How To Self Critique A Newscast

Know Your Newsroom, Producing Comments Off on How To Self Critique A Newscast
Sep 062015

More and more news managers require newscast critiques for anyone going for editorial positions. This is great because it helps the managers “see how you think” on many levels. The trouble is many producers have no idea how to do newscast critiques. Part of this is because many never get their shows critiqued by management. They may hear “The A-Block did not work.” or “Those teases did not hit well.” But that’s not a true critique.

So let’s talk about how to practice newscast critiques with your own or your station’s work. The best part is that it will help you grow as a content manager.

When self critiquing you need to consider the following items:

Does The Subject Flow Make Sense?
Did Production Values Work?
Is Branding Clear?

Obviously, this is a broad overview to get you started. True critiques are works of art unto themselves. But everything begins with the flow of the newscast. By this we mean more than the obvious did you put a sad story next to a cheery story. That often happens especially when having to kill stories for time. For more on how to avoid those issues read Emotional Toll.  We are going super basic here. Did each story make sense? Did the order you picked make sense? When you sit and watch the show afterwards are you left with a lot of lingering questions about the stories, or did the viewer truly get the information needed? Subject flow involves correct order of stories, related content themes (crime/crime or economy/economy) and some showcasing. Did the breakout you added make sense for the story after all? Was there too much crime mentioned in a row? Sometimes what looks good in outline form, doesn’t look right on the air.

Which leads to the next big item to consider. Did the production values put in place work? With so many new fancy sets, and emphasis on incorporating more graphics, more social media references and more spots for anchors to stand/sit and present information, newscasts can look very disjointed very quickly. Then, even if your subject flow is on the mark, viewers can still come away from a show saying “Huh?” So you need to grab a newscast every so often, then sit and watch it with a critical eye. Did each production element you used, from that cool monitor graphic to that map to the pan/zoom in the middle of the A-block, make sense? (If you are working on how to even do these things in the first place check out our article Produce It Up.) When I work with producers on building their skill sets, one of the things I see time and again are periods where the producer goes from too little production value to too much. There is too much when you watch the newscast and are left thinking about all the cool looks in the newscast, but can barely remember what the content was that day. Also, when you watch, if you find yourself pulling back in your chair or whipping your neck around to keep up, that’s too much movement.

Finally, we have to talk about branding. Frankly, if TV journalists are savvy at all they realize much of their job now is selling the content. We can argue if this is right or wrong. But truthfully, most stations focus on what content makes air based on brand. So you need to know your brand and you need to watch newscasts to see if the way you presented the content is true to the brand. If you are an “Asking the Tough Questions” station, then an A-block with more than thirty quick 15-second vo’s is not true to brand. That’s the simple truth. Your brand requires more breakouts and more phrases like: “So we went to the (expert) and got you more (facts/information/answers).”

In summary, when you self critique you need to sit down, no distractions and watch the newscast as an informed viewer would. Obviously you cannot look at things just like your Mom or friend who’s not in the biz does. But you are skilled enough to watch and notice if you are missing the mark in one or more of these areas. You should be able to say “That didn’t make sense.” or “I can’t remember half of what the anchor just said.” If you do this weekly, you will quickly figure out your strengths and weaknesses so you can work on both. (If you want to get even more nitty gritty when self critiquing read Humble Pie.) So here’s to self critiques!

Making Desk Calls: The Risk To Your Credibility

Anchoring, Know Your Newsroom, Producing Comments Off on Making Desk Calls: The Risk To Your Credibility
Jul 262015

Recently there was a bunch of talk on Twitter about why anchors sometimes feel the need to make producing calls from the desk during a newscast. Producers talked about ways they try and prevent this from happening by being proactive before the show. Others discussed how this really causes them to lose respect for the anchors. Mostly though, the discussion centered on why then?

Let me quantify, this is not in reference to anchors who also produce the show and have no choice. We are talking about anchors who sit on the desk and ask the producer to move things around in the rundown or say they aren’t going to read story such and such or are going to mention a breaker next. This is a slippery slope. The biggest reason may surprise you. In today’s “everything has to be automated world” it can be very hard to just move things around on the fly. The anchor could be setting him or herself up for a major live mess up.

Some anchors make the argument it is worth the risk because they are seasoned journalists and the producer is green. I totally see that. Understand there are likely times the anchor is absolutely making the right call. The issue here is the timing.

Possible technical snafus aside, anchors making quick on desk decisions exposes something anchors should never want discussed. Lack of dedication. That newscast was not put together in a vacuum. Chances are high the story you want moved was in the rundown for hours before the newscast. Even if the producer writes copy late, you can at least check to see what each story is about based on slug, so you are informed of the subject matter. That is part of an anchor’s prep work before a newscast. Just sitting back and waiting for the scripts to come in is never a good way to gain credibility. If you want it moved up, you better know the facts of the story very well. You are taking a big risk that you will be ad libbing. You want to make sure you absolutely know what you are talking about.

Then there’s the issue of who’s really in charge during a live newscast. There needs to be a clear chain of command. Too many decisions are made on the fly. It needs to be clear to all involved who is making the call. No hesitation. Bottom line, even if that producer is half your age, management gave that producer that designation.

