What is a producer’s newsroom? The answer could redefine TV news.

An EP recently asked me to write an article on this subject. So what makes up a producer’s newsroom? There’s a traditional answer and a more big picture answer. Let’s start with the traditional answer. In a producer’s newsroom, producers have the most control over content.

Often in these newsrooms, producers come into editorial meetings with a defined idea of what the top stories are and assign crews. That’s not to say that reporters do not pitch stories, but often producers are required to pitch stories and have a rough outline right away. Reporters are often brought into editorial meetings to be told what their story is. Furthermore, when judgement calls are made about how to handle situations, producers get final say.

But let’s think bigger picture. Why would newsrooms call themselves producer shops? Let’s break down what the goal is for newsrooms that call themselves this. They usually have ambitious mission statements or news philosophies. Some examples: On Your Side, Holding the Powerful Accountable, Coverage You Can Count On and (call letters) Investigates. By the nature of these slogans, these stations MUST source build. If they do not break new content or at least new angles, then they do not live up to the philosophy. Can producers source build? Sure, but frankly you have to get out and mingle with people to really get deep sources. This means reporters and anchors are every bit as important in driving content. The emphasis on “producer” is as the creator of original content. So a “producer’s newsroom” is a newsroom where all the journalists collaborate to produce compelling content, that is original and/or emphasizes community impact. This also involves a lot of showcasing, so you will find very strong line producers in these newsrooms. You also will find great storyteller reporters.

A true “producer’s newsroom” needs to have a heavy emphasis on showcasing the information in compelling ways, so that the viewer is well served. It should have an ambitious slogan and truly live up to it. The managers should create a truly collaborative environment where every journalist, whether a producer, reporter, photojournalist, video or assignment editor has a say in what the stories will be and how they will be presented. This will make the newsroom more representative of the community and help better serve the viewer. In these newsrooms, when calls are made about how to handle situations, there often is a clearer answer because of the defined slogan. If not, management tends to make the call on a case by case basis.

One of the most read articles on “Survive” was “Producer Driven Does Not Mean Absolute Power.” Many newsrooms call themselves “producer’s newsrooms” or “producer driven” simply because they give producers more power and their opinions more weight. But the emphasis on producer needs to be broader scale than the person who puts together the newscasts. For newsrooms to remain relevant in the community, they need to have a variety of journalists weighing in on the stories and the impact they can have.

In a time when many question whether television news will remain relevant or if social media will take over as the top news source, the definition of “producer’s newsroom” needs to be taken seriously. The term producer really needs to be looked at. If defined as “creator of compelling relevant content” the newsroom will change dramatically. Newsrooms that de-emphasize the role of reporters and anchors really tend to struggle with relevance and original content. Showcasing also suffers if the reporters and anchors are not invested in the information. A true “producer’s newsroom” needs to be a place with a well defined slogan, rooted in watchdog journalism with an emphasis on investigative and showcasing. This will create relevant stories, with characters, powerful images and crucial information viewers need to know each day. The reporters will come across as genuine and invested in the community they serve. The line producers will go home gratified because the information they helped generate actually impacted people each day as well. By redefining “producer’s newsroom” TV stations across the nation can reinvent themselves and reconnect with the communities they serve. May the title no longer reference a power struggle in newsrooms, but instead focus more on the collaborative efforts a newsroom puts forth each day to best serve it’s community. I truly hope all TV newsrooms become this kind of “producer’s newsroom.”

One crew, and breaking news. How to save your content, when chasing what’s new.

Managers want to know the decision producers fear most? It’s pulling their only crew off a clear lead, and sending them on a breaker, that might just turn out to be nothing. In newsrooms today the mantra is “New, now!”… “New, now!” You cannot miss a breaker without getting a tongue lashing.

Managers forget they get the benefit of hindsight. Being in the moment, with things less than clear, can lead to decisions that later make you think “How on earth?” Especially since, most of the time the producer with 1 crew is the least experienced producer and who usually, if we are all truly honest, cannot get the on-call manager on the phone to talk through the scenario.

So let’s give these some guidelines to these producers who are bravely trying to serve two masters (owning breaking news and also owning the lead) with one crew:

Get your work done early

Have a backup lead plan

Location, location, location

Know it’s 50/50

First and foremost, if you only have one crew, you HAVE to get your newscast put to bed early. You need to be the “second crew” option in order to send the first crew chasing breaking news. By this I mean, if you need to send your crew on a breaker, you might have to be the one who takes the elements the crew had for the lead and puts them together in a compelling way, as a potential backup lead. To spell this out very clearly: You need to set aside time not long before your newscast to be able to write a last minute, lead level, package. And you will need time for that to be edited. So the writing up until you get to the booth style, has to stop! (See time management). If it means getting to work earlier, suck it up and do it. Managers hint at this. Some cannot legally say it. But the truth is you have to do this if you want to keep your job and prove that you are worthy of moving up to newscasts that have more than one crew.

