Live For The Sake Of Being Live: A Survival Guide

Know Your Newsroom, Reporting Comments Off on Live For The Sake Of Being Live: A Survival Guide
May 072015

A savvy viewer recently asked me a very telling question. Are most of the live shots done on TV just for the sake of being live? I think most TV journalists would have to admit, yes.

First, in defense of sending the trucks out, you cannot get to that breaker at the top of the 5, if all the trucks are sitting at the station. It makes sense to put crews in trucks at the beginning of a news cycle. And if you are going to drive the truck all over town, it makes marketing sense to use the truck. Think of all the people who drive by just wondering why that news truck is there.  As for backpack journalist live shots, well we could (and likely will) dedicate another article to that.

But just because you are assigned a live shot for the day, and no breaker comes up does not mean you should just stand in front of a generic scene, and go through the motions. This is meant for both the crews who have to get creative because they are stuck with the live shot for that day, and the assigning managers who are supposed to help crews best showcase and explain the news of the day. I say this because I would be very rich if I had a dollar for every time a crew called in to say: “We don’t know what to show ( event x) is over and they are turning out the lights.” The manager’s answer was “Go live anyway, just reference that “The crowds just cleared up.” Seriously? Come on.

You have to reference the scene in some way. That might mean moving from an event to the next scene or focusing on the one area still damaged (just don’t exaggerate the extent). If there’s absolutely no way to reference where you are, then ask not to be live for an intro and tag. A live tag only can really help the crew not feel stupid and doesn’t waste the viewer’s time.

And here is another idea, why not shoot a backup intro and tag, as live, while there is something happening and offer that as an alternative option. I promise a live bug on the TV screen does not make or break viewership. Reporters demonstrating things attracts viewers. It helps the story become more relevant and the journalist become more approachable. You still got use out of the truck. You are still interactive and the reporter doesn’t look like he or she is forcing relevance at a dead scene. If the scene is absolutely a dead one, like the dreaded “stand in front of our satellite dishes and be live” assignment, think of an anchor question. At least then you can sort of justify why you are  “live” by engaging with the anchor, and providing relevant information.

And a final thought, managers please, please, please stop and think about these assignments.  Do stations really need to put live bugs up when a reporter is standing in front of their own satellite dishes on their own property? This is a classic example of live for the sake of being live. Often there’s a mandate. “We must have 5 live shots a day!” Why? What does that image really prove? Again, I make the argument, viewers would rather see an interactive standup somewhere in the piece to engage with the reporter than some person standing in front of satellite dishes. This has no marketing benefit at all. It doesn’t show that you are everywhere. It just looks sloppy. I hope this article gets stations talking more about relevance and less about live bugs in corners of screens.

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.


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 [email protected] 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:


Instead, use your characters:







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.


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

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