Should my opinion count? Taking a hard look at story decision making in newsrooms today.

The goal of this article is to spark conversation, much like the article “What is hard news really” did when we first published it. If you attend morning or afternoon editorial meetings chances are you know these phrases well “I am just not interested about that” , “Who cares” or “I don’t care so our viewers won’t either, after all I am the demo.”  When cut outs of the key demo figures showed up in editorial conference rooms, it made an underlying issue come to the forefront of decision making:  Doing the news I care about instead of what may need to be covered. Presumed biases.

I get what consultants were trying to do, showing off a Michelle or Jennifer cut out of a mom who loves to workout and go shopping. But designing entire brands around getting these idealized people to watch really hurt the business in a lot of ways. People are not caricatures. And to be even more blunt, journalists should never assume most of their audience thinks like them. Sometimes you have to take some time off as a journalist to really get this, but journalists brains sort information and relevance differently after awhile. In other words, you can get jaded. Or you can put too much relevance on an issue in the community with biased reasoning. Getting regular access to research can help you avoid some of this. But research nowadays is done more for the quick fix branding issue than truly digging into community needs. It shows. It hurts credibility. Even worse a lot of companies are dumping research options to “do it themselves.” Then the bias really comes in. The “well I don’t care about that story,” rejections become daily reasoning. 

This has been a problem for years. Check out our article on how to get around stories the GM wants, for example. Story selection for the good of the community will never be perfect. There will always be a need to humor the cut out Jennifer a little bit. There is always a desire to get the key demo to watch in order to get the ad revenue to allow your station to do more news. I am not going to say this issue is an easy fix. But I am going to say that more newsrooms need to put stories through a quick viability test that is more profound than the ND or EP or producer saying “ I don’t care about that story, pass.” Journalists step in and out of many communities, many micro worlds so to speak. To be great connectors, investigators and fact finders you must start with wondering why others care about something you don’t find interesting.  

Let’s take a look at the tried and true WIFM (What’s in it for me?) consultant story selection strategy that survive has written plenty about in the past, and let’s make it more inclusive for todays newsroom editorial meetings.  

The what’s in it for me question is supposed to consider impact with emotional relevance. It sparks a reaction that is immediate and needs validation. The problem is station brands took the “for me” part of the question too far. What if you ask these questions instead about each story pitch: Who benefits? Who is hurt? Why is this happening? How will groups/communities/politicians /companies relate to the event/fact/study/crime etc?

See the difference? I may not personally have an interest in a story about more dogs on the loose in a neighborhood on the other side of the DMA. I may not even like dogs. But I will care if people are being bitten and/or people are pushing for rights to go unleashed. Could this idea spread to my neighborhood?

These simple questions can apply to any kind of news. Road closures, fires, court cases, political debates, medical breakthroughs, tech stories, economic trends. The questions quickly identify the impact. More importantly they can help reduce the influence of personal biases. Asking why others care about a story can help analysis become more objective. Maybe it can even make the viewer feel like you actually do care about them,  because you take on a variety of topics instead of easy grabs that truly impact a narrow audience. Your newsroom.   Your opinion needs to be one voice. And other conflicting voices might have the better story for the day.

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Know your why. How to start to develop an online brand as a journalist.

Its no secret the broadcast news industry is desperate to find a way to monetize its digital products. So far, mixed results.

There is an important factor that the TV news and frankly every industry is desperate to tap into. Influencers. They rule the internet. They make the big bucks and they are influencing public opinion in ways marketing and education experts are just starting to realize.

Because of this you need to start to create your own online brand as a journalist. You want to identify the type of influencer you would like to be before the bosses tell you how to act on social media.  Its really that simple. If you want to be true to the journalist you are, then get on it and get your brand defined.  But how?

Let’s start by defining these concepts for yourself.

Why are you a journalist to begin with?

What topics do you love delving into each day?

What kind of person do you want to actually be?

Heavy stuff right? Let’s not forget, your digital brand defines YOU. You are your most important commodity. So you need to soul search this. You need to be able to define who you are online, and why you are that way. Know your why. Otherwise you will be told what to be at some time or another.

So let’s dig into the first question. Why are you a journalist to begin with? This is the most important question you can ask yourself each day, and most important answer as you begin to define your brand. I am going to get harsh here. If you are a journalist because you want to wear pretty clothes on TV, this is not going to be an easy process for you. I know there are a ton of journalists out there showing off their fashion sense, and some are even getting endorsements but long term its not a good “look” for a journalist. Period. That answer makes you a want to be fashion influencer. So go do that. I am not saying posting an occasional image in a dress or showing off shoes or a tie is awful. But it should be an occasional reference rather than the main focus of your brand. Too many budding journalists are focusing on what they wear more than who they are and what topics they love. 

Now that we cleared that up, let’s talk about why you are a journalist. Not a personality. Not a host, a journalist. Are you super curious about the world? Can you not help but ask questions all day long about all kinds of things? Do you want to help hold people accountable for their actions? Do you love explaining things to people? All of these potential answers can help you start to define your brand.  Think about it. If you are super curious about the world, then start showing how you look into those curiosities. Boom, the start of a compelling brand with substantive posts. Same with the journalists that just love asking questions. Same with the accountability type journalists, although those might want some of their posts copy edited first for possible legal issues. If you love explaining things, think show and tell high tech style. Bet you can start to name off a bunch of topics right away already.

