Was that tease worth the wait?

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Feb 182016

The teases section on Survive is consistently the most read section. Frankly tease writing is not as natural for journalists. It involves different skill sets and we go in depth on those. But there is a basic teasing question that you must ask yourself every time, to make sure you’re living up to your main purpose: providing accurate information that benefits your viewers. This is especially true for stories you tease. They tend to be more emotional in nature or have a clear WIFM. They also tend to be stories tease writers oversell in an attempt to make sure the viewer stays.

So you must ask yourself, was that tease worth the wait? You must ask this when writing the tease, when watching the tease air and when watching the story you teased. You must do this in each scenario to learn when you overtease, how you do it and how often. Because, frankly, the majority of tease writers exaggerate. They say, “Well I have to get the viewer to watch.” But if you play with the viewer and set them up for a let down you are not winning loyalty long term. Exaggerating is a lazy tease tactic. It is wishful thinking and most of the time it is unnecessary.

If the answer is yes, the tease is worth the wait, then you are on track to become a great tease writer and a great asset to your newsroom. You want that pay off. It gives you more job longevity and credibility. So be bold and ask yourself the question. Each tease, each time, always.

How to brand throughout the newscast

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Jan 202016

It’s no secret that writing for TV news nowadays is as much about marketing as writing clearly and concisely. You are expected to sell the news philosophy for your station as much as time out your newscast correctly. In fact many stations require you mention your station brand at least 5 times a newscast. Many producers just write in the pitch line as you introduce live reporters to get it over with. Joe Smith works for you. Joe Smith is on your side live in…. Joe Smith is your eyewitness tonight. There are other ways to brand, that are less throwaway. You can even do it in a way that enhances your coverage and benefit for the viewer.

Branding Throughout Newscast
Story focuses reflect philosophy, even vo’s
Explain how story fulfills philosophy
Use animations for reinforcement
Limit pitch line, use variations instead

The first thing you need to do throughout the newscast is to pick stories that make sense with your brand. If your station is one that works for you (the viewer ) for example, you don’t do a lot of superficial quick vo’s with little to no reference to how this story impacts people. In other words, this is not a station that should implement a 10 second vo, 20 second vosot philosophy. This is a station that will consistently add a line to each story with either why this story is significant to people or how it impacts. When you think news philosophy you must think context. The all you need philosophy means quick headlines. Catch the viewer up. That is a very different context.

So when you consider context, you are going to naturally add lines or phrases that explain how the story fits with your promise to the viewer (i.e. – your news philosophy). The how and/or why lines are one way. You will likely find yourself adding other phrases like, we are doing this story tonight because, or we are continuing to work for you by asking.. we want you to have all you need to know on this bill… somewhere in the story. It is a natural way to tell the viewer why the story is important that can be done very conversationally.

Then you add animations with your brand line to reinforce the philosophy. Remember many people think visually, so these animations are effective. Do not be afraid to use them. They also create movement which improves perception of pacing.

The last thing to remember is if you just use the same catch phrase over and over, it is not effective. The viewer will quickly tune it out. The repetition of your philosophy and branding has to be consistent without being repetitive. So even if you are required to mention the station brand 5 times a newscast, you can do so with out saying works for you every single time. Vary that brand line with phrases like helping you, how this effects you, what this means for you to get the point across without boring the viewer with the same phrase that seems throwaway. Your news philosophy has to benefit the viewer. You need to spell out that benefit or you will not build loyalty. Think empty promises. People are conditioned to suspect that is what they are being handed. Selling your brand means showing clearly that you have the viewer in mind and will consistently provide that they need. Do it, tell them you are doing it, then show them how you are doing it. Thinking this way as you select stories and write will help you naturally brand the news throughout the newscast without it seeming as forced. And you can market without feeling like an ad writer instead of a journalist.

Are you making an assumption? A vital question most journalists forget to ask.

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Jan 102016

I am going to make a bold statement. The more news I watch, the more obvious it is that many journalists, in the rush to be first, make a lot of assumptions. If you really take a critical look at a lot of high profile TV news gaffes, you’ll see the pattern. So let’s talk about how to ask a vital question more often in newsrooms while writing stories.

How to avoid assumptions:

Where did I get this information?
How did the newsroom get the information?
List confirmed specifics
Reliability of source(s)

The first question you must ask yourself is where did I get this information. I am using the possessive term for a specific reason. A lot of assumptions are made by the person writing the story. Especially when you are rewriting from a previous version of a story or reworking a reporter package script into a vo or vosot. Anchor intros are another place a lot of assumption rewrites are made. It happens with teases too. I am listing all of this because I want to make it clear how often this can and does happen and how often you need to ask yourself where you got the information you are writing.

