With spring storm season here, I was eager to watch the locals show off their meteorologists and storm coverage during a recent tornado warning. It was a weekend. A nationally televised sporting event was happening in town, one channel had a NASCAR race running and March Madness was cooking too. These obviously add a lot of pressure to the weekend crews.  I could write an article on how obvious it was which stations planned ahead for this possible scenario and which obviously left weekend crews high and dry.  (The threat of storms was forecast days in advance.)  But frankly, talking about how bad that is to do to a weekend crew is just too obvious.  So let’s talk about something interesting I really noticed during this Sunday after storm.  Reporters and meteorologists were tweeting from home, with compelling elements to really “own “ station coverage online.

Two stations really stood out for this.  Anchors, reporters and meteorologist hopped on Twitter and talked about what the storms were doing at their location despite clearly having the day off.  They asked for descriptions from Twitter followers.  They added information beyond the studio crew.

My favorite highlights:  a weekday meteorologist who was off, started sending out information about areas that were about to see rain bands and wind.  A weekday news anchor (also off that day) started describing what the weather was like and showed images too.  Reporters started conversations with followers about what the skies looked like overhead, whether they were ducking for cover and even how the kids were reacting to the wind and rain bands.  The tweets were real, appropriate and created tangible connections with the community they served.  Very cool!

When tweeting about the weather keep in mind that it is an incredible instant connection to people directly impacted by what you are covering.  Allow discussion.  It can create amazing moments and connections that will help supplement your station’s on-air coverage.  In my case, I had switched to another station to watch when tweets started coming in from a competitor that explained what was happening so well, I switched again.  I knew that was the station that was giving the best explanation of what to expect.  The bases were truly covered by a dedicated staff that contributed any way they could, willingly.  These journalists wanted to be watchdogs for their community, even when it was their day off.  A big win for sure.

 

Yes, this is a stereotype. The meteorologist is going long, again… and again… and… well you get the picture.  The thing is, this really does happen a lot.  You are given 2 minutes, but take 2 and a half or 3.  The exasperated producer asks you why and you tell him/her:  “I had a lot of stuff today… someone sent in a weather photo … the bosses are requiring me to put too much into the forecast each night.”  Here’s the thing: The producer doesn’t really appreciate any of these reasons.  Think about it.  The producer has a lot of elements, then gets stuck with your weather photo also at the last minute, and is often required by management to put too much into the newscast.  Still the producer has to hit the meter points and time the show out correctly start to finish.  So let’s take some producer timing tricks and apply them to weather casts so you can time them to the second.  Here’s how:

  • Pad it
  • Explain escape plan
  • Watch the clock
  • Practice “feeling” the time

First pad your weather cast with an extra element or two in each hit.  This is an element that is nice, but can be done on any given day.  If you can, put it in the same place in your weather rundown for the director/TD’s sake.

That’s where explaining the escape plan comes in.  Let the director/TD know what element is considered an extra and how long you need to get through it.  That way they can help you dump out quickly and make time.

Now, let’s talk about watching the clock:  It can seem difficult for a meteorologist since your content is so literally hands on while you are live.  To get around this, you can do 1 or more of the following things:  1) Wear an IFB so you can get time cues and tell the producer specifically what you want.  2) Write what time you have to wrap up on an index card and place it above your camera.  That way you don’t have to do math in your head.  You can look at the time casually and know what to do. 3) Have the production crew time cue you to the wrap up element so you can get out quickly.

Another trick that isn’t as common but can be effective is to get a stop watch and practice doing forecasts to time.  Stand in front of the green screen and practice each of your hits several times with all the elements management is requiring.  Use the stop watch to help you figure out how to time youself.  Then repeat what you did several times over.  You will start to develop an internal clock that let’s you know what, say, 2 minutes “feels” like.  A lot of seasoned producers have this.  They can time out segments of their newscasts almost to the second, by feel, as much as by watching a clock.

