The One Criticism You Never Want To Be Told

It’s a fact of life, in news, that your work will be criticized a lot.  It can be hard to take, but you must if you want to succeed in the business.  However, there is one criticism you never want to be told:  That you blame others for your mistakes.  If you do, you will quickly be labeled a  complainer, trouble maker and bad at your job.  You cannot afford to have this label.
So what do you do to get around?  For starters check out our recent “Take Ownership” article.  Next, do not complain, about how the newsroom runs, to other staff members.  I recognize this is a tough one, because news people are infamous for their after hours gripe sessions.  It is VERY hard not to engage in the complaining and you may even feel alienated at first.  But believe me, it is worth it to not get involved.  Remember a key staffer will be at the gripe sessions:  the newsroom snitch.  Any complaints you make will be reported, and if you directly complain about how others are doing their jobs, and that it’s keeping you from doing yours, I guarantee that it doesn’t matter whether you have a valid point.  You will be labeled a complainer who passes the buck.  Also, there are many times your coworker is not your friend, says a few more generic complaints to get you rolling, then uses your words against you later in front of management.  End result:  You look like a complainer.
Blamers do not get as much leeway.  They do not get a benefit of the doubt.  If you are known for passing the buck, management will build a file on you quickly and work to get you fired or banished to the one shift no one wants, so that you hopefully just go away.
The final thing you can do to avoid this horrible label is this:  When you have a complaint in your mind, think of proactive solutions you can help implement.  That way if you get cornered at the station party or management backs you into a corner with an intense line of questioning, you can try and deviate the attention away from you and toward a solution that builds team.  If my EP just disappeared when I had to make key decisions, and I got called on the carpet, instead of saying “Joe EP is never around to ask.”  I would say, “I think I need to go over potential pitfalls in my rundown a little earlier when Joe EP is less busy.”  This raises the issue that Joe EP is not around, without me calling the person out as slacking off.  If management asks “Where is Joe EP?” say “Not sure, at that time of day. I just try to execute what I am asked as best I can.”  Let the managers duke it out.  Meantime you look like a solution finder instead of the dreaded blamer.
If you sense you are already labeled the complainer, stop your gripes immediately and have a clear the air session with your immediate supervisor.  Look that person in the eye and say, “I am here to help this newsroom by doing my best each day.  I want you to know I am glad I am here and will do all I can to help.”  Then do what you are asked and keep your mouth shut.  You can turn this reputation around as long as you do not let it linger long.  It is worth the extra effort, remember being labeled a “complainer” can be a career killer in this ever competitive business.

One of the youngest on staff: How to hang with the veterans and gain their respect.

When I started out in the biz, I was one of the youngest producers ever hired at the station where I worked.  I was so young, my anchors were close to my parents age.  So were many of the reporters and photojournalists, not to mention much of the production crew.

During the interviews leading up to this job a news director from another station told me, “You are impressive, but how will you manage anchors who make three times what you do, and are old enough to be your parents? How will you make them respect you?”  Truth is, that question was much easier to answer in an interview, than to live out each day in a newsroom.

That is not to say that if you are young and driven you should not go for big opportunities.  But you do need to have a small arsenal of techniques to handle the hazing headed your way.  Keep the following in mind:

  • Respect is earned
  • Set expectations
  • Focus on team
  • Avoid running to the bosses

The first thing you need to understand as a newbie, is that you are not respected just because you were hired for a particular job.  Respect is earned.  News people are incredibly harsh critiquers.  Our brains are wired to find weaknesses and anomalies.  You will be picked apart, especially if you are young.  Many stations are hiring people before they are ready for a particular job, because it can be hard to find someone at all.  This is especially true of producers and writers.  So you are going to have to come in, be professional and work your butt off.  You have to earn respect by consistently doing good work, visibly pushing yourself to be better each day, and respecting those around you.

Which leads to my next point. Set expectations.  Set them for yourself, and those around you.  If you are a reporter, talk through your thoughts on how to handle a story with your photographer (if you are lucky enough to have one).  Explain to your producer when you will call in and when you need script approval to ensure you can get your pkg in by deadline.  Producers: You need to tell your anchors what you need them to do in terms of writing and/or copy editing the newscast.  You need to sit down with the production crew when you get the job, and see what you need to provide when, and explain your goals for the newscast.

