How to tell if you are putting too much information into a story.

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

The sell

Video available

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.

VO’s.

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. 

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What does the WTOL morning clip say about the industry?


It’s no secret TV news is “finding itself” right now. There’s a lot of experimentation. A lot of questioning and a lot of talk of “speaking at the key demo’s level.” We see this play out in the clip that’s gone viral from WTOL, that was meant for school kids only. 

Outlets across the nation, initially took this as either a real newscast clip hor a web piece for a general audience. Then they started backtracking and letting people know it was not for a general audience in any way. Just check out the updated mentions at the end of most articles. You can see where they changed their copy to say it was not actually broadcast for news viewers. Heck, I even shook my head and wondered for a minute. Why did any of the journalists that reported on this actually believe it could have aired in a regular morning time slot at all? 

Well, there is a news set. There are also news anchors and news graphics. All of that is evidence of TV news production. But a great many of the journalists who initially covered it did not stop and think of context. They did not, I believe, because TV news has lost context for the majority of people, especially fellow journalists. It just seemed like the latest wacky attempt to try and get younger viewers to watch.

In actuality, it was a video WTOL’s morning team produced to give kids a boost during standardized testing. That was the intended audience. Kids. Not a general TV news audience. Kids who needed a pep talk. It was never meant to be widely viewed outside of that one, small, specific group.

There is another reason this was widely considered to be an actual news clip: You could click and watch the video and it was published on Facebook Live like a lot of actual “news content.” Yes, the station put this up on it’s Facebook page. A place where you can get news for the general public. This gets into some very deep questions for journalists today. What does it take for a clip to be “real news.” Some critics are standing behind their stance that this really was a ridiculous stunt which will impact the anchors credibility long term. That’s because you can easily watch it any time. It was published in a place where actual content meant to be considered news coverage is placed as well. Once something can be easily accessed, the insinuation these days is that this is “real journalism.” To the masses this became an actual news clip, even though it never was on the air. For many a digital element, combined with video, equates to truth. And watching is the only context they need. Intention apparently means nothing.

Intention means understanding the point. It means understanding facts revealed in the clip. It means understanding why certain words were used, why this was put together in the first place. Understanding intention and context means stopping, considering facts and if anything seems off, asking why? And, at that point, it also means getting clarification and doing some fact checking.

WTOL had to publish its own explanation of why in defense of critical articles. hA lot of journalists rushed to judgement and worked to get an article up on how ridiculous this was as fast as they could do it. Consider that for a moment. This was a story about fellow journalists and journalism. That is the very thing the writers of many of the articles do every day. Journalists should truly understand techniques well enough to quickly determine this had to be for something other than general news, even if it was on Facebook. If they do not, how can we expect the audience to understand it? And the station should have sent the clip to the district in a way that ensured only the schools would have access. This incident further shows that stations are unclear what the purpose of their digital imprint can be to credibility. Frankly it impacts more than your daily on air product. The simple reason why? We can keep watching this clip a week/month/year later.

Too harsh you say? How is audience retention going at your station? 

The fact this clip went viral and the reasons why must be addressed in the TV news industry. This must be addressed in journalism programs. And these harsh realities must be realized and fixed now.
h

  1. Showcasing that gets so out of hand, it alienates and frankly insults viewers
  2. Stations talk at the viewer instead of with the viewer
  3. Facts which appear as afterthoughts to many viewers

I have a front row view of how broadcasting groups nationwide are attempting to retain audience and get those highly desired digital customers. I hear all about it, constantly.  Media groups’ plans all have one thing in common: Emphasizing the packaging more than the substance. Hey, I love showcasing. I love the bells and whistles. But showcasing needs to have a point. If you wrap a day old, smelly, sandwich in pretty paper and tie a bow on it, it still is a day old, smelly, sandwich! And viewers have a much keener sense of smell than you think. They do not appreciate you thinking they are dumb enough to fall for your packaging alone. They want you to actually do the hard work. They want you to dig up the information. They want you to check the truth in those statements, list the facts and keep it fresh with legitimately new information.

Speaking with viewers means showing the respect to provide substance and not parroting back catch phrases or lingo you think makes you seem cool. Appearances are not enough. You have to actually be in the know. And viewers, even middle schoolers who love the word “yeet”, are smart enough to understand if you are talking at them and not with them. Getting “real” means being vulnerable. And in news that means knowing enough about the story you are presenting, that you can truly boil it down then be brave enough to take questions and provide answers. In real time.

The dream audience that seems so unattainable to so many has an easy request for you: Give me real facts. Give me real substance. Trust me enough to show you believe I can understand your stories without dumbing it down and putting pretty banners and animations all over it. Have cool vids to share? By all means, put it up on the B.A.M. and talk about it. Viewers appreciate that. But follow up with the harder information. Why did this happen? How did this happen? What’s next? Those answers usually involve understanding the community, having sources and being able to look for patterns and clues.

Enough focusing almost solely on the cute clothes and pretty new sets, B.A.M.’s and new text lingo graphics. Show off your brains more than your braun. Get real. Really real! Ask the tough questions. List facts. Talk about how they are verified. And speaking of verifying: Fact check more than the latest cheesy trending topic. If you want to really be groundbreaking in the industry then hire researchers to help your MMJ’s look up information, fill out FOI requests and dig up real ground breaking stories.

And next time you want to talk with kids who are burned out on testing, to help a district get real with the students, speak with the kids. Not at them. Do something like this: “Another big test day coming up. You might be getting nervous. But you have a right to prove what you know and show what you still need to learn. This is a way your teachers and the community can see how to best support you. So be brave and go for it. We believe in you and want you to have everything you need.”

