I put this post up on LinkedIn and want to make sure it is here on the website as well. When I started this website 10 years ago the goal was to help with training. I still want to focus on that primarily but over the last several months I have felt called to also bring up important issues facing the TV News business as well. I hope the time is right for more to hear the calls and actually start to make changes many veteran journalists can tell you are long overdue.
Here is the post:
Now that we know producers can get some signing bonuses, let’s talk EP recruitment. Just this week I have seen EP job postings that state you will produce a newscast every day and still need to coach other producers and oversee the daypart. Can we just unpack this a bi
In order to really protect the brand and quality, executive producers need to oversee not do then check in between. It’s hard enough when they are the chronic backups for anyone who is sick or on vacation.
There simply is no way an EP can truly train, recruit, showcase, punch up daily writing, oversee coverage decisions, monitor live decisions, and protect the station’s newscasts and brand for quality and credibility and produce each day. That is like asking an assembly line manager to work the line at the same time. Things will slip through the cracks and the line will clog up.
For the last several years the job I get calls about the most where there are either no applicants or none qualified is EP. Setting up EP jobs so they can truly learn how to think bigger picture, attend management meetings and learn how to lead a shift is monumental for the future of this industry. These EPs are your future NDs.
It is cheaper to hire another producer or writer to ease the workload and invest in growing EPs in the long run. Your current newsrooms benefit. Your future newsrooms benefit.
To all the EP’s right now braving producing newscasts and leading dayparts especially those who sometimes are the ONLY EP for the whole newsroom, you are strong. You are courageous. You have a right to stand up and say when the workload is too high and ask some be delegated elsewhere. Do not forget you can be the future ND. So you need to try your best to pace yourself and advocate to protect your team in any way you think will work.
There’s a revolution coming to TV news and it might look familiar. QR codes are not new. They are everywhere. But an innovator in the space wants to improve upon existing QR technology, creating a new dynamic and standard in TV news. Meet Flowcode.
Every once in a while I am asked to take a look at an emerging technology or technique to increase a station’s digital saturation. In this case, I was asked to consider how QR codes could improve TV news. I thought the idea was brilliant and had incredible potential. QR codes are popping up everywhere and are being used in ways to make your life easier already. My first instinct was creating meaningful connections with viewers. But, the journalist in me soon took over and I wanted to learn more and check my hunch.
I thought about the constant struggle newsrooms face trying to directly connect with viewers. That is especially true now, with so many newscasts to produce each day. 4 hours in the morning, noon and then 3 PM until 6:30 or 7 PM. Oh, and don’t forget the late evening newscast of record as well as ever increasing digital content demands. Traditionally, broadcasting companies rely on ratings data companies like Nielsen and Comscore. Then, they call in consulting groups to get research information about who their audiences are and what they really want.
If you ask news managers, many will tell you that the research often feels flawed. The content topic suggestions and ratings gains do not always match what the research shows should happen. It leads to a lot of guessing when they try developing a brand and creating trust with the audience. Minute-by-minute audience viewing reports are also a guessing game. Between grinding out shows stations look for trends in those reports and hope to get it right.
These methods lead to a real mixed bag of results. A Gallup/Knight Foundation study found more than 80% of Americans say the news media is at least “very important” in providing accurate information. Good news, right? But then comes the conundrum: An Accenture digital consumer survey found TV is the only category of device experiencing uniform, double-digit usage declines. This is worldwide and in nearly all age groups. Accenture also found 87% of consumers use a second screen while watching TV.
The TV news industry understands this is happening. But how do you link up the TV newscast with the tablet in the viewers lap?
A Pew Research Center survey gives some hope though. 75% surveyed say confidence in news media has the potential to improve. The survey also shows brand loyalty isn’t what it once was. 63% of news consumers Pew surveyed don’t feel strong loyalty. Many say they feel local news can still work on directly connecting with the community more.
As the TV news industry grapples with how to reach their audience directly Flowcode also offers data science and analytics. The TV industry can push for options to figure out why an audience turned off at 10-minutes after the hour, instead of simply knowing that they did tune out at that point. It offers a way for stations to find out if the audience will watch more long form content on OTT platforms. There is also the opportunity to sponsor content without the anchors having to actually say the name of the sponsor. All ways to prove a station has heard what the community wants to learn, values the time taken to watch, and is eager to meet the audience directly where it is. That includes holding a phone or tablet and lounging on the couch while watching the news. Yep, that’s working for you alright.
