How to carve a niche, even when stations do not showcase talent wisely.

Die hard journalists hate when you suggest anchors are performers and newscasts are shows.  Truth is there are some lessons we can learn from these “entertainment” terms about making the most of talent, both on camera and behind the scenes.  I am constantly shocked at how little thought often goes into which reporter is selected to turn what story on a given day.  Same goes for assigning producers to newscasts.  Managers need to take the time to get to know the people in their newsroom well enough to understand what makes them tick.  You need to know their interests.  The reason is simple logic:  If the person is interested in particular subjects he/she will turn better work related to them.  Yet most newsrooms where I have worked not only don’t bother to get to know the people in the newsroom, they purposely place people in uncomfortable positions.  When asked why, the common answer is “It’s their job.  They need to suck it up and do what we say.”  Look, no one is going to get to cover the stories they want all the time.  Not every producer gets to be in charge of the bread and butter newscast.  But there’s a difference in looking for great fits, and just filling slots with warm bodies.

So how do you work around it, when you are miscast in the newsroom?  We are going to focus on reporters and producers in this article.  First reporters:  If you have subjects that really interest you (we are talking more than loving sports, think about issues like education, consumer and politics etc. You get my drift) or an area that you like covering in your DMA then start source building there.  The number one way to recast yourself is to start getting exclusives or at least interesting developments on subjects you really like researching.  The more you pitch these ideas, the more likely your bosses will eventually get that allowing you to focus on this area is in everyone’s best interest.  Be patient.  This could take time.  Don’t give up.  Don’t pitch a fit when you get assigned to something else.  Just keep throwing out interesting ideas and you usually will carve a niche.

If you are still not getting anywhere with your story pitches, sit down with a producer on your shift (or the EP) and ask what kind of stories they want to see.  They may have decided that type of news doesn’t hit their particular audience.  If so, you will need to look for another interest.  If you are flexible, find out what kind of coverage the producer and/or EP wants to showcase in their newscast.  If you find the subject interesting start looking for stories and help out.  This makes you become a team player who eventually will be able to ask for and get the stories you want to cover more often.

Now producers:  It is harder to control your destiny, unless you can show you are great at raising the ratings no matter where you end up.  I loved producing 5pm newscasts.  I loved the thrill of the constant breaking news.  I had to show I could handle that by owning breaking news no matter what newscast I was assigned.  Several times I was placed on noon newscasts and told to “prove I deserved” a 5pm.  The two are not that different to produce, so I jumped in full gusto and earned my 5’s.  The key to getting the newscast you want is to show you are a team player who gets results.  Do not whine that you deserve something.  You will not get the show you want if you do.  Becoming the “go to” producer that can take any newscast and raise ratings (even in one section of a show) will help.  You will get moved around a bit at first, but often you will end up being given the choice of what newscast you want to produce.  It is a thrilling moment when the ND or AND calls you in, and says “We are moving producers around, do you want the 11 or the 6 (or the 5!! J)?”

If there is a newscast you really want, look at what the current producer does on that shift and build on it.  Yes, this is competitive.  That’s the producing world.  Chances are high the producer in the newscast you want will get promoted, demoted or move into management at some point.  You are there showcasing your depth, ready to take over.  You are a manager’s dream.  Just be consistent in your product and subtle about where you want to end up, until the opening comes.

Finally, use your reviews to talk with managers about your goals.  This can help them understand where you want to be “cast” and provide constructive criticism to get you there.  That is an appropriate time to say, “5pm’s are my favorite to produce.” Or “ I love political coverage, is there a part of the DMA where you would want to beef up that type of coverage?”  Sometimes you need to explain to management what you want and that you are willing to work for it.  Remember, managers sometimes don’t just pick warm bodies to fill the newscast slots and cover the stories.  They may feel they have no choice because the reporting staff seems disinterested in everything.  Your review is an appropriate time to showcase your interests and request “casting,” if not immediately, then in your near future.

Not as advertised: what to do when the job isn’t what you were promised.

I’m guessing the title of this article got a few sarcastic chuckles.  If you have had at least one job in TV news, it has probably has happened to you.  First you move and give up everything familiar.  Then you get to the station and boom!  “Oh you thought we hired you to do the 5pm?  No, you are actually producing the noon.”  “We’ve made a few changes since you interviewed.  You won’t be on our special projects unit, you will be dayside reporting.”  “Yes, we hired you to anchor the weekend shows, but so and so is leaving so you will be on mornings.”  I can honestly say, a third of the time in my career, I arrived at stations my first day and was given a new, unexpected assignment.  When asked what happened to the plan that I would produce XY or Z, the answer was always the same, “Well we just need you here now.”  It sucks and makes you hate the boss right away.   Thankfully, there was a silver lining for me.  Every time, I ended up with the show I came there to produce.  I would sit down with management and ask what it would take to get the newscast I wanted.  Then I would deliver what they said.  Sometimes it took a few months, sometimes a year.  The key is saying, “I am here to help. I will do what you ask and give my all, but I came for a specific reason.  At some point, I want that addressed.”

