What is hard news?

Let’s begin with this statement: This article is meant to start conversation.  It is meant to stretch your comfort zone a little.  TV news has to keep growing and reaching audiences differently for us to stay employed.

There is a conflict in television news that many managers, consultants and journalists themselves are not sure what to do with.  The conflict:  Defining solid television news stories.  We call it hard news.  We whine about it every day in story meetings.  You know the mantra:  “We need more hard news.”  So what is hard news really?  If you get a few moments Google “hard news, definition.”  The definitions are fascinating. Here’s a sampling:

news that deals with serious topics or events” from www.wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

News, as in a newspaper or television report, that deals with formal or serious topics and events.www.thefreedictionary.com/hard-news

Serious news of widespread import, concerning politics, foreign affairs, or the like, as distinguished from routine news items, feature stories, or human-interest stories.www.dictionary.reference.com/browse/hard+news

Hard news is the kind of fast-paced news that usually appears on the front page of newspapers.  Stories that fall under the umbrella of hard news often deal with topics like business, politics and international news.  What defines hard news isn’t always about subject matter.  Some might call a news story that’s heavily reported, on a subject matter considered softer (like entertainment), hard news because of the way it was approached.  Hard news is also a term most often used by journalists and others who work in the media industry, though you will hear others outside the industry use it.” http://mediacareers.about.com/od/glossary/g/HardNews.htm

I purposely did not pull many definitions from TV news websites and reference books, because we need to see how the definitions we create impact what viewers think they will get.  See how broad the definitions are?  All describe ongoing types of topics:  Political battles, stories about business in town, foreign affairs.  Yet, most TV news veterans have seen a lot of these topics, especially business stories and foreign affairs, fail in the ratings.  Even political news can be difficult to get people to watch unless it is a key election year or a very controversial subject.  So what is hard news for TV journalist’s day in and out?  Are we defining it incorrectly or executing wrong?

This is where the conversation comes in.  Some talking points: First, what does serious news mean?  Almost all of the definitions above reference serious news.  Defining serious news, often explains a station’s news philosophy, understanding of its community and credibility with viewers.  For the sake of argument, let’s define serious news as facts, events and people that have a direct impact on people’s lives.  Events and topics that make people stop and think about their own lives and surroundings in a different way.  So let’s try and put some tangibles with this idea.  Let’s delve into a serious topic that often is covered horribly, if at all on TV: Education.  This is a huge topic for your viewers.  Your key demographic is raising children.  I have worked at several stations that heralded a calendar year, as the year of education coverage.  In all cases but one, the station dumped the idea within 6 months.  The biggest problem is that education stories are often very video poor.  Many schools do not allow you to shoot any video inside.  But there are other ways to cover education besides sending a reporter to do a pkg.  The biggest opportunity: Debates with local experts on hot topics in the area.  Issues like, whether standardized testing is fair, teacher pay, new educational standards and school closings.  All evoke a lot of emotion.  They do not need b-roll.  They need sound to play out.  Remember the wild success of the cable network talk shows.  You can turn mini-segments that will really get people talking.

Now, the next level of coverage:  Show me the people in the schools grinding every day to make a difference.  Make some of that coverage positive, because frankly most coverage of teachers involves one screaming at, smacking or diddling a kid.  Yes, these stories are important.  But we also want to showcase that there are teachers and supervisors that have very positive influences on students and families.  Many managers over the years called this too soft, or said we don’t have time for “features.”  Remember, hard news needs impact.  It showcases events and topics that make people stop and think about their own lives and surroundings differently.  (Yes, I am repeating that line, it is important!!)  People love to watch stories about other people.  Never underestimate the viewer’s fascination with their neighbors.  It is basic human nature.  Oprah made a gazillion bucks because she understood that.  To truly cover a serious issue, like education, you need to showcase all sides.  You need to show the human connections.  This proves to the viewer you an informed witness, not just another group with an agenda.  Remember, viewers are extremely media savvy in this day and age.  If you come up with an advocacy campaign and ram it down people’s throats without another counterbalance kind of coverage, you eventually lose some respect.  So called “feature” stories about the cool chemistry teacher who reaches students in a unique way,  are as important to the viewer as live coverage during hearings about school closures or new testing policies.  You have to showcase all elements of impact.  That teacher also impacts a lot of lives and seeing a story about the teaching approach helps teach parents ways they can educate their child differently.  That has a serious edge.  Therefore, it is “hard news” coverage.

