Reporters often feel left on their own. There is some truth to that feeling since you are out and about, and your bosses are not there to really watch you work. Assumptions are made about what you do and don’t do by managers and producers. Often you are not given the benefit of the doubt.
That’s why it is crucial to form good relationships with a group “on the inside.” In your case that group should be assignment desk editors. The assignment desk is the 411 of newsrooms. Editors on the desk can be intense and bark orders. But remember, they are under the kind of pressure you face the last two hours of your shift, all day long. There is little to no down time. I had friends on the assignment desk constantly get bladder infections because they could not break away from the desk long enough to go to the bathroom regularly. I am telling you this, because having the knowledge of what the assignment desk goes through helps you know how to build a smart alliance.
Reporters (like producers in our Producing Alliance article) will get priority day-to-day based on how they treat the assignment editor. Sure, if you are on a breaker, you will get more attention and help. But when it’s just day-to-day, run of the mill news you can bet the reporters that are respectful to the assignment desk get more support.
So what can you do to build a smart alliance with assignment editors? First, don’t call the desk for simple phone numbers. With technology today, there are plenty of ways to get numbers without calling the desk. Remember, the assignment desk is looking for fresh news all day long in addition to planning segments and stories for managers, making beat calls and answering the phone all day long. As someone who sat next to the assignment desk for more than a decade I can attest, just answering the phone can be a full time job. It doesn’t let up until about 9 at night. Respect the fact the assignment editor is busy and is not your personal receptionist. I never got over how many crews in the field really thought assignment editors just existed to be glorified receptionists for the newsroom. Not the case.
When you do have the luck to be done with your package early in your shift, occasionally sit on the assignment desk and help out for a little while. This is a huge sign of respect. Sit up there, and answer the phone. It can also be a great place to drum up story ideas and source build a bit. The assignment editor knows who talks on what shift and who is good to call on the down low when you need to fact check. This is smart to do, especially when you first move to an area. Sitting on the desk to help out a little here and there will help you build sources quickly. (See How to generate story ideas when you are swamped for more help on that) Assignment editors also help do futures planning, so sitting up there gives you a chance to express interest in an upcoming story or special that the assignment editor is researching. They will often let managers know, if you expressed interest, to try and help you get the assignment.
Check in regularly with the desk. A lot of crews resent this and consider it a sinister plot to spy on you and track how hard you work. You don’t have to give a full report if you happen to be done with your package early and are working sources for future stories. Just call with a location and how long you think you will be there. Assignment editors love when crews do this. It takes 10 seconds and speaks volumes for your respect for the role of the assignment desk. No the assignment editors are not plotting what to send you on next to work you into the ground. They are constantly being hounded by management and producers over where crews are and how viable the stories assigned to them really are. Just calling and saying: “Hey we are in such and such city and will be here approximately 1 hour” helps the assignment editor show management that he/she is in touch with the crews. It also makes you look very responsible and a team player. Yes, you might occasionally get sent to something else because of this. I did notice that most of the time the assignment editors fought for the crews that called in. They could tell management this reporter has an hour left on their package so let’s pull someone else. Knowledge is power and the assignment desk goes out of its way to protect content. That is a key element of the position.
Finally, if you are done with your story and are sent to breaking news, don’t gripe to the desk if you and the assignment editor know the story is probably bullshit. The assignment editor more than likely has management breathing down his/her neck and often will report if you are being difficult. If you say okay and suck it up and go, the assignment editor appreciates one less fight in the day and will likely try to prevent sending you on the next wild goose chase. The point, in case you missed it: If you gripe, you will get the crap job more. The assignment desk controls a lot of your destiny including which photographer is assigned to you most days. If you want less hassle, give the assignment desk less hassle. You both will appreciate each other more.