How to tell if you are putting too much information into a story.

Writers are being asked to write more, in different formats and faster than before.

You have to decide what is better served on a digital platform (more on that in an upcoming article), or shown on a big monitor. You are told the pacing has to be high, but still understandable. You need to showcase. You need to think of your audience. No mistakes. The list goes on and on.

But with all the talk of transforming graduates into the digital age and futuristic journalists, there are still glaring issues in newsrooms today; very little writing training and often even less copy editing. You are thrown into the fire quickly, and you simply must perform.

One of the biggest challenges is learning how to write a relevant story, concisely and with the correct facts mentioned. This can be really confusing when being told to write quickly, to the video and saving a nugget for digital. We need to start with the basics. What does a well written story look/sound like?

Let’s delve in and help lay a strong foundation with a simple formula that can help you with a clear outline for your stories, no matter the format.

ELEMENTS OF A STRONG STORY

The sell

Video available

Facts explaining the sell

(ie relevant information so viewer can understand the story)

Looks simple right? Well its not for many until they practice a lot and get the hang of it.

So let’s start breaking things down.

VO’s.

When you title a story in your rundown, even a vo, you should aim to put the sell in the story slug or a unique element. Yep you read that correctly. But you only have a few words to work with, right? Keep in mind, you also will use that slug to find the story from now until the end of time. The slug cannot be a throw away. 

Let’s go through some examples:  House Fire is too generic. Think about it, you will have to scroll through dozens to find it for a follow up later. Child escapes house fire is better.  Or fire on Smith Street. Fire downtown can sometimes work but try and get even more specific. That’s part of the relevance. Fire in BBT Building, is likely how you will refer to it in the future. That’s why you hear things like Parkland shooting or Pulse shooting for example when discussing ongoing elements of these stories. The location helps to immediately identify the story. Some Tampa journalists will know this slug too; lobster man in court. The case was covered extensively in part because of the defendant’s deformity.  It was a unique element that caused viewer interest. The sell.

Once you have boiled a story down in the slug it is easier to write the story, no matter the format. The second thing you should immediately consider is the video. This is important whether you are writing a vo, vo/sot or package. Heck it is crucial when writing teases and opens as well. What image depicts the story best? Is it a static image or moving? If it is static you might want to put it in a monitor and have the anchor directly reference it in the first line or anchor intro. If it is moving, do you need to take it full natural sound up for a few seconds? Is the video itself your sell? Ask that every time.

Now that you defined the sell, and referenced an image right away, explain what the viewer is seeing and why they should care. This should play out easily. The fire is still burning up this house on this street. This family barely got out. This neighbor helped or watched terrified. Firefighters are still on the scene.

Let’s take one of the hardest subjects to boil down, a court case. When using the outline above it gets easier to boil the case down.

A court case story should start out this way:   Now an update on this case (that surprises, captures attention or fascinates viewers for a specific reason). Court video rolls… (since you defined the case and sell summarize the latest) today the person accused of stealing money from the company said it was a lie. The attorney for the company said that’s not true because of this and this fact (two most interesting/relevant ones). We have more on the court hearing on our website. Why did I mention that? Court hearings are the number one story overwritten in newscasts period. So the writer whether it is an associate producer who drew the short straw or the reporter stuck sitting in the courtroom all day needs to know right away that explaining everything will only confuse the viewer. You must boil down the highlights. Then do not be afraid to add more details on the website for people who love all the nitty gritty.

One other important note, yes, the video is mentioned early in the court story even if it is static. Why? It is part of the sell. The case is in court. You cannot make up more than is there, and you need to reference reality. You can use file from the scene if you like at some point too, but reference it directly. That is part of showing the relevant information in the story.

A final note, the outline above for how to write a good story does not have the five w’s and the all important how mentioned. Why? Not all will fit, or be relevant information at that point in the description of the story. That’s why the sell is the most important part of what you write. Sometimes the sell is we finally know why something happened. Or how. Sometimes we only know where, what and when. Trying to answer all of these elements every time, every story causes the copy to get bulky and increases the risk of fact errors. Especially when covering  breaking or developing news. Be clear about what you do know. Be clear about why you are reporting on the story (the sell). Do not make assumptions about facts. Only state what you absolutely know. If you find that you are writing and writing and the vo is 50 seconds long chances are you either do not know the sell of the story and are adding elements hoping to find the point, or you do not understand the facts well enough to tell the story yet. Same thing with long packages and/or long anchor intros into your package. If you have a really long story, you need to step back, look at our checklist above and start again. 

Hope this helps you boil your stories down more. You can even take past copy you’ve written and then put it to the outline test. By doing that you should quickly see where your writing crutches and/or pitfalls are so you can eliminate them. 

How to handle it when asked inappropriate questions during an interview.

Recently FTVLive reported that someone posing as a recruiter for a network and someone who actually is a recruiter are making uncomfortable statements and asking lewd questions to women being interviewed. Let’s talk about how to handle these situations, specifically blatant sexual comments and/or requests for sexual favors.

