What can we learn from crusty old journalists.

There is a very witty blog called Stuffjournalistslike.com that is truly a blast to read.  I had tears streaming down my face with laughter.  One article on Grumpy old journalists, actually made me nostalgic for some of the crusty old reporters from my past.  It reminded me that there are fewer of these old die hards and that the lessons we gained from them cannot be lost.

Mandates of a crusty old journalist

  • No room for errors (especially fact errors)
  • No exaggerations
  • Don’t take a person’s word for it
  • Deadlines are mandatory
  • Don’t screw your team over

Fellow journalists, we have failed those crusty old guys in terms of journalistic integrity.  A lot of embarrassing errors and exaggerations make air.  (The Jeremy Lin, ESPN “Chink In the Armor” reference is just the latest.)   Crusty old journalists do not use cheesy phrases.  (Honestly, even if the people didn’t know that “Chink” can be taken as a highly offensive ethnic slur, it is a cheesy phrase to use highlighting a 1 game losing streak.) Old timers also always made sure their pieces were not just fact checked once, but triple checked.  They did not assume they could not screw something up just because they are veterans in their field.  To them, you had your facts checked simply because, there was no room for error.  These old timers would say “If you can’t get your facts straight, you don’t deserve to be a journalist!”  That’s why you fact check and refuse to exaggerate.

So, naturally, crusty old journalists were special kinds of skeptics.  If a PIO said “This is the way it is!” and walked off in a huff that reporter knew to call “Bullshit!  Prove it.”  To take a line from Missouri’s state mantra, “Show me.” Crusty old journalists didn’t care if they occasionally pissed off a PIO.  They remembered a key fact:  PIO’s need to respect journalists also.  That journalist would go to a source in order to fact check the PIO.  And if the PIO was lying, you can bet that old timer would expose the truth.

But the last two mandates of a crusty old journalist are the most important if you want to survive and thrive in a modern day newsroom.  Don’t miss deadlines and don’t screw your team over.  (These go hand in hand.)  I get that the new mantra is more “me” oriented.  But here’s the deal, putting “deadlines” and “team” first actually puts your best interests first.  If you are screwing over the producer, anchor, photographer or manager regularly you will face payback.  And, oh by the way, it will hurt.  Don’t make yourself vulnerable.  Be an untouchable, crusty old journalist.

 

See it rather than say it: How to clue in anchors during live TV.

It was early on a Saturday morning. But weekday anchors up and down the East Coast were in their respective newsrooms waiting on a big story to arrive named Hurricane Irene.

As I waited for my on-air shift to begin, I was multitasking as usual: reading over the scripts the producers had written, watching a stream of storm updates cascade down Tweetdeck, and listening to a friend’s broadcast over the internet as he prepared the viewers in his market for what was to come.

Then it happened — that cringe-worthy moment all of us anchors dread. The voice on the phone stopped talking. But my friend was caught off-guard and had no idea what the man had been saying. Producers were talking in his IFB at the time and he was caught with his proverbial pants down on live TV.

What’s worse is that all that chatter over the IFB prevented him from doing his #1 job in a time of crisis: being a reporter. Yes, he was chained to the desk. But that phone was his — and his viewers’ — lifeline to late breaking information about a story that was changing minute-by-minute.

If an anchor isn’t able to hear a phoner or a reporter on a satellite shot in a breaking news situation, he quickly falls behind. In subsequent ad-libs, he can sound disconnected, out-of-touch, and out-of-date.

Unfortunately, it’s not a rare occurrence even on network television. And it’s just as likely to happen during a satellite interview any day of the week.

There are no easy answers for how to make sure the magic happening behind-the-scenes doesn’t intrude on the viewer who’s just trying to find out what’s going on and whether her family is threatened.

But let me throw-out some ideas:

Bring in the interns! It’s the excitement they’ve been waiting for anyway. All those mornings of filling-up the printers and opening the lobby doors for studio guests should at least have this payoff. For goodness sakes, let’s ask them the day before if they’d be willing to help us with our breaking news coverage. I bet they’d love it. (And if they don’t show much enthusiasm they should find another career.)

Use them as runners. To reduce the amount of chatter producers engage in over IFB, I say go old school. Station at least one intern right next to the producer in the control room. Arm them with a stack of paper or a small dry erase board. Have them run routine messages (like the names and titles of guests coming up or the latest statistics on the story you’re covering) to the anchor desk. As an anchor, I want my mic to be hot so I can interrupt or question the person on the phone or the reporter out in the field at any time. So I can’t talk. And I really need to hear what’s being said over-the-air. But I’ve still got my eyes and my hands. When I see I’m off-camera, I can look at what the intern is presenting me, write down any questions or concerns I have for the producer, and send the intern back into the control room.

