Want to stand out as an assignment editor? Ask to write copy

Clearly from the title, this article is aimed at assignment editors. But all journalists will do better at their job, if assignment editors focus more on writing.  Yes, writing.  They set the standard in most TV news rooms for source building and digging up exclusives.  No one can complain about their workload when watching assignment editors hard at work.  It’s no secret they are the glue that holds newsrooms together.  That’s why assignment editors looking to really make their mark in this biz, need to write some of the news they find.

What many of us journalists forget is that assignment editors, by being the main information gatherers each and every day, really set the tone for how all of us write the news.  After all, we write based on their notes in the assign queue.  We ad lib based on information they share with us on the phone.  We even depend on them for who is interviewed on a variety of subjects.  One could argue that assignment editors have as much influence on the structure of newscasts as management does.

So why does that mean that assignment editors should write news copy, whenever they can?  Because as veteran news writers know, practice is how you really learn to clearly decipher the facts necessary to write solid copy.  You quickly figure out if you really understand a story, when you sit down to write it.

Since so many journalists hop into the queue for information, the way assignment editors write already bleeds into news copy.  Think about it.  I guarantee you rip off phrases under the slug file, especially if you are not a hundred percent sure about the facts and the assignment editor is too slammed to explain.  It’s classic C.Y.A. mode.  If the information comes into question later, you can say, “But that’s exactly how it is written in the assign queue.”  Again, if I had a dollar for every time a journalist uttered that phrase!

By writing some news copy, assignment editors get a better understanding of what elements you truly need to write clearly and concisely.  It should also help streamline the process, so the already stressed assignment editor is not getting phone calls asking to explain what’s in the queue.  And when the calls do happen, the assignment editor may better understand why.

So assignment editors, if you want to really show off your stuff, write about some of it!  You just might make other journalists in your shop stop and truly pay attention to what you have to say.

“Yes, that’s your assignment. Now do it and like it! “ Assignment Editors: Behind the gruffness.

Take a moment and think about the most colorful characters in the newsroom.  For me there are two groups, photographers and assignment editors.  We’ve decoded some photographer behaviors in “You exist to hold my tripod.”  Bottom line, photojournalists are incredible information gatherers and because they see the facts in a visual way, they make TV news what it is today.

The hardest job inside newsrooms, that all of us love to take for granted is assignment editor.  The people who do it are the “whipping posts” for managing editors, assistant news directors, producers and reporters.  Photographers usually get their assignments this way and love to grumble as well.  Yet, as I look back on my career, I see that the strength of an assignment desk makes or breaks a newsroom.  It truly is the tie that binds.

So why are assignment editors so, well, intimidating (or even irritating)?  Being everyone’s whipping post is one start.  They also tend to really have a grasp on the market and the stations strengths and weaknesses.  Heck, when you think about it, that’s their primary job.  Yet assignment editors are often not really given a voice in crucial decisions.  They actually understand drive times to various places.  They understand that the PIO in city A really hates the station UNLESS you call and say XYZ.  And they also understand that live truck 13 really does suck!  In many cases they try and warn us know it all producer and manager types.  They try and give reporters gentle nudges on how to handle a particularly ornery mayor.  Do we listen?  If the answer is no, then we have a very irritable assignment editor on our hands.  Chances are you are going to be yelled at, have papers thrown around the newsroom and hear curse words in interesting sequences you never would have thought possible!  Think about it.  If you were told to make the ship run smoothly, then saw the iceberg, warned and begged everyone to listen, then watched the boat slam into the iceberg, you would be a tad pissy as well.

A few secrets about assignment editors for you:  If you stink at or just don’t get how to source build yet, befriend a veteran assignment editor.  They source build as well as most investigative reporters.  And they don’t get to leave the station.  Heck, most barely get potty breaks.  Also, be clear reporters, assignment editors are not your personal secretaries.  You need to make the calls to get the information.  If you are behind or overwhelmed talk with an EP first about whether an associate producer can help you out.  And, yes, I am serious.  The assignment editor has you, all the other reporters on your shift, the planning producers, the reporters on the next shift and usually at least one manager asking them to make phone calls.  That’s in addition to calling their contacts and listening to scanners and reading 5 million news releases to make sure the station isn’t missing something important.  And, if the station misses a big story, it is usually the assignment editor that gets reamed for it.