Now let’s talk specifically about when management throws extra elements at, then says you must find a way to pull off without extra time.  You know you cannot do it in the time allotted.  So, spell that out directly to the producer as early as possible.  That way the producer has time time to find a work around in their format to hit meter points. There is nothing more frustrating than watching weather go long, then hear from the meteorologist that she/he knew the wx was going to go long, but didn’t warn the producer.  Sometimes management forgets if a section of a newscast is particularly crucial for hitting meter points.  The producer or EP may need to go in and request some formatting changes so you can do what you need, and hit meters.  Yes, you would think management would let the producer know so you can just focus on doing the weather.  But often that’s simply not the case.  The producer goes into the newscast blind, then gets royally screwed on air.  Yes, it makes the producer bitter.  You don’t want the producer cheating you on time or, worse yet, complaining that you cannot time manage and are difficult to handle.  Weather may be the most watched element, but solid producers are hard to replace.  It’s probably best not to test your luck and potentially rock the boat.  Just provide a heads up so the producer can prepare.

Lastly, if you are asked to reformat your weather cast and add a bunch of new elements, try to add 1 a day.  That way you can figure out what fits and doesn’t in a given hit, then provide that feedback to management and/or the producer.  That helps everyone time out the changes better so you aren’t stuck going long and the producer isn’t pulling their hair out.

 

It is no secret that meteorologists are often the number one reason viewers tune in for newscasts.  Still the weather section of rundowns is not always getting the numbers it used to.  There are several reasons for this. Let’s take a look at one that can be tricky to solve: Trust.  Research keeps showing that viewers, even though they still watch newscasts do not always think they are getting accurate information. In fact, a recent survey by George Mason/Yale Universities on climate change showcases some of the issues for weather coverage.  It interviewed more than a thousand Americans in May, 2011.  52 percent said they trusted “television weather reporters.”   48 percent said they distrust “television weather reporters.” Nearly 50/50 isn’t bad you say?  Consider this:  The trust level for TV forecasters is down 14 points since a poll in November 2008.

You might be saying this was specific to weather climate change, a small element in our day-to-day coverage.  It still points to trust levels for a perceived large weather event.  Trust over severe weather coverage is a make or break for many stations and, therefore, its staff meteorologists.

Now let’s talk news icons.  The people you trust when you watch.  Here are two names to consider: Charles Kuralt and Bob Dotson.  Both master storytellers, who took facts, gave them meaning, and made you think of your world a little differently. (Dotson is still doing it for NBC News.) “Television weather reporters” have the same burden, despite being the scientists on staff.

So how do you connect the two?  Let’s take some basic storytelling principles and apply them to weather coverage.

Storytelling Principles for Television Weather Reporters:

  • Start with an image.
  • Be able to explain story in one sentence.
  • Showcase how it impacts people.
  • Find an Ah-ha moment. Let viewers see the situation in a way they haven’t before.

All of these bullet points are aimed at helping you provide perspective.  For all elements of television news this means identifying and clearly explaining an image.  This is why, when there is severe weather clean up, you hear management asking for the most compelling picture of the damage.  The goal is to burn an image in the viewer’s mind of what the storm meant for people.  Using visuals has to be more than calling up a weather map, full screen.  That’s because, for most viewers, weather maps look pretty much the same.  If you see something interesting on radar that you want to make your “headline” for a weather hit you need to be able to explain it in one sentence right away.  Spell it out.  Then expand on it.  Be visual while you do it.  Draw diagrams, telestrate, ask for interesting video or animation to spell out what the viewer should watch for.  This helps the viewer relate to the weathercast more.

The easiest way to pick your headline and spell it out is showcasing how an element of the weather will impact people each day.  Yes, you already sort of do this with hourly forecasts, school bus stop forecasts, game forecasts etc.  But it all looks the same, usually falls at the end of the weathercast and in a very predictable manner.  I know research shows holding those graphics helps with the all important meter points.  This means making the beginning and middle of the forecast more personal with mentions about how the weather will impact certain activities and neighborhoods while showcasing it in a more visual way than just putting up a map like viewers are used to seeing.

