Friday, March 23, 2012

Are you playing The Hunger Games in your newsroom?

Suzanne Collins' trilogy opener may be the best book I've read in a long time. If you haven't read The Hunger Games, give it a look. It's a rather dark look at a possible future, something that appeals to the younger generation. But even my generation finds the dystopian concept interesting.

Quick plot summary for those who haven't read the book: the government pits teenagers against one another in a fight to the death, and broadcasts the whole thing like the ultimate reality show.

Quick plot summary for some newsrooms around the country: the News Director pits young people against one another in a fight for an anchor job, then broadcasts the whole thing.

In the book there can be only one winner, so what happens when two contestants become friends and actually care about each other?

In the newsroom there is often only one winner, so what happens when two people vying for the same job become friends and actually care about each other?

Lots of News Directors play the television news version of The Hunger Games. They often think that competition from within results in a better product. They often forget that the competition resides on the other channels. The result is that no one wins, because everyone moves on, tired of the stress and lack of camaraderie. You can't look forward if you're constantly watching your back.

If you find yourself in this situation, be smart enough to realize you're playing a game. But to be bigger than the game, you must realize the competition is not sitting at the next desk, but both across the street and within yourself.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Advice doesn't always yield the same results in different situations

It seems that every time one of my clients makes a big market jump, I hear from a few people wondering how that person did it. But since everyone's situation is different, what worked for one person might not work for another. While I have some basic advice I give to everyone (be an ethical reporter, use nat sound, watch your back) I try to tailor what I teach to the person I'm mentoring.

Bottom line, you send the same tape to two News Directors: one thinks you're the greatest new talent he's seen in years, the other hits the eject button after fifteen seconds. Same reporter following the same advice, very different results.

That's why patience is such a virtue in this business. Whether you get advice from this blog, your own personal mentor, or a combination of stuff, you often need to give that advice time to see if it works for you. I might tell you to put a certain three packages on your resume tape and the first ten tapes get no results; that doesn't mean you should blow up your tape and start over. No results after fifty tapes, then we step back and make a change.

Instant gratification is both a blessing and a curse. While it saves time to zap a frozen dinner in the microwave, anything homemade that simmers on the stove for an hour will taste a lot better. In the end, it is worth the wait.

Sometimes advice takes time to simmer, just like a spaghetti sauce. It might not taste right when you first put everything in the pot, but after awhile things come together and blend perfectly.

When seeking advice, give things time. It might not yield the results you want right off the bat, but given enough time it often brings the end result you were hoping for.


Monday, March 19, 2012

Presentation: it's not just for restaurants anymore

A package is called a package for a reason. It's not just what's inside that counts, but how you wrap it, tie a bow on it, add a colorful tag and present it to the viewer like a gift he can't wait to open.

Problem is, many of you have never been taught how to properly put together a story; you don't know what really needs to go into a good package. Many college instructors have never worked a day in the business; the result is a lot of rookies who are putting stories together based on theory rather than real world experience. Sure, your package has all the basics, but you're not done.

Think of it as eating an elaborate meal in a nice restaurant. The people in that industry call it "presentation"... those little things that make a basic meal special. You can go to a cheap restaurant, order a steak and baked potato, and that's what you'll get. A steak slapped on a plate with a baked potato wrapped in foil on the side. Nothing else.

The restaurants known for presentation do it differently. They might deliver your meal while the steak is still sizzling on the plate. It might have a garnish of parsley, or a few scallions off to the side. Maybe a dollop of horseradish. The potato has been sliced open, "fluffed out", and loaded with butter, sour cream, bacon bits, and shredded cheese. There might be a few tiny carrots on the plate to give it a bit of color. Maybe there will be a basket of steaming hot bread as well. The meal looks like a high-def television commercial that makes you hungry.

And that's what so many packages lack these days: presentation and color.

Here are some of the most common elements of "colorless" packages:

-Single source sound bites: We've discussed this before, but this means interviewing one person, and one person only, and then chopping the interview up into several bites. A ND looks at this and thinks, "So, six billion people in the world and this reporter only talked to one of them." Remember that "two sides to every story" thing you (hopefully) learned about in college? Well, if you only talk to one person, you're... wait for it... only getting only one side of the story!

-The b-roll repeat: Nothing annoys me more than seeing a package with lots of video possibilities and seeing the same b-roll more than once. If you have limited b-roll, at least get wide, medium and tight shots so you can mix things up. If you run out of b-roll because it is very limited (a perp walk, defendant walking out of courtroom) then use that wonderful non-linear function called slow motion. Or throw in a graphic.

-The lame close: The reporter who can't think of anything to wrap up a story often just throws together a basic sig-out that falls right out of a sound bite. Would it kill you to write one sentence and tie the package together before saying your name and location?

-The official-could-not-be-reached-for-comment line: Can't find the other side of the story? Don't tell me, show me. I want to see you dialing the phone, knocking on the door, asking the secretary if you can get an interview.

-The missing graphic: A story with too many numbers and no graphic doesn't make sense to the viewer. Graphics are one of those great elements a ND looks for to make confusing stories understandable.

-No standup: Unless you're covering a funeral, every package needs a standup.

-The dreaded meeting video: Yep, we've all been stuck covering meetings, and if your package has nothing but meeting video, you were too lazy to get the agenda before the meeting, find out the topic, and get 90 percent of your story shot before the meeting. For example, if there's a meeting to determine the location of a sewage plant, go to the neighborhood, show the location, and, what a concept, talk to the people who live there. Meeting video should be kept to a minimum.

-The dreaded official sound bite: Apparently no real people live in some neighborhoods, as some reporters only talk to officials. Again, McFly, that's one side of the story.

-Earthquake video: As a News Director you might think the United States is plagued by constant earthquakes in all fifty states. You have a tripod for a reason. Use it.

-Mood lighting: You wanna have dinner by candlelight, fine. I don't need to see a news package that looks like late night on Cinemax. You have a light kit for a reason. Use it.

-Shotgun interview audio: Ah, the lovely sound of someone being interviewed in a barrel. Shotgun mikes are for natural sound, not interviews.

-No nat sound: One of the biggest mistakes. Sound can add so very much to a story. Next time you're watching the network, turn away and just listen. You'll be amazed at how much sound means to a package.

I realize that many of you are time crunched these days, but this is basic stuff. If you want to grab a News Director's attention, show that you care about the basics, but take the time to make presentation a key element in your stories.