No this article is not for photojournalists.  They don’t need it.  They can turn a story without any reporter or anchor track.  This question I pose is for two other groups in the newsroom:  Producers and, to some extent, reporters.  I am guessing most of you reading this are saying, “Probably, but why would I?” Because in truth, most TV journalists cannot do it and end up with a piece that makes any sense at all.

Why does this matter?  Why should you have the skills to be able to produce a story without any track?  There are several reasons:

  • Sometimes you must “see it” to get the context
  • Great content often needs no words
  • Video is the essence of TV news

When I was producing in a large market, my ND issued a really intense mandate to all producers:  No writing vo’s, vo/sots, anchor packages or teases without first looking at and time coding the video.  Now this was really a lot to ask, because we didn’t have desktop editing yet.  You had to pull feed video or raw video, find an open edit bay and sit and log a videotape!  It took a lot of time, AT FIRST.  But soon, I started to see why this was required.  Stories I had planned to air in my newscast were not always as they seemed.  Written descriptions of the video, sent from other affiliates, were often off the mark.  The video told a different story than the words.  My field crew, or a reporter on the feed, missed an awesome opportunity with a sound bite or section of video.  Soon I noticed a big change.  When I sat down to write,  I was fast and very efficient.  The number of errors both I and my AP wrote went way down.  My copy editors loved me.  I didn’t assume as much about stories and actually saw the realities.

I also learned another amazing lesson.  Great content often needs few words.  I could play out sections of great nats and watch people in the newsroom suddenly stop and stare.  I learned to use silence as natural sound occasionally.  (For more on that technique see “Storytelling on a dime”, and “Can you picture it.”)    Sometimes I ran a long bite instead of writing a vo/sot.  Let the people involved give the context.  I just set up the situation, and explained what would come next in the tag.  No, this technique won’t work on every story.  But if you don’t learn how to tell a story without track, you will never truly tell a great story for television.

The reason why is simple:  Video is the essence of TV news.  You cannot showcase the power of video without first seeing that video.  Having a photographer or a reporter describe it is not good enough.  With desk top editing there is no excuse.  Call up the video, sit back and watch.  Let the images move you.  Let the video sequences form in your head.  Let the images bring questions to your mind.  The answers are your powerful elements.  The answers are often in sound bites and single images.  Remember “a picture tells a thousand words.”

So how as a producer do you write stories without using any track?  Next time you are asked to write an anchor package, try and outline it without a single sentence of copy.  Just write down the images and sound bites.  Chances are you will end up with little to no track.  The example above, where you let the sound bite breathe and tell the story instead of having an anchor talk over generic video, can be effective as well.  Let’s take a story from a protest for an example. The anchor can introduce the piece saying where the event was held and how many people showed up.  “What was their message?  We’re letting them tell you.” Then let some sound play.  Let a few people talk.   If there’s another viewpoint, or a counter protest tag with:  “And now, the other side.” and then let that sound play out.  Never forget we need to be informed witnesses for our viewers.  There is no agenda in this type of coverage.  The viewer makes his/her own judgment.  You can always tag out with some factoids to help the viewer see the whole picture.

As for reporters, too often nowadays the emphasis becomes the reporter track, not the video.  How often do you pre-write your package before you even get on scene to shoot the video?  How often do you hear the 1 sound bite you think you need then signal the photojournalist to turn off the camera and walk away?  Yes, you have intense timing constraints.  Many of you are backpack journalist or get to have a photographer only because you churn two or three packages a day.  I get it.  Instead of pre-writing sections of your pieces, jot down notes like you would for a live shot.  Then go and really listen to the person you interview.  Be discerning.  Are you really getting the point of what is going on or just assuming the situation is a certain way?  You don’t know if you don’t listen.  Then write a log of the video and sound you have, in the order you want it, before turning those bullet points in your notebook into copy.  At the very least you will write more effectively to your video.  I bet you will surprise yourself and see that you need less track and find more chances to let your sound breathe.  Finally, once in a while, take a story you did and try to redo with just the video and sound.  Do not write any reporter track.  Attempt a photo essay in your spare time as a way to hone your skills (see “Humble pie” for more ways to help yourself grow).  You will become a better storyteller and a more informed witness for the viewer because of it.

 

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.”

 

Throughout my career I heard this phrase uttered by photographers when discussing reporters: “You exist to hold my tripod.” It was followed by a laugh and shaking of the head.  There is a lot behind this phrase that many reporters and news managers don’t stop to think about.  It’s especially true now, with more stations turning to one man band and backpack journalists.  Without photojournalists, there would be no TV news.  The video, together with sound, is what separates us from other news mediums.  Yet many take for granted the photojournalist that is putting a lot of physical effort and artistic ability into his/her work.  In many shops photojournalists do not get much recognition from management.  It all goes to the reporters and anchors.

Being the reporter thought of as only good enough to hold the tripod is frustrating.  But a good journalist can consider many perspectives, right?  Whether you like it or not, you are going to be assigned to work with photojournalists who have this attitude from time to time.  They exist in every shop.  Murphy’s Law dictates you will be assigned to this angry photojournalist whenever you have a great story that you hope will be good enough to keep for your resume.