Often you are asked to give themes to each weathercast when you have multiple hits in a news show.  Frankly, many of those themes are not obvious to the viewer until the final outlook is put up with the weekend forecast, or a look ahead to an event.  The beginning of most weathercasts seems the same and can be confusing to viewers.  To viewers, the information is not clearly supported with visuals.  Remember, after a while, maps can appear like video wallpaper to the viewer:  Always there, no reason to stare at it.  That’s why I mention telestrating, animations and video to explain your headline along with those maps.

If you take away one suggestion for storytelling from this article make it this one:  Give viewers an “ah-ha moment” out of your weathercast every day.  Storytellers call this their “surprise.” Often it is an ironic twist or a very interesting fact that you didn’t know, or did not see coming, and makes the story relatable.  Weather has universal appeal, but forecasts often are not easily relatable for the viewer.  You watch all the graphics and hope you are actually guessing correctly where your location is on the various maps so you can figure out the impact.  I understand a meteorologist cannot give every person across the ADI a personal twist specific to their area.  But you can give them a headline that has impact and explain it in an extremely relatable way.  A recent example: Florida got a bunch of rain for a week this summer.  It lasted all but a few hours a day.  Usually Floridians see a couple of hours of rain late afternoon or early evening.  Many meteorologists focused on where the rain was in a broad base and what the next day would look like.  Helpful yes, because I was trying to figure out when to hit the amusement parks and beaches.  But everywhere I went I kept hearing: “Why is it raining like this?”  I watched the news for several days.  A few off hand comments I could not understand.  I went onto the weather channel website and searched “Why Florida rain?” Bingo!  I found a great explainer on why this was happening.  It was a change in a low over Texas and part of the midwest that drifted over.  Too often weather reporters are told to put so many graphics up for futurecasting etc, that the “why” gets glossed over in the middle of the weathercast.  You don’t need extra time to showcase the “why”, you just need to define it clearly in a sentence, with an image then, expand a few lines.  Here’s a big secret from storytellers:  The “why” in a story is often your most compelling and potentially ironic element.

Yes, many of the things I am mentioning technically exist in weather hits already.  So, what’s the big deal?  Too often the message is lost in the delivery.  The comments are thrown in as asides or transition lines when talking with the news anchors.  The perspective and the “why” elements need to take precedence.  This is where you establish that you are keeping watch, wanting to make sure the viewers are safe.  These elements will build your trust with viewers.  Storytellers are trusted.  They know the facts and can let viewers see those facts in a way that wasn’t clear before.  So learn from the storytellers and provide more “ah-ha” moments.  Your credibility in your market will soar!

My career began covering a major flood.  I was a one man band, standing knee deep in floodwater, sandbagging in between shooting packages.  I also learned how the power of video combined with a knowledgeable meteorologist can captivate audiences.

Then, through the years, came tornadoes and hurricanes and massive snow and ice storms.  I produced newscasts through it all watching, and when I could, helping meteorologists explain what happened.  Over the years I worked with some big names in the biz.  They all had several characteristics in common that made them among the best at what they do:

  • An unending hunger to learn more about the area in which they worked
  • Great talent for boiling down conditions and clearly explaining impact
  • The ability to make weather coverage interesting even when the skies are sunny and clear
  • A drive to improve each day
  • Lots of volunteer work in their community

The thing that struck me the most watching these incredible meteorologists over the years was their unending hunger to learn more about the area they covered.  These meteorologists were always looking over maps from past to present, researching and looking for trends and coordinating with the local weather service.  They never tired of looking for a new nugget of information about the area.

When severe weather struck, these meteorologists could boil down what was happening in clear terms. They explained what was happening without using a lot of extra adjectives.  They didn’t pass judgment on a storm’s potential impact.  In other words, they didn’t say things like “this is going to be a scary one folks.”  They would just say, “Now is the time to take cover. Bring your TV or turn on a radio if you can. We will tell you when it is safe.”  These meteorologists knew which schools were on spring break, or when kids would be at a bus stop for each section of the DMA.  They were walking encyclopedias of the outdoor recreation areas, even able to casually mention specific places to take cover.  They could talk about how deep a mark you needed to claim hail damage on insurance and other little tidbits you needed to know.  They truly came across as a friend and confidant that would never lead you astray.

