At most stations where I worked, people dreaded when the consultant came to town.  The seminars, extra meetings, temporary changes in news philosophy and execution just seemed to be a waste.  But I really liked when the consultants came to town.  It was a chance at perspective.  The consultant knew my station’s philosophy but could also tell me about what other stations were doing.  Since early in my career, many newsrooms where I worked had no EP or a weak one, so a consultant visit was my chance to pick someone’s brain a bit.

Here’s what I did to use a consultant visit to my benefit, and here’s what you can do as a reporter as well.

Since my I was a producer, I would dub a newscast I liked and have it ready to hand over.  I would also ask management for a preview of what the would be in the seminar the consultant had planned.  Usually it was writing of some sort.  So, I would print samples of my work that related to the subject.  Then after the seminar I would mingle a bit and ask if I could have the consultant look over my work.  Now, I did not hand over a huge pile of papers, just a small handful or one section of a newscast.  Often the consultant would look over my work and give me critiques.  I would also ask about trends in larger markets so I could try to “practice” more sophisticated elements in my own newscasts.  Occasionally the consultant was really snooty and would blow me off.  But most of the time the person was very approachable and willing to share information.

This is good in terms of pushing yourself to the next level when you aren’t getting training elsewhere.  There is another benefit to also consider.  Never forget who hired the consultant.  It’s either the GM or corporate.  It never hurts to have a consultant tell those bosses that they met a very conscientious producer (or anchor/reporter etc.) that seemed driven to push him/herself.  Let’s face it, the only time I saw a GM for any length of time was a quarterly meeting, previewing a big political special for the station or being told the numbers in the newscasts sucked and we better kick it into high gear or else!  So it’s nice to have someone like a consultant tell the GM you are eager to do your best.

As I got to know my station consultants better over the years, some also started giving me career advice.  The kind of advice you rarely get, unless you have am agent who’s really on the ball.  I got calls sometimes when a job came open at a station the consultant called on.  It was a consultant who sat me down and told me I was ready for management and to aim for a medium-large to large market when I did apply.  A consultant reviewed my writing samples to make sure I was well rounded before I made a large market jump as a producer.  When I went to a large market, the consultant there (he was with another agency than my previous station FYI) worked with me on the side to get ready to become an EP.  Why?  It makes the consultant look good to be able to place you in a good fit and help you move up.

Reporters, don’t overlook this option for yourselves as well, especially when talent coaches come in and work with you one and one to improve your look and performance.  Most of the time you are given a business card and told to call with any further questions:  Do it!  Yes, your current station will probably hear that you called.  Don’t bad mouth the place.  Do ask if you can send more current work samples to find out if you are on the right track.  Again, these consultants meet a lot of big time bosses.  They can and sometimes do put a word in about the talent they get to know.

It should go without saying that you don’t want to badger these potential mentors and ask too many questions or get too many reviews of your work.  Once in a while it is okay, and might even help your career.  So listen to the seminars, ask questions, show you are committed to the station where you work and improving your own worth.  That consultant could help your career in ways you’d never expect.

It was early on a Saturday morning. But weekday anchors up and down the East Coast were in their respective newsrooms waiting on a big story to arrive named Hurricane Irene.

As I waited for my on-air shift to begin, I was multitasking as usual: reading over the scripts the producers had written, watching a stream of storm updates cascade down Tweetdeck, and listening to a friend’s broadcast over the internet as he prepared the viewers in his market for what was to come.

Then it happened — that cringe-worthy moment all of us anchors dread. The voice on the phone stopped talking. But my friend was caught off-guard and had no idea what the man had been saying. Producers were talking in his IFB at the time and he was caught with his proverbial pants down on live TV.

What’s worse is that all that chatter over the IFB prevented him from doing his #1 job in a time of crisis: being a reporter. Yes, he was chained to the desk. But that phone was his — and his viewers’ — lifeline to late breaking information about a story that was changing minute-by-minute.

If an anchor isn’t able to hear a phoner or a reporter on a satellite shot in a breaking news situation, he quickly falls behind. In subsequent ad-libs, he can sound disconnected, out-of-touch, and out-of-date.

Unfortunately, it’s not a rare occurrence even on network television. And it’s just as likely to happen during a satellite interview any day of the week.

