By now you have read plenty about this case.  You may have even written and/or voiced over stories about it.  There are a lot of compelling articles that explain what we TV journalists have done right and especially wrong while covering the Martin shooting.  I am not going there.  Instead I am going to explain why this case can and more than likely will end up defining your career in some way.

This is the type of story and event that truly tests the limits of journalism.  It tests the ability to be objective.  It tests news philosophies.  It tests personal ethics while on the job.  For this reason, I strongly encourage you to keep a file of everything you read, watch and write about the case.  Just file it all away.  Write notes about any conflicts within you and add these thoughts to your file.  Keep copies of your favorite stories you watched, and the ones you liked the least.  Write notes on what you like and do not like about the coverage.  The reason:  As this case plays out, your views on ethics and philosophy will likely change a lot.  So will the critics.  We will talk about how this case was covered for years to come.  Professors worth their salt are already beginning to track and possibly discuss it with future journalists.

The Martin case will become a litmus test for many news companies and news managers as they continue trying to shape what television news is becoming.  There are too many hot button issues in it for the case not to become more than a story that simply comes and goes.  Those issues will come up as managers consider newsroom policies on everything from fact checking affiliate copy to social media policy.  For this reason, it will serve as the perfect talking point when feeling out the news philosophy at a station where you are interviewing.  This case is so big, every news management team has likely had to make some sort of ethical call on it already.  It will not be the last time either.  Asking pointed questions about the Martin case to a news director or AND when you are job interviewing will be a good way to feel out their personal journalistic integrity also.  Are you both in sync?

The Martin case is also a good litmus test for you to gauge your own value system and journalistic work.  As you go into difficult scenarios in the future, draw on what you thought was done correctly in the Martin case.  Remind yourself of the ethical issues that arose when coverage was less than thorough.  It is a good reminder to us all that we cannot ever get too comfortable or too numb while covering stories.  There are often many layers.  Do we get to them, or leave them buried?  Do we jump to conclusions?  Have you?  Really asking yourself and current and future news bosses these questions will help you define yourself as a journalist.  It will help you brand yourself.  It will help you weed out stations that may vary too much from your news philosophy.  With examination, personally and as a professional group, the Martin case could help us define what TV News should be, and will become.

It can make or break a story if it isn’t done correctly.  It can also capture the essence of what you’re trying to convey and draw your audience in like the earth’s gravitational pull.  Interviews are the foundation of good reporting.  They are the best way of understanding a situation and seeing the story from someone else’s perspective.   Most importantly, a successful interview requires strong people skills and technical ability.

As reporters, you’re constantly working under deadline pressure and the first thing you think about is, “Who should I interview for this story.”  As you know, finding someone to talk on camera is half the battle.  So when you do find them, and get ready to push record, make sure you don’t waste time by asking meaningless questions.  Those questions are anything you know you’re not going to use to get your story on air.  This is usually the small talk or chit chat that helps warm up your subject.  Take it from me; this can really slow down the logging process when you’re under deadline.

Even though you’re getting to the point, don’t forget to be conversational.  What I mean by this is, don’t ask one question, and then immediately think about the next question we’re going to ask.  At this point you’ve lost. Your subject may say something that could lead to a much better story.  Listening closely and intently will help you uncover any possible hidden details of the story you’re trying to cover.  My advice is to have just a couple of questions you really need to ask, but “play” off the conversation.  I find this will help you write into, out of, and around your sound bites.

Depending on the rapport you’ve established with the person you’re interviewing, many times you can ask your most poignant questions first and get to the heart of the matter.  Time is money, (well for you it’s precious seconds so you don’t miss slot.)  Remember, it’s most important to ask questions which are relevant and revealing about the participant’s character and opinion.

You never know what you’re going to get when you interview someone.  Hopefully, you’re getting raw emotion like anger, sadness, enthusiasm, excitement…etc.  Whatever you’re getting, don’t be afraid to let that raw emotion breathe. The toughest thing to do for reporters and anchors is to be silent and let the interviewee say what they have to say.  Don’t cut someone off in mid-thought or sentence.  Let them stay in the zone until it’s appropriate to ask the next question. This is the hardest to judge and will take time to develop.  All I can say here is…it’s about feel.

