The Best Job Security A Reporter Can Have

Reporting, Source Building, Survival Kit Comments Off on The Best Job Security A Reporter Can Have
Feb 222015

The best job security a reporter can have comes down to one word. Sources. Time and time again I hear about the “untouchable” reporter in a newsroom who can’t ad lib, can’t write, can’t dress, can’t get along with people, yet cannot be fired. The reason, sources. The reporter has so many contacts and so many ways to get relevant information on a dime, that they away with murder day-to-day.

Now, if you are the person with the great sources, hear this: I am NOT suggesting that you act like a jerk in the newsroom. Even the most “untouchable” person can go too far and pay a hefty price. But if you love where you live and want to stay for the long haul, do not underestimate the power of a strong source list.

Simply put, too many people think their looks or on-air abilities are enough to keep them around. These traits are easier to find in the biz, than a die hard reporter with a true pulse of what’s happening in the community and who’s behind the power struggles, conflicts and movements. Your looks can fade or a station can change it’s mind about on-air presentation styles. No matter what, all stations and all news philosophies in all markets need journalists who can call on a hunch, turn a lead story and do it consistently.

So next time you think you are too tired to make that follow-up call, or reach out on a new lead for a potential source, remember, giving that extra effort could make you an invaluable resource. It is worth it. (If you don’t know how to source build check out Cultivating Sources and How to Generate Story Ideas.)

Story Sources: Beware of the Badge?

Know Your Newsroom, Reporting Comments Off on Story Sources: Beware of the Badge?
Jan 222015

Let’s be honest—if you’re a TV reporter, you probably end up assigned to more crime stories than you can count over the course of a year! A murder here, a robbery there, another missing person, oh and don’t forget the occasional 12-hour standoff.

Reporters cover a lot of crime and because of that, they get to know the police public information officers pretty well. PIOs are an important link between the crime scene and your TV viewers. After all, they usually know many more details about the incident than you do as a reporter. They talk with the detectives on-scene, they’re briefed by the brass, and it’s their job to be a link between the department and the public. Many of them do a fantastic job. In my last TV market, a couple of the PIOs were excellent communicators and savvy with social media—they’d tweet basic details on breaking news and direct TV crews to a staging area where they’d meet reporters. That’s good stuff.

It’s a tough job, actually. Many PIOs are on-call 24/7, so when a murder happens on a weekend or a skier goes missing on New Year’s Day, they’re taking calls from reporters or setting up a news conference. They’re under a lot of pressure from YOU the reporter to provide as much information as possible, while at the same time not releasing any details that might jeopardize an investigation. It can be quite the balancing act.

The bottom line is, in many cases, you need good PIOs to give you information for your story. They’re front-line, typically credible sources. But here’s something to consider… something more young journalists seem to have trouble understanding: it’s important to not count on PIOs as your only sources. Never forget who the PIO is working for—and it’s not you. They’re representing their law enforcement agency and, when push comes to shove, protecting their agency. If they think it’s best for a particular case or investigation, police may obviously withhold certain facts they don’t want the public to know. They may even provide false information or ask you to hold a piece of info if they believe it’ll help flush out a suspect.

I’ve known reporters, producers and assignment editors who had very close working relationships with PIOs. They talked with them every day as they did “beat checks.” Over time, some even became friends on a personal level. That can lead to good information or an occasional exclusive story. But you need to keep your guard up. You need to be careful you’re not crossing the line. And certain PIOs can be manipulative and even lead reporters down the wrong path if it means protecting an investigation. There can be other issues that aren’t as ominous, but can bite you anyway. For example, what if the PIO mistakenly gives you bad info? Now you’re going on the air with a fact error.
Treat PIOs as you would other sources—with caution. Truth is you need them to provide detail for your stories. And they need you to distribute certain info to the public. But whenever you can, don’t use a PIO as your only source. Work hard and track down others who may be able to add context and detail—what do the neighbors have to say? How about the suspect or victim’s employer? Check court and police records for yourself to see what someone’s criminal background is. Find out what witnesses have to say, if you can find them. And when you can, talk with a detective or deputy directly. It’s always best to get information form the most direct source, rather than the public mouthpiece of the department.

