The Best Job Security A Reporter Can Have

Reporting, Source Building, Survival Kit Comments Off on The Best Job Security A Reporter Can Have
Feb 222015

The best job security a reporter can have comes down to one word. Sources. Time and time again I hear about the “untouchable” reporter in a newsroom who can’t ad lib, can’t write, can’t dress, can’t get along with people, yet cannot be fired. The reason, sources. The reporter has so many contacts and so many ways to get relevant information on a dime, that they away with murder day-to-day.

Now, if you are the person with the great sources, hear this: I am NOT suggesting that you act like a jerk in the newsroom. Even the most “untouchable” person can go too far and pay a hefty price. But if you love where you live and want to stay for the long haul, do not underestimate the power of a strong source list.

Simply put, too many people think their looks or on-air abilities are enough to keep them around. These traits are easier to find in the biz, than a die hard reporter with a true pulse of what’s happening in the community and who’s behind the power struggles, conflicts and movements. Your looks can fade or a station can change it’s mind about on-air presentation styles. No matter what, all stations and all news philosophies in all markets need journalists who can call on a hunch, turn a lead story and do it consistently.

So next time you think you are too tired to make that follow-up call, or reach out on a new lead for a potential source, remember, giving that extra effort could make you an invaluable resource. It is worth it. (If you don’t know how to source build check out Cultivating Sources and How to Generate Story Ideas.)

Story Sources: Beware of the Badge?

Know Your Newsroom, Reporting Comments Off on Story Sources: Beware of the Badge?
Jan 222015

Let’s be honest—if you’re a TV reporter, you probably end up assigned to more crime stories than you can count over the course of a year! A murder here, a robbery there, another missing person, oh and don’t forget the occasional 12-hour standoff.

Reporters cover a lot of crime and because of that, they get to know the police public information officers pretty well. PIOs are an important link between the crime scene and your TV viewers. After all, they usually know many more details about the incident than you do as a reporter. They talk with the detectives on-scene, they’re briefed by the brass, and it’s their job to be a link between the department and the public. Many of them do a fantastic job. In my last TV market, a couple of the PIOs were excellent communicators and savvy with social media—they’d tweet basic details on breaking news and direct TV crews to a staging area where they’d meet reporters. That’s good stuff.

It’s a tough job, actually. Many PIOs are on-call 24/7, so when a murder happens on a weekend or a skier goes missing on New Year’s Day, they’re taking calls from reporters or setting up a news conference. They’re under a lot of pressure from YOU the reporter to provide as much information as possible, while at the same time not releasing any details that might jeopardize an investigation. It can be quite the balancing act.

The bottom line is, in many cases, you need good PIOs to give you information for your story. They’re front-line, typically credible sources. But here’s something to consider… something more young journalists seem to have trouble understanding: it’s important to not count on PIOs as your only sources. Never forget who the PIO is working for—and it’s not you. They’re representing their law enforcement agency and, when push comes to shove, protecting their agency. If they think it’s best for a particular case or investigation, police may obviously withhold certain facts they don’t want the public to know. They may even provide false information or ask you to hold a piece of info if they believe it’ll help flush out a suspect.

I’ve known reporters, producers and assignment editors who had very close working relationships with PIOs. They talked with them every day as they did “beat checks.” Over time, some even became friends on a personal level. That can lead to good information or an occasional exclusive story. But you need to keep your guard up. You need to be careful you’re not crossing the line. And certain PIOs can be manipulative and even lead reporters down the wrong path if it means protecting an investigation. There can be other issues that aren’t as ominous, but can bite you anyway. For example, what if the PIO mistakenly gives you bad info? Now you’re going on the air with a fact error.
Treat PIOs as you would other sources—with caution. Truth is you need them to provide detail for your stories. And they need you to distribute certain info to the public. But whenever you can, don’t use a PIO as your only source. Work hard and track down others who may be able to add context and detail—what do the neighbors have to say? How about the suspect or victim’s employer? Check court and police records for yourself to see what someone’s criminal background is. Find out what witnesses have to say, if you can find them. And when you can, talk with a detective or deputy directly. It’s always best to get information form the most direct source, rather than the public mouthpiece of the department.

PIOs can and will continue to be a key contact for reporters. They can save your newscast when breaking news happens late and you need a nugget of info to get a lead story on the air. They can also help you on and off the record. But always remember they may have their own agenda. There are potentially other credible and legitimate sources on any given story, so don’t just call you favorite PIO and call it a day. Do the extra work and make your story that much better.

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Steve Kraycik is the Director of Student Television and Online Operations at Penn State University. He has more than 27 years of experience in television news, much of that as a manager. He also is an agent with MediaStars. You can reach him at steve@mediastars.tv and @TV_Agent_Steve.

Is Enterprising Stories A News Philosophy?

Source Building, Survival Kit Comments Off on Is Enterprising Stories A News Philosophy?
Apr 162014

Recently I addressed the importance of defining your news philosophy to end up in a station where you can really flourish.  When I ask journalists to define their philosophy the most common answer I get is “enterprising stories.”  Let’s consider that for a minute.

