It’s a new year. You’re feeling all refreshed. And you’re ready to again dig for some great stories.

But what if you don’t know where to start?

Maybe you’re dreading the morning meeting lately because it seems like not much is happening in your market.

Here’s what I suggest: Reconnect with sources you’ve “neglected” a bit over the last six months or so. You’re asking literally everyone you interview for business cards or other contact information, right? You’re keeping that info in a desk drawer or in a file on your computer, right?

Well, spend an hour digging through there looking for the great contacts who may have slipped your mind as you moved on to other pressing news stories.

Give them a call. Tell them you want to catch-up and you’re sorry it’s been so long since he or she has heard from you. Be genuine. Be relaxed with them. Don’t have your crazy I-am-a-news-reporter-and-I-need-a-package-idea-NOW voice on!

Sometimes, enduring the equivalent of writer’s block, I’ll literally flip through business cards trying to come up with the inspiration for a story — or to remind myself about a story I should follow-up on.

I’m kind of old school. I still like business cards. There’s something about seeing that logo next to the name that really refreshes my memory. (Yes, I’m horrible with names if I’ve only interviewed someone once.)

Here’s another tip: As you’re putting those award entries together this month (why must so many of them be due so close to the beginning of the year anyway?) think about follow-ups to these stories that you could be doing.

Every time someone does research on TV news audiences, it seems they find news consumers complaining that we don’t do enough follow-ups. Whatever happened to…? They want to know.

That company that promised 50 new jobs back in November? Have they hired everyone they need? How far along are they before they open-up shop?

Remember that congressman in your district who announced he’s retiring rather than running for re-election? Is he still showing-up for votes in Washington? Or is he out golfing on taxpayer time?

And don’t forget all of those families you focused on over the holidays who are barely scraping by because the mother and father have both lost their jobs. How are they making it now that it’s not the “season of giving” anymore? How are charities in your market doing?

As we were putting this article to bed, Poynter’s Al Tompkins wrote a nice blog post pointing to another great source of story ideas: the people you work with. He shows two examples where tips from colleagues led reporters to win 2012 Alfred duPont Awards.

“The lesson here is clear,” writes Tompkins, “listen to everyone.”

Lastly, you can also get a lot of inspiration from Twitter. As a courtesy to your audience, I recommend following back every person in your viewing area who follows you. It’s the nice thing to do. After all, you make money because they watch you. (Or you get fired if they don’t.)

So scroll through your “all friends” feed on Tweetdeck and see what people in your area are talking about. If they’re talking about it is — at least by one definition — news.

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Matthew Nordin is a morning anchor/investigative reporter at Raycom Media’s NBC affiliate in Myrtle Beach, WMBF News. Feel free to chat with him on Twitter @MatthewNordin.

 

 

In San Antonio, Texas, I stood at a microphone and prayed I wasn’t about to be laughed-at for the question I was about to ask.

It was 1998 and I’d gotten a free ride to that year’s Radio-Television News Directors Association convention because I would be receiving a college scholarship from this esteemed group.

On the panel in front of me, little did I know at the time, was my future mentor, former CNN political correspondent Brooks Jackson.

Suddenly, the room got quiet. The panel looked at me at the microphone out in the audience. It was time to ask my question.

How do you cultivate sources? I wanted to know, though I doubt I used the word “cultivate” back then.

Nobody laughed. Brooks actually took the question seriously. And he gave me some of the best advice of my career: If you’re naturally interested in what your potential source does for a living (like running a political campaign) the relationship will develop naturally.

Later, as a college intern in CNN’s Washington bureau, I’d be assigned to work with Brooks as his field producer/tape logger/personal assistant/lunch fetcher. I learned a lot from him and saw him put his source cultivating skills into action.

He had one of those phone headsets that made him look like a Time-Life operator. And he’d be on the phone for hours — just chatting — and taking some notes on his computer. These were relaxed, no pressure, on background chats. After so many years in the business, he had a lot of phone numbers he could call. And people were happy to talk to him because he has a reputation for being one of the fairest journalists you’ll ever meet — and a guy with a great sense of humor, I might add, which makes him fun to talk with. But he’d also cold call people. And he’d get them to talk, too.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how TV anchors and reporters can cultivate sources because I think it’s the key to our personal survival in this business and it’s the key to our newsroom’s survival in this great big media universe. If you aren’t creating original content, then you’re irrelevant. And to create original content in a newsroom, you have to be plugged-in to the newsmakers, community leaders, businesspeople and activists of various causes in your market.

We often don’t like to talk with other journalists about how we go about getting sources or how many we have in our back pocket at any one time. I think we have an inferiority complex about it. We don’t know if we’re doing it right and we’re sure that the “star reporter” at the station across the street (or maybe even within our own newsroom) has dozens more sources than we do. Well, I don’t know how many sources your competition has. But I can help you cultivate more sources of your own.