When you’re done getting that great interview, don’t forget to tell your producers.  They can really help setup your story and help you hit the story out of the park.

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Kennan Oliphant is a morning Executive Producer at WMBF News in Myrtle Beach, SC. He started his career as a anchor/reporter. He’s won numerous awards and loves to connect with people over social media. Follow him on Twitter: @TVNewsGuru or facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Kennan-Oliphant/313726945344980

The ND in my first job interview threw an interesting question at me.  Luckily someone from my alma mater warned me it was coming, so I knew how to answer.  The question:  What hobbies do you have besides following the news?  (Reading was not good enough by the way.)  He wanted you to be passionately interested in something very different.  The reason?  This ND felt living and breathing news, and only news, actually made you lose touch with the viewer.  He would not hire you if you said:  “I just love my job!  All I think about is news.”  Several of us wondered why it was such a big deal to him?

Several jobs later I finally realized just how much sense it makes.  I was helping to design a new newscast.  We wanted to target a key audience with very specialized sections of content.  The GM looked at me and said:  “So what do your friends talk about?  Can you put together a focus group for us?”  I couldn’t.  I realized that all of my friends were newsies.  I worked 65+ hours a week and I was completely out of touch with the “real” world.  I had let my hobbies go by the wayside.  I literally thought about news from my waking moment until I fell asleep.  I would even sometimes wake up in the middle of dreams about my newscasts.

That’s when I realized to be truly good at my job I had to develop other interests.  I started by reading several non-news magazines and taking exercise classes.  When you get married and have kids, there are natural ways to broaden your interests as well.  But no matter what stage of life you are in, do something regularly that does not involve news.  Do things that help you develop relationships with people who could care less what you do for a living.  You will be a better journalist because of it and it might also save you one day with an unconventional question in a job interview!

I have to admit, I have been surprised by the amount of questions Survivetvnewsjobs.com gets about agents.  The most common being, who do you recommend?  By asking a few follow up questions, it is clear that finding out about and hiring agents seems intimidating.  It should because these reps take a significant amount of your salary (sometimes up to 10%) and can have a profound effect on your career.  Often journalists looking for an agent worry it the agent will be willing to take them.  But let’s turn the tables a little bit.  The question should actually be:  Can this agent really help me advance my career?  This isn’t an ego thing.  This relationship should benefit both parties.  When you hire an agent just because you are glad the person is willing to take you on, you are selling yourself short.  You need to clearly see how your career will benefit.  Otherwise you will be writing checks for years, to someone you don’t believe in.  That’s too costly a mistake!

So how do you select an agent?  It takes more than finding out what agent represents the main anchor at your station or another reporter in the ranks.  Those personal endorsements are great and important, but a small part of the picture.  There are several other things to consider.

When selecting an agent consider his/her:

  • Reputation
  • Ability to work with ND’s and GM’s
  • Understanding of industry trends and traditions
  • Ability to coach
  • Solid legal support

Getting those ringing endorsements from other reporters, producers and anchors is a great start toward figuring out an agent’s reputation.  I would suggest cold calling clients listed on the agent’s website and asking what this agent has done to help that person in the last year, 6months, 3 months etc.  There are different types of agents.  Some excel at placement.  Some shine as coaches.  Some offer more individualized attention.  Some agents are known as serious advocates for their clients if a problem arises.  You need to know the agent’s reputation so you have an idea of what type of representation you will get.