Mental health is a growing concern among TV news journalists. Old time journalists often were told to grit it out, suck it up, understand the stress and anxiety of the daily deadline pressures and, frankly, awful crime stories are part of the job.
Surviving as a journalist should not mean constant suffering though. Yes, part of the job is seeing horrible crime scenes, covering stories that showcase the dark parts of humanity in stark terms, and uncovering corruption. Yes, journalists know that goes with the territory. But that simply doesn’t mean stations and broadcast groups should just tell staff to handle it all on their own.
I keep saying that journalists are the commodity broadcasters sell. You must realize the people covering the news are the company’s most precious assets. No journalists, no newscasts = no revenue.
Top News Talent, which I just recently co-founded, hosted a discussion on Clubhouse on mental health. Specifically the recurring dream many producers have that they cannot get their newscast done on time. This is the start of many discussions we hope have to help raise awareness that journalists in TV news do take their job home with them. It impacts their personal lives as well. From this discussion, with therapist Matthew Nordin, we learned some very valuable lessons.
These dreams can be a sign that the journalist needs a mental health break. Maybe it’s a mental health day. Maybe more.
Recurring dreams can signal that you’re struggling to cope with something you covered, wrote about or the circumstances in your newsroom.
For those of you having these recurring dreams, some crucial takeaways:
There are coping mechanisms to help you distance yourself a bit from the daily stress. A big one Matthew mentioned is “soft belly breathing.” It sounds too simple, right? But it’s based on science. Your mind is powerful enough to use this simple technique to reset your stress levels in a powerful way. Here is a video showing you how to belly breathe. And an audio version and interview.
If you ignore the dreams, the stress usually increases. There is a risk of developing actual PTSD.
Journalists and managers also need to be aware of secondary trauma. Let’s define it in simple but crucial terms: by covering traumatic events regularly, the journalist also becomes impacted by the events. Over time this can lead to PTSD if not addressed early and often. Partner this with newsrooms that are understaffed, work hours that make it hard to sleep at night (overnights), keep a regular sleep schedule (covering for sick calls on different shifts), and 10 hour shifts on average with little to no breaks, and the journalist is already more prone to anxiety overload.
Companies offer EAP programs. This allows anywhere from 4 to 6 visits with a therapist, for free, depending on your company’s plan. A crucial thing here, when you call to set up the visits, know your station, your boss and your parent company do not know you are seeking therapy. Some employees really worry about this. It is truly anonymous. When you call to use this valuable benefit, have your health insurance card handy so you can ask them to look for a therapist who also takes your insurance in case you end up needing more than the standard sessions alloted. If that is not possible, ask for some names, then you can look them up. Matthew tells us Psychology Today is a great resource to check out potential therapists. From here you can find out if they take your medical insurance for after the EAP alloted sessions.
Matthew also told us there are ways to get therapy and not have it cost a fortune if you do not want to use your medical insurance or you cannot find a therapist who takes your insurance. This is key, the services we are listing here, link you with therapists that essentially donate their time to give back, in a sense. They passionately want to help more people afford therapy, Here are the two links to these services: https://www.opencounseling.com/ and https://openpathcollective.org/.
A last note to individual journalists: PTSD can set in within a month of suffering trauma. So if you cover a story that really seems to impact you more than most, it’s preferable to not wait and see what happens. Get counseling quickly to try and prevent PTSD from setting in. That said, Matthew points out that if you’re already a mindful person who’s really in touch with your body and emotions through yoga, meditation, etc. you may not need a therapist. This is where knowing yourself and your limits are really important.
For managers and broadcast group leaders, try and create an environment where staff can tell you the stress of the job is getting to be too intense, before it gets to the point the person must quit their job. Ask regularly, how staffers are doing. If you can bring in counselors not just when something tragic, like a school shooting, standoff or death of a staff member happens. Offering a chance to talk with a counselor more regularly, can help immensely. It also could show that you value mental health and might lead to more staff telling you if they need help. If you can advocate for more mental health coverage, including HSA $ for mental health treatment or mindfulness coaching, you not only prove you care for your staff, you have a powerful recruiting tool.
I posted a question on @Survivetvjobs Twitter line. Within 24hours it had more than 29 thousand impressions. Talk about hitting a nerve. It was “Hey TV news journalists what do you do to relieve stress?”
