How the Trayvon Martin case can help define your news career.

By now you have read plenty about this case.  You may have even written and/or voiced over stories about it.  There are a lot of compelling articles that explain what we TV journalists have done right and especially wrong while covering the Martin shooting.  I am not going there.  Instead I am going to explain why this case can and more than likely will end up defining your career in some way.

This is the type of story and event that truly tests the limits of journalism.  It tests the ability to be objective.  It tests news philosophies.  It tests personal ethics while on the job.  For this reason, I strongly encourage you to keep a file of everything you read, watch and write about the case.  Just file it all away.  Write notes about any conflicts within you and add these thoughts to your file.  Keep copies of your favorite stories you watched, and the ones you liked the least.  Write notes on what you like and do not like about the coverage.  The reason:  As this case plays out, your views on ethics and philosophy will likely change a lot.  So will the critics.  We will talk about how this case was covered for years to come.  Professors worth their salt are already beginning to track and possibly discuss it with future journalists.

The Martin case will become a litmus test for many news companies and news managers as they continue trying to shape what television news is becoming.  There are too many hot button issues in it for the case not to become more than a story that simply comes and goes.  Those issues will come up as managers consider newsroom policies on everything from fact checking affiliate copy to social media policy.  For this reason, it will serve as the perfect talking point when feeling out the news philosophy at a station where you are interviewing.  This case is so big, every news management team has likely had to make some sort of ethical call on it already.  It will not be the last time either.  Asking pointed questions about the Martin case to a news director or AND when you are job interviewing will be a good way to feel out their personal journalistic integrity also.  Are you both in sync?

The Martin case is also a good litmus test for you to gauge your own value system and journalistic work.  As you go into difficult scenarios in the future, draw on what you thought was done correctly in the Martin case.  Remind yourself of the ethical issues that arose when coverage was less than thorough.  It is a good reminder to us all that we cannot ever get too comfortable or too numb while covering stories.  There are often many layers.  Do we get to them, or leave them buried?  Do we jump to conclusions?  Have you?  Really asking yourself and current and future news bosses these questions will help you define yourself as a journalist.  It will help you brand yourself.  It will help you weed out stations that may vary too much from your news philosophy.  With examination, personally and as a professional group, the Martin case could help us define what TV News should be, and will become.

Reality check, who keeps you from losing grip on the “regular” world?

The ND in my first job interview threw an interesting question at me.  Luckily someone from my alma mater warned me it was coming, so I knew how to answer.  The question:  What hobbies do you have besides following the news?  (Reading was not good enough by the way.)  He wanted you to be passionately interested in something very different.  The reason?  This ND felt living and breathing news, and only news, actually made you lose touch with the viewer.  He would not hire you if you said:  “I just love my job!  All I think about is news.”  Several of us wondered why it was such a big deal to him?

Several jobs later I finally realized just how much sense it makes.  I was helping to design a new newscast.  We wanted to target a key audience with very specialized sections of content.  The GM looked at me and said:  “So what do your friends talk about?  Can you put together a focus group for us?”  I couldn’t.  I realized that all of my friends were newsies.  I worked 65+ hours a week and I was completely out of touch with the “real” world.  I had let my hobbies go by the wayside.  I literally thought about news from my waking moment until I fell asleep.  I would even sometimes wake up in the middle of dreams about my newscasts.

That’s when I realized to be truly good at my job I had to develop other interests.  I started by reading several non-news magazines and taking exercise classes.  When you get married and have kids, there are natural ways to broaden your interests as well.  But no matter what stage of life you are in, do something regularly that does not involve news.  Do things that help you develop relationships with people who could care less what you do for a living.  You will be a better journalist because of it and it might also save you one day with an unconventional question in a job interview!

The mistake you never want to make: Missing slot.

An assistant ND recently suggested this article topic.  Specifically he wanted me to explain why it’s just not acceptable to miss your slot in a newscast.  Then he told a story about a reporter that didn’t make slot, and was happy about it because the newscast her package ended up being moved to, had more viewers.

When you don’t make slot, you lose respect from your co-workers.  You showcase you care more about yourself than the team, which makes you a liability to management.  In some shops you can get fired for missing slot.  One photojournalist tweeted that a station where she worked made the photog and reporter take an unpaid day off for missing slot.  The stigma of chronically missing slot will follow you because this is a painfully small business.  Honestly, I know you know these arguments.  So this article is going to take a different approach.