A key to reputation, is how the agent handles ND’s and GM’s.  The last thing you want is to hire an agent that MANY ND’s and GM’s have blacklisted.  This does happen.  Bridges can be burned and you don’t want to be caught in the flames too.  This is especially crucial if you have a dream market in mind.  You don’t want to get a call from your dream station, only to find out the ND will not work with your agent.  So how do you check this out?  Talk with your former NDs.  If you are first starting out, ask a professor if he/she knows of any ND’s or GM’s you could call.  If you have a dream market in mind, you might want to call the AND, and see if he/she has a minute to talk.  Tell him/her your goal is to get to that station one day and could that person recommend any good feeder stations and agents that the station works with.  You might be surprised how much information the AND will provide. (For more on why making connections with the AND is so crucial read “When the interview really counts”) Now this is going to sound strange at first, but you don’t necessarily want an agent the ND or AND just loves and gushes over. That agent may not be very aggressive at getting great deals for clients.  You want an agent the ND or GM says is fair, and decent to work with.  That means the agent probably has good insight into how much positions in the market and within that station group pay.  You want an agent who isn’t a hothead, but is persistent and will fight for the best deal with business savvy.  Also, remember agents and ND’s will not always get along.  If you hear from one ND that the agent is awful, check with at least two other ND’s before making a decision.  Personality conflicts happen to all of us.  The only exception being if you are absolutely 100 percent sold on a particular station.  If that ND says he/she refuses to work with an agent you have some thinking to do.  Not just about the agent, also the ND.

I feel so passionately about vetting an agent’s understanding of industry trends and coaching, I dedicated a whole article to these topics called “The one thing you need to require from your agent regularly.”  Read it please if you are considering hiring an agent.  This is the payoff for the up to 10 percent of your salary you are giving up.  If you want an agent to be an advocate for you, the person must grasp what industry leaders are looking for and be able to see what’s coming next.  This is particularly huge with the eruption of social media’s influence on television news.  There is even less focus on training in newsrooms.  Managers are more concerned with how to compliment newscasts on television with web based elements.  The economic downturn means less money to pay for training sessions and in some cases less money for more seasoned talent that can mentor in newsrooms.  You need someone in your corner that can give you constructive criticism so you can grow in your job.  Agents are becoming the go to people you need more and more.  Make sure your agent can actually provide advice about producing newscasts, writing packages and being a backpack journalist to name just a few things.

You also want an agent that has solid legal support.  Why?  Contracts are getting more and more complicated, especially when it comes to social media clauses.  That non-compete you signed could become an issue too.  What about sections demanding you stay a certain weight?  You want an agent that has a direct line to an attorney so you can get answers fast if a problem arises.  These are issues that an agent should be able to advise you on.  I have known of agents that say, “You will have to hire an attorney for that,” while negotiating contracts.  Seriously?  What is the 10 percent you are paying for if you cannot get any advice on legal elements of your contract?  When interviewing agents ask what legal support is provided.

One last thing to keep in mind, make sure you feel comfortable speaking with the agent.  You may need to have very frank discussions.  Agent contracts often last longer than station contracts.  You will be probably “stuck” with this person a long time for better or worse.  Make sure you can get along with them!  Remember agents have a lot to gain retaining you, so don’t sell yourself short.  Look for the kind of representation you really need to advance your career.

 

When we outlined how to tell when a station is a great place to work, we got a few messages asking, “How do you tell when a place is really bad?“  Fellow journalists, this is a tricky one!  We may all be great at digging up dirt, but in many cases the leaders of the hornet’s nest, hell holes are better at covering it all up.  There are a lot of bad shops.  So many, in fact, you might say to yourself: “I’ll just go to the crappy place if it’s in the city where I want to live.”  Whenever possible avoid the hell holes.  It will increase your chances of actually keeping your job for more than 2 contracts.  Trust us, moving gets old after a while.

Now the all important list of tell-tale signs that a station is a hell hole:

1.         Chronic 3rd or 4th place in the ratings

2.         Goes through news directors every 2-4 years

3.         People in the business cringe when you tell them the general manager and/or news director’s name

4.         Managers who tell you they plan to showcase you as the key figure or example to “set the new standard of excellence” at the station

5.         Consultants come in regularly to re-define news philosophy

6.         Management holds “emergency” meetings to discuss last night’s numbers on a regular basis

 

Explain this list you say?  Sure.

