Managers want to know the decision producers fear most? It’s pulling their only crew off a clear lead, and sending them on a breaker, that might just turn out to be nothing. In newsrooms today the mantra is “New, now!”… “New, now!” You cannot miss a breaker without getting a tongue lashing.
Managers forget they get the benefit of hindsight. Being in the moment, with things less than clear, can lead to decisions that later make you think “How on earth?” Especially since, most of the time the producer with 1 crew is the least experienced producer and who usually, if we are all truly honest, cannot get the on-call manager on the phone to talk through the scenario.
So let’s give these some guidelines to these producers who are bravely trying to serve two masters (owning breaking news and also owning the lead) with one crew:
Get your work done early
Have a backup lead plan
Location, location, location
Know it’s 50/50
First and foremost, if you only have one crew, you HAVE to get your newscast put to bed early. You need to be the “second crew” option in order to send the first crew chasing breaking news. By this I mean, if you need to send your crew on a breaker, you might have to be the one who takes the elements the crew had for the lead and puts them together in a compelling way, as a potential backup lead. To spell this out very clearly: You need to set aside time not long before your newscast to be able to write a last minute, lead level, package. And you will need time for that to be edited. So the writing up until you get to the booth style, has to stop! (See time management). If it means getting to work earlier, suck it up and do it. Managers hint at this. Some cannot legally say it. But the truth is you have to do this if you want to keep your job and prove that you are worthy of moving up to newscasts that have more than one crew.
While you are cranking your newscast out early, you need to be creating a backup lead of some sort. You need to have a lead option in case you have to pull your crew off of the main lead right before air. The biggest reason producers panic about moving that 1 crew is that they will be yelled at for not having a live shot and/or owning the lead. First, owning the lead does not just mean putting your one crew on the story and telling them to go live. You can pick a story with a lot of impact for your audience and showcase it. You can do this early in your shift, so that if you have to pull the crew to chase a breaker, you can move this story up to take the place of the lead.
Really good producers also have a backup plan in place for the main story their one crew is assigned to at the start of their shift. The plan makes sure the story is protected no matter what. Maybe that is pulling all the information for the reporter story, so your anchor can write a quick package if necessary. Maybe it’s building elements around the live shot, so if the crew gets moved and their part of the story is busted down to a vo/sot, it still feels like a big story. Bottom line is that a story important enough to put your only crew on, needs to be protected even if the crew “goes away.” Your job as a producer is to have a backup plan for that story mapped out early in your shift because it is obviously worthy of making air.
When deciding whether to pull that crew for breaking news, a huge factor in your decision making should be location. If the breaker is 45 minutes or more away from the heart of your DMA, you need to think hard about pulling the crew for the story. You may need to chase that breaker another way, be it stringer video, calling in a photographer or dedicating your AP to working with the desk to get all the information you can and then setting up a phoner with a map graphic. Do not get stuck in “molds” when considering how to cover breaking news. Look at what you can realistically do. Get the information on the air, the best way you can.
By the way, location should also play a role in what story you plan to send your crew out on in the first place. When you only have one crew, you really need to be strategic. You cannot prevent your ability to cover the “new, now” stories in your DMA by sending a crew one or two hours away from the heart of your DMA. Let’s go back to the stuck in a “mold” idea. All leads do not have to be live vo/sots or packages. All leads do not have to be large chunks. Sometimes the best story is just coming in as a map, and you need to do it off the top and add elements as they come available throughout the newscast. That is owning the lead. That is owning breaking news. That is serving those two masters. If you have a killer story, that would make a great lead but is too far away for the only crew to cover, showcase it another way, even lead with it if you want. Put your reporter on another compelling story, that has a reason to be live. You get two wins! You are also ready to jump on it and own it if a breaker happens. Be selfish. Demand that you get all of the good stuff. Just be creative about how to do it. Your viewers deserve that. This is especially true if you are doing a weekend newscast. You do not have to share. Embrace that, do not focus on what you don’t have. Just creatively get what you want. All of it.
Finally, do not fear making a decisive decision. Know you will likely be 50/50 when it comes to chasing breakers. You have a high probability of getting a nasty call from the ND if you chase a breaker that turns into nothing, or don’t chase what looks like an iffy breaker that turns into something good. You do not have a crystal ball. You will have to trust your gut and go for it. If you follow the other guidelines just listed, you will have solid reasons to justify your decision. Best part, you will not be as afraid to go for the breaker because the newscast is protected by your backup planning. Producing is all about anticipating the changes and executing flawlessly. Do that and you will not sacrifice content, only enhance it!