Should anchors help write newscasts?

Anchoring, Know Your Newsroom, Producing Comments Off on Should anchors help write newscasts?
Jul 092014

Here’s an age old debate. Should anchors help write newscasts? Some say yes. Many say no.
The answer to this question is not as simple as it seems. It all depends on the resources used to build newscasts and the makeup of the newsroom itself.

Let me explain. If you work in a newsroom where there is one producer for two hours of a morning show, or the producers are very inexperienced, anchors need to have more of a hand in writing the newscasts. It’s just smart business. If there is a story that is legally dicey, either the anchor needs to write some stories to give the producer time to work on it. If the anchor is a more seasoned journalist than the producer, then the anchor needs to write the dicey story. He/she should have a better understanding of the potential legal ramifications of a mistake. Again, it’s smart business.

Recently I spoke with a producer who got stuck producing three hours of a morning newscast, alone. The anchors not only did not write anything, but the male anchor yelled at this producer for a mistake in a graphic in front of guests in the newscast. This is just plain wrong. News flash for this anchor: You are a journalist not an actor. Help get the newscast on the air clean. You are part of a team. Pitch in. The producer was asked to do too much. Management was not fair in this situation. Do not make it worse by hanging that producer out to dry. Step up and help. If you do, you generally win a huge advocate. I promise that anchor this, if that producer gets a chance to burn you later, that producer will take it. If you are late to work, regularly take dinner breaks that are too long or make a fact error in a script , management will find out. That producer will also share what you did with the other producers and managers. You are now marked. It will come back to bite. Why not just pitch in, be a team player and help write instead of taking that risk?

Now let’s talk about well staffed newsrooms. If there is an EP, producers and AP’s then anchors should have a chance to jazz up scripts and not have to write large sections of the rundown. If that producing team cannot pull off getting the newscasts done in a timely fashion with that much help, there is a serious problem. EP’s and producers in this environment need to understand that anchors need time to look over the sheer volume. Too often the “systems” are messed up in this scenario. Producers are not time managing well. AP’s are not being asked to do the right things. EP’s are not delegating properly. The anchor should not be responsible for picking up that slack.

I recently spoke with an anchor in a top 20 market who was told he was responsible for any fact errors in the newscast, not the EP. He was also told that he had to write significant sections of the morning newscasts. This anchor works with a staff where there is a producer for each hour in the morning, an EP and several AP’s. It is common in this scenario to have the anchors helping to look for fact errors. But to write significant sections of the newscast? I quickly found out that the producers were simply not getting their writing done in time. With that much help, a veteran former producer cannot help but ask: Why? (And no, they are not also desktop editing or contributing to the web.) In this case, it really is better to make sure the anchor has time to read over all scripts, HELP look for errors and focus on “performance.” That is why there are so many content generating resources dedicated to the newscast day part. If you really need the anchor to write, have him do stories that showcase his personality. Write about subjects he knows a lot about, to save him time and help him come across authoritatively. (See “How to Get Inside Your Anchors Head”.)

Too often in newsrooms the work load is not divided up equitably, or even sensibly. This is to me one of the largest problems local newsrooms face as they try and “modernize” and command three screens (TV, computer, smart phone). The “systems” in newsrooms need to be reviewed better and corporate needs to respect what management needs. Too often managers are forced into positions to make anchors responsible for all fact errors, or to require producers to produce three hours a morning, solo, because of decisions made in an office several states away, by number pushers. The question of whether an anchor should write for newscasts highlights this larger problem. Cutting fat is one thing, breaking down systems is quite another.

Are producers moving up in market size too quickly?

Know Your Newsroom, Producing Comments Off on Are producers moving up in market size too quickly?
Apr 232014

Want to know a big topic that news managers sit around and discuss?  Are journalists, producers in particular, are moving up in market size too quickly?  Even more interesting, a lot of the managers I talk with, who think it’s a bad idea, moved up the ranks while they were young themselves.

Yep.  Many were 2 to 4 years into the biz and EP’ing or taking gigs as small market AND’s. Others were producing main shows in top 10 markets by age 25.  Why then are they so hard on the journalists who want to do the same?

Well, with experience comes wisdom.  These managers know how hard they had to work to get that distinction of being the youngest in the newsroom.  They also are still keenly aware of the hazing they endured.

