Take a moment and think about the most colorful characters in the newsroom.  For me there are two groups, photographers and assignment editors.  We’ve decoded some photographer behaviors in “You exist to hold my tripod.”  Bottom line, photojournalists are incredible information gatherers and because they see the facts in a visual way, they make TV news what it is today.

The hardest job inside newsrooms, that all of us love to take for granted is assignment editor.  The people who do it are the “whipping posts” for managing editors, assistant news directors, producers and reporters.  Photographers usually get their assignments this way and love to grumble as well.  Yet, as I look back on my career, I see that the strength of an assignment desk makes or breaks a newsroom.  It truly is the tie that binds.

So why are assignment editors so, well, intimidating (or even irritating)?  Being everyone’s whipping post is one start.  They also tend to really have a grasp on the market and the stations strengths and weaknesses.  Heck, when you think about it, that’s their primary job.  Yet assignment editors are often not really given a voice in crucial decisions.  They actually understand drive times to various places.  They understand that the PIO in city A really hates the station UNLESS you call and say XYZ.  And they also understand that live truck 13 really does suck!  In many cases they try and warn us know it all producer and manager types.  They try and give reporters gentle nudges on how to handle a particularly ornery mayor.  Do we listen?  If the answer is no, then we have a very irritable assignment editor on our hands.  Chances are you are going to be yelled at, have papers thrown around the newsroom and hear curse words in interesting sequences you never would have thought possible!  Think about it.  If you were told to make the ship run smoothly, then saw the iceberg, warned and begged everyone to listen, then watched the boat slam into the iceberg, you would be a tad pissy as well.

A few secrets about assignment editors for you:  If you stink at or just don’t get how to source build yet, befriend a veteran assignment editor.  They source build as well as most investigative reporters.  And they don’t get to leave the station.  Heck, most barely get potty breaks.  Also, be clear reporters, assignment editors are not your personal secretaries.  You need to make the calls to get the information.  If you are behind or overwhelmed talk with an EP first about whether an associate producer can help you out.  And, yes, I am serious.  The assignment editor has you, all the other reporters on your shift, the planning producers, the reporters on the next shift and usually at least one manager asking them to make phone calls.  That’s in addition to calling their contacts and listening to scanners and reading 5 million news releases to make sure the station isn’t missing something important.  And, if the station misses a big story, it is usually the assignment editor that gets reamed for it.

Producers, your assignment editor can help protect your show from technical disasters as well or better than the production team.  He/she knows intimate details about the live trucks, signal strengths, how to get around a lazy person in master control, when to humor an ENG engineer and lots of other very useful stuff.  Beyond that, they know which crews are great at cranking out work and which ones need a constant swift kick.  If you have a story that must make slot, period, make sure the assignment editor is well aware ASAP.  If you see the assignment editor is in the weeds, answer the newsroom phone.  Help out.  There is nothing more excruciating than trying to take down information while hearing phones ringing all around you.  Think about the times when every reporter feels the need to call in for script approval all at once.  All of them need it “RIGHT NOW!” to make slot and you can only read/listen to so much at a time and actually comprehend what’s going on.  That’s what it’s like being an assignment editor for at least half of every workday.  Cut ‘em some slack!

Managers, when an assignment editor walks into your office and shuts the door to discuss a potential issue, stop what you are doing and listen.  Most of the time, this person is saving you from potential disaster.  If they do, throw them a bone once in a while.  Have a favorite meal dropped off for lunch.  Buy them a latte.  Write a thank you note for all he/she does and throw it into his/her mailbox.  Everyone should remember to say thank you once in a while.  The strength of the assignment desk plays a huge role in whether your station is #1, #3 or worse.  It can set the tone for morale in the whole newsroom because the desk has direct contact with all the key players every day.

So, when you get an assignment that just plain sucks, don’t kill the messenger.  The assignment editor is following orders.  When you are told do it and like it, remember that’s the mantra these guys/gals live under every day.  They often take more crap than the rest of us, and then turn it into gold.

A frazzled producer recently asked for advice dealing with his director.  Their relationship was strained.  The director was starting to question this producer’s calls in the booth, and at times making calls instead of checking with the producer to see if they were on the same page.  This is not uncommon.  Directors are in charge of making sure the show looks clean and at times will make quick decisions while live.  Your director “taking over and calling the shots” is not all bad, if you have established protocols you both agree on for certain situations.  (See Right hand/left for more on how the two of you can compliment each other, by showing mutual respect.)  If the director is taking over to the point where you are unable to make key decisions that could impact content making air and/or it’s affecting you timing your show, then you have a problem.