Producers, your assignment editor can help protect your show from technical disasters as well or better than the production team.  He/she knows intimate details about the live trucks, signal strengths, how to get around a lazy person in master control, when to humor an ENG engineer and lots of other very useful stuff.  Beyond that, they know which crews are great at cranking out work and which ones need a constant swift kick.  If you have a story that must make slot, period, make sure the assignment editor is well aware ASAP.  If you see the assignment editor is in the weeds, answer the newsroom phone.  Help out.  There is nothing more excruciating than trying to take down information while hearing phones ringing all around you.  Think about the times when every reporter feels the need to call in for script approval all at once.  All of them need it “RIGHT NOW!” to make slot and you can only read/listen to so much at a time and actually comprehend what’s going on.  That’s what it’s like being an assignment editor for at least half of every workday.  Cut ‘em some slack!

Managers, when an assignment editor walks into your office and shuts the door to discuss a potential issue, stop what you are doing and listen.  Most of the time, this person is saving you from potential disaster.  If they do, throw them a bone once in a while.  Have a favorite meal dropped off for lunch.  Buy them a latte.  Write a thank you note for all he/she does and throw it into his/her mailbox.  Everyone should remember to say thank you once in a while.  The strength of the assignment desk plays a huge role in whether your station is #1, #3 or worse.  It can set the tone for morale in the whole newsroom because the desk has direct contact with all the key players every day.

So, when you get an assignment that just plain sucks, don’t kill the messenger.  The assignment editor is following orders.  When you are told do it and like it, remember that’s the mantra these guys/gals live under every day.  They often take more crap than the rest of us, and then turn it into gold.

Reporting Alliance : Your Key to the desk.

Reporters often feel left on their own.  There is some truth to that feeling since you are out and about, and your bosses are not there to really watch you work.  Assumptions are made about what you do and don’t do by managers and producers.  Often you are not given the benefit of the doubt.

That’s why it is crucial to form good relationships with a group “on the inside.” In your case that group should be assignment desk editors.  The assignment desk is the 411 of newsrooms.  Editors on the desk can be intense and bark orders.  But remember, they are under the kind of pressure you face the last two hours of your shift, all day long.  There is little to no down time.  I had friends on the assignment desk constantly get bladder infections because they could not break away from the desk long enough to  go to the bathroom regularly.  I am telling you this, because having the knowledge of what the assignment desk goes through helps you know how to build a smart alliance.

Reporters (like producers in our Producing Alliance article) will get priority day-to-day based on how they treat the assignment editor.  Sure, if you are on a breaker, you will get more attention and help. But when it’s just day-to-day, run of the mill news you can bet the reporters that are respectful to the assignment desk get more support.

So what can you do to build a smart alliance with assignment editors?  First, don’t call the desk for simple phone numbers.  With technology today, there are plenty of ways to get numbers without calling the desk.  Remember, the assignment desk is looking for fresh news all day long in addition to planning segments and stories for managers, making beat calls and answering the phone all day long.  As someone who sat next to the assignment desk for more than a decade I can attest, just answering the phone can be a full time job.  It doesn’t let up until about 9 at night.  Respect the fact the assignment editor is busy and is not your personal receptionist.  I never got over how many crews in the field really thought assignment editors just existed to be glorified receptionists for the newsroom.  Not the case.

When you do have the luck to be done with your package early in your shift, occasionally sit on the assignment desk and help out for a little while.  This is a huge sign of respect.  Sit up there, and answer the phone.  It can also be a great place to drum up story ideas and source build a bit.  The assignment editor knows who talks on what shift and who is good to call on the down low when you need to fact check.  This is smart to do, especially when you first move to an area.  Sitting on the desk to help out a little here and there will help you build sources quickly.  (See How to generate story ideas when you are swamped for more help on that)  Assignment editors also help do futures planning, so sitting up there gives you a chance to express interest in an upcoming story or special that the assignment editor is researching.  They will often let managers know, if you expressed interest, to try and help you get the assignment.

Check in regularly with the desk.  A lot of crews resent this and consider it a sinister plot to spy on you and track how hard you work.  You don’t have to give a full report if you happen to be done with your package early and are working sources for future stories.  Just call with a location and how long you think you will be there.  Assignment editors love when crews do this.  It takes 10 seconds and speaks volumes for your respect for the role of the assignment desk.  No the assignment editors are not plotting what to send you on next to work you into the ground.  They are constantly being hounded by management and producers over where crews are and how viable the stories assigned to them really are.  Just calling and saying:  “Hey we are in such and such city and will be here approximately 1 hour” helps the assignment editor show management that he/she is in touch with the crews.  It also makes you look very responsible and a team player.  Yes, you might occasionally get sent to something else because of this.  I did notice that most of the time the assignment editors fought for the crews that called in.  They could tell management this reporter has an hour left on their package so let’s pull someone else.  Knowledge is power and the assignment desk goes out of its way to protect content.  That is a key element of the position.

