A common issue I coach producers on is how to handle it when an anchor decides to “call out” mistakes in front of the staff. Too often, producers have to sit and listen to anchors going off on the set about something that did not work. The comments are often not constructive. Live TV is tense. Everyone’s anxiety is up, no matter how seasoned they are. That said, making fun of the writing, or complaining about mistakes on set, is not necessarily going to help you get the help you need later. We addressed some of this in “Why don’t you show us how it’s done then.” Now let’s focus on how to get the message across, and have it actually be heard.

If your station holds special discrep meetings when the ND is visiting the morning or nightside shift, keep in mind that tensions are higher than usual then. The producers feel like they are under extra scrutiny (frankly, anchors probably do too). This is a good time to have an open discussion. But you do not want to create an environment where the team is turning on each other. This cannot be emphasized enough. When the ND and/or AND attend the discrep meeting, and the staff starts complaining and/or putting each other on the defensive, it gives a bad appearance. It makes it look like this is a group that either needs more monitoring or could need changing up (as in some of you may need to go).

These meetings go south fast, when an anchor says “That story on (fill in blank) was awful.” or makes fun of a story. The producer, gets embarrassed and will either shut down or lash out. So how do you bring up issues without setting off a firestorm? The head of the meeting has to set the right tone and has to phrase things better.

Let’s start with the leader of the meeting, which is often an EP. Start the meeting off by asking your producers what worked and did not. This allows the producers to take ownership and makes it psychologically easier to take the criticism still ahead. Producers feel more willing to do things like say, “Hey, was the end of the A uncomfortable?” Then a discussion can happen. If the producers do not do that, then the EP should. This keeps the anchors from having to bring the issue up first, and come off as defensive or attacking.

Anchors, if that doesn’t happen and you feel you have to bring an issue up, just think about your phrasing a bit. “Maybe it was just me, but the end of the A block felt a little uncomfortable. I know we are supposed to get more creative. But can we talk about why we did what we did, so we can figure out if there’s another way?” This gives the producer (who, remember, is likely extremely passionate, a bit of a control freak and THRIVES on problem solving) a chance to “save face” and bring up ideas as discussion points. Then you can add to those ideas. Everyone gets what needs to be said out there, and the message is more likely to be heard.

Better yet, wait until the end of the meeting and ask for a sub meeting with only the people directly involved with the issue, to bring up the subject. This isolates the potential for public humiliation. Then the producers can hear what you have to say better, because they are not being put on the spot publicly. You also will not have to worry as much about phrasing because it is a smaller group. So if you accidentally come across as a little harsh, it will be easier for the producer to give you the benefit of the doubt.

If you are going to bring up an issue, that involves a section of the newscast the producer asked you to look over ahead of time, better make sure you mention that as well. Producers hate proactively asking your opinion, having you seem to ignore it, then getting bashed for the decision later. That is a fast way to guarantee the producer will not have your back when you really need help.

The biggest thing I can emphasize is that producers in their own way, are as sensitive as anchors. The newscast is a part of them in many ways, just like it is for anchors. So you have to think about how you want to be told things. It would be humiliating to walk into the newsroom and hear the producers gathered together saying “Nancy looked like an idiot when she said …..” and then start cracking up. Or “Joe looks like he’s getting goosed the whole show, what a dope.” No one wants to be publicly humiliated. Just because a producer or EP’s face is not seen during the newscast, does not mean that their heart and soul is not attached to it. In many ways, they feel as tied to it as you do.

Producers, a big thing to consider is that anchors do not always mean to come off as insensitive or like they’re trying to “get you.” Even if they sound callous or just plain rude in a public critique, many are internally struggling with how to bring the issue up. Many try to use humor, and fail miserably, so it becomes a case of making fun or picking, instead of lightening the blow. So even if it stings, try and discern if the anchor just really doesn’t know how to bring the issue up well. And once the sting wears off, there could be great constructive criticism in the comment that will help you grow.

One last point to anchors: If you routinely make fun of things the producers do, or make you say on the set, whether during commercial breaks or after the show in discrep meetings or in the middle of the newsroom, you are setting yourself up for a world of hurt. Even if pay structures do not always seem to reflect it, producers have a lot of power in newsrooms and often have more say in your future than you might want or like to admit. Picking at that person, or making fun of them is asking for them to point out to the bosses every time you screw up. So unless you have achieved daily guaranteed perfection while on set, you are going to get burned.

