“Rules are made to be broken, but first you have to know the rules.”

 

By now you have probably read that J-schools were called on to change the way they teach by the Knight Foundation.  In its “Open Letter to American University Presidents” the group calls for a “teaching hospital” style curriculum. (Basically you work alongside professionals to really learn the craft.)  When I asked journalists about this, and what they would like to see change, I got a lot of kudos for universities that had producing classes and ran “newsrooms” where students put on the news.  Glad to hear you are happy with your educations overall.  But, I think this call to action goes beyond that.

So, I threw together some ideas on what journalists really need to know from the get go. Now I’m asking you to add to it.  After all, we live it.  We know what’s there and what’s missing.

Understanding subjects to handle a beat.

Think back to your first job.  Did you know military lingo? Did you understand cop speak so you could decode it for viewers to understand?  Could you clearly explain how the election process really works (Heck that’s a valid question on 4th job.)?  Let’s be honest, phrases like “firefighters responded to a three alarm fire” happen a lot in news copy because many journalists don’t truly know what it means.  So instead of potentially screwing it up, journalists just repeat the information the information they are given by the officials.  Reporting classes should decipher systems and lingo so you have a clue what’s going on from the moment you get in the TV news job force.  I mean they need to teach the things we tend to cover most: fires, murders, crashes, elections, school millage rates, the GNP (do you at least know what that acronym means?) and unemployment stats.  Is your head spinning yet?  Then focus on how to break those types of story elements down in layman’s terms.  That way viewers know what the heck your point is.  It goes back to the simple idea that rules are made to be broken, but first you have to know the rules.  Now think about your first economics story (or even your last one because that subject is a real bugger) and the first time you had to take a campaign ad and break down the true and false elements on various issues.  It’s hard if you don’t understand the basic principles.  It can take several attempts to get it right.  Some of you may be thinking, “Well, I took an economics class.” or “I’m a poly sci minor.”  Sometimes even that isn’t enough to break it down for TV viewers.  A lot of those classes are theory.  This is real world application stuff.  You need the systems explained clearly, not a discussion on theories.  If you understand those systems and the lingo, you can write about it clearly in news stories and school essays.  Know the rules, then you can move past them.

Source building

This, to me, is one of the biggest problems in newsrooms today.  So few people truly “get” how to source build.  There are a lot of techniques involved, ethical issues, people and networking skills.  We’ve dedicated articles under the cloud tag “source”.  But they just scratch the surface.  If you really sit and think about it, in the majority of TV newsrooms there are 1 or 2 reporters (besides the investigative team) and an assignment editor that have incredible sources.  The rest, well, not so much.  Source building does not come as naturally as it may seem, even in the age of social media.  That’s why it needs to be taught in college journalism programs.

Social media interaction

When I asked what J-Schools should improve on, a few journalists mentioned social media.  What writing style do you use on the social web, “newspaper” or “broadcast”?  What is proper etiquette?  What potential legal pitfalls could you run into?  Heck, many of us “veteran journalists” would go back to school to take these sorts of classes, if we could.  Again, we need to know the basic rules, before we can break them and begin to evolve.

Cross training

The most common suggestion I heard from journalists?  Cross training. That even came from some newsies who went to the universities that taught reporting, producing and photojournalism classes.  I am going to confess to one of the largest reasons I launched survivetvnewsjobs.com: Too often, journalists are disconnected in newsrooms.  The reporter does not get what the producer needs.  The producer doesn’t get what the anchor needs.  No one seems to understand what the assignment editor needs.  And reporters and photojournalists sit in the same news vehicle all day, and often are not recognizing the challenges the other faces.  Simply put, few know the rules their teammates live under.  There are two whole categories on the website relating to these issues: “Getting along with Peers” and “Smart Alliances.”   “Getting along with Peers” is one of the most searched for and read sections.  The reason:  journalists want to understand why other key players in the newsroom act like they do.  That’s crucial because we journalists waste time trying to explain things that we should not have to explain.  It can hamper the product each day.  It prohibits open discussions in news editorial meetings.  Then people get “human” and start demanding “just trust me.”  This is not a trust issue. This is a productivity issue.  This is the cog in the wheel that prevents us from breaking the rules and evolving.  Turning a few newscasts as a producer; turning a few packages one semester as a reporter and shooting a few pieces as a photojournalist does not make you an expert.  It simply is not enough to allow you to really understand the daily pressures of these jobs.  But it might be enough if you combine  doing these things, in a newsroom setting, with talking about real world scenarios with veteran journalists.  Let longtime producers explain why they start snapping at reporters three hours before the show.  Let them explain why not turning in the tease video earlier than the pkg creates a multilevel nightmare.  They can also hash out why missing slot is really bad for the entire newscast.  Let veteran reporters explain why holding off on script approval can really screw over a field crew.  How about hearing from a well-seasoned pro why sending an anchor to the set 10 minutes before air, with no a-block scripts (because they aren’t written yet!) will potentially wreak havoc for the next two blocks of news, if not the entire newscast.  Then let’s discuss the reporter driving the live truck while the photojournalist sits in the back slam editing the pkg desperately trying to make slot, because of equipment failure or bad weather.  Real life scenarios do not always play out in these university “newsrooms.” Discussion groups involving veteran journalists, in every newsroom role, can help fill in the gaps.