If your station doesn’t usually have interns, consider an associate producer or the news junkie on the sales staff for this role. If the breaking news comes out of nowhere and you had no time to plan for it, consider the options below.

Text messaging over teleprompter. It’s breaking news. Your anchors aren’t using the teleprompter all that much anyway. Write a message at the top of the story that’s currently cued-up. “***GM has canceled ALL breaks. Stretch. Ad-lib at will! ***” It’s especially useful when you need to quickly convey street closures. “City closing these streets: Broadway from 3rd Ave to 9th Ave & Water Tower Road from Main to Robinson.” Most of us in television are visual people. We digest information easier if we see it rather than if you’re trying to tell us the details over IFB — especially if we’re in the middle of an interview.

And anchors, don’t be afraid to write down this information on-camera as you’re delivering it. The viewers know it’s an extraordinary time and you’re trying to make sure the information is accurate. So write it down. Set it aside. You’ll need to come back to it throughout your coverage. (And your producers have a lot more important things to do than regurgitate information they’ve already given you once.)

Instant messaging/“Top lining.” We have ENPS at my station and my producers are great at doing this. If my co-anchor and I are busy talking and interviewing people on-air, they’ll send us information in an instant message, which appears as the top line in ENPS.

Anchors, the judges will not deduct any points for reading detailed information off of ENPS on the computer screen on your desk. Again, it’s breaking news. They’ll understand.

Any more tips for creating smoother communication during breaking news coverage? Be sure to let us know by commenting below.

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

 

It’s GM’s agenda and you are stuck covering it “as news.”

We promise this situation will happen to you. It happened to us at several stations, in small to large markets.  General Manager walks into an editorial meeting and says “So what are we doing to cover such and such, ( fill-in the blank, new road widening project,  special session by legislature,  tax incentive package for a new industry in town etc.) since our viewers the tax payers are getting screwed.”  The news director gives a blank look followed by the lifted eyebrow smirk, then stares at you, “So how will you cover that story today?”

If this happens, say you are going to make some calls and get out of the room pronto.  Better yet, grab your photog and get out of the building while you make those calls! Why?  You do not want the GM to start going off on specific players and agendas for the story.  You do not want specifics on how this story should be told, and exactly what the tease will say.  That way, if it is the GM skimming headlines and misinterpreting reality, you won’t end up having to tell him/her.  Without specifics chances are you can find some small nugget to package.

Next, call the newsroom mega brain.  You know, the walking, talking, human factoid! This person can save you hours of stress and research.  Do the necessary ego stroke and get the person to give you background information on this subject.  You need time to work sources for a backup in case the story falls apart.  The “human factoid” usually can at least provide the name and number for a player in town who will give you insight on whether the GM’s “news” really is “news.”

Do your thing, work it and try to find an interesting character or bit of video to showcase so you can get by.  If there’s just nothing to the story give the basics, then try and include a little subtle perspective in your anchor intro or  tag.  Managers tend to play in that copy more anyway.  This way, if the story is taken out of context and the GM gets a call, it will more likely become management’s problem instead of the reporter’s failing.

If you cannot find a nugget to package, and there’s simply nothing to the story, offer to write a vo or vo/sot and let your manager know early.  That gives management time to derail the GM situation well before the newscast airs.  It helps if you can offer an interesting alternative story the manager can have you churn out instead.  Sometimes management will then take the GM “news” burden off of you and have an anchor front it somewhere cool on set. You are off the hook, and the GM still feels heard without the station blowing a weak story out of proportion.

If you are told to package a story and say certain things in a tease you don’t like, try and do a subtle rewrite.  Also, know this happens to everyone from time to time.  Chances are your credibility is not ruined.  Those in the know in town realize you got stuck “being the good soldier.”

 

What is viewer benefit, really? A close look at WIFM.

“Viewer benefit” is a buzz term that is used more and more in newsrooms.  You have to have payoff for the viewers if you want high ratings.  It’s a critical concept.  So important, actually, that you need to get it or you will be told to get out.  So what does viewer benefit really mean?  We’re breaking it down for you.

Let’s begin with the consultant buzz term “WIFM” (What’s In It For Me). The me is the viewer.  So yes, to some degree you are being asked to read viewers minds and figure out how a story will benefit a stranger you will never meet.  No, this is not as intimidating as it seems, especially because of the influence of social media on the way information is shared.  If you aren’t already building sources and checking trends on Twitter and Linked In, start now.  You need to spend some time each day surfing.  This goes for whatever job you have in the newsroom, especially anchors and reporters.  That’s because, in addition to pulling in new information and stories, it gives them the added benefit of building more direct relationships with viewers.

