Saturday, August 25, 2012

Hurricane stories that no one ever does

Living on the gulf coast as we do, there's a routine we go through whenever a hurricane is approaching. I'm not talking about boarding up windows and stocking up on peanut butter. That's pretty standard for most people and they don't have to be told to do it. They've already got tarps, batteries, candles, etc.

Here are a few things that don't normally get a mention in hurricane prep packages:

-Generators run on gas, but they hate gas with ethanol. Find a station that sells non-ethanol gas (there are plenty out there.)

-Eat the most expensive food in the fridge or freezer as the hurricane approaches. If you're going to lose electricity and have your food spoil, better to lose the bolony than those lobster tails or steaks.

-Pet carrier. If you have to evacuate, you need one. While a dog will ride in a car comfortably, cats are notorious for hating cars and are not shy about using floor mats as a litter box to let you know it. Meanwhile, if you have an outdoor cat and have to bring Fluffy in, you need one lest your furniture get ripped to shreds. And don't forget the cat litter.

-Many gas appliances (stoves, water heaters) have an electric starter. There's a way to start them safely, but talk to a gas company person as to how to do it with a match without blowing yourself up.

-Which appliances use the most energy and can blow out a generator? Would you believe a coffee machine takes more juice than a freezer? Show people how to calculate wattage and not tax their generator. You also need special extension cords.

-What are the price gouging laws in your state? Keep an eye out for gas stations that jack up the price before the storm.

-Tuesday is a local election day in many areas. What happens if the storm hits on that day? Can the election be moved?

Those are just a few, but will give you an idea that there's more than just the usual.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Wallpaper stories

Quick, describe the wallpaper in any room in the house in which you grew up.

Can't do it, can you? That's because wallpaper fades into the background when you see it every day. And when you look at something every day, you don't really see it.

We've talked about wallpaper video before, that b-roll that shows up night after night and always looks the same.

Years ago I was working weekends and I asked the weekend anchor what the lead story was. "Middle East fighting," she said. "Does the video look any different from the other hundred stories we've run this year?" I asked. "Do you think if we ran last week's video anyone would notice?" She just laughed and shook her head.

There are important stories covered everyday, but if those ongoing stories all look the same they become wallpaper packages. When was the last time you saw a memorable package from Syria or Afghanistan? Anything stand out with all those wildfire stories in the West? Let's face it, they pretty much all look the same. Sure, they're big stories, but if you're doing the same story over and over, you're boring the viewer. And with a hurricane approaching, you can bet the wallpaper packages will start running shortly.

The key when covering an ongoing story, or a story that has happened before (like a hurricane) is to look for the different angle.

I always think back to a package a friend of mine did the day before a hurricane. He showed up at the local zoo and showed zookeepers loading up lions, tigers and bears to cart them away to safety. You can run all the Katrina stories you want, but that one sticks out in my mind as the most memorable.

Disaster video looks the same. All tornado damage looks the same. All hurricane footage looks the same. If you're doing a hurricane story this coming week, give me something new, something that makes me sit up and take notice. Don't give me any more shots from Home Depot with people buying plywood, don't give me any more boarding up of windows, don't interview the yahoo who is going to ride out the storm in his trailer, don't give me the tearful soundbite of someone who lost their house.

It. All. Looks. The. Same.

There are plenty of stories out there. Just imagine your News Director told you that you can't do the usual. That you have to find something unique. Think about stories that way and see what you come up with.

You might be surprised. Remember, you're a reporter, not a wallpaper hanger.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Easy feature story for a slow day: the Chinese product translator

When I was a feature reporter I often found stories in the strangest places. If I were doing a story today, my idea would have come courtesy of a "manual" that came with a toilet manufactured in China.

Let's face it, it's pretty hard to find products not made in China, and we've all read manuals and instructions written by people who obviously had Master Yoda for their English as Second Language instructor.

But this "manual" takes first prize.  Some of the award winning instructions that left me and the plumber in stitches:

-"Periodical maintenance"   Apparently this refers to any newspapers or magazines you have in the bathroom.

-"Wash it with neuter cleaners"   Need to call my vet to find out about that stuff.

-"Do not let child play the toilet cover"   This one's obvious. Next time you see your kid banging away on the toilet seat with chopsticks, take them away and buy him a set of drums.

-"Open and close toilet seat cover tenderly"  Yeah, that'll work for guys.

-"Wipe off smut"  Apparently this is an addendum to the "periodical maintenance" provision, referring to anyone who keeps questionable reading material in the rest room.

-"Insert revolver, washer, bolt and gasket"  Sorry, strict laws in New York won't allow you to put a gun in the commode.

-"Avoid sunlight"  Obviously a vampire wrote the manual.

So, the story idea? Collect a bunch of funny manuals and hit the graphics department. Hilarious story for a really slow day.


Monday, August 20, 2012

Top reasons you're not getting any calls

In a few weeks the fall hiring season begins. Right after Labor Day, News Directors need to start filling those openings so the new people will be in place for the November book.

So, if you've been sending out tapes all summer and have heard nothing, fear not. Your phone may start ringing soon.

But if it doesn't and continues to stay silent the rest of the year, there are various reasons that's happening. Some of which have to do with the quality of your work, some not.

-Your montage isn't grabbing anyone's attention. That first clip of your resume tape had better be your best work, or the eject button is hit. Keep in mind that your best clip might not coincide with your best story. That standup from your first package might not be as good as that killer live shot you did for a piece that isn't even on your tape.

-Your packages are ordinary. Scanner pieces, too many talking heads, and poor editing are all culprits, but if you don't have a memorable package, you might not be making the short list.

-Bad timing. This is perhaps the number one culprit after lack of talent. You're a woman and they need a guy, or vice versa. You're a perky morning type anchor and they need a serious one with more gravitas, or vice versa. You're too young and they want old, or vice versa. You don't fit the demographic they're looking for. You're too expensive. You're too expensive to move.

-No talent. Self explanatory.

-Obvious errors on your resume tape. Mispronunciations, bad grammar, etc.

-You're so talented they know you won't stay long. (Don't laugh, it's true.)

-You're not local and they know a person from New York won't stay long in Palookaville, so they're looking for local talent who will be happy with a town in which a Friday night trip to Wal-Mart is considered entertainment.

-Upper management or corporate overrules News Director. Very often people who have no experience whatsoever in the news business are making these decisions. A ND may love your tape, but it doesn't get past the higher-ups.

-Bad wardrobe and/or sloppy appearance.

-Voice problems.

-Errors on your cover letter. Misspelling the ND's name, addressing it to the wrong station, grammatical errors in the letter.

-You called and the ad said "no phone calls."

Remember, those pesky stars always have to align. You may have a terrific tape, but it just needs to find the right home.