How To Speed Up Your Writing Time

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.

Journalists Experience PTSD, Too

We are the observers. We bear witness to society’s worst outcomes: dead bodies, mangled cars, weeping family members.

The scale may be smaller than the horrific scenes of war American service members witness overseas. Yet journalists covering local tragedies are at risk of developing PTSD, too. I would submit photojournalists are particularly at-risk because they get sent out on everything. And as the years go by, all that trauma witnessing can literally affect our brain’s sense of well-being.

Which reminds me, this is a brain issue. Not a “toughness” issue. Not a “you’ve lost your objectivity” issue. You have no need to feel guilty.

Unfortunately, news executives do a poor job of proactively warning journalists they send out into the field about the emotional dangers of the job. In a study of photojournalists who witness trauma, only 11% had been told of the emotional toll the job can take, while only one in four photographers had been offered counseling.

A chief photographer I once worked with joked about needing to take a “mental health day” every so often instead of a sick day. There may be times when you need to take a “mental health day,” too. How open you are with your manager about the exact reason you’re not coming into the newsroom is up to you. As sad as it is, “I have the flu” is often greeted with more sympathy and understanding than “I have the blues.”

I can’t imagine not needing some time off after covering the 9-year-old Chicago boy investigators believe was lured into an alley and shot to death by a gang. But if you’re expected to keep following a story day after day and don’t feel right about asking for time off, debriefing is the most basic thing you can do for yourself.

Debriefing is simply talking with another journalist or manager about what it was like to cover this senseless murder — or similar stories. And it’s a must. You can do it in the darkness of the live truck on the way back to the station, inside the news director’s office with the door closed, or over a beer at your favorite bar.

If you’re too shy, debrief in your journal. I would advise against debriefing on Facebook, however, because people who don’t know our world are going to make some pretty stupid comments under your post that’ll make you feel worse.

Over time, having covered so many of these stories, you may notice you never feel “right.”

You may be easily startled. You might dream about the traumatic event. And with all the negative emotions and anxious feelings seeming to never fully leave your body, you may become so angry you explode at co-workers.

That last one is what usually gets my attention, especially if the journalist lashes-out over something trivial. What is he really angry about? I ask myself. How many years has he been shooting/reporting? What types of stories?

The person might have PTSD. It goes so much deeper than the blues, too. Rather than feeling down for a couple of days, the symptoms of PTSD last a month or more.

Then it’s time to ask your family doctor if she’d recommend a therapist trained to help PTSD sufferers. You might also search your station’s website or archives to see which mental health experts your staff has put on-the-air for PTSD segments. See who the local newspaper has interviewed, too.

The Anxiety and Depression Society of America also has this handy therapist search tool.

It’s time to really take care of yourself. If you don’t like the first therapist you go to, try another one. But make sure you get the help you deserve. Your sense of who you are and your relationships are depending on it.

Matthew Nordin is a weekend anchor/reporter at WSIL-TV in southern Illinois. He is currently making the transition from broadcast journalism to the mental health field. Feel free to reach out to him on Twitter: @MatthewNordin

Can’t See It? Then Tweet It!

By now you’ve probably heard about the big story this week. It was an embarrassing gaffe during a live shot about the Michigan and Michigan State football game. It was a game decided on the final play. The on-scene reporter went TV and said the wrong team won. The anchor then had to correct the mistake when the reporter tossed back to the studio.

In this FTVLIVE article the sports anchor is quoted as writing on Facebook that “we tried bringing the most up to date stats as we could as we were going live at the exact moment everything was happening. Had two scripts written and ready to go and got bad information off my phone while on air. And then we immediately corrected it when we could. I’m sorry for getting it wrong but in the end it was corrected and it certainly won’t be a finish forgotten by any of us.”

Now if you have worked in TV news and covered a live event, especially a sports event even once, you know that it can be very hard to get the right information on the air in the final minutes of a newscast. Frankly, I am shocked this kind of gaffe doesn’t happen more often. The biggest reason why is the reporter has to leave the event in order to go live. That’s generally because of where you have to park the live truck and coverage rights, since the live event itself is televised.

So how can the reporter know what is happening when he/she doesn’t have eyes on the event?
There are several ways to prevent this, the biggest being putting someone in the stadium, who has news sense and can let the reporter know. But based on the description of how it went down quoted above, they may have attempted this solution. Guessing whoever was on the phone, or whatever site was used, will not be part of the equation next time.

This gaffe does open up discussion for an even bigger issue, and that is the need to be first, even at great risk of being wrong. This particular flub is making all sorts of rounds because it seems like such an obvious mistake. How could the reporter not know? How could you miss something when you are at the event? Look at his live shot background. He had huge stadium walls separating him. A big part of the blame here, lies with the decision on how to execute bringing the latest about the game to the newscast audience.

There is an age old argument that the people who really give a rip about the game or sporting event you are at, are actually watching it. So the push to be first is irrelevant because the audience that cares is not watching you, they are watching the game. But there is a strong counterpoint that this is a huge event everyone will be talking about in the DMA and you simply cannot ignore it. So here’s where I am going to get bold and ask, why not go non traditional? Why not keep the reporter in the stands, so your eyewitness actually knows what happened? Can you show a live pic, in the place where crews are allowed to be (even if that’s outside the stadium) and mention that your reporter is there, and live tweeting about the event? Can you show tweets fullscreen from your crew in the stands to show that you are all over the coverage? Here’s why this is a win-win scenario: The people watching the game, may still engage with your sports reporter on the scene through social media. The reporter can focus on the experience of the game for those who could not go for TV and tweet about the event with no worries about missing a key play. So the reporter can turn a piece on how much the fans are loving the event, or something controversial that happened earlier that airs in the newscast, then tweet about the here and now in the final minutes of the game. Put the tweets up, put up a live pic and keep your information accurate. It hits more audience because he can even be interacting with people who are still at the game.