You also need to remember that you are part of a team and focus on that.  This can be a really good thing for a newbie producer.  You do not have to go it alone.  You do not have to have all the answers.  You just need to always clearly explain that you want to be part of the solution for any issue that comes up.  For example, check in with your anchors regularly and ask if they are getting what they need.  Listen to their feedback and take it to heart.  That shows professionalism and maturity that will earn you respect quickly.  If you are a reporter or photojournalist, ask your counterpart what they need from you to thrive at their jobs.  Again, you will gain so much respect.  The best part, you will have stronger allies when you do make mistakes, and, you will make them.  You want a support system around you to help pick yourself up, dust off and heal the bruises.  This is a hard biz, you need all the support you can get.

This also is a very small business.  So, do not go running to the bosses and report issues unless it is dire.  By dire, I mean you are about to put the station in serious jeopardy because of a fact error.  If you tell “Mr. 20 years at the same station” to tag out with “13 News for You” instead of “News 13,” and he tells you to screw off, that doesn’t count.  Write down what you told him and when.  Then, it’s up to him to step in line.  Often, newbie journalists panic when a veteran tells them no.  The fear is they are questioning your authority and will get you in trouble.  That is sometimes true.  But, if you do what you are supposed to and deliver a message from management asking for that new out cue or for something to be included in a live shot or pkg script and the veteran blows you off, the veteran will eventually pay the price.  Let that person hang him or herself, by him or herself.  Write down when you told the person, then let that person sink or swim on their own.  You cannot control that person if he/she is defiant.  Focus on what you can control, and be ready if you are asked about the situation with clear documentation in hand.  Then show what you did and ask what more can you do in the future to handle the situation better.  That is not running to the boss, that is managing.

So hang in there newbie newsies.  The hazing can be tough at times.  But it does get easier.  In fact, the person you thought was enemy number one, can and often does become your greatest advocate.  You just have to earn your stripes.

 

He Got More Air Time: Decoding The Read Counter

When a producer sent me an email about this issue, I had to shake my head a little.  Been there a couple of times.  I could just see the anchor that used to count the number of stories lecturing me again.  I also could see the anchor that used to count how much time reading she got versus her co-anchor handing me a list that tracked a one week period.  She was shocked when I stared at her in disbelief.  In a week’s time, the cumulative amount differed by less than a minute.  Seriously?  This is what she worried about?

Here’s the deal.  Anchor reads will never be completely even.  It just isn’t possible.  There are tricks to get them pretty darn close though.  I will explain those in a minute.  First I want to talk about this “read counting” mentality.  Read counters, who base their worth on how often they are on the air, versus their co-anchor create all kinds of problems.  The biggest negative impacts: Themselves and other anchors.  Here’s why.  When a producer sees that you spend your time counting the seconds to make sure you get your face time, you are telling that producer that all you care about is being on TV.  That is simply the truth. In fact, my read counter actually said to me, “My audience needs to see me more than my co-anchor.  They count on seeing me.  I just know I am a bigger draw than her.  You must want her to be the draw and not me.”  How does a producer, who cares about getting crucial information out to the viewer place confidence in that mentality?  It made it very hard to trust that if I gave him breaking news, he would use due diligence to make sure the information was correct.  He also was the only anchor in the shop to pitch a fit if he actually had to go “in the field” to turn a story unless he deemed it glamorous.  This example is not unique.  Producers talk.  We love to tell each other who the read counter is.  That’s the person you never hand the big breaker.  That’s the person you avoid at all costs.  That’s the anchor whose critiques often fall on deaf ears.  Fair or not, that’s what happens.  The stigma is there.  You only care about face time, not being a thorough and complete journalist.

Now, let’s address the time counter.  The producer who emailed me gave the example of an anchor saying “ My co-anchor had 1:15 in reads, I had :50 seconds.”  This simply screams, “I love my face time. I need all the face time.  Look at me I’m on TV!”  Look, obviously all anchors like a little face time.  If you hated it, you would not be on TV.  But again, this sends the message that you care more about being recognized out and about town than being a solid journalist.  Not the reputation you want in a newsroom, period.  Time counters are considered petty, arrogant and superficial.  It just makes you look bad.

Now the kicker, for all the other anchors who are solid journalists.  Because of read and time counters, producers often get defensive about reads.  So when there is a legitimate issue, like one anchor being written out of 7 minutes in the a-block, that anchor may not raise a red flag for fear of being labeled “high maintenance.”  There are times, when there are legitimate issues with reads.  Newbie producers often make this mistake until they get enough of a handle on designing the rundown, timing it correctly and making deadlines.  That’s a long wait for the anchors who just don’t want to disappear for big chunks of news blocks.