The natural follow up question is where did the newsroom get the information? If it is a reporter piece you are breaking down, do not just look at the package. Read the notes in the assign cue as well. If something seems a little strange ask the person who copy edited the story if they understood the story the same way. Do not be afraid to ask, where did you get this information of the assignment editor, the producer, the reporter even the executive producer. Everyone needs to get in the habit of being skeptics and double checking each other. It all starts with not just taking things at face value. Verify all information, even if it aired before.

That’s where listing confirmed specifics comes in. Take the 5 w’s and run through each story and identify them, then identify them from the assignment cue or previous version of the story. Does everything match? Is there a source tied to each of the answers? Is it clear that facts were verified?

You have to consider the reliability of sources. If a bunch of information is listed in the assign cue and there is no source listed with a time called or a news release mentioned, you have to wonder if the assignment editor is listing possible facts.  Next you need to consider the source itself. Is this an intern calling to verify information? Who specifically did they talk with? Is it the PIO who sometimes gets the facts wrong? Did someone call to verify the news release the station got, to make sure the facts are all what they seem? Again, be a skeptic. Figure what you see is not true and that you need proof. Do not just take the word of the writer who wrote it before you. Ask for clarification. Make the time.

Finally, if the facts seem strange or unlikely, they probably are. Too often a producer or reporter doing a follow up will report something that just didn’t make sense but ASSUMED the person before them did the fact checking. If the facts do not pass the sniff test, demand to know where the information came from. If you are being asked to provide the information do not get offended. Make the time. Appreciate the skepticism. It could keep both of you from making the trades and being publicly humiliated. Even more important it could keep you from continuing to make a factual error that erodes credibility and/or negatively impacts people’s lives. It is your duty to ask twice. Demanding two sources, verifying what you are told and saying show me are all key elements of being a journalist. Do not let yourself and those around you make assumptions.

How To Speed Up Your Writing Time

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Dec 032015

A common discussion I have with news managers and universities looking to place recent grads, is the huge workload journalists face today. It is becoming more of the norm for reporters to barely make deadlines not because they are lazy, but because there is so much to get done. Scarier yet, there are producers in top 5 markets, still writing in the booth during newscasts. And not because of a breaker. Why is this getting so common? Two reasons. First, the workload is truly much larger. Producers for example are now often editing vo’s and vosot’s in addition to writing them. Producers are also making their own maps and graphics for air. And that’s not even getting into all the responsibilities they have on the digital side. Reporters are turning more than one piece, on completely different subjects, often on different ends of the market. And the social media expectations for them are often even higher.

The other reason why a lot is being pushed to the last minute, is that journalists are not taught tricks on how to speed up their writing time. They spend too much time prepping for writing instead of just getting the stories done. Bottom line, in a tight deadline situation, you will have to do some calculated short cuts when gathering information in order to make it. So let’s talk about some of those shortcuts.

How To Speed Up Writing Time For Producers
Focus on the W’s
Think summary
1 line = 1 idea

When writing a story from scratch, (as in not rewriting from a story that aired the newscast before) you need to condense your information quickly. This means focusing on answering the who, what, when, where, why and a little of the how when researching the story. For example if you are writing from a crime report read for these elements. Throw those facts into your story page, then go back and scan for that little nugget that makes the story a bit different (Often the how). If you approach it this way, you won’t slowly read every little bit of information and end up getting confused and re-reading the crime report 4 and 5 times. I am not saying give a quick scan and be done. But by focusing on what you really need to have as you read, you can better focus your attention and get to the core of the story quickly.

Which leads to the next point, think summary. News releases and crime reports tend to have about triple the information you need for a 15 second vo. So remember, you don’t have to memorize every detail of information, you are giving the viewer a summary of the story. This tends to help you more quickly outline the story in your head and then quickly write it.

Finally, 1 line equals 1 idea. This keeps you from “lunch bagging” a ton of information into the vo, then killing yourself to try and shorten it down to that required 15 second or 20 second mark. Think outline, 1 idea per line. Then if you have time you can flesh it out a bit after you have this skeleton script.

How To Speed Up Your Writing For Reporters

Sum It Up
Write As You Go
Know Details Before Camera Rolls

Reporters can also speed up their writing a lot by also thinking summary from the beginning. Chances are by the time you leave the editorial meeting, you know why you are assigned a certain story, and the specific point your station wants to make about that subject. Do not go out of your way to deviate from this. Sure, as you gather information sometimes the point of the story can change. If that’s happening immediately call and explain the new main idea. Again, keep thinking summary. This will help you not get bogged down in extraneous details that will never make air.

Once you have your interviews set up, write an outline of the story as you head to the scene. You should already have enough background information that you can walk into your first interview with an outline in place.

Pre-interview the person you are talking to as the camera is being set up (or as you are setting up the camera if you are an MMJ) so you know what 3 or 4 questions you actually want to get the answers for on camera. This helps you avoid scrolling through tons of video making the editing process more efficient. It will speed up your writing and editing.

