My career began covering a major flood.  I was a one man band, standing knee deep in floodwater, sandbagging in between shooting packages.  I also learned how the power of video combined with a knowledgeable meteorologist can captivate audiences.

Then, through the years, came tornadoes and hurricanes and massive snow and ice storms.  I produced newscasts through it all watching, and when I could, helping meteorologists explain what happened.  Over the years I worked with some big names in the biz.  They all had several characteristics in common that made them among the best at what they do:

  • An unending hunger to learn more about the area in which they worked
  • Great talent for boiling down conditions and clearly explaining impact
  • The ability to make weather coverage interesting even when the skies are sunny and clear
  • A drive to improve each day
  • Lots of volunteer work in their community

The thing that struck me the most watching these incredible meteorologists over the years was their unending hunger to learn more about the area they covered.  These meteorologists were always looking over maps from past to present, researching and looking for trends and coordinating with the local weather service.  They never tired of looking for a new nugget of information about the area.

When severe weather struck, these meteorologists could boil down what was happening in clear terms. They explained what was happening without using a lot of extra adjectives.  They didn’t pass judgment on a storm’s potential impact.  In other words, they didn’t say things like “this is going to be a scary one folks.”  They would just say, “Now is the time to take cover. Bring your TV or turn on a radio if you can. We will tell you when it is safe.”  These meteorologists knew which schools were on spring break, or when kids would be at a bus stop for each section of the DMA.  They were walking encyclopedias of the outdoor recreation areas, even able to casually mention specific places to take cover.  They could talk about how deep a mark you needed to claim hail damage on insurance and other little tidbits you needed to know.  They truly came across as a friend and confidant that would never lead you astray.

I truly enjoyed working with these meteorologists on sunny days.  They still made their weathercasts interesting with those tidbits of information.  They educated on cloud types, topography, or what local weather watchers might find interesting in the coming days.  You learned a little something every time they spoke.  These true experts made weather teases easy to write.  Most were also not in it for the “face time.”  If there wasn’t much to say and no interesting weather video to discuss, they came to me saying “let’s cut back the time.”

The most interesting trend I noticed over the years though, was how they took sunny days to work on their on-air performances.  One would come sit with me to talk about how I wrote news copy and why I used certain phrases.  Many would review tape of recent severe weather and critique themselves. (to learn how and why to do this check out our previous article: “Humble pie; why a slice of self-examination can change your career”)  Sometimes I was called into the weather center to discuss what we could have done better.  We would sit and brainstorm and make plans to implement before the next storm hit.  These meteorologists truly managed all aspects of weather coverage.

Finally, these meteorologists all had an intense sense of community.  They truly felt like civil servants to the families that watched them.  Many routinely went to schools to give talks and volunteered at various charities.  Their commitment to the community was inspiring.  On the days that severe weather struck, the example they set made us all want to perform even better at our jobs.  We did not want to let these weather experts down.  They set a standard that guaranteed your newscast would be worth watching.

 

Before you read this article, humor me and ball up a sheet of paper.  Throw it into the air and try and catch it with only one hand.  Then switch hands.  Then use both hands.  Bottom line, you will catch the waded up paper ball more easily, and often, with both hands.  You can catch a ball with one hand, but with both hands your odds increase dramatically.  This is how I like to describe the relationship between a producer and a director.

I was lucky enough to land my first job as a full producer in a top 30 market.  I was a rookie “kid” paired with veteran anchors and directors.  These directors taught me a tremendous amount about “producing” in that first job.  They caught my rookie mistakes and without chastising me, worked around them live on TV.  After the newscast they took the time to sit with me and teach me how to prevent the same problem from happening again.  Soon after, I worked in a top 20 market.  Same scenario:  The directors talked me through any mistakes.  I quickly learned the person I needed to align myself with was my director.

After that, when I interviewed for producing jobs, I always asked to meet the director before deciding on a gig.  If that person and I didn’t click, the job wouldn’t work.  I felt that strongly about the connection of right and left hand.  By requesting to meet the director right away, I also usually gained a loyal ally.  I showed respect even before getting the job.  This went a long way toward establishing a solid relationship.  Don’t get me wrong, I sometimes had knock down drag outs with directors over mistakes on the air.  But because they knew I had a basic respect for the job they did, we could work through the differences.