First, you should always check out the ratings of the station you are considering.  If it is a chronic 3rd or 4th place station you need to understand that turnover is easily twice as high as other stations in town.  Chronic 3rd and 4th place stations almost always do one thing very well.  Jump the gun.  They constantly change philosophies and shift their balance of power.  The news director who hires you will likely not last the term of your contract.  Hired guns are often brought in to clean house.  Then “The Fixer” shows up, and often works you to death then brings in fresh faces to make his/her mark on the station.  The odds are very high you will get axed by one of these management teams.  If you do survive you will then face the company man/woman who will do anything corporate says and is often an expert at shifting blame.  This type of ND likes to prove he/she has a set by gunning for at least one old timer to prove he/she really isn’t a puppet.  The higher up you are on the food chain, the more you are at risk.  So, bottom line, even if you do survive you will become a paranoid nutcase and will probably shorten your life expectancy and/or develop bleeding ulcers!

This can happen a lot at second place stations as well.  But, if the news director has been in place for 4 or more years, odds are higher that upper management thinks the person has a clue.  That’s what you are looking for as long as you can handle that particular person’s style.

Which leads to our next point:  If people in the business cringe when you tell them who the general manager and/or news director is, beware!  Do some research and find out why though.  You may have just met a person who got fired and has an axe to grind?  Keep in mind that every news director and general manager has enemies.  That’s why you need to ask for specific reasons why these people are hated.  That will help you figure out if you met a few immature folks or if there is a legitimate cause for concern.

If you are told that you will be the new “gold standard” for quality at a station do not go there.  We made this mistake several times.  (Hey, it stroked our egos!)  We learned the hard way that this sets you up for a very lonely and paranoid existence.  Most of the time management will hold you up as the poster child for all that is good.  Instantly you are as hated as the “Internal Affairs” detectives on every cop show you’ve ever watched!  Part of working in news is dishing about how much you wish management would change things.  If you are the example of what management wants, then to everyone else, you are management without the salary or backing.  It just plain sucks and you don’t want to live it.

In the article “Interview the Station“, we recommend you ask management to clearly define its news philosophy.  Here’s a more detailed explanation of why.  Many stations don’t have a true, clear, news philosophy.  That’s why many stations pay a lot of money to consultants.  To be fair, some stations use consultants as another way to coach and define their philosophy.  But in most cases the only time you hear anything about a news philosophy is when the consultant comes to town and gives all of the staffers a seminar.  This is not ideal because you end up having to prove yourself to essentially another set of management.  Consultants are often telling upper management whether your bosses suck.  They often will judge you on one or two newscasts in a year, so you cannot have a bad day when they show up.  They will let upper management know if they think you suck also and it could mean demotions or worse.  So how do you determine if the station consulting team is a potential disaster?  First find out how often they are at the station and whether they do one-on-one training with producers, reporters and anchors, each time.  Once or twice a year usually means the consultant is an extra set of eyes for corporate.  More than that means they are actually teaching the staff what to do because management isn’t getting the job done.  That sets you up for a scenario of having to humor an additional set of “bosses.”

You also need to find out if the station you are considering is reactionary rather than pro-active.  The number one clue:  Constant meetings involving news managers, the general manager, and often promotions and sales managers to decode last night’s ratings.  You find out if this is the case by asking.  Executive producers will often tell you if you ask.  Regular staffers will tell you this also. (Yet another good reason to get several names and make after hours calls to get the scoop!)  Reactionary stations panic over their ratings and are often disorganized with little vision.  They break into a panic during breaking news.  They are often poor planners.  They tend to look for people to shift blame onto, other than management itself.  Basically, these stations exist in “cover your ass” mode 24/7.  That means longer hours for you and more potential to trip on a political hot wire and get cut off at the knees.  All stations have meetings to go over numbers.  If a station has a particularly bad day, expect to see a meeting.  The stations you need to worry about are the ones that meet every Monday, each week or every day during a ratings period without exception.  They are not sold on their product and ability to pull off quality news and promotion.  They will constantly switch things around on the fly to look for a hit.  You are constantly at risk of being labeled the problem child.  The odds of making it long term at that station are not good.  Avoid the situation if you possibly can.