First let’s define “missing slot.”  This means you are a few moments from when your package airs and you haven’t fed yet or it’s not in the system and cued up.  You call and say: “The piece isn’t going to make it.” and hang the producer out to dry.  Missing slot means not giving an EARLY heads up that you are having a technical issue.  This is an important clarification:  If you call ahead and warn that you are in trouble and the producer adjusts when your piece airs, BEFORE the newscast starts, you technically make slot.  Now, read that again.  You just need to give the producer or EP time to prepare if you can’t feed in time because of technical or logistical issues.  Make sure you understand this.  Missing slot implies waiting until just before or right when the newscast starts, then informing the producer or EP that you are in trouble.  To be crystal clear:  You must inform the producer at the instant there’s a potential problem.  Ideally, you should give a heads up at least 30-minutes before the newscast if you even think there could be a problem.  (Yes, I am beating this to death. It’s because, as a former manager, I had to repeatedly explain this to chronic floaters, who frankly seemed unable to grasp the idea of taking responsibility and warning ahead of time.)  Missing slot also means you wait until the last minute to feed, hoping to make it just in time. Too often crews wait until the feed deadline to call in and feed.  They wait until there’s no turning back to warn the producer or EP.  You need to understand your limits, and the technological limits of the station well enough that you can inform the producer early, so he/she can protect the newscast.

Now let’s talk about who often misses slot:  The chronic procrastinator, the perfectionist and the manipulator.  The point of this article is to admit which of these you are if you are among the ones who miss slot often. You need to see why you screw everyone over.  Yes, that is harsh.  But it’s also the cold hard truth.  You screw everyone over when you miss slot, especially if you could’ve given warning.  Figure out why and fix it.  You need to do it for your own good. (We’ll explain why later.)

So let’s talk chronic procrastination.  Some reporters and photojournalists get off on the adrenaline rush of turning their work in at the last minute.  Problem is equipment breaks down.  Some photojournalists like or need more time to edit.  If everyone feeds at the feed deadline, there is a backlog and you can float.  Putting the adrenaline rush ahead of these potential pitfalls is a bad career move.  I once worked with an incredible reporter who had deep sources.  If I needed a lead story I simply called and told him.  I would always tell him that I needed to know what he had in 1 hour.  He always came through.  But I paid a price.  I had to ride him the rest of the shift to make sure he fed in time to actually lead the show.  If I ran behind and could not make the reminder calls, he would sometimes miss slot.  Because of this, I tried my hardest to never lead with him.  As talented as he was, he was a liability.  As much as I loved leading with an exclusive, the hell to get the piece turned in on time wasn’t always worth it.  This reporter remained stuck in a mid-market for a long time.  When he got his big break after years of aiming for a large market, he could only talk stations into freelance.  His reputation preceded him.  He ended up finally making the big move, but at less pay and less prestige than his raw reporting skills deserved.  The procrastination cost him.

*Footnote to producers:  The best way to handle the chronic procrastinator is to give a firm deadline, then hold his/her feet to the fire.  If a reporter doesn’t feed by 10 minutes until the allotted slot in the newscast, the reporter’s package doesn’t make air.  Period.  Management should back up a hard mandate on chronic floaters because it helps provide a tangible case to fire the irresponsible party.  Clear cut rule broken:  Missed deadline, fired with cause.

*Note to managers or assignment desk editors that pick which reporter works with which photojournalist:  Do not stick the same reporter or photog with the chronic procrastinator over and over again hoping they will develop a system.  You are just asking the responsible half of that team to walk out on you because of the added daily stress.  Switch the crews around, so you don’t burn out the responsible reporter or photojournalist.

Now on to the perfectionist:  This is the reporter or photojournalist that just needs another minute to write the perfect line or add the perfect sequence, you get the idea.  The problem is this person totally screws everyone else over.  No one is perfect, least of all journalists on tight deadlines.  Focus on being accurate.  Focus on being dependable.  Know that perfection is not realistic on a daily basis.

I used to tell my perfectionists that they aired before they actually did to make sure they made slot. Unfortunately, with laptops now the norm and rundowns available to everyone, you can’t always fudge when the piece airs.  All that’s left is driving home that missing slot is not acceptable.  It might mean sacrificing airing a story to make a point (that is, if you can get management’s backing to do that).  I had a perfectionist reporter tell me one time I would get her packages when she was ready to feed them in, not a second before.  After being told that, I did everything in my power to not have her packages air in my newscast.  That included lobbying for her to not be assigned the lead stories.  To this day, even though I know she was a quality reporter, I don’t respect her.  She didn’t put the team first.  She didn’t understand the most basic rule:  The viewer comes first.  If her piece was slated at a particular time in a particular newscast, there was a good reason.  The story appealed to that audience.  Make slot!

