There is a very witty blog called Stuffjournalistslike.com that is truly a blast to read.  I had tears streaming down my face with laughter.  One article on Grumpy old journalists, actually made me nostalgic for some of the crusty old reporters from my past.  It reminded me that there are fewer of these old die hards and that the lessons we gained from them cannot be lost.

Mandates of a crusty old journalist

  • No room for errors (especially fact errors)
  • No exaggerations
  • Don’t take a person’s word for it
  • Deadlines are mandatory
  • Don’t screw your team over

Fellow journalists, we have failed those crusty old guys in terms of journalistic integrity.  A lot of embarrassing errors and exaggerations make air.  (The Jeremy Lin, ESPN “Chink In the Armor” reference is just the latest.)   Crusty old journalists do not use cheesy phrases.  (Honestly, even if the people didn’t know that “Chink” can be taken as a highly offensive ethnic slur, it is a cheesy phrase to use highlighting a 1 game losing streak.) Old timers also always made sure their pieces were not just fact checked once, but triple checked.  They did not assume they could not screw something up just because they are veterans in their field.  To them, you had your facts checked simply because, there was no room for error.  These old timers would say “If you can’t get your facts straight, you don’t deserve to be a journalist!”  That’s why you fact check and refuse to exaggerate.

So, naturally, crusty old journalists were special kinds of skeptics.  If a PIO said “This is the way it is!” and walked off in a huff that reporter knew to call “Bullshit!  Prove it.”  To take a line from Missouri’s state mantra, “Show me.” Crusty old journalists didn’t care if they occasionally pissed off a PIO.  They remembered a key fact:  PIO’s need to respect journalists also.  That journalist would go to a source in order to fact check the PIO.  And if the PIO was lying, you can bet that old timer would expose the truth.

But the last two mandates of a crusty old journalist are the most important if you want to survive and thrive in a modern day newsroom.  Don’t miss deadlines and don’t screw your team over.  (These go hand in hand.)  I get that the new mantra is more “me” oriented.  But here’s the deal, putting “deadlines” and “team” first actually puts your best interests first.  If you are screwing over the producer, anchor, photographer or manager regularly you will face payback.  And, oh by the way, it will hurt.  Don’t make yourself vulnerable.  Be an untouchable, crusty old journalist.

 

It was early on a Saturday morning. But weekday anchors up and down the East Coast were in their respective newsrooms waiting on a big story to arrive named Hurricane Irene.

As I waited for my on-air shift to begin, I was multitasking as usual: reading over the scripts the producers had written, watching a stream of storm updates cascade down Tweetdeck, and listening to a friend’s broadcast over the internet as he prepared the viewers in his market for what was to come.

Then it happened — that cringe-worthy moment all of us anchors dread. The voice on the phone stopped talking. But my friend was caught off-guard and had no idea what the man had been saying. Producers were talking in his IFB at the time and he was caught with his proverbial pants down on live TV.

What’s worse is that all that chatter over the IFB prevented him from doing his #1 job in a time of crisis: being a reporter. Yes, he was chained to the desk. But that phone was his — and his viewers’ — lifeline to late breaking information about a story that was changing minute-by-minute.

If an anchor isn’t able to hear a phoner or a reporter on a satellite shot in a breaking news situation, he quickly falls behind. In subsequent ad-libs, he can sound disconnected, out-of-touch, and out-of-date.

Unfortunately, it’s not a rare occurrence even on network television. And it’s just as likely to happen during a satellite interview any day of the week.

There are no easy answers for how to make sure the magic happening behind-the-scenes doesn’t intrude on the viewer who’s just trying to find out what’s going on and whether her family is threatened.

But let me throw-out some ideas:

Bring in the interns! It’s the excitement they’ve been waiting for anyway. All those mornings of filling-up the printers and opening the lobby doors for studio guests should at least have this payoff. For goodness sakes, let’s ask them the day before if they’d be willing to help us with our breaking news coverage. I bet they’d love it. (And if they don’t show much enthusiasm they should find another career.)

Use them as runners. To reduce the amount of chatter producers engage in over IFB, I say go old school. Station at least one intern right next to the producer in the control room. Arm them with a stack of paper or a small dry erase board. Have them run routine messages (like the names and titles of guests coming up or the latest statistics on the story you’re covering) to the anchor desk. As an anchor, I want my mic to be hot so I can interrupt or question the person on the phone or the reporter out in the field at any time. So I can’t talk. And I really need to hear what’s being said over-the-air. But I’ve still got my eyes and my hands. When I see I’m off-camera, I can look at what the intern is presenting me, write down any questions or concerns I have for the producer, and send the intern back into the control room.