The key is to nip that kind of issue in the bud right away by sitting down and talking about it.  I would usually ask the director when we could meet and discuss how the newscast is going in general terms.  I wanted the chance to talk before a show aired, not right after when tensions are high.  You need to be clear headed so you can both listen and figure out what needs to be done.  Also, go into this type of meeting knowing the director will have criticisms and hopefully suggestions to help things run more smoothly.  Keep an open mind and really listen.  Relationships require some compromise.  You need to be aware that directors have a lot of pressure on them as well and share your desire for a clean show.  The way you two define “clean” and make decisions can vary.  You need to explain where you are coming from in a non-argumentative way.

Another crucial thing to set up is a nightly discrep. meeting with your director.  This used to be required in most newsrooms, but with cuts in OT pay and longer working hours, many shifts now blow off these meetings.  This is a big mistake!  Ideally you want the entire staff to weigh in on these meetings.  If you cannot because of OT issues etc., then meet with just your director.  But make sure you meet.  You need the daily dialog, face-to-face, to actually talk about what went right and wrong in the newscast.  And, by the way, email does not cut it.  You need to look each other in the eye and talk.  This helps you learn how the other person thinks so you can find common ground and set up protocols.  I cannot emphasize enough how crucial it really is to have a daily meeting.  Find a way, period.  Make sure the meetings are short and sweet.  Suggest you each come to the meeting with one thing you liked and one you didn’t.  If there was an issue during the newscast, talk solutions for the next time it comes up.  You can do all of this in 10 to 15 minutes.  You really can.  That is a small sacrifice of time to really create a solid working relationship.  Tell your director that.  Most will not only agree, but be happy to meet.

Finally, make sure even when you are really ticked about a call the director made you remain respectful.  Your director is a professional and likely extremely passionate about his/her job too.  Openly respect that level of dedication.  It will only help you both grow and your newscast get better.

I recently got a message posing this question:  “Why do anchors so often make strange comments at the end of live shots  that are nearly impossible for a reporter to gracefully respond to.”  Examples you ask? Okay, see if these sound familiar.  A live shot ends about something very sad, like a murder and the anchor says: “Great job, Joe Schmo, reporting live downtown.”  What’s great?  Someone died!  Another common scenario:  The reporter tags out with a fact like a vote scheduled in council tomorrow and the anchor parrots the very same fact like this: “You know Joe Schmo, the vote is tomorrow.” Joe the reporter is stuck thinking: “Yeah, idiot, I just said that.” and stares at the screen with a look of confusion.  The final example, Joe the reporter explains an element of the story in the live intro or within the package, wraps up, then on the two shot out the anchor asks about that same element, like it was never addressed.  The reporter is thinking: “Didn’t you listen to what I just said?”  Usually that quizzical look is on his face, on live TV.

So let’s look at why this happens, then try and keep it from happening again.  The “why” is usually tied to one of two things:

  1. The need for the last word, to tie things up and transition.
  2. Questions required in tags, by management, for interaction.

Let’s make it clear, in my experience, the need for the last word is not always an ego thing.  The anchor may not be trying to act all knowing.  Anchors often feel compelled to compliment reporters or reinforce team.  They sometimes just don’t have very good timing.  Hence the “Great job Joe Schmo” comments after a story about a murder.  Instead of focusing on the story, the anchor is complimenting the reporter and it just comes off as weird.  The intentions are good, but it doesn’t make the reporter feel complimented at all and leaves the viewers wondering what just happened.

Often anchors are ordered to make say something out of live shots, while in a double box.  This can be mandated by management or producers who are taught to start and end live shots on double boxes, period.  Sometimes this leads to the anchor getting stuck with nothing relevant to say while trying to transition.  The end result is a weird comment parroting back facts the reporter just said and hoping it sounds different enough that it passes for a real reaction.

While we are on the subject of double box live tag outs, producers take note, scripting “Thanks Joe Schmo” is not always the best route.  It sets up the inane comment scenario.  Suggestion:  Tell the anchor to call the reporter and ask for a factoid they can bring up in the double box.

Notice, I did not say ask for a question.  That call should vary depending on the story and what the reporter knows about the subject.  Often the most uncomfortable moments between an anchor and reporter are during a q and a in a live tag.  Over time, I saw these q and a’s go awry most often when management required a question coming out of every live shot.  I could (and probably will) go on and on about why scripting tag questions every time is bad in a future article.  For now a summary:   Sometimes it makes sense to ask a question, sometimes it is better to share a factoid the anchor can state quickly for emphasis.  Both the reporter and anchor should not be blindsided.  These double box interactions work best if the reporter and anchor can work them out together.  Also, don’t be afraid to end a live shot, then do a two shot transition to a new subject.  You can create team interactions other ways.  Something like this:

((Joe Bob – 2 shot))

Thanks Joe Schmo, Suzie, there’s a similar situation in Atlanta tonight.