Producers and directors have something important in common; they are both responsible for a lot of things they have very limited control over.  If a reporter steps out of a shot just as you take it live, you both get in trouble for taking the pic even if you cued the reporter.  If master control gives you the wrong time for a commercial break and you miss a meter, you are both in trouble.  This is often where producers and directors play the blame game.  Don’t fall victim to this.  Both producers and directors tend to be control freak type personalities.  Sit down and decide who is responsible for what.  For example, once I established IFB, my director would check the live shot, if the reporter did not respond, the director had final say on taking the live shot or going straight to the package.  It was faster that way, since the director had a finger on the button, or control of the TD sitting right beside him/her.  Bottom line, let the director manage the technical elements while you focus on content and timing.  Again, consider the right hand/left hand analogy.  You would not cross one hand over the other to catch your paper ball.  Set up who’s making the call on what, then, support each other.

If you are still not convinced that this is a crucial relationship to establish, let’s talk breaking news.  There are times when breakers happen so fast on live television that you simply cannot tell everyone who needs to know what you are doing in time.  An example: police standoffs.  I was once boothing continuing coverage of a standoff when the SWAT team showed up.  The GM and ND came in to have a philosophical debate over what to show.  They kept interrupting me as I tried to give directions to the production crew and more importantly the anchors.  My director knew how I thought because we talked so much about breaking news and had set up clear roles.  Several times he was able to “take over” while I listened to the bosses.  He literally knew what I was going to say, before I could say it.  If we had not developed a strong relationship, with mutual respect, things would have fallen apart on live TV.  We were consistent with each other, and knew each other’s job needs.  The right hand was able to catch the ball, while the left hand was tied up.  It is a crucial relationship whether playing catch or putting on a live broadcast!

 

It’s a phrase that makes many journalists cringe and roll their eyes: “People, we need to think out of the box.” What does that mean?

Well, it means don’t pitch the same story ideas over and over.  It means the station wants more than police blotter stories.  It also often means news management is getting creative to attract specific audiences.  This is an opportunity to have fun at work again if you know a key secret.  The best TV stories focus on three things:  Real people with compelling video and audio.

When management starts talking about thinking “out of the box,” you need to start presenting ideas in a visual way.  Describe your story idea by explaining your first shot in it.  Another way to pitch is with the “character” you will showcase.  Thinking “out of the box” is a catch phrase for asking journalists to put a human element into a story.

Here’s how to execute “out of the box” for different news philosophies:  If you work in an “action news” shop, managers want to see reporters and anchors interacting with the news in a more visual way.  Add more sequences and nat sound.  Look for a person or interesting business to focus on for a different twist to a news of the day story.  Producers should include more interesting anchor tags with information from the anchor to make them appear more of an expert rather than just a reader.  Add cool opens to blocks with video and nat sound.  Replay cool video in slow motion.

If you work in a “big J” type shop, do what you can to showcase how news headlines impact real people.  Write in a more conversational way.  Look for interesting characters.

If you work in a headline news type shop where you normally just chase breaking news, play up any interesting video.  Let some emotional sound bites “breathe” more than you usually would.

“Out of the box” also means thinking beyond putting stories only on television screens.  More and more shops want to see you pitching ideas that also have life in social media or at the very least the station web page.  It really is just another way to establish human connections.  The only difference is making the story more accessible for people to react. That doesn’t just mean creating a blog for people to sound off.  This can be an opportunity to empower with links to associated groups and content.  It just depends on the station’s philosophy how far you will go online.

The best part about being told to step “out of the box” is that your news management team is thinking beyond old fashioned TV journalism.  It is looking for ways to integrate technology with storytelling and to redefine news coverage. This is an opportunity for you to get really creative and carve a niche for yourself not only within the station, but in the industry. So go ahead, think “out of the box.”

