It’s a phrase that makes many journalists cringe and roll their eyes: “People, we need to think out of the box.” What does that mean?

Well, it means don’t pitch the same story ideas over and over.  It means the station wants more than police blotter stories.  It also often means news management is getting creative to attract specific audiences.  This is an opportunity to have fun at work again if you know a key secret.  The best TV stories focus on three things:  Real people with compelling video and audio.

When management starts talking about thinking “out of the box,” you need to start presenting ideas in a visual way.  Describe your story idea by explaining your first shot in it.  Another way to pitch is with the “character” you will showcase.  Thinking “out of the box” is a catch phrase for asking journalists to put a human element into a story.

Here’s how to execute “out of the box” for different news philosophies:  If you work in an “action news” shop, managers want to see reporters and anchors interacting with the news in a more visual way.  Add more sequences and nat sound.  Look for a person or interesting business to focus on for a different twist to a news of the day story.  Producers should include more interesting anchor tags with information from the anchor to make them appear more of an expert rather than just a reader.  Add cool opens to blocks with video and nat sound.  Replay cool video in slow motion.

If you work in a “big J” type shop, do what you can to showcase how news headlines impact real people.  Write in a more conversational way.  Look for interesting characters.

If you work in a headline news type shop where you normally just chase breaking news, play up any interesting video.  Let some emotional sound bites “breathe” more than you usually would.

“Out of the box” also means thinking beyond putting stories only on television screens.  More and more shops want to see you pitching ideas that also have life in social media or at the very least the station web page.  It really is just another way to establish human connections.  The only difference is making the story more accessible for people to react. That doesn’t just mean creating a blog for people to sound off.  This can be an opportunity to empower with links to associated groups and content.  It just depends on the station’s philosophy how far you will go online.

The best part about being told to step “out of the box” is that your news management team is thinking beyond old fashioned TV journalism.  It is looking for ways to integrate technology with storytelling and to redefine news coverage. This is an opportunity for you to get really creative and carve a niche for yourself not only within the station, but in the industry. So go ahead, think “out of the box.”

 

Chinese philosopher Mencius said:  “Friendship is one mind in two bodies.”  This is the basis of why I tell young and/or inexperienced reporters that their best “friends” in a newsroom should be the photographers they work closely with every day.  Being of “one mind” about the stories you tell on a daily basis is the difference between below-average to average TV news stories and great, memorable storytelling that gets viewers to pay attention and your work noticed.

Whenever I move into a new newsroom, the first thing I do is take inventory of the photography staff.  Who’s good?  Who’s average?  Who’s motivated?  Who’s not?  And most importantly… who gets “it?”  Do you know what I mean by “it?”  I mean simply: storytelling.  It is THE number one thing that can take your career as a reporter to limitless heights.  (For more on storytelling see this article http://survivetvnewsjobs.com/?p=306)  Most of us know it when we see it and you should definitely look for it whenever you start in a new shop as well.  Once you have identified the “players” among the photography staff, buddy up with them!  Why?  Because they can make your daily life easy as well as set you up for a successful career path.  On the opposite end of the spectrum… news photographers can also make your life a living hell if you dis them.  Think about that last point for a moment.  You work your tail off turning your story (or in most cases today, stories) for that night’s newscast(s).  You find good “characters”, ask all the right questions and write a gem of a script.  You get it copyedited and it’s ready for the photog to edit into a masterpiece of local news storytelling.  But there’s one problem:  You are the reporter who gives “orders” to photographers rather than asking nicely when you need something from them.  You are the reporter who sits in the truck playing on your smartphone while the photog busts his/her butt breaking down the live shot in the cold.  You are the reporter who calls every story “my story” rather than “our story.”  So, guess what, Mr. or Miss Photog is magically having “editing problems” or just can’t get an edit to take.  Suddenly, that masterpiece of storytelling that was filled with characters and nat sound becomes just another news package slapped together so it can make air.  Think it cannot or does not happen?  Wake up Alice, you’re in Wonderland!  It can and does.

On the other hand, what if you’re the reporter who always helps carry equipment and break down live shots?  What if you’re the reporter who ends every recorded interview by asking the photog if they have any questions for the interviewee?  What if you’re the reporter who asks the photographer to brainstorm ideas on making the standup different and visually stunning?  And what if maybe you’re the reporter who always, and I mean always, tells the photog what a great job they did on “our” story today/yesterday or last week with another reporter?  Well, suddenly Mr. or Miss Photog is busting their hump to get some extra nat sound and a few extra tight shots to really make the story sing!  Keep it up, make it a habit and you’ll soon be getting that effort everyday when you work with that photog.  Then, that photog will tell the others on staff how cool it is to work with you and you’ll start getting the same effort from every photog you work with.  Next thing you know you’re work is noticed as excellent by your bosses and eventually the newsroom you target as the next stop on your march to TV news greatness!