((Suzie Q -2 shot))

There is  Joe… and it’s causing problems for a lot of people.

((Suzie turns to 1 shot))

See Anchor’s don’t have chemistry for more on how to work these two shot transitions.

Now, let’s look at more solutions to prevent these “on the spot” moments.  Anchors, it is human nature to want to tie up a conversation with a thank you or a compliment.  Just be cognizant of what the subject is about.  Think about talking with a friend about a tragedy in his/her life, the end of the conversation might be silence.  It might also be a shake of the head.  That is appropriate at the end of a live shot as long as you are really feeling the emotion.  If you are just plain uncomfortable, ask the producer not to script a two shot for that particular tag and explain that you are uncomfortable.  Just remember, if the subject is heavy, that is not the time to tell the reporter “Great job.”  Send a text after the show instead.  Reporters, if the anchor does say great job, nodding your head and saying nothing else is fine.  Reporters also do not have to have the last word.  Let the emotion ride a second in the silence.  It may seem counterintuitive in a business where you are paid to talk, but it is more natural to the way we communicate in the real world.

If the anchor asks about something the reporter just said, it is best for the reporter to briefly summarize with an added tidbit.  You might say, “Yes Suzie, that council vote I referenced earlier will be at 7, and they’re expecting a big crowd, so you might want to come early if you want a seat.”  This lessens the “Huh, he already said that!” blow.  If you cannot add anything when you summarize, just say “That’s right.” and wrap.

Finally, if the anchor says something really out there and you don’t know what to do, just sig out.  Viewers are used to seeing reporters not react to things anchors say and will likely assume you couldn’t hear the anchor or there was a technical difficulty.  That assumption, and slightly tense moment is better than fumbling through a response that just doesn’t make sense and/or being visibly uncomfortable.  Then make sure the producer knows what happened, so everyone can trouble shoot in the future.  Bottom line, there needs to be communication between anchors, producers and reporters to avoid putting a reporter “on the spot” the next night.

 

This can be a complex problem, that everyone involved needs to help fix.  Truthfully, the bulk of the repair is often placed on the shoulders of the producer.  When you watch a newscast and the anchors just don’t seem to relate to each other, there are ways around to ease the tension.

Creating chemistry

  • One anchor begins, where the other leaves off
  • Talk through chat opportunities
  • Play on anchor’s interests

Again, this article is from a producing perspective.  Anchors, we will talk about how you can build camaraderie later.  Let’s begin by helping anchors play off of each other, through scripting.  These are tried and true techniques to showcase the anchors together in a way that you can control.  The techniques incorporate two shots.  Traditionally producers are taught to use two shots at the beginning of blocks, to start off teases, and to pitch to weather and sports.  The use of a two shot is so much more important though.  It provides a conversational bridge when subjects are related.  To really boil it down, you can use a two shot to build your team when switching from the tag of one story, to the intro of the next.  It shows the anchors working together.  This requires conversational writing.  (read “So Cliché” and “Rule the Word” to make sure you are doing all you can to write like people talk)  Here’s a scenario with anchors “JOHN” and “BETTY” to make it clear:

(JOHN/1 SHOT-TAG)

YOU HAVE UNTIL DECEMBER 2013 TO APPLY FOR THE NEW GOVERNMENT REFINANCE PROGRAM.

(JOHN/TURN TO TWO SHOT)

WE ASKED AROUND TODAY AND A LOT OF HOMEOWNERS ARE REALLY CONFUSED ABOUT HOW TO APPLY.

(BETTY/STILL ON TWO SHOT)

AND WHO TO APPLY WITH.

AFTER ALL… THE GOVERNMENT DOESN’T HAVE A SET OFFICE FOR REFINANCING YOUR HOUSE.

(BETTY/TURN TO DOUBLE BOX)

SO TODAY JOE SCHMO CHECKED… TO MAKE SURE YOU WOULD KNOW WHERE TO GO AND WHAT TO BRING.

JOE IS IT A CONFUSING PROCESS?