Enterprising stories is not a philosophy.  It is the result of source building.  However, it is what you should be doing anyway as a news reporter.  Again, “enterprising stories” is not a news philosophy.  A news philosophy defines how you present information to the community to inform, empower and educate.  It includes writing style, graphics presentation, and topic selection.  It delves into which of the 5 W’s and 1 H you focus on the most.

Stations may emphasize unique stories as a key part of coverage.  It can be part of a news philosophy.  But it is not the whole of a news philosophy.  Remember, part of serving the public is covering the issues and events of the day.  You cannot always enterprise every element.  You can look for impact elements others do not have, but the basic facts must still be present in order to serve the public effectively.

Here’s one more thing to think about: Nearly all newsrooms aspire to have some sort of “enterprise” unit no matter their stated philosophy.  (Conan recently reminded us how rare it really is.) Aspire to break this mold.  Delve deeper into issues to find the unique elements.  Source build so you can learn what the reality of a situation really is, and use those skills to define your philosophy.  Think of “enterprising stories” as a means to the end, which is, your news philosophy.

 

How To Define Your News Philosophy

Honing Skills, Survival Kit Comments Off on How To Define Your News Philosophy
Mar 122014

When journalists contact me, one of the first questions I ask is “What is your news philosophy?”  Most cannot tell me clearly.  I end up having to ask a series of questions, then define it for them.  (This, by the way, includes many news managers who call me looking for employees.)

Now I know some people are already rolling their eyes at me mentioning news philosophy.  The naysayers response:  “Your philosophy is the boss’s philosophy.”  My counter.  Exactly.  If you do not know what type of news you love to do, and you do not define your own mission statement to serve the community, you cannot connect with a manager who thinks the same way.  Want to know why so many journalists burn out in the first 5 years?  This is a big reason.  You and the boss don’t think alike.  The job is simply too intense, too all encompassing not to believe in the message.  Journalism is a vocation in many ways.  You do it because you just don’t know what else you can do.  It is simply a part of you, so you need to define it for yourself.  Personal fulfillment often replaces the great paycheck in those first key years.

O.K., lecture over. Now let’s talk about how to define your philosophy.  It requires exploring a few questions and truthfully answering them instead of saying what you think others want to hear.

What types of stories make you proud to be a journalist?

What issues do you read about in your spare time?

How do you visualize stories?

What news do you love to watch and steal ideas from?

How do you serve the community in your reports/newscast?

Really think about these questions. They are a great guide to helping you define news philosophy for yourself.  Also try and throw away stereotypes. (See article “What is Hard News”) You need to define your philosophy in clear terms a viewer could relate to, not a fellow newsy.  For example, the “New, Now, Next Philosophy” has different meanings depending on what broadcast entity is executing it.  So just telling a prospective boss, I am a “new, now, next broadcast journalist” is only a small part of the picture.  You need to have more detailed discussions.  How will you do this with graphics?  Standups?  When deciding what stories are live?  Do you like a lot of 20 second vo’s or do you like to really delve into an issue and pick apart what’s new, now and next?  Make sense?

Let’s get back to news as vocation for a minute.  Sometimes journalists need to be reminded that the news they put on the air, and over the internet, actually impacts people’s lives.  You have incredible influence over issues, sometimes arguably too much influence.  You owe it to yourself and those you serve to know why you dedicated your life to doing the news.  If you cannot do this, you need to go into PR.  It’s a simple truth.  Call me an idealist, a purist, a fool.  But news philosophy is crucial to excel at this vocation you have chosen.  Don’t shortchange yourself.

 

Do Journalists Need To Be Entrepreneurs Or Just Really Good At Building Sources?

Source Building, Survival Kit Comments Off on Do Journalists Need To Be Entrepreneurs Or Just Really Good At Building Sources?
Sep 052013

This year and last, the Knight Foundation has brought up the idea of using the “teaching hospital” model in j-schools to properly prepare journalists.  Last year, an“Open Letter to American University Presidents” called for a “teaching hospital” style curriculum. This year, a study is out questioning whether this teaching style really is the right move for j-schools.

In the past I asked journalists what’s lacking in training for TV news, then summarized those ideas.  Now this new study says J-schools need to encourage newbie journalists to take an “entrepreneurial approach” even while earning a degree. In other words, they want part of the curriculum to center on creating new ways to deliver the news in addition to learning how to present the news. Professors would be encouraged to also think up and test out new ideas.

I see the point.  I get where the researchers are going.  But I want to ask this:  If you do not even know how to draw, can you then make something look 2 or 3d?  The biggest criticism today, is TV news lacks depth.  Journalists skip steps or do not know to take steps to ensure information is accurate.  There are few checks and balances.  This happens when people are overwhelmed.  Lack of training and understanding, or knowledge of the existence of station policies, can cause embarrassing gaffs.  Now with increased pressure to get something on TV and break stories on social media, this lack of training and organization is really being exposed.  This is a dirty secret most veteran journalists have been painfully aware of for decades.