If your station doesn’t usually have interns, consider an associate producer or the news junkie on the sales staff for this role. If the breaking news comes out of nowhere and you had no time to plan for it, consider the options below.

Text messaging over teleprompter. It’s breaking news. Your anchors aren’t using the teleprompter all that much anyway. Write a message at the top of the story that’s currently cued-up. “***GM has canceled ALL breaks. Stretch. Ad-lib at will! ***” It’s especially useful when you need to quickly convey street closures. “City closing these streets: Broadway from 3rd Ave to 9th Ave & Water Tower Road from Main to Robinson.” Most of us in television are visual people. We digest information easier if we see it rather than if you’re trying to tell us the details over IFB — especially if we’re in the middle of an interview.

And anchors, don’t be afraid to write down this information on-camera as you’re delivering it. The viewers know it’s an extraordinary time and you’re trying to make sure the information is accurate. So write it down. Set it aside. You’ll need to come back to it throughout your coverage. (And your producers have a lot more important things to do than regurgitate information they’ve already given you once.)

Instant messaging/“Top lining.” We have ENPS at my station and my producers are great at doing this. If my co-anchor and I are busy talking and interviewing people on-air, they’ll send us information in an instant message, which appears as the top line in ENPS.

Anchors, the judges will not deduct any points for reading detailed information off of ENPS on the computer screen on your desk. Again, it’s breaking news. They’ll understand.

Any more tips for creating smoother communication during breaking news coverage? Be sure to let us know by commenting below.

———————————————————————————————————————–

Matthew Nordin is a morning anchor and investigative reporter at WMBF News, Raycom Media’s NBC affiliate in Myrtle Beach. You can follow him on Twitter @MatthewNordin.

 

We promise this situation will happen to you. It happened to us at several stations, in small to large markets.  General Manager walks into an editorial meeting and says “So what are we doing to cover such and such, ( fill-in the blank, new road widening project,  special session by legislature,  tax incentive package for a new industry in town etc.) since our viewers the tax payers are getting screwed.”  The news director gives a blank look followed by the lifted eyebrow smirk, then stares at you, “So how will you cover that story today?”

If this happens, say you are going to make some calls and get out of the room pronto.  Better yet, grab your photog and get out of the building while you make those calls! Why?  You do not want the GM to start going off on specific players and agendas for the story.  You do not want specifics on how this story should be told, and exactly what the tease will say.  That way, if it is the GM skimming headlines and misinterpreting reality, you won’t end up having to tell him/her.  Without specifics chances are you can find some small nugget to package.

Next, call the newsroom mega brain.  You know, the walking, talking, human factoid! This person can save you hours of stress and research.  Do the necessary ego stroke and get the person to give you background information on this subject.  You need time to work sources for a backup in case the story falls apart.  The “human factoid” usually can at least provide the name and number for a player in town who will give you insight on whether the GM’s “news” really is “news.”

Do your thing, work it and try to find an interesting character or bit of video to showcase so you can get by.  If there’s just nothing to the story give the basics, then try and include a little subtle perspective in your anchor intro or  tag.  Managers tend to play in that copy more anyway.  This way, if the story is taken out of context and the GM gets a call, it will more likely become management’s problem instead of the reporter’s failing.

If you cannot find a nugget to package, and there’s simply nothing to the story, offer to write a vo or vo/sot and let your manager know early.  That gives management time to derail the GM situation well before the newscast airs.  It helps if you can offer an interesting alternative story the manager can have you churn out instead.  Sometimes management will then take the GM “news” burden off of you and have an anchor front it somewhere cool on set. You are off the hook, and the GM still feels heard without the station blowing a weak story out of proportion.

If you are told to package a story and say certain things in a tease you don’t like, try and do a subtle rewrite.  Also, know this happens to everyone from time to time.  Chances are your credibility is not ruined.  Those in the know in town realize you got stuck “being the good soldier.”

 

“Viewer benefit” is a buzz term that is used more and more in newsrooms.  You have to have payoff for the viewers if you want high ratings.  It’s a critical concept.  So important, actually, that you need to get it or you will be told to get out.  So what does viewer benefit really mean?  We’re breaking it down for you.

Let’s begin with the consultant buzz term “WIFM” (What’s In It For Me). The me is the viewer.  So yes, to some degree you are being asked to read viewers minds and figure out how a story will benefit a stranger you will never meet.  No, this is not as intimidating as it seems, especially because of the influence of social media on the way information is shared.  If you aren’t already building sources and checking trends on Twitter and Linked In, start now.  You need to spend some time each day surfing.  This goes for whatever job you have in the newsroom, especially anchors and reporters.  That’s because, in addition to pulling in new information and stories, it gives them the added benefit of building more direct relationships with viewers.

