How To Deal With Conflicting Messages.

Unfortunately many newsrooms struggle with clearly defining their news philosophy.  This can be very confusing and frustrating for the journalists in the trenches.  So how do you survive when your ND, AND and EP all have different philosophies?

The first step is looking at who has the most hands-on influence on your work each day.  If your EP is next to you in the trenches all day, and the AND and ND only sometimes step in, do what the EP asks.  If you call in to the AND for script approval each day, do what that person expects.  This will not protect you every newscast, every shift, but it will lessen your being in the middle of conflict.

If you are executing what that main manager asks and another manager steps in and asks you to change it, it is ok to say “I can do that, but (EP/AND/ND) asked me to do this. Which should I do?”  If the person now asking you to do something opposite outranks the other manager, do what he/she decides.  But you should mention to the lower ranking manager that you changed it specifically at the other manager’s request.  Most of the time, the lower ranking manager will acquiesce.  If you are told to change it back, tell that manager that you need management to come to a consensus on this issue.  You really do not have a choice.  If the manager just storms off, do what the highest ranking manager asks.  Make sure you document what happened in case you are asked later.

If you are called in to the news director’s office and asked why your reports or newscasts are not meshing with the stations news philosophy, do not lose your temper and yell that everyone needs to get on the same page.  (Yes, it is true, but remember from the “Taking Ownership” article, you still have to be a team player and leader even when you are put in extremely unfair situations.)  Instead, say “Can you please define that philosophy for me in a sentence or two, to make sure I am clear on it.”  Often the ND will then say what the philosophy is.  Say “thank you for clarifying.  That will help me bring up specific coverage questions as we design our coverage each day.”  Then try and get the hell out of the office.  If you cannot get out, and are asked “Now I want to know why you did not understand that?” simply say that there are some conflicting messages but you will do all you can to be true to the news philosophy just defined to you. Again, try and get the hell out of the office.

The one thing you must do no matter what is document when you are told to execute different things.  Try and show a pattern.  That way if you get a bad review and truly feel you are in danger you can use this information to try and show that you are getting conflicting messages and need clarification so you can fully do your job.  A response to a review that includes documentation like this does get serious notice.

If you are brought in to the AND’s office and you and the EP are grilled about why you are not executing certain things, stay quiet as much as possible and let the EP handle it.  After all, this issue is really between the managers.  You can only do so much.  If you are pushed by them, it is o.k. to say  “I want to give you all 110 each day.  I need a consistent message to do that.”  Then, leave and let them have it out.

The biggest thing to keep in mind, as frustrating as dealing with these mixed messages can be, is that you can survive it.  Most of the time, managers are more at risk in a “confused” newsroom than staff.  If your EP is rebelling against the AND and ND, a time will come that the EP pays for that.  Same with an AND who wants to work against the ND.  Just do the best you can and try and let your frustration go, with the knowledge that the odds are in your favor and that you will end up best off.


Umbrella leads, what they are and how to do them well.

Many of you know that I spend a decent amount of my time watching newscasts from around the country.  I also spend a lot of time talking with producers.  One thing that has surprised me, is how few understand the concept of an “umbrella lead.” This is important because the “umbrella lead” sets the foundation for creating really incredible newscast opens as well as designing team coverage.

So what’s an umbrella lead?  Well, it is what you probably picture in your mind.  At the start of the newscast you mention one thing you will show the viewer, then you mention another. The anchor’s statements are an umbrella over the two images you are showing.  Here’s an example: “Flames shooting high in the air tonight at this house. We’re going to show you how a neighbor kept this from being much worse.  But first, these protestors say lawmakers are about to cost you a lot of money.”  My point in this example is the stories do not have to be related. Hopefully one will have great visuals.  The other may not.

So what types of stories qualify for umbrella leads?  Umbrella leads do not require that one of the stories is a breaker.  They just both need to have high impact.  A breaking story can be used, especially in a situation where you are still gathering information, but want to make it clear you are on the scene of a big story and viewers need to stay put.  However, thinking that is the only time to use an umbrella lead, really limits its potential effectiveness when trying to attract and hold an audience.

Some producers use umbrella leads when they just cannot decide which story is the best off the top.  Now you can have both.  Some use them to try and keep the lead-in audience through a key meter point.  For instance, if you are coming out of the show “Scandal,” great flame video would likely draw the audience in, more so than video of protestors.  So you use the flames to try and keep them engaged, but do the very important protest story in the actual lead position in your rundown.

Umbrella leads are really a type of tease.  But remember, both elements need to be in the a-block.  Ideally you want them to be the first two “chunks” in the a-block.  By “chunks” I am not talking about a simple VO or VO/SOT.  I’m talking about a reporter package and/or live shot.  It could also be an anchor package or even a produced up segment involving several anchor driven elements on one important story.  If you don’t place this high in the a-block you confuse and possibly upset the viewer.  You made this story out to be hugely important by using it in the umbrella lead.  So you need to consider that fact when placing it in your rundown.

