The One Criticism You Never Want To Be Told

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Feb 132014
It’s a fact of life, in news, that your work will be criticized a lot.  It can be hard to take, but you must if you want to succeed in the business.  However, there is one criticism you never want to be told:  That you blame others for your mistakes.  If you do, you will quickly be labeled a  complainer, trouble maker and bad at your job.  You cannot afford to have this label.
So what do you do to get around?  For starters check out our recent “Take Ownership” article.  Next, do not complain, about how the newsroom runs, to other staff members.  I recognize this is a tough one, because news people are infamous for their after hours gripe sessions.  It is VERY hard not to engage in the complaining and you may even feel alienated at first.  But believe me, it is worth it to not get involved.  Remember a key staffer will be at the gripe sessions:  the newsroom snitch.  Any complaints you make will be reported, and if you directly complain about how others are doing their jobs, and that it’s keeping you from doing yours, I guarantee that it doesn’t matter whether you have a valid point.  You will be labeled a complainer who passes the buck.  Also, there are many times your coworker is not your friend, says a few more generic complaints to get you rolling, then uses your words against you later in front of management.  End result:  You look like a complainer.
Blamers do not get as much leeway.  They do not get a benefit of the doubt.  If you are known for passing the buck, management will build a file on you quickly and work to get you fired or banished to the one shift no one wants, so that you hopefully just go away.
The final thing you can do to avoid this horrible label is this:  When you have a complaint in your mind, think of proactive solutions you can help implement.  That way if you get cornered at the station party or management backs you into a corner with an intense line of questioning, you can try and deviate the attention away from you and toward a solution that builds team.  If my EP just disappeared when I had to make key decisions, and I got called on the carpet, instead of saying “Joe EP is never around to ask.”  I would say, “I think I need to go over potential pitfalls in my rundown a little earlier when Joe EP is less busy.”  This raises the issue that Joe EP is not around, without me calling the person out as slacking off.  If management asks “Where is Joe EP?” say “Not sure, at that time of day. I just try to execute what I am asked as best I can.”  Let the managers duke it out.  Meantime you look like a solution finder instead of the dreaded blamer.
If you sense you are already labeled the complainer, stop your gripes immediately and have a clear the air session with your immediate supervisor.  Look that person in the eye and say, “I am here to help this newsroom by doing my best each day.  I want you to know I am glad I am here and will do all I can to help.”  Then do what you are asked and keep your mouth shut.  You can turn this reputation around as long as you do not let it linger long.  It is worth the extra effort, remember being labeled a “complainer” can be a career killer in this ever competitive business.

One of the youngest on staff: How to hang with the veterans and gain their respect.

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May 212013

When I started out in the biz, I was one of the youngest producers ever hired at the station where I worked.  I was so young, my anchors were close to my parents age.  So were many of the reporters and photojournalists, not to mention much of the production crew.

During the interviews leading up to this job a news director from another station told me, “You are impressive, but how will you manage anchors who make three times what you do, and are old enough to be your parents? How will you make them respect you?”  Truth is, that question was much easier to answer in an interview, than to live out each day in a newsroom.

That is not to say that if you are young and driven you should not go for big opportunities.  But you do need to have a small arsenal of techniques to handle the hazing headed your way.  Keep the following in mind:

  • Respect is earned
  • Set expectations
  • Focus on team
  • Avoid running to the bosses

The first thing you need to understand as a newbie, is that you are not respected just because you were hired for a particular job.  Respect is earned.  News people are incredibly harsh critiquers.  Our brains are wired to find weaknesses and anomalies.  You will be picked apart, especially if you are young.  Many stations are hiring people before they are ready for a particular job, because it can be hard to find someone at all.  This is especially true of producers and writers.  So you are going to have to come in, be professional and work your butt off.  You have to earn respect by consistently doing good work, visibly pushing yourself to be better each day, and respecting those around you.

Which leads to my next point. Set expectations.  Set them for yourself, and those around you.  If you are a reporter, talk through your thoughts on how to handle a story with your photographer (if you are lucky enough to have one).  Explain to your producer when you will call in and when you need script approval to ensure you can get your pkg in by deadline.  Producers: You need to tell your anchors what you need them to do in terms of writing and/or copy editing the newscast.  You need to sit down with the production crew when you get the job, and see what you need to provide when, and explain your goals for the newscast.