PIOs can and will continue to be a key contact for reporters. They can save your newscast when breaking news happens late and you need a nugget of info to get a lead story on the air. They can also help you on and off the record. But always remember they may have their own agenda. There are potentially other credible and legitimate sources on any given story, so don’t just call you favorite PIO and call it a day. Do the extra work and make your story that much better.

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Steve Kraycik is the Director of Student Television and Online Operations at Penn State University. He has more than 27 years of experience in television news, much of that as a manager. He also is an agent with MediaStars. You can reach him at steve@mediastars.tv and @TV_Agent_Steve.

The Demo Reel Dilemma

Job Interviewing, Picking A Shop, Reporting Comments Off on The Demo Reel Dilemma
Jul 232014

Two seconds. That’s my personal news director record for the least amount of time viewing a reporter applicant’s demo reel. “That’s not fair,” you say! Well, trust me, the guy had NO business applying for any TV job, let alone a reporting spot in a top 15 market.

Then there was the reporter candidate who decided to start his resume reel with a boring 3-minute package. Seriously, what was he thinking? Didn’t anyone tell these people a news director has the attention span of a 5th grader? Didn’t someone warn them that a TV boss gets hundreds of demo reels for one reporting or anchoring job?

That brings me to my point: getting someone to click, then watch, then be impressed with your demo reel is not easy. It’s tougher than ever. Too many emails. Not enough hours in the day. Too many people sending bad material. So the reel, I mean real, dilemma is this: what can you do to up your odds?

I can’t speak for all news directors, but for me (and many that I know) the best advice would be don’t overthink this! You need to showcase your best work, and do it quickly. Start with a montage of your best standups, live shots and anchor clips. About a minute-long montage is fine. Anything longer than about 1:30 starts getting very repetitive. And some talent think they have to show an entire standup. That’s wrong! You want your montage to be fast-paced. Let the ND see you in different situations—on the desk (if you anchor), in an active live shot, doing a creative standup, answering a question from an anchor, etc. Quick clips. Some may be full standups, others may be chopped for time. Also try to include a variety of stories—hard news balanced with some lighter moments so we can see your smile or hear your laugh. The key is to put your very best material at the top of that montage. If a news director sees marginal quality at the top (including bad lighting or audio), he or she will click the stop button within 30 seconds.

After your montage, pick a great package or two to show. But again, make it your best work—is it an example of excellent breaking news coverage? An enterprise piece you did? A very good sweeps story? If it’s a pkg on the shooting-of-the-day with a cop bite and a neighbor who looks like he’s on dope, don’t include it! Be highly critical of what you’re including on your reel. Check everything—spellings on your supers, lighting, audio, editing.

And finally, wrap up your reel with other content. For example, you could show more of your anchoring with longer clips. Or a full live shot if it’s something you’re really proud of. Or maybe you want to end with that 3 minute sweeps story you did. Just remember, most NDs won’t watch more than a few minutes of your reel unless you’ve caught their attention at the top, they like what they see so far, and they want to check out more of your work in-depth. Total time for your reel? 5-8 minutes is plenty.

Lots of anchors and reporters also ask whether they should have one reel or two, if they do double duty (such as weekend weather anchor who reports 3 days a week). There’s no black and white answer—I’d like to see one reel where you show me how versatile you are (multi-skilled = more chances in today’s TV job world). “Wow, she reports and anchors and even does weather!” But you may also want to create separate reels so you can apply for specific jobs. A weather reel for weather-only jobs and a combo reel for other opportunities.

Do what feels right to you, but remember, YOU have to be your toughest critic. Watch your edited reel and pick it apart, then have a trusted TV co-worker or friend watch it and give you honest advice. Make sure the top of that resume reel is your best stuff. The goal is for that news director to watch the first 30 seconds and then say “Hmm, I like this person… let’s watch a little more.”

Steve Kraycik is a Talent Agent with MediaStars. He has 29 years of TV news experience and spent a decade as a news director in top 20 markets. He’s also the Dir. Of Student Television at Penn State University. You can follow him on Twitter @TV_Agent_Steve.