There are many more issues we could bring up.  Please, FB with more of your ideas.  If we get enough, we’ll send them and this article to the Knight Foundation.  After all, it’s our vocation.  We deserve to lay out the rules, so we can help break them and evolve our profession.

No doubt about it, Twitter is a fascinating place to track news people.  Stations are pushing journalists to tweet.  It’s super easy and quickly reaps rewards that stroke your ego.  You cannot help but tweet nowadays and promote your work and yourself.

We have spent the last several months tracking more than 1,200 journalists and how they tweet.  Here are some trends we’ve noticed that really play a part in whether a journalist comes across as credible.

You Tweet Observations

  • Descriptions Are Crucial
  • Personal  Isn’t Personal
  • Watch Your Words
  • Variety  Is Essential

The first thing we noticed was how different the profile descriptions are. Some simply say: “Joe Schmo is a TV news reporter.”  Some only have a name.  Some say things like: “I’m a TV reporter who loves beer” or “I am really exciting especially when I am out on the town.”  Because so many of the descriptions were either really dull or a little too flashy, we want to delve into the importance of the profile description.  You need to place elements that make you seem like an interesting person to connect with, without being too flashy or unprofessional.  In general, bosses don’t want to read about your love of any kind of alcohol and anything that makes it seem like you party hard when you are not at work.  If you read that and are saying:  “Hey this is my personal account, back off!” read on please.

Always remember, your personal account isn’t truly personal.  It is too easy to type in your name and get access to both accounts, especially on Twitter.  Also, once you take a job on-air in TV news, that is who you are when you present yourself in public, period.  You represent your station at all times no matter how much you would like to separate yourself into a public person and a private person.  TV news employers can and will use your personal behavior (or misbehavior) in evaluating you because it reflects on them due to the high profile nature of the job and you being part of their public face.  It is simply a fact of life in TV news.

Besides, you want to use an account that is not directly tied to your station to help showcase your personality and all of its sellable points to potential bosses as well as your throng of adoring fans.  Even if you have a professional account (i.e. station required) and a personal account, people are going to monitor the personal one as much or even more. You tagged it as “personal” and that makes it more compelling to many viewers immediately.  It’s a chance to see the true colors of their favorite TV personality.  And we have seen plenty of colorful comments that make it obvious many think that industry professionals, like future bosses are not reading their tweets.  Not the case and potentially a major career mistake.

Which leads to our next point, watch your words when you tweet and not because of the 150 character limit.  Twitter is an excellent place to track people you are interested in hiring one day.  It is a real life way to see how they interact with other people, and how much they respect (or take for granted) their role as a journalist.  We have read about wild parties via tweets as well as drinking, sex jokes and crude remarks.  We’ve also seen plenty of the f word in journalists tweets.  In just a few short months we have groups of journalists we check on each day because they are fascinating reads in the tweet world.  We have also seen a lot of journalists who are, simply put, loose cannons.  Some of what they write is so over the top, there’s no way a manager that monitors Twitter would ever have interest in hiring them.  Remember, when possible, we monitored personal accounts.  We are guessing people act more in tune with their true character on those accounts.

So what’s a journalist to do if they want a personal account, but obviously need to avoid getting too edgy?  Variety is essential.  Give slice of life elements to your tweets along with work related stuff.  We love seeing journalists talk about standing in the heat for stories, relieved to get the interview they’ve been chasing all day or tweeting about a fact that fascinated them that day.  Tweeting about the stories you are working creates a personal connection that makes you wonder what the stories are these media folk churn out.  It can also help you source build (See How to generate story ideas when you are swamped ).   But remember, if the story you are working on is legally sensitive in any way, your tweets can be used against you if someone decides to sue you and/or your station.

