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.

 

Interview the station, don’t let it interview you.

Read that title again.  Interview the station, don’t let it interview you.  This probably goes against the grain of what you’ve been taught.  But hear us out and you’ll see the logic.  Most people assume that news management knows what type of person it needs for a given job.  That is not always true.  Increasingly news managers want to do only 1 thing, find a warm body to fill a slot.   We say this after working in a combined 14 shops; most of them in market 30 and above.  Most are places you would think have a clue about how to hire for specific needs.  Bottom line: They don’t.  Even the 1st place stations with “higher standards” often just want to fill and move forward.  Scary?  Yes.  But you can still increase your odds of becoming a super hire, instead of that warm body destined for doom.  It all comes down to how you interview the station.

How to interview the TV station

 

  1. Talk to staffers.
  2. Go it alone.
  3. Watch an editorial meeting.
  4. Ask management to spell out its news philosophy.
  5. Play out scenarios.
  6. Ask for a writing and ethics test.

Expand? Sure.

Talk to staffers

This is your best shot at crucial intel. Talking to staffers doesn’t just mean talking to the people management chooses for you to speak with.  Get business cards off desks of people who are not around and call them after your interview.  Ask if you can speak with them when they are outside the newsroom.  Better yet, ask current staffers for names of people who used to have the job you are interviewing for.  Google them and call those former employees at their new job.  If everyone says the place is perfect, say flat out you know that’s not true.  Ask what frustrates them about station WZZZ.  This is your best shot at seeing if you can handle the weaknesses at the station.  And trust us, all stations have them.

 

Go it alone

Request time during your interview to wander the newsroom and get a feel for the place.  If the manager gets hinky, that’s a big sign the place is a mess.  Well run shops have no fear of this.  In fact many insist you wander and then watch how you react.  Newsrooms that are starting to get on track will gladly give you a short stint to walk around.  Hell holes will not let you do this.  Also, ask for the chance to go it alone, while you are in the interview, not ahead of time.  You do not want to give management the chance to stage it.  Lastly, if the manager says sure, but provides you free time only when everyone’s at lunch or out on a story, that can be a sign of trouble.

 

Watch an editorial meeting

“Watch” is the operative word here.  This is not the time to pipe in and show off your knowledge of the area.  If you want to share any ideas, wait until the end of the meeting and do it one-on-one with management.  You want to see how the staffers react to each other and management.  Take notes.  Do you see snickering and note passing?  Do the reporters and producers seem half dead or over eager?  All of these are signs the place could be a mess.  If the meeting runs smoothly and quickly then this shop may have a vision.

 

Ask management to spell out its news philosophy

You want the news philosophy to be boiled down to one sentence.  Request it. Stations with vision and clear cut standards can easily spell it out.  Let the manager say the sentence, then ask for examples of how the shop will execute the philosophy that very day.  Ask every manager you speak with the same thing.  Do it with the anchors, reporters and producers you meet too.  If you get stuttering, stammering answers the place is most likely a mess.  Write it off.  If you get a sentence, but then get excuses on why there is no execution that day, walk away.  Everyone must be on the same page, or you will step into one mess after another.  A shop without a clear vision is political hotbed hell and who needs that?

 

Play out scenarios

Give managers scenarios then ask how the newsroom is supposed to react.  A favorite of ours:  Ask about an armed standoff with a station helicopter overhead and SWAT team outside.  Who makes the call as to how close a shot the station will take on live TV.  Who decides when to pull the shot back?  Will a manager be in the booth at all times or on the phone?  Another good one:  Does the station mention social media chatter during breaking news?   How is that decided?  We also like to discuss natural disaster coverage.  For instance, if it’s a hurricane prone area, what is the hurricane coverage plan?  Where do crews stay during the storm?  How does the station ensure safety?  Will you be fed?  And don’t forget to ask about more than the ins and outs of news coverage.  What if someone loses their cool in the newsroom?  How is that handled?  What if that person is an anchor?  Who has the final say on copy?  If it isn’t the manager on duty, chances are the shift boss is a highly paid babysitter who will stab you in the back.

 

Ask for a writing and ethics test

Yes this sounds insane.  But this is the cat daddy for interviewing the station instead of letting it interview you.  Blow management’s mind and ask for a writing test and get the bosses to ask you how you would handle specific ethical calls.  Well run newsrooms should do this automatically.  But we must admit, in all of our years only one television station did both types of tests.  You want to write copy and get critiqued.  This will show you if your writing style works or can be easily adapted to the newsroom’s style.  There is little worse than being “Big J” to the core and ending up at a tabloid shop.  You can ask, but few managers will actually admit to an interviewee if the plan is to head down a “flash and trash” road.  A critique of your writing style might give you a clue.  Also having them set up ethical calls shows you what situations the newsroom often covers or worries about covering.  The tests are a key chance to determine if you and management think alike.  Having the guts to ask for these might get you the job and MORE MONEY as well.

 

 

A Manager Is Out To Get Me, Can I Save Myself?

Personality conflicts are a constant in newsrooms.  There are no shrinking violets and bluntness reaches new levels.  That said, there are times when it is obvious you aren’t just having a heated, “in the moment”, run in with a boss.  Sometimes that boss is singling you out and trying to wear you down.

Since this business is extremely subjective it is hard to fire people.  And despite what you might think, most corporations try to avoid firing when possible.   To an employer firing someone means paying unemployment as well as bankrolling a job search.  That’s not great for the bottom line.  Many corporations also fear lawsuits from firings.  So a common route to get rid of someone is to make their lives so miserable they walk out to spite the station.  Managers count on this.  But in this day and age, with such awful future job prospects, you probably want to avoid letting your temper get the best of you.  So here’s how to live with the daily grief.