“Technical Difficulties”: A Sideways Live Shot Survival Guide

Honing Skills, Reporting, Survival Kit Comments Off on “Technical Difficulties”: A Sideways Live Shot Survival Guide
Jun 122014

Recently a reporter emailed “Survive” for advice on how to learn to ad lib while in the field. The main concern, how to get around technical problems.  So I asked a veteran reporter for advice.  Here goes…

History is filled with quotes about the importance of preparation from very brilliant, very famous people. One of my favorites comes from a B or maybe even C-level actor named Richard Kline. (Best known as “Larry” the neighbor on “Three’s Company”) Kline says, “Confidence is preparation. Everything else is beyond your control.” I like this one because it is perfect for live shots. If you are prepared, you should and will be confident. If there is one constant in live shots (as in much of life) it’s that something will inevitably get sideways at the worst possible moment. That moment is simply beyond your control so don’t sweat it. Just be as prepared as possible and chances are pretty good you will be able to get through it when something goes squirrelly.

In order to learn to tap dance your way through a sideways live shot, you first have to have the basics of doing a live shot down pat. I still remember the first time I knew I was going to do a live shot at my first real reporting job. I went to an experienced friend in the newsroom and asked for some advice. The advice they gave me was very basic and perfect! Best advice I’ve ever been given in my career actually. Do not script your live shot word-for-word. Let me say that again: Do NOT script out your live shots. If you script your live shot you will have to memorize it. This is a recipe for disaster! Ask anyone who’s done any acting what happens when you miss just one word in your lines. The answer: It generally throws everything off from that point on. Additionally, when you memorize a bunch of lines they are just that: A bunch of lines. You do not have near as much comprehension of what they mean. It’s just a bunch of words floating around in your brain waiting to come streaming out. Once they are out, so are the meanings behind them. More on retaining meaning in a moment.

First, here’s the key to basic live shots. Rather than memorizing a script, write bullet points. Each one should have a word or three for each key thought you’re going to present. Each of those bullet points acts as a memory trigger for the information you are imparting in your shot. You can then glance down at each bullet point and be easily guided through. You will also find that your comprehension of the subject matter increases too. You will not only have smoother live shots but also retain the meaning more.

Start trying the bullet point trick today. Do it every time you are out live. It will quickly become a natural way to do your shots. Eventually, you will depend on those bullet points less and less. Your live shots will also get smoother and smoother.

No matter how smooth you become on your basic live shots, at some point something will go wrong that you cannot control. A package will not run correctly; the wrong package will run; the video server will crash. If it can happen, it will. So how do you “prepare” for this? Try making some extra bullet points that sum up the package. Keep it on the next page in your reporter’s notebook after your life shot bullet points. Don’t try to quote the sound bites in the package though. Use your bullet points to help you paraphrase one or two of those bites. Do this and then if something goes wrong you have somewhere to go. Just pause briefly then look up at the camera and cooly say something like: “We’re having a little trouble with that story. But here’s what you need to know.” Then run through a few of those bullet points, sig out and toss back to your anchors. Don’t make it overly complicated. Keep it simple and smooth. Better to keep it short and clean than try to get everything in that was in your package and muck it up. Most of the time when something like this happens, viewers know something went wrong technically. They do understand and will forgive as long as you don’t compound the problem by stammering on and looking unprepared.

One quick aside. When something goes wrong do not refer to your story as a “package” or a “VO/SOT” or talk about “sound bites.” These are the terms WE use in the industry. Viewers do not talk like this and do not know what these terms mean. It will confuse them and then you have lost the battle.

Legendary writer Ernest Hemingway once said: “Courage is grace under pressure.” Use these tips to sharpen your basic live shot skills, then when the pressure is really on, you will come off looking courageous indeed!

For more advice on how to ad-lib read “Art of Ad-lib” written by veteran anchor, Cameron Harper.

Wait, you want me to story tell when I cover what?

Know Your Newsroom, Reporting Comments Off on Wait, you want me to story tell when I cover what?
Mar 262014

Roman poet Phaedrus once said: “Things are not always as they seem; the first appearance deceives many.”  So why am I quoting a man who was born in 15 BC in an article about 21st century TV news?  Because the central idea of the quote often plays a part in what we are asked to do.

