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What do we do when this pandemic is all over? Why it’s not too early to start planning transition coverage.

I recently posted an article on lessons learned while covering the midwestern flood of ’93. It was an intense time for much of the region. We lived and breathed coverage for months. But luckily for me I had a news director who also understood that we had to help the community rise out of the floods with coverage of some stories that were not flood related. 

This newsroom, like many today did not have a lot of resources. And we were budding journalists, so source building was not something we really knew how to do. Our news director leaned on the management team to help coach and find those other relevant stories. At first it was a couple a week. Then one a day, and slowly as the water receded and people started rebuilding, our newscasts took on a new shape as well. Many of us feared that once you covered something that frankly was so easy to go out and find information about, it would be hard to transition into showing viewers we could find highly relevant stories on other subjects. But the prep work our managers did planning and coaching on beats helped make the transition easier.

Your newsroom is likely filled with more seasoned journalists than mine was back then. But I am going to argue that if you take a moment and really think about the last few years of news coverage, your room lost site of finding the very important factual events going on in your community. A lot of the industry has turned to reactionary coverage, often influenced by what’s trending online. What if, as you start to transition to more ‘normal coverage,’ you take the time to let some of your source builders look for great gets? I know we are entering surge time for COVID-19 in many areas of the country, but I want to plant this seed early. Once there is a dip, do you have reporters ready to tackle other relevant stories? Education, economic, financial and housing stories are going to be very important in the months to come. Why not take a   crew out of rotation every day or two and have them start gathering information and sources on these key subjects? Maybe they turn a vo or vo/sot now. But once the surge ends you can lean on them for key coverage.

Chances are you have a lot more viewers sampling your newscasts and websites than usual. As important as it is now to “own” coverage, you will only have a small window to win over those samplers and turn them into loyal viewers once COVID-19 coverage winds down. It is crucial to come up with plans to transition out of the coverage in terms of manpower and relevant stories. These samplers came to you for facts. Many are not loyal TV news viewers. But desperate times set off a deep psychological need for information. Look for ways to help some of your star reporters find informative, compelling stories that they can run with as the coverage eases up. That way your momentum stays up. The viewers see that you can bring all kinds of important information to them even when there’s not a pandemic. We cannot assume they think that now. Too many polls have shown that Americans have lost faith in news. It’s time to try and bring them back. Start having some key people in your newsroom source build and gear up to be ready while others continue with daily coverage. 

The stations which plan ahead and come up with transition scenarios to maintain high quality enterprise stories that show deep community roots will win. The stations which fly by the seat of their pants will showcase that flaw as the news of the day gets more run of the mill again. A little organization will go a long way to keep more of that sampling audience. So start thinking transition now.

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Lessons learned from the Flood of ’93. The crisis that seemed like it would never end.

You’ve heard it said, often, “this is uncharted territory.” In many ways coverage of COVID-19 is uncharted territory, especially with so many technological advances. But for some of us, there are similarities to an event we covered awhile back, the midwestern flood of ’93. The scale was obviously smaller than the global pandemic. But for our region it was all encompassing. Some of the lessons we learned could help you navigate this intense time.

The first thing we learned was not to overplay events. We avoided superlatives. People were losing their homes, entire neighborhoods, towns, crops and others were getting sick from the flood water. It was especially hard watching families learn they would have to give up the land that many generations before had lived upon. How to start again? The constant stories of loss were hard. There were inspirational stories too. But sometimes you really had to look. The coverage quickly became hard for viewers to watch. We had to temper it somehow. So we chose to stick with facts and not embellish. We also looked for the “heroes” as much as we could.

This time around it can be harder to tell the hero stories since it is frankly too risky to cover a lot of the stories on the front lines in hospitals. But the stories of people stepping up and helping are still important and it can be most effective to let these stories tell themselves with longer bites, natural sound or just showing the Facebook post with no commentary around it. Notice I did not say no background. That’s different. Background is information that gives context to what the viewer is seeing. But in today’s world we’ve encouraged anchors and reporters to put themselves in the stories and discuss their feelings too. We were asked to do the same in our flood coverage back in ’93. It worked at first. But as coverage continued and the damage kept coming, we felt it starting to backfire. Managers should really try and sit down every few days and gut check the coverage this way. Sometimes there’s just too much human emotion in newscasts for viewers to handle. Anchor commentary is an easy thing to reduce. The facts are craved. So, feed more of them to viewers. 

