Is Enterprising Stories A News Philosophy?

Recently I addressed the importance of defining your news philosophy to end up in a station where you can really flourish.  When I ask journalists to define their philosophy the most common answer I get is “enterprising stories.”  Let’s consider that for a minute.

Enterprising stories is not a philosophy.  It is the result of source building.  However, it is what you should be doing anyway as a news reporter.  Again, “enterprising stories” is not a news philosophy.  A news philosophy defines how you present information to the community to inform, empower and educate.  It includes writing style, graphics presentation, and topic selection.  It delves into which of the 5 W’s and 1 H you focus on the most.

Stations may emphasize unique stories as a key part of coverage.  It can be part of a news philosophy.  But it is not the whole of a news philosophy.  Remember, part of serving the public is covering the issues and events of the day.  You cannot always enterprise every element.  You can look for impact elements others do not have, but the basic facts must still be present in order to serve the public effectively.

Here’s one more thing to think about: Nearly all newsrooms aspire to have some sort of “enterprise” unit no matter their stated philosophy.  (Conan recently reminded us how rare it really is.) Aspire to break this mold.  Delve deeper into issues to find the unique elements.  Source build so you can learn what the reality of a situation really is, and use those skills to define your philosophy.  Think of “enterprising stories” as a means to the end, which is, your news philosophy.

 

How To Define Your News Philosophy

When journalists contact me, one of the first questions I ask is “What is your news philosophy?”  Most cannot tell me clearly.  I end up having to ask a series of questions, then define it for them.  (This, by the way, includes many news managers who call me looking for employees.)

Now I know some people are already rolling their eyes at me mentioning news philosophy.  The naysayers response:  “Your philosophy is the boss’s philosophy.”  My counter.  Exactly.  If you do not know what type of news you love to do, and you do not define your own mission statement to serve the community, you cannot connect with a manager who thinks the same way.  Want to know why so many journalists burn out in the first 5 years?  This is a big reason.  You and the boss don’t think alike.  The job is simply too intense, too all encompassing not to believe in the message.  Journalism is a vocation in many ways.  You do it because you just don’t know what else you can do.  It is simply a part of you, so you need to define it for yourself.  Personal fulfillment often replaces the great paycheck in those first key years.

O.K., lecture over. Now let’s talk about how to define your philosophy.  It requires exploring a few questions and truthfully answering them instead of saying what you think others want to hear.

What types of stories make you proud to be a journalist?

What issues do you read about in your spare time?

How do you visualize stories?

What news do you love to watch and steal ideas from?

How do you serve the community in your reports/newscast?

Really think about these questions. They are a great guide to helping you define news philosophy for yourself.  Also try and throw away stereotypes. (See article “What is Hard News”) You need to define your philosophy in clear terms a viewer could relate to, not a fellow newsy.  For example, the “New, Now, Next Philosophy” has different meanings depending on what broadcast entity is executing it.  So just telling a prospective boss, I am a “new, now, next broadcast journalist” is only a small part of the picture.  You need to have more detailed discussions.  How will you do this with graphics?  Standups?  When deciding what stories are live?  Do you like a lot of 20 second vo’s or do you like to really delve into an issue and pick apart what’s new, now and next?  Make sense?

Let’s get back to news as vocation for a minute.  Sometimes journalists need to be reminded that the news they put on the air, and over the internet, actually impacts people’s lives.  You have incredible influence over issues, sometimes arguably too much influence.  You owe it to yourself and those you serve to know why you dedicated your life to doing the news.  If you cannot do this, you need to go into PR.  It’s a simple truth.  Call me an idealist, a purist, a fool.  But news philosophy is crucial to excel at this vocation you have chosen.  Don’t shortchange yourself.

 

Make or Break. Why you must cultivate sources and exclusives.