Request specific parameters you must meet to get the gig you were promised.  This is going to be easier to pull off for producers and reporters.   Write those parameters down in front of the boss, then repeat them back and date it.  That way you have documented the conversation.  I know that sounds silly and technically would not hold up in court.  But it is not a document most managers want sent to human resources in a few months, along with a letter explaining how you were promised XY or Z.  It can sometimes help you leave early if you end up in pure hell.  In one case I saw a producer that was promised a weekend shift and ended up on mornings, turn in a document like this and get the weekend gig.  Another producer I knew used a document like this to get a gig I was promised.  We were both told we would get the same show!  We were hired within a week of each other.  Each of us were put on different newscasts than what we were promised.  She had several conversations with management about it, turned in documentation to human resources and got the newscast first.  It took me several months of bouncing around newscasts and raising ratings to demand I get a turn.  It worked out and I got the gig.  But if her ratings had been higher, I would not have, because she documented right away.  I also knew of reporter who was able to leave a station before his contract came up because he was placed on a different shift.  He did not have an agent by the way.  But he did have documentation.

Don’t sit and complain everyday about the screw over.  It will alienate you from the staff.  Besides you moved there and you are probably stuck for a while.  Sometimes the new shift actually works out better.  Try and keep an open mind.  Again, I speak from personal experience.  It can be hard to let go of the initial screw over.  Instead of dwelling on the situation, set goals for yourself of what you want out of this job.  Then do all you can to get more out the place than it gets from you.  What I mean is that if you focus on improving your skills one of two things will happen.  Either the station will see your growth and promote you, or you will gain a new or improved skill set and leave for greener pastures.  You will end up the winner in the end. Remember that.  Also remember that many journalists come to newsrooms for a certain job, get the gig then, lose it.  There are no givens in the news business.  At least if another shift change is presented to you that you don’t want to do you can try and say, “Hey I already took one for the team.” It might provide more long term stability.

Shine Bright: How anchors can gain respect and allies with the news staff.

may be the managers of shows, but anchors are viewed as the leaders.  How you carry yourself and treat those around you carries a tremendous amount of weight.  When I started in the business a lot of anchors could be condescending and made it clear they had it better (and were better)  than anyone else.  That changed over the years as more people wanted to get TV jobs, the trend became having younger anchors on television, then the economy crashed.  Salaries for anchors went down.  Now anchors are not considered the “gods of the newsroom” as much anymore on many levels.  But, anchors, do not underestimate your influence.

Over the years I watched many extremely talented anchors roll up their sleeves and take on more and more responsibilities.  Now promoting the station through social media is a huge task.  Many anchors work with local newspapers, magazines and/or radio stations to increase the station’s exposure.  Anchors are truly taking on more than a figurative leadership role.  They truly are out there every day working their tails off to prove their station is worth watching.

With that kind of pressure, can come hot tempers.  I saw an increase in frustrated anchors complaining on set about bad writing, a bad camera cue, even openly criticizing management during commercial breaks.  Some anchors started coming into work late because they didn’t appreciate the longer hours.  Some snuck out for long meal breaks bragging management is too disorganized to notice.  Quick heads up: Management hears!  Your coworkers are the ones turning you in.  There is a growing desire to see everyone working hard for their paychecks.  And this might surprise you, but anchors are often held in the same regard as management itself.  Sometimes the expectation for anchors is not fair.  There are elements to the performance part of their jobs other news positions cannot relate to.  Still, acting like a diva in these economic times would be the worst thing for an anchor right now.

So how do you win over the news staff without burning yourself out before you step on the set?  The top thing, cheerlead.  Remember, leaders are the people you come to for advice and support.  Be the supportive ear as much as you can for the entire staff.

This may sound silly, but it is very effective.  Show appreciation with simple gestures like an email saying “Thanks for the hard work this week.” when you know everyone really went through the grinder.   If a reporter did a great job on a story, send a quick text complimenting the work.   At the end of a sweeps period, that was intense, bring in donuts.  Treats like food go a long way toward winning friends and influencing news people.  These gestures are so rare, they are really relished.   It shows you understand everyone grinds all day and you appreciate their blood, sweat and tears.  Remember, you are often lumped in as a type of management by the staff.  It comes with the leadership element of your job.

Finally avoid the long breaks and coming in late for the weekend shift because you think management won’t know anyway.   Get to work a few minutes early, smile on your face and be excited about the day.  If you hear grumbling remind everyone things will work out.  This kind of role model is rare in news.  It is needed.  You will win allies.  Maybe a whole newsroom’s worth all watching your back in return.

 

Throw me a life line, I’m being hung out to dry, AGAIN!

If you’re an anchor, it’s one of your nightmares:  A producer in over his/her head and constantly providing no instructions during a crisis in a live show.  But simply yelling at the producer and then complaining to management doesn’t fix the problem.