You also need to remember that you are part of a team and focus on that.  This can be a really good thing for a newbie producer.  You do not have to go it alone.  You do not have to have all the answers.  You just need to always clearly explain that you want to be part of the solution for any issue that comes up.  For example, check in with your anchors regularly and ask if they are getting what they need.  Listen to their feedback and take it to heart.  That shows professionalism and maturity that will earn you respect quickly.  If you are a reporter or photojournalist, ask your counterpart what they need from you to thrive at their jobs.  Again, you will gain so much respect.  The best part, you will have stronger allies when you do make mistakes, and, you will make them.  You want a support system around you to help pick yourself up, dust off and heal the bruises.  This is a hard biz, you need all the support you can get.

This also is a very small business.  So, do not go running to the bosses and report issues unless it is dire.  By dire, I mean you are about to put the station in serious jeopardy because of a fact error.  If you tell “Mr. 20 years at the same station” to tag out with “13 News for You” instead of “News 13,” and he tells you to screw off, that doesn’t count.  Write down what you told him and when.  Then, it’s up to him to step in line.  Often, newbie journalists panic when a veteran tells them no.  The fear is they are questioning your authority and will get you in trouble.  That is sometimes true.  But, if you do what you are supposed to and deliver a message from management asking for that new out cue or for something to be included in a live shot or pkg script and the veteran blows you off, the veteran will eventually pay the price.  Let that person hang him or herself, by him or herself.  Write down when you told the person, then let that person sink or swim on their own.  You cannot control that person if he/she is defiant.  Focus on what you can control, and be ready if you are asked about the situation with clear documentation in hand.  Then show what you did and ask what more can you do in the future to handle the situation better.  That is not running to the boss, that is managing.

So hang in there newbie newsies.  The hazing can be tough at times.  But it does get easier.  In fact, the person you thought was enemy number one, can and often does become your greatest advocate.  You just have to earn your stripes.


When a producer sent me an email about this issue, I had to shake my head a little.  Been there a couple of times.  I could just see the anchor that used to count the number of stories lecturing me again.  I also could see the anchor that used to count how much time reading she got versus her co-anchor handing me a list that tracked a one week period.  She was shocked when I stared at her in disbelief.  In a week’s time, the cumulative amount differed by less than a minute.  Seriously?  This is what she worried about?

Here’s the deal.  Anchor reads will never be completely even.  It just isn’t possible.  There are tricks to get them pretty darn close though.  I will explain those in a minute.  First I want to talk about this “read counting” mentality.  Read counters, who base their worth on how often they are on the air, versus their co-anchor create all kinds of problems.  The biggest negative impacts: Themselves and other anchors.  Here’s why.  When a producer sees that you spend your time counting the seconds to make sure you get your face time, you are telling that producer that all you care about is being on TV.  That is simply the truth. In fact, my read counter actually said to me, “My audience needs to see me more than my co-anchor.  They count on seeing me.  I just know I am a bigger draw than her.  You must want her to be the draw and not me.”  How does a producer, who cares about getting crucial information out to the viewer place confidence in that mentality?  It made it very hard to trust that if I gave him breaking news, he would use due diligence to make sure the information was correct.  He also was the only anchor in the shop to pitch a fit if he actually had to go “in the field” to turn a story unless he deemed it glamorous.  This example is not unique.  Producers talk.  We love to tell each other who the read counter is.  That’s the person you never hand the big breaker.  That’s the person you avoid at all costs.  That’s the anchor whose critiques often fall on deaf ears.  Fair or not, that’s what happens.  The stigma is there.  You only care about face time, not being a thorough and complete journalist.

Now, let’s address the time counter.  The producer who emailed me gave the example of an anchor saying “ My co-anchor had 1:15 in reads, I had :50 seconds.”  This simply screams, “I love my face time. I need all the face time.  Look at me I’m on TV!”  Look, obviously all anchors like a little face time.  If you hated it, you would not be on TV.  But again, this sends the message that you care more about being recognized out and about town than being a solid journalist.  Not the reputation you want in a newsroom, period.  Time counters are considered petty, arrogant and superficial.  It just makes you look bad.

