Safety First!

Know Your Newsroom, Reporting, The Latest Comments Off on Safety First!
Mar 122020

Recently I stumbled across an important post to the “Storytellers” group on Facebook. (If you are in the TV news business and are not a member, here is link to join https://www.facebook.com/groups/TVNewsStroytellers/?epa=SEARCH_BOX.) One of the members told the story of recently having to tell the newsroom that, as the field crew, they did not feel safe doing a live shot in the location requested and that they then moved to a safer location. He asked members of the group what they thought. I was so happy to see that everyone who responded did so with the message of safety first. While I believe that this is the overall attitude in local newsrooms, but there can be exceptions.

I spent the final 16-years of my 28-year daily TV news career in Central Florida. Before that, I worked in the Cleveland, Greenville-Spartanburg-Asheville, Columbia, SC and Savannah markets. There are some universal truths no matter market size. The struggle over crew safety is one of them.

In Savannah, back in the early 1990’s, crew safety was often a concern because of the high rate (per capita) of violent crime. Crews were often asked to do live shots at the scene of volatile crime scenes. In my stops in the Carolinas, weather coverage, including hurricanes brought up the subject almost every year. In Cleveland, it was weather and crime.

Central Florida is no stranger to violent crime and associated live shots. But, in my experience, the overwhelming majority of crew safety issues have to do with weather coverage. The corridor along I-4, from Tampa to Daytona Beach is among the most lightning-prone on earth. During storm season lightning is a near daily occurrence during early evening news time. And as we all hopefully know, if you can hear thunder, you can be struck. The general lightning safety rule dictates staying indoors for a half hour after the last clap is heard. And, no, it does not matter if you are not in a live truck with a giant metal lightning rod sticking out the top. You can just as easily be struck if you are standing in a storm while live via a backpack unit or even just your smartphone.  

While I was still working, requests for live shots during stormy weather were common. To be fair, the decision makers in the newsroom often do not know what the weather is like where each crew is at a given time. So, when the request comes in, it is up to the crew to let them know. If I could see lightning or hear thunder, I steadfastly refused to go live. Much of the time, it would be met with a huge sigh and a response of “Fine.” At times I would get a call back saying something like “Well, I see that (insert name or station here) is live at the same place. Why can’t you be live?” I still refused. No assignment is worth your health, safety or life.

There are other examples, especially during Florida’s annual hurricane season. But I will not belabor the point with more stories. Nearly all of us have been there. The important thing here is how should you handle it if this happens to you? Ultimately, you have to decide that for yourself. But, here’s what I did. I would first explain why we felt unsafe in as much detail as possible and with the videographer in the vehicle listening. If the newsroom still insisted, I would say something like: “O.K., I want to make sure we are on the same page as to what’s happening here. I am telling you that we do not feel safe. You are telling me that you want us to go live despite that fact… correct?” Most of the time, that shuts it down. However, sometimes it will not.  Then offer a look live from a safer location. You have the right to flat out refuse as well. 

I can hear some of you saying: “Yeah, but if I do that, I’m risking my job!” You may well be. But your job is not nearly as important as your health, safety or life. I can hear others saying: “Yeah, but I’m not gonna let the other guys beat me on a story or make me look bad.” Really? Grow up! Again, your safety is more important.

I can also hear some newsroom-based employees saying: “This is what you signed up for. This is just part of the job.” No. It is not.  And remember radar data is often a few minutes behind, so its possible a crew sees lightning or hears thunder the meteorologist is not aware of yet. So there absolutely are times when journalists will find themselves in the middle of dangerous situations. And it happens more often than with non-journalists. However, we did not sign up to knowingly put ourselves in harms way. We did not sign up to knowingly risk our lives for a daily news story. There are always other ways to cover a story and impart the important information we did sign up to gather, without knowingly risking our lives.

To the journalist who started the thread in the Facebook “Storytellers” Group: Thank you!

To all of those who responded: “Safety first!” Thank you!

To all you who go out every day and work your tails off gathering news stories in the field: Thank you and always remember, no assignment is worth your health, safety or life!

———– Tom Johnson is a former 5-time Emmy winning local journalist who spent nearly 30-years working as an anchor, reporter, producer and videographer.