Another big lesson we learned is, the viewer isn’t with you all day consuming every minute detail of the events the entire time. They are immersed in the situation in a different way. Do not assume they know the basics.  Many are trying to work, clean, teach the kids, cook, order groceries you catch my drift. So they may not be as clear on things like, how much did the flood water rise (flood of ’93) or how much COVID-19 cases in your area have increased overnight. Don’t assume they know know when the river will crest (flood of ’93) or the latest projections for the surge to happen. Viewers like hearing that information every time. Because they are not watching you all the time. They are not reading your updates all day long on the website, Twitter and App blasts etc. In fact they are purposely taking breaks to try and escape the harsh realities. When they do look, they want it boiled down so they do not have to linger too long. The lingering causes more anxiety and stress. This is good to keep in mind for story selection, which elements to showcase and how much you push crews for new content. I am fond of the saying “this is a marathon not a sprint.” It really applies to coverage of COVID-19. Do not withhold important facts. But if you are working on a lot of sidebars and a huge development happens you can hold the sidebars for a mini lull in coverage. It’s better to eat a huge meal in courses rather than shoving it all down your throat at once.

The next two nuggets are for crews braving it in the trenches each day. First and foremost, big gets are great, but safety is more important. This kind of coverage really dictates that you give relevant information that can get your viewer through the day well informed. That means practical elements. Did cases go up overnight? Is Lowe’s closing tomorrow? Is toilet paper finally in plentiful supply? If not, when? There is a place for big gets like a company hiding supplies, people stockpiling items for black market sales etc. But the daily, practical, very useful information will more than satisfy the viewer starved for information and clarity. And you can stay safe. Going into hot zones just to show what is happening and that you were there, is just not smart. Ask people in the hot zones to send you video from their phones. Set up a Zoom session with someone. But make sure your safety is a high priority.

During the floods I drove into a rural area where the flood water was about to crest. My car got stuck. No cell phones back then. But, luckily, a farmer with a tractor came by just in time to save my car and drag it to his house. I filed my live report from his kitchen phone, while his wife made dinner. I made deadline. But my manager was furious. All he kept saying was that the perspective was nice, but it was not worth possibly loosing me! I never forgot that lecture. Please heed that advice. Especially MMJ’s. I was one for part of that flood coverage. It was scary and lonely and I got into a few tight spots. I could have played it safer and brought viewers the same relevant information.

On your days off try and take a break from the story as much as possible. It will not be hard to catch back up and you need to feel that life can go on without the story. When the floods finally tapered off, many of us really came down hard from the intensity of the coverage. Those that took mental breaks on their off days seemed to bounce back faster. You have a right to nurture your own mental health too. 

Finally, this one is for the bosses. If you have the resources try and have someone looking for non COVID-19 stories each day also. There are plenty. And some could be very important. Even one strong non COVID-19 story every few days can make a huge difference to your staff and your viewers psychologically. It also gets you geared up to start thinking about how to transition out of this coverage when the time comes. (More on that in an upcoming article.)

We covered the after effects of the flood of ’93 for years. It eventually became half of each newscast, then a section, then a story and finally an occasional look back. But at its height it was all encompassing. You literally lived and breathed the stories. Many of us were canoeing to places after our live shots in order to help people sandbag. We helped with fundraisers in our off time. We got attached to families we covered and did check-ins. It was one of the most draining, but also gratifying, times in my career. It was excruciating to sit by unable to help as the raging water took another house, town and person’s dreams. The illnesses from the water spread and we had to get Tetanus shots. You never forget the smell once the water recedes and the mud sticks to walls like cement. Then as the cleanup began we were able to help people find hope with information on programs, support groups and even Army Corps of Engineers designs to prevent another breach in an area that often swelled. We dealt with the swarms of mosquitos and fears of the diseases they carry. Being a journalist who could help provide key facts at key times was extremely hard, but also very rewarding. Hopefully many of you will be able to look back and know you helped a family, a business, or a community survive and prosper because of the hours you put in, the extra fact checking you did and the stories you shared. Good luck and Godspeed. (FYI Image used was taken by Sam Leone and used in newspapers across the country in mid July 1993)

Safety First!

