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.

Reporters often feel left on their own.  There is some truth to that feeling since you are out and about, and your bosses are not there to really watch you work.  Assumptions are made about what you do and don’t do by managers and producers.  Often you are not given the benefit of the doubt.

That’s why it is crucial to form good relationships with a group “on the inside.” In your case that group should be assignment desk editors.  The assignment desk is the 411 of newsrooms.  Editors on the desk can be intense and bark orders.  But remember, they are under the kind of pressure you face the last two hours of your shift, all day long.  There is little to no down time.  I had friends on the assignment desk constantly get bladder infections because they could not break away from the desk long enough to  go to the bathroom regularly.  I am telling you this, because having the knowledge of what the assignment desk goes through helps you know how to build a smart alliance.

Reporters (like producers in our Producing Alliance article) will get priority day-to-day based on how they treat the assignment editor.  Sure, if you are on a breaker, you will get more attention and help. But when it’s just day-to-day, run of the mill news you can bet the reporters that are respectful to the assignment desk get more support.

So what can you do to build a smart alliance with assignment editors?  First, don’t call the desk for simple phone numbers.  With technology today, there are plenty of ways to get numbers without calling the desk.  Remember, the assignment desk is looking for fresh news all day long in addition to planning segments and stories for managers, making beat calls and answering the phone all day long.  As someone who sat next to the assignment desk for more than a decade I can attest, just answering the phone can be a full time job.  It doesn’t let up until about 9 at night.  Respect the fact the assignment editor is busy and is not your personal receptionist.  I never got over how many crews in the field really thought assignment editors just existed to be glorified receptionists for the newsroom.  Not the case.

When you do have the luck to be done with your package early in your shift, occasionally sit on the assignment desk and help out for a little while.  This is a huge sign of respect.  Sit up there, and answer the phone.  It can also be a great place to drum up story ideas and source build a bit.  The assignment editor knows who talks on what shift and who is good to call on the down low when you need to fact check.  This is smart to do, especially when you first move to an area.  Sitting on the desk to help out a little here and there will help you build sources quickly.  (See How to generate story ideas when you are swamped for more help on that)  Assignment editors also help do futures planning, so sitting up there gives you a chance to express interest in an upcoming story or special that the assignment editor is researching.  They will often let managers know, if you expressed interest, to try and help you get the assignment.

Check in regularly with the desk.  A lot of crews resent this and consider it a sinister plot to spy on you and track how hard you work.  You don’t have to give a full report if you happen to be done with your package early and are working sources for future stories.  Just call with a location and how long you think you will be there.  Assignment editors love when crews do this.  It takes 10 seconds and speaks volumes for your respect for the role of the assignment desk.  No the assignment editors are not plotting what to send you on next to work you into the ground.  They are constantly being hounded by management and producers over where crews are and how viable the stories assigned to them really are.  Just calling and saying:  “Hey we are in such and such city and will be here approximately 1 hour” helps the assignment editor show management that he/she is in touch with the crews.  It also makes you look very responsible and a team player.  Yes, you might occasionally get sent to something else because of this.  I did notice that most of the time the assignment editors fought for the crews that called in.  They could tell management this reporter has an hour left on their package so let’s pull someone else.  Knowledge is power and the assignment desk goes out of its way to protect content.  That is a key element of the position.

Finally, if you are done with your story and are sent to breaking news, don’t gripe to the desk if you and the assignment editor know the story is probably bullshit. The assignment editor more than likely has management breathing down his/her neck and often will report if you are being difficult.  If you say okay and suck it up and go, the assignment editor appreciates one less fight in the day and will likely try to prevent sending you on the next wild goose chase.  The point, in case you missed it:  If you gripe, you will get the crap job more. The assignment desk controls a lot of your destiny including which photographer is assigned to you most days.  If you want less hassle, give the assignment desk less hassle.  You both will appreciate each other more.