So let’s get more in-depth with topics. Some need to be highly relatable. Yep I am talking food, exploring the city you work in, surrounding areas and pets. These subjects should be incorporated into some of your tweets. Same with hobbies. Some behind the scenes at work posts are cool too. And a friendly reminder, makeup and fashion posts cannot be the main focus. Just an occasional mention. In fact all hobbies should be occasional mentions. Just enough to give a little personal insight, but not the crux of your journalist brand. 

When asking what topics you love delving into think of this more like a traditional beat. If you love education stories, retweet, research and engage in that topic. If you love politics do the same but take caution to never show an obvious bias. You are a journalist you must be impartial. And you likely have a work social media policy that demands impartiality. Love tech? Talk about it.  Love geeking out over space stuff? There’s a niche for that. Engage. If you have to interact with viewers several times a day for your job, at least half of it should be about things you love to check out anyway. 

Now let’s get into what kind of person you want to be. Influencers tend to provide “food for thought.” Not all of them slam their opinion down their followers throats. Some do. But more don’t. They use subtlety, a little self deprecating humor, and most serve up good doses of humility. Remember I am talking digital influencers, not TV pundits like Hannity. That’s a whole other ballgame. People are turning to digital to find “real” people instead of caricatures. If they want to laugh at a caricature, then they watch a few memes to get it out of their systems. That is an important thing to realize. Also do not put yourself on a perch above your followers. The online community is about collaboration, more than adulation. Even with movie stars, etc it is a chance to try and connect instead of just look up to them. Acting really authoritative will not last. You will tumble down. Exuding some confidence is fine. But make sure you watch and have a variety of types of posts. Not just ones that could be misconstrued as bragging. Stay, humble, real, and fair in your posts. Think of your online conversations like ones with a new friend you are getting to know. You want to showcase your interests to find a common bond. If you approach who you are on social media this way, you will do fine. 

Finally understand that developing a brand takes time. That’s why it is important to get on it, figure out who you are online and then stick to it. Give others time to find you, like you and then hopefully be impressed enough to continually engage with you. You want time to find and carve your niche in the topics you enjoy. And you want to get started and have a good foundation in place before your bosses come and tell you who to be online. So dive in, discover yourself more and enjoy engaging in things you love anyway. Its your best chance at success, and quite possibly influence online and in the industry.

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I keep writing fact errors. Help!

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 

Understand context

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:

House Fire

No injuries

Roads closed

(road names)

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.

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What do we do when this pandemic is all over? Why it’s not too early to start planning transition coverage.

I recently posted an article on lessons learned while covering the midwestern flood of ’93. It was an intense time for much of the region. We lived and breathed coverage for months. But luckily for me I had a news director who also understood that we had to help the community rise out of the floods with coverage of some stories that were not flood related. 

This newsroom, like many today did not have a lot of resources. And we were budding journalists, so source building was not something we really knew how to do. Our news director leaned on the management team to help coach and find those other relevant stories. At first it was a couple a week. Then one a day, and slowly as the water receded and people started rebuilding, our newscasts took on a new shape as well. Many of us feared that once you covered something that frankly was so easy to go out and find information about, it would be hard to transition into showing viewers we could find highly relevant stories on other subjects. But the prep work our managers did planning and coaching on beats helped make the transition easier.

Your newsroom is likely filled with more seasoned journalists than mine was back then. But I am going to argue that if you take a moment and really think about the last few years of news coverage, your room lost site of finding the very important factual events going on in your community. A lot of the industry has turned to reactionary coverage, often influenced by what’s trending online. What if, as you start to transition to more ‘normal coverage,’ you take the time to let some of your source builders look for great gets? I know we are entering surge time for COVID-19 in many areas of the country, but I want to plant this seed early. Once there is a dip, do you have reporters ready to tackle other relevant stories? Education, economic, financial and housing stories are going to be very important in the months to come. Why not take a   crew out of rotation every day or two and have them start gathering information and sources on these key subjects? Maybe they turn a vo or vo/sot now. But once the surge ends you can lean on them for key coverage.

Chances are you have a lot more viewers sampling your newscasts and websites than usual. As important as it is now to “own” coverage, you will only have a small window to win over those samplers and turn them into loyal viewers once COVID-19 coverage winds down. It is crucial to come up with plans to transition out of the coverage in terms of manpower and relevant stories. These samplers came to you for facts. Many are not loyal TV news viewers. But desperate times set off a deep psychological need for information. Look for ways to help some of your star reporters find informative, compelling stories that they can run with as the coverage eases up. That way your momentum stays up. The viewers see that you can bring all kinds of important information to them even when there’s not a pandemic. We cannot assume they think that now. Too many polls have shown that Americans have lost faith in news. It’s time to try and bring them back. Start having some key people in your newsroom source build and gear up to be ready while others continue with daily coverage. 

The stations which plan ahead and come up with transition scenarios to maintain high quality enterprise stories that show deep community roots will win. The stations which fly by the seat of their pants will showcase that flaw as the news of the day gets more run of the mill again. A little organization will go a long way to keep more of that sampling audience. So start thinking transition now.

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