Which leads to my next talking point about hard news:  It does not always need conflict.  Sometimes you just need to relay the facts in a situation so that viewers can learn information and draw conclusions for themselves.  A perfect example is health news. If you think health news is all feature fluff, you are very out of touch with the average human being.  Everyone thinks about their health.  They worry about family members or friends.  Everyone has questions. Everyone has concerns.  Health news should never be a feature that’s simply considered “fill” for a section of a newscast just to get viewers to weather.  It is a type of hard news and should be treated as such.  Health news has almost as broad an impact as weather.  It’s just usually treated as a throwaway, and therefore comes across that way to the viewer.  Next time an interesting health and/or fitness story pops on the wires, sit down and brainstorm on ways you could make it a lead story.  I am not saying you really must lead with it, but treat the story like you would hard news. (Remember the definition above that references some things like entertainment news becoming hard news because of the coverage approach?). Look at it critically.  Ask a lot of WIFM questions (if that confuses you read     What is the viewer benefit really? ) and see if you end up with a fascinating edgy pkg idea or segment for your newscast.

My final and most crucial point is hard news should directly influence people’s lives.  Again the word impact.  Let’s replace the word serious in the above definitions, with the word impact.  Let’s consider how most stations cover several topics, starting with crime.  There’s a home invasion in a crime ridden neighborhood and police think it is drug related.  If hard news is about serious issues that directly affect your viewers lives, is a live shot outside the house with a banner saying home invasion fair and/or enough?   Are you giving the viewer, who counts on you to be the experts in your community, an accurate representation of where they live?  Or are you in lust for a 40 second quickie that allows you to type in home invasion on a live super because it’s “sexy?”

Studies by The Pew Research Center consistently show that people are interested and looking for news about the economy, and aren’t getting the coverage.  Slapping up a 20 second reader with an over the shoulder that says “unemployment down” is not the kind of economic news they want though.  People are confused.  Concerns over their job security, the worth of their house, if they will ever have enough money to retire, and if more of their neighbors are going hungry are daily topics.  I can honestly tell you that not a week has gone by in three years that I have not overheard or been involved in a conversation with “viewers” about concerns over the economy.  It is a constant.  I hear it in grocery store checkout lines, picking kids up from school, having friends over for dinner, taking a walk in the neighborhood, and in exercise classes.  People are worried. They feel at a loss for information. They need help.  That is hard news.  It has impact.

So remember, when considering if a story idea is hard news, consider the likelihood people are talking about that story and have lingering questions.  Is there a new set of facts people need to know about, but don’t have the information?  Is there something going on they should care about, but may not know yet?  Think about the stories that just stick with you.  A lot of those emotional connections you make with a story, involve coverage and techniques many journalists would call soft.  There is a character.  There is emotion.  You feel differently for having watched the story.  You remember those stories.  But chances are most of the so called hard news you pushed for in a rundown or agonized over turning because you could not find impact… are a blur as of you drive home from work.  Guess what?  It’s a blur to viewers also, because they turn off the TV.  They say to themselves:  “This story doesn’t affect me and my friends.  I cannot relate to this.  Why should I bother to watch.”  Believe me, they really do.  I get bombarded with these comments and questions constantly.  Truthfully, you probably do also from your non-news friends.  Make sure the people make it into the coverage so the viewer can truly feel connected to the topic or event.  Don’t fear lack of video, you can always showcase interesting sound to make your points.  Do not push for or create conflict when there is none.  Sometimes a story is hard just because it has great information. Finally, stop labeling types of news, like health and education as “features.”  Try and show these broad appeal topics respect.   Journalists are feeling more pressure these days to market and brand themselves.  Taking these impact topics and delivering interesting stories with a “hard edge” is a great way to quickly make a name for yourself.  Remember to focus on impact and people.  The hard edge will come out in your coverage, because your viewers will be impacted by the information.  You will become popular with viewers because you get what they need.  You will brand yourself as “real” and “trustworthy.”  Most importantly, delving into these topics can and will be journalistically gratifying.  These topics can provide opportunities to empower people to change lives.  Isn’t that why you got into broadcast news?  What is a harder or a more serious type of news than that?