Document.  This is true no matter what particular manager you are talking about.  You want to be able to show that the boss was unclear with expectations.  This is key because it helps eliminate “cause” (i.e. – a violation of written or well established policy or job duties) if you are fired.  Most newsrooms are too disorganized to provide two key things to protect themselves:  detailed job descriptions with a listing of duties, and  reviews.  Without them, companies are more likely to have to pay out unemployment and possibly part of your contract to get you to go away.  The reason:  they cannot show “cause” unless you don’t come to work or clearly violate a company policy or do not live up to your job duties.  Without a listing of your job duties and clear cut daily expectations, companies back themselves into a corner.  So if you have a manager that seems out to get you, make sure you ask what the exact expectation is each day.  That means when you get an assignment from that manager you end the conversation with, “So you want me to get this interview and package this way at this time?”  Then write notes on the conversation and any follow-ups so you have documentation.  Often as the day progresses much of what you discussed changes.  Does the manager or a producer call with the changes?  Often the answer is no and that works in your favor if someone is after you.  Newsrooms are notorious for being disorganized.  So when the end of the day comes and the manager calls and chews you out, you now have a legitimate response.  Listen, then let the person know that no manager, producer or assignment editor told you about the changes in expectations and that this oversight inhibits your ability to do your job.  Then you again write down the manager’s reaction to this conversation.  Make sure each time you document you include who called you, when and what they said.  Yes, this is tedious.  However, it may give you great leverage if you end up in human resources, being called on the carpet.  You want to be able to show a pattern of the manager changing the expectations or job duties, with no warning, causing you to be unable to perform your job properly.  The same is true if you are an anchor or producer.  Anchors, make sure you figure out if you are required to copy edit for fact errors in your newscast.  That is a key area where you could be set up.  Producers, demand that managers define the audience and writing style of your show.  Try to get those definitions in writing.  A great way to do that is to design a format template that lists types of stories placed in specific positions in the rundown.   Have a manager sign off.  That helps you create a job description and expectation.  If the playing field changes and you are not told to alter that template, it can help you protect yourself.

If a manager seems out to get you and that person oversees a particular day part, try to get a schedule change.  Turnover is always happening and you can use that to your advantage.  If possible establish a good relationship with the manager on the shift where you want to work.  That way if someone quits, you can ask for a switch and possibly get out of the bad situation before the manager that hates you can build a case.  Problem (often) solved!

Try to make sure when the manager threatens you, it is done in front of witnesses.  Remember, with most companies, you have the right to a witness when you sit down with a manager behind closed doors.  Most managers are taught to do this for their own protection and they are not going to offer you the same protection.  Usually a manager brings in another newsroom manager.  If that’s the case you can ask for the human resources person to come in.  The human resources person will probably side with management, but they are also very aware of corporate policies.  If that person sees that the manager simply has a personality conflict with you for example, the manager will often get a warning behind closed doors.  If you can show that you were not given a clear directive that day and are now getting in trouble, the manager will probably get a lecture behind closed doors.  If you are still leery of having human resources present there are other options.  If you are an anchor, your co-anchor could be a witness.  Reporters can have the photojournalist they worked with present.  Producers could ask an assignment manager or another producer to witness the conversation.  Having a co-worker present helps, because it ups the ante on the manager to exactly follow corporate policies.   If that person makes an error, you may have bought yourself enough time to find another job before you get the axe.

Fight fire with fire.  Confront the manager in a non-attacking way.  That sentence seems contradictory, but it’s not.  Here’s what to do:  Come in early or stay late one day and sit down one-on-one with the manager that is giving you hell.  Say you want to clear the air.  Let the manager know you respect him or her and the job the person does.  Often the manager will then fess up that you are not the problem, it’s actually a litany of other things.  The supervisor may even apologize for jumping on you.  No matter what, this conversation lets the manager know you are there to do a job and are willing to grow.   Again, it gets back to the manager’s responsibility to let you know about your job performance and what you can do to get better.  If the manager gets defensive and starts telling you that you stink and why, then you know where this person really stands and it’s time to get a witness for all future conversations.

Research this manager and find out the person’s quirks and weaknesses.  It is possible that you have a habit that gets on the person’s nerves.  If you can change your habit, the person may back off.  It really is a small price to pay when you consider the difficulty of trying to find a new job in the current economic climate.

If it’s the news director who seems to be coming after you, try to lay low especially if you are working at a chronic third or fourth place station.  These stations tend to go through news directors often.  So, odds are high in these stations, that if you can avoid the news director’s ire, he/she will be gone before you will.   Again, document, stay quiet and show up for work on-time.  Make it hard for them to let you go without some sort of compensation.  If the news director says you stink at producing, ask to work on the assignment desk.  If the ND says you are a bad anchor ask to report.  Buy yourself time to job hunt.  Some news directors are disarmed if you fight to stay and will give you a shot at the other job for a little while.

Finally, if you are fired, write a thank you note to the manager that had the problem with you.  Yes, write a “thank you” note.  Make it brief and complimentary.  Tell the person you appreciated the chance to work at that station and under that manager.  Wish that manager luck in future endeavors.  This is hard to do, but it might keep the boss from blackballing you later, when you’re looking for another job.  Remember, this business is very small and everyone knows everyone else.  Taking the high road never hurts you and could keep that now ex-boss from burning you again and again.