 

The best friend I’ve ever had “in the business” is a photographer.  He just so happens to be what I would consider among the absolute best in the business too with an entire room filled with Emmy and other high level awards.  But there was a time when neither one of us knew what it meant to make really good TV.  We didn’t even know the term “storytelling” much less what it took to do it.  But as our friendship developed so did our relationship as co-workers.  We discovered that we both wanted to know what it took to be really good at making really good TV news stories.  So, we set about teaching ourselves.  We constantly challenged each other to learn and try new things in our stories.  It didn’t take long for both of us to start down the path to great storytelling.  Had we thought of each other as “just a photog” or “just a reporter” rather than as the most important part of the daily equation, neither one of us might have gone on to the successful  and long careers we enjoy.

Unfortunately, there are many, many people in this business who do view TV News Photographers as “just photogs.”  Don’t be one of these people.  TV News Photographers really are THE most important part of the equation.  TV news is at its best when it truly harnesses what no other news medium can harness:  effectively blending moving pictures, with sound and words.  When it makes you feel like ”you are there.”  A reporter can write the words and even say the words.  But without a photographer there is no way you are grabbing all three and making viewers feel connected with great TV news storytelling.  So don’t forget about your true “best friends” in the newsroom.  As Mencius suggested, be of “one mind in two bodies.”  Make sure you make it clear to photogs that you know how important they are to making everyone in the newsroom more successful.  Your job today, and career down the line, will not be sorry and you just might come away with some really good friends too!

 

Many TV stations, like many football programs are constantly changing the “coach.”  If the ratings don’t go up quickly the news director is gone.  That means a new chance to be fired, since the new boss will want to make an impact right away.  First impressions truly can make or break your future at that station.  So let’s talk star power.

All managers have one thing in common.  They want staffers that do not whine.  They want people that can change and adapt quickly.  To prove you can do this, research the new ND and see what type of news philosophy was implemented at their last station.  Did the place do a lot of consumer news?  Did the station cover a lot of breaking news?  What was the turnover like?  Calling and asking for an long time reporter or photojournalist to dig a bit will be helpful.  You want to ask what the ND liked to see from the staff. What kind of story ideas got the ND excited.  Try and find out if your new ND is a big football fan or has kids or a dog.  Now you have a leg up.

Listen to the ND during the first few story meetings.  See if the ND is getting excited over the type of stories you heard he/she will like.  The ND will give you clues about where the place is going next pretty quickly with offhanded comments.  Most people don’t listen.  They should and you will.  Next, adapt story ideas or input about newscasts to the trends you notice from the ND.  After a few weeks try and catch the ND for a minute and request a critique.  Don’t say “hey did you watch my show/package. etc. that day.” Just say: “I am checking in to see if you have any critique for me on what you’ve seen so far.  I am looking forward to taking my work to the next level with you.”  The ND will probably say he/she needs a few weeks.  That’s fine.  You just want the early impression to be that you are hardworking and eager to adapt to this person’s style.

Now let’s talk personal connection.  Remember you have intel on the ND’s personal interests.  Use it to make a human connection.  Let’s say the ND is a big football fan.  When you see ND in the hall or at the end of a meeting ask what person thinks of some headline, “How about that new recruit?  What about that last play in the last game?”  You get the idea.  Don’t linger.  Listen to the response and walk away.  You don’t want to force it.

You also need to make deadline and not complain about anything for the first several months; even if you are getting screwed on vacation time.  Stay out of the office and let other people seem difficult.  The ND is overwhelmed the first few months and doesn’t need to deal with any “little” issues.  Fair or not, your vacation time qualifies as little.

If you are in a meeting with the ND do not be the first person to run out of the room at the end.  Organize your papers, take one more sip of coffee, do what you need to linger a minute in case the ND starts small talking.  This is a subtle way to start building a connection without seeming obvious.

Remember ND’s are looking for employees who are loyal and willing to work hard.  So when you are asked to cover an extra shift or work late, do it without complaining.  You will get a chance to occasionally say no after the ND has been there awhile.  This is a way ND’s test to see if you are a diva or a battle tested, nose to the ground journalist.  We watched it time and again.  Staffers turned down shifts or complained about working late and the ND made a quick judgment call that the person was lazy and didn’t appreciate the job.  It was usually downhill from there.