Can We Rethink Live Shots?

Know Your Newsroom, Reporting, The Latest Comments Off on Can We Rethink Live Shots?
Oct 142018

It is time to talk about live shots: Why do them and how do they benefit the viewer? This is not the first time Survive has talked about live shots, (You know our logo shot!) including how to make a boring location more compelling, especially at night. But this issue keeps cropping up, so let’s focus on it again. Live shots are such a tremendous part of the day-to-day news cycle. Yet they are misused much of the time. They really are.

Here’s why I say that. Live shots which are just “live for the sake of being live” used to be a common marketing gimmick in the 90’s and had a real, beneficial purpose. First, it’s hard to believe now but, back then not everyone could go live everywhere. Also, if people could drive by the truck with your station logo on it, they would know you are live, in their neighborhood (or hot zip). See the station cares! But let’s think about how most live shots are now being done. Many are using backpack live units. Some newsrooms use cell phones or tablets to go live. The marketing/PR benefit of the big live truck with its mast up is really not as relevant.  

So let’s talk about why so many managers still push live for the sake of being live. (In case that term is confusing, that’s when there is no active scene or anything else to show viewers. You are standing in front of an empty building, or at the location of a scene that has been cleared.) These managers think that putting up a live chyron makes it seem like the story is immediate, relevant and therefore worth putting down your phone or tablet to only watch the television for a moment. That is wrong. Period. It also is lazy.

Live shots are effective in this digital age when you can actively show something happening. Viewers are used to seeing people live in front of action. A live chyron is simply not good enough to make something seem important or relevant, when it is not. It looks stale, feels like a trick or has no impact at all depending on how observant a particular viewer may be. Most don’t even notice the live chyron unless there is action in the shot. Go through viewer diaries and focus groups and you quickly learn this. The live chyron is just not that impressive. The action is the attention grabber.

Now, managers, I know what you are thinking: “But we have to have our crews spread across the DMA in case of breaking news. So why not also get a live shot out of the deal?” I am going to argue that it would be more effective to have those crews stationed around the market, turning in packages with interesting stand-ups which showcase and interacting with viewers on social media. Now that doesn’t mean making them do a Facebook live hit at the empty building. I mean actually interact. Look at posts from viewers and like ones that are appropriate. Look for something that might be a story for tomorrow. Try and get some facts. Be ready to take off on that breaker. Bottom line: Instead of standing in front of an empty building or a dead, boring scene, waiting on time cues, it would be far better to focus on providing extra information on digital platforms and/or find the next good stories to cover. Staffing is not getting any larger, and reporters could use extra time to search for stories, talk with sources and showcase more information online. How often do you lament the fact that reporters do not have good pitches in editorial meetings? This is an opportunity to give them some time to find the good stories. Yes, this is a big change in thinking for some of you. But it could revolutionize how you gather information and make your news gathering better and more efficient. 

If there is an active scene, of course, show it off. Do multiple hits if there is new information. To be clear, if a court hearing is about to wrap up, that’s an active scene. If people were just taken to the hospital and you are at the hospital waiting on condition reports, yes, that is an active scene. Sometimes you cannot get around being live in front of a building. But far too often there is no point for a reporter to stand somewhere live, other than the EP said the reporter “has to be live.”

To wrap up,  live shots are a great part of television news when done correctly and in a way that has impact. That means showcasing an active scene, being at a scene because new information is imminent or being able to walk through the remnants of a scene and visually showcase what happened. All of these examples help the viewer gain greater understanding of the story. If there is nothing to show, and no new information about to come from the scene, skip the insistence on the live bug. Instead allow the crew to focus more on digital coverage, source building or story gathering for the next day. That’s how the TV industry should rethink live shots. Viewers will reward you for it.

TV Survival Skills. The 10 Things You Need To Do To Be Successful In The Modern Newsroom

Anchoring, Reporting, The Latest Comments Off on TV Survival Skills. The 10 Things You Need To Do To Be Successful In The Modern Newsroom
Feb 252016

1.  CAN YOU FIND EXCLUSIVE STORIES? No really…can you find the story that makes politicians and PIO’s lose sleep?? Better yet, can you do this even with news of the day? Do you have fast attack investigative skills? You better! Everyone can get PIO info and sound. You have to be able to separate from your competition to get paid. How do you do that?? Know the process and procedures of paperwork- school districts, police and sheriff- what documents exist and when do they become available? Time is quickly wasted, opportunity and credibility forever lost by not knowing procedures. Can you get a great tip confirmed? Most reporters cannot. You are only as valuable as the contact list in your phone.

