I keep having to write in the booth. What am I doing wrong?

More and more I hear producers say they are writing portions of their newscasts in the booth. I have to tell you, that used to be a big no no, unless there was breaking news and you had to write it, to get the breaker on the air. Otherwise, no excuse. In fact, you could’ve lost your producing gig if you were still writing in the booth, a lot.

Nowadays I often hear from producers who say things like, “I do alright. I only have to write 4 or 5 stories in the booth.”  Not okay. I understand staffing is tight. I understand some are making their own graphics and editing their own video. I don’t want to sound harsh, but I had similar duties “back in the day” before digital editing allowed you to drag and drop VO’s very quickly. You can get your work done before you head into the booth and you need to. A huge part of producing is being a critical set of eyes to help prevent fact errors, misspelling and incorrect video from rolling during the newscast. If you are looking at your screen, writing copy, you cannot do this effectively and your newscast will suffer. It may not happen today. But it will happen.

So, if you are still having to write in the booth, it’s time to keep a log of how much time you spend on various aspects of putting your newscast together. You also need to ask yourself if you are delegating. If you have a bunch of breakers, and it’s time to head to the booth, assign the next producer up to help you. Notice I said assign. Don’t ask. Tell. If you have an EP at that time, tell the EP which stories still need to be done. I know this is hard to do. It seems like a failure for some. But being distracted in the booth fails the entire staff who are part of your newscast that day. That is just the simple truth. After your show offer to write some stories to help that producer who bailed you out. It’s the right thing to do and the next time you may not have to tell them. They may just pitch in and do it.

Another hard truth: Most of the time, when you are writing in the booth, it’s not because a few stories came in late. It’s because you did not effectively use your time earlier in your shift so that you are prepared for the few late stories that happen every single day. In other words, late breaking news is not an excuse. You have to structure your day to be ready for it. Get it done early so the daily “surprises” become no big deal.

When you log your day, you need to take a hard look at several key deadlines. Do you spend 3 or 4 hours designing your rundown before you start cranking your writing? Do you spend 2 hours looking for stories and sources before you start loading your rundown? Do you write top down in your rundown? The answers to these three questions are crucial. If you spend 3 or 4 hours designing your rundown before you start cranking your writing, you set yourself up for failure. You need to focus on sections of your rundown. The news keeps changing. Look at segments like consumer/health/regional news and start with those. Yes, a new and better story could show up later. But it is easier to write one more story and kill something else, than to slam write several things, just to fill your newscast, while you are on the air.

Same with spending two hours looking for stories before designing your rundown. Some days great content comes in slowly. But there will be some content you can start writing earlier in the day. Again design sections if you need. Focus on the rundown coming together 3 hours before the show. This may mean stories you wrote move around in the newscast or get killed. But it’s better to have more written early if you can. I’m talking about things like memorable moments and required segments. Crank them out. For more help on how to speed up your writing time check out this article.

So by now it should be clear why you do not focus on writing the newscast from the top down. Think about it. The top of your newscast changes constantly. The lower sections much less so. If you can have your newscast mostly written by three hours before air, then you have 2 hours to fine tune it, and an hour to add breaking news at the last minute. This is an achievable goal. It will take work and it will take discipline. You need to give yourself deadlines each day. But you will get a rhythm down and your newscasts will improve greatly. Best of all you will no longer have to ask yourself: What am I doing wrong?

How To Time A Newscast

If you want to win, you have to time newscasts properly.  This is a key concept for everyone in the newsroom to understand.  Meters make or break you.  If the newscast is not timed correctly, you will blow the meters.  So let’s look at some common timing mistakes producers make and how to limit them.

Timing Tricks

Time each block

Hide pad throughout

Cheat the cheaters

Know anchors read speed

The biggest timing mistake producers make, is not trying to make time each block.  When quizzed about timing, a lot of producers say things like:  “Well my block always runs two minutes long.” or “I wait until the last block to worry about it.”  These are BIG MISTAKES.  Each block is designed to hit a meter.  If you blow one block, you will blow at least one meter mark.  That’s like standing outside the station with your cashed paycheck and throwing some of the money into the wind.  It’s just plain foolish.  There are stations that take timing so seriously they give you only 15 seconds leeway.  You go more than 15 over at the end of a block, you can be suspended or fired.  It’s a lot of pressure, but some of the stations who do this are the most profitable around.  They set exacting standards and they reap big rewards.

So how do you time each block?  You must have pad throughout the newscast.  If your mangers or anchors are hands on with rewrites, you need to hide some of that pad.  I used to have a lot of trouble with managers and/or anchors adding time to my rundown by putting “their touch” on scripts.  To prove the point, I would hide time in commercial breaks, my start time etc. so the timing issues would look even worse.  Then I would explain, there was nothing to give up and tell them to rewrite again.  Meanwhile, I ended up with the content and wiggle room I needed to make time each block

Which leads to the next key trick:  Cheat the cheaters.  There is always a time hog reporter and sorry meteorologists, but often weather people go WAY OVER.  Some of my meteorologists were told they had 1:30 hit times, when it was actually a 2:30 window (remember, hide time for the weather hit elsewhere).  I would also tell the chronically longwinded reporter that he/she had 30 to 45 less seconds for their TRT than I was really giving them.  That way if the reporter decided not to call in the correct TRT, I was not screwed. (Remember to also have a vo or two each block you can kill, just in case.)

The last timing killer is anchor read times.  Computers never get it right.  Frankly, your anchors can vary day-to-day, newscast to newscast.  You have to get a feel for who is better at really pulling off that 10 second breaking news ad-lib or who can handle suddenly dropping the last line of a vo, in order to hit that precious meter point.  Getting to know your anchors and their read times, involves more than their average read time.  It really does entail, which one speeds up talking when they are excited.  You should also figure out which one, tends to be tired at the end of the week and stumbles more.  (See anchors voice)  They can be inconsistent.  You cannot.  You have to make time.

I hope these tricks help.  Do not be afraid to move things around in your rundown on the fly to make meter points as well.  If you are running long and teased a story, you can always float it down to the next block, hit your meter point and kill something else.  The key is monitoring your time each line of each story.  If you see a timing problem developing nip it right away.  Once it begins to snowball you may not be able to dig out.