How To Self Critique A Newscast

More and more news managers require newscast critiques for anyone going for editorial positions. This is great because it helps the managers “see how you think” on many levels. The trouble is many producers have no idea how to do newscast critiques. Part of this is because many never get their shows critiqued by management. They may hear “The A-Block did not work.” or “Those teases did not hit well.” But that’s not a true critique.

So let’s talk about how to practice newscast critiques with your own or your station’s work. The best part is that it will help you grow as a content manager.

When self critiquing you need to consider the following items:

Does The Subject Flow Make Sense?
Did Production Values Work?
Is Branding Clear?

Obviously, this is a broad overview to get you started. True critiques are works of art unto themselves. But everything begins with the flow of the newscast. By this we mean more than the obvious did you put a sad story next to a cheery story. That often happens especially when having to kill stories for time. For more on how to avoid those issues read Emotional Toll.  We are going super basic here. Did each story make sense? Did the order you picked make sense? When you sit and watch the show afterwards are you left with a lot of lingering questions about the stories, or did the viewer truly get the information needed? Subject flow involves correct order of stories, related content themes (crime/crime or economy/economy) and some showcasing. Did the breakout you added make sense for the story after all? Was there too much crime mentioned in a row? Sometimes what looks good in outline form, doesn’t look right on the air.

Which leads to the next big item to consider. Did the production values put in place work? With so many new fancy sets, and emphasis on incorporating more graphics, more social media references and more spots for anchors to stand/sit and present information, newscasts can look very disjointed very quickly. Then, even if your subject flow is on the mark, viewers can still come away from a show saying “Huh?” So you need to grab a newscast every so often, then sit and watch it with a critical eye. Did each production element you used, from that cool monitor graphic to that map to the pan/zoom in the middle of the A-block, make sense? (If you are working on how to even do these things in the first place check out our article Produce It Up.) When I work with producers on building their skill sets, one of the things I see time and again are periods where the producer goes from too little production value to too much. There is too much when you watch the newscast and are left thinking about all the cool looks in the newscast, but can barely remember what the content was that day. Also, when you watch, if you find yourself pulling back in your chair or whipping your neck around to keep up, that’s too much movement.

Finally, we have to talk about branding. Frankly, if TV journalists are savvy at all they realize much of their job now is selling the content. We can argue if this is right or wrong. But truthfully, most stations focus on what content makes air based on brand. So you need to know your brand and you need to watch newscasts to see if the way you presented the content is true to the brand. If you are an “Asking the Tough Questions” station, then an A-block with more than thirty quick 15-second vo’s is not true to brand. That’s the simple truth. Your brand requires more breakouts and more phrases like: “So we went to the (expert) and got you more (facts/information/answers).”

In summary, when you self critique you need to sit down, no distractions and watch the newscast as an informed viewer would. Obviously you cannot look at things just like your Mom or friend who’s not in the biz does. But you are skilled enough to watch and notice if you are missing the mark in one or more of these areas. You should be able to say “That didn’t make sense.” or “I can’t remember half of what the anchor just said.” If you do this weekly, you will quickly figure out your strengths and weaknesses so you can work on both. (If you want to get even more nitty gritty when self critiquing read Humble Pie.) So here’s to self critiques!

What To Do When The ND Says Your Newscast Sucks

Producers have nightmares about three scenarios, mistiming their shows, not getting their shows done and being called into the ND’s office to be told line-by-line how much their shows flat out sucked.

This is a rite of passage in some ways. It happens to everyone at some point. It is never a comfortable situation to be in. So how do you handle it?

With grace and humility. In other words, do not cry. Do not make excuses. Do not throw the EP and/or anchors under the bus (even if they deserve it). You have to man (or woman) up, take the critique and grow from it.  Even if your cheeks are burning hot with shame and rage, even if you want to crawl under the desk and die or go dry heave in the bathroom, take ownership.  The ND is delivering a message that you need to hear. You need to hear it to grow as a producer and keep your job. So keep that in mind, and focus on the lessons instead of the delivery.