The key in all of this is being subtle.  This is like dating.  Give the ND a taste of who you are, express some interest, but do not overdo it.  The people constantly in the office putting out will end up being the ones the ND takes advantage of and overworks long term.  The hard workers that stay out trouble survive and end up with some time to breathe.  You will keep the ND interested in seeing more.  That’s what you want.

 

“60 Minutes” and later tabloid journalism began the push for ”in your face” confrontations between a reporter and a person considered caught red handed.  Now it is the norm for investigative reporters to use ambush interviews after laying out tons of evidence against a company or person who may have crossed the line.  Don’t get us wrong, these interviews can be very effective in this type of package.  What’s interesting is how the concept is bleeding over into everyday news coverage more and more.

Case in point, the Casey Anthony trial down in Orlando.  We won’t spell out the details of the case because everyone in the news biz has some idea of the trial and surrounding media circus.  We are taking a closer look at recent headlines about an interesting walk shot into the courthouse with reporters, photojournalists, and attorneys.  In case you missed it, watch the video courtesy of WESH TV and the Orlando Sentinel.  “Courthouse Confrontation” Make sure you let the video play out all the way to the end.  There is a lull, but in the end it gets interesting again.

Now look at some of the headlines on the internet after the walk shot you just watched.  The Orlando Sentinel called it “ A Bizarre situation with reporters…” The Florida News Center headline read, “Anthony attorneys are annoyed by Orlando media.”  Now consider the News Blues headline, “Orlando reporter harasses Casey Anthony attorney.”  See a common link?  In all of these headlines, the sympathy characters were the attorneys, not the journalists.

Now, let’s consider why fellow TV journalists should care that the reporter gets little love in the coverage of the walk.  It’s an example that shows when there are confrontations, the public tends to sympathize with anyone but the journalist.  Yes, there are some exceptions especially in investigative reporting.  But, remember, we are talking about general news coverage here.  The reporter is described as the aggressor and gets less sympathy in coverage of a situation like this.

Partner this with the fact that, increasingly, news managers are trying to differentiate coverage by “being more aggressive” and you have an entirely new set of ethical issues to consider.  There’s also the matter of there now being so many cameras around that your actions can easily go viral on the internet.  The incident we just linked you to above did, and quickly too.

So here’s what you need to consider when you get into an intense situation.

  • What is your stations news philosophy?
  • How far is too far? (i.e. – What is management’s threshold?)
  • Will you be typecast? (Will it hurt your professional image?)

Your station’s news philosophy must come first because it is the best gage you will get on how far you can take questioning and still have management’s backing.  Some newsrooms are very against confrontational interviews.  Some thrive on them.  News philosophy also determines how you phrase everything you say.  For example, some stations encourage the use of slang to try and relate to the viewer.  Some are completely opposed to it and would be horrified if a reporter used a word like “jerk” in this type of setting.  Some want action no matter what.  They want you to yell.  Others define that as highly unprofessional.

Which leads to our next point:  You need a clue as to management’s threshold.  Managers cannot and will not give you black and white answers about this type of situation for legal reasons.  You can get good reads though, by discussing scenarios ahead of time with a boss.  The video of this reporter covering the Anthony trial can also be a discussion point with a manager.  Ask your managers what they think of the situation and try to talk it out.

Take another look at the video of this walk scene and consider your personal reaction to it.  This is a good opportunity to gut check whehter you are being true to your view of what being a journalist is all about.  In this day and age, you have to worry as much about the next possible boss reacting as you do your current news director.  There is so much turnover, you need to be true to yourself in these situations.  Many times I saw reporters act in a way that seemed very unlike their journalistic style.  When I would talk with them later, I got the same answer each time: “I thought that’s what the ND wanted me to do.”  Most ND’s will push you and tell you to be “aggressive.”  Most bosses also understand that “aggressive” for one type of person is different than for another.  Remain true to your heart and your carefully cultivated professional persona.  You do not want video of your out of character attempt to impress the ND, to go viral on the internet.  It will live forever in the digital world and may come back to bite you one day with another ND.  Even if only the other stations in town see you doing an ambush type interview, this is a small biz.  The other ND’s in town will soon know how you act in the field.  Often ND’s considering hiring you, call your competition to learn more about you and see if you are a commodity.  Keep that in mind.  You are trying to impress all the ND’s in town every day. The only way to do that and not go crazy with stress is to stay true to your personal limits on what’s acceptable.  You do not want to be typecast as something you are not.

One final thought: if something like this happens to you in the field, call your immediate manager right away.  This is very important.  You want to give management time to come up with a reaction before they start getting calls.  We suggest calling your boss even if you aren’t the TV station directly involved.  Just witnessing and recording the whole thing, could mean your ND will get a phone call.  The last thing you want is your ND or GM getting blindsided, by something you knew about, then having to “save face” for you and your station because of an ambush style interview, no matter how common they’ve become.

