Do Journalists Need To Be Entrepreneurs Or Just Really Good At Building Sources?

This year and last, the Knight Foundation has brought up the idea of using the “teaching hospital” model in j-schools to properly prepare journalists.  Last year, an“Open Letter to American University Presidents” called for a “teaching hospital” style curriculum. This year, a study is out questioning whether this teaching style really is the right move for j-schools.

In the past I asked journalists what’s lacking in training for TV news, then summarized those ideas.  Now this new study says J-schools need to encourage newbie journalists to take an “entrepreneurial approach” even while earning a degree. In other words, they want part of the curriculum to center on creating new ways to deliver the news in addition to learning how to present the news. Professors would be encouraged to also think up and test out new ideas.

I see the point.  I get where the researchers are going.  But I want to ask this:  If you do not even know how to draw, can you then make something look 2 or 3d?  The biggest criticism today, is TV news lacks depth.  Journalists skip steps or do not know to take steps to ensure information is accurate.  There are few checks and balances.  This happens when people are overwhelmed.  Lack of training and understanding, or knowledge of the existence of station policies, can cause embarrassing gaffs.  Now with increased pressure to get something on TV and break stories on social media, this lack of training and organization is really being exposed.  This is a dirty secret most veteran journalists have been painfully aware of for decades.

The medium really is secondary.  The core issue hurting TV news and journalism in general is this:  Too few entities demand source building and proper fact checking.  Many journalists will admit they do not know how to source build.  No clue where to even start.  This is one of the most requested article topics I receive.  How do you source build?  I cannot take people to lunch, so will I ever be able to develop sources?  Is it bad that my sources are all PIO’s?

So I am going to go out on a limb and saying that this whole idea of encouraging creativity and entrepreneurs in J-school is missing the point.  The biggest problem with J-schools today, is very few employ journalists who have actually worked in a newsroom in recent times.  Most schools demand masters and Ph.D.’s but do not emphasize real world experience.

J-schools may seem irrelevant, or out of touch or needing an overhaul because of this simple issue.  Hence the push for a teaching hospital style of program and entrepreneurial approaches.

J-schools can provide opportunities to step out of the box and create new ways to tell stories, utilize social media and even redefine the role of TV news in society.  BUT the ideas will not truly be relevant until they can clearly prove that the implementation will increase accuracy in reporting.  Let’s stop skirting the issue, and admit to the problem in clear terms. Journalists are entering the work force, with few clues on how to research and make sure they are accurately disseminating information.  As a result, they stick to what the news release and PIO say, and do not question.  It is the safe route.  It allows you to churn and burn 2 or 3 packages a day.  Teaching hospital or entrepreneurial push?  Neither approach really matters if the basic foundation is not there.  Teach how to gather information, source build and fact check.  Get extremely detailed about it.  Then TV journalists as a whole can move forward.  Stations can stop becoming a testing ground.  Most importantly, we can stop debating the whole “How do we teach journalism to stay relevant?” debate.  Facts are always going to be relevant.  Teach how to find them and get them right!

 

Own the night. Finding and executing stories night side.

This article idea came from a reporter on Facebook who recently moved to night side.  If you have ever worked this shift, you already know what he asked.  How do you find stories, much less break news, night side when everyone you’re calling wants to just go home for dinner and offices are closed?

No doubt generating solid content can be challenging on a night where there is not a big event planned, a huge story that easily carries through or breaking news.  The biggest key to “owning the night” is recognizing you will need to give up a little of your off time to build sources and set up stories.  When you first begin as a night sider this will be a little time consuming, unless you’ve already worked in the same city for a while and have sources.  But, once you build up some sources (read “Cultivating Sources” if you need help building up sources), it will not take that much time to call and make your checks.  In fact, in some ways, it can be easier to see if a story you are hearing about really is sound, than it is for dayside reporters.  Remember, day siders have to try and figure out if a story is legit when people are eating breakfast, getting the kids to school and running late.  You can make calls as they come back from lunch and are often tying up loose ends and actually have some time to talk.  So, eventually, it will be easier to get the info verified quickly.  You just need to figure out who to call on your beat.

Speaking of beats, act like you have one, even if there is no formal defined beat system in your shop.  By that I mean, figure out what types of stories management bites on at night, and source build around those topics.  (see “How to Pitch and Pull Off Stories in Producer Driven Shops” for more on how to do that)  You just don’t have the time to source build in every section of the DMA on every subject.  Pick a couple of subjects and areas of the DMA and stick to that at first.  It will help you.  Just make sure the veteran night sider hasn’t already built up a rapport with the same agencies and sources, so you are not double calling and confusing the agencies.

Try and work a day ahead if you can.  Forward looking stories about an upcoming hot button issue in town, or a major event, you will probably cover in a day or two can be great “fall backs” on a slow news night.  You can informally set those types of stories up ahead of time.