TV News is a stressful career no doubt. Now with more MMJ’s, less writers and more responsibilities than ever before it can sometimes seem unbearable. So let’s talk about how to survive your daily shift better.
Getting a good routine down as best you can is number 1. You want the grind to sort of become normal in a way. So the first few months, you should keep a journal on what worked and didn’t as you try and navigate getting through your shift. Also use the search section of this website to look up producing and/or reporting for all kinds of articles on how to make your job easier.
You need to focus on hobby’s that give you joy when you are not at work as well. Many of you listed great options there.
I also want to give you some simple, easy to implement stress relievers you can use each day, at work.
Practical things you can do, right away to add calm to your day
Schedule breath breaks. Then actually take them
Mini lap break
The running joke is very important
Random acts of kindness to your coworkers
Celebrate little victories
Realistic goal setting
Write down the small things eating at you, then throw the paper away
Use EAP plan
Let’s dig in. I know many of you are saying you do not have time to run to the restroom most of the time. But breath breaks can be super short. Set up “times” for these like once I finish stacking my rundown I will do this for myself. Once I finish this interview I will do this for myself. Make it a habit.
If you are religious, think breath prayer. It is amazing how taking 30 seconds to do one can help. If you are not religious taking three long breaths and imagining letting go of the stress in part of your body can really help. I love the Calm app for this reason. Check out the breath bubble video on YouTube since it can be a game changer during work. Sneak into an edit bay and try it.
Mini lap breaks are also really important. You need to get the blood flowing to keep a clear head. So standup and walk a lap around the newsroom or better yet around the station. Even if you have to be on the phone. If you are a reporter put the phone down and walk a lap. You need to reconnect with your environment. Producers need to disconnect from theirs.
Running “inside” jokes among your shift are important. If you don’t already have some, try and foster that. They need to be kind and silly, not picking on a staffer. I had coworker who loved a certain salad with chicken. We would sing silly song about 15 minutes till salad time (usually sung right after a manager yelled at us for something) and would put pictures we printed off the internet of salads with chicken to set on her desk. An anchor I worked with loved Halle Berry. So we would tape pics of her up on his computer monitor before he got to work. It became a competition of who could find the most random pic of her. Things like that. A director hated the easter bunny but in a silly way. So we would put pics of bunnies up on his monitor in the control room. He would then write silly notes on them like “nope” and then repost the pic on someone else’s monitor.
Some companies have also started chat lines, because of COVID. A chance to have some sort of running dialogue like you used to have sharing pods with others. This can be great too. Take turns picking a topic for the day that is light. You can do this with group texts if need be. Who can find the silliest dog meme of the day? (See now my pic above makes sense lol) Subjects like, who really drank from the water hose? What is the worst vacation you’ve taken? Did you try the latest viral recipe on Tik Tok? This quick connection can help keep tension down for the entire group. Just make sure everyone knows this line is for small talk only.
For years I have kept some inspiring quotes that resonate with me on sticky notes either on my desk or in the notes section of my phone. They also really help. Especially if it is one of those days when it all seems to pile on. These quotes provide a quick reminder, this too shall pass.
When is the last time you did a little something to cheer up your coworkers? Simple things, like leaving a piece of candy on their desk? A quick text saying the MMJ’s live shot rocked, or the producer had a killer cold open really helps ease your stress and the other person’s as well. It also fosters a newsroom where people support each other, and frankly the staff has to do that most of the time. Newsrooms are not naturally positive environments. The deadline pressure and competition to be first etc goes against that principle a bit. If you foster mutual respect with simple gestures, it really can help bring everyone’s stress down and increase the “We are in it together” bond.
An anchor I worked with used to bring a cake in once a month to celebrate all the birthdays of the month in the newsroom. It was a huge hit. An EP I had used to leave me silly sticky note messages randomly on my desk. A director I worked with used to leave me copies of articles about gardening, since we shared that hobby in common. It has been years, and I remember each of these simple acts of kindness. The gestures matter. Do them, and hopefully over time you will start a phenomenon in your newsroom.
Celebrate the little victories. Did you consistently finish your newscast an hour early this week?Treat yourself. Did you break two stories this week? Time to spoil yourself. Did you notice a coworker had an awesome week boosting ratings, owning a story etc? Tell them awesome job. This reduces stress immensely. Honor your goals, and honor the hard work of those around you.