Reading about the great meal you had or wishing a friend a happy birthday are warm and easy to relate to as well.  Many people are tweeting about running or working out and encouraging each other.  Some just have silly stories about their day.  Remember this is a great networking opportunity.  We are enjoying watching journalists really support each other and joke around while remaining professional.  But never forget, once you become a TV news journalist your public and private identities become highly intertwined. So while you are making sure your tweets are engaging, quirky and relatable also make sure they are professional and present you in a positive light.  The world is watching, not just your friends and family.

 

 

Anchors, the title of this one is strong and may tick you off.  But before you get too upset, read our previous article:  “Throw me a life line, I’m being hung out to dry, AGAIN!”  We are journalists after all and therefore must look at all sides!

As a producer, the largest challenge I faced without a doubt was anchors that “attacked” rather than talked through issues.  It took years of frustration to figure out how to handle this.  Now I want to share what I learned so other producers can relax more.

How to deal with a difficult anchor

  • Know your anchors strengths and weaknesses
  • Remember this person is the face of all that you do as well
  • Establish your role as manager of the newscast
  • If there’s a problem, take the lead and talk it through
  • As a last option, fight fire with fire

I fully admit that a lot of complaints anchors brought to me were valid.  But, because I was being screamed at or worse yet had to listen to the boss tell me that I screwed up, it was sometimes hard to hear the message.   Most of us producers are thrown into the fire without a fireproof suit and are just trying to get out alive every day.  You have to separate yourself from that chaos and listen to the message.  For example, one anchor thought I gave her too many instructions before going to a breaking news story.  Maddening, since producers are often told we give anchors too little information.  I put my frustration aside and asked why.  She explained that she was unable to formulate thoughts to ad lib and felt foolish delivering the facts.  She didn’t like reading scripts cold and preferred I not write breaking news, instead give her a few facts to run with.  Next time we had a breaker, I gave her what she wanted and she did a great job.

Knowing your anchors strengths and weaknesses also means you have to be able to adapt to the anchors needs.  I learned which anchors could ad lib and which needed those breaking news scripts to pull off spot news.   If I had an anchor that could not ad lib, I gave the ad libs to the anchor that could ad lib, then changed anchor reads so the non-ad libber did not feel left out.  I learned who needed compliments in their IFB at commercial breaks.  It is a delicate balance.  It seems like all you do is humor people’s egos.  Frankly, that is a large part of producing a winning newscast.  It’s also something you need to get used to in order to have success at the highest levels.

Which leads to the next point, remember these anchors are the face of all the hard work you do each day.  Your copy will not “sing” unless the anchor can “deliver” it.   Your newscast will be uncomfortable to watch if your anchors are not at ease.  Whether some demands are ridiculous in your opinion, is another matter.  Humor enough of them to calm the anchor down so he/she can perform well.  A key to doing this is to give some compliments even if you never get any in return.  You want to show your anchors that you respect the jobs they do, so they gain confidence that you have their backs.  This is crucial to establishing a strong team on your show.  As the newscast manager this is your primary responsibility, whether you make the most money on the shift or not.

As manager of your show, you do have the right to make the decisions.  If an anchor has a really unreasonable request, you can deny it.  Here’s a common scenario:  An hour before your newscast an anchor comes to you saying their co-anchor has more reads.  You have breaking news, your reporters haven’t fed and you are behind writing.  It is okay to say:  “Today the show airs as formatted.”  Then, after the newscast, take a look at how you divided up the anchor reads that day, as well as a few days earlier.  Anchors usually do not come to you unless they have noticed an issue for a while.  Most people do not like confrontation.  If your reads have been a bit skewed to the other anchor, fix the issue the next day.  Thank the anchor who mentioned it for coming to you.  Also if you don’t know this next trick, use it.  Switch off who leads the blocks every day.  By the law of averages, that means by the end of the week the anchors will have a nearly even number of reads and leads.  If the reads were not skewed, print out a week’s worth of rundowns, highlight the reads in different colors and talk to the anchor that’s complaining.  Do not accuse the anchor of being ridiculous.  Explain what you do to prevent uneven face time, then hand the anchor the highlighted rundowns and ask him/her to look them over and see if there are any issues he/she wants to discuss.  This establishes that you are not a push over, you are conscientious, and you take responsibility for your newscasts.  This simple chat can keep an anchor from lodging attacks.  Thank the anchor for coming to you and let him/her know you are always willing to hear ways “We can make the newscast better.” Again, this will show the anchor that you are the leader of the newscast.