Now the kicker, for all the other anchors who are solid journalists.  Because of read and time counters, producers often get defensive about reads.  So when there is a legitimate issue, like one anchor being written out of 7 minutes in the a-block, that anchor may not raise a red flag for fear of being labeled “high maintenance.”  There are times, when there are legitimate issues with reads.  Newbie producers often make this mistake until they get enough of a handle on designing the rundown, timing it correctly and making deadlines.  That’s a long wait for the anchors who just don’t want to disappear for big chunks of news blocks.

So here’s the solution.  First, producers should trade off who leads the newscast, and each block.  For example, let’s take Joe and Amy.  On Monday, Joe leads the a-block, Amy the b-block and on down the line.  If you have an hour long show, have Joe lead the a-block Monday, then Amy leads the 30 block.  Switch on Tuesday.  Repeat.  This only takes a second to do, and really helps make the reads appear even.  The second part to creating even reads is to try and make sure the anchor reads change every two minutes or so.  If you have a package that is 2:30, the anchor who introduced it should read the tag.  If it is a long tag, do it on a two shot to re-establish team as long as the next story is not a rough transition.  If you have a rough transition before the two minute time is up, switch then and get back to the other anchor within two minutes.  Of course, you can’t make it every two minutes on the nose, but it is a good approximate time to keep in mind.

So there you have it. That’s why read counters do what they do.  That’s what it means and how to stave it off.  If you are a read counter, and your producer switches block leads and tries to change reads every two minutes or so, stop complaining.  Your reputation depends on it.


Why don’t you show us how it’s done then! The result of on set rants in the booth.

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Jan 092013

So now we know that anchors often resort to onset rants, when they are super frustrated and feel there is no other outlet.  Anchors, we get it.  Other journalists understand some of these issues are hard to take, but it’s time for you to see what impact that moment of weakness has on the rest of the team.

First, the producer.  Let me clue you in on a little secret, producers tend to be control freaks, who place a lot of their self worth on their work.  Their biggest points of pride, the writing and flow of the newscast.  The writing is their stamp, on the newscast.  So when you the anchor make fun of the writing, right or wrong, for many producers it is a deeply personal insult.  In some ways it is the same as viewers sending scathing critiques of your clothes, hair or delivery.  It takes awhile for many producers to understand that the writing has to be a team effort. (see “How to get inside your anchors heads”).  Anchors can say the  critiques are not personal until you are blue in the face, most producers never buy it.

The producer is also the team leader, especially in shops with newscasts that are more content driven rather than personality driven.  So when you make fun of the writing or complain about how it made you look, you are essentially calling out the newscast leader as a fool.  That is how it feels to the producer, and the production staff.  Again, think about this.  I personally know of only one anchor, foolish enough to call out an AND or ND in the middle of the newsroom.  Producers are a type of manager as well.  Show enough respect to talk to the producer one on one.

That said, producers read “I can’t believe that aired again!” and understand, anchors usually do not go off on the set unless they feel they have no voice and that any suggestions in the past were ignored.  So, if the anchors are constantly calling you out on the set, it can be a message.  You don’t respect us, and therefore we don’t respect you.  As the leader of the newscast, you have to try and make amends.  It is important that you not only allow critiques to happen, but actually acknowledge them and make changes at times.  You are fallible.  Everyone is fallible.  Recognize it, grow from it, and allow yourself to self reflect.  Leaders help those around them rise up.  Are you doing that or serving your own self interests?  Spell out to the anchors, that you will really listen to what they have to say.  If you go against their advice, say why.  One more thing, solid leaders also admit when they make mistakes.  If you can set that tone, chances are the people around you will too, and all of you will grow together.  Set up basic trust, that is crucial especially during breaking news.  All of you need each other.

Anchors need to consider another thing before ranting on the set.  It undermines your authority with the production staff as well.  No one wants to sit and hear someone being criticized openly.  If you can say that about the producer, what do you say about the production crew behind their backs?  It causes a sense of superiority that is not appropriate.  Production crews and producers are fully aware of how much they impact your success.  Never, ever, forget that.  Every time you sit on the set, you are placing your fate in many hands, no matter how talented you are.  Do you really want them collectively saying “Why don’t you show us how it’s done then?”  They will monitor how long you take to do your hair and makeup, they will help managers figure out if you take three hour dinner breaks, even on big news days.  In other words, if you regularly rant on the set, you better be the hardest working journalist in the newsroom EVERY SINGLE DAY, or you will have a host of enemies waiting to watch you get yours.  It is just the truth.  A producer I used to work with purposely used words her anchor struggled to pronounce in copy, and especially during breaking news, just to trip the anchor up.  She was tired of the on set rants.  I watched a production crew, purposely call up a mic line early to catch an anchor in a rant, on live TV, just to make her shut up.  I have also seen producers lobby together to request that anchors be fired, because the on set rants became too much to take.

