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.”

 

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!”

 

 

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!

 

Many TV stations, like many football programs are constantly changing the “coach.”  If the ratings don’t go up quickly the news director is gone.  That means a new chance to be fired, since the new boss will want to make an impact right away.  First impressions truly can make or break your future at that station.  So let’s talk star power.

All managers have one thing in common.  They want staffers that do not whine.  They want people that can change and adapt quickly.  To prove you can do this, research the new ND and see what type of news philosophy was implemented at their last station.  Did the place do a lot of consumer news?  Did the station cover a lot of breaking news?  What was the turnover like?  Calling and asking for an long time reporter or photojournalist to dig a bit will be helpful.  You want to ask what the ND liked to see from the staff. What kind of story ideas got the ND excited.  Try and find out if your new ND is a big football fan or has kids or a dog.  Now you have a leg up.

Listen to the ND during the first few story meetings.  See if the ND is getting excited over the type of stories you heard he/she will like.  The ND will give you clues about where the place is going next pretty quickly with offhanded comments.  Most people don’t listen.  They should and you will.  Next, adapt story ideas or input about newscasts to the trends you notice from the ND.  After a few weeks try and catch the ND for a minute and request a critique.  Don’t say “hey did you watch my show/package. etc. that day.” Just say: “I am checking in to see if you have any critique for me on what you’ve seen so far.  I am looking forward to taking my work to the next level with you.”  The ND will probably say he/she needs a few weeks.  That’s fine.  You just want the early impression to be that you are hardworking and eager to adapt to this person’s style.

Now let’s talk personal connection.  Remember you have intel on the ND’s personal interests.  Use it to make a human connection.  Let’s say the ND is a big football fan.  When you see ND in the hall or at the end of a meeting ask what person thinks of some headline, “How about that new recruit?  What about that last play in the last game?”  You get the idea.  Don’t linger.  Listen to the response and walk away.  You don’t want to force it.

You also need to make deadline and not complain about anything for the first several months; even if you are getting screwed on vacation time.  Stay out of the office and let other people seem difficult.  The ND is overwhelmed the first few months and doesn’t need to deal with any “little” issues.  Fair or not, your vacation time qualifies as little.

If you are in a meeting with the ND do not be the first person to run out of the room at the end.  Organize your papers, take one more sip of coffee, do what you need to linger a minute in case the ND starts small talking.  This is a subtle way to start building a connection without seeming obvious.

Remember ND’s are looking for employees who are loyal and willing to work hard.  So when you are asked to cover an extra shift or work late, do it without complaining.  You will get a chance to occasionally say no after the ND has been there awhile.  This is a way ND’s test to see if you are a diva or a battle tested, nose to the ground journalist.  We watched it time and again.  Staffers turned down shifts or complained about working late and the ND made a quick judgment call that the person was lazy and didn’t appreciate the job.  It was usually downhill from there.

The key in all of this is being subtle.  This is like dating.  Give the ND a taste of who you are, express some interest, but do not overdo it.  The people constantly in the office putting out will end up being the ones the ND takes advantage of and overworks long term.  The hard workers that stay out trouble survive and end up with some time to breathe.  You will keep the ND interested in seeing more.  That’s what you want.

 

“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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