So in the interest of peace and understanding, let’s look a little more at why some photojournalists feel this way.  In truth, there are many reporters that think photogs are their servants.  They refuse to help carry gear.  They boss the photojournalist around and tell them to get specific shots, rather than gently asking.  And they often do this in front of someone being interviewed.  This treatment is humiliating.  Think about the time when a ND calls you in and asks how you could ever have written something so dumb?  You know how it feels.  We’ve all been there.  Showing respect is crucial.  Also, because there is a lack of training in newsrooms, often a seasoned photojournalist gets stuck working with newbie reporters.  All of us are clueless when we first take news jobs.  We are a pain in the butt and a potential liability as we get our TV legs.  Add in a know it all, “I can conquer the world” attitude and a seasoned photojournalist legitimately wants to not only hand you a tripod to carry, but shove it where the sun doesn’t shine!

So enough psychology of why, let’s talk survival skills.   The tried and true way to develop a positive working relationship with these seemingly impossible photographers is to show them some respect.  Yes, you will often want specific shots taken in the field.  So, let the photog know what you are thinking and ask them to help you out, rather than tell them to get a shot.  Then ask for input and tell them you would love a few more shots or more natural sound to go with the shots you need if the photojournalist sees a good opportunity. Ask the photojournalist’s opinion, often.  This person is a huge asset for you, even when it can be a bitter pill.  These articles spell out why and what to do if the photog is really hazing you. (see  Photog is a reporter’s best friend and Thank you sir, how to handle newsroom hazing)

Do whatever you can to get the photojournalist involved in the story. Again, at end of each interview ask if the photojournalist has any questions for the subject.  Some of the best perspective on a story can come from the true observer.  (There is no truer “observer” than a photog watching the story play out through the lens of a camera!)  When you shoot your standup talk to the photographer about what you are thinking of doing and ask for help making it work visually.

Most of all, don’t give up.  Keep showing respect even if you think you are only getting insults in return.  Remember the psychology of why.  These photographers often care, passionately, about the video and sound they are gathering.  They want their hard work appreciated by someone, but they have been burned, often.  Be patient, compliment when appropriate, and show respect.  With time that photographer will turn into an asset and you will be glad to hold the tripod for him/her!

 

No way around it.  This is an uncomfortable trend in many newsrooms right now.  In fact, some companies are making it written policy.  The good part:  You get a sweet out of town assignment!  The bad part:  You have to pay the travel costs upfront, fill out an expense report when you get back, then wait for reimbursement that can take up to 6 weeks.  And, by the way, your credit card bill will come due before that 6 weeks is up and you get your money back.  It’s a problem a lot of news employees are wrestling with these days.  I recently read a forum entry on b-roll.net from a photojournalist asking how to approach this subject during salary negotiations.  Here are some ideas to deal with this road trip trend.

So what if you are asked to go out of town and just cannot front the money?  You need to tell management flat out.  Yes, it could mean losing out on a primo assignment.  Better that than not paying your bills though.  In many cases, if management really wants you on the story, there is a work around. Sometimes the boss pays the hotel, or perhaps the business manager ponies up some petty cash.  It really depends on the station and the individual managers.  Does saying you cannot pay upfront make you look bad to the bosses?  That depends on the manager.  But even if they seem upset, they usually understand.  Most often it’s more a case of managers being frustrated because they know asking you to pay upfront is unreasonable and the boss is stuck with a policy that stinks.

If you decide to front the money, get a description of any limits for certain expenses ahead of time in writing.  (i.e. – How much per meal?  How much for parking etc.?)  Be firm on this.  Trouble is, some of these policies are so rigid, the limits can be highly unreasonable. For example, some companies have a maximum amount to be reimbursed for hotel stays.  Depending on where you are going and what you are covering, hotel costs can vary greatly.  This can put a crew in a really rough spot especially if the limits were not checked ahead of time.  The last thing you want is to pay $150 for a room only to find out the company policy is a maximum of $100.  That’s your credit card and, therefore, your financial worth on the line.  If no one can provide you with written limits, think hard before agreeing to the assignment.

If you are headed out of town on a last minute assignment you need to ask about clothing and equipment reimbursement limits.  You never know what’s going to happen, and you want to be prepared.  Also, in an open ended return kind of scenario, set a limit as to how much you are willing to pay out of pocket before you go.  Make sure management and the business office are clear you will not front a single dollar more and there needs to be a backup plan everyone is aware of in case you have to stay longer than your money will pay for.

Also ask how far out of your market qualifies a trip as “out of town.”  You don’t want a scenario where you decide to push it driving home, then stop for dinner somewhere too close to your ADI to count for reimbursement.  Yes, you were miles and miles away on assignment, but the button pushers will only look at the location of the purchase if there are ADI restrictions.  You will either get stuck covering the meal or have to go several rounds with the boss to make your receipt an exception.  If that happens it could be held against you later.  Remember, a case like this makes the boss look disorganized.  Even if the boss is sloppy, you don’t want to be the one who makes it obvious to the world.  Asking for those policies ahead of time will avoid the mess.

What if your contract requires you to front the money ahead of time?  The only practical advice we can offer is to keep a credit card that can “cover you” until you are reimbursed.  A contract is a contract and if you signed it, you’re going to have to live up to its terms.

This is a complicated and emerging issue in TV newsrooms.  There may be more ways to deal with it than we’ve listed here.  So, please, if you have other ideas let us know.  You can leave comments below.  Many of us are facing this type of situation for the first time in our careers and need to bounce ideas around about covering that sweet road trip upfront.

 

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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