So here’s the solution.  First, producers should trade off who leads the newscast, and each block.  For example, let’s take Joe and Amy.  On Monday, Joe leads the a-block, Amy the b-block and on down the line.  If you have an hour long show, have Joe lead the a-block Monday, then Amy leads the 30 block.  Switch on Tuesday.  Repeat.  This only takes a second to do, and really helps make the reads appear even.  The second part to creating even reads is to try and make sure the anchor reads change every two minutes or so.  If you have a package that is 2:30, the anchor who introduced it should read the tag.  If it is a long tag, do it on a two shot to re-establish team as long as the next story is not a rough transition.  If you have a rough transition before the two minute time is up, switch then and get back to the other anchor within two minutes.  Of course, you can’t make it every two minutes on the nose, but it is a good approximate time to keep in mind.

So there you have it. That’s why read counters do what they do.  That’s what it means and how to stave it off.  If you are a read counter, and your producer switches block leads and tries to change reads every two minutes or so, stop complaining.  Your reputation depends on it.

 

Why don’t you show us how it’s done then! The result of on set rants in the booth.

So now we know that anchors often resort to onset rants, when they are super frustrated and feel there is no other outlet.  Anchors, we get it.  Other journalists understand some of these issues are hard to take, but it’s time for you to see what impact that moment of weakness has on the rest of the team.

First, the producer.  Let me clue you in on a little secret, producers tend to be control freaks, who place a lot of their self worth on their work.  Their biggest points of pride, the writing and flow of the newscast.  The writing is their stamp, on the newscast.  So when you the anchor make fun of the writing, right or wrong, for many producers it is a deeply personal insult.  In some ways it is the same as viewers sending scathing critiques of your clothes, hair or delivery.  It takes awhile for many producers to understand that the writing has to be a team effort. (see “How to get inside your anchors heads”).  Anchors can say the  critiques are not personal until you are blue in the face, most producers never buy it.

The producer is also the team leader, especially in shops with newscasts that are more content driven rather than personality driven.  So when you make fun of the writing or complain about how it made you look, you are essentially calling out the newscast leader as a fool.  That is how it feels to the producer, and the production staff.  Again, think about this.  I personally know of only one anchor, foolish enough to call out an AND or ND in the middle of the newsroom.  Producers are a type of manager as well.  Show enough respect to talk to the producer one on one.

That said, producers read “I can’t believe that aired again!” and understand, anchors usually do not go off on the set unless they feel they have no voice and that any suggestions in the past were ignored.  So, if the anchors are constantly calling you out on the set, it can be a message.  You don’t respect us, and therefore we don’t respect you.  As the leader of the newscast, you have to try and make amends.  It is important that you not only allow critiques to happen, but actually acknowledge them and make changes at times.  You are fallible.  Everyone is fallible.  Recognize it, grow from it, and allow yourself to self reflect.  Leaders help those around them rise up.  Are you doing that or serving your own self interests?  Spell out to the anchors, that you will really listen to what they have to say.  If you go against their advice, say why.  One more thing, solid leaders also admit when they make mistakes.  If you can set that tone, chances are the people around you will too, and all of you will grow together.  Set up basic trust, that is crucial especially during breaking news.  All of you need each other.

Anchors need to consider another thing before ranting on the set.  It undermines your authority with the production staff as well.  No one wants to sit and hear someone being criticized openly.  If you can say that about the producer, what do you say about the production crew behind their backs?  It causes a sense of superiority that is not appropriate.  Production crews and producers are fully aware of how much they impact your success.  Never, ever, forget that.  Every time you sit on the set, you are placing your fate in many hands, no matter how talented you are.  Do you really want them collectively saying “Why don’t you show us how it’s done then?”  They will monitor how long you take to do your hair and makeup, they will help managers figure out if you take three hour dinner breaks, even on big news days.  In other words, if you regularly rant on the set, you better be the hardest working journalist in the newsroom EVERY SINGLE DAY, or you will have a host of enemies waiting to watch you get yours.  It is just the truth.  A producer I used to work with purposely used words her anchor struggled to pronounce in copy, and especially during breaking news, just to trip the anchor up.  She was tired of the on set rants.  I watched a production crew, purposely call up a mic line early to catch an anchor in a rant, on live TV, just to make her shut up.  I have also seen producers lobby together to request that anchors be fired, because the on set rants became too much to take.

News is stressful.  We all have moments of weakness.  But when those moments happen on set, they are not easily forgiven.  They create the “us vs. them” mentality that damages so many newsrooms and so many newscasts.  Anchors, stop those rants.  Producers, give anchors a forum to talk with you about concerns, and really listen and learn from the information.  Make it your pledge for the new year.  You will be shocked how much better all of you perform when you set aside the ego, and focus on team.