So, what do you look for?  See what kinds of stories people are messaging about.  Some of us also like to hop onto newspaper blogs and other local blogs to see what’s happening.  Here you will get obvious story ideas with proven “WIFM.”  You can answer the questions people are bringing up and engage the viewer.

You also have to look at the stories that management insists that someone cover each day.  Here you might think the “WIFM” will be hard to come by.  Not really.  There are some general trends you can rely on to help you begin to craft the essence, or “WIFM”, of your story.  A list to keep handy:

Elements of WIFM

  • Emotional Connection
  • Cost
  • Personal Safety
  • Characters
  • Location
  • Impact On Key Demographic

Some of these may seem redundant, but I promise they aren’t.  The emotional connection of a story is more than whether you have or could easily get someone crying or shouting on television.  Irony is a great way to build a connection that can tug at heartstrings.  Facts that make you just shake your head and wonder what to think also provide great emotional connections to a story.  You start to wonder, could this happen to me or someone I love?  This is especially helpful when covering political stories that don’t necessarily affect one’s pocketbook.

No matter how the economy looks, people have a heightened sense of cost.  This means more than just being able to pay the bills each month.  Long term effects will have a draw.  If there is a cost in human terms, like less time with the kids or shorter life span, viewers will watch.  Do not take cost lightly when writing and teasing these elements.  People do not want to be played in these areas of their lives.

People also want to feel safe.  Viewer benefit is not scaring the “you know what” out of them every night.  Yes, some crime stories are simply scary and viewers need to know.  Yes, stations will cover crime like crazy. (Why they do it, is a whole other discussion beyond it bringing in ratings!)  Stations that really push viewer benefit want you to quantify the crime stories whenever you can.  Perspective can be as simple as where the event happened to how to protect yourself, to police accountability in “taking back the streets.”

You probably know the saying “Location, location, location.”  This applies to “WIFM” also. Especially when covering crime news.  If it happens in a “bad area” for crime you have to approach the story differently than if it happens in an area where no crime was committed for years.  The impact is simply different as we described above.  Same goes for economic stories.  This is where looking at characters and key demographics play in.

Characters are the people or things you choose to build the story around.  This goes for more than just reporter packages.  Producers should look for characters to write around and refer to whenever possible.  If you think this is a waste of time, I urge you to again hop onto Twitter and pick a topic.  Do searches and see who comes up.  Read their descriptions.  It is very obvious people want to be heard.  They also want to hear others.  They want some control of what happens around them.  Characters give viewers a chance to feel in control when watching the news.  It gives them something tangible to cling to and interact with on some level.  When the U.S. invaded Iraq, the second time, you may remember a lot of coverage about a statue of Saddam Hussein in a square.  That statue became a character for the war.  When it was pulled down, you could sense the accomplishment from across an ocean.  You could feel the change taking place.  The war became real, not just something happening on TV half a world away.  For a moment you had to stop, stare and care.  Do not limit your payoffs for stories to people.  Sometimes symbols engage and create “WIFM” or a sense of engagement just as well.

By key demographic we mean both the viewers you have, and the ones you want to get.  You will phrase stories differently depending on what you need from the viewer. (i.e. – increased loyalty vs. new fans.)  It is important to recognize who watches your newscasts, at what time of the day and on what days of the week.  The “WIFM” can be different on a football night for example than on a night with a family based drama that appeals to more to women.  Lead in shows impact audience and “WIFM.”  Understanding that is one way managers know for example that certain days of the week are better than others for covering consumer news.  The more the staff is aware of a newscasts audience, the more you can tailor a few elements to keep your loyal customers happy and branch out and try and appeal to a new set of eyes.  If this sounds more like marketing than “Big J”, you are partially right.  Open your mind a bit more though and you will see that the traditional “Big J” type stories usually hit basic human needs and concerns.  You just might approach how you report them a little differently. (see article “Produce It Up” for some ideas of techniques that can still help you feel you gave just the facts ma’am.)

Final point, do not get hung up on managers saying that stories have to be unique in order to have viewer benefit.  The viewer benefit doesn’t come in story selection so much as “the spin”, which is based on your station’s news philosophy.  This is largely because different news philosophies define viewer benefit differently.  The approach makes your station, package, or newscast have a specific kind of “WIFM.”  To really capitalize on viewer benefit, you have to know what the station’s news philosophy entails.  If management is at a crossroads on this, you cannot go much beyond the obvious economic impact, human safety, and emotional type of “WIFM’s.”  But even by focusing on these elements you can make your stories more relevant to your viewers.  So focus on what you can, and let management guide some of the viewer benefit.  After all, they have access to all the audience research driving all that buzz about “viewer benefit.”