News is stressful.  We all have moments of weakness.  But when those moments happen on set, they are not easily forgiven.  They create the “us vs. them” mentality that damages so many newsrooms and so many newscasts.  Anchors, stop those rants.  Producers, give anchors a forum to talk with you about concerns, and really listen and learn from the information.  Make it your pledge for the new year.  You will be shocked how much better all of you perform when you set aside the ego, and focus on team.

I can't believe that aired again! Why anchors complain on the set.

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Jan 072013

This makes many producers blood boil. You toil over a newscast for hours, then during the show, the anchors start complaining about and/or making fun of the copy you worked so hard on.  Complaining on set during the newscasts about the show, is the number one way to create a huge divide between anchors and producers. It creates the “us vs them” mentality that causes so much friction.   But there are two sides to this, and we are going to really delve into both.

That said, many of those anchors are really not trying to just be jerks.  I PROMISE YOU. There are reasons behind the decision, (and it often is a decision) to complain about copy on the set during the newscast.  The biggest reason, FRUSTRATION.  When anchors reach the point of complaining on set, most are usually at their wits end.  From their point of view, they have tried to “talk things through” and the producer/management has ignored the issue.  Many veteran anchors are just tired and frustrated that they constantly have to “train newbies.”  If you step back and really think about it, you can see how this can happen.  One anchor I consulted with on this article says, “Even if you are not normally a complainer, when you get an anchor sitting next to you who is a little immature and starts going off, it can be very difficult not to give into the temptation and complain also.  It is human nature.”  Another anchor mentioned, “I worked so hard to get to this point, I don’t want to come across as clueless or even just plain stupid. Why aren’t we (anchors) protected?”

A key thing to remember, is when the anchors “mess up” and read copy that is factually incorrect or just doesn’t make sense, it isn’t just the anchor that looks stupid.  The entire news operation loses credibility.  Anchors are very aware that they are the poster children for the entire organization.  They understand that if they come across as not credible, their job is on the line, because that lack of credibility undermines the entire station’s standing in the community.  When you separate yourself from the insults, and really think about that, you can see why anchors sometimes “go off.”  It is a lot of responsibility, and yet they give up control of the newscasts to producers.  It is how the system works, except in rare cases.  Anchors are depending on you to get the facts right, so they look credible.  Yes anchors can, and most will, get into the newscast and fact check and rewrite if they notice a potential issue.  But in the morning, and during breaking news that is not always possible.  The anchors need the information to be correct, or at least quickly fixed if there is a problem.

Which leads to the second reason, anchors find themselves complaining on the set over a mistake.  It is absolutely maddening, when they see an issue, raise the issue to the producer and then it is not corrected and airs incorrectly two and three times.  Many anchors say they try to help and bring up an issue with a super, or a misspelled item on the ticker, and then it isn’t changed.  The anchor doesn’t have access, and can only watch the mistake happen again and again.  Remember, credibility for the entire news organization is on the line, anchors are the final gate keepers.

There also are issues in many shops where veteran anchors are told, to just read whatever is there, and let the producers do all the gate keeping.  Anchors are told to stay out of the decision making and that producers rule (see Producer Driven) the roost.  Problem is, often the producers are much less experienced than the anchors.  No matter how smart you are, experience brings a lot of knowledge.  So veteran anchors sit, wishing they could just bang their heads against the wall and watch something they could have prevented play out on the air.  Excruciating!

That said, giving in to human nature and complaining on the set, diminishes respect toward you if you are one of those anchors.  It sends a message that you think you are superior and fed up with the underlings.  And that’s even if what you say is absolutely true.  So this is where things get hard for the frustrated anchor.  You need to find a different forum to vent.  Maybe that’s after the show, on the phone with your co-anchor.  Maybe it is at the gym working out your frustrations.  Maybe it is in a meeting with the EP or AND.  Just make sure you keep the conversation pro-active.  Producers and managers, put ointment on the sting, and look to see if the anchor really does have a good point.  If the anchor feels they have a forum to address concerns, the on set rants will eventually stop.  Chances the quality of the newscast will improve as well.