I truly enjoyed working with these meteorologists on sunny days.  They still made their weathercasts interesting with those tidbits of information.  They educated on cloud types, topography, or what local weather watchers might find interesting in the coming days.  You learned a little something every time they spoke.  These true experts made weather teases easy to write.  Most were also not in it for the “face time.”  If there wasn’t much to say and no interesting weather video to discuss, they came to me saying “let’s cut back the time.”

The most interesting trend I noticed over the years though, was how they took sunny days to work on their on-air performances.  One would come sit with me to talk about how I wrote news copy and why I used certain phrases.  Many would review tape of recent severe weather and critique themselves. (to learn how and why to do this check out our previous article: “Humble pie; why a slice of self-examination can change your career”)  Sometimes I was called into the weather center to discuss what we could have done better.  We would sit and brainstorm and make plans to implement before the next storm hit.  These meteorologists truly managed all aspects of weather coverage.

Finally, these meteorologists all had an intense sense of community.  They truly felt like civil servants to the families that watched them.  Many routinely went to schools to give talks and volunteered at various charities.  Their commitment to the community was inspiring.  On the days that severe weather struck, the example they set made us all want to perform even better at our jobs.  We did not want to let these weather experts down.  They set a standard that guaranteed your newscast would be worth watching.

 

Newsrooms are notorious for hazing.  It happens often in larger markets, but we’ve seen it in small markets too.  You have to prove to coworkers that you deserve the job.  You don’t truly have friends in the workplace. Everyone is out for themselves.  Why?  Because so many people are quitting the biz, less experienced people are being hired.  Some veterans in the newsroom, find this tiring and insulting.  I started in a large market right away and quickly wound up in another big city.  The hazing was awful.  I was asked if I slept with the news director to get my job.  I had reporters and anchors purposely rewrite copy to insert factual and grammatical errors to try and get rid of me.  One anchor even told me and several other producers it was his “God given right” to torture and make me cry.  He had the cry test and graded you on how long it took before you broke down.  People hide your gear, steal your rolodex, sit on the set during commercials and laugh at your news copy.  Coworkers don’t want to carry dead weight.  Many times fellow journalists will decide you are a moron unless you prove your worth, and quickly.  So do it.  Here’s how.

The number 1 rule:  Don’t involve management.  Management doesn’t care.  Period.  There are too many other things they have to take care of.

However, you should take the reigns and show the hazers you are not the patsy they think you are.  That starts with exposing dirty tricks.  The best place to start is befriending the IT person in the newsroom.  You know, the person who knows all the ins and outs of the computer system you use each day.  This person can save you.  News programs like AP Newscenter, ENPS and iNews have ways to call up past scripts and show who wrote each and every version.  This will give you a chance to document and show proof  if an anchor or associate producer is rewriting copy and putting in fact errors which they blame on you.   In some systems you even can lock a script so no one else can rewrite and put in fact errors or change the context of the story once your executive producer copy edits it.  Ask for this ability and you may receive.  Chances are your executive producer will play ball because you will then have documentation the EP can use to get some staffers to shape up.

You can also often find instant messages from all the computers every day.  Yep, all those annoying, petty and smarmy comments binging and dinging around you can be a click or two away.  Print them and hand them over to management.  This can get tricky because management won’t like you digging through the system.  But if it is in a forum where everyone could potentially have access they can yell at you and send a fiery memo saying don’t go there, but you won’t be fired.  Once the nasty top lines are exposed many newsroom bullies shut up or at least save it for the parking lot after work.  How’s that for investigative journalism?  Even more fun:  dump copies of the nasty top lines under the news director’s door anonymously so even he/she has to wonder who’s watching.