2.  WORK SMARTER, NOT HARDER-Do your research, demand from management a specific beat- geographic or content based. GA stands for going anywhere-owning nothing! Develop sources that work for you. Build relationships before asking for stories. Go left when other go right. Stand out by standing apart. If someone pitches you a story- make them do the document digging, and initial research- then they can come back and pitch you a partially vetted legitimate story. You just have to confirm documents and details- not spend hours chasing empty leads.

3.  Shoot in sequences, write in sequences, edit in sequences- this saves hours! The best MMJ’s are the most creative while being the most efficient!

4.  Your professional Facebook likes/Twitter followers/LinkedIn profile will make or break a hiring decision. These are your personal brand. They directly reflect your audience appeal, your marketing savvy, and your ability to tease a story! Do you understand news and how to promote yourself as well as your coverage? Social media answers all these questions.

5.  Have a career plan- It is a simple question with horrific consequences- What is your TV career goal?? Most TV folks stumble on this simple question. Your answer will be used against you in a hiring decision. This is a weeding out technique and is a loyalty test for current employees being considered for promotion.

6.  Out work your teammates- first in, last out, first to call-in to cover breaking news, first to ask to travel, this effort gets you choice assignments, management trust, and promoted to the anchor desk.

7.  Hot mess- if you are one and want to anchor or jump to a big market you will go nowhere. You must apply appearance feedback at every level and every turn. Everyone that looks at your tape or consults you should be heard and further feedback solicited. One consultant or ND could be a bit eccentric, 2-5 people saying you appear less than polished is problematic.

8.  Your cover letter is killing you! It is costing you a look at your tape- which is the whole goal! Don’t try to tell me you know someone I used to work with 3 stations ago or we are from the same town! What are you going to do to make my newsroom better today? Why do I have to hire you versus the 50 people that look and sound like you??? This is the written interview that gets you the tape review and phone interview- Be consistent in your message, your strengths, and what makes you a difference maker. How do you fit in with my news style and newsroom needs?

9.  Never send a glossy 8X10 head shot- instant rejection- are you a model/ actor/ or journalist?? Send me a resume tape with exclusive banners on every story- that’s a beautiful picture!!

10.  Is your cellphone number, Facebook and Twitter handles on your business card? Personal cellphone? You are fully available to your audience and sources or not. No problem, I call your competition with my exclusive story.

There are a hundred things a journalist has to excel at to be successful in the modern newsroom. These are ten of the most critical to master to avoid a career setback. Our next blog will answer” Why your resume tape is killing your job search”.

Now go be memorable!

Greg Turchetta is President, www.Brutallyhonestcritique.com and a former News Director
He’s now a life coach to reporters and anchors nationwide!

How to brand throughout the newscast

Producing, Survival Kit, The Latest, Writing Help Comments Off on How to brand throughout the newscast
Jan 202016

It’s no secret that writing for TV news nowadays is as much about marketing as writing clearly and concisely. You are expected to sell the news philosophy for your station as much as time out your newscast correctly. In fact many stations require you mention your station brand at least 5 times a newscast. Many producers just write in the pitch line as you introduce live reporters to get it over with. Joe Smith works for you. Joe Smith is on your side live in…. Joe Smith is your eyewitness tonight. There are other ways to brand, that are less throwaway. You can even do it in a way that enhances your coverage and benefit for the viewer.

Branding Throughout Newscast
Story focuses reflect philosophy, even vo’s
Explain how story fulfills philosophy
Use animations for reinforcement
Limit pitch line, use variations instead

The first thing you need to do throughout the newscast is to pick stories that make sense with your brand. If your station is one that works for you (the viewer ) for example, you don’t do a lot of superficial quick vo’s with little to no reference to how this story impacts people. In other words, this is not a station that should implement a 10 second vo, 20 second vosot philosophy. This is a station that will consistently add a line to each story with either why this story is significant to people or how it impacts. When you think news philosophy you must think context. The all you need philosophy means quick headlines. Catch the viewer up. That is a very different context.