Recently I stumbled across an important post to the “Storytellers” group on Facebook. (If you are in the TV news business and are not a member, here is link to join https://www.facebook.com/groups/TVNewsStroytellers/?epa=SEARCH_BOX.) One of the members told the story of recently having to tell the newsroom that, as the field crew, they did not feel safe doing a live shot in the location requested and that they then moved to a safer location. He asked members of the group what they thought. I was so happy to see that everyone who responded did so with the message of safety first. While I believe that this is the overall attitude in local newsrooms, but there can be exceptions.

I spent the final 16-years of my 28-year daily TV news career in Central Florida. Before that, I worked in the Cleveland, Greenville-Spartanburg-Asheville, Columbia, SC and Savannah markets. There are some universal truths no matter market size. The struggle over crew safety is one of them.

In Savannah, back in the early 1990’s, crew safety was often a concern because of the high rate (per capita) of violent crime. Crews were often asked to do live shots at the scene of volatile crime scenes. In my stops in the Carolinas, weather coverage, including hurricanes brought up the subject almost every year. In Cleveland, it was weather and crime.

Central Florida is no stranger to violent crime and associated live shots. But, in my experience, the overwhelming majority of crew safety issues have to do with weather coverage. The corridor along I-4, from Tampa to Daytona Beach is among the most lightning-prone on earth. During storm season lightning is a near daily occurrence during early evening news time. And as we all hopefully know, if you can hear thunder, you can be struck. The general lightning safety rule dictates staying indoors for a half hour after the last clap is heard. And, no, it does not matter if you are not in a live truck with a giant metal lightning rod sticking out the top. You can just as easily be struck if you are standing in a storm while live via a backpack unit or even just your smartphone.  

While I was still working, requests for live shots during stormy weather were common. To be fair, the decision makers in the newsroom often do not know what the weather is like where each crew is at a given time. So, when the request comes in, it is up to the crew to let them know. If I could see lightning or hear thunder, I steadfastly refused to go live. Much of the time, it would be met with a huge sigh and a response of “Fine.” At times I would get a call back saying something like “Well, I see that (insert name or station here) is live at the same place. Why can’t you be live?” I still refused. No assignment is worth your health, safety or life.

There are other examples, especially during Florida’s annual hurricane season. But I will not belabor the point with more stories. Nearly all of us have been there. The important thing here is how should you handle it if this happens to you? Ultimately, you have to decide that for yourself. But, here’s what I did. I would first explain why we felt unsafe in as much detail as possible and with the videographer in the vehicle listening. If the newsroom still insisted, I would say something like: “O.K., I want to make sure we are on the same page as to what’s happening here. I am telling you that we do not feel safe. You are telling me that you want us to go live despite that fact… correct?” Most of the time, that shuts it down. However, sometimes it will not.  Then offer a look live from a safer location. You have the right to flat out refuse as well. 

I can hear some of you saying: “Yeah, but if I do that, I’m risking my job!” You may well be. But your job is not nearly as important as your health, safety or life. I can hear others saying: “Yeah, but I’m not gonna let the other guys beat me on a story or make me look bad.” Really? Grow up! Again, your safety is more important.

I can also hear some newsroom-based employees saying: “This is what you signed up for. This is just part of the job.” No. It is not.  And remember radar data is often a few minutes behind, so its possible a crew sees lightning or hears thunder the meteorologist is not aware of yet. So there absolutely are times when journalists will find themselves in the middle of dangerous situations. And it happens more often than with non-journalists. However, we did not sign up to knowingly put ourselves in harms way. We did not sign up to knowingly risk our lives for a daily news story. There are always other ways to cover a story and impart the important information we did sign up to gather, without knowingly risking our lives.

To the journalist who started the thread in the Facebook “Storytellers” Group: Thank you!

To all of those who responded: “Safety first!” Thank you!

To all you who go out every day and work your tails off gathering news stories in the field: Thank you and always remember, no assignment is worth your health, safety or life!

———– Tom Johnson is a former 5-time Emmy winning local journalist who spent nearly 30-years working as an anchor, reporter, producer and videographer.

How to tell if you are putting too much information into a story.

Writers are being asked to write more, in different formats and faster than before.

You have to decide what is better served on a digital platform (more on that in an upcoming article), or shown on a big monitor. You are told the pacing has to be high, but still understandable. You need to showcase. You need to think of your audience. No mistakes. The list goes on and on.