One last thought on hell holes.  If you do mistakenly get into one and really don’t want to move remember, these places do tend to go through managers quickly.  With a little luck you can hang tough and survive until a good manager shows up.  Just be prepared to take a lot of antacids while you wait it out.

 

News Directors get all the attention traditionally when it comes to job interviews and station identity.  They set the agenda for the station and have the most connections to help you in the future right?  Not always.  Over the years I have learned that getting along with the assistant news director can be even more important for several reasons.

First it’s a simple matter of exposure.  You will barely see the news director. That person is just too busy any given day.  That means when it comes to review time the person who will weigh in most heavily about you is the assistant news director.  Also, this is the person you will go to first when you want time off, a different shift, have an ethical dilemma, personality conflict issue with a staffer, or are considering asking for a promotion.   If you don’t see eye to eye with the assistant news director your stress level will easily double on the job.

Now, because you spend more time with the assistant news director, you must remember this person is the key influencer about you to the news director.  The AND’s opinion carries a lot of weight.  Yes, news directors can and sometimes do disagree with the AND’s view.  But why risk a potential personality clash with a person that plays such a key role in determining your reputation?

Remember an AND’s reach goes way beyond the newsroom.  Since assistant news directors spend a lot of time recruiting potential employees they are the true networkers for the station.  They are constantly talking with people you want to impress in other markets nationwide.

Assistant news directors are also “in training” most of the time to become NDs.  Very few are happy just to sit in the number two position.  Most are waiting for their big chance to take control of a newsroom.  If you get along with a real up and comer, this person could catapult both of your careers, as much or more than the ND him/herself.

So now that you know what’s at stake, here are some techniques to figure out if you and the assistant ND will get along.

  • Talk news philosophy
  • Ask for the AND’s role models
  • Do a background check

When you interview at a station you always need to figure out the news philosophy.  It is key, and must happen.  (See “Interview the Station” for ways to do this.)   But when you ask questions about news philosophy, you need to really quiz the assistant news director.  Here’s why:  Just because the news director wants a station to go in a certain direction doesn’t mean the assistant news director agrees.  This can be especially true in chronic 2nd, 3rd and 4th place stations.  Often there are philosophical debates raging all the time about what the station’s news philosophy should be.  The assistant news director is usually much more hands on in the day-to-day coverage decisions than the news director.  Time and again I sat in newsrooms where the news director clearly stated one news philosophy, and the assistant news director executed a different news philosophy.  I know that sounds crazy, but it happens A LOT.  You need to make sure you can roll with both news philosophies if that’s the case.  Sometimes you have to try and placate both the ND’s and AND’s expectations on a story.  If the ND starts taking a more hands on approach you need to be able to change your work to reflect that news philosophy.  Same is true if the AND expects a different news philosophy.  If the two of them differ greatly, you need to decide whether you want to walk into a situation where you are constantly caught in the middle and being asked whose side you are on.  You will end up in battles of will between the top two newsroom managers.  You will feel like you cannot win, no matter what you do on any given day.  If you get in this situation, it can be better to execute the AND’s news philosophy because he/she runs day-to-day operations in the newsroom.  You cannot execute that if you don’t know what the AND wants.

Another way to make sure you and the assistant news director will jibe is to talk about your favorite news people during the interview.  Ask who the AND’s mentors are and why.  You will learn a lot about how this person ticks.  Ask if the AND knows some of your favorite journalists and see what the reaction is to those names.  You want a shared connection to start building a relationship if you decide to work with that particular AND.

If you have mutual acquaintances call those people to get more perspective.  Just remember the AND will call also.  Be on your p’s and q’s.  You do not want the mutual acquaintance to say you thought the AND was a jerk, but you are trying to be sure.  If you do not have mutual acquaintances then you really need to contact staffers at the AND’s former stations.  We explain how to do this in The Station Called. The Job’s Yours. Now What?

Remember the AND will be the most influential in your day-to-day existence in a given newsroom.  If you are like oil and water, it will mean you either lose a job or get an ulcer waiting for that AND to move on to greener pastures.

 

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