When I managed PM newscasts, my go to night side reporters, usually called the desk around lunchtime to see if an assignment editor had heard of anything that might pop that night.  Then the reporter would make a few calls and come in with a solid story idea.  I often got calls on my way into work from reporters who had checked with sources to feel out interest on potential stories they could pitch when we got to work.  This was a great help as well.  I could say, “Set it up.” or “Look for something else.” early in the process.  It took all of us just a few minutes, and often paid off in the end.

This may sound obvious, but another station in town used to routinely “break” interesting crime stories a day ahead of us.  We eventually figured out that one of their night side reporters would stop and pick up police reports (now you can usually just check them online) on their way into work.  That person then knew anything that happened after a typical 9 a.m. check by a dayside reporter.  The other stations didn’t check until the next morning either.  So this station ended up with constant “exclusives,” “first on’s” etc. until we figured out the trick.  It’s proof that simple moves can pay off big time for night side content.

My final suggestion is to buddy up with a dayside reporter.  That person may know of three people you can begin to call in the early afternoon to build sources.  Sometimes day siders get tips as they are coming off of their shift.  If that reporter knows you are willing to get calls before you come into work, you might get the tip call instead of it just going to the assignment desk.  But make sure you pay it forward.  If you hear rumblings of something good that might pop in the morning, shoot off a text to that day sider.  Having each other’s back only helps.

Those are some tricks to “own the night.”  If you have more suggestions, please send ‘em so we can all learn.

Need story ideas? The solution could be right in the newsroom.

It’s a new year. You’re feeling all refreshed. And you’re ready to again dig for some great stories.

But what if you don’t know where to start?

Maybe you’re dreading the morning meeting lately because it seems like not much is happening in your market.

Here’s what I suggest: Reconnect with sources you’ve “neglected” a bit over the last six months or so. You’re asking literally everyone you interview for business cards or other contact information, right? You’re keeping that info in a desk drawer or in a file on your computer, right?

Well, spend an hour digging through there looking for the great contacts who may have slipped your mind as you moved on to other pressing news stories.

Give them a call. Tell them you want to catch-up and you’re sorry it’s been so long since he or she has heard from you. Be genuine. Be relaxed with them. Don’t have your crazy I-am-a-news-reporter-and-I-need-a-package-idea-NOW voice on!

Sometimes, enduring the equivalent of writer’s block, I’ll literally flip through business cards trying to come up with the inspiration for a story — or to remind myself about a story I should follow-up on.

I’m kind of old school. I still like business cards. There’s something about seeing that logo next to the name that really refreshes my memory. (Yes, I’m horrible with names if I’ve only interviewed someone once.)

Here’s another tip: As you’re putting those award entries together this month (why must so many of them be due so close to the beginning of the year anyway?) think about follow-ups to these stories that you could be doing.

Every time someone does research on TV news audiences, it seems they find news consumers complaining that we don’t do enough follow-ups. Whatever happened to…? They want to know.

That company that promised 50 new jobs back in November? Have they hired everyone they need? How far along are they before they open-up shop?

Remember that congressman in your district who announced he’s retiring rather than running for re-election? Is he still showing-up for votes in Washington? Or is he out golfing on taxpayer time?

And don’t forget all of those families you focused on over the holidays who are barely scraping by because the mother and father have both lost their jobs. How are they making it now that it’s not the “season of giving” anymore? How are charities in your market doing?

As we were putting this article to bed, Poynter’s Al Tompkins wrote a nice blog post pointing to another great source of story ideas: the people you work with. He shows two examples where tips from colleagues led reporters to win 2012 Alfred duPont Awards.

“The lesson here is clear,” writes Tompkins, “listen to everyone.”

Lastly, you can also get a lot of inspiration from Twitter. As a courtesy to your audience, I recommend following back every person in your viewing area who follows you. It’s the nice thing to do. After all, you make money because they watch you. (Or you get fired if they don’t.)

So scroll through your “all friends” feed on Tweetdeck and see what people in your area are talking about. If they’re talking about it is — at least by one definition — news.

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Matthew Nordin is a morning anchor/investigative reporter at Raycom Media’s NBC affiliate in Myrtle Beach, WMBF News. Feel free to chat with him on Twitter @MatthewNordin.

 

 

Cultivating sources: A how to guide.

In San Antonio, Texas, I stood at a microphone and prayed I wasn’t about to be laughed-at for the question I was about to ask.

It was 1998 and I’d gotten a free ride to that year’s Radio-Television News Directors Association convention because I would be receiving a college scholarship from this esteemed group.

On the panel in front of me, little did I know at the time, was my future mentor, former CNN political correspondent Brooks Jackson.

Suddenly, the room got quiet. The panel looked at me at the microphone out in the audience. It was time to ask my question.

How do you cultivate sources? I wanted to know, though I doubt I used the word “cultivate” back then.

Nobody laughed. Brooks actually took the question seriously. And he gave me some of the best advice of my career: If you’re naturally interested in what your potential source does for a living (like running a political campaign) the relationship will develop naturally.