The problem TV stations face is how to disseminate information in this digital age. Most stations still want all the biggest information to be on TV first. That means we have to take a crew live at the event. This is sometimes a mistake. You are limiting your possibilities and increasing the risk of an embarrassing mistake like this one at the Michigan/Michigan State game. In the case of live sports events, live shots need to be more about the atmosphere, and eyewitness accounts of what is happening. Relevant facts are already being posted online. I am not saying ignore the facts, but don’t force someone into the situation this reporter was in. The odds were stacked against him. He was OUTSIDE the event with no way to personally witness what was happening. How can he realistically report on what was happening? If you go the social media emphasis route, he could be in the stadium bringing information in a relevant way through Facebook, Twitter and the station website. He could post to these outlets without having to leave the stadium. In order to serve the live newscast audience, remember, the viewers are likely casual fans, they are not watching the game. Do a pkg on the experience and then use graphics of the tweets to update the facts. The biggest payoff is that you serve multiple audiences and are emphasizing what each cares about in the way you are covering the event. TV news is not just about showing up and covering an event anymore. Now the focus has to be on how to do it, and include social media in a relevant way. The reporter being on scene showcases that the station understands this is a big event for the community. Showing what it’s been like at the game in a package, serves the casual sports-viewing audience. Tweeting and posting Facebook updates on the game itself, in real time helps your reporter directly engage with the audience in real time, thus making a connection. Showcasing that he is doing so throughout the newscast generates curiosity and a chance to engage with the reporter if you cannot be there yourself. This is effective even if the person is watching the event live on another channel. It is another way to be a relevant eyewitness and get more of the audience actively involved with your reporter who’s at the event.

Again, you have to look at the regulations for covering these sporting events. Some events prohibit live tweeting. Most of the time mentioning a Tweet works and is still compelling. Especially because the photographer with the live picture would then understand why some fans were walking out looking devastated. The whole scene, inside the stadium and out would have had relevant perspective. As TV stations cover a variety of live events, the bottom line is that they need to discuss how they will engage with the viewers actively. Simply showing up and reporting what you hope is first and right, is not enough anymore. Your viewers use social media to track events, they expect you to as well.

When to add “breaking” information into a newscast.

Let’s face it, journalists are airing and/or publishing more mistakes than they used to. So it is a good time to reiterate some tried and true guidelines to determine when information is safe to tell the world.

Breaking News Guidelines

Two sources minimum have confirmed the information
You know the names or groups confirming the fact(s)
Another journalist looked over your information

Veteran journalists are looking at this list and rolling their eyes. Yes, I know, the old standard was really three sources. In this day and age of “WE MUST BE FIRST” three is not always going to happen. Hell, I think it’s questionable if some news organizations actually require more than one source before going with breaking news. That’s especially if we define a source. Which we need to do now. A source is NOT another journalist you overheard talking to the boss about the story, or the assignment desk repeating information while on the phone and writing notes in the assignment file. I say this because I guarantee this is a daily issue in most newsrooms. Also a source is not what the reporter or assignment editor said a story was in a summary during an editorial meeting. You have to treat those pitches as unconfirmed even if they cite a phone call or email stating the facts. You must still verify because the information more than likely was not vetted yet. Think about it. The majority of stories in a newscast rundown actually end up with key differences than during the original pitch in the editorial meeting. I am saying this so that tease writers, promotions departments and general managers remember, editorial meetings are to pitch ideas. They are not vetted stories, and a statement of absolute facts. You must verify the truth of the information later. That starts with asking who are the minimum TWO sources of information. A valid source is someone directly involved in the story, with expertise. A police officer on the scene. An accountant who saw and worked on the budget. A teacher who actually created lesson plans on the curriculum. PIO’s do qualify as sources because they speak on behalf of the agency. They are considered official. So when they screw up, it’s on them. Also, they are essentially the PR person for whomever they represent. So, they’re facts will often have a slant. A good journalist will double check a PIO with their own source first, just to make sure.

Producers in particular, before you go to the booth or into the IFB of an anchor with new information, know who the information you have came from. Ask the desk or EP or whomever is calling to give you a name. This seems redundant, but I cannot tell you how often asking this simple question led to some “Um Ah, let me double check this” responses from the information provider. Having to name names, means you must have solid notes, and double checked information before sharing. And sometimes asking for the name leads to expanded information like “Well I heard reporter x tell reporter y about it while they were at their desks making calls.” That could mean anything. One asking the other’s opinion on whether the fact sounds realistic. Wondering if the source seems to actually be dodging sharing some information. Or simply talking about what they hope the story will be. None of that is confirmed enough to air the information to the world. Yet this happens all the time. A producer in a hurry to write an anchor intro or a tease, overhears a story description and writes based on that eavesdropping. Especially when it’s a breaker.

Finally, you must let another journalist look over the information first. My go to was usually my anchors. Frankly, they need to look over the information before reading it anyway to make sure they understand the story and can explain it, ad lib about it, or even read the copy in a convincing manner. Having a manager read over the information first is ideal, because most anchors will do so as well and you will quickly get two sets of critical eyes. If neither questions the validity of the facts, they are even more likely to be trustworthy. In a breaking news situation there is always a certain degree of educated guesswork. The story is ever changing. But anchors and managers need to have good BS meters. Most do and if they stop and ask, “Where is that information from,” you need to have solid, clear answers. That means checks and balances happened, and you are far less likely to end up making a huge mistake. There needs to be less embarrassing screw up reels out there for the world to see.

For more on handling breaking news check out how Survive defines breakers in the first place.