Before you get annoyed at these “old timers” who “aren’t being fair” know this:  While they often put a newbie journalist through the ringer in the interview process, they tend to be your greatest advocates once you “prove worthy.”  Yep, they will give you a shot.  They remember being hungry and wanting to prove to the world just how driven, talented and passionate they were.  But when they cut you a break, they ask one simple thing in return.  Listen when given advice.  We crusty old timers who moved up the ranks really young (yes, me included) also learned that a lot of being a great journalist is simply grinding out the news each day, day after day, year after year.  No matter how much raw talent you have, no matter how many “it” factors you have, gaining hands on experience is the best way to become excellent at what you do.

So, I am going to ask you to consider a different question:  Are younger journalists, especially producers, mature enough to take constructive criticism from the “been there done that” set?  Or, perhaps even more importantly, is that hunger and eagerness to push and be the best each day, better for a newsroom than the tired, set in their ways, group?  If newsrooms focus more on getting people who think alike and can have mutual respect for each other, this debate becomes largely irrelevant.  Newsroom managers usually hire younger producers to inject new energy and ideas into a tired, staid, news philosophy.  Truthfully, many times the managers are being asked to change the way news is presented and are out of ideas.  The trouble lies not in hiring someone too young, but in hiring someone who cannot define the type of news he/she loves to do.  That’s the biggest risk in hiring younger journalists.  If they don’t know what kind of product they want to put their stamp on each day, they will get bogged down on the wrong things.  So crusty old managers, who came up the ranks young, often know to ask the pointed questions and make sure they see eye to eye with those up and coming journalists.  When there’s a mutual respect, and an environment where younger and older journalists know they can and should learn from each other, great things happen.  Those of us who came up the ranks ‘too soon” know it.  That’s why the trend continues, and probably should.


What Should An Associate Producer Do?

Know Your Newsroom, Producing Comments Off on What Should An Associate Producer Do?
Apr 092014

I often tell producers that having an associate producer is a great opportunity to prepare yourself for management one day.  This is someone who often needs direction and training, and  whose success can be tied to your own.  Still, many producers just don’t know how to effectively utilize an associate producer.  So let’s go over some basic rules of thumb about who AP’s are and how they should be used:

  • Helpers not writers
  • Segment designers
  • Second sets of eyes

The first mistake many producers make when given an associate producer is to have the AP write the entire newscast.  Then the producer just goes back and fact checks it.  Delegating is one thing, having the AP essentially do your job is another.  Writing is a key part of producing.  If you don’t relish it, don’t produce.  Your AP is your helper.  So you need to assign your AP specific things to write.  Then you have an AP earn more opportunities depending on their skill levels.  For example, an AP of mine initially wrote the national news segment for me.  She wanted more, so I told her to match her words and video better.  She did, then she got to write the wacky video of the day segment.  Next, I let her segment produce more.  I let her find the stories, come tell me what our options were, which ones she liked and why.  Once she was comfortable with that, I let her write teases for the segments she produced.  By then, she was understanding the sell of a story.  As she pushed herself and grew, I got more time to dedicate to certain elements in the newscast where I wanted to push myself and grow.  This in turn helped her see that producing is an evolution in many ways.  We were able to have great philosophical discussions.  She was eventually able to fill in for me, when I was off and the quality of the newscast did not  suffer.

Another key area where producers do not utilize their AP’s properly is checking for errors.  I had my AP’s read through every super and graphic in the newscast.  They started at the bottom of the rundown and worked their way up.  This forced them to pay more attention to the details because they had to look at the rundown in a different way.  This was a great way for them to take some responsibility and for me to see how detail oriented each AP was.

When you become a manager, you have to be able to assess each person you oversee.  You have to help build on their strengths and know how to minimize their weaknesses.  Your AP’s are the perfect way to practice assessing these qualities.  And if your AP never grows into a competent producer, it reflects badly on you.  This is true of managers and their employees as well.