The medium really is secondary.  The core issue hurting TV news and journalism in general is this:  Too few entities demand source building and proper fact checking.  Many journalists will admit they do not know how to source build.  No clue where to even start.  This is one of the most requested article topics I receive.  How do you source build?  I cannot take people to lunch, so will I ever be able to develop sources?  Is it bad that my sources are all PIO’s?

So I am going to go out on a limb and saying that this whole idea of encouraging creativity and entrepreneurs in J-school is missing the point.  The biggest problem with J-schools today, is very few employ journalists who have actually worked in a newsroom in recent times.  Most schools demand masters and Ph.D.’s but do not emphasize real world experience.

J-schools may seem irrelevant, or out of touch or needing an overhaul because of this simple issue.  Hence the push for a teaching hospital style of program and entrepreneurial approaches.

J-schools can provide opportunities to step out of the box and create new ways to tell stories, utilize social media and even redefine the role of TV news in society.  BUT the ideas will not truly be relevant until they can clearly prove that the implementation will increase accuracy in reporting.  Let’s stop skirting the issue, and admit to the problem in clear terms. Journalists are entering the work force, with few clues on how to research and make sure they are accurately disseminating information.  As a result, they stick to what the news release and PIO say, and do not question.  It is the safe route.  It allows you to churn and burn 2 or 3 packages a day.  Teaching hospital or entrepreneurial push?  Neither approach really matters if the basic foundation is not there.  Teach how to gather information, source build and fact check.  Get extremely detailed about it.  Then TV journalists as a whole can move forward.  Stations can stop becoming a testing ground.  Most importantly, we can stop debating the whole “How do we teach journalism to stay relevant?” debate.  Facts are always going to be relevant.  Teach how to find them and get them right!

 

This article idea came from a reporter on Facebook who recently moved to night side.  If you have ever worked this shift, you already know what he asked.  How do you find stories, much less break news, night side when everyone you’re calling wants to just go home for dinner and offices are closed?

No doubt generating solid content can be challenging on a night where there is not a big event planned, a huge story that easily carries through or breaking news.  The biggest key to “owning the night” is recognizing you will need to give up a little of your off time to build sources and set up stories.  When you first begin as a night sider this will be a little time consuming, unless you’ve already worked in the same city for a while and have sources.  But, once you build up some sources (read “Cultivating Sources” if you need help building up sources), it will not take that much time to call and make your checks.  In fact, in some ways, it can be easier to see if a story you are hearing about really is sound, than it is for dayside reporters.  Remember, day siders have to try and figure out if a story is legit when people are eating breakfast, getting the kids to school and running late.  You can make calls as they come back from lunch and are often tying up loose ends and actually have some time to talk.  So, eventually, it will be easier to get the info verified quickly.  You just need to figure out who to call on your beat.

Speaking of beats, act like you have one, even if there is no formal defined beat system in your shop.  By that I mean, figure out what types of stories management bites on at night, and source build around those topics.  (see “How to Pitch and Pull Off Stories in Producer Driven Shops” for more on how to do that)  You just don’t have the time to source build in every section of the DMA on every subject.  Pick a couple of subjects and areas of the DMA and stick to that at first.  It will help you.  Just make sure the veteran night sider hasn’t already built up a rapport with the same agencies and sources, so you are not double calling and confusing the agencies.

Try and work a day ahead if you can.  Forward looking stories about an upcoming hot button issue in town, or a major event, you will probably cover in a day or two can be great “fall backs” on a slow news night.  You can informally set those types of stories up ahead of time.

When I managed PM newscasts, my go to night side reporters, usually called the desk around lunchtime to see if an assignment editor had heard of anything that might pop that night.  Then the reporter would make a few calls and come in with a solid story idea.  I often got calls on my way into work from reporters who had checked with sources to feel out interest on potential stories they could pitch when we got to work.  This was a great help as well.  I could say, “Set it up.” or “Look for something else.” early in the process.  It took all of us just a few minutes, and often paid off in the end.

This may sound obvious, but another station in town used to routinely “break” interesting crime stories a day ahead of us.  We eventually figured out that one of their night side reporters would stop and pick up police reports (now you can usually just check them online) on their way into work.  That person then knew anything that happened after a typical 9 a.m. check by a dayside reporter.  The other stations didn’t check until the next morning either.  So this station ended up with constant “exclusives,” “first on’s” etc. until we figured out the trick.  It’s proof that simple moves can pay off big time for night side content.

My final suggestion is to buddy up with a dayside reporter.  That person may know of three people you can begin to call in the early afternoon to build sources.  Sometimes day siders get tips as they are coming off of their shift.  If that reporter knows you are willing to get calls before you come into work, you might get the tip call instead of it just going to the assignment desk.  But make sure you pay it forward.  If you hear rumblings of something good that might pop in the morning, shoot off a text to that day sider.  Having each other’s back only helps.

Those are some tricks to “own the night.”  If you have more suggestions, please send ‘em so we can all learn.

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