Here are some tips:

 

1)     Invite a potential source to breakfast. If you’re a dayside reporter, you don’t have time to “do lunch” and chances are the people you want to be your sources schedule lunches with a lot more important people than you. It’s when business is done. But they’re more likely to make time for you at breakfast. Yes, it’s a pain meeting them at 7:30 a.m. so you can be sure to be at your morning meeting at 9 a.m. But you don’t have to do this every day, just every once in a while. And here is the most important point: Do NOT ask for this breakfast at a time when the person you’re trying to get on your side is in the midst of a scandal or other huge news story. You want to develop this relationship when things are calm and you both feel free to talk.

 

2)     Keep the Breakfast “On Background.” Let’s say you’re going to have breakfast with the new mayor because you want to develop some trust with her and her staff. Make sure when you call to invite her to breakfast that she knows anything said is fair game to be reported on but you won’t quote her directly. This is called “on background.” (It is embarrassing how many journalists graduate from college and don’t know these terms. Take a look at the glossary of terms, from the Atlantic.com. You will find the list in the middle of the linked article.) She’ll feel much more at ease talking with you this way. Make sure she understands what “on background” means. If she wants it off the record, that’s ok, too. You’re trying to show her here that you’re not going to burn her. Ask her what’s coming up on her agenda that’s really important to her. At the end of the breakfast, give her your card and try to get her mobile phone number if you don’t already have it. Promise not to abuse it. And don’t.

 

3)     Aim Lower. The mayor is great to have as a source. But let’s be realistic. Everything she tells you will be weighted in one way or another to advance whatever agenda she has, be it for a city project or against a political rival. Keep in mind, she is also at the top of a very large bureaucracy and probably has no idea about all of the things the city is doing. So aim lower. Yeah, you need to get to know the city manager, members of the city council, the city attorney and some of the department heads. But you also need to get to know their receptionists at city hall and — most importantly — some of the anonymous bureaucrats who actually carry out the mission of the city council. They will probably never appear on camera for you. But they will give you valuable nuggets of information that you can use to question the leaders of your town who do appear on camera.

 

4)     Cold Call. You work at a television station. Even in 2011, 86 years after its invention, people still think television’s pretty cool. So when you call a defense attorney who’s handling the big death penalty case that’s headed to trial next month, guess what he’s going to tell his wife that night at dinner? “Honey, guess who called me today? Patrick Murphy from News 4!” Note that I said you’re calling him a month before the trial — not the day before jury selection begins. Cold calling can get a chilly reception from average folks who suddenly find themselves in the news, though. They’re intimidated. They never thought Patrick Murphy from News 4 would be interested in what they have to say. So go easy on them. Don’t be pushy. And for goodness sakes, if something horrible has happened in their life, be genuinely compassionate. The Washington Post recently published an excellent article about how the networks’ morning show producers deal with this issue all the time.

 

5)     Be interested in your source’s work. I learned it from my mentor Brooks Jackson and it’s true. When I show genuine interest in what a campaign consultant, psychologist, doctor, city leader — or anyone else — has invested their life’s work in, I can see their face soften, their eyes light-up, and hear their speech become more excited. You’re showing them that you value them as people and the expertise they’ve acquired. They will honestly enjoy talking to you. They’ll remember the conversation and your name. And when you call them on a breaking story, they’ll be much less likely to let it go to voice mail.

 

For more ways to cultivate sources when you don’t get much time on the job, check out “How to generate story ideas when you are swamped.” Got other tips for cultivating sources? We hope you’ll share them with us.

 

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Matthew Nordin is a morning anchor/investigative reporter at WMBF News, Raycom Media’s NBC affiliate in Myrtle Beach, SC. You can follow him on Twitter @MatthewNordin.

 

 

I just finished watching the amazing documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” which tells the story of how America’s great newspaper is trying to survive in an era when many of us first learn about news events from Twitter and Yahoo! News.  The filmmaker tries to make his case that the Times is still needed because its reporters actually hit the streets and work the phones to gather news, as opposed to just copying and pasting and putting up links to others’ work, as critics of Gawker and the Huffington Post accuse those media outlets of doing.

In the end, it’s the story of how Times media reporter David Carr breaks a major story about the debauchery that was going on inside the executive suites at the Tribune Company.  It is a triumph for the “Old Gray Lady” and all of us who consider ourselves journalists in the traditional sense of the word.

How many stories have you personally broken at your station in 2011?

If the answer is zero, I predict you’ll someday be like the people in “Page One” who make a secret editors’ list of who can be laid-off when the budget’s cut because, in this Darwinian media environment we now find ourselves working in, the editors can still produce a great paper without them.