While you are cranking your newscast out early, you need to be creating a backup lead of some sort. You need to have a lead option in case you have to pull your crew off of the main lead right before air. The biggest reason producers panic about moving that 1 crew is that they will be yelled at for not having a live shot and/or owning the lead. First, owning the lead does not just mean putting your one crew on the story and telling them to go live. You can pick a story with a lot of impact for your audience and showcase it. You can do this early in your shift, so that if you have to pull the crew to chase a breaker, you can move this story up to take the place of the lead.

Really good producers also have a backup plan in place for the main story their one crew is assigned to at the start of their shift. The plan makes sure the story is protected no matter what. Maybe that is pulling all the information for the reporter story, so your anchor can write a quick package if necessary. Maybe it’s building elements around the live shot, so if the crew gets moved and their part of the story is busted down to a vo/sot, it still feels like a big story. Bottom line is that a story important enough to put your only crew on, needs to be protected even if the crew “goes away.” Your job as a producer is to have a backup plan for that story mapped out early in your shift because it is obviously worthy of making air.

When deciding whether to pull that crew for breaking news, a huge factor in your decision making should be location. If the breaker is 45 minutes or more away from the heart of your DMA, you need to think hard about pulling the crew for the story. You may need to chase that breaker another way, be it stringer video, calling in a photographer or dedicating your AP to working with the desk to get all the information you can and then setting up a phoner with a map graphic. Do not get stuck in “molds” when considering how to cover breaking news. Look at what you can realistically do. Get the information on the air, the best way you can.

By the way, location should also play a role in what story you plan to send your crew out on in the first place. When you only have one crew, you really need to be strategic. You cannot prevent your ability to cover the “new, now” stories in your DMA by sending a crew one or two hours away from the heart of your DMA. Let’s go back to the stuck in a “mold” idea. All leads do not have to be live vo/sots or packages. All leads do not have to be large chunks. Sometimes the best story is just coming in as a map, and you need to do it off the top and add elements as they come available throughout the newscast. That is owning the lead. That is owning breaking news. That is serving those two masters. If you have a killer story, that would make a great lead but is too far away for the only crew to cover, showcase it another way, even lead with it if you want. Put your reporter on another compelling story, that has a reason to be live. You get two wins! You are also ready to jump on it and own it if a breaker happens. Be selfish. Demand that you get all of the good stuff. Just be creative about how to do it. Your viewers deserve that. This is especially true if you are doing a weekend newscast. You do not have to share. Embrace that, do not focus on what you don’t have. Just creatively get what you want. All of it.

Finally, do not fear making a decisive decision. Know you will likely be 50/50 when it comes to chasing breakers. You have a high probability of getting a nasty call from the ND if you chase a breaker that turns into nothing, or don’t chase what looks like an iffy breaker that turns into something good. You do not have a crystal ball. You will have to trust your gut and go for it. If you follow the other guidelines just listed, you will have solid reasons to justify your decision. Best part, you will not be as afraid to go for the breaker because the newscast is protected by your backup planning. Producing is all about anticipating the changes and executing flawlessly. Do that and you will not sacrifice content, only enhance it!

Emotional Toll: How to design rundowns

My guess is Gary Vosot has a whole line of comedy about this common faux pas in newscasts (if he doesn’t, he should!). The anchor reads a heavy story that involves death, then either the same anchor or the other anchor has to read a story about something warm and fuzzy, like bunnies. (Yes I am exaggerating, but only slightly.)

Producers have so many decisions to make when designing rundowns. Length of block, not too many packages or chunks in a row, hitting key audiences, not too much crime.. and something positive to balance out the hard to take news. What often happens is, producers trying to jam it all in, end up putting stories next to each other that simply do not carry the same emotional weight to the viewer.

We know facts are extremely important to share with viewers. But we forget that, because we present our information with images, we naturally play on viewers emotions and, at times, intensely. This even happens with vo’s and vo/sots. Do not assume that storytelling only happens in packages. That is the first mistake that leads to these very uncomfortable, mass murder to a story about a cute puppy rescue, scenarios.

Remember that your ultimate goal is to have your anchors be the “tour guides” for your viewers, taking them through the stories of the day. When you think of it this way, you have to think about step one leading to step two.. etc. By the way, this type of “stacking” or designing your rundown will not only prevent a lot of these uncomfortable emotional clashes, it will also help prevent all the other issues you face when stacking… like too many packages in a row, too much crime, too many stories from the same part of the DMA etc.

When putting together your rundown, you need to gradually lead your viewer through emotions as well as subjects. You need to identify the less emotionally taxing stories that are good transitions, in your tour. On an actual tour you have rest stops. This needs to be true of rundowns too. Just remember to include those quick breathers. Then you can go from one strong emotion to the next. And try to end on a thoughtful or happy note. That is naturally how most conversations end. At least conversations that will lead to more talk later. That’s obviously what you want to create.