 

Chinese philosopher Mencius said:  “Friendship is one mind in two bodies.”  This is the basis of why I tell young and/or inexperienced reporters that their best “friends” in a newsroom should be the photographers they work closely with every day.  Being of “one mind” about the stories you tell on a daily basis is the difference between below-average to average TV news stories and great, memorable storytelling that gets viewers to pay attention and your work noticed.

Whenever I move into a new newsroom, the first thing I do is take inventory of the photography staff.  Who’s good?  Who’s average?  Who’s motivated?  Who’s not?  And most importantly… who gets “it?”  Do you know what I mean by “it?”  I mean simply: storytelling.  It is THE number one thing that can take your career as a reporter to limitless heights.  (For more on storytelling see this article http://survivetvnewsjobs.com/?p=306)  Most of us know it when we see it and you should definitely look for it whenever you start in a new shop as well.  Once you have identified the “players” among the photography staff, buddy up with them!  Why?  Because they can make your daily life easy as well as set you up for a successful career path.  On the opposite end of the spectrum… news photographers can also make your life a living hell if you dis them.  Think about that last point for a moment.  You work your tail off turning your story (or in most cases today, stories) for that night’s newscast(s).  You find good “characters”, ask all the right questions and write a gem of a script.  You get it copyedited and it’s ready for the photog to edit into a masterpiece of local news storytelling.  But there’s one problem:  You are the reporter who gives “orders” to photographers rather than asking nicely when you need something from them.  You are the reporter who sits in the truck playing on your smartphone while the photog busts his/her butt breaking down the live shot in the cold.  You are the reporter who calls every story “my story” rather than “our story.”  So, guess what, Mr. or Miss Photog is magically having “editing problems” or just can’t get an edit to take.  Suddenly, that masterpiece of storytelling that was filled with characters and nat sound becomes just another news package slapped together so it can make air.  Think it cannot or does not happen?  Wake up Alice, you’re in Wonderland!  It can and does.

On the other hand, what if you’re the reporter who always helps carry equipment and break down live shots?  What if you’re the reporter who ends every recorded interview by asking the photog if they have any questions for the interviewee?  What if you’re the reporter who asks the photographer to brainstorm ideas on making the standup different and visually stunning?  And what if maybe you’re the reporter who always, and I mean always, tells the photog what a great job they did on “our” story today/yesterday or last week with another reporter?  Well, suddenly Mr. or Miss Photog is busting their hump to get some extra nat sound and a few extra tight shots to really make the story sing!  Keep it up, make it a habit and you’ll soon be getting that effort everyday when you work with that photog.  Then, that photog will tell the others on staff how cool it is to work with you and you’ll start getting the same effort from every photog you work with.  Next thing you know you’re work is noticed as excellent by your bosses and eventually the newsroom you target as the next stop on your march to TV news greatness!

 

The best friend I’ve ever had “in the business” is a photographer.  He just so happens to be what I would consider among the absolute best in the business too with an entire room filled with Emmy and other high level awards.  But there was a time when neither one of us knew what it meant to make really good TV.  We didn’t even know the term “storytelling” much less what it took to do it.  But as our friendship developed so did our relationship as co-workers.  We discovered that we both wanted to know what it took to be really good at making really good TV news stories.  So, we set about teaching ourselves.  We constantly challenged each other to learn and try new things in our stories.  It didn’t take long for both of us to start down the path to great storytelling.  Had we thought of each other as “just a photog” or “just a reporter” rather than as the most important part of the daily equation, neither one of us might have gone on to the successful  and long careers we enjoy.

Unfortunately, there are many, many people in this business who do view TV News Photographers as “just photogs.”  Don’t be one of these people.  TV News Photographers really are THE most important part of the equation.  TV news is at its best when it truly harnesses what no other news medium can harness:  effectively blending moving pictures, with sound and words.  When it makes you feel like ”you are there.”  A reporter can write the words and even say the words.  But without a photographer there is no way you are grabbing all three and making viewers feel connected with great TV news storytelling.  So don’t forget about your true “best friends” in the newsroom.  As Mencius suggested, be of “one mind in two bodies.”  Make sure you make it clear to photogs that you know how important they are to making everyone in the newsroom more successful.  Your job today, and career down the line, will not be sorry and you just might come away with some really good friends too!