The One Criticism You Never Want To Be Told

Getting Along With Peers, Political Hotbed Comments Off on The One Criticism You Never Want To Be Told
Feb 132014
It’s a fact of life, in news, that your work will be criticized a lot.  It can be hard to take, but you must if you want to succeed in the business.  However, there is one criticism you never want to be told:  That you blame others for your mistakes.  If you do, you will quickly be labeled a  complainer, trouble maker and bad at your job.  You cannot afford to have this label.
So what do you do to get around?  For starters check out our recent “Take Ownership” article.  Next, do not complain, about how the newsroom runs, to other staff members.  I recognize this is a tough one, because news people are infamous for their after hours gripe sessions.  It is VERY hard not to engage in the complaining and you may even feel alienated at first.  But believe me, it is worth it to not get involved.  Remember a key staffer will be at the gripe sessions:  the newsroom snitch.  Any complaints you make will be reported, and if you directly complain about how others are doing their jobs, and that it’s keeping you from doing yours, I guarantee that it doesn’t matter whether you have a valid point.  You will be labeled a complainer who passes the buck.  Also, there are many times your coworker is not your friend, says a few more generic complaints to get you rolling, then uses your words against you later in front of management.  End result:  You look like a complainer.
Blamers do not get as much leeway.  They do not get a benefit of the doubt.  If you are known for passing the buck, management will build a file on you quickly and work to get you fired or banished to the one shift no one wants, so that you hopefully just go away.
The final thing you can do to avoid this horrible label is this:  When you have a complaint in your mind, think of proactive solutions you can help implement.  That way if you get cornered at the station party or management backs you into a corner with an intense line of questioning, you can try and deviate the attention away from you and toward a solution that builds team.  If my EP just disappeared when I had to make key decisions, and I got called on the carpet, instead of saying “Joe EP is never around to ask.”  I would say, “I think I need to go over potential pitfalls in my rundown a little earlier when Joe EP is less busy.”  This raises the issue that Joe EP is not around, without me calling the person out as slacking off.  If management asks “Where is Joe EP?” say “Not sure, at that time of day. I just try to execute what I am asked as best I can.”  Let the managers duke it out.  Meantime you look like a solution finder instead of the dreaded blamer.
If you sense you are already labeled the complainer, stop your gripes immediately and have a clear the air session with your immediate supervisor.  Look that person in the eye and say, “I am here to help this newsroom by doing my best each day.  I want you to know I am glad I am here and will do all I can to help.”  Then do what you are asked and keep your mouth shut.  You can turn this reputation around as long as you do not let it linger long.  It is worth the extra effort, remember being labeled a “complainer” can be a career killer in this ever competitive business.

Social TV: Making The Most Of Planned And Unplanned Interactions

Social Awareness Comments Off on Social TV: Making The Most Of Planned And Unplanned Interactions
Jan 162014

Social TV is storytelling. While just 16 percent of Americans are on Twitter, nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults are on Facebook, according to a recent Pew Study. Social media users are vocal viewers that are likely to influence their friends and family to tune in. We want those viewers to watch and engage in real time and make live TV a different experience than they get reading the news online – which is where interactive TV comes in.

The interaction can be approached two ways — planned, pre-produced segments; and unplanned moments such as breaking news.

The planned:

Social TV sings when it is a produced element of a show. It should be part of the story telling — not tacked on. You can incorporate viewers into a real-time poll, or asking viewers a question to answer, think of how to engage the audience and take your show into the live TV “you snooze you lose” category.

These stories can be mini elements worked into a package with set-up or more involved. One of the more-in-depth interactive stories we’ve done was our story on the bystander effect. We sent our promotions producer outside in various situations — moaning in the cold as a well-dressed person, again in a hoodie and jeans, and then to steal a bike at a transit station (with UTA’s permission). As the package aired, we asked questions to our audience, i.e. “how long will it take someone to help him?” and “how many people will stop the bike theft” and engaged with them in a conversation and showed their comments in real time.

The story was promoted as an interactive over the weekend and generated a ratings lift over our lead-in — and a lot of people buzzing about how they were anxious to see how people reacted. Our Facebook reach numbers jumped during the story as well.

A fantastic example I saw of this was a Today Show #OrangeRoom segment with Tamron Hall. They had talked about electric baby cradles — and Tamron did a live demo with a crying baby (!) to show whether or not they worked. That’s better than any tweet on air — making TV work for its medium.

The unplanned: Social media becomes your friend and your enemy during breaking news. Photos pour in — but no one wants to be the news station that gets punked and puts false information on air. Set a plan in place now that everyone can follow to verify what information is reliable. Once information is verified, and you have permission to use it, take it to air as user generated content. Let it help you tell the story in real time, as it happens. We have done this in breaking news — especially in situations when we want to break in, and we have confirmed information, but our satellite truck or chopper just hasn’t quite reached the scene. It serves as a bridge.