How many times have you heard a news manager lament that reporters need to do more storytelling with the packages they produce?  And then how times have you heard those same managers send crews on stories that are not “TV friendly” and seem to have no opportunity for storytelling.  You know the ones I’m talking about.  These are the stories that have zero visuals, zero interesting nat sound and seemingly zero opportunity to “story tell.”  Most of us hate them.  But by the same token, most of us have to cover them from time to time.  So what do you do?  Do you just curse those managers who send you on these stories and then “mail it in” by turning a TV news “report” rather than a piece of storytelling?  I certainly hope not for a couple of reasons.  First, you should always have more personal pride in the work you put your name on than to do that.  Second, you can almost always do some storytelling no matter what kind of dog of a story you are assigned.

I can hear the groans and grumbles right now!  Stop cursing at your computer (i.e. – me!) for just a minute and open your mind and I will show you how to do it.  It’s pretty simple really.  One little word is all you need to remember: Writing  Yep, it’s all in **how** you write that package.  Earlier I threw out the term TV news “report.”  A “report” is a bunch of facts and words put into a package with little or no cohesive narrative and no relation to the video on screen.  It’s boring television and should never be what you aspire to produce.  “Storytelling” on the other hand is exactly what it sounds like.  It’s telling a “story.”  Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end.  They also have characters.  In TV news a “story” also, ideally, has great visuals and nat sound.  (Remember, the beauty of TV news is in blending visuals, sound and words in a way that makes the viewer feel as if they as “there” where the story is happening.)  Sometimes those elements are all there, sometimes they are not.

So, what do you do when they are not there?  Let’s talk about it.  One of the most common retorts I get when I say “You can story tell with just about any assignment you get.” is “What about when we get sent to a boring meeting?”  Again, it’s all in the writing.  Suppose you are told to package a government council or commission meeting where they are going to be talking about some sort of tax hike.  You get there and it’s immediately apparent that there are not going to be any fireworks from the assembled crowd… but you still have to package it.  You can still tell a “story.”  First, figure out who the main person involved in the tax hike issue is gonna be.  Make that person your first “character” and center the piece around them.  If there is someone, anyone, there that has an opposing view, make them the “antagonist” in your piece.  Voila!  You now have the beginnings of a true “story.”

Ask the videographer you are working with if they could please get a little extra b-roll of your protagonist and antagonist.  When you interview them, don’t ask questions about the facts.  That’s what your reporter track should do.  Ask questions that get at the emotion behind their support for or opposition against the issue.  Hopefully, going at the interview this way will get you some marginally less dry sound than you would’ve otherwise gotten.  It does not always work though.  But don’t fret.

Now it’s time to write.  Don’t just set the boring scene and put the boring video over it:

“EXAMPLE COUNTY COUNCIL IS TALKING TAXES THIS NIGHT… BLAH… BLAH… BLAH.”

Instead, use your characters:

[VERY SHORT NAT BITE (3-SECONDS OR LESS!!!)]

“JOHN COUNCILMAN NEVER THOUGHT EXAMPLE COUNTY’S SEWER SERVICES HAD THE PROPER FUNDING AND IT REALLY STEAMS HIS SHORTS.”

[SUPPORTING BITE WITH JOE]

“JANE COMMISSIONER ADMITS THE SEWER SITUATION STINKS.”

“BUT SHE BELIEVES IN HER HEART… THERE’S A BETTER WAY TO FLUSH THE PROBLEM BESIDES A TAX HIKE.”

[SUPPORTING BITE WITH JANE]

Bam!  You are now producing a “story” rather than a “report.”  And, even if you don’t have any compelling visuals or nat sound, your “story” will be more compelling to watch than your competition’s “report” any day of the week.  It’s not perfect, but it’s better than it would’ve been had you just mailed it in and it does not really take much more effort if any at all.  Plus, you prove old Phaedrus right yet again and justify why we continue quoting him all these eons later.

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This article is written by a veteran reporter who has worked in small, medium and large markets and has won multiple awards for storytelling.

Beating Reporter Deadlines With Your Own EOC

Honing Skills, Reporting, Survival Kit Comments Off on Beating Reporter Deadlines With Your Own EOC
Jan 222014

One of the toughest learning curves for young reporters can be hitting your deadlines. You know how it goes—you knock out a noon live shot and as soon as you’re done, the EP or Assignment Desk is calling, to say you’re now on a completely different story for 5pm… and you’re live in another town… and don’t miss slot!

So how can you do good work and at the same time keep management off your back so you’re not “the problem child” on the reporting staff?