There are no easy answers for how to make sure the magic happening behind-the-scenes doesn’t intrude on the viewer who’s just trying to find out what’s going on and whether her family is threatened.

But let me throw-out some ideas:

Bring in the interns! It’s the excitement they’ve been waiting for anyway. All those mornings of filling-up the printers and opening the lobby doors for studio guests should at least have this payoff. For goodness sakes, let’s ask them the day before if they’d be willing to help us with our breaking news coverage. I bet they’d love it. (And if they don’t show much enthusiasm they should find another career.)

Use them as runners. To reduce the amount of chatter producers engage in over IFB, I say go old school. Station at least one intern right next to the producer in the control room. Arm them with a stack of paper or a small dry erase board. Have them run routine messages (like the names and titles of guests coming up or the latest statistics on the story you’re covering) to the anchor desk. As an anchor, I want my mic to be hot so I can interrupt or question the person on the phone or the reporter out in the field at any time. So I can’t talk. And I really need to hear what’s being said over-the-air. But I’ve still got my eyes and my hands. When I see I’m off-camera, I can look at what the intern is presenting me, write down any questions or concerns I have for the producer, and send the intern back into the control room.

If your station doesn’t usually have interns, consider an associate producer or the news junkie on the sales staff for this role. If the breaking news comes out of nowhere and you had no time to plan for it, consider the options below.

Text messaging over teleprompter. It’s breaking news. Your anchors aren’t using the teleprompter all that much anyway. Write a message at the top of the story that’s currently cued-up. “***GM has canceled ALL breaks. Stretch. Ad-lib at will! ***” It’s especially useful when you need to quickly convey street closures. “City closing these streets: Broadway from 3rd Ave to 9th Ave & Water Tower Road from Main to Robinson.” Most of us in television are visual people. We digest information easier if we see it rather than if you’re trying to tell us the details over IFB — especially if we’re in the middle of an interview.

And anchors, don’t be afraid to write down this information on-camera as you’re delivering it. The viewers know it’s an extraordinary time and you’re trying to make sure the information is accurate. So write it down. Set it aside. You’ll need to come back to it throughout your coverage. (And your producers have a lot more important things to do than regurgitate information they’ve already given you once.)

Instant messaging/“Top lining.” We have ENPS at my station and my producers are great at doing this. If my co-anchor and I are busy talking and interviewing people on-air, they’ll send us information in an instant message, which appears as the top line in ENPS.

Anchors, the judges will not deduct any points for reading detailed information off of ENPS on the computer screen on your desk. Again, it’s breaking news. They’ll understand.

Any more tips for creating smoother communication during breaking news coverage? Be sure to let us know by commenting below.

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

 

We promise this situation will happen to you. It happened to us at several stations, in small to large markets.  General Manager walks into an editorial meeting and says “So what are we doing to cover such and such, ( fill-in the blank, new road widening project,  special session by legislature,  tax incentive package for a new industry in town etc.) since our viewers the tax payers are getting screwed.”  The news director gives a blank look followed by the lifted eyebrow smirk, then stares at you, “So how will you cover that story today?”

If this happens, say you are going to make some calls and get out of the room pronto.  Better yet, grab your photog and get out of the building while you make those calls! Why?  You do not want the GM to start going off on specific players and agendas for the story.  You do not want specifics on how this story should be told, and exactly what the tease will say.  That way, if it is the GM skimming headlines and misinterpreting reality, you won’t end up having to tell him/her.  Without specifics chances are you can find some small nugget to package.

Next, call the newsroom mega brain.  You know, the walking, talking, human factoid! This person can save you hours of stress and research.  Do the necessary ego stroke and get the person to give you background information on this subject.  You need time to work sources for a backup in case the story falls apart.  The “human factoid” usually can at least provide the name and number for a player in town who will give you insight on whether the GM’s “news” really is “news.”

Do your thing, work it and try to find an interesting character or bit of video to showcase so you can get by.  If there’s just nothing to the story give the basics, then try and include a little subtle perspective in your anchor intro or  tag.  Managers tend to play in that copy more anyway.  This way, if the story is taken out of context and the GM gets a call, it will more likely become management’s problem instead of the reporter’s failing.