This copy provides a mini, controlled conversation between the anchors.  The anchors quickly transition to the next part of the story, there is an opportunity for limited ad lib (when the anchor says government doesn’t have a set office for refinancing your house, the other anchor’s mic can be up so he/she could say, on the fly, something like ”it sure doesn’t”) and the anchors  are working together to get the answers viewers want.  I often used two shot transitions like this to build team.  Then, I single anchor pitched to weather or sports more often.  Those two anchor pitches to weather and sports almost always appear forced.  You have to do one token 3 shot pitch to build team somewhere.  But that doesn’t mean do it every time you take weather, especially in an hour long newscast.

When you do have opportunities to chat to build team (like the pitch to weather) ask the anchors to plan it out for you.  Have whomever actually pitches to weather go to the meteorologist to ask about what’s first in the forecast.  Yes, it is easier for you to just throw a line in, since you talk with the weather person anyway.  But the point is to help the anchors build relationships.  The hope is that going in to ask that question before the newscast will lead to a conversation so the anchors continue to find ways to relate to each other.

Here’s another technique to help with chat:  I used to write only the words “ad lib” in at least one tag per newscast (usually on a lighter story) to force the anchors to talk to each other and come up with a plan for chat somewhere in the show, other than weather and sports.  I made sure the anchors looked at that script well before the show.  The rest was up to the anchors to hash out.  If I had awesome video, I would take a two shot coming out, with at most a factoid in there, so the two anchors would have to talk to each other.  This often helped break the ice a bit.

It can be also very effective to have one anchor read a story about a subject the other anchor really likes.  Then you go to a two shot at the very end of the tag.  It can make for a great ad lib opportunity.  I had an anchor that loved Halle Berry.  (Anytime he said her name he would actually blush!)  So sometimes I had the other anchor read the story about Halle Berry, then say the last line of the tag on a two shot.  I did that just so we could catch the other anchor blushing a bit.  Even if they didn’t ad lib, the look between them was priceless!  His co-anchor would smile and roll her eyes as he blushed.  It was a very human, relatable moment.  This is another reason why it is important to learn about your anchors and their personal interests (see “How to get inside your anchors heads and write in their voices”).

The most important thing to keep in mind when trying to create chemistry, is keeping the moments of interaction brief.  Again, that doesn’t mean avoiding two shots.  It means using two shots more as a transition in the middle of news blocks, and less as a way to chat and possibly fill time in places like weather and sports.  As the anchors get used to playing off each other, the chemistry often starts to jell.  You just have to give it time and some gentle nudges.

 

may be the managers of shows, but anchors are viewed as the leaders.  How you carry yourself and treat those around you carries a tremendous amount of weight.  When I started in the business a lot of anchors could be condescending and made it clear they had it better (and were better)  than anyone else.  That changed over the years as more people wanted to get TV jobs, the trend became having younger anchors on television, then the economy crashed.  Salaries for anchors went down.  Now anchors are not considered the “gods of the newsroom” as much anymore on many levels.  But, anchors, do not underestimate your influence.

Over the years I watched many extremely talented anchors roll up their sleeves and take on more and more responsibilities.  Now promoting the station through social media is a huge task.  Many anchors work with local newspapers, magazines and/or radio stations to increase the station’s exposure.  Anchors are truly taking on more than a figurative leadership role.  They truly are out there every day working their tails off to prove their station is worth watching.

With that kind of pressure, can come hot tempers.  I saw an increase in frustrated anchors complaining on set about bad writing, a bad camera cue, even openly criticizing management during commercial breaks.  Some anchors started coming into work late because they didn’t appreciate the longer hours.  Some snuck out for long meal breaks bragging management is too disorganized to notice.  Quick heads up: Management hears!  Your coworkers are the ones turning you in.  There is a growing desire to see everyone working hard for their paychecks.  And this might surprise you, but anchors are often held in the same regard as management itself.  Sometimes the expectation for anchors is not fair.  There are elements to the performance part of their jobs other news positions cannot relate to.  Still, acting like a diva in these economic times would be the worst thing for an anchor right now.

So how do you win over the news staff without burning yourself out before you step on the set?  The top thing, cheerlead.  Remember, leaders are the people you come to for advice and support.  Be the supportive ear as much as you can for the entire staff.

This may sound silly, but it is very effective.  Show appreciation with simple gestures like an email saying “Thanks for the hard work this week.” when you know everyone really went through the grinder.   If a reporter did a great job on a story, send a quick text complimenting the work.   At the end of a sweeps period, that was intense, bring in donuts.  Treats like food go a long way toward winning friends and influencing news people.  These gestures are so rare, they are really relished.   It shows you understand everyone grinds all day and you appreciate their blood, sweat and tears.  Remember, you are often lumped in as a type of management by the staff.  It comes with the leadership element of your job.