The biggest takeaway from these tips is simply this: think summary. Too often journalists want to spend a lot of time finding that unique element or finding the perfect sequence of events or stories to make their package or rundown rock. If you spend too much time looking you will not have enough time to finesse. TV news is all about the packaging: Make the facts easily understandable for the ear and eye, in short order, so you don’t bury yourself in detail. You need to give a broad understanding of the story, and pick a key element to add that character. That means thinking overview from the get go. Otherwise you won’t get it done, and won’t serve the viewers at all.

How To Write Suspect Descriptions

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Nov 192015

With tensions heating up all over the world again, it is a good time to review how to write suspect descriptions. This issue came up recently on Twitter and it seemed some were confused on when to mention race and what elements of a description were most important. So let’s review.

Suspect Description Must Do’s

List SPECIFICS
Include image if possible
Avoid broad statements

Now this list may seem a bit redundant but bear with me. The single most important rule when writing suspect descriptions is to be extremely specific. Otherwise it can appear that you are profiling. So to be clear, you cannot say “Police tell us the suspect is a (name a race) man. He ran from the scene headed East.” Before you say, of course not, I still hear descriptions like this when reviewing newscasts. You have to have specifics. Like height, a scar that is easily noticeable, and/or specific clothing (just saying in a gray hooded sweatshirt is not enough). For clarity sake let’s compare two descriptions. #1: a white male with a white t-shirt and jeans
#2: a white male possibly in his 30’s, about 5-4, wearing jeans with a hole in the left knee area and a white t-shirt with a skull and crossbones. The first description could be half the men you pass, regardless of age. The second description has very identifiable elements, an age range, 5-4 means on the shorter side, and a specific clothing description gives you a much clearer image in your head to look out for. Skin color alone is not enough. Think about it, even in your own family each of you likely has a slightly different skin tone. You need specifics, like a scar, an approximate height, long or short hair and an age range to really give the description a meaning for the viewer.

The best thing you can have is a sketch or surveillance image that you supplement with a description. This also helps avoid giving the appearance of profiling because the viewer can see what you are describing as well. Even if the surveillance video is not terrific it can usually help visually support what you are saying on some level.

Which leads to the final point, to tie things up. Avoid broad statements. If the police can only say very general things, then it is ok to say, “Police are looking for a suspect but have no specifics on a description right now.” A lot of journalists, do not feel right just saying they are looking for someone especially if there is a manhunt going on, without mentioning some sort of description. But if the description has no specifics to list, you really are doing more harm than good. It can just lead to all sorts of confusion that doesn’t help the investigation or the viewer try to help. Remember, letting viewers know descriptions is a public service with a very specific goal, to help the police find a certain person through tips. Sometimes just saying investigators are searching a small area right now is all you can accurately go with. That’s ok. You are still keeping the community aware of the situation in the area of the search. They will be on alert. That’s what is important. Especially in these tense times.

Attribution In The Digital Age

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Nov 052015

Recently, two stations in Boston were accused of not properly attributing a story by a competitor when writing off the AP wire. The AP copy attributed the story to a specific TV station. Two competitors did not mention that station in the story, but extensively used the wording the AP wire quoted in it’s attribution.  This Adweek story then goes on to state “While attribution is always the right thing to do, AP clients can rewrite stories to suit their audience, even leaving out attribution if they desire. But sometimes a tip of that hat can go a long way.”

Technically this is true, but there’s an important point to make. From the way the copy was written it appears the AP did not independently verify the story and simply quoted WFXT throughout. The AP does this from time-to-time. It will pick up a story and occasionally attribute it to another news organization. At this point, issues can arise for “clients” deciding whether to post the story. The AP attributed. So why not your news organization? In TV news, some managers do not allow attribution to a competitor, as explained in this Broadcasting Cable article,  “We cite other media to a fault,” says a news director at one market-leading station. “But we don’t cite other stations.” Why is that? “TV’s too competitive,” he admits. “We never give them anything.”

The problem is, the viewer or social media interaction will quickly and easily figure out if you are not attributing. It is just too easy to stumble on. It is too easy to get caught and make headlines like the ones out of Boston.

So what should you do? Attribute. If a competing station has an enterprise story you want, you need to go after it and verify on your own. That is unless you don’t worry about long term credibility. It really is that simple. If the AP attributes a story directly, as in this case, you need to do the same. You essentially are taking AP’s word for the article, when AP itself is at the least making it seem as if it did not independently verify the information. So think about the potential risk to liability. What if the other station got it wrong? You are trusting that it’s ok. You have no verification. And you cannot pass the error off to the AP because it attributed the facts to another source.

In this digital age it is too easy to get caught copying someone else’s work. Better to be behind on the story and know you have the correct facts, than to chance it and potentially connect yourself to an erroneous story. And if the story is correct, you still look bad for “stealing it” and not crediting the original source. No winning here. Especially in the digital age where you will get caught.

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