So when you consider context, you are going to naturally add lines or phrases that explain how the story fits with your promise to the viewer (i.e. – your news philosophy). The how and/or why lines are one way. You will likely find yourself adding other phrases like, we are doing this story tonight because, or we are continuing to work for you by asking.. we want you to have all you need to know on this bill… somewhere in the story. It is a natural way to tell the viewer why the story is important that can be done very conversationally.

Then you add animations with your brand line to reinforce the philosophy. Remember many people think visually, so these animations are effective. Do not be afraid to use them. They also create movement which improves perception of pacing.

The last thing to remember is if you just use the same catch phrase over and over, it is not effective. The viewer will quickly tune it out. The repetition of your philosophy and branding has to be consistent without being repetitive. So even if you are required to mention the station brand 5 times a newscast, you can do so with out saying works for you every single time. Vary that brand line with phrases like helping you, how this effects you, what this means for you to get the point across without boring the viewer with the same phrase that seems throwaway. Your news philosophy has to benefit the viewer. You need to spell out that benefit or you will not build loyalty. Think empty promises. People are conditioned to suspect that is what they are being handed. Selling your brand means showing clearly that you have the viewer in mind and will consistently provide that they need. Do it, tell them you are doing it, then show them how you are doing it. Thinking this way as you select stories and write will help you naturally brand the news throughout the newscast without it seeming as forced. And you can market without feeling like an ad writer instead of a journalist.

How To Speed Up Your Writing Time

Producing, Reporting, Survival Kit, Writing Help Comments Off on How To Speed Up Your Writing Time
Dec 032015

A common discussion I have with news managers and universities looking to place recent grads, is the huge workload journalists face today. It is becoming more of the norm for reporters to barely make deadlines not because they are lazy, but because there is so much to get done. Scarier yet, there are producers in top 5 markets, still writing in the booth during newscasts. And not because of a breaker. Why is this getting so common? Two reasons. First, the workload is truly much larger. Producers for example are now often editing vo’s and vosot’s in addition to writing them. Producers are also making their own maps and graphics for air. And that’s not even getting into all the responsibilities they have on the digital side. Reporters are turning more than one piece, on completely different subjects, often on different ends of the market. And the social media expectations for them are often even higher.

The other reason why a lot is being pushed to the last minute, is that journalists are not taught tricks on how to speed up their writing time. They spend too much time prepping for writing instead of just getting the stories done. Bottom line, in a tight deadline situation, you will have to do some calculated short cuts when gathering information in order to make it. So let’s talk about some of those shortcuts.

How To Speed Up Writing Time For Producers
Focus on the W’s
Think summary
1 line = 1 idea

When writing a story from scratch, (as in not rewriting from a story that aired the newscast before) you need to condense your information quickly. This means focusing on answering the who, what, when, where, why and a little of the how when researching the story. For example if you are writing from a crime report read for these elements. Throw those facts into your story page, then go back and scan for that little nugget that makes the story a bit different (Often the how). If you approach it this way, you won’t slowly read every little bit of information and end up getting confused and re-reading the crime report 4 and 5 times. I am not saying give a quick scan and be done. But by focusing on what you really need to have as you read, you can better focus your attention and get to the core of the story quickly.

Which leads to the next point, think summary. News releases and crime reports tend to have about triple the information you need for a 15 second vo. So remember, you don’t have to memorize every detail of information, you are giving the viewer a summary of the story. This tends to help you more quickly outline the story in your head and then quickly write it.

Finally, 1 line equals 1 idea. This keeps you from “lunch bagging” a ton of information into the vo, then killing yourself to try and shorten it down to that required 15 second or 20 second mark. Think outline, 1 idea per line. Then if you have time you can flesh it out a bit after you have this skeleton script.

How To Speed Up Your Writing For Reporters

Sum It Up
Write As You Go
Know Details Before Camera Rolls

Reporters can also speed up their writing a lot by also thinking summary from the beginning. Chances are by the time you leave the editorial meeting, you know why you are assigned a certain story, and the specific point your station wants to make about that subject. Do not go out of your way to deviate from this. Sure, as you gather information sometimes the point of the story can change. If that’s happening immediately call and explain the new main idea. Again, keep thinking summary. This will help you not get bogged down in extraneous details that will never make air.