Set realistic goals. Working in news will always be messy. It will be hard consistently. Once you accept that fact, then decide on simple ways to improve your work, your attitude and even your stress level. One step at a time is key here. Saying I will take a newscast from worst to first in 6 months for example is too much. Fixing a section of the newscast where ratings consistently dip, is more realistic at first. Reporters, you might not lead the newscast every night, but aiming to be one of the promotable stories for the day each day is a realistic goal.
This next idea is really important and really does require using a pen or pencil. When the stress is really building up during your shift, write down a list of your stressors. Get them on paper. Look at the list, then ball it up, rip it to shreds, do whatever feels right, and pitch the note. You can really digest those frustrations and look for patterns later. During your shift you need to be able to let them go, so you can focus and get the weight of them off of your shoulders.
Also I cannot implore you enough to use the EAP plan offered at work. This is the counseling service that offers anywhere from 3 to 6 free consultations with a therapist. This is anonymous. Your boss will never know. Every company offers this and frankly with the stress of TV News jobs every journalist should use this service. You deserve the chance to tell someone how you feel and why. It really can help you cope with everything you see each day. Especially now with so many heavy topics to cover constantly.
Please know you are not alone in this journey. Many of us understand what you are experiencing and there are ways to make your job more manageable stress wise. Try and foster connections with your coworkers who are living it too, and be kind to yourself as much as possible. If you need help, reach out.
In the past few weeks, I have seen several posts on LinkedIn either asking where are producers, or appeals from stations and broadcasting groups that frankly as of even a year ago would never have to worry about enough applications. This isn’t a surprise to me, since I talk with producers at all levels all the time, but it is a wakeup call for the industry.
Partner these posts with two more important factors: The rate of employees unionizing in the journalism industry is increasing, and a lot of veteran producers are posting about mental health issues and that they are getting out of the business as result. Now we have a better overall grasp of this issue. For a long time the broadcasting industry has recognized producing is a very difficult job. The industry conceptually understands that a big reason is a lack of training. Part of that happens at some J-Schools because frankly, producing needs to be an entire specialty track not just a course you take in case you cannot get that reporting gig. But there’s a bigger factor: Constant practical training needs to happen during a producer’s first job. Most “starter” newsrooms lack the staff to really do this. So producers have to train themselves through trial and error. Does that take grit and persistence? Yes. Does it weed out the weak of heart. Sure. But this isn’t the 1980’s anymore. The industry needs to understand that adding digital responsibilities along with making your own graphics and editing your own VO’s has made the job even harder than when you “bit the bullet and made it.”
The industry also needs to recognize that just because a producer made it for 3 years doesn’t make him/her an expert necessarily and the support needs to continue. No, these producers no longer need to be trained almost daily, but they do need to brainstorm how to showcase, they need to be encouraged how to make the newscast feel like they accomplished something more than slamming a bunch of stories on the air while barely able to even take a quick bathroom break then know they have to do the same thing the next day. Rising up in the producer ranks doesn’t make the job easier. Managers, you take on more responsibility as you move up. The decisions you have to make every day can be very hard, and draining. But you get to take breaks. You can schedule some downtime in your day to relax. And you should. It keeps you fresh, your brain power strong and your mental health more intact. Producers on the other hand, keep adding more complicated elements to their job. More showcasing, more problem solving about why a certain 5 minute period in their show suddenly is losing audience, more tweaking. It is a constant challenge with no real break. No real stride even if you are constantly putting out best effort as expected. This is a job that doesn’t let down. It gets easier in some ways, but the intense constant deadlines do not let you rest in your day. This has to be understood at higher levels. Your veteran producers are tired. They often feel taken for granted. They sometimes question, “Is this all I have to look forward to?” Eventually most realize, they can work smarter not harder in something other than broadcast news. So just when they are at maximum talent, just when they hit the so called 10,000 hour rule, many who don’t want to go into management, but are a huge talent quit. A loss the broadcast industry, with constant staff cuts, constant new editorial demands and constant pushes for savvier editorial techniques really cannot afford.