And yes, anchors, I’m talking to you, too.  I know you don’t just sit at a desk and read a teleprompter.  I get frustrated with that perception, too, because I know all of the hard work that goes into helping produce a great newscast, doing the homework required to really know the stories you’ll be talking about on-air, and summoning the creative energy at ungodly hours to put in a really good television performance.  I get it.  But dozens of other anchors can perform as well or almost as well as you, too.  So what is that extra ingredient you’re going to offer your station?

In their well-researched new book That Used to Be Us, Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum argue that even creative professionals like journalists will have to offer their employers something extra if they want to stay employed. You can’t just come to work, put on your makeup, and read the 11 o’clock news anymore.  Even anchors with great ratings are being laid-off long before they’re ready to retire because their bosses believe they make too much money at a time when media companies are trying to figure out how to keep making profits.

I’m not suggesting anchors and reporters who’ve been laid-off in the Great Recession and afterward deserved it.  I’m sure most of them worked hard and were valuable members of their newsrooms.  But I am suggesting that your chances of being on the secret list of expendable employees in your newsroom rise greatly if you’re viewed as a run-of-the-mill journalist who doesn’t break stories.

Think about it.  Why are so many TV newsrooms reviving their investigative units?  Because investigative reporters dig-up original stories that keep viewers’ attention, are easily promotable by the marketing department, and differentiate your station from the three or four others in the market who also do news.

You want to be on that team.

You don’t literally have to be on that team.  But as an anchor or reporter, you’d better have contacts in the community that are helping your newsroom advance the big stories of the week.  For anchors, this doesn’t mean you have to turn a package on something new you learn.  An e-mail to the newsroom with what you’ve found out and a phone call to the reporter on the story will show everyone that you’re truly a newsroom leader.

But do tweet about what you’ve learned and let your audience know that your reporter will have more on it in the next newscast.  (You may want to hold this tweet until right before airtime so the competition doesn’t “share” your scoop.  I will sometimes do this by scheduling a tweet to run at a specific time using TweetDeck.)

You might also consider writing a short story on your station’s website about the new angle to the story you’ve discovered.  Viewers want anchors who are part of the fabric of their community.  With your byline on the story, you’ll reinforce your value to the audience as someone who is plugged-in to the newsmakers and community leaders in your market.

If you’re the reporter on the story and you’ve learned this information yourself, don’t be afraid to let the audience know that you’ve been working the phones and the information they’re hearing is exclusive information.  Also, well before the newscast, work with your producer to come up with ways to showcase this information, which may include a banner that touts the fact that it’s exclusive.

The anchor, reporter, and/or producer should also send an e-mail to the news director and marketing department after the newscast letting them know about the scoop. They may want to produce a “proof of performance” promo based on it.  And, remember, these days you’ve got to market yourself within your news organization, too.  You need the executives to know that you were the person responsible for that exclusive.

So how do you cultivate sources so you can be your station’s most valuable player?  I’ll take a look at that next week.

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Matthew Nordin is a morning anchor/investigative reporter at WMBF News, Raycom Media’s NBC affiliate in Myrtle Beach, SC. You can follow him on Twitter @MatthewNordin.

 

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.

 

 

Many TV stations, like many football programs are constantly changing the “coach.”  If the ratings don’t go up quickly the news director is gone.  That means a new chance to be fired, since the new boss will want to make an impact right away.  First impressions truly can make or break your future at that station.  So let’s talk star power.

All managers have one thing in common.  They want staffers that do not whine.  They want people that can change and adapt quickly.  To prove you can do this, research the new ND and see what type of news philosophy was implemented at their last station.  Did the place do a lot of consumer news?  Did the station cover a lot of breaking news?  What was the turnover like?  Calling and asking for an long time reporter or photojournalist to dig a bit will be helpful.  You want to ask what the ND liked to see from the staff. What kind of story ideas got the ND excited.  Try and find out if your new ND is a big football fan or has kids or a dog.  Now you have a leg up.

Listen to the ND during the first few story meetings.  See if the ND is getting excited over the type of stories you heard he/she will like.  The ND will give you clues about where the place is going next pretty quickly with offhanded comments.  Most people don’t listen.  They should and you will.  Next, adapt story ideas or input about newscasts to the trends you notice from the ND.  After a few weeks try and catch the ND for a minute and request a critique.  Don’t say “hey did you watch my show/package. etc. that day.” Just say: “I am checking in to see if you have any critique for me on what you’ve seen so far.  I am looking forward to taking my work to the next level with you.”  The ND will probably say he/she needs a few weeks.  That’s fine.  You just want the early impression to be that you are hardworking and eager to adapt to this person’s style.

Now let’s talk personal connection.  Remember you have intel on the ND’s personal interests.  Use it to make a human connection.  Let’s say the ND is a big football fan.  When you see ND in the hall or at the end of a meeting ask what person thinks of some headline, “How about that new recruit?  What about that last play in the last game?”  You get the idea.  Don’t linger.  Listen to the response and walk away.  You don’t want to force it.