If you cannot find a nugget to package, and there’s simply nothing to the story, offer to write a vo or vo/sot and let your manager know early.  That gives management time to derail the GM situation well before the newscast airs.  It helps if you can offer an interesting alternative story the manager can have you churn out instead.  Sometimes management will then take the GM “news” burden off of you and have an anchor front it somewhere cool on set. You are off the hook, and the GM still feels heard without the station blowing a weak story out of proportion.

If you are told to package a story and say certain things in a tease you don’t like, try and do a subtle rewrite.  Also, know this happens to everyone from time to time.  Chances are your credibility is not ruined.  Those in the know in town realize you got stuck “being the good soldier.”

 

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!

 

We’ve all seen them: A tease that grabs you and doesn’t let you go.  You swear at the TV because you will just have to be late to work or get to bed a few minutes late.  You have to know.  Think about that.  You have to know.  Write that phrase on a sticky note to place on your computer.  It is rule number one to excellent tease writing:  “You have to know.”

Before we dish tips, let’s quantify something.  Being a good writer and being a good tease writer do not always go hand in hand.  Writing good teases is an art form.  It is something you need to push to improve upon every day. This goes for producers, reporters, promotion writers, even news managers.  Because teases are so crucial, we will delve into the topic on and off for several articles.  Just like we mentioned in “Rule the Word” attending seminars on Saturdays at the station will not give you all you need.

So let’s start with the phrase “You have to know.”  When you start your shift and stare at a blank rundown keep that phrase in mind.  It is a great way to select stories for key meter points to tease.  As you and news management select where these stories go, mine the content for fascinating elements.  Great video, an interesting fact, and strong viewer benefit are good examples.  We’re talking about the stuff you want to tweet about or top line to someone else.  Those are the elements in stories you need to tease in your newscast.  Take the best elements from these stories and put them in a script at the top or bottom of your rundown.  Then, when a phrase about one of those compelling elements pops in your head, put it into that catchall script.

Now let’s expand on some things great tease writers do each day.

  • Write tease elements all shift long
  • Hide teases
  • Add flash without exaggerating

We just told you about the important catch all script at the top or bottom of your rundown where you can stash potential tease elements.  Again, write as many of these elements as you can in this script as ideas come to mind throughout your day.  Don’t forget the traditional things you are taught about teases.  Look for emotional connections, a viewer benefit, and remember your station’s news philosophy as you write.  Look for unique elements.  As you do this, throw in notes from conversations you are having with reporters about their stories.  Write down what sticks in your head about these elements in your catchall script.  Again, these are the need to know elements you will share with viewers.

A quick note to reporters, you should also mine your stories for great tease elements as you go through your day.  Increasingly reporters are becoming responsible for tease elements being fed into the station for promotions and teases within a newscast.  Make note of great sound and pictures so you can hand them over to a producer or promotions writer quickly.  After all, you want your story played up because it helps you too.  If a cool line about your story comes to mind, share it with the producer or EP.

The other reason producers want to “write” teases all shift long is that the elements you throw in that catchall script can help you shape all of your writing.  Some of the cool video, partnered with compelling phrases might not make it as a tease, but it might become the first line of a vo or vo/sot you write.  Everything a producer writes is designed to draw in audience.  Maybe a phrase you wrote in your catchall will become a transition line between stories on a two shot.

Which leads to our next point:  Hide teases.  Some consultants call this “stealth teasing.”  We are going to take it a little further.  Think of hiding teases in two ways.  “Hiding” teases means:  1) Throwing in tease lines about something coming up in non-traditional places.  2) Using the same kind of tease writing in leads for stories.

The first way producers hide teases is placing a line about something coming up in a place a viewer would not expect.  Take the middle of the a-block for example.  You can write a vo about your 30 lead and give viewers some interesting information, then tease a specific viewer benefit for later.  Another interesting place is within anchor chat.  Have the anchors mention something coming up seemingly “off the cuff” after a similar type story.  A favorite technique of mine is to go directly from a story into a compelling piece of natural sound and video to kick off a tease that is pre-produced with a lot of sound and cool graphics.  Consider it a mini package or a second cold open type deal with several elements.  Make suer you mix up where this appears in your rundown. (i.e. – the b-block one day, the 38 block some other time depending on where your best video lies.)