First, it’s ok to say the question/statement was not appropriate. Responding by saying something like “I am hoping I misunderstood that last question, but this interview needs to remain professional questions only,” is fine. Do it. Yes, this will be uncomfortable. But you have the right to defend yourself and let the person know that’s not ok. You are remaining professional. More on this later.

If you have an agent or contact at the company where the recruiter works, let them know about what happened. It is ok to report it to someone you know. In the case of an agent, the person should then go up the food chain to address the issue. In the case of a friend who works at the company, it will at least be on record then with someone who could report it with credibility. You might have to answer questions later. But it is important for all involved to know that you want a fair workplace. That is not unreasonable.

I have heard over the years about hiring managers, who have gone so far as to ask about a sexual act while taking a potential employee to a restaurant. That is scary. You are in a strange town and this is your ride back to the station after lunch as well as possibly to your hotel room. Here’s what to do. Say that the question makes you uncomfortable. Excuse yourself. Then go to the bathroom and call for your own ride to the airport or your hotel. To be clear, you do not have to go back to the station. In fact you could end up in another very uncomfortable spot at the station with that manager. If you need to pick up your stuff, go to the hotel and get it. If you’ve already checked out, head to the airport. Only go to the station if you need to get your stuff. And then stop long enough to pick it up, then leave. But no matter where you are going, get a ride. It’s worth the money to get out of the situation. If you want to really get the point across, invoice the bill for that ride to HR at that station and say you would like to discuss why your method of transportation changed.

If a sexual request is made at the station in an office, get up and walk out of the room. Go to the front reception area and call for a ride. Your safety is the most important thing. If you feel safe in doing so, you can also go to the HR office. That person should help you get a ride to the airport. It just depends on if you want to tackle the issue right then, or get out of the station first.

If you are worried about backlash, please know this: While there are still some creeps hanging around in these powerful positions, there are a lot less of them. And companies know they cannot risk a public scandal. Your worst case scenario is you will not be called back for that job, or reimbursed for that Lyft ride. But let’s be honest, do you really want to work for a boss who acts like that or a station who hides from this kind of behavior?

Right now there are several managers, all the way up to the corporate level that want to help crack down on this type of behavior. But they need evidence. If it comes out that you protected yourself, you will still get jobs.

If you have an agent, and that company doesn’t report what happened and demand some sort of explanation and guarantee that the situation will be dealt with, fire the agency. This is a huge reason to have representation. You need backing. The company might tell the agent where to go, but demand the agent try. Frankly, reputable agents will want to make those calls anyway. The station and company do not want word getting around in this very small industry that something like this could have happened.

If the person is just direct and rude about your answers, saying things like “That’s your answer really?” about a job scenario question, or “Are you stupid” or “I am only interviewing you because I have to” report those things too. Companies have to provide fair interviews. There are common practices that have to be done. Period. Be polite during the interview and then inform your agent or someone you know in the company about what happened. Sometimes managers need job interview training. In this case, going back at the person will not really help. Kill them with kindness as the saying goes. Then when its over, you know this isn’t the person to work for. And if it’s reported the issue should be addressed for future candidates. I am telling you this first hand from having to report when interviewers are inappropriate. The first question I get when stating a case is “What did the interviewee do?“  The right answer in all cases is remain polite. Even in the scenario of the rude request at the restaurant.  Do not scream. Do not cuss out the person. State that the request was not appropriate. Excuse yourself then calmly remove yourself from the situation. If that person sees you leaving. Just simply say, “I appreciate the interview, but this situation is not right for me and my career. Good luck in your search.” Witnesses help. Like restaurant management. 

Good luck. Stay strong. Stay polite but firm that you deserve respect. Because you do.

Why you have to be willing to blow up your rundown to succeed as a producer.

It’s no secret that producers are protective of their rundowns. They simply want them a certain way. Many get downright nasty about making a change. Here’s the deal though, if you are one of those producers married to their rundown, you need to be ready to lose your job. Yes, it is true. That’s not producing, that is stacking.

Producing is about explaining news in a compelling way, through a conversation with visuals and sound. More importantly, producing is about anticipating change and still executing flawlessly. That is what managers want. The ability to do that, means you can showcase, you can protect your anchors, you story-tell and most of all you own breaking news every day, every time.

The thing managers hate the most is when a breaker needs to go in the newscast and the producer says no or pitches a fit because it will mess up their rundown. This is why old timers will often jump your business about calling what you put on the air a “show” instead of a “newscast.” A show is entertainment that can be put to bed early, and dressed up in pretty bows. This is not “show business.” It’s the news business. A newscast demands that you put in whatever is new, anyway you can and inform the viewer from start to finish. See the difference? The newscast can and should have showcasing elements. It can get dressed up, but if there’s a breaker, those pretty bows might have to go so the new story bursts through. In other words, your job is to inform. You cannot expect or demand to write a few things early in the day, then refuse to change the rundown. That is failing at your job. There, I said it. So many tip toe around this idea but, it is the truth. As much as all of us producers want it to be our newscast, it belongs to the viewer. It serves a purpose to inform. “ New” takes precedence, always. This goes for anchors too. It’s not your newscast. Again, the newscast belongs to the viewer. You are all vehicles by which information gets out. Take the ego out of it, put the great information in as a collective unit and you will win. So, remember, the best rundowns are those which you can easily blow up and put in new information. If that is more than you can handle, think about a career change.