So what if the anchor constantly runs to management to whine about you and never comes to you directly?  Remember, people do not like confrontation.  If a manager comes to you with an anchor complaint, listen, then ask the manager how you should handle the problem.  This shows you are willing to be proactive.  Then, after the newscast ask to speak with the anchor one on one.  Explain that you understand that anchor is upset about XYZ and you will do XYZ to fix the problem.  Then say, “in the future if there’s a problem, please know that I am willing to listen.  The best time for me to talk is right after the newscast.”  Then, walk away.  You want to have this conversation in case the anchor goes to management behind your back again.  At that point ask your direct manager, ideally an EP, to sit with you while you talk to the anchor about the current problem and solution, and respectfully ask the anchor to come to you directly in the future.  You want to let the anchor know you also have a little clout with management to even the playing field.  In many shops producers are becoming more of a commodity than anchors.  There are less people willing to do our job.  You don’t want to abuse that knowledge, but it is helpful to subtly let the anchor know you are a valuable asset as well.  It is also good to include your EP, because this person probably has years of history dealing with difficult anchors and can help diffuse the situation further or divert it to the EP instead of you.

Finally, if you have a really difficult anchor, and no other choice, fight fire with fire.  Tell your EP ahead of time and stand up for yourself.  If you are being hazed, read our previous article:  “Thank you sir, may I have another: How to handle newsroom hazing.”  One anchor of mine, refused to get to the set on time. So, I took her out of the entire a-block and ended up with her screaming at me in the News Director’s office.  The ND told me to include her from then on, and I told them both that I would when she was professional enough to get to the set 5 minutes before the newscast began, not 5 minutes after.  The ND turned to the anchor and said, “ That is a basic request.”  I won a big battle.  The daily attacks stopped.  I also made a weather anchor that constantly ran exceedingly long on weather apologize to the audience for running so long that we could not air a story that was teased the entire show.  He was 30 years my senior.  But, I told him over the studio PA that he needed to take responsibility like the rest of us do each day and he went with it.  We came back from commercial and he offered an eloquent apology.

If you take one thing away from this article, make it this:  When you feel it’s “anchor’s away”, and you are about to be the brunt of a brutal tongue lashing, keep your cool.  Write down the anchor’s complaint and reasoning.  Give yourself a few minutes to breathe and relax and actually look at the situation from the anchor’s perspective.  You may learn some valuable lessons about putting on a better newscast.

 

My career began covering a major flood.  I was a one man band, standing knee deep in floodwater, sandbagging in between shooting packages.  I also learned how the power of video combined with a knowledgeable meteorologist can captivate audiences.

Then, through the years, came tornadoes and hurricanes and massive snow and ice storms.  I produced newscasts through it all watching, and when I could, helping meteorologists explain what happened.  Over the years I worked with some big names in the biz.  They all had several characteristics in common that made them among the best at what they do:

  • An unending hunger to learn more about the area in which they worked
  • Great talent for boiling down conditions and clearly explaining impact
  • The ability to make weather coverage interesting even when the skies are sunny and clear
  • A drive to improve each day
  • Lots of volunteer work in their community

The thing that struck me the most watching these incredible meteorologists over the years was their unending hunger to learn more about the area they covered.  These meteorologists were always looking over maps from past to present, researching and looking for trends and coordinating with the local weather service.  They never tired of looking for a new nugget of information about the area.

When severe weather struck, these meteorologists could boil down what was happening in clear terms. They explained what was happening without using a lot of extra adjectives.  They didn’t pass judgment on a storm’s potential impact.  In other words, they didn’t say things like “this is going to be a scary one folks.”  They would just say, “Now is the time to take cover. Bring your TV or turn on a radio if you can. We will tell you when it is safe.”  These meteorologists knew which schools were on spring break, or when kids would be at a bus stop for each section of the DMA.  They were walking encyclopedias of the outdoor recreation areas, even able to casually mention specific places to take cover.  They could talk about how deep a mark you needed to claim hail damage on insurance and other little tidbits you needed to know.  They truly came across as a friend and confidant that would never lead you astray.