I just finished watching the amazing documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” which tells the story of how America’s great newspaper is trying to survive in an era when many of us first learn about news events from Twitter and Yahoo! News.  The filmmaker tries to make his case that the Times is still needed because its reporters actually hit the streets and work the phones to gather news, as opposed to just copying and pasting and putting up links to others’ work, as critics of Gawker and the Huffington Post accuse those media outlets of doing.

In the end, it’s the story of how Times media reporter David Carr breaks a major story about the debauchery that was going on inside the executive suites at the Tribune Company.  It is a triumph for the “Old Gray Lady” and all of us who consider ourselves journalists in the traditional sense of the word.

How many stories have you personally broken at your station in 2011?

If the answer is zero, I predict you’ll someday be like the people in “Page One” who make a secret editors’ list of who can be laid-off when the budget’s cut because, in this Darwinian media environment we now find ourselves working in, the editors can still produce a great paper without them.

And yes, anchors, I’m talking to you, too.  I know you don’t just sit at a desk and read a teleprompter.  I get frustrated with that perception, too, because I know all of the hard work that goes into helping produce a great newscast, doing the homework required to really know the stories you’ll be talking about on-air, and summoning the creative energy at ungodly hours to put in a really good television performance.  I get it.  But dozens of other anchors can perform as well or almost as well as you, too.  So what is that extra ingredient you’re going to offer your station?

In their well-researched new book That Used to Be Us, Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum argue that even creative professionals like journalists will have to offer their employers something extra if they want to stay employed. You can’t just come to work, put on your makeup, and read the 11 o’clock news anymore.  Even anchors with great ratings are being laid-off long before they’re ready to retire because their bosses believe they make too much money at a time when media companies are trying to figure out how to keep making profits.

I’m not suggesting anchors and reporters who’ve been laid-off in the Great Recession and afterward deserved it.  I’m sure most of them worked hard and were valuable members of their newsrooms.  But I am suggesting that your chances of being on the secret list of expendable employees in your newsroom rise greatly if you’re viewed as a run-of-the-mill journalist who doesn’t break stories.

Think about it.  Why are so many TV newsrooms reviving their investigative units?  Because investigative reporters dig-up original stories that keep viewers’ attention, are easily promotable by the marketing department, and differentiate your station from the three or four others in the market who also do news.

You want to be on that team.

You don’t literally have to be on that team.  But as an anchor or reporter, you’d better have contacts in the community that are helping your newsroom advance the big stories of the week.  For anchors, this doesn’t mean you have to turn a package on something new you learn.  An e-mail to the newsroom with what you’ve found out and a phone call to the reporter on the story will show everyone that you’re truly a newsroom leader.

But do tweet about what you’ve learned and let your audience know that your reporter will have more on it in the next newscast.  (You may want to hold this tweet until right before airtime so the competition doesn’t “share” your scoop.  I will sometimes do this by scheduling a tweet to run at a specific time using TweetDeck.)

You might also consider writing a short story on your station’s website about the new angle to the story you’ve discovered.  Viewers want anchors who are part of the fabric of their community.  With your byline on the story, you’ll reinforce your value to the audience as someone who is plugged-in to the newsmakers and community leaders in your market.

If you’re the reporter on the story and you’ve learned this information yourself, don’t be afraid to let the audience know that you’ve been working the phones and the information they’re hearing is exclusive information.  Also, well before the newscast, work with your producer to come up with ways to showcase this information, which may include a banner that touts the fact that it’s exclusive.

The anchor, reporter, and/or producer should also send an e-mail to the news director and marketing department after the newscast letting them know about the scoop. They may want to produce a “proof of performance” promo based on it.  And, remember, these days you’ve got to market yourself within your news organization, too.  You need the executives to know that you were the person responsible for that exclusive.

So how do you cultivate sources so you can be your station’s most valuable player?  I’ll take a look at that next week.

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Matthew Nordin is a morning anchor/investigative reporter at WMBF News, Raycom Media’s NBC affiliate in Myrtle Beach, SC. You can follow him on Twitter @MatthewNordin.