Finally, if you are done with your story and are sent to breaking news, don’t gripe to the desk if you and the assignment editor know the story is probably bullshit. The assignment editor more than likely has management breathing down his/her neck and often will report if you are being difficult.  If you say okay and suck it up and go, the assignment editor appreciates one less fight in the day and will likely try to prevent sending you on the next wild goose chase.  The point, in case you missed it:  If you gripe, you will get the crap job more. The assignment desk controls a lot of your destiny including which photographer is assigned to you most days.  If you want less hassle, give the assignment desk less hassle.  You both will appreciate each other more.

 

 

Producing Alliances: Assign and direct.

Line producers are often in a very uncomfortable spot in newsrooms.  You are in charge of a newscast, yet you are not a manager with any teeth.  Competition between producers generally is pretty intense so you cannot really confide in another producer at your station.  Your job is confusing for other people in the newsroom to really grasp.  You don’t want to spill your guts to your EP, so it can appear in your review a few months later.

So who do you align yourself with?  I always had the best luck with directors and assignment editors.

In the article “Right Hand Meet Your Left” I describe why having a good relationship with your director is important.  Now I want to talk more about the benefits of this smart alliance.

Directors tend to be extremely detail oriented.  That means they can pick up on things you might do that you aren’t even aware of.  When starting out as a producer, I had problems with my weekend newscasts timing out correctly.  During the morning and weekday noon shows, I had no timing problems.  I tried different techniques for several weeks with no luck.  I was ready to pull my hair out!  Then I decided to ask the director for advice. But, he was much more experienced and I was concerned he would think less of me.  When I finally asked if he noticed anything about my timing he said: “Yes. I’ve been waiting for you to ask. I didn’t want to seem pushy.”  Turns out, the final commercial break varied wildly from the rundown format.  I had never known to check the traffic log for my breaks.  That was never taught to me.  He showed me where to get the log and what to look for.  I never mistimed a show again.

Directors also tend to be dismissed by managers and other newsroom employees during a shift. Because of this, they hear everything and if you have developed a strong relationship based on trust, your director may give you a heads up when something big is about to happen that involves you.  Several times I found out management was considering moving me to another newscast, from my director.  I had several days to prepare before news management got around to telling me.  I never betrayed the director’s trust and was able to arm myself if I didn’t like the shift change to try and fight for “my show.”

In some shops directors are considered managers.  They are consulted before changes take place especially when it comes to formatting newscasts.  You want a heads up when possible and you want to be able to weigh in.  Several times directors came to me with proposed format or policy changes and asked my opinion before weighing in themselves.  We wanted to be on the same page to protect our shift.

The other smart alliance is with assignment editors.  (We will dedicate an entire article to assignment editors soon.  They are unsung heroes in many newsrooms.)  I went out of my way to develop a relationship with my assignment editors because often they are the next closest thing to producers in terms of constant grind.  Again, assignment editors are a type of manager, yet don’t really have teeth, just like producers.  And, just like producers, they sit down to work and don’t get downtime until they are in the car on the way home.  Assignment editors are also consulted on things that impact your shift, but involve the crews more.  They are a great resource for understanding what the crews in the field are going through during an actual shift.  Usually the crews are too swamped to fill you in themselves.  Crews know management will check in with the assignment desk and therefore usually tell the desk any elements first.  If you are not respectful to your assignment editor, you will not get as many updates about the crews and will not get to weigh in on how you want those updates. This can have a dramatic impact on your day-to-day job duties.  Also, if you are curt toward your assignment editor, you will end up having to constantly check the assignment file and scroll through hoping to figure out what the newest information is on local vo’s etc.  If you are respectful, you might get a top line or quick phone call so you know when to write local elements and when to wait for crucial information.

So how do you set up a solid relationship with the assignment desk?  If you have even a moment help make some calls when the desk is overwhelmed.   I used to ask my associate producer to check with the assignment editor to see if he/she needed a quick break once or twice a shift.  My AP could listen to the scanners and answer the phone and my assignment editor could at least walk the building or grab a snack and relax a little.  If breaking news hit, I had the AP get on the desk with the assignment editor and help make calls or, if the assignment editor preferred, be in charge of sending me top lines about the information like a crews’ ETA to the breaking news scene.

Bottom line, producers cannot do their job properly without information, and without a way to cleanly place that information on a television screen.  Treat the people who allow you to perform these key tasks with respect and you will get the help you need to put on the best newscast possible each day.