I truly enjoyed working with these meteorologists on sunny days.  They still made their weathercasts interesting with those tidbits of information.  They educated on cloud types, topography, or what local weather watchers might find interesting in the coming days.  You learned a little something every time they spoke.  These true experts made weather teases easy to write.  Most were also not in it for the “face time.”  If there wasn’t much to say and no interesting weather video to discuss, they came to me saying “let’s cut back the time.”

The most interesting trend I noticed over the years though, was how they took sunny days to work on their on-air performances.  One would come sit with me to talk about how I wrote news copy and why I used certain phrases.  Many would review tape of recent severe weather and critique themselves. (to learn how and why to do this check out our previous article: “Humble pie; why a slice of self-examination can change your career”)  Sometimes I was called into the weather center to discuss what we could have done better.  We would sit and brainstorm and make plans to implement before the next storm hit.  These meteorologists truly managed all aspects of weather coverage.

Finally, these meteorologists all had an intense sense of community.  They truly felt like civil servants to the families that watched them.  Many routinely went to schools to give talks and volunteered at various charities.  Their commitment to the community was inspiring.  On the days that severe weather struck, the example they set made us all want to perform even better at our jobs.  We did not want to let these weather experts down.  They set a standard that guaranteed your newscast would be worth watching.

 

Before you read this article, humor me and ball up a sheet of paper.  Throw it into the air and try and catch it with only one hand.  Then switch hands.  Then use both hands.  Bottom line, you will catch the waded up paper ball more easily, and often, with both hands.  You can catch a ball with one hand, but with both hands your odds increase dramatically.  This is how I like to describe the relationship between a producer and a director.

I was lucky enough to land my first job as a full producer in a top 30 market.  I was a rookie “kid” paired with veteran anchors and directors.  These directors taught me a tremendous amount about “producing” in that first job.  They caught my rookie mistakes and without chastising me, worked around them live on TV.  After the newscast they took the time to sit with me and teach me how to prevent the same problem from happening again.  Soon after, I worked in a top 20 market.  Same scenario:  The directors talked me through any mistakes.  I quickly learned the person I needed to align myself with was my director.

After that, when I interviewed for producing jobs, I always asked to meet the director before deciding on a gig.  If that person and I didn’t click, the job wouldn’t work.  I felt that strongly about the connection of right and left hand.  By requesting to meet the director right away, I also usually gained a loyal ally.  I showed respect even before getting the job.  This went a long way toward establishing a solid relationship.  Don’t get me wrong, I sometimes had knock down drag outs with directors over mistakes on the air.  But because they knew I had a basic respect for the job they did, we could work through the differences.

Producers and directors have something important in common; they are both responsible for a lot of things they have very limited control over.  If a reporter steps out of a shot just as you take it live, you both get in trouble for taking the pic even if you cued the reporter.  If master control gives you the wrong time for a commercial break and you miss a meter, you are both in trouble.  This is often where producers and directors play the blame game.  Don’t fall victim to this.  Both producers and directors tend to be control freak type personalities.  Sit down and decide who is responsible for what.  For example, once I established IFB, my director would check the live shot, if the reporter did not respond, the director had final say on taking the live shot or going straight to the package.  It was faster that way, since the director had a finger on the button, or control of the TD sitting right beside him/her.  Bottom line, let the director manage the technical elements while you focus on content and timing.  Again, consider the right hand/left hand analogy.  You would not cross one hand over the other to catch your paper ball.  Set up who’s making the call on what, then, support each other.

If you are still not convinced that this is a crucial relationship to establish, let’s talk breaking news.  There are times when breakers happen so fast on live television that you simply cannot tell everyone who needs to know what you are doing in time.  An example: police standoffs.  I was once boothing continuing coverage of a standoff when the SWAT team showed up.  The GM and ND came in to have a philosophical debate over what to show.  They kept interrupting me as I tried to give directions to the production crew and more importantly the anchors.  My director knew how I thought because we talked so much about breaking news and had set up clear roles.  Several times he was able to “take over” while I listened to the bosses.  He literally knew what I was going to say, before I could say it.  If we had not developed a strong relationship, with mutual respect, things would have fallen apart on live TV.  We were consistent with each other, and knew each other’s job needs.  The right hand was able to catch the ball, while the left hand was tied up.  It is a crucial relationship whether playing catch or putting on a live broadcast!

 

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