O.K., so how do umbrella leads help you create team coverage and incredible newscast opens?  Cold opens are based on the concept of giving a taste of your best video and/or sound to draw the viewer in.  Doing umbrella leads is a more simplistic way to “get practice” before you really launch into fancy cold opens or “headers.”  You also use a more sophisticated type of umbrella lead to showcase multiple elements you have when designing team coverage.  So it is a good idea to do some umbrella leads to get those tease skills warmed up.  Best of all, umbrella leads can really help hold an audience through your a-block.  That alone can be a ratings win.  So give them a try.


What Managers Really Want To See On A Producer’s Reel.

We recently talked about what hiring managers want to see on a reporter’s reel, and since then producers have reached out asking:  “What do I show?”

Last week I put that question up for debate on Twitter and was surprised to see so many people say “A-Blocks.”  Simple answer:  NO. That is not good enough at all.  Here’s why:  A blocks in most shops are truly a group effort.  Anyone can end up with one or two sizzling A-blocks to show off.

When I screen producer reels, I take a very close look at how you start each and every block, what the flow is like throughout the newscast, and your TEASES.  Often I see a great A-block tease then, as of the end of the B-block, the teases STINK.  That is a clear indicator the producer gets help at the end of the A.

Managers want to see a very solid newscast, with great flow from start to finish. They want consistent use of graphic elements, and natural sound.  They are looking for movement of the anchors with purpose (and that is proving harder to pull off than you might realize for many producers) and conversational flow.  Here’s another element they are looking for:  How you utilize social media in your newscast and with your own accounts.  This is getting to be as important as your reel.  If you act childish on your Twitter handle, they will not look at your reel.

Now let’s address the second most common misconception, that producer reels should always have heavy breaking news.  Not necessarily.  News managers know that to a large degree how breaking news is presented has as much to do with how the staff is guided by management, as it does how well the producer puts it all together.  This does not mean that managers do not want to see a killer breaking news/continuous coverage newscast.  But that should not be the only newscast on your reel.  Your “everyday” work should actually sell you more.

So to answer the “What should my reel have?” question, you need two things:  A very well put together “regular news day” show and one that showcases how you handle breaking news.  Yep, two newscasts.  Oh and, by the way, do not leave all of the WX hits and sports in there, show the transition, then cut to the end of the segment.  We newscast reviewers don’t need to see what the high temperature was or who won the game and we get tired of constantly having to fast forward.  You’ll get brownie points for showing that courtesy!


When to use two shots.

This seemingly simple technique is misused all the time.  Too often you watch a story about a difficult situation like a murder or serious health issue and when the story ends, the next image is a two shot.  Then the, visibly, uncomfortable anchors try and transition to WX, teases or a story about puppies! 

Two shots are not throwaways used just to get to WX or sports or to make sure you do not have disappearing anchors.  Two shots have a specific, and key, purpose in a newscast:  Building your team. 

Two shots are best used as transitions between subjects that have a similar emotional appeal.  In other words:  Use them when discussing a serious subject (when you have team coverage for example) or a break out on a story.  You can tag out on a two shot, when discussing a story about a bank robbery and have second anchor say a line about another crime story.  This type of handoff is fine, and at times quite effective. 

Too often two shots are used in the same spots in a newscast every day:  At the top of a block, then just before teases.  If you do not consider whether the subjects you are discussing are related, you are setting your anchors up for a lot of uncomfortable transitions.  No good team building there.

So when planning two shots in a rundown, you really need to think of your anchors as having a conversation and look for places where one anchor can say something, and the other can add a little extra.  Let’s go back to the bank robbery example.  Let’s say Joe, reads a vo about the robbery.  The last line is a two shot, Joe:  “Police are hoping someone will call in a tip about that surveillance video.”  Then Jane can say, in the two shot:  “Police wish they had more tips on this case… (car crash, fire, a burglarly..etc..). If you base two shots on transitions, instead of setting up face time, the number of uncomfortable moments will go way down. 

A final thought:  Two shots do not require that both anchors speak on camera.  You can have just one actually speak.  This is especially true if you are wanting to quickly re-establish team during continuing coverage, breaking news or in the middle of a news block.  Two shots can get uncomfortable if one has to read a line, then the other sits and waits their turn. This is especially true if the sentences are long, or the first person actually is reading more than one line.  Keep two shots tight.  Keep the emotional pulse the same.  Let it seem like one anchor finishes a thought, and the other picks up the idea to add more.  That’s how people talk.  It will create natural flow and your anchors will thank you for it.