Now let’s expand on using tease writing in leads for stories.  If a story within, say, the middle of your b-block has great video, segment it out and include a tease type element at the beginning.  This will hook the audience and provide all important instant gratification.  Here’s an illustration:  Let’s say you have a story about a fire where someone was rescued and you have incredible sound from the person saved.  Tease it in the beginning of the story by playing some of the sound.  In other words, reverse the order of the story.  Do the payoff sound first, then showcase the cool elements leading up to the great sound.  It would look something like this:

See this man? (OTS graphic of the man, or take it fullscreen) He could have died in a fire today. (Bite) “I thought I was a goner then I felt someone pulling me by the arm.” Then do your vo. “Here’s the house where it happened…”etc. Finish with a bite from the survivor expanding on the first sound, something like: “I just couldn’t believe that someone braved the smoke to save me.” This makes your newscast more interesting throughout and makes your teases more natural to the viewer when they do appear at the end of a block.  They’ve seen that you will make it worth their while to stick around.  You showed them you deliver with a tease type element, in a segmented part of the show, just moments before.

The example above also gives you an idea of how to add flash to teases without exaggerating.  We will dedicate another article to techniques for avoiding exaggerating when writing teases later.  For now, let’s focus on proper ways to add flash.  One way that is fun for promotions writers and producers who do cold opens is to base graphics and writing style on the lead-in to your newscast. For example, if a court show comes before you and there’s a strong legal type story, start the cold open with sound of a gavel.  Then you can use the same gavel sound to break up each element in the tease.  This is also effective for topicals, just don’t make it a crutch every single time “CSI” or “Law and Order” airs.

Graphics can be compelling if you lack video, but the story has viewer benefit.  If you do this, you have to spell that benefit out on screen.  Case in point, the phrase “saves you money” will get many people to watch in these hard economic times.  Just make sure you can deliver the money saving advice.  Finally, if you can, pre-produce a tease or two in your rundown.  But make sure you vary where you place it and how long it runs.  Edit in cool graphics and quick sound to play up appeal to the eye and ear.  It doesn’t have to be a three element deal like I described earlier.  It just needs to have different elements to engage the senses.  This goes back to one of our recurring themes, engage more than 1 of the senses and you have viewers hooked.  They will just “have to know” what the story is about!

 

Personality conflicts are a constant in newsrooms.  There are no shrinking violets and bluntness reaches new levels.  That said, there are times when it is obvious you aren’t just having a heated, “in the moment”, run in with a boss.  Sometimes that boss is singling you out and trying to wear you down.

Since this business is extremely subjective it is hard to fire people.  And despite what you might think, most corporations try to avoid firing when possible.   To an employer firing someone means paying unemployment as well as bankrolling a job search.  That’s not great for the bottom line.  Many corporations also fear lawsuits from firings.  So a common route to get rid of someone is to make their lives so miserable they walk out to spite the station.  Managers count on this.  But in this day and age, with such awful future job prospects, you probably want to avoid letting your temper get the best of you.  So here’s how to live with the daily grief.

Document.  This is true no matter what particular manager you are talking about.  You want to be able to show that the boss was unclear with expectations.  This is key because it helps eliminate “cause” (i.e. – a violation of written or well established policy or job duties) if you are fired.  Most newsrooms are too disorganized to provide two key things to protect themselves:  detailed job descriptions with a listing of duties, and  reviews.  Without them, companies are more likely to have to pay out unemployment and possibly part of your contract to get you to go away.  The reason:  they cannot show “cause” unless you don’t come to work or clearly violate a company policy or do not live up to your job duties.  Without a listing of your job duties and clear cut daily expectations, companies back themselves into a corner.  So if you have a manager that seems out to get you, make sure you ask what the exact expectation is each day.  That means when you get an assignment from that manager you end the conversation with, “So you want me to get this interview and package this way at this time?”  Then write notes on the conversation and any follow-ups so you have documentation.  Often as the day progresses much of what you discussed changes.  Does the manager or a producer call with the changes?  Often the answer is no and that works in your favor if someone is after you.  Newsrooms are notorious for being disorganized.  So when the end of the day comes and the manager calls and chews you out, you now have a legitimate response.  Listen, then let the person know that no manager, producer or assignment editor told you about the changes in expectations and that this oversight inhibits your ability to do your job.  Then you again write down the manager’s reaction to this conversation.  Make sure each time you document you include who called you, when and what they said.  Yes, this is tedious.  However, it may give you great leverage if you end up in human resources, being called on the carpet.  You want to be able to show a pattern of the manager changing the expectations or job duties, with no warning, causing you to be unable to perform your job properly.  The same is true if you are an anchor or producer.  Anchors, make sure you figure out if you are required to copy edit for fact errors in your newscast.  That is a key area where you could be set up.  Producers, demand that managers define the audience and writing style of your show.  Try to get those definitions in writing.  A great way to do that is to design a format template that lists types of stories placed in specific positions in the rundown.   Have a manager sign off.  That helps you create a job description and expectation.  If the playing field changes and you are not told to alter that template, it can help you protect yourself.