So, what do you look for?  See what kinds of stories people are messaging about.  Some of us also like to hop onto newspaper blogs and other local blogs to see what’s happening.  Here you will get obvious story ideas with proven “WIFM.”  You can answer the questions people are bringing up and engage the viewer.

You also have to look at the stories that management insists that someone cover each day.  Here you might think the “WIFM” will be hard to come by.  Not really.  There are some general trends you can rely on to help you begin to craft the essence, or “WIFM”, of your story.  A list to keep handy:

Elements of WIFM

  • Emotional Connection
  • Cost
  • Personal Safety
  • Characters
  • Location
  • Impact On Key Demographic

Some of these may seem redundant, but I promise they aren’t.  The emotional connection of a story is more than whether you have or could easily get someone crying or shouting on television.  Irony is a great way to build a connection that can tug at heartstrings.  Facts that make you just shake your head and wonder what to think also provide great emotional connections to a story.  You start to wonder, could this happen to me or someone I love?  This is especially helpful when covering political stories that don’t necessarily affect one’s pocketbook.

No matter how the economy looks, people have a heightened sense of cost.  This means more than just being able to pay the bills each month.  Long term effects will have a draw.  If there is a cost in human terms, like less time with the kids or shorter life span, viewers will watch.  Do not take cost lightly when writing and teasing these elements.  People do not want to be played in these areas of their lives.

People also want to feel safe.  Viewer benefit is not scaring the “you know what” out of them every night.  Yes, some crime stories are simply scary and viewers need to know.  Yes, stations will cover crime like crazy. (Why they do it, is a whole other discussion beyond it bringing in ratings!)  Stations that really push viewer benefit want you to quantify the crime stories whenever you can.  Perspective can be as simple as where the event happened to how to protect yourself, to police accountability in “taking back the streets.”

You probably know the saying “Location, location, location.”  This applies to “WIFM” also. Especially when covering crime news.  If it happens in a “bad area” for crime you have to approach the story differently than if it happens in an area where no crime was committed for years.  The impact is simply different as we described above.  Same goes for economic stories.  This is where looking at characters and key demographics play in.

Characters are the people or things you choose to build the story around.  This goes for more than just reporter packages.  Producers should look for characters to write around and refer to whenever possible.  If you think this is a waste of time, I urge you to again hop onto Twitter and pick a topic.  Do searches and see who comes up.  Read their descriptions.  It is very obvious people want to be heard.  They also want to hear others.  They want some control of what happens around them.  Characters give viewers a chance to feel in control when watching the news.  It gives them something tangible to cling to and interact with on some level.  When the U.S. invaded Iraq, the second time, you may remember a lot of coverage about a statue of Saddam Hussein in a square.  That statue became a character for the war.  When it was pulled down, you could sense the accomplishment from across an ocean.  You could feel the change taking place.  The war became real, not just something happening on TV half a world away.  For a moment you had to stop, stare and care.  Do not limit your payoffs for stories to people.  Sometimes symbols engage and create “WIFM” or a sense of engagement just as well.

By key demographic we mean both the viewers you have, and the ones you want to get.  You will phrase stories differently depending on what you need from the viewer. (i.e. – increased loyalty vs. new fans.)  It is important to recognize who watches your newscasts, at what time of the day and on what days of the week.  The “WIFM” can be different on a football night for example than on a night with a family based drama that appeals to more to women.  Lead in shows impact audience and “WIFM.”  Understanding that is one way managers know for example that certain days of the week are better than others for covering consumer news.  The more the staff is aware of a newscasts audience, the more you can tailor a few elements to keep your loyal customers happy and branch out and try and appeal to a new set of eyes.  If this sounds more like marketing than “Big J”, you are partially right.  Open your mind a bit more though and you will see that the traditional “Big J” type stories usually hit basic human needs and concerns.  You just might approach how you report them a little differently. (see article “Produce It Up” for some ideas of techniques that can still help you feel you gave just the facts ma’am.)

Final point, do not get hung up on managers saying that stories have to be unique in order to have viewer benefit.  The viewer benefit doesn’t come in story selection so much as “the spin”, which is based on your station’s news philosophy.  This is largely because different news philosophies define viewer benefit differently.  The approach makes your station, package, or newscast have a specific kind of “WIFM.”  To really capitalize on viewer benefit, you have to know what the station’s news philosophy entails.  If management is at a crossroads on this, you cannot go much beyond the obvious economic impact, human safety, and emotional type of “WIFM’s.”  But even by focusing on these elements you can make your stories more relevant to your viewers.  So focus on what you can, and let management guide some of the viewer benefit.  After all, they have access to all the audience research driving all that buzz about “viewer benefit.”

