those who decide on debate moderators continually subject us to people from PBS is beyond me. Maybe they assume the public thinks PBS is objective. Yeah, right.

Mitt Romney brought up Big Bird. He would have actually made a better moderator.

The point is, the journalist must always remain in control. Debates or interviews, you control the questions, you can stop candidates from filibustering, you can interrupt if the person doesn't answer your question, you can ask the question again if it isn't answered the first time.

A couple of good examples of people who control interviews are Fox's Bill O'Reilly and ABC's Jake Tapper. Regardless of your feelings about either of these men, watch the way they remain in control. Both are adept at controlling multiple guests, and often when Tapper fills in on the Sunday morning show, it's five or six people.

Others often seem to be too polite to interrupt, or, in the case of the debate, don't have enough clout to do so.

Young journalists are often intimidated when interviewing high-level people. Don't be. You may be a rookie right out of college interviewing a career politician, but you have to set the tone and let the person know who's boss. Be fair yet firm, and don't get steamrolled.

--

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A woman's appearance: the oldest double standard in the business

By now you've seen or read the story of Jennifer Livingston, the Wisconsin anchor who called out a viewer who sent her a disparaging email regarding her weight. The young lady turned the viewer's comment into a lecture on bullying, and made some very valid points.

Good for you, Jennifer. I've always loved women in my newsroom who take no prisoners and kick ass.

But let's face it, the lead was buried here. What really needs to be addressed is the double standard that applies to women in the business. It's the dirty little secret kept behind closed doors as managers watch resume tapes.

Women have to be attractive. Men don't. In this high-def world, women have an expiration date. Men just get more distinguished. If you watched "Castle" this week you saw a young anchor refer to an older female as "approaching her sell-by date."

You can name dozens of unattractive men on the networks. Overweight guys have been doing weather and sports for years. Overweight, bald, thinning hair? No problem. Al Roker and Willard Scott kept their jobs when they had to shop at the big and tall store. Harry Smith has been bald as long as I can remember.

Now, name an unattractive woman on a network. And have you noticed some "women of a certain age" are being shot in soft focus?

We all know that television is a visual medium, and as such, appearance is important. There are still countless pageant queens out there who can't do much more than read a prompter. Alas, television, like life, is not fair.

Full disclosure: I often tell clients they need to improve their appearance. Not because it bothers me, but because it will make them more marketable. However, I've done this with men as well as women.

Bottom line, not much is going to change. But Jennifer may have started a discussion that needs to be held. Perhaps her on-air rant might make a few managers think differently today. Maybe some ND is watching resume tapes today and for the first time doesn't dismiss the credible woman who isn't "stripper hot" and looks a little plain. Maybe he notices that the gal who's not a size four can really write and turns a killer package.

Television news ratings have been heading down for years. Maybe it's not just the bias problem, or the lack of real journalism.

Maybe we just need to hire some real people who didn't step out of a modeling portfolio.

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