But with all the talk of transforming graduates into the digital age and futuristic journalists, there are still glaring issues in newsrooms today; very little writing training and often even less copy editing. You are thrown into the fire quickly, and you simply must perform.

One of the biggest challenges is learning how to write a relevant story, concisely and with the correct facts mentioned. This can be really confusing when being told to write quickly, to the video and saving a nugget for digital. We need to start with the basics. What does a well written story look/sound like?

Let’s delve in and help lay a strong foundation with a simple formula that can help you with a clear outline for your stories, no matter the format.

ELEMENTS OF A STRONG STORY

The sell

Video available

Facts explaining the sell

(ie relevant information so viewer can understand the story)

Looks simple right? Well its not for many until they practice a lot and get the hang of it.

So let’s start breaking things down.

VO’s.

When you title a story in your rundown, even a vo, you should aim to put the sell in the story slug or a unique element. Yep you read that correctly. But you only have a few words to work with, right? Keep in mind, you also will use that slug to find the story from now until the end of time. The slug cannot be a throw away. 

Let’s go through some examples:  House Fire is too generic. Think about it, you will have to scroll through dozens to find it for a follow up later. Child escapes house fire is better.  Or fire on Smith Street. Fire downtown can sometimes work but try and get even more specific. That’s part of the relevance. Fire in BBT Building, is likely how you will refer to it in the future. That’s why you hear things like Parkland shooting or Pulse shooting for example when discussing ongoing elements of these stories. The location helps to immediately identify the story. Some Tampa journalists will know this slug too; lobster man in court. The case was covered extensively in part because of the defendant’s deformity.  It was a unique element that caused viewer interest. The sell.

Once you have boiled a story down in the slug it is easier to write the story, no matter the format. The second thing you should immediately consider is the video. This is important whether you are writing a vo, vo/sot or package. Heck it is crucial when writing teases and opens as well. What image depicts the story best? Is it a static image or moving? If it is static you might want to put it in a monitor and have the anchor directly reference it in the first line or anchor intro. If it is moving, do you need to take it full natural sound up for a few seconds? Is the video itself your sell? Ask that every time.

Now that you defined the sell, and referenced an image right away, explain what the viewer is seeing and why they should care. This should play out easily. The fire is still burning up this house on this street. This family barely got out. This neighbor helped or watched terrified. Firefighters are still on the scene.

Let’s take one of the hardest subjects to boil down, a court case. When using the outline above it gets easier to boil the case down.

A court case story should start out this way:   Now an update on this case (that surprises, captures attention or fascinates viewers for a specific reason). Court video rolls… (since you defined the case and sell summarize the latest) today the person accused of stealing money from the company said it was a lie. The attorney for the company said that’s not true because of this and this fact (two most interesting/relevant ones). We have more on the court hearing on our website. Why did I mention that? Court hearings are the number one story overwritten in newscasts period. So the writer whether it is an associate producer who drew the short straw or the reporter stuck sitting in the courtroom all day needs to know right away that explaining everything will only confuse the viewer. You must boil down the highlights. Then do not be afraid to add more details on the website for people who love all the nitty gritty.

One other important note, yes, the video is mentioned early in the court story even if it is static. Why? It is part of the sell. The case is in court. You cannot make up more than is there, and you need to reference reality. You can use file from the scene if you like at some point too, but reference it directly. That is part of showing the relevant information in the story.

A final note, the outline above for how to write a good story does not have the five w’s and the all important how mentioned. Why? Not all will fit, or be relevant information at that point in the description of the story. That’s why the sell is the most important part of what you write. Sometimes the sell is we finally know why something happened. Or how. Sometimes we only know where, what and when. Trying to answer all of these elements every time, every story causes the copy to get bulky and increases the risk of fact errors. Especially when covering  breaking or developing news. Be clear about what you do know. Be clear about why you are reporting on the story (the sell). Do not make assumptions about facts. Only state what you absolutely know. If you find that you are writing and writing and the vo is 50 seconds long chances are you either do not know the sell of the story and are adding elements hoping to find the point, or you do not understand the facts well enough to tell the story yet. Same thing with long packages and/or long anchor intros into your package. If you have a really long story, you need to step back, look at our checklist above and start again. 

Hope this helps you boil your stories down more. You can even take past copy you’ve written and then put it to the outline test. By doing that you should quickly see where your writing crutches and/or pitfalls are so you can eliminate them.