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.