How To Execute the 15 Minute Lead Concept

A successful newscast not only retains the lead-in audience, it continues building audience all the way to the end. That is winning. Make no mistake, if you can do this you will keep your job even if you are the 4th place station. Once viewers tune in and stay, a producer and anchor’s job is more secure. If viewers feel the need to “check in” halfway through, you have even more job stability.

Successful veteran producers know that this is done by “spreading the wealth.” Hence, the 15 minute lead concept. The name of this concept is a little misleading though. For less experienced journalists lead means first. That usually becomes, the first story in the news block. Too many times I have seen this lead to a strange design of newscast blocks, that tried to manipulate meters, but actually set producers up for failure.

So let’s redefine the term “lead” for this concept. When you think lead, think “must see”, “can’t miss” and “gotcha!” This is an important distinction for many reasons. First, it helps you “build up” sections of your newscast for the “big moment.” Remember, great newscasts come across as conversations. There are natural lulls and high points in conversation. One producer I know explains it like this: “Watching my shows is like hopping on a roller coaster. You will get moments to catch your breath, but you will also get plenty of stomach churning action.”

Let’s build on that idea. When you get on a roller coaster half the fun is the ride up that first hill, knowing that a big thrill is just over the crest. When you think of it that way those “pacer” stories have a lot more meaning don’t they?  You have to keep building up to the big moment. Teases are a lot more important also.

Too often when consultants and news managers preach about the ”quarter leads” they only want to know what those chunks are. They miss a big part of the concept. Some of these chunks can happen at the end of a block. They cannot all be the same type of big moment. You want a thrill ride to be a stomach tickling, heart pounding, close your eyes and take your breath away experience! Each one has a different feel. Same idea when applying the concept to producing. You can’t just take 4 big stories of the day and throw them in at those meter points.  You must remember you are having a conversation. Distinct types of topics make a difference. Viewers expect different types of stories at different points in their interaction with the anchors.

Case in point, where these “quarter hour leads” play in rundowns and definitions:

• Top of newscast: The first lead is biggest impact story of the day.

• 15 minutes in: Depends largely on your station’s news philosophy. This might actually fall closer to 20 depending on day part and if you have a weak spot in viewer retention.

• 30 minutes in:  Depends on your day part but the story needs to have “today” relevance.

• 45 minutes in: Again depends on your station’s news philosophy and it’s pledge to viewers. Depending on day part, that “big moment” may actually happen closer to 50.

You cannot take throwaway vo’s and slap them in, leading up to that final “15 minute lead.” The viewer cannot sense he/she is on that hill, click-clacking up to the top of a final hill and a final thrill. This is the area I see mis-designed most often in rundowns that follow the 15 minute lead model. The viewer stuck with you for a long time. You need to reward that loyalty. Therefore, each story has to count. This conversation needs to end on a high note. By this I do not mean a water skiing squirrel! I mean something really worth hanging around to see. Something that will make a difference in that viewer’s day. Perhaps it’s a great consumer story, way to save time or maybe a smart phone app that’s going to make their life a little easier. You can also “go human.” Introduce them to someone in your community that will make them proud they live there.

Because of the extra importance of that last quarter hour, how you tease throughout the newscast has to be looked at closely. Too often producers executing a 15 minute lead concept, focus on the next 15 only in their tease structure. You are designing a rundown with a ton of compelling content. So your teases need to scream: “Hang on, we have a ton of great stuff to talk about!” Do not be afraid to tease more than two things. But, your teases need to rock, every line, every time. You are building up a great conversation, full of high notes. Teases cannot be the lulls in conversation. (The “lulls” are occasionally more information-type, perspective moments, where viewers can gain more insight, without emotion tied to it.) A truly well executed 15 minute lead concept, focuses heavily on tease structure. In fact that structure is as important as the design of each lead itself.

Which brings us to one final point. These leads are not just long packages you tease a few times. Showcasing counts! These are areas where you need to think “3 screens.” These are areas where you add extra information so viewers can walk away with valuable nuggets of knowledge. And I’m not just talking about inside the package. You build up the lead, let viewers experience the thrill ride, then reward them for watching. This has to happen 4 times, effectively, to win the 15 minute lead concept. In a sense you are creating sidebar topics, each quarter hour as part of a great hour long conversation viewers won’t soon forget. If that doesn’t smack of “Gotcha!” and also lead to ratings gains, nothing will.