So how does the industry fix this problem? First let’s stop talking about journalism as a vocation. Yes, no matter what the work hours alone make this a passion type career instead of just a job. Yes, you need to really care about what you do. The issue is, for profit companies use the idea of this is a vocation to not properly compensate for expertise. The mindset is limiting. Executives in these groups are paid well and often receive bonuses for their advanced understanding of the nuances of this business. Seasoned producers need some caveats also. For years the pay issue has come up. Every excuse imaginable has been made. The bottom line is the news industry’s biggest commodity, largest asset, and greatest offering are the people who make its product, the news, credible. This isn’t just about profits, its about long term product stability. Telling veteran journalists who can offer so much insight to suck it up with yet another 2 percent raise and be ok with that because this is a vocation is piss poor. Without these producers, you have a weak product. Call up a newscast from a large market from 20 years ago, then look at modern newscasts at the same station. The new newscasts have more glitz, but focus on the journalism. There is no comparison in content. Viewers know it, that’s why they are looking online. They want facts. They want to be given real information and tools to analyze what is best for themselves, their families and the community at large. Veteran producers know how to do that and make it look good. You have to invest in that if you want the industry to survive long term.
Let’s go back to the need for producers period. You can shoot great stories from iPhones. You can produce news from anywhere now, with a computer and a WIFI link. It is time to spend a bit less on the latest equipment and invest in your people instead. Some broadcasting groups are hiring producers in training. Yes, it is a start in investing in the future. But this is a drop in the bucket. There has to be more investment in training and compensation from the beginning producing job until the last.
There also has to be more investment in listening to the needs of your producers. A key point of contention: No downtime. The tight constant deadlines make this impossible during a given day. But broadcasting groups could start offering more PTO time for producers. Some groups make you earn your time off as you work. Why not set up 2 weeks guaranteed time off at the start of the year, with opportunities to earn more time off as they put in extra hours for those specials, etc you ask them to do above and beyond their newscasts? Producers cannot just run to the doctor quick then come into work. They have to be there to monitor their shows from start to finish if you want high quality. So they need to take more days off.
To keep producers inspired many newsrooms essentially pit producers against each other in terms of who’s considered the best. It is very rampant and very toxic. There is an easy fix. Each newsroom needs to create mission statements for their newscasts that states purpose of the show, and audience goals. Every hour is a bit different this way. By focusing on the content needs, this helps producers stop demanding all the elements for their newscasts and helps them share more easily. Collaboration is huge if you are a producer. Fellow producers are the only ones who really understand what you go through each day. Closeness needs to be fostered.
There is so much more that can be done, but these suggestions really start to address what I hear most from producers. They need time off to regroup. They need support. They need to have each other to lean on. They need to truly be valued and have it shown by more than an occasional thank you and a “treat” brought to the newsroom once in a while. Those are nice gestures. But they need more. The lack of candidates tells you that in stark terms. So please broadcast industry wake up. Deliver. Everyone wins.
Survive is full of articles about how to write more conversationally as well. But this article is going to talk about a simple technique that frankly I am surprised hasn’t already come up in an article about cliche writing. It’s as simple as asking “Would you say that to your Mom?”
Yep, this question when writing, then scanning over your copy will catch so many errors, and especially cliches. It is a real tried and true technique veteran journalists have used many times over. And it bares repeating in an article on to itself. It is that effective.
You would not call your Mom and say “Hey there was a brutal murder and some residents nearby are scared.” You would not call your Mom and say “A blaze broke out two miles from the house.” Go down our cliche list, none of the phrases would be good for talking with Mom. None.
So let’s thank our parents for giving us a huge gift, teaching us the art of straightforward, conversational non cliche writing. They don’t use it on you. You don’t need to use it on the audience. So glad we had this talk 😉
This is a million dollar question in a lot of ways: How do I figure out what should be in a TV story vs a digital story? There are teams of researchers, consulting groups, and higher ups in the broadcast industry weighing this question every day. But you are a journalist, and you have to turn stories everyday right now while they ponder the future digital universe. So let’s lay out some common sense ground rules.
Necessary TV Elements:
Strong visual and/or emotional elements
Timeliness, especially if ongoing
Necessary Digital Elements:
Strong visual and/or emotional elements
Great Why or How elements
Great extra nuggets of information surrounding ongoing story
These lists look awfully similar right? The key differences are subtle but important.
Let’s jump into the TV elements list first. Wide Impact tops the list for a big reason, TV viewers are getting more finicky. We used to be able to just grab hyper local elements to fill up our local news sections and be fine. Not as easy now though. Viewers are likely two screening when watching TV so if a story or two bores them, you lost them to the other screen! So while remaining largely local, the story has to impact a lot of people. Let’s discuss the meaning of impact. That doesn’t mean a direct effect on the person watching necessarily. It can also mean a strong universal type tie. Think heartbreaking stories. My family isn’t impacted, but I sure care about the other family. Or I sit and thank my lucky starts that’s not my family. Just getting nitty gritty here. That’s why emotional elements are so crucial.