So what do you say in response when asked “What the hell were you thinking with that newscast?” The best answer is, “Obviously, I need to focus more on the station brand.” Then follow up with a question like “What more could I have done with the lead today, so I can learn from you?” This is a very proactive way of also diverting some of the responsibility away from you. Managers do have a responsibility to make sure the staff understands expectations. If you don’t understand you cannot execute.

Another common pitfall question is “So what are you going to do tomorrow (after ND has listed about a thousand reasons why your newscast sucked today)?” The right answer? “I am going to work harder to never repeat what happened today and show you that I learned from our talk today.” In other words, take ownership, show you have a thick skin and do whatever you can to grow from the discussion. Again, focus on the message instead of the delivery.

And understand one more thing about the “your newscast sucked” conversation. These are often tests to see what kind of moxie you have. Most ND’s respect someone who owns up to mistakes, is willing to learn from them and then has the humility to ask for guidance. Even if the conversation is simply sh&* rolling downhill, it is a valuable opportunity to show the ND you are not a quitter, but you are a leader. You will get back up, move onward and upward. Simply put everyone in the business gets knocked around and pushed down from time-to-time. The true winners get back up, dust themselves off and come back strong the next day.

Calling out mistakes publicly: delivery is key

A common issue I coach producers on is how to handle it when an anchor decides to “call out” mistakes in front of the staff. Too often, producers have to sit and listen to anchors going off on the set about something that did not work. The comments are often not constructive. Live TV is tense. Everyone’s anxiety is up, no matter how seasoned they are. That said, making fun of the writing, or complaining about mistakes on set, is not necessarily going to help you get the help you need later. We addressed some of this in “Why don’t you show us how it’s done then.” Now let’s focus on how to get the message across, and have it actually be heard.

If your station holds special discrep meetings when the ND is visiting the morning or nightside shift, keep in mind that tensions are higher than usual then. The producers feel like they are under extra scrutiny (frankly, anchors probably do too). This is a good time to have an open discussion. But you do not want to create an environment where the team is turning on each other. This cannot be emphasized enough. When the ND and/or AND attend the discrep meeting, and the staff starts complaining and/or putting each other on the defensive, it gives a bad appearance. It makes it look like this is a group that either needs more monitoring or could need changing up (as in some of you may need to go).

These meetings go south fast, when an anchor says “That story on (fill in blank) was awful.” or makes fun of a story. The producer, gets embarrassed and will either shut down or lash out. So how do you bring up issues without setting off a firestorm? The head of the meeting has to set the right tone and has to phrase things better.

Let’s start with the leader of the meeting, which is often an EP. Start the meeting off by asking your producers what worked and did not. This allows the producers to take ownership and makes it psychologically easier to take the criticism still ahead. Producers feel more willing to do things like say, “Hey, was the end of the A uncomfortable?” Then a discussion can happen. If the producers do not do that, then the EP should. This keeps the anchors from having to bring the issue up first, and come off as defensive or attacking.

Anchors, if that doesn’t happen and you feel you have to bring an issue up, just think about your phrasing a bit. “Maybe it was just me, but the end of the A block felt a little uncomfortable. I know we are supposed to get more creative. But can we talk about why we did what we did, so we can figure out if there’s another way?” This gives the producer (who, remember, is likely extremely passionate, a bit of a control freak and THRIVES on problem solving) a chance to “save face” and bring up ideas as discussion points. Then you can add to those ideas. Everyone gets what needs to be said out there, and the message is more likely to be heard.

Better yet, wait until the end of the meeting and ask for a sub meeting with only the people directly involved with the issue, to bring up the subject. This isolates the potential for public humiliation. Then the producers can hear what you have to say better, because they are not being put on the spot publicly. You also will not have to worry as much about phrasing because it is a smaller group. So if you accidentally come across as a little harsh, it will be easier for the producer to give you the benefit of the doubt.