If a manager seems out to get you and that person oversees a particular day part, try to get a schedule change.  Turnover is always happening and you can use that to your advantage.  If possible establish a good relationship with the manager on the shift where you want to work.  That way if someone quits, you can ask for a switch and possibly get out of the bad situation before the manager that hates you can build a case.  Problem (often) solved!

Try to make sure when the manager threatens you, it is done in front of witnesses.  Remember, with most companies, you have the right to a witness when you sit down with a manager behind closed doors.  Most managers are taught to do this for their own protection and they are not going to offer you the same protection.  Usually a manager brings in another newsroom manager.  If that’s the case you can ask for the human resources person to come in.  The human resources person will probably side with management, but they are also very aware of corporate policies.  If that person sees that the manager simply has a personality conflict with you for example, the manager will often get a warning behind closed doors.  If you can show that you were not given a clear directive that day and are now getting in trouble, the manager will probably get a lecture behind closed doors.  If you are still leery of having human resources present there are other options.  If you are an anchor, your co-anchor could be a witness.  Reporters can have the photojournalist they worked with present.  Producers could ask an assignment manager or another producer to witness the conversation.  Having a co-worker present helps, because it ups the ante on the manager to exactly follow corporate policies.   If that person makes an error, you may have bought yourself enough time to find another job before you get the axe.

Fight fire with fire.  Confront the manager in a non-attacking way.  That sentence seems contradictory, but it’s not.  Here’s what to do:  Come in early or stay late one day and sit down one-on-one with the manager that is giving you hell.  Say you want to clear the air.  Let the manager know you respect him or her and the job the person does.  Often the manager will then fess up that you are not the problem, it’s actually a litany of other things.  The supervisor may even apologize for jumping on you.  No matter what, this conversation lets the manager know you are there to do a job and are willing to grow.   Again, it gets back to the manager’s responsibility to let you know about your job performance and what you can do to get better.  If the manager gets defensive and starts telling you that you stink and why, then you know where this person really stands and it’s time to get a witness for all future conversations.

Research this manager and find out the person’s quirks and weaknesses.  It is possible that you have a habit that gets on the person’s nerves.  If you can change your habit, the person may back off.  It really is a small price to pay when you consider the difficulty of trying to find a new job in the current economic climate.

If it’s the news director who seems to be coming after you, try to lay low especially if you are working at a chronic third or fourth place station.  These stations tend to go through news directors often.  So, odds are high in these stations, that if you can avoid the news director’s ire, he/she will be gone before you will.   Again, document, stay quiet and show up for work on-time.  Make it hard for them to let you go without some sort of compensation.  If the news director says you stink at producing, ask to work on the assignment desk.  If the ND says you are a bad anchor ask to report.  Buy yourself time to job hunt.  Some news directors are disarmed if you fight to stay and will give you a shot at the other job for a little while.

Finally, if you are fired, write a thank you note to the manager that had the problem with you.  Yes, write a “thank you” note.  Make it brief and complimentary.  Tell the person you appreciated the chance to work at that station and under that manager.  Wish that manager luck in future endeavors.  This is hard to do, but it might keep the boss from blackballing you later, when you’re looking for another job.  Remember, this business is very small and everyone knows everyone else.  Taking the high road never hurts you and could keep that now ex-boss from burning you again and again.

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