TV news needs strong visuals in its stories. The goal is for every story. That’s not always realistic, but try as much as possible. Especially in this day of big monitors and telestrations and 2d graphics. Discussing the visual impact of the story is as big as the community impact when considering a TV news story.
DMA impact is a little different but very key. There are times especially if you are the third or fourth place station that you want to cater to an underserved audience in your DMA. This helps serve the community better as journalists, and can help bring up ratings. These are important discussions to have to make sure TV stories are truly considering the entire audience, not just a chosen few. (Which can get into the whole idea of not just choosing stories you personally care about to cover. Your opinion is one opinion. Never forget that as a journalist.)
Timeliness is also very important. But this is going to sound half crazy to some, it needs to emphasize more developing type stories, instead of just breaking news. Why? Because digital does breaking news better unless it is a HUGE event in which you are in continuous coverage. Admit that and you will start to produce more relevant stories for your viewers. It is too hard for TV to beat digital. Breaking news desks need to cater to digital first. But you cannot put clearly dated stories into newscasts. That’s where strong data driven journalism is starting to come into play. You have started hearing broadcast groups mention that they want to focus on hard hitting investigative journalism locally. That’s smart. That’s going to provide the key information that will drive audiences to a TV newscast. I want to see that reporter I trust spell it out for me. Then I can research more and see if I agree. That’s what journalism was about for a long time. But TV news went too heavy into pictures and immediacy and not enough into impact. That’s what hurt TV. It’s time to go back to the basics, with a little more showcasing savvy than TV news of the 80’s for example.
Now the digital list. Immediacy is first for obvious reasons. You check your phone to see what’s happening right now. What if I missed something? Due to content constantly changing people are constantly checking. That doesn’t change for local news. You have to have new elements all the time that make sense. Immediacy.
Impact is next. Just grabbing breaking news from all over the world will not impress local audiences. Research shows this for TV viewers and it is not different for internet users for local TV news websites. I promise you do not do it as well as HuffPost/Politico etc. Focus on what the audience wants. Local stories that could make a difference for them or someone they know.
Strong visual and/or emotional elements. Think Instagram mentality here. You go on the app thinking you have 15 minutes to burn and an hour later, you are still looking at posts. Same with Pinterest. Give them great information they can relate to and suck them in with a great image or video. The human brain cannot resist.
Great why and/or how elements are crucial too. It can be really hard to catch everything stated on TV. Consumers are grabbing their phones, starved for more information. They can read the digital story more than once. They can highlight words and research more things. They can really get into the nitty gritty of stories and subject matter they want to understand. This is where we journalists can inform, teach and frankly be relevant again. Give them the facts they crave. Delve into what so many feel is so hard to get right now, understanding.
Sometimes that understanding is a whole series of special reports. Sometimes it is simply the last element of our digital story list: extra nuggets of information on a developing story. This is especially true if your next newscast is not for hours. Keep covering the most relevant stories. Add elements, even a few lines with an updated time stamp under the byline. It helps you get more clicks, more loyalty and more impact. And extra nuggets are usually easy to find and explain. These often become the old “water cooler” elements that people want to share with friends and coworkers. Especially now that everyone wants to show they are in the know and frankly relevant themselves. The psychological draws of digital are crucial to consider throughout your story selection process.
Hopefully these guidelines will make your day to day job a little easier while the big wigs duke it out over who has the big answer to digital.
This isn’t easy to admit. I get that. But if you keep writing fact errors, you need to own up to it and do these things to stop. In newsrooms nowadays, prevention techniques are not being taught much, and many times scripts aren’t being reviewed for accuracy. So you have to take ownership if you are writing errors, and fix the problem. Here’s how.
Look at multiple sources
If a fact doesn’t match ask for help
Copy paste the key facts
Make sure video fits
First and foremost, DO NOT JUST PASTE THE EARLIER NEWSCASTS SCRIPT AND REWRITE IT. Sorry to shout at you but this is a cardinal sin in TV news. Do not do it. I don’t care if everyone else does it. Do not do it. Here’s why. If that script has an error, you will repeat it. Even more important, if that script doesn’t have a fact error, your rewrite can easily create one. Its just the simple truth. Do not do it. I know it saves time. I know it means if you don’t get your writing done you still have a script there that can be read during the newscast. Do not do it anyway. I will explain why when we get into context.