If you are going to bring up an issue, that involves a section of the newscast the producer asked you to look over ahead of time, better make sure you mention that as well. Producers hate proactively asking your opinion, having you seem to ignore it, then getting bashed for the decision later. That is a fast way to guarantee the producer will not have your back when you really need help.

The biggest thing I can emphasize is that producers in their own way, are as sensitive as anchors. The newscast is a part of them in many ways, just like it is for anchors. So you have to think about how you want to be told things. It would be humiliating to walk into the newsroom and hear the producers gathered together saying “Nancy looked like an idiot when she said …..” and then start cracking up. Or “Joe looks like he’s getting goosed the whole show, what a dope.” No one wants to be publicly humiliated. Just because a producer or EP’s face is not seen during the newscast, does not mean that their heart and soul is not attached to it. In many ways, they feel as tied to it as you do.

Producers, a big thing to consider is that anchors do not always mean to come off as insensitive or like they’re trying to “get you.” Even if they sound callous or just plain rude in a public critique, many are internally struggling with how to bring the issue up. Many try to use humor, and fail miserably, so it becomes a case of making fun or picking, instead of lightening the blow. So even if it stings, try and discern if the anchor just really doesn’t know how to bring the issue up well. And once the sting wears off, there could be great constructive criticism in the comment that will help you grow.

One last point to anchors: If you routinely make fun of things the producers do, or make you say on the set, whether during commercial breaks or after the show in discrep meetings or in the middle of the newsroom, you are setting yourself up for a world of hurt. Even if pay structures do not always seem to reflect it, producers have a lot of power in newsrooms and often have more say in your future than you might want or like to admit. Picking at that person, or making fun of them is asking for them to point out to the bosses every time you screw up. So unless you have achieved daily guaranteed perfection while on set, you are going to get burned.

Why You Should Always Have Extra Stories In Your Rundown

One of the most challenging parts of producing is making your meter points.
Some stations even penalize if you go over or under time by as little as 15 to 20 seconds, per block. Even if your station is not that picky, you have to make time at the end of your newscast.

The problem is, between chat, reporters turning in packages late or providing the wrong TRT and adding live shots and breaking news, it can be hard to time. That’s why you need escape routes for each meter point/news block.

So here’s a secret veteran producers know, that helps make sure they hit those key times, every time, no matter what. It all begins with putting extra stories in your rundown. You ideally want to put in 2 or 3 vo’s, some vo/sots and even a pkg just in case. Different producers do this different ways. But, I find, the easiest is to put them at the bottom of the rundown with the times zeroed out in your timing program. Then make sure they are edited right along with the rest of the newscast and ready to go.

Before you say “that’s just extra work and I do enough already” consider this. I did not say NEW stories. These can be alternate versions of stories in the newscast. Just make sure there is at least one “go to” option per block to add or shorten time. Veteran producers often add a line or two or a sidebar type story that gives depth to at least one story per block for showcasing opportunities. If you get heavy, that can go. Some write a vo/sot version of a vo in a block, so they can just sub out the longer version if they are suddenly really short during their newscast. Frankly, you are already going over the material, so writing a second version is fast and pretty painless.

These can also be stories from earlier newscasts that you flirted with putting in the newscast, but ran out of time or decided something else was more relevant. Every producer has those stories you initially will run, that get pushed out for something else. Just keep them at the bottom of the newscast, and zero the time out. Sometimes these don’t even mean more editing. They can be real life savers.

In terms of a backup package, this is something on the feeds that makes sense to put in your rundown lower down or at the end of a block. This precaution is great if you suddenly cannot get a live shot or a big breaker falls through. Always have vos and vo/sots first. This is a good last resort option if you are really light. But it can save you on and off and is worth striving for daily.

Just remember, time block-by-block. Have backups for each block to shorten or lengthen the segment. A little extra work, creating different versions of a few stories is totally worth it. Hitting meter points and timing your newscast correctly is expected and highly doable, you just need to do a little pre-planning.