You also need to make deadline and not complain about anything for the first several months; even if you are getting screwed on vacation time.  Stay out of the office and let other people seem difficult.  The ND is overwhelmed the first few months and doesn’t need to deal with any “little” issues.  Fair or not, your vacation time qualifies as little.

If you are in a meeting with the ND do not be the first person to run out of the room at the end.  Organize your papers, take one more sip of coffee, do what you need to linger a minute in case the ND starts small talking.  This is a subtle way to start building a connection without seeming obvious.

Remember ND’s are looking for employees who are loyal and willing to work hard.  So when you are asked to cover an extra shift or work late, do it without complaining.  You will get a chance to occasionally say no after the ND has been there awhile.  This is a way ND’s test to see if you are a diva or a battle tested, nose to the ground journalist.  We watched it time and again.  Staffers turned down shifts or complained about working late and the ND made a quick judgment call that the person was lazy and didn’t appreciate the job.  It was usually downhill from there.

The key in all of this is being subtle.  This is like dating.  Give the ND a taste of who you are, express some interest, but do not overdo it.  The people constantly in the office putting out will end up being the ones the ND takes advantage of and overworks long term.  The hard workers that stay out trouble survive and end up with some time to breathe.  You will keep the ND interested in seeing more.  That’s what you want.

 

Journalists are constantly told to source build and break stories.  Problem is, in many shops you are given two packages a day and have no time to work the phones and source build.  That’s what you think, but it really is possible.  There are ways to generate fresh story ideas that do not take a ton of time.  You also can source build.  It will take some of your too precious free time.  But the payoff is making you more valuable to the station.

So how do you come up with interesting stories when you have next to no time?  Here are some ideas to get you started.

First, some help for reporters.  Try and “befriend” one person a day while covering the news.  This could be the secretary you have to stare at while waiting for an interview, the officer telling you to wait behind the yellow tape, even the restaurant manager at a local dive where you bought a sandwich.  Ask them about themselves and hand out a business card.  Make sure you get their card too.  A few days later, send a quick email saying you really enjoyed your conversation.  If you learn the person loves a football team or has kids that like to play sports send email links to interesting stories every once in a while.  Bottom line:  Build a connection.  If you have time to write an update on Facebook, you have time to send a quick link to these new potential sources.

Set up a Twitter account and use it.  When we say use it, we don’t mean throwing up a meaningless self-serving plug for the story you are reporting on that very day.  Throw up a comment about something interesting you read about.  Mix up the comments so you are engaging to follow.  Give snippets of what it’s like to be a TV journalist each day.  But keep it positive.  Remember, employers and potential employers often research Twitter and Facebook accounts.  For example, don’t gripe about how much you “hate” your assignment to babysit a “dumb” police standoff.  But do mention that your feet sure do hurt after waiting two hours for the standoff to end.  The first makes you seem look childish, petty and unprofessional.  The second, however, makes you look real and is something your followers can identify with.  Twitter is an amazing resource most people are not using correctly.  It is a chance to tap directly into what people are thinking about each day and what they want to learn more about.  You will gain a following and, eventually, you’ll also start getting interesting tips.  The key to Twitter is creating a human connection not another shameless, weak marketing ploy that just ticks people off.  People on Twitter tend to obsess about being in the know, right now.  You will lock them in if you make them realize they can literally be your eyes and ears and that their ideas may actually make it on the news.

Next, contact the Better Business Bureau and county or state run groups that help small businesses get off the ground.  Let these organizations know you are building a list of experts.  This can help you when you are suddenly asked for an out of the box story on damage prevention during bad weather or the latest housing or computer scam.  These businesses need publicity and cannot, generally, afford to buy ads.  But they can afford to send you a quick email pitching ideas once in a while.

Look at blogs on local newspaper websites.  People go off on interesting things that sometimes turn into colorful television.  How about the guy with the American flag that is too big for the homeowner’s association by-laws?  Many of these kinds of stories turn up first in these blogs.

Now let’s talk about generating interesting stories if you are a producer.  Yes, it’s hard to source build when you never even leave the newsroom for lunch.  So use the computer to get ideas.  Search for blogs and groups online that target your key audience.  Then browse them several times a week for fresh information.  These groups constantly dish.  Also keep your ears open when you go to the gym, pick the kids up at daycare or stand in line at the grocery store.  You will hear what people are concerned about.  These tidbits can turn into interesting stories that you can “produce up” in your newscast.  Also look at the hottest video of the day online, then try and come up with a local spin.  A Twitter account can be a great asset for you as well.  Build your following in the same way we just laid out for reporters.

Finally check out what other stations around the country are covering.  Go to a few station websites in areas nearby and see what they’ve played up.  Often you can at least find a consumer story with universal appeal.

 

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