First you have to understand the stakes.  Producers are hard to come by.  The burnout rate is tremendous.  Producers also tend to be able to move up in markets quickly with very little experience.  Like it or not, anchors are becoming on the job trainers for producers in many stations.  Problem is many anchors don’t know enough about the fine points of producing to be a true help.

We want to bridge the gap a little bit so anchors can shine brightly on air, and turn into valuable assets, even without a lot of support.  As an anchor, it is crucial that you are considered easy to work with and supportive.  Your producer is a key player, so you need to build a relationship even if the person is not that great at their job.

Here are the main things most green producers really need help with, but may struggle to admit to an anchor:

  • Knowing how to write the way an anchor speaks.
  • Timing the show.
  • Handling breakers.
  • Making split second decisions in the booth.

Now let’s help you help the producer.  When you get a new producer you need to have at least a little patience and give that person a couple of weeks of producing shows.  See what the producer does really well.  Then compliment the producer on those things.  This is crucial because many producers fear anchors are out to get them.  You need to begin the relationship showing you will be supportive and fair.

After that conversation you can start to rewrite copy here and there.  When you rewrite, let the producer know why you did.  But do it after the newscast.  The producer is too slammed to pay attention before the show airs and they definitely don’t have time during breaks in the newscast.  Do not rewrite everything then hand all the rewrites to the producer to figure out why.  One anchor I know would switch the copy into lower case and let the producer know.  She then explained she did that so the producer could see some of the phrases she would naturally use in conversation.  This is an easy, and non-combative, way to teach a producer your conversational style.  If there are a lot of grammatical errors, just let the producer know you are doing some rewrites because the producer seems behind and you want to help.  Again, a rewrite in lower case signals what you changed to the producer so he/she can look back later and catch the grammatical errors.  If those grammatical errors keep happening, give the producer scripts with the grammatical errors you fixed after a newscast.  Tell the producer you know he/she writes a lot, and you just wanted to show common mistakes you are finding so he/she can keep them in mind for the next show.  Speaking of help, if you see a script that you know the green producer will mangle or perhaps get the station sued if they write it, either write it yourself and have an EP look it over for legal reasons.  You can also ask the EP to just write it and offer to do something the EP usually does.

Now let’s talk timing.  This is very hard for producers and in fairness an anchor should not have to worry about it.  Unfortunately, many producers learn everything, including timing a newscast, by trial and error.  Often the EP’s, who are in charge of monitoring the producers “issues” won’t be able to spot the producers specific timing problems.  As the anchor who sees it every day, you can easily spot timing trouble trends.  When you do notice your producer mistiming the same spots over and over, let the EP know.  This will help them guide the producer and also makes you look like a real team player who is watching out for the good of the newscast.

Handling breakers and the resulting split second decisions is also a struggle for producers.  The producer  has several people asking (and also telling!) him/her what to do at once.  For the anchor, it can be hard to get the producer on the phone because the assignment desk and EP call constantly.  So, if you possibly can, use top of screen messages to ask the producer when to do the breaker and how you should do it. (i.e. how long should you talk, is there video or a live shot, or a pitch to a reporter?) Also you can usually print out top of screen conversations later if needed.  This can help in several ways.  It allows you to show the EP that you are not attacking the producer if that person is particularly thin skinned.  It also helps you check with the EP to see if you are phrasing questions in ways that let the producer quickly assess and respond.  Finally, if you are ever called on the carpet for performance when these crises arise, you have concrete evidence that shows you were trying to be proactive.

If the producer still doesn’t give you clear instructions, talk about it after the show.  Spell out what you need so the producer knows next time.  Going straight to the EP may not help.  EP’s may not be able to explain what you need as clearly, because they usually are in the newsroom funneling everything instead of in the booth watching the producer.  If the EP is in the booth and everything still ends up a mess, ask to talk with the EP and producer after the show and have them explain what was happening on their end.  Often talking it out, allows the EP or producer to see where the disconnect happened without you having to spell it out.

Finally, make sure you are very involved in the newscast throughout your shift.  That doesn’t mean sounding off on what you think about every single story the whole time.  But you should check in with the EP and producer to see if they need any help.   Ask to write some stories.  Offer to research extra elements that can be added for flavor at the end of a story.  Offer to call and check on a reporter or two and see how they are doing.  Being an anchor is not just about sitting around tweeting and waiting to read what others write.  Those things are important.  Preparing to deliver the scripts with breathing exercises and some down time before the show is also important.  But it’s not enough.  You need to be involved with the newscast and its contents.  Bottom line, the more familiar you are the better chance you have to cover up your producer’s inadequacies on while you are on the air.  Taking this kind of ownership makes you a key ally for the EP and upper management.  It does not mean you will be stuck with a weak producer, it means you will be known as a team player and a leader the newsroom does not want to lose.  You also will deliver your copy in a more meaningful and authoritative way because you truly own the newscast.  Your hand was in it all the way through.  So shine bright!