Finally avoid the long breaks and coming in late for the weekend shift because you think management won’t know anyway.   Get to work a few minutes early, smile on your face and be excited about the day.  If you hear grumbling remind everyone things will work out.  This kind of role model is rare in news.  It is needed.  You will win allies.  Maybe a whole newsroom’s worth all watching your back in return.

 

Recently an anchor wrote us two articles, from his perspective on the desk, about how producers relay information during newscasts.  (see Your producing voice and See it rather than say it.)  In one of the articles he referred to creating blocks in the anchor’s voice.  If you want to be a rock star producer, and chart your own path, knowing how to do this is KEY.

So here goes.  In order to write blocks that cater to your anchor’s voice and talents, you have to get to know your anchor.  This means really paying attention to what the anchors pitch during editorial meetings.  This means figuring out catch phrases that drive them out of their minds so you can avoid them.  It also means sometimes sitting back and eavesdropping when they are having casual conversations in the newsroom.  Listen to how the anchors talk.  Are the sentences long or very short?  Does the anchor have his/her own catch phrases?  Are there subjects the anchor is really passionate about?  What is his/her favorite dinner or drink at work?  All of this helps give you a clue into how the anchor ticks.  It also helps you keep the anchor psyched up before the newscast and throughout the newscast.  Designing elements in that person’s voice is more than just writing style.  It also is giving the person room to breathe and interact with others during the newscast.  You want the anchor to have a conversation with the viewers during the newscast, not just read copy.

To showcase the difference, think about reading a child his/her favorite book.  Children want to hear them over and over.  You start to memorize the book.  You learn when to do the character voices they love.  Before long, you can read and emphasize the key points, while daydreaming about something else.  You start going through the motions.  This can be the same for news anchors.  Because you must hit meter points, newscasts can become formulaic for an anchor to read.  It can almost become robotic for them because they know that the same kinds of stories are coming, in the same places, every day.  So they start to read it the same way and your “killer” copy becomes boring on-air because of “robo-anchor’s” delivery.  It’s not necessarily all their fault either.  It’s tough to not fall into that habit if you’re faced with reading nearly the same thing day-after-day.  So, a producer who throws in elements that are a little different, and play into the anchor’s speaking style and interests will really help the anchor remain engaged.

Another really good approach to getting to know your anchor is to sit down with her/him every once in a while and ask what his/her favorite part of the newscast is.  What continuing stories does the anchor find particularly fascinating?  Is there a point in the newscast where the anchor feels like she/he is dragging a little bit?  These can be areas where you amp up the writing to help the anchor kick it into high gear and keep her/his energy up.

Once you know how the anchor talks, pick a few stories you plan for that person to read in the newscast.  Next, try writing those stories the way the anchor speaks.  Now closely watch how they copy edit those stories.  This technique lets you see if you are on the right track.

Another technique is to ask the anchor to call and check on a reporter’s progress every once in a while.  Make sure the anchor will be the one pitching to that reporter  during the newscast (it might be the one time where even if something floats or there’s a breaker, you don’t change reads).   Have the anchor and reporter draft an anchor intro together.  Let the anchor copy edit that reporter’s package.  Tell the two of them to come up with a compelling extra tag element the anchor can read.  This will give the team a little extra connection when they go to air, and often boosts both of their energy levels.  Sometimes I did this with stories I knew the anchor really found fascinating.  Sometimes I chose stories that the anchor was not thrilled to have in the newscast.  It helped the anchor find a connection to, then sell, the story.  This is an effective technique when doing on-set interviews with experts as well.  If the expert is arriving early enough, I would even ask the anchor to walk the person in and explain how IFB works and have them mic the person up along with the production crew (if you’re not in a union shop).  The anchor feels an extra connection and it will be easier to deliver that element with authority.

When designing blocks with the anchor in mind, sometimes it can also be good to shake things up and make the anchor read sections that they do think are silly.  It can force them to focus and keep them off  guard a little bit.  Again, do not do this often, just enough to keep the anchor from getting into a rut.

Now I know some producers are reading this and saying:  “But what if my show blows up and I have to change anchor reads?”  Then the anchors will not get to read all the copy you crafted just for them that day.  It happens.  Everyone knows that’s the way it goes.  The anchors should be talented enough to either deliver the copy, as is, effectively anyway or ad lib on the fly to sell it as their own voice.  The point is by making these efforts to give them a “footprint” in the newscast you are showing respect and creating a more solid team.  That leads to winning newscasts!

 

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