How often do you “meet” after the newscast to talk about the day (or night or morning)?  Discrep meetings are an incredible opportunity to grow as a journalist.  But you have to structure them correctly and get into a proper mindset when going into the meetings.

Many stations have dumped discrep meetings because they do not want to pay overtime.  I am going to make a bold statement to you.  If that’s the case in your shop do them anyway and don’t charge the company.  Why?  The team needs them to grow as journalists and as a team.  These meetings are a type of insurance policy if handled correctly.  They are an incredible opportunity for training.  To put it bluntly the discrep meeting should be for you, and your team’s best interests.  Yes, the ratings should improve as a result and your station will benefit. Guess what, you will reap more rewards than your employer long term.  Every journalist needs training, no matter your experience level.  The beauty of this career is you never stop growing.  The best way to learn is from fellow journalists that are in the daily grind with you.  Problem is you don’t get time to talk because of the intense deadlines.  Then fatigue hits and you go home without really looking at your work.  Discrep meetings force you to change that.  They will force you to look at your work when you have a moment to breathe and take it in.  They will force you to take another look at your work and self critique with an educated perspective. So let’s talk about structuring discrep meetings, so you and your team can grow in your craft and improve as journalists.

The group pow wow


First let’s talk about the group style discrep meeting.  These traditionally are held after the newscast when opinions are fresh and issues are on your mind. The problem is many of these meetings are adversarial.  Everyone’s emotions are still raw and you often feel tired and defensive from the stress of the day.  So how do you change that?  My suggestion:  Use the meeting to list what areas of the newscast you want to review later for journalistic reasons, and systems issues.  Once a week, sit down and review those issues.  Have the EP and/or newscast producer, write down the issues. Then, sit down as a group and pick three topics and talk solutions.  This is a very effective way to improve communications between reporters, anchors, production crew, art and editing departments.  The faster you get those “systems” or mis-communication issues taken care of, the better your newscast will flow every day.  Then you can delve into bigger issues, like journalistic dilemmas.  Also, compliment at least one part of the newscast, where you feel the team won.  I am saying you, as in all participants.  It is just as important to hear what others thought worked, as didn’t.


Focus groups

These are a type of discrep meeting that should happen as needed to go over ethical decision making and writing style.  Most often this will happen between anchors and producers or writers.  Sit down and talk a situation through after a show or the next day before things get crazy.  Part of being a journalist means you will make a lot of ethical calls on the fly.  Some will be good calls, some not.  Use them as an extension of the training you get at many J-schools.  Talk the situations through.  Discuss what you liked and didn’t.  The key here is to go in ready to accept criticism and grow.   You need to set up these philosophical discussions in order to make sure you understand each of your news philosophies and mesh them with the station’s mandates.  If you don’t do this, you risk not making consistent ethical calls.  Viewers pick up on this.  They may not be able to explain that clearly, but they sense if your newscast and/or station is wishy washy.  That does not help credibility. Consistency is crucial.  It means open lines of communication and open discussions in newsrooms about philosophy.  Anchors, these smaller meetings are great opportunities to try and coach less experienced producers or associate producers. (See “Anchor an Alliance”)  Bringing up a lot of issues while grinding the show often not only falls on deaf ears, it can cause resentment.  Unless you are about to make a major factual gaffe, try and address issues after the show in a small meeting.  Producers will actually have the time to listen and if you don’t do it in front of the whole staff, may actually retain what you say.  Remember, your producer is constantly in power struggles to maintain control of the newscast.  This can even include struggles with management.  They need your support by talking in small circles about issues that could put them on the defensive.

Producers, use these small and larger meetings to make sure you are connecting with the people you manage.  Be humble.  Know you will take some criticism but that the knowledge you gain can make you a huge asset.  Just keep pushing yourself to grow.  Let others help you do it by mentioning these issues.  Encouraging open lines of communication will give you incredible insight you only get from asking for it. These lessons will help you make a name for yourself, not just at your current station.  You will gain a reputation for being a real leader and that will help you rocket launch your career.  All of this starts with effective discrep meetings.  So go for it.  Ask your staff to buy into you and your newscast, and reap many benefits.

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