One last clarification. If the producer is trying to throw in a breaker, and the anchor doesn’t know what is happening, he/she may be forced to “make a call” on the set. This is more of an extreme circumstance and should not be lumped in with the points being made in this article. The anchor has to make sure fact errors do not come out of their mouth during breaking news. There is no time to check ahead of time in this case. But if the story has been in the newscast, even as a slug for hours, the producer should be the only voice making decisions to move things around during the live newscast.

Is That Really Breaking?

The Latest, Writing Help Comments Off on Is That Really Breaking?
May 182015

With another sweeps period ending, this is a good time to talk about branding coverage with the all too often touted claim of “Breaking News.”

This term is used so loosely industry wide that it is a common brunt of jokes. Even if you think the jokes are funny, there’s a lesson behind the laughs. The phrase “breaking” is losing its meaning. Stations are showcasing with bold graphics, strong phrasing and 16 boxes in which they are happy to manipulate time in order to fit the station brand. Harsh? Not when numbers of viewers continue to decline. Making everything “Breaking News” is one of the reasons viewers are looking away.

Consider this, “Breaking” has a new call to action for viewers now. For arguments’ sake, just think about when you hear there is breaking news. My guess is you the journalist, immediately hop on Twitter to see what people are saying about the story. Then you do a Google search. Guess what? Viewers do the same. And I am going to argue that TV stations using the term “Breaking” now just encourage viewers to check and potentially call your bluff. The natural reaction is to want to know all you can about the story happening right now and hopefully be the first to learn something you can share with others. This is not just a journalist’s desire. Viewers do the same. That is basic human instinct.

So if you want to look slick off the top and throw in the breaking news animation and supers package, but the story really happened an hour or two ago, your viewer will figure it out within the first paragraph of coverage. Busted! Then you potentially look behind the 8 ball. Why is station (call letters here) just now covering this story? Did they miss it when it started? What else did they miss today? Welcome to what viewers say. Or this: Here goes station (call letters here) calling a story “Breaking” when it’s not. What else do they exaggerate about to try and trick me into watching?

Viewers are not as gullible as you might want to think. Especially in this day where everything you want to know is a Siri question or few taps away. Show the respect of calling something breaking only when it truly just started happening. Old timers had an hour or less rule. I think you can get away with that if the standoff is still underway. But if the manhunt is over, the person shot is at the hospital and the scene is being cleared, then no, it’s probably not breaking news.

If you have “breaking developments” they better not be something you saved for the TV part of the three screen equation all day. Again, chances are high you will be outed as fudging the timeline.

For those of you who are shaking your heads saying “We’ve called everything breaking for years, our numbers are solid and we love our slogan” here’s one last thing to consider: “Breaking news” is quickly becoming less crucial to gain viewers. Three screen news gathering means an event that just started is likely going to be seen “live” through social media first. Now TV stations need to focus more on “Breaking” great additional details and separating fact from fiction in these fluid situations. That is where your expertise can be counted on. And, if you lie and tell viewers everything is happening right that second when it’s not, you are no longer an expert, just another person with a camera, and an outlet to share.

What if TV stations got bold, and stepped away from the time crutch associated with “Breaking News.” What if instead they focused on what journalists do best, sort out the truth and explain it easily, so everyone can understand what is happening. Talk about a powerful brand. Talk about “breaking” information. Redefining the term breaking news in a clear way could reenergize TV news. Instead of defining that type of news by timeliness of an event, focus on exclusivity of details. Then those tried and true “Live Local Late Breaking”, “Your Breaking News Station” and even “Where the News Comes First” slogans are legit credible assets to your station. Not the brunt of jokes. Dump the timeline references. Use breaking news they way the old timer’s did. New crucial information about an event. New information. Not a right now event. Then watch the viewers check Twitter, and head to your websites and newscasts in droves. They know the story is happening now, but what’s the truth in it? What news really “broke?” You’ll have the clear answers.

Why You Should Always Have Extra Stories In Your Rundown

Honing Skills, Producing, Survival Kit Comments Off on Why You Should Always Have Extra Stories In Your Rundown
Jan 072015

One of the most challenging parts of producing is making your meter points.
Some stations even penalize if you go over or under time by as little as 15 to 20 seconds, per block. Even if your station is not that picky, you have to make time at the end of your newscast.

The problem is, between chat, reporters turning in packages late or providing the wrong TRT and adding live shots and breaking news, it can be hard to time. That’s why you need escape routes for each meter point/news block.

So here’s a secret veteran producers know, that helps make sure they hit those key times, every time, no matter what. It all begins with putting extra stories in your rundown. You ideally want to put in 2 or 3 vo’s, some vo/sots and even a pkg just in case. Different producers do this different ways. But, I find, the easiest is to put them at the bottom of the rundown with the times zeroed out in your timing program. Then make sure they are edited right along with the rest of the newscast and ready to go.