Well, it starts, and ends, with 3 keys—think of this as your own personal EOC (Emergency Operations Center … for reporters).

Efficiency

The old saying goes: “Get off your ass, get out of the building!” And it’s true. You can save a lot of time by simply being efficient with your time. Let’s say you’re assigned a story in the morning meeting. Depending on how your newsroom works, maybe you don’t have to sit through the remaining 45 minutes of that meeting. Get your story and ask if you can take off. Grab your photog and go. You’ll be thankful for those 45 minutes as you hit crunch time before the newscast.

You can make lots of calls, but remember: it’s easier for someone to blow you off by phone than in person. So if may be more efficient to just show up at that police PIO’s office and ask for a quick interview or a copy of that arrest report than making 6 calls throughout the day.

Plan out your stops to save time— so you’ll go talk with the mayor first because he’s available now. You’ll call the city council member on your way to the mayor’s office (saves time vs. you staying in the newsroom and making calls from your desk) to see if you can interview her right after the mayor. Then you can head to the next stop for B-roll and other material.  Then you’ll end up at your live location.

Quickly research story background and contacts,  and remember you can do that in the car from your phone if your photog is driving.

Make notes as you record your interview so you don’t waste time when logging and getting ready to write.

If you have a photog (won’t work if you’re an solo MMJ), you log and write while he or she sets up the live shot.  Better yet, you write your basic script while the photog is driving to the next location.

If you know you need help from the Assignment Desk, be efficient there too Let them know early if you need something researched or a call made. Assignment editors are insanely busy people and the last thing they need is a last-minute call from you asking for 3 calls to be made on your story.

Efficiency also can mean not biting off more than you can chew.  If you’re assigned to breaking news just before airtime, don’t stress too much over whether it’s a pkg. Viewers don’t care about the format, and a good management team won’t either, as long as you do a solid, compelling breaking news live shot. So be confident, get on scene and let your newsroom know what you can provide: “I’ll have a live VO at the top of the show… possibly a live interview if I can track someone down.”

Organization

Keep a list of key contacts from your previous news stories. That way, you’re not re-researching potential interviewees every time you do a story.

Make sure you have the addresses you need and GPS your route so you’re not wasting time getting lost.

Don’t overshoot your stories. No need to shoot an hour of material for a basic pkg on a crash or fire or school board meeting. Make sure you have enough, but the more organized you are with shooting, the less you have to log for your script.

Don’t try to re-invent the wheel every time. Here’s a good example—

I worked with a veteran reporter in Tampa who was a master of working fast and efficiently.  Knowing that reporters tend to cover many of the same types of stories over and over (fires, crashes, protests, budget meetings, elections), he basically had templates of these stories in his computer and in his head. If he was assigned a story about an election campaign stop by a candidate, he’d do some quick research on the race/candidate, then sketch out his script even before leaving the station. Why? Because he knew where the story was likely to go when he got there. So all he had to do is get his sounds bites and fill in the blanks. Now, the obvious danger in that plan is: what happens if the story takes a different turn? Well, then he’d just change it as needed. But the point is, he didn’t wait until the 4pm event ended and then scrambled to write the story for 5pm. He pre-wrote a skeleton script and then plugged in the holes.

Clear Communication

Be in touch with your Producer, EP and Desk frequently (at least every few hours or whenever you change locations). Be clear about what elements you have and what else you need. That avoids the dreaded angry EP conversation because she thought you were dong angle X for your story and you have angle Y.

Get script approval as early as possible.  When I was a news manager, I can’t tell you the number of times 3 reporters called me at virtually the same time… an hour before the show… for script approval.  That gives me very little time to concentrate on your script, make suggestions and have you change it for the better. Write it as early as possible and get it approved. Your managers will love you for it and so will your photog/editor, since they’ll have more time to make it look great.

So keep in mind your EOC to hit your deadlines—be efficient, be organized, and clearly communicate with your newsroom. Since far too many reporters DON’T do these, if you do, you’ll be a hero.  Believe me.

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Steve Kraycik is the Director of Student Television and Online Operations at Penn State University. He has more than 27 years of experience in television news, much of that as a manager.   He also is an agent with MediaStars.  You can reach him at steve@mediastars.tv and @TV_Agent_Steve.

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