 

 

Line producers are often in a very uncomfortable spot in newsrooms.  You are in charge of a newscast, yet you are not a manager with any teeth.  Competition between producers generally is pretty intense so you cannot really confide in another producer at your station.  Your job is confusing for other people in the newsroom to really grasp.  You don’t want to spill your guts to your EP, so it can appear in your review a few months later.

So who do you align yourself with?  I always had the best luck with directors and assignment editors.

In the article “Right Hand Meet Your Left” I describe why having a good relationship with your director is important.  Now I want to talk more about the benefits of this smart alliance.

Directors tend to be extremely detail oriented.  That means they can pick up on things you might do that you aren’t even aware of.  When starting out as a producer, I had problems with my weekend newscasts timing out correctly.  During the morning and weekday noon shows, I had no timing problems.  I tried different techniques for several weeks with no luck.  I was ready to pull my hair out!  Then I decided to ask the director for advice. But, he was much more experienced and I was concerned he would think less of me.  When I finally asked if he noticed anything about my timing he said: “Yes. I’ve been waiting for you to ask. I didn’t want to seem pushy.”  Turns out, the final commercial break varied wildly from the rundown format.  I had never known to check the traffic log for my breaks.  That was never taught to me.  He showed me where to get the log and what to look for.  I never mistimed a show again.

Directors also tend to be dismissed by managers and other newsroom employees during a shift. Because of this, they hear everything and if you have developed a strong relationship based on trust, your director may give you a heads up when something big is about to happen that involves you.  Several times I found out management was considering moving me to another newscast, from my director.  I had several days to prepare before news management got around to telling me.  I never betrayed the director’s trust and was able to arm myself if I didn’t like the shift change to try and fight for “my show.”

In some shops directors are considered managers.  They are consulted before changes take place especially when it comes to formatting newscasts.  You want a heads up when possible and you want to be able to weigh in.  Several times directors came to me with proposed format or policy changes and asked my opinion before weighing in themselves.  We wanted to be on the same page to protect our shift.

The other smart alliance is with assignment editors.  (We will dedicate an entire article to assignment editors soon.  They are unsung heroes in many newsrooms.)  I went out of my way to develop a relationship with my assignment editors because often they are the next closest thing to producers in terms of constant grind.  Again, assignment editors are a type of manager, yet don’t really have teeth, just like producers.  And, just like producers, they sit down to work and don’t get downtime until they are in the car on the way home.  Assignment editors are also consulted on things that impact your shift, but involve the crews more.  They are a great resource for understanding what the crews in the field are going through during an actual shift.  Usually the crews are too swamped to fill you in themselves.  Crews know management will check in with the assignment desk and therefore usually tell the desk any elements first.  If you are not respectful to your assignment editor, you will not get as many updates about the crews and will not get to weigh in on how you want those updates. This can have a dramatic impact on your day-to-day job duties.  Also, if you are curt toward your assignment editor, you will end up having to constantly check the assignment file and scroll through hoping to figure out what the newest information is on local vo’s etc.  If you are respectful, you might get a top line or quick phone call so you know when to write local elements and when to wait for crucial information.

So how do you set up a solid relationship with the assignment desk?  If you have even a moment help make some calls when the desk is overwhelmed.   I used to ask my associate producer to check with the assignment editor to see if he/she needed a quick break once or twice a shift.  My AP could listen to the scanners and answer the phone and my assignment editor could at least walk the building or grab a snack and relax a little.  If breaking news hit, I had the AP get on the desk with the assignment editor and help make calls or, if the assignment editor preferred, be in charge of sending me top lines about the information like a crews’ ETA to the breaking news scene.

Bottom line, producers cannot do their job properly without information, and without a way to cleanly place that information on a television screen.  Treat the people who allow you to perform these key tasks with respect and you will get the help you need to put on the best newscast possible each day.