How to repair producer/director relationship

A frazzled producer recently asked for advice dealing with his director.  Their relationship was strained.  The director was starting to question this producer’s calls in the booth, and at times making calls instead of checking with the producer to see if they were on the same page.  This is not uncommon.  Directors are in charge of making sure the show looks clean and at times will make quick decisions while live.  Your director “taking over and calling the shots” is not all bad, if you have established protocols you both agree on for certain situations.  (See Right hand/left for more on how the two of you can compliment each other, by showing mutual respect.)  If the director is taking over to the point where you are unable to make key decisions that could impact content making air and/or it’s affecting you timing your show, then you have a problem.

The key is to nip that kind of issue in the bud right away by sitting down and talking about it.  I would usually ask the director when we could meet and discuss how the newscast is going in general terms.  I wanted the chance to talk before a show aired, not right after when tensions are high.  You need to be clear headed so you can both listen and figure out what needs to be done.  Also, go into this type of meeting knowing the director will have criticisms and hopefully suggestions to help things run more smoothly.  Keep an open mind and really listen.  Relationships require some compromise.  You need to be aware that directors have a lot of pressure on them as well and share your desire for a clean show.  The way you two define “clean” and make decisions can vary.  You need to explain where you are coming from in a non-argumentative way.

Another crucial thing to set up is a nightly discrep. meeting with your director.  This used to be required in most newsrooms, but with cuts in OT pay and longer working hours, many shifts now blow off these meetings.  This is a big mistake!  Ideally you want the entire staff to weigh in on these meetings.  If you cannot because of OT issues etc., then meet with just your director.  But make sure you meet.  You need the daily dialog, face-to-face, to actually talk about what went right and wrong in the newscast.  And, by the way, email does not cut it.  You need to look each other in the eye and talk.  This helps you learn how the other person thinks so you can find common ground and set up protocols.  I cannot emphasize enough how crucial it really is to have a daily meeting.  Find a way, period.  Make sure the meetings are short and sweet.  Suggest you each come to the meeting with one thing you liked and one you didn’t.  If there was an issue during the newscast, talk solutions for the next time it comes up.  You can do all of this in 10 to 15 minutes.  You really can.  That is a small sacrifice of time to really create a solid working relationship.  Tell your director that.  Most will not only agree, but be happy to meet.

Finally, make sure even when you are really ticked about a call the director made you remain respectful.  Your director is a professional and likely extremely passionate about his/her job too.  Openly respect that level of dedication.  It will only help you both grow and your newscast get better.

One thing you need to require of your agent regularly.

Whether to hire an agent is an age old debate in the TV News biz.  People have strong feelings about agents and their role in the business.  As the industry trends toward turning more content with less people, agents are becoming more essential in my eyes.  The reason may surprise you.  It is not because there are less jobs.  Bottom line if you have talent, you will find work.  So why are agents becoming more essential?  They are advocates for you, not only when looking for work but also while you work the job the agent helped you find.

Here’s what I mean.  Of course, agents keep tabs on where the jobs are and what type of skill sets managers want.  But they also keep tabs on trends in the industry.  So a good agent should be able to look at your skill sets and let you know what elements you need to focus on to grow and become even more marketable.  This is a mutually beneficial relationship.  The agent should want to help you not only get a good job, but grow in that job so you can eventually move to another, bigger, job.  Both of you win.  Both of you make more money.  Both of you make names for yourselves in the industry.

