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? 

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.

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.