When you start writing stories, read several sources first. If its a wire story, also check online publications to see if the facts match. If you see several versions of fatality numbers, different spellings of names etc, red flag, someone is wrong. Now you need to figure out the truth.
If its a local story, pick up the phone and call an expert. Call the PIO. Call the hospital. Do what needs to be done to check the fact. If its a national story, call your affiliate feed line or a station in that DMA. If you are in the weeds, ask the desk for help or an anchor. Tell your EP there’s an issue. Raise the red flag high in the air and get backup.
As you see matching facts, copy paste those, and only those into your script. That way you don’t accidentally type the name in wrong, or any other fact. Before you start writing you should have a little bullet point list like this:
Police say accidental
Now write. Starting with something as simple as this outline should help you stick to the point and not embellish. Writing from another script tempts you to put your creative stamp on the story. Often that’s when context gets messed up. Seemingly subtle changes can really screw up the point and facts of a story. Remember as you write, keep it simple. One sentence per idea. One fact at a time. Short sentences. What’s the video showing? Reference.
Video counts as a type of fact. Often fact errors can occur because the wrong video is shown, or assumptions are made about the video that are incorrect. You need to know what you show.
This system will take a little longer initially, but the payoff is worth it. And once you get the system down you will write as quickly as if you duped a script and did a rewrite. Best of all you will be factually correct. You will be credible. And you will have more job security.
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
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.
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.
If you read industry blogs, you have seen plenty of cases of reporters tweeting a smiling face at a murder scene, natural disaster or some other similarly toned story. Facebook postings about meeting the national correspondent hero and taking a selfie get plenty of critiques too. This occurs often enough that one has to ask why? Why do so many continue making this mistake?
The answer is two fold. First, many think in order to show they are at a scene, they have to show themselves in that scene. Second, like it or not, many journalists become rather immune to the scenes around them. In a sense you become less sensitive while in the middle of the moment. Part of this is a survival tactic. The stories covered are often hard to take. This is a natural human reaction. But it is a part of the biz, that the viewer does not want or need to understand. If they do get a sense of it, it comes across as trivializing the story, its impact and the viewer.
Many stations provide little to no guidance on how to handle sensitive issues while on social media, even though you are required to post. So let’s create a checklist you can have on hand to help yourself navigate a tough situation when you are emotionally impacted, the deadlines are intense and you are trying to fulfill your obligations without a lot of time to stop and think.
Before you post ask yourself:
Does a selfie help cover this story?
What is the tone of my coverage today?
How will this tweet/FB posting define my image as a journalist?
Yes, these questions are heavy. That’s why we are going to look at how to answer each one before you are at a serious story. If you know how to quickly gage the answers then this list is a simple reminder that could keep you from making a big mistake that hurts credibility.
Let’s tackle the first question. Does a selfie help cover the story? Why do you want to put yourself into the image in the first place? Again, we are focusing on a serious story. Did you just meet the hero who saved the day? Do you want an image of you talking with that person? Did you just get an exclusive look at an element? Do you want to show yourself getting a tour of the crime scene for example? A look at the fire line? Then ask, is the image as effective if you show just that hero, or just that fire line and you are not in the image at all?Again, a lot of reporters innately think they have to show that they are on the story to really be on the story. But I am going to ask you to consider a social media selfie the way you should consider the use of a standup. If there is a way to let the story tell itself with images alone, then you do not need to be part of it. If you are describing something, pointing something out or connecting two things and your physical presence adds to understanding, then having you in the shot is appropriate. But that doesn’t mean a selfie. Have the photographer you are working with take a pic of you talking to the subject or being given that tour of the scene. If you are an MMJ, consider asking someone you trust to snap it for you. If you must show yourself at a scene, it should be a shot that shows you actively engaged in covering the story. When is the last time you saw a network 2-shot with the correspondent and the interview subject standing side-by-side, grinning? Selfies send a very different tone when you really think about it.
Speaking of… What is the tone of my coverage today? Often the answer to this is going to rule out selfies. If the tone is to show the intensity of the shooting scene, how does a selfie convey that intensity appropriately? If the post celebrates a rescue in flood waters, what will your physical presence do to make that more clear in a still shot?