The People Who Should Be Treated Like Kings In A Newsroom, But Often Aren’t

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Mar 062014

Recently a management team called to talk about how frustrated they were searching for some key positions in their newsroom.  They were fresh out of ideas to look and wanted to brainstorm ideas.  You might be surprised what positions we discussed:  Satellite truck operators, directors and editors.  A week or so later, another news manager lamented about the difficulty in finding a great assignment editor.  These are the unsung heroes of newsrooms.

The goal of this article is to remind us all, that when you have great, hardworking and passionate people, in these newsroom roles, spoil them any way you can and often.

I know a satellite truck operator who is routinely allowed to sleep in his truck because his news manager will not put him up in a hotel on long distance assignments.  He is the hardest worker I know.  And if he leaves the station, that place will be a mess.  He is also the most knowledgeable person they have about newsroom equipment and what needs to happen to keep it in tip top shape for doing the news every day.  Is this really the person you want to dismiss?

When that management team called to lament about their struggle finding a director, I could immediately relate.  A talented director is very hard to come by and very valuable.  The intensity of the job, while on-air is not something just anyone can handle.  Then those managers told me the pay range.  I seriously do not know how the director would afford to eat and pay rent.  This is not the place to skimp on salaries.

Then there is the dilemma over finding a good editor.  With desktop editing becoming so commonplace, fewer people want to do this job.  (Is there longevity?)  But there is an art to good editing. All you have to do is watch a newscast full of generic video to understand that.  If you want to raise ratings, one of the easiest ways, is matching video to the copy your anchors read.  It sounds beyond simplistic.  But so few do it regularly now, it actually is powerful.  Once again I was asked if I knew any good editors. Then, I was told the salary range.  No wonder so many editors are college kids.

My point in all of this?  These newsroom workhorses really make or break the quality of a station’s product.  But business offices, number crunchers and frankly many newsroom managers do not get it.  That is until they end up with a bad seed in one of these positions.  If you have a great sat truck operator, director or editor, show them respect, often.  Treat them right because they are truly rare and precious assets.

The Interns Are Uprising! But Is It Their Loss?

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Jul 172013

The interns are staging an uprising. And many big media executives are sweating. Charlie Rose has already settled a lawsuit against his production company. FOX Searchlight lost a case and is appealing. Now MSNBC and “Saturday Night Live” may have to go to court. Each is accused of working interns to the bone, having them perform menial tasks that regular employees should perform, and not paying them a dime.

Whoa, Millennials! Way to stick it to Old Media!

Except… I think I’m going to have to side with Old Media on this one.

As TheWrap points-out in a nice piece which puts a face on Hollywood interns, the unpaid internship is the way to get your foot in the door in television, film, and journalism. The real threat of these lawsuits isn’t to the big media companies’ bank accounts. The real threat is to next year’s crop of interns and the ones who would be applying the year after that. You see, in this age of “we make billions but we still only buy that stiff, generic toilet paper for the company’s restrooms because it saves us ten-cents a roll,” we may not see paid internships as a result of these lawsuits. We may just see internships go away. And that would be a shame.

I did it. I should say my mother, father, and I did it. I don’t know how we scraped together enough money for me to intern at Dispatch Broadcast Group’s DC bureau the summer before my senior year in college. But we found nearly $1,000 each month — from somewhere — to pay the rent on an apartment in Silver Spring, Maryland. It was within walking distance of the Metro’s Red Line, which I would take downtown to Dispatch’s suite in the National Press Building.

I held the reflector above the correspondent’s head, my arms aching, as she sweated through standup after standup in the stifling heat that just seems to lay on Washington in the summertime as if trying to literally smother it. I grabbed the camera and tripod and began shooting a news conference one morning when our staff photojournalist got stuck on a Metro train because of some delay in Northern Virginia. Thank goodness he showed-up in the middle of it because I was a horrible photog. I wrote packages and VO/SOTs out the wazoo. Some days I didn’t even get a thank you from the correspondent. But, boy, what a thrill that my words were being read by her or the big time anchors at WTHR in Indianapolis and WBNS in Columbus!

I wasn’t getting paid with money. But that news organization was giving me something I would’ve been willing to buy. Their correspondent and photographer were showing me literally how you get around Capitol Hill as a journalist (this was pre-9/11 but security was already tight and the word “labyrinthine” is never so apt as when it’s used to describe the Hill’s hallways, tunnels, special subway system, and liveshot/news conference locations — each with their own quirky nicknames. You’ve got your “Swamp” and “Triangle.” Plus, there’s no telling who you’ll spot in the Ohio Clock Corridor.)