 

It’s is one of the hardest things to pull off as a producer:  Making it to air, clean and polished, despite managers constantly changing your rundown and getting slammed with breaking news.

One time I had a news director reworking my rundown so much, I ended up having just two hours to turn an hour long newscast.  I made it with help from associate producers and my anchors, but vowed never to be in that horrible position again. Many of us know producers who write during the newscast, printing scripts a block before they air.  This is preventable.  Here’s how.

You produce bottom’s up.  No you don’t take a flask to work for your top drawer (as tempting as that can be).  You literally produce from the bottom of your rundown to the top.  It works for all newscasts.  Here’s how to do it, using an hour long newscast as an example.  Usually the final two blocks of your rundown are segmented and similar day to day.  Format, assign the anchor reads & graphics and write these blocks first. Have these stories edited first as well.  Next, work on the c-block and :45 block.  Put these to bed.  Then, do the :30 block and the b-block, except the block leads.  Again, finesse what you write, and have the stories edited quickly.  Now, in the last two hours, you can concentrate on the a-block as well as the b-block and :30 leads.  This way when all hell breaks loose you can slam out any breakers that pop.  You will have segments finished that look polished and are complete.  So if a breaker doesn’t make it in time you have lots of finished content.

Now let’s talk about backups.  Have plenty on hand, stashed throughout your rundown.  These backup stories should vary in length to fit different timing needs.  This will help make sure you can hit meters nearly to the second.  You assign these backup stories to your associate producer (AP) early in the day, and whenever interesting stories develop.  Some producers even make AP’s rework package scripts into vo/sot backups in case the reporter moves to breaking news and the newscast gets heavy on time.  Again, you want these assigned as early in your shift as possible.  That way you can spend the back half of your shift rolling with management decisions and breaking news.

Wait to assign which stories you tease in which spots in the rundown, until one hour before printing.  You do this because if the bosses make you blow up your rundown, changing the teases can eat a lot of your precious time.  Write those teases in separate scripts at the bottom of the rundown, so editors can put them together.  Then move the individual tease scripts up into the rundown and assign anchor reads an hour before printing.

A final trick, put dummy scripts in your rundown that have basic formatting (i.e.- “take vo” cues etc.).  If your shop allows it, you can even have these built into the rundown format so you don’t have to create them every day.  Also, throw in anchor reads for the block leads the night before.

Here’s a summary:

How to produce it quick!

  • Bottom’s up!
  • AP writes backup scripts of differing lengths.
  • Write entire blocks early.
  • Assign teases to their spots 1 hour before printing.
  • Format dummy scripts.
  • Assign some anchor reads the night before.

 

 

Anchors, the title of this one is strong and may tick you off.  But before you get too upset, read our previous article:  “Throw me a life line, I’m being hung out to dry, AGAIN!”  We are journalists after all and therefore must look at all sides!

As a producer, the largest challenge I faced without a doubt was anchors that “attacked” rather than talked through issues.  It took years of frustration to figure out how to handle this.  Now I want to share what I learned so other producers can relax more.

How to deal with a difficult anchor

  • Know your anchors strengths and weaknesses
  • Remember this person is the face of all that you do as well
  • Establish your role as manager of the newscast
  • If there’s a problem, take the lead and talk it through
  • As a last option, fight fire with fire

I fully admit that a lot of complaints anchors brought to me were valid.  But, because I was being screamed at or worse yet had to listen to the boss tell me that I screwed up, it was sometimes hard to hear the message.   Most of us producers are thrown into the fire without a fireproof suit and are just trying to get out alive every day.  You have to separate yourself from that chaos and listen to the message.  For example, one anchor thought I gave her too many instructions before going to a breaking news story.  Maddening, since producers are often told we give anchors too little information.  I put my frustration aside and asked why.  She explained that she was unable to formulate thoughts to ad lib and felt foolish delivering the facts.  She didn’t like reading scripts cold and preferred I not write breaking news, instead give her a few facts to run with.  Next time we had a breaker, I gave her what she wanted and she did a great job.

Knowing your anchors strengths and weaknesses also means you have to be able to adapt to the anchors needs.  I learned which anchors could ad lib and which needed those breaking news scripts to pull off spot news.   If I had an anchor that could not ad lib, I gave the ad libs to the anchor that could ad lib, then changed anchor reads so the non-ad libber did not feel left out.  I learned who needed compliments in their IFB at commercial breaks.  It is a delicate balance.  It seems like all you do is humor people’s egos.  Frankly, that is a large part of producing a winning newscast.  It’s also something you need to get used to in order to have success at the highest levels.