Then there is a question of your legacy. That might sound corny, but it is true. Really every FB post, serious story or not, applies. The industry is small. It can be ruthless. You do not want to be the subject of this comment: “Wait that person looks familiar. Oh, that’s the genius who smiled at the mass murder scene.” Every post, every tweet, every Instagram image has to portray you as the type of journalist you want to be. That is hard. You will not get every posting right. But you want to avoid major gaffes. Especially when covering a serious story. The two questions above should help you, so that by the time you get to this question your gut knows what to do.
If you get to a large scale story and meet your mentor, take a picture with the person if there’s down time. Just don’t post it. It really only matters to you anyway. Why take the risk of putting it on your work accounts, and have some think you are insensitive? In terms of your private account, just remember no account is truly private when you are a journalist. Check your privacy settings and know you could still take some risk.
Bottom line, serious stories are hard enough to cover in a Tweet, Facebook post, or Instagram image. Unless your presence in the shot is really crucial for the viewer to understand the story, the best option is to avoid a selfie. The fact that you are posting is enough to show you are there. You have to do all you can to protect your credibility. Selfie’s often just are not worth it while on a serious story. Better to go conservative, and decrease your risk of seeming insensitive. Now am I saying never do a selfie? No. But this article is about serious stories. Stories that stir intense emotions of sadness, fear, anger, pain or frustration. Happy stories, inspiring stories and some stories discussing challenges could open the door to selfies. The litmus test above will help you know when.
For months, articles have been posted on LinkedIn and publications that report on media, about the growing decline of applicants for TV news jobs. I have written quite a few myself and touched on something important that needs to be said in more blunt terms, so it hopefully resonates better.
Journalism can be a vocation that warrants, even commands good pay. From the time I entered J-School, aspiring journalists were told this is a calling. This is a vocation. This job is hard and you will pay your dues and you may never make a lot of money. But you will love the job. There is nothing else like it. Or is there?
A lot of outlets allow you to tell stories, research issues, explain concepts to communities and most importantly help you advocate for others. The vocational element of journalism is not the top sell anymore. Read that again. This calling is rapidly losing appeal. There are other outlets that can and will feed journalists’ souls.
Broadcasting companies push this it’s a calling, vocation attitude. It’s a reason given for not being able to pay well throughout newsrooms. It is time for broadcasting groups to understand that several generations’ worth of the workforce, don’t agree. They want good pay and feel the training they got warrants the money. It is also easier than before to look up and understand the huge pay differences between newsroom employees, station managers, and the executives telling you, not to push too hard on the money, it’s a calling and privilege to be a journalist. I am asked all the time if that is true, shouldn’t that apply to the executives as well? In addition, many stations are making good money, even though the pandemic. Journalists understand this. They know there is potentially more money available, but the corporate level is not releasing as many funds as it could. One of the most common reasons given is because the company has to research and create digital platforms. While true, there is a missing link that needs to be stated clearly.
Executives need to understand, the commodities that make the company profitable, are the journalists. They to a large degree are the product, because their critical minds, fact-finding training, and ability to boil down complex material so the community can absorb the information is what the executives sell. Journalism has to be done well, to make it viable long term. Cheapening the product has led to issues with credibility and frankly relevance. Put it on any platform you want. If the product is weak, it will not sustain anywhere. Discerning minds are the most precious resource a newsroom has. Invest in the brains of the room.
Going to more digital products makes sense, but you still need skilled professionals with the ability to share information in a relatable way. In fact that commodity is still absolute. The platform is secondary. So it is frustrating to see the same issue happening with digital producer pay. Many make even less than the TV content generators. Yet this is the platform of the future. Please explain the logic?
Journalists should not be shamed for asking to make a livable wage and rewarded for the training they received. In fact, it’s time to do more comparison research to see what other content creators make and raise producers, reporters, and digital content creators’ salaries. The initial sting is going to be cheaper than the cost of letting this issue continue to fester. Journalism has suffered enough. Credibility is too at risk.
Journalists can and should want to make good money. They take on a lot of responsibility and sacrifice a lot of time with their families. Being a doctor and a politician are vocations too. But you do not see people in these roles struggling to pay their bills each month. It’s time to pay journalists their worth, recognizing this reality instead: Journalists are experts, skilled, highly marketable, and extremely important to a well-functioning society. Let that role reflect more in their pay. The pandemic has created an opportunity to restructure. Why not start to design these changes now?