Once you have your interviews set up, write an outline of the story as you head to the scene. You should already have enough background information that you can walk into your first interview with an outline in place.

Pre-interview the person you are talking to as the camera is being set up (or as you are setting up the camera if you are an MMJ) so you know what 3 or 4 questions you actually want to get the answers for on camera. This helps you avoid scrolling through tons of video making the editing process more efficient. It will speed up your writing and editing.

The biggest takeaway from these tips is simply this: think summary. Too often journalists want to spend a lot of time finding that unique element or finding the perfect sequence of events or stories to make their package or rundown rock. If you spend too much time looking you will not have enough time to finesse. TV news is all about the packaging: Make the facts easily understandable for the ear and eye, in short order, so you don’t bury yourself in detail. You need to give a broad understanding of the story, and pick a key element to add that character. That means thinking overview from the get go. Otherwise you won’t get it done, and won’t serve the viewers at all.

Journalists Experience PTSD, Too

Reporting Comments Off on Journalists Experience PTSD, Too
Nov 152015

We are the observers. We bear witness to society’s worst outcomes: dead bodies, mangled cars, weeping family members.

The scale may be smaller than the horrific scenes of war American service members witness overseas. Yet journalists covering local tragedies are at risk of developing PTSD, too. I would submit photojournalists are particularly at-risk because they get sent out on everything. And as the years go by, all that trauma witnessing can literally affect our brain’s sense of well-being.

Which reminds me, this is a brain issue. Not a “toughness” issue. Not a “you’ve lost your objectivity” issue. You have no need to feel guilty.

Unfortunately, news executives do a poor job of proactively warning journalists they send out into the field about the emotional dangers of the job. In a study of photojournalists who witness trauma, only 11% had been told of the emotional toll the job can take, while only one in four photographers had been offered counseling.

A chief photographer I once worked with joked about needing to take a “mental health day” every so often instead of a sick day. There may be times when you need to take a “mental health day,” too. How open you are with your manager about the exact reason you’re not coming into the newsroom is up to you. As sad as it is, “I have the flu” is often greeted with more sympathy and understanding than “I have the blues.”

I can’t imagine not needing some time off after covering the 9-year-old Chicago boy investigators believe was lured into an alley and shot to death by a gang. But if you’re expected to keep following a story day after day and don’t feel right about asking for time off, debriefing is the most basic thing you can do for yourself.

Debriefing is simply talking with another journalist or manager about what it was like to cover this senseless murder — or similar stories. And it’s a must. You can do it in the darkness of the live truck on the way back to the station, inside the news director’s office with the door closed, or over a beer at your favorite bar.

If you’re too shy, debrief in your journal. I would advise against debriefing on Facebook, however, because people who don’t know our world are going to make some pretty stupid comments under your post that’ll make you feel worse.

Over time, having covered so many of these stories, you may notice you never feel “right.”

You may be easily startled. You might dream about the traumatic event. And with all the negative emotions and anxious feelings seeming to never fully leave your body, you may become so angry you explode at co-workers.

That last one is what usually gets my attention, especially if the journalist lashes-out over something trivial. What is he really angry about? I ask myself. How many years has he been shooting/reporting? What types of stories?

The person might have PTSD. It goes so much deeper than the blues, too. Rather than feeling down for a couple of days, the symptoms of PTSD last a month or more.

Then it’s time to ask your family doctor if she’d recommend a therapist trained to help PTSD sufferers. You might also search your station’s website or archives to see which mental health experts your staff has put on-the-air for PTSD segments. See who the local newspaper has interviewed, too.

The Anxiety and Depression Society of America also has this handy therapist search tool.

It’s time to really take care of yourself. If you don’t like the first therapist you go to, try another one. But make sure you get the help you deserve. Your sense of who you are and your relationships are depending on it.

Matthew Nordin is a weekend anchor/reporter at WSIL-TV in southern Illinois. He is currently making the transition from broadcast journalism to the mental health field. Feel free to reach out to him on Twitter: @MatthewNordin

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