Also remember, many staffers who bully love to dish in the studio.  They think it’s a secret hideout.  Newsflash:  Mics are everywhere.  It’s easy to “accidentally” turn one on, hear and record the petty comments.  The studio is the one place where there truly should never be any expectation of privacy.  That’s not what the room is for.   The picked on should wander through the studio to “plot out a section of the rundown” right when a gossip session is underway.  Then, smile as if you are going to dish it all.   Another move is to “accidentally”  have the mics kept live during a commercial break when there’s an anchor who loves to trash everyone in those breaks.   Normally, when the nasty hazers get caught once or twice, they’ll back off.

What if the hazer likes to get in your face and yell at you in the middle of the newsroom?  This one is easy.  Just ignore the person.  Sit back in your chair, with your hands behind your head, gaze up at the lunatic putting on the show and wait until they either explode into pieces before your eyes or finally shut up.  Then as the hazer stares at you indignantly, simply ask: “Are you done?”  Then just  go back to work like nothing happened.  This will drive the bully nuts.  If that hazer really pushes it, follow up with, “You can say what you want about me because bottom line, I’m not the one who just had an unholy hissy fit in the middle of the newsroom.  You can’t expect your actions to prove you have anything worthy to say to anyone.”  Then get back to your work.

Lastly, sometimes you just have to fight fire with fire and stand up to the hazer. I once told an anchor who said I was “too young to write for her” that it’s not my fault she couldn’t handle that someone so much younger was just as capable of working in the same city and on the same shift as her.  She told me she’d have me fired.  I told her I had proof that she was purposely rewriting copy with errors and printing them to try and prove me incompetent.  I asked her if she would like to come with me to turn those documents into the news director so she could try and explain it, or would she prefer the news director to mull the evidence over before calling her in for a chat.  She backed off.  Hopefully, these tips and tricks will help you stand up to a hazer as well.

 

This is the best advice we ever got.  An EP in a large market where we worked told us to watch and critique our own work consistently.  Sounds nuts, you already saw the package or newscast, right?  Not really.  You will be amazed at what you pick up looking at the work later on.

Practice makes perfect.  In his book, “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell explains the 10,000 hour rule.  Researchers have found that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to perfect a skill.  So how does this apply to watching yourself?  It’s another chance to practice.  You relive the event and the elements you had available when you critique your own work.

You can also pick up on your own weaknesses, then work around them.  Often you will see phrases or techniques you rely on too heavily, that can make your work seem stale and sometimes even goofy.  You become a viewer and notice things that are not obvious when you are slamming on deadline.  If you are on air talent, you will see hand or facial gestures that are difficult to watch.  Play with your pen on set perhaps?  Slouch during live shots?  Chances are no one around will let you know if you do these things.  Often in news, you can be fired for poor performance without ever being told to change simple fixable things.

Newsrooms are short staffed and disorganized.  Most managers do not sit down and write notes about the newscasts regularly.  Usually they only watch a newscast or reporter consistently just before the annual review writing period.  So you are getting critiques once a year based on very little viewing of your work.  Many shops have given up post-newscast meetings so you don’t get daily critiques of your work.  If you want to get better, you have to do it yourself.  Watching your own work is a great way to do this. 

So what should you look for when watching your own work?  As mentioned above, look for overused phrases, and strange gestures.  If you are a photojournalist, do you mix up shots enough?  Too many cover shots?  Is your pacing good?  Reporters, do you always start nats/copy/bite/bite/copy/nats?  You might notice that you need to mix it up a little.  Producers, are you using the same techniques too often?  Things like plays on words and nat sound in teases so often that they are predictable?  Everyone needs to look at use of nat sound.  Remember, you write for the ear.  Listen to your work with your eyes shut.  Does it make sense?  Anchors, do you read stories the same way all the time?  Do your facial gestures change based on tone of the story?  As you watch for these things you will pick up on other ways to improve your work.

This is where critiquing your work can help you change your career.  Most of us have a dream place where we want to work.  Watch newscasts from that station online, then try and tailor some of your work to that place.  If you can alter your style to fit in with a certain station you can get a leg up when a job comes open.  Remember, you just need enough for a killer video resume.  By self-critiquing, you are able to see how to adjust your style.  You figure out what your best techniques are and then you play them up to your advantage.

 

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