All this naturally leads to the manipulators.  These are the the crews that say: “Yeah, if we float, our piece will be moved to the big show.” Newsflash for you, this trick is a small victory.  The producer for the newscast you deem less important will hate you for dissing his/her newscast.  The producer of “the big show” will not appreciate having your work shoved down his/her throat.  Furthermore, the producers are more informed and skilled at deciding whether the story you are covering hits the right audience in the newscast.  So now you’ve ticked off both producers on your shift.  Now they will fight over who gets stuck with you and your holier than thou attitude.  Then they will work as a team to keep you off of big breakers and important stories.  Since you are a manipulator, you probably have high ambitions.  You need access to the big stories to show what you can do.  You did not truly win the battle and you definitely lost the war because you probably just slowed down your career growth.

That is the largest reason to not miss slot.  Missing slot slows down your career growth.  You might get fired and then hired in a larger market, but at less pay.  You might get that big break and head to a top ten market, but only as a freelance reporter who must then prove your worth.  You might get stuck with a label of “not able to handle the big time.”  You might be labeled “do not hire” during this tough economic time when plenty of journalists are out of work who can make slot.  Even more importantly, it just feels dirty to miss slot.  Everyone looks down on you.  They whisper about what a loser you are for screwing over the team.  Remember, if you miss slot another reporter has to step in and take your place earlier than they were told to be ready.  Your co-workers will bad mouth you and make fun of you behind your back.  It’s the simple truth.  No one likes co-workers who cannot pull their own weight.  No journalist respects a fellow TV reporter or photojournalist that cannot make slot.

Make your sell: How to effectively pitch story ideas.

After years of excruciatingly long and painfully tedious story idea meetings, it is time to decode what management and producers want to hear during content pitches.  Reporters, you deserve a fair chance to get the story you want to do on the air.  You just have to know how to pitch.  Sadly, in my experience over the years, many reporters have no idea what to do.  You get hums and haws.  You ask a follow up question, mostly because the story is starting to intrigue you and the reporter blurts out in an annoyed tone, “I don’t know I need to make a call, can I do it or not?”

Pitching to a room full of grumpy journalists is not fun.  I know.  Producers seem to love to poo-poo anything you bring up.  Often it seems apparent that the producers and managers already know what stories they want (from the newspaper or competition) and could care less what you bring into the meeting.  Here’s a little secret:  Often if there are better story ideas, managers and producers will throw those preset plans out the window and jump on fresh stuff.  They do walk in with a blueprint to keep from free falling all day.  You are talking to a group of control freak, hyper planners.  It’s what makes them good at their jobs.  They have the backups ready.  But managers often hope if you are assigned certain types of stories often enough, you will eventually start pitching those types of stories yourself.  In other words, they can’t figure out how to explain what they want, so they assign the kind of stories they want and hope you figure it out.

So here’s how to show you get it and really rock a story pitch.  First, immediately describe the first image and type of sound bite you think you can get out of the story.  Producers think visually.  They need to see the images in their heads and feel how it will play out on the TV screen.  They need this as much or more than reporters.  It’s how they “feel” their newscasts when determining what goes where.  Next, explain in 1 or 2 sentences how the story impacts the key demographic for the shows.  Yes, you need to know this stuff!  It saves you from wanting to bang your head into the wall every day.  That is the information producers and managers use to decide content.  You cannot come in with effective pitches without the same perspective.  Just remember that’s a key reason why managers and producers often seem to have predetermined what reporters are covering.  They are using their audience knowledge.

Now knock the socks off the powers that be, and throw in a tease line (it doesn’t have to be beautiful, just an outline) so the producer can see how to showcase the story.  By doing this you show you understand the story yourself, and you have found the “WIFM” (if you don’t know what that means read What’s the viewer benefit really?)  Now you explained the story’s potential impact, then you teased it for them.  That’s like wooing them with a tonic, simply irresistible!

After showcasing impact, the next biggest thing managers and producers want to know in your pitch is if you’ve done any legwork on the story already. Remember, they are thinking in 30 minute to 1 hour increments, not a 2 minute package time.  They are making calculated guesses on whether you are BS’ing about a story to look good in front of your peers or if you can really pull it all off.  Often they will risk one or two “iffy” turns with great potential. The slam dunk turn with audience appeal is a producer’s dream.  You will really impress if you can state “This is a sure turn.” and then pull it off.

Also, know that they tell you they want exclusives from all of you each and every day, but they know that’s not realistic.  If you get information on a solid follow up, do not be afraid to pitch it.  Those stories are important to show that the station is really involved in the community, not just exploiting random events.  A solid pitch on a follow up can have a lot of appeal.

Finally, if all of these tricks don’t work, ask to buy a producer a drink one night and find out why your story ideas are getting blown off.  Sometimes managers and producers have cast you in a type of role for the newscasts that you don’t know about.  Yes, they really should tell you.  But, realistically, that just doesn’t always happen.  So be proactive and ask what more you can offer to really nail a story pitch in the editorial meeting.  Your sanity will thank you!