Which leads to the next point, remember these anchors are the face of all the hard work you do each day.  Your copy will not “sing” unless the anchor can “deliver” it.   Your newscast will be uncomfortable to watch if your anchors are not at ease.  Whether some demands are ridiculous in your opinion, is another matter.  Humor enough of them to calm the anchor down so he/she can perform well.  A key to doing this is to give some compliments even if you never get any in return.  You want to show your anchors that you respect the jobs they do, so they gain confidence that you have their backs.  This is crucial to establishing a strong team on your show.  As the newscast manager this is your primary responsibility, whether you make the most money on the shift or not.

As manager of your show, you do have the right to make the decisions.  If an anchor has a really unreasonable request, you can deny it.  Here’s a common scenario:  An hour before your newscast an anchor comes to you saying their co-anchor has more reads.  You have breaking news, your reporters haven’t fed and you are behind writing.  It is okay to say:  “Today the show airs as formatted.”  Then, after the newscast, take a look at how you divided up the anchor reads that day, as well as a few days earlier.  Anchors usually do not come to you unless they have noticed an issue for a while.  Most people do not like confrontation.  If your reads have been a bit skewed to the other anchor, fix the issue the next day.  Thank the anchor who mentioned it for coming to you.  Also if you don’t know this next trick, use it.  Switch off who leads the blocks every day.  By the law of averages, that means by the end of the week the anchors will have a nearly even number of reads and leads.  If the reads were not skewed, print out a week’s worth of rundowns, highlight the reads in different colors and talk to the anchor that’s complaining.  Do not accuse the anchor of being ridiculous.  Explain what you do to prevent uneven face time, then hand the anchor the highlighted rundowns and ask him/her to look them over and see if there are any issues he/she wants to discuss.  This establishes that you are not a push over, you are conscientious, and you take responsibility for your newscasts.  This simple chat can keep an anchor from lodging attacks.  Thank the anchor for coming to you and let him/her know you are always willing to hear ways “We can make the newscast better.” Again, this will show the anchor that you are the leader of the newscast.

So what if the anchor constantly runs to management to whine about you and never comes to you directly?  Remember, people do not like confrontation.  If a manager comes to you with an anchor complaint, listen, then ask the manager how you should handle the problem.  This shows you are willing to be proactive.  Then, after the newscast ask to speak with the anchor one on one.  Explain that you understand that anchor is upset about XYZ and you will do XYZ to fix the problem.  Then say, “in the future if there’s a problem, please know that I am willing to listen.  The best time for me to talk is right after the newscast.”  Then, walk away.  You want to have this conversation in case the anchor goes to management behind your back again.  At that point ask your direct manager, ideally an EP, to sit with you while you talk to the anchor about the current problem and solution, and respectfully ask the anchor to come to you directly in the future.  You want to let the anchor know you also have a little clout with management to even the playing field.  In many shops producers are becoming more of a commodity than anchors.  There are less people willing to do our job.  You don’t want to abuse that knowledge, but it is helpful to subtly let the anchor know you are a valuable asset as well.  It is also good to include your EP, because this person probably has years of history dealing with difficult anchors and can help diffuse the situation further or divert it to the EP instead of you.

Finally, if you have a really difficult anchor, and no other choice, fight fire with fire.  Tell your EP ahead of time and stand up for yourself.  If you are being hazed, read our previous article:  “Thank you sir, may I have another: How to handle newsroom hazing.”  One anchor of mine, refused to get to the set on time. So, I took her out of the entire a-block and ended up with her screaming at me in the News Director’s office.  The ND told me to include her from then on, and I told them both that I would when she was professional enough to get to the set 5 minutes before the newscast began, not 5 minutes after.  The ND turned to the anchor and said, “ That is a basic request.”  I won a big battle.  The daily attacks stopped.  I also made a weather anchor that constantly ran exceedingly long on weather apologize to the audience for running so long that we could not air a story that was teased the entire show.  He was 30 years my senior.  But, I told him over the studio PA that he needed to take responsibility like the rest of us do each day and he went with it.  We came back from commercial and he offered an eloquent apology.

If you take one thing away from this article, make it this:  When you feel it’s “anchor’s away”, and you are about to be the brunt of a brutal tongue lashing, keep your cool.  Write down the anchor’s complaint and reasoning.  Give yourself a few minutes to breathe and relax and actually look at the situation from the anchor’s perspective.  You may learn some valuable lessons about putting on a better newscast.

 

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