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.

 

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!”

 

 

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!

 

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!

 

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