Here are some tips:

1. Learn who you can trust:  I’ve made a twitter list of good social citizens — people that tweet us often with real information, or PIOs that I can trust. From there, I can look at the people they follow and interact with. (This works well with national and international events — start every big event with a Twitter list) 2. Use the information that social media gives you. Look at timestamps and to see the genuine intrigue in people’s messages (are they more shocked by what they just witnessed — or do they seem more interested in having their picture be on TV? It should be the former, not the latter). If it comes through Facebook message, get more information. Better yet, if it’s a good picture, get their contact information, and get an interview.

3. If it is a large event, compare photos. In 2012, we had a horrible wildfire season and every time a new wildfire would start, we would get the same picture of a famous Utah landmark with a fiery sunset behind it. With reverse Google Image search, we were able to trace it to a local photographer who had taken it two years previous.

4. Inform your newsroom. Don’t forget that if you discover something is false, to not live in a vacuum. Tell people, so that all of your producers know and the content doesn’t make it on air.

For a great report on verification and breaking news, read this Q&A with Jennifer Preston of the New York Times.


Natalie Wardel @nataliewardel is the Social Media Director for KSL in Salt Lake City.  Tweet her with questions and/or comments.


How To Deal With Conflicting Messages.

Management Issues, Political Hotbed Comments Off on How To Deal With Conflicting Messages.
Jan 082014

Unfortunately many newsrooms struggle with clearly defining their news philosophy.  This can be very confusing and frustrating for the journalists in the trenches.  So how do you survive when your ND, AND and EP all have different philosophies?

The first step is looking at who has the most hands-on influence on your work each day.  If your EP is next to you in the trenches all day, and the AND and ND only sometimes step in, do what the EP asks.  If you call in to the AND for script approval each day, do what that person expects.  This will not protect you every newscast, every shift, but it will lessen your being in the middle of conflict.

If you are executing what that main manager asks and another manager steps in and asks you to change it, it is ok to say “I can do that, but (EP/AND/ND) asked me to do this. Which should I do?”  If the person now asking you to do something opposite outranks the other manager, do what he/she decides.  But you should mention to the lower ranking manager that you changed it specifically at the other manager’s request.  Most of the time, the lower ranking manager will acquiesce.  If you are told to change it back, tell that manager that you need management to come to a consensus on this issue.  You really do not have a choice.  If the manager just storms off, do what the highest ranking manager asks.  Make sure you document what happened in case you are asked later.

If you are called in to the news director’s office and asked why your reports or newscasts are not meshing with the stations news philosophy, do not lose your temper and yell that everyone needs to get on the same page.  (Yes, it is true, but remember from the “Taking Ownership” article, you still have to be a team player and leader even when you are put in extremely unfair situations.)  Instead, say “Can you please define that philosophy for me in a sentence or two, to make sure I am clear on it.”  Often the ND will then say what the philosophy is.  Say “thank you for clarifying.  That will help me bring up specific coverage questions as we design our coverage each day.”  Then try and get the hell out of the office.  If you cannot get out, and are asked “Now I want to know why you did not understand that?” simply say that there are some conflicting messages but you will do all you can to be true to the news philosophy just defined to you. Again, try and get the hell out of the office.

The one thing you must do no matter what is document when you are told to execute different things.  Try and show a pattern.  That way if you get a bad review and truly feel you are in danger you can use this information to try and show that you are getting conflicting messages and need clarification so you can fully do your job.  A response to a review that includes documentation like this does get serious notice.

If you are brought in to the AND’s office and you and the EP are grilled about why you are not executing certain things, stay quiet as much as possible and let the EP handle it.  After all, this issue is really between the managers.  You can only do so much.  If you are pushed by them, it is o.k. to say  “I want to give you all 110 each day.  I need a consistent message to do that.”  Then, leave and let them have it out.

The biggest thing to keep in mind, as frustrating as dealing with these mixed messages can be, is that you can survive it.  Most of the time, managers are more at risk in a “confused” newsroom than staff.  If your EP is rebelling against the AND and ND, a time will come that the EP pays for that.  Same with an AND who wants to work against the ND.  Just do the best you can and try and let your frustration go, with the knowledge that the odds are in your favor and that you will end up best off.


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