This is why when you vet an agent you need to make sure that this person will regularly critique your work, and that news managers think this person has a clue about identifying and training talent.  Yes, I said training.  Over the years, the pitfalls I found with agents were that many had connections to get you a job, but were not respected in the industry as able to help journalists grow.  If you want a headhunter to place you, hire a head hunting type service.  If you want someone to just look over a contract, hire an attorney.  If you want a good agent, hire someone who regularly provides insight into the news business and will regularly critique your work to help hone your skills.

That, my friends, is the one thing you should require of your agent.  You want regular critiques of your work.  Make your requirement clear before you hire your agent and hold them accountable.  There are agents that already do this as a general rule and truly feel they are an advocate for you throughout your career.  This is the kind of agent you want.  Ask for this upfront, and demand a clear explanation of how you will get these critiques.

So what does requiring regular critiques of your work really mean?  It means more than an occasional newsletter listing industry trends and an article or two about things like what to and not to wear on air.  It means the agent actually reviews some of your recent work, then sends back thoughts on what you did.  It means setting up regular conversations where you decide together what skill sets you want to improve on in the next six months, the next year, by the end of your contract, etc.  This person will then review your work and let you know how you are doing at improving those skills.  The agent and you should also have conversations about what job you want to have in two years and/or five years.  What will you do and what will the agent do to try and make those goals reality?  An agent cannot promise to get you to the network in five years.  But an agent can help you identify what makes your writing and presentation skills unique so you can build on your assets to increase your chances.

Remember, making sure an agent will provide regular critiques and work with you toward your goals is your responsibility to set up.  Agents offer different things.  You need to make sure you are getting what you want, when you want it.  You need to research and make sure the agent you are thinking of hiring can deliver on your expectations.  Then requiring critiques should be a simple matter of scheduling when you will talk next.

It’s GM’s agenda and you are stuck covering it “as news.”

We promise this situation will happen to you. It happened to us at several stations, in small to large markets.  General Manager walks into an editorial meeting and says “So what are we doing to cover such and such, ( fill-in the blank, new road widening project,  special session by legislature,  tax incentive package for a new industry in town etc.) since our viewers the tax payers are getting screwed.”  The news director gives a blank look followed by the lifted eyebrow smirk, then stares at you, “So how will you cover that story today?”

If this happens, say you are going to make some calls and get out of the room pronto.  Better yet, grab your photog and get out of the building while you make those calls! Why?  You do not want the GM to start going off on specific players and agendas for the story.  You do not want specifics on how this story should be told, and exactly what the tease will say.  That way, if it is the GM skimming headlines and misinterpreting reality, you won’t end up having to tell him/her.  Without specifics chances are you can find some small nugget to package.

Next, call the newsroom mega brain.  You know, the walking, talking, human factoid! This person can save you hours of stress and research.  Do the necessary ego stroke and get the person to give you background information on this subject.  You need time to work sources for a backup in case the story falls apart.  The “human factoid” usually can at least provide the name and number for a player in town who will give you insight on whether the GM’s “news” really is “news.”

Do your thing, work it and try to find an interesting character or bit of video to showcase so you can get by.  If there’s just nothing to the story give the basics, then try and include a little subtle perspective in your anchor intro or  tag.  Managers tend to play in that copy more anyway.  This way, if the story is taken out of context and the GM gets a call, it will more likely become management’s problem instead of the reporter’s failing.

If you cannot find a nugget to package, and there’s simply nothing to the story, offer to write a vo or vo/sot and let your manager know early.  That gives management time to derail the GM situation well before the newscast airs.  It helps if you can offer an interesting alternative story the manager can have you churn out instead.  Sometimes management will then take the GM “news” burden off of you and have an anchor front it somewhere cool on set. You are off the hook, and the GM still feels heard without the station blowing a weak story out of proportion.

If you are told to package a story and say certain things in a tease you don’t like, try and do a subtle rewrite.  Also, know this happens to everyone from time to time.  Chances are your credibility is not ruined.  Those in the know in town realize you got stuck “being the good soldier.”