Before you say “that’s just extra work and I do enough already” consider this. I did not say NEW stories. These can be alternate versions of stories in the newscast. Just make sure there is at least one “go to” option per block to add or shorten time. Veteran producers often add a line or two or a sidebar type story that gives depth to at least one story per block for showcasing opportunities. If you get heavy, that can go. Some write a vo/sot version of a vo in a block, so they can just sub out the longer version if they are suddenly really short during their newscast. Frankly, you are already going over the material, so writing a second version is fast and pretty painless.

These can also be stories from earlier newscasts that you flirted with putting in the newscast, but ran out of time or decided something else was more relevant. Every producer has those stories you initially will run, that get pushed out for something else. Just keep them at the bottom of the newscast, and zero the time out. Sometimes these don’t even mean more editing. They can be real life savers.

In terms of a backup package, this is something on the feeds that makes sense to put in your rundown lower down or at the end of a block. This precaution is great if you suddenly cannot get a live shot or a big breaker falls through. Always have vos and vo/sots first. This is a good last resort option if you are really light. But it can save you on and off and is worth striving for daily.

Just remember, time block-by-block. Have backups for each block to shorten or lengthen the segment. A little extra work, creating different versions of a few stories is totally worth it. Hitting meter points and timing your newscast correctly is expected and highly doable, you just need to do a little pre-planning.

What is a teaching newsroom?

Management Issues, Political Hotbed Comments Off on What is a teaching newsroom?
Oct 182014

I was thrilled when an EP recently asked me to write an article on what makes a teaching newsroom. The more I talk with news directors, EP’s and AND’s the more I realize this is not well defined in TV news. Everyone has their own take on what it means. I think the reason is the concept of teaching or training means “time consuming” to many. While that can be partly true it is also crucial for television news to remain relevant. As we ask journalists to do more and generate different types of content (on TV on website on social media.. etc) we need to help them get the basics down pat and quickly. While this is a career where you must learn by doing, there’s no reason why sharing the wealth should be de-emphasized.

So let’s begin with the fact that teaching newsrooms need a blend of veteran journalists and newbies and/or up and comers. Frankly, this can apply to every market size in the country. Where the points of difference come in, are whether those veteran journalists are empowered to be mentors, or advisors to the up and comers. In many newsrooms managers do not want veteran journalists to help train. This can be a wasted resource. A teaching newsroom partners those veterans with the up and comers to help provide support. You can do this without giving the veteran journalists too much editorial control.

Teaching newsrooms also have well defined news philosophies. You have to in order to teach. Many times the ND loves to find the next star journalists and genuinely enjoys creating a mentoring environment with clear expectations. Teaching newsrooms also usually have very communicative EP’s who are eager to sit down with producers and reporters to look over newscasts. They are passionate about helping their staffs grow and allowing their producers to push themselves to see what they can become as writers and showcasers.

This requires an understanding of the EP’s own strengths and weaknesses. I just love when EP’s compare notes on the “Survive” Twitter handle. Many are so eager to help their producers and reporters grow. Some do it with weekly meetings, some grab newscasts and sit down in edit bays and talk through shows with the producers. Others hold regular writing workshops for reporters and/or producers. A truly strong teaching newsroom has to have at least one of these elements happening regularly. EP’s are in the trenches. They need to be the day-to-day instructors in many ways. Management needs to help them do this, and provide backup so the time can be carved out for these crucial “sessions.”

Why you have to be willing to blow up your rundown to succeed as a producer.

Know Your Newsroom, Producing Comments Off on Why you have to be willing to blow up your rundown to succeed as a producer.
Oct 012014

It’s no secret that producers are protective of their rundowns. They simply want them a certain way. Many get downright nasty about making a change. Here’s the deal though, if you are one of those producers married to their rundown, you need to be ready to lose your job. Yes, it is true. That’s not producing, that is stacking.

Producing is about explaining news in a compelling way, through a conversation with visuals and sound. More importantly, producing is about anticipating change and still executing flawlessly. That is what managers want. The ability to do that, means you can showcase, you can protect your anchors, you story-tell and most of all you own breaking news every day, every time.

The thing managers hate the most is when a breaker needs to go in the newscast and the producer says no or pitches a fit because it will mess up their rundown. This is why old timers will often jump your business about calling what you put on the air a “show” instead of a “newscast.” A show is entertainment that can be put to bed early, and dressed up in pretty bows. This is not “show business.” It’s the news business. A newscast demands that you put in whatever is new, anyway you can and inform the viewer from start to finish. See the difference? The newscast can and should have showcasing elements. It can get dressed up, but if there’s a breaker, those pretty bows might have to go so the new story bursts through. In other words, your job is to inform. You cannot expect or demand to write a few things early in the day, then refuse to change the rundown. That is failing at your job. There, I said it. So many tip toe around this idea but, it is the truth. As much as all of us producers want it to be our newscast, it belongs to the viewer. It serves a purpose to inform. “ New” takes precedence, always. This goes for anchors too. It’s not your newscast. Again, the newscast belongs to the viewer. You are all vehicles by which information gets out. Take the ego out of it, put the great information in as a collective unit and you will win. So, remember, the best rundowns are those which you can easily blow up and put in new information. If that is more than you can handle, think about a career change.

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