Just to give you a feel for how big a financial struggle this was for my family, there were many days when I’d wander down to an ATM outside the National Press Building and there would be no money. And I was a college kid, super hungry all the time. I’d call my mom pleading for another 20 or 30 bucks. She’d say she couldn’t believe how expensive Washington was because she’d just given me $100 a few days before. And I’d say, “I know. It’s unbelievable.” And she’d say, “Well, I’ll try.” And somehow she’d scrounge-up some money, run it to a teller at Bank of America in our hometown, and within 24-hours it would be in my account. I must have used credit cards, too, to survive. They practically hand them out as welcome gifts at colleges, after all.

But that wasn’t the end of the scrounging. In the fall, I began my training as a student at the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism, which came with a small stipend but more importantly included an internship at CNN’s Washington bureau.

Talk about doing the job of regular staffers! I was quite literally former CNN economics/political correspondent Brooks Jackson’s researcher, field producer, and tape logger — a job I particularly despise to this day and still have to do. But demand payment? Are you kidding? Brooks was like my father-away-from-home offering me advice about the biz and life in general. He is still a wonderful mentor and friend. Plus, it was through him that I met Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, when Brooks interviewed him in a majestic room inside the Treasury Building. On other days, Brooks would introduce me to some of the smartest people in the world studying this issue or that at the Heritage Foundation, Brookings Institution, Cato Institute, or Congressional Budget Office.

Believe me, 90% of it wasn’t glamorous, though. There were hours spent transcribing long interviews and adding asterisks around soundbites that I thought might work for Brooks’ next piece. I would get dizzy searching for b-roll in the bureau’s cavernous video library, where the numbering system never seemed to make sense. Plus, there were lots of long days. When I worked for him, Brooks was reporting for Wolf Blitzer’s show, which at that time didn’t air until 8 p.m.

Keep in mind, Brooks was working even harder than I was. He was logging, researching, and corralling interview subjects before I got to his office in the morning and was staying much later than I was at night. He also always wrote his own package scripts. So maybe some of this passion for a good ol’ fight against The Man comes from interns who worked for network divas who expect producers and interns to do everything for them.

However, to sue Old Media or New Media because you weren’t paid for the time you toiled away preparing interview materials for Charlie Rose or because you were asked to help book guests for MSNBC seems to me to be the height of ungratefulness.

Do you realize what a chance these broadcasters are taking even letting someone as unqualified as a college student, like I was, in the door? Do you realize the damage you could do to a world class news organization with one screw-up that gets on-air? But even without having had any qualifications — and even with all the real world education you got and the contacts you made through that opportunity — you’re going to turn around later and demand that they pay you?

Excuse me, but unless there was some egregious treatment by these media companies that I’m not aware of, the former interns behind these lawsuits will not be receiving any sympathy from me.

And to current and future interns: If you’re not getting anything out of your internship, quit. Otherwise, suck it up and take in all you can take in. At the end of it, if you didn’t have the time of your life, it’s not an attorney you need to consult. You need to go see your college’s career counselor because apparently this one’s not for you.

—————————————————————————————————————————

For more information on the federal rules governing internships and whether your station/network might be at risk of a lawsuit alleging that interns should’ve been paid, the U.S. Dept. of Labor has created this fact sheet. In addition, you’ll want to consult your company’s attorneys to make sure your current and future internship programs meet the guidelines.

Matthew Nordin is an investigative reporter at WXIX-TV in Cincinnati. Join him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter @FOX19Matthew.

 

Recently I was struck by conversations I was having with a series of news directors who are looking for morning EPs.  Each mentioned, the line “the morning show sets the tone for the day.”  No, this isn’t a new concept.  Morning producers all over the country are yelling “DUH” to their computer screens right now.  But there is a key part to this, that simply doesn’t happen in most newsrooms.  Each news shift needs to have a system of checks and balances with all the other shifts.  When they do, you return the favor by watching theirs.  In Meet My Conscience  we talked about having a specific set of eyes to help watch your back.  Well, simply put, this needs to happen in all newsrooms at shift change.  It also needs to be more than the assignment desks’ role.  Producers know to sit down with the producer who just wrapped up a newscast and ask if there is anything to worry about.  But the conversation needs to go further.