 

We all have news wording that makes our skin crawl: “area residents,” “alleged” and “budget woes” to name a few.  Recently on Twitter a group of us started listing phrases that make us cringe.  Then one producer tweeted, “What do you use instead?”  Great question and we’re going to give you some answers.

First we need to discuss why these phrases come up so you can better understand how to avoid them.  In seminars you are taught that these phrases are formal language and not written for the ear.  That’s often true.  It can be hard to write on a computer screen and imagine the words actually coming out of someone’s mouth.  There’s more behind writers using these so called “crutch phrases” though.  Because they are used so often, they have become a sort of news slang.  They seem dependable when you write.  In fact it almost becomes expected that you will write this way.  Take music for example.  Thanks, in part, to tons of country and rock songs the term “ain’t” is now in the dictionary.  Think about it.  If you start singing songs in your head, it won’t take long to come across one with “ain’t” in the lyrics.  Many of the songs have amazing phrases, cadence and messages.  Yet the lyricist throws in “ain’t?”  It seems likes “ain’t” is expected in a song.  Now consider news copy.  The clichés we’re talking about are news writers versions of “ain’t.”  They are slang terms that some writers use as crutches because they hear them all the time.  Where?  In newsrooms, all day long.  Ask a reporter for a headline as he/she runs to a fire.  Chances are you will be told fire is at such and such address and “completely destroyed” the building.  We simply use these terms all the time.  But that does not mean they should end up in our news copy.

Writers (and by that we mean everyone who writes: anchors, producers, associate producers, reporters even assignment editors) also use these phrases because they are writing in a hurry.  When you are slamming information into the assignment file or into a script just to get the show done, you are going to use terms you are most familiar with.  That’s how the mind works.  You might call it: “News slang  under duress.”  Then a writer comes along for the next retread and ends up not comfortable with the story.  He/she clings to the news slang already in the script to avoid possibly changing the meaning of the copy.  Now you see how the cycle repeats over and over.

So how do you break the cycle of “news slang under duress?”  Discipline.  It begins with you printing out the news copy you write once every week and reading it over at home when you are more relaxed.  Have your highlighter ready and mark your “crutch phrases.”  Then work to eliminate them one at a time from all of your writing.  Write the “crutch phrase” on a notecard, then write three alternate types of wording.  Post the notecard somewhere on your desk at work.  That way, when you are slamming, you have quick options to avoid the clichés.

Many of the worst news clichés are easily avoided when deleting one word: “completely destroyed” becomes “destroyed.”  “Clouds of uncertainty” becomes uncertain.  “Brutal murder” is “murder.”  Most of this “news speak” is used while trying to provide an image.  “Clouds of uncertainty,” “brandishing a firearm,” “budget ax,” “hanging in the balance,” even “hit the nail on the head,” all put pictures in your mind.  These terms are not how you provide images in TV news.  You have video to provide the images.  Moving pictures are what separate us from newspapers and radio.  Remember when “writing for the ear” as consultants say, you are also writing to, or complimenting, the video.  (We  explain how to write to video more in depth in Can you picture it article.)  Your words do not need to put images in a person’s mind.  Again, this is not radio or the newspaper.  Your words need to get someone to look at the TV screen to see the images you are showing.  Your words also provide perspective.

Providing perspective means you need to understand what you are writing about.  I saw this repeatedly as a producer and an EP.  If the writer, be it a reporter, assignment editor, anchor, producer or associate producer did not understand the content, the copy became cliché.  When we are uncomfortable, we cling to crutches.  If you are unclear in understanding the story, you must ask for information before writing it.

Now let’s address the comment from the producer on Twitter asking what alternates to use for the crutch phrases.  Since writing for television news is always under duress, we at survivetvnewsjobs.com will start posting alternatives to consider until we build up an extensive list. (Cliché list)  Want to help us get that list built up quickly?  Throw some of the phrases you hate into our Tweet feed, at @survivetvjobs.  Here’s to making sure all of our copy isn’t “so cliché!”

 

 

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 495 access attempts in the last 7 days.