 

If you ever wondered why you see producers sitting at their desks mumbling to themselves, then pacing in a hallway, this is it.  Teasing the story that seems like it just won’t end.  The rising flood waters waiting to crest, the trial that drags on forever, the storm damage cleanup that is so important to cover, but looks the same each day.

These are stories that, after a while, management and producers must debate on whether to tease at all, or does the viewer just expect the coverage to be there and watch for something else.  While that debate rages, producers are often faced with a looming deadline and overnights that say they get a spike when coverage of that topic airs.

So what do you do when there’s no obvious unique element?  Look beyond the obvious.  Sometimes you need to come up with an interesting sidebar tag that would have viewer benefit.  This is the time to search Twitter and tweet your sources for interesting tidbits that you can fact check and possibly add to your coverage in some way.  You can also call a buddy who’s not in the business and ask where the coverage seems to be lacking for the story.  They might have an idea you never thought off that would make a great vo/sot or even an outboard package.  Also, have reporters keep an extra eye out for interesting character development that you can turn into an interesting tease.

Anchors are a great resource in this difficult time.  They often are approached by people with interesting questions you could answer as an added element to your coverage.   It’s a great tease option because it enhances your anchor’s credibility, with a viewer benefit.  You asked and we got the answer for you!  It engages viewers who often feel we talk at them instead of to them.

If there really is nothing interesting to tease about the ongoing story, talk with management about whether you can move the tease out of its traditional place, like the end of a block.  This is a great time to do stealth teases (see article “You’re Hooked“) in the middle of the a-block for example.  You can put the anchors on a two shot and have them say something like, “Hey, in 5 minutes we’re going to get an update on the trial.  I hear (reporter) has (a quick line with the gist of the pkg).” Then go on with the newscast.

The one thing you want to avoid at all costs is the tease that goes something like these “Up next the latest on the Casey Anthony case.” or “We have the latest on cleanup of the tornado damage in Joplin.” These are the ultimate throw away lines and will cost you credibility with the viewer.  Keep in a mind that viewers expect you to have the latest on a big story.  That’s the reason they are tuning in.  They believe in your ability to cover the ongoing stories.  Don’t let them down by trivializing it with only a “coming up, the latest.”  It makes your station seem callous and sloppy.  Viewers are taking this story seriously.  You need to as well.  You don’t have to have a wow factor each day.  A simple headline in a tease is okay.  It helps viewers know when they will get the daily update.  Taking a quick hit with a live reporter also can work, but coordinate with the reporter ahead of time to make sure he/she doesn’t give away too much.  Viewers think it is cool if you check in live on something, it shows immediacy.  Have the anchor say something like, “We’re hearing court is about to wrap up right now, (Reporter) interesting day?”  Reporter says: “Yes, in fact we had something just happen that we will tell you about in two minutes.”  You aren’t exaggerating, you are not giving the story away, you are showcasing a live ongoing event with immediacy.  Again, viewers love feeling like they are in the moment.  Another way to consider this along similar lines:  Teasing these kinds of stories is like teasing weather.  Some days the information is huge and you need to blow it out.  Some days there’s not much to it, but you want the viewer to know you always have their best interest in mind, even on a sunny cloudless day.  You want to shoot straight and build credibility for the times the teases are easy to write, because what you have to share is fascinating.  Do these things and the amount of time you spend mumbling to yourself in the hallway, will begin to shrink!

 

“60 Minutes” and later tabloid journalism began the push for ”in your face” confrontations between a reporter and a person considered caught red handed.  Now it is the norm for investigative reporters to use ambush interviews after laying out tons of evidence against a company or person who may have crossed the line.  Don’t get us wrong, these interviews can be very effective in this type of package.  What’s interesting is how the concept is bleeding over into everyday news coverage more and more.