 

You hear it all the time.  Reporters and photographers say something to the effect of:  “Storytelling is great and all, but I’ve got too much to do and I don’t have time for that stuff.”  And while I understand where those comments come from, I don’t buy it.  TV news today is filled with more deadlines and “side work” than ever before.  Often your day starts with:  “Welcome to work, now get out the door we have a story we need you live on at noon.”  You knock that out and then it’s on to your “real” one or two stories for the evening shows.  Then there are the standup teases, vo/sot’s and versions of your story(ies) for your station’s website.  Most of us also, blog, tweet, and possibly  take some still shots for the website.  No doubt it’s a LOT of work!  But I promise you, storytelling does not have to add extra work to that pile.  It really is easy to pump out good storytelling “on a dime!”  It’s just a matter of shifting your way of thinking.

Typically, the toughest stories to get your storytelling mindset right, are the so-called “boring newspaper” stories.  These are the stories where you have to interview some sort of “official” and, because of deadline demands, no one else.  So, how do you “tell a story” when all you have is an official and their boring “officialese?”  First off, while the photog is setting up for the interview, talk with the interviewee about anything but the story you are covering.  Take a look around the office if that’s where you are talking.  Often, you can find some great tips into who this person really is in “real life.”  When you find something, chat him/her up about it.  I remember one recent interview where I thought I was dead in this respect.  The guy was nice enough but not the most personable and clearly not comfortable about being interviewed on camera.  Then I noticed a photo of him with one of the most well-known politicians of the last quarter century.   It turns out that he once did security work at a very high level.  I asked him about it and it eventually led to some common ground between us.  That little nugget helped immensely.  First, it loosened him up for the interview and allowed me to pull some bites out of him that had a little personality.  Secondly, it gave me a way to make this “official” more of a “real person.”  I started the piece by talking about how this man had once protected some of the powerful people in the country, but now helps offer a different kind of protection for this small town.  His past really did not have squat to do with the story of the day, but it gave me a way to turn this guy into a “character” in our story.  When you can do that, you give viewers a reason to see that person as more than just some “official.”  You have them interested in watching.  Remember, good stories have characters.  Turn your subjects into characters, not just officials who give you sound bites.

Nat sound is another area where you CAN add to your story without a ton of extra effort.  It comes down to this:  Shoot (and use) just about anything that makes sound to give your stories some life.  Seriously use just about anything.  Nat sound that is integral and directly related to your story (the power saws in a story about construction or crackling flames in a spot news fire story) are always the best.  But that kind of sound is not always there.  If it’s not, look around and try to find something else.  The idea behind nat sound is getting people engaged in your story.  Read any study or talk to any consultant about what people are doing when the news is on their TV.  They are normally doing everything but “watching.”  In the morning they are making breakfast, getting dressed for work or getting the kids ready for school.  The TV is on, but it may as well be video wallpaper.  So, your job is to give them a reason to stop what they’re doing, turn around and watch.  Nat sound is a way to do that.  Say you’re on that story about construction.  But, in the time you’ve been given to shoot it, the crew is on a lunch break.  You are stuck right?  Nope, you can overcome.  Look around, are there people getting in and out of cars (car door sound)? Maybe there’s a fire truck or ambulance going by with a siren on.  Sometimes using seemingly unrelated nat sound is just the trick.  Think about it.  You’re at home with the news on but aren’t sitting and watching.  You know the reporter is talking about construction and all of a sudden you hear a siren!  What the…?  You are probably going to turn around to see why.  This is why you shoot and try to use any nat sound you can get.  You want to make viewers turn around and pay close attention.  Again, it’s really not any extra work.  But it will add immeasurably to the quality of your stories.

When it comes to writing, try to use a piece of that nat sound off the top.  Failing that, make sure you start by establishing the character you’ve easily uncovered using the tips above.  Fill in the middle with the meat of the story you’ve been assigned.  Then end it with another tidbit that makes your subject a “real person.”

All stories have a few basic things in common.  They have a beginning, a middle and an end.  They also have characters.  Shoot and write with these things in mind and you cannot go wrong.   Turn these things into habits and suddenly your “reports” turn into “stories” and your work begins to stand out from all the “Just the facts, Jack!”, boring, information presenters.  Quickly you will establish yourself as a “storyteller.”  Your producers, EP’s and News Director will appreciate you more and your resume reel will become stronger and more marketable.  Suddenly the next chapter in your personal, career story becomes much more interesting with minimal investment from a little storytelling on a dime!

 

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.

 

Bad Behavior has blocked 580 access attempts in the last 7 days.