What if every shift, had a check-in with the morning staff?  The reason:  Often the late night newscasts do very targeted coverage to appeal to very specific audiences.  This is much more extreme than other day parts, especially certain nights of the week with huge lead-ins.  In essence, the key audience changes dramatically.  So morning producers come in, and see that most of the stories do not transcend well.  BUT there could be (and often is) a wealth of wonderful potential follow-ups from the early evening news.  Problem is, the morning producer doesn’t know that a court hearing is scheduled tomorrow, or that the video in the package is all you have, because the rest is blue.  What if dayside crews updated overnight counterparts, in addition to nightside?

Chances are you would prevent a lot more inaccuracies if this dialogue is developed.  Think of the children’s game telephone.  Morning tells dayside about a story, who then tells nightside, who then updates morning (if nightside covered it at all).  Odds are, by the next morning, you’re missing a lot of potential angles that legitimately advance an interesting story.  If dayside, let nightside and morning know, then the options that nightside passed on do not get buried in an early grave as easily.

So how do you develop it?  Email.  After all, daysiders are already working when most nightsiders are asleep. Or if a nightsider is up for the earlies, call and get the scoop before the producer leaves.  Employees themselves can take control and set up a system of communication between the assignment desk and producers. Then you will have a good chance of getting all the facts straight.  It’s a shift in accuracy, that could have a lot of people’s backs.

 

Die hard journalists hate when you suggest anchors are performers and newscasts are shows.  Truth is there are some lessons we can learn from these “entertainment” terms about making the most of talent, both on camera and behind the scenes.  I am constantly shocked at how little thought often goes into which reporter is selected to turn what story on a given day.  Same goes for assigning producers to newscasts.  Managers need to take the time to get to know the people in their newsroom well enough to understand what makes them tick.  You need to know their interests.  The reason is simple logic:  If the person is interested in particular subjects he/she will turn better work related to them.  Yet most newsrooms where I have worked not only don’t bother to get to know the people in the newsroom, they purposely place people in uncomfortable positions.  When asked why, the common answer is “It’s their job.  They need to suck it up and do what we say.”  Look, no one is going to get to cover the stories they want all the time.  Not every producer gets to be in charge of the bread and butter newscast.  But there’s a difference in looking for great fits, and just filling slots with warm bodies.

So how do you work around it, when you are miscast in the newsroom?  We are going to focus on reporters and producers in this article.  First reporters:  If you have subjects that really interest you (we are talking more than loving sports, think about issues like education, consumer and politics etc. You get my drift) or an area that you like covering in your DMA then start source building there.  The number one way to recast yourself is to start getting exclusives or at least interesting developments on subjects you really like researching.  The more you pitch these ideas, the more likely your bosses will eventually get that allowing you to focus on this area is in everyone’s best interest.  Be patient.  This could take time.  Don’t give up.  Don’t pitch a fit when you get assigned to something else.  Just keep throwing out interesting ideas and you usually will carve a niche.

If you are still not getting anywhere with your story pitches, sit down with a producer on your shift (or the EP) and ask what kind of stories they want to see.  They may have decided that type of news doesn’t hit their particular audience.  If so, you will need to look for another interest.  If you are flexible, find out what kind of coverage the producer and/or EP wants to showcase in their newscast.  If you find the subject interesting start looking for stories and help out.  This makes you become a team player who eventually will be able to ask for and get the stories you want to cover more often.

Now producers:  It is harder to control your destiny, unless you can show you are great at raising the ratings no matter where you end up.  I loved producing 5pm newscasts.  I loved the thrill of the constant breaking news.  I had to show I could handle that by owning breaking news no matter what newscast I was assigned.  Several times I was placed on noon newscasts and told to “prove I deserved” a 5pm.  The two are not that different to produce, so I jumped in full gusto and earned my 5’s.  The key to getting the newscast you want is to show you are a team player who gets results.  Do not whine that you deserve something.  You will not get the show you want if you do.  Becoming the “go to” producer that can take any newscast and raise ratings (even in one section of a show) will help.  You will get moved around a bit at first, but often you will end up being given the choice of what newscast you want to produce.  It is a thrilling moment when the ND or AND calls you in, and says “We are moving producers around, do you want the 11 or the 6 (or the 5!! J)?”

If there is a newscast you really want, look at what the current producer does on that shift and build on it.  Yes, this is competitive.  That’s the producing world.  Chances are high the producer in the newscast you want will get promoted, demoted or move into management at some point.  You are there showcasing your depth, ready to take over.  You are a manager’s dream.  Just be consistent in your product and subtle about where you want to end up, until the opening comes.

