Make or Break. Why you must cultivate sources and exclusives.

I just finished watching the amazing documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” which tells the story of how America’s great newspaper is trying to survive in an era when many of us first learn about news events from Twitter and Yahoo! News.  The filmmaker tries to make his case that the Times is still needed because its reporters actually hit the streets and work the phones to gather news, as opposed to just copying and pasting and putting up links to others’ work, as critics of Gawker and the Huffington Post accuse those media outlets of doing.

In the end, it’s the story of how Times media reporter David Carr breaks a major story about the debauchery that was going on inside the executive suites at the Tribune Company.  It is a triumph for the “Old Gray Lady” and all of us who consider ourselves journalists in the traditional sense of the word.

How many stories have you personally broken at your station in 2011?

If the answer is zero, I predict you’ll someday be like the people in “Page One” who make a secret editors’ list of who can be laid-off when the budget’s cut because, in this Darwinian media environment we now find ourselves working in, the editors can still produce a great paper without them.

And yes, anchors, I’m talking to you, too.  I know you don’t just sit at a desk and read a teleprompter.  I get frustrated with that perception, too, because I know all of the hard work that goes into helping produce a great newscast, doing the homework required to really know the stories you’ll be talking about on-air, and summoning the creative energy at ungodly hours to put in a really good television performance.  I get it.  But dozens of other anchors can perform as well or almost as well as you, too.  So what is that extra ingredient you’re going to offer your station?

In their well-researched new book That Used to Be Us, Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum argue that even creative professionals like journalists will have to offer their employers something extra if they want to stay employed. You can’t just come to work, put on your makeup, and read the 11 o’clock news anymore.  Even anchors with great ratings are being laid-off long before they’re ready to retire because their bosses believe they make too much money at a time when media companies are trying to figure out how to keep making profits.

I’m not suggesting anchors and reporters who’ve been laid-off in the Great Recession and afterward deserved it.  I’m sure most of them worked hard and were valuable members of their newsrooms.  But I am suggesting that your chances of being on the secret list of expendable employees in your newsroom rise greatly if you’re viewed as a run-of-the-mill journalist who doesn’t break stories.

Think about it.  Why are so many TV newsrooms reviving their investigative units?  Because investigative reporters dig-up original stories that keep viewers’ attention, are easily promotable by the marketing department, and differentiate your station from the three or four others in the market who also do news.

You want to be on that team.

You don’t literally have to be on that team.  But as an anchor or reporter, you’d better have contacts in the community that are helping your newsroom advance the big stories of the week.  For anchors, this doesn’t mean you have to turn a package on something new you learn.  An e-mail to the newsroom with what you’ve found out and a phone call to the reporter on the story will show everyone that you’re truly a newsroom leader.

But do tweet about what you’ve learned and let your audience know that your reporter will have more on it in the next newscast.  (You may want to hold this tweet until right before airtime so the competition doesn’t “share” your scoop.  I will sometimes do this by scheduling a tweet to run at a specific time using TweetDeck.)

You might also consider writing a short story on your station’s website about the new angle to the story you’ve discovered.  Viewers want anchors who are part of the fabric of their community.  With your byline on the story, you’ll reinforce your value to the audience as someone who is plugged-in to the newsmakers and community leaders in your market.

If you’re the reporter on the story and you’ve learned this information yourself, don’t be afraid to let the audience know that you’ve been working the phones and the information they’re hearing is exclusive information.  Also, well before the newscast, work with your producer to come up with ways to showcase this information, which may include a banner that touts the fact that it’s exclusive.

The anchor, reporter, and/or producer should also send an e-mail to the news director and marketing department after the newscast letting them know about the scoop. They may want to produce a “proof of performance” promo based on it.  And, remember, these days you’ve got to market yourself within your news organization, too.  You need the executives to know that you were the person responsible for that exclusive.

So how do you cultivate sources so you can be your station’s most valuable player?  I’ll take a look at that next week.

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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.

 

How to generate story ideas when you are swamped

Journalists are constantly told to source build and break stories.  Problem is, in many shops you are given two packages a day and have no time to work the phones and source build.  That’s what you think, but it really is possible.  There are ways to generate fresh story ideas that do not take a ton of time.  You also can source build.  It will take some of your too precious free time.  But the payoff is making you more valuable to the station.

So how do you come up with interesting stories when you have next to no time?  Here are some ideas to get you started.

First, some help for reporters.  Try and “befriend” one person a day while covering the news.  This could be the secretary you have to stare at while waiting for an interview, the officer telling you to wait behind the yellow tape, even the restaurant manager at a local dive where you bought a sandwich.  Ask them about themselves and hand out a business card.  Make sure you get their card too.  A few days later, send a quick email saying you really enjoyed your conversation.  If you learn the person loves a football team or has kids that like to play sports send email links to interesting stories every once in a while.  Bottom line:  Build a connection.  If you have time to write an update on Facebook, you have time to send a quick link to these new potential sources.

Set up a Twitter account and use it.  When we say use it, we don’t mean throwing up a meaningless self-serving plug for the story you are reporting on that very day.  Throw up a comment about something interesting you read about.  Mix up the comments so you are engaging to follow.  Give snippets of what it’s like to be a TV journalist each day.  But keep it positive.  Remember, employers and potential employers often research Twitter and Facebook accounts.  For example, don’t gripe about how much you “hate” your assignment to babysit a “dumb” police standoff.  But do mention that your feet sure do hurt after waiting two hours for the standoff to end.  The first makes you seem look childish, petty and unprofessional.  The second, however, makes you look real and is something your followers can identify with.  Twitter is an amazing resource most people are not using correctly.  It is a chance to tap directly into what people are thinking about each day and what they want to learn more about.  You will gain a following and, eventually, you’ll also start getting interesting tips.  The key to Twitter is creating a human connection not another shameless, weak marketing ploy that just ticks people off.  People on Twitter tend to obsess about being in the know, right now.  You will lock them in if you make them realize they can literally be your eyes and ears and that their ideas may actually make it on the news.

Next, contact the Better Business Bureau and county or state run groups that help small businesses get off the ground.  Let these organizations know you are building a list of experts.  This can help you when you are suddenly asked for an out of the box story on damage prevention during bad weather or the latest housing or computer scam.  These businesses need publicity and cannot, generally, afford to buy ads.  But they can afford to send you a quick email pitching ideas once in a while.

Look at blogs on local newspaper websites.  People go off on interesting things that sometimes turn into colorful television.  How about the guy with the American flag that is too big for the homeowner’s association by-laws?  Many of these kinds of stories turn up first in these blogs.

Now let’s talk about generating interesting stories if you are a producer.  Yes, it’s hard to source build when you never even leave the newsroom for lunch.  So use the computer to get ideas.  Search for blogs and groups online that target your key audience.  Then browse them several times a week for fresh information.  These groups constantly dish.  Also keep your ears open when you go to the gym, pick the kids up at daycare or stand in line at the grocery store.  You will hear what people are concerned about.  These tidbits can turn into interesting stories that you can “produce up” in your newscast.  Also look at the hottest video of the day online, then try and come up with a local spin.  A Twitter account can be a great asset for you as well.  Build your following in the same way we just laid out for reporters.

Finally check out what other stations around the country are covering.  Go to a few station websites in areas nearby and see what they’ve played up.  Often you can at least find a consumer story with universal appeal.