Here’s an example of types of stories that can come after highly emotional ones: white collar crime stories, political news like updates on city council plans, roads, tax increases etc. You want stories with high impact, just not such intense emotion as to trivialize the story before. This is why many places do crime stories in threes. The first, very emotional, the second a little less, the third either more white collar in nature, or where the good guy wins in the end. That allows you to switch gears completely and talk politics, education, economic news, health news etc without the viewer sensing a rough transition.

Finally when I mention ending on a thoughtful note, or happy one that doesn’t just apply to a kicker. It also applies to these series of three. Do not do three stories in a row about children being killed, then just transition to a political story. You need to button up this kind of coverage, with some perspective that allows the viewer to emotionally catch up and frankly feel like there is control of these situations. Maybe it’s a vo on an initiative that’s preventing other crimes against children. Maybe it is a graphic showing less children are actually dying overall. Something thought provoking to help the viewer emotionally transition. Then you pick some more neutral stories, then a warm fuzzy to end the block. This type of flow, heavy emotion, thought provoking, neutral, thought provoking, then uplifting can really make your newscast feel powerful and easier for the viewers to take. Especially when you have a lot of emotionally taxing news to report. Break it up. Many just throw it all in at the top, and reward the viewer for getting through it. The problem is the viewer will likely tune out before you get to the “reward” or feel emotionally drained and think the “reward” is trivial in comparison. Better to ease the message throughout. When you think of times you have “tough” conversations with people, we naturally mix in a little of the bad, some neutral, some good back to neutral then to bad and so on throughout the conversation. Do the same with your rundown. Your viewer will appreciate it and notice.

Should anchors help write newscasts?

Here’s an age old debate. Should anchors help write newscasts? Some say yes. Many say no.
The answer to this question is not as simple as it seems. It all depends on the resources used to build newscasts and the makeup of the newsroom itself.

Let me explain. If you work in a newsroom where there is one producer for two hours of a morning show, or the producers are very inexperienced, anchors need to have more of a hand in writing the newscasts. It’s just smart business. If there is a story that is legally dicey, either the anchor needs to write some stories to give the producer time to work on it. If the anchor is a more seasoned journalist than the producer, then the anchor needs to write the dicey story. He/she should have a better understanding of the potential legal ramifications of a mistake. Again, it’s smart business.

Recently I spoke with a producer who got stuck producing three hours of a morning newscast, alone. The anchors not only did not write anything, but the male anchor yelled at this producer for a mistake in a graphic in front of guests in the newscast. This is just plain wrong. News flash for this anchor: You are a journalist not an actor. Help get the newscast on the air clean. You are part of a team. Pitch in. The producer was asked to do too much. Management was not fair in this situation. Do not make it worse by hanging that producer out to dry. Step up and help. If you do, you generally win a huge advocate. I promise that anchor this, if that producer gets a chance to burn you later, that producer will take it. If you are late to work, regularly take dinner breaks that are too long or make a fact error in a script , management will find out. That producer will also share what you did with the other producers and managers. You are now marked. It will come back to bite. Why not just pitch in, be a team player and help write instead of taking that risk?

Now let’s talk about well staffed newsrooms. If there is an EP, producers and AP’s then anchors should have a chance to jazz up scripts and not have to write large sections of the rundown. If that producing team cannot pull off getting the newscasts done in a timely fashion with that much help, there is a serious problem. EP’s and producers in this environment need to understand that anchors need time to look over the sheer volume. Too often the “systems” are messed up in this scenario. Producers are not time managing well. AP’s are not being asked to do the right things. EP’s are not delegating properly. The anchor should not be responsible for picking up that slack.

I recently spoke with an anchor in a top 20 market who was told he was responsible for any fact errors in the newscast, not the EP. He was also told that he had to write significant sections of the morning newscasts. This anchor works with a staff where there is a producer for each hour in the morning, an EP and several AP’s. It is common in this scenario to have the anchors helping to look for fact errors. But to write significant sections of the newscast? I quickly found out that the producers were simply not getting their writing done in time. With that much help, a veteran former producer cannot help but ask: Why? (And no, they are not also desktop editing or contributing to the web.) In this case, it really is better to make sure the anchor has time to read over all scripts, HELP look for errors and focus on “performance.” That is why there are so many content generating resources dedicated to the newscast day part. If you really need the anchor to write, have him do stories that showcase his personality. Write about subjects he knows a lot about, to save him time and help him come across authoritatively. (See “How to Get Inside Your Anchors Head”.)

Too often in newsrooms the work load is not divided up equitably, or even sensibly. This is to me one of the largest problems local newsrooms face as they try and “modernize” and command three screens (TV, computer, smart phone). The “systems” in newsrooms need to be reviewed better and corporate needs to respect what management needs. Too often managers are forced into positions to make anchors responsible for all fact errors, or to require producers to produce three hours a morning, solo, because of decisions made in an office several states away, by number pushers. The question of whether an anchor should write for newscasts highlights this larger problem. Cutting fat is one thing, breaking down systems is quite another.