Case in point, the Casey Anthony trial down in Orlando.  We won’t spell out the details of the case because everyone in the news biz has some idea of the trial and surrounding media circus.  We are taking a closer look at recent headlines about an interesting walk shot into the courthouse with reporters, photojournalists, and attorneys.  In case you missed it, watch the video courtesy of WESH TV and the Orlando Sentinel.  “Courthouse Confrontation” Make sure you let the video play out all the way to the end.  There is a lull, but in the end it gets interesting again.

Now look at some of the headlines on the internet after the walk shot you just watched.  The Orlando Sentinel called it “ A Bizarre situation with reporters…” The Florida News Center headline read, “Anthony attorneys are annoyed by Orlando media.”  Now consider the News Blues headline, “Orlando reporter harasses Casey Anthony attorney.”  See a common link?  In all of these headlines, the sympathy characters were the attorneys, not the journalists.

Now, let’s consider why fellow TV journalists should care that the reporter gets little love in the coverage of the walk.  It’s an example that shows when there are confrontations, the public tends to sympathize with anyone but the journalist.  Yes, there are some exceptions especially in investigative reporting.  But, remember, we are talking about general news coverage here.  The reporter is described as the aggressor and gets less sympathy in coverage of a situation like this.

Partner this with the fact that, increasingly, news managers are trying to differentiate coverage by “being more aggressive” and you have an entirely new set of ethical issues to consider.  There’s also the matter of there now being so many cameras around that your actions can easily go viral on the internet.  The incident we just linked you to above did, and quickly too.

So here’s what you need to consider when you get into an intense situation.

  • What is your stations news philosophy?
  • How far is too far? (i.e. – What is management’s threshold?)
  • Will you be typecast? (Will it hurt your professional image?)

Your station’s news philosophy must come first because it is the best gage you will get on how far you can take questioning and still have management’s backing.  Some newsrooms are very against confrontational interviews.  Some thrive on them.  News philosophy also determines how you phrase everything you say.  For example, some stations encourage the use of slang to try and relate to the viewer.  Some are completely opposed to it and would be horrified if a reporter used a word like “jerk” in this type of setting.  Some want action no matter what.  They want you to yell.  Others define that as highly unprofessional.

Which leads to our next point:  You need a clue as to management’s threshold.  Managers cannot and will not give you black and white answers about this type of situation for legal reasons.  You can get good reads though, by discussing scenarios ahead of time with a boss.  The video of this reporter covering the Anthony trial can also be a discussion point with a manager.  Ask your managers what they think of the situation and try to talk it out.

Take another look at the video of this walk scene and consider your personal reaction to it.  This is a good opportunity to gut check whehter you are being true to your view of what being a journalist is all about.  In this day and age, you have to worry as much about the next possible boss reacting as you do your current news director.  There is so much turnover, you need to be true to yourself in these situations.  Many times I saw reporters act in a way that seemed very unlike their journalistic style.  When I would talk with them later, I got the same answer each time: “I thought that’s what the ND wanted me to do.”  Most ND’s will push you and tell you to be “aggressive.”  Most bosses also understand that “aggressive” for one type of person is different than for another.  Remain true to your heart and your carefully cultivated professional persona.  You do not want video of your out of character attempt to impress the ND, to go viral on the internet.  It will live forever in the digital world and may come back to bite you one day with another ND.  Even if only the other stations in town see you doing an ambush type interview, this is a small biz.  The other ND’s in town will soon know how you act in the field.  Often ND’s considering hiring you, call your competition to learn more about you and see if you are a commodity.  Keep that in mind.  You are trying to impress all the ND’s in town every day. The only way to do that and not go crazy with stress is to stay true to your personal limits on what’s acceptable.  You do not want to be typecast as something you are not.

One final thought: if something like this happens to you in the field, call your immediate manager right away.  This is very important.  You want to give management time to come up with a reaction before they start getting calls.  We suggest calling your boss even if you aren’t the TV station directly involved.  Just witnessing and recording the whole thing, could mean your ND will get a phone call.  The last thing you want is your ND or GM getting blindsided, by something you knew about, then having to “save face” for you and your station because of an ambush style interview, no matter how common they’ve become.

 

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