Finally, use your reviews to talk with managers about your goals.  This can help them understand where you want to be “cast” and provide constructive criticism to get you there.  That is an appropriate time to say, “5pm’s are my favorite to produce.” Or “ I love political coverage, is there a part of the DMA where you would want to beef up that type of coverage?”  Sometimes you need to explain to management what you want and that you are willing to work for it.  Remember, managers sometimes don’t just pick warm bodies to fill the newscast slots and cover the stories.  They may feel they have no choice because the reporting staff seems disinterested in everything.  Your review is an appropriate time to showcase your interests and request “casting,” if not immediately, then in your near future.

I got a huge response to our article about decoding producer driven shops.  (If you missed it, check out “Producer driven doesn’t mean absolute power”).  So now let’s talk about what kind of stories managers want to showcase in producer driven shops.  First let’s summarize what makes a newsroom “producer driven.”  It means a heavy emphasis on content.  Anchors are considered advocates for viewers.  Reporters are educated witnesses.  Producers must have a deep understanding of the audience, its wants and needs.  Producers tend to have more say in choosing content and set the tone for the “feel” of a newscast.  In some ways anchors are showcased more in producer driven shops than in more spot news type of newsrooms, because they are given a more interactive role with content.  They ask more questions and are often required to turn franchise pieces with hard edges.  Because content is king, reporters actually play a huge role when showcasing coverage.  But for some reporters it can seem like you have little say in what you do, because producers and managers often “map out” the coverage each day.  So let’s decode how those decisions are made.

First and foremost, producers and managers are looking for segments and themes to weave throughout the day part.  This showcases advocacy and emphasizes community involvement.  From the time you pitch your story, you need to be thinking about the big picture.  Reporters, this means not holding back any interesting elements when you pitch the story in the editorial meeting.  It is important to explain how the anchor can pitch to your story with some sort of interesting information and/or visuals.  Do you know someone who could do a studio interview after your package that would provide interesting perspective?  This means you really have to understand the story you are asking to cover. You cannot just scan a headline and hope you “get a pass” in the meeting.  You have to be able to take the story beyond a newspaper headline.  Producers in content driven shops tend to read multiple newspapers.  Managers also try to be very in tune with what’s happening.  They will be familiar with most content you bring up.  Showcase how your package will advance the story. You need to explain why a viewer would watch your story rather than the other stations in town.  And don’t forget, this also means you cannot save all the “good stuff” for your live and package scripts when you actually produce the story later in the day.

Before you think you must come in with an Emmy award winning “big get” each day, understand, there are many ways to think big picture beyond finding daily exclusives.  Exclusive elements don’t happen every day on every story.  Try and relate the content you are pitching to the key audience the station wants.  Will it appeal to 25-54 year olds?  How?  That might be your spin.  Can you make the story relatable to even larger audience groups with a clear character you can put in your package?  If so, explain that right away.  Can you add “a slice of life” element into the story you want to turn?  Any way you can make the story feel real, to a broad group of people, will make you and your story ideas very appealing.  This also means you must have a good idea of the kinds of visuals you will provide in your package and for teases and set ups.  (See “Make your sell” for more on how to effectively pitch stories.)  You don’t have to have great flames, dramatic car chases or screaming people to sell your story.  You do have to help the producers and managers visualize how the story will play out.  Remember, they are not just looking to fill 1:30 that day.  The more they can really delve into content in a compelling way, the more appealing your story idea becomes.  You have to help them see and feel the story.

If you really want to stand out in a producer driven shop, pitch stories in areas of the market where the station wants to grow audience.  Source build there and look for stories you can turn in that part of the DMA that people living nearby would also find interesting.  You have a key advantage over the producers and managers that are driving content.  You leave the newsroom each day and get access to more people.  The faster you source build and can provide information on developing stories, the more the “powers that be” will trust your instincts and trust your story pitches.  By focusing on areas where the station wants to grow audience, you show you are savvy to the “big picture” which is a huge draw.

When it’s a slow news day don’t be afraid to pitch consumer stories and interesting new developments from stories you have covered in the past.  Remember, a key part of producer driven shops is showcasing community involvement.  That means follow ups are very important, as long as they have substance to them.  Consumer stories usually have broad appeal.  Viewers in nearly all income brackets are looking for ways to make the most of their money right now.  That opens the door to a lot of interesting stories that can naturally be broken into several elements.  Keep a list on hand, with good contacts for slow days.

Lastly, story tell, story tell, story tell!  If you make a name for yourself as a versatile reporter who can weave interesting stories out of many types of content, you will be well respected in producer driven shops.  You will get more leeway when pitching stories because managers know you will find something compelling to turn.

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