Later, as a college intern in CNN’s Washington bureau, I’d be assigned to work with Brooks as his field producer/tape logger/personal assistant/lunch fetcher. I learned a lot from him and saw him put his source cultivating skills into action.

He had one of those phone headsets that made him look like a Time-Life operator. And he’d be on the phone for hours — just chatting — and taking some notes on his computer. These were relaxed, no pressure, on background chats. After so many years in the business, he had a lot of phone numbers he could call. And people were happy to talk to him because he has a reputation for being one of the fairest journalists you’ll ever meet — and a guy with a great sense of humor, I might add, which makes him fun to talk with. But he’d also cold call people. And he’d get them to talk, too.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how TV anchors and reporters can cultivate sources because I think it’s the key to our personal survival in this business and it’s the key to our newsroom’s survival in this great big media universe. If you aren’t creating original content, then you’re irrelevant. And to create original content in a newsroom, you have to be plugged-in to the newsmakers, community leaders, businesspeople and activists of various causes in your market.

We often don’t like to talk with other journalists about how we go about getting sources or how many we have in our back pocket at any one time. I think we have an inferiority complex about it. We don’t know if we’re doing it right and we’re sure that the “star reporter” at the station across the street (or maybe even within our own newsroom) has dozens more sources than we do. Well, I don’t know how many sources your competition has. But I can help you cultivate more sources of your own.

Here are some tips:

 

1)     Invite a potential source to breakfast. If you’re a dayside reporter, you don’t have time to “do lunch” and chances are the people you want to be your sources schedule lunches with a lot more important people than you. It’s when business is done. But they’re more likely to make time for you at breakfast. Yes, it’s a pain meeting them at 7:30 a.m. so you can be sure to be at your morning meeting at 9 a.m. But you don’t have to do this every day, just every once in a while. And here is the most important point: Do NOT ask for this breakfast at a time when the person you’re trying to get on your side is in the midst of a scandal or other huge news story. You want to develop this relationship when things are calm and you both feel free to talk.

 

2)     Keep the Breakfast “On Background.” Let’s say you’re going to have breakfast with the new mayor because you want to develop some trust with her and her staff. Make sure when you call to invite her to breakfast that she knows anything said is fair game to be reported on but you won’t quote her directly. This is called “on background.” (It is embarrassing how many journalists graduate from college and don’t know these terms. Take a look at the glossary of terms, from the Atlantic.com. You will find the list in the middle of the linked article.) She’ll feel much more at ease talking with you this way. Make sure she understands what “on background” means. If she wants it off the record, that’s ok, too. You’re trying to show her here that you’re not going to burn her. Ask her what’s coming up on her agenda that’s really important to her. At the end of the breakfast, give her your card and try to get her mobile phone number if you don’t already have it. Promise not to abuse it. And don’t.

 

3)     Aim Lower. The mayor is great to have as a source. But let’s be realistic. Everything she tells you will be weighted in one way or another to advance whatever agenda she has, be it for a city project or against a political rival. Keep in mind, she is also at the top of a very large bureaucracy and probably has no idea about all of the things the city is doing. So aim lower. Yeah, you need to get to know the city manager, members of the city council, the city attorney and some of the department heads. But you also need to get to know their receptionists at city hall and — most importantly — some of the anonymous bureaucrats who actually carry out the mission of the city council. They will probably never appear on camera for you. But they will give you valuable nuggets of information that you can use to question the leaders of your town who do appear on camera.

 

4)     Cold Call. You work at a television station. Even in 2011, 86 years after its invention, people still think television’s pretty cool. So when you call a defense attorney who’s handling the big death penalty case that’s headed to trial next month, guess what he’s going to tell his wife that night at dinner? “Honey, guess who called me today? Patrick Murphy from News 4!” Note that I said you’re calling him a month before the trial — not the day before jury selection begins. Cold calling can get a chilly reception from average folks who suddenly find themselves in the news, though. They’re intimidated. They never thought Patrick Murphy from News 4 would be interested in what they have to say. So go easy on them. Don’t be pushy. And for goodness sakes, if something horrible has happened in their life, be genuinely compassionate. The Washington Post recently published an excellent article about how the networks’ morning show producers deal with this issue all the time.

 

5)     Be interested in your source’s work. I learned it from my mentor Brooks Jackson and it’s true. When I show genuine interest in what a campaign consultant, psychologist, doctor, city leader — or anyone else — has invested their life’s work in, I can see their face soften, their eyes light-up, and hear their speech become more excited. You’re showing them that you value them as people and the expertise they’ve acquired. They will honestly enjoy talking to you. They’ll remember the conversation and your name. And when you call them on a breaking story, they’ll be much less likely to let it go to voice mail.

 

For more ways to cultivate sources when you don’t get much time on the job, check out “How to generate story ideas when you are swamped.” Got other tips for cultivating sources? We hope you’ll share them with us.

 

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Matthew Nordin is a morning anchor/investigative reporter at WMBF News, Raycom Media’s NBC affiliate in Myrtle Beach, SC. You can follow him on Twitter @MatthewNordin.