Sure beats showing you can use the word “yeet!” Maybe then fellow journalists can more easily discern the intention of the piece. Because it will make sense. It has clear context. And it shows respect to the viewers. This is something a lot of seasoned journalists seem convinced just doesn’t happen much anymore.

Expect more than gimmicks. Expect old school fact checking. Believe in Journalism instead of lingo and flashy graphics. Then clips like the WTOL school test will clearly be for something other than “real news.” 

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Can We Rethink Live Shots?

It is time to talk about live shots: Why do them and how do they benefit the viewer? This is not the first time Survive has talked about live shots, (You know our logo shot!) including how to make a boring location more compelling, especially at night. But this issue keeps cropping up, so let’s focus on it again. Live shots are such a tremendous part of the day-to-day news cycle. Yet they are misused much of the time. They really are.

Here’s why I say that. Live shots which are just “live for the sake of being live” used to be a common marketing gimmick in the 90’s and had a real, beneficial purpose. First, it’s hard to believe now but, back then not everyone could go live everywhere. Also, if people could drive by the truck with your station logo on it, they would know you are live, in their neighborhood (or hot zip). See the station cares! But let’s think about how most live shots are now being done. Many are using backpack live units. Some newsrooms use cell phones or tablets to go live. The marketing/PR benefit of the big live truck with its mast up is really not as relevant.  

So let’s talk about why so many managers still push live for the sake of being live. (In case that term is confusing, that’s when there is no active scene or anything else to show viewers. You are standing in front of an empty building, or at the location of a scene that has been cleared.) These managers think that putting up a live chyron makes it seem like the story is immediate, relevant and therefore worth putting down your phone or tablet to only watch the television for a moment. That is wrong. Period. It also is lazy.

Live shots are effective in this digital age when you can actively show something happening. Viewers are used to seeing people live in front of action. A live chyron is simply not good enough to make something seem important or relevant, when it is not. It looks stale, feels like a trick or has no impact at all depending on how observant a particular viewer may be. Most don’t even notice the live chyron unless there is action in the shot. Go through viewer diaries and focus groups and you quickly learn this. The live chyron is just not that impressive. The action is the attention grabber.

Now, managers, I know what you are thinking: “But we have to have our crews spread across the DMA in case of breaking news. So why not also get a live shot out of the deal?” I am going to argue that it would be more effective to have those crews stationed around the market, turning in packages with interesting stand-ups which showcase and interacting with viewers on social media. Now that doesn’t mean making them do a Facebook live hit at the empty building. I mean actually interact. Look at posts from viewers and like ones that are appropriate. Look for something that might be a story for tomorrow. Try and get some facts. Be ready to take off on that breaker. Bottom line: Instead of standing in front of an empty building or a dead, boring scene, waiting on time cues, it would be far better to focus on providing extra information on digital platforms and/or find the next good stories to cover. Staffing is not getting any larger, and reporters could use extra time to search for stories, talk with sources and showcase more information online. How often do you lament the fact that reporters do not have good pitches in editorial meetings? This is an opportunity to give them some time to find the good stories. Yes, this is a big change in thinking for some of you. But it could revolutionize how you gather information and make your news gathering better and more efficient. 

If there is an active scene, of course, show it off. Do multiple hits if there is new information. To be clear, if a court hearing is about to wrap up, that’s an active scene. If people were just taken to the hospital and you are at the hospital waiting on condition reports, yes, that is an active scene. Sometimes you cannot get around being live in front of a building. But far too often there is no point for a reporter to stand somewhere live, other than the EP said the reporter “has to be live.”

To wrap up,  live shots are a great part of television news when done correctly and in a way that has impact. That means showcasing an active scene, being at a scene because new information is imminent or being able to walk through the remnants of a scene and visually showcase what happened. All of these examples help the viewer gain greater understanding of the story. If there is nothing to show, and no new information about to come from the scene, skip the insistence on the live bug. Instead allow the crew to focus more on digital coverage, source building or story gathering for the next day. That’s how the TV industry should rethink live shots. Viewers will reward you for it.

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How to break down a lot of information.

Lately this question has come up a lot in my coaching role. The journalist has complicated stories that seem like they should make air. But it is so hard to boil the stories down, they try to avoid the content. This is a natural phase in learning to be a journalist. Let’s talk about some basic guidelines to help you put that story in the newscast, without lunch bagging it with too much information to understand the point. First let’s talk package techniques.

Simplifying Package Information
Think Set Up
Package focuses on impact and video support
Substantive tag of key facts you need to report, but that don’t work well in package

Unfortunately, many news managers need to read this section as well. They often insist on lunch bagging all the information into the reporter package. Then, they get ticked when the package is long, repeats video and seems hard to understand once it airs. So let’s really walk through these steps and the key reasons each step exists so all can see the benefits.

First, you have to start at the beginning. (I know that sounds ridiculous, but if I had a dollar for all the times this hasn’t happened, I would be rich.) The beginning means two things, today peg, and key background as to why this today peg matters. For example, state lawmakers decide to allow guns on college campuses. The house voted yes, now the senate has too. So you start the coverage of this story with a historic vote today in the state senate. Lawmakers voted to allow guns on college campuses. The senate just passed the measure by a vote of… and last week the house voted in a similar plan. If the governor signs it… this would mean people on college campuses could carry a gun with a permit. This sets up the story, it may or may not have video that usually is boring, and it gets the viewer thinking of questions about impact. You can use video as a set up, or graphics or a combo of both. The point is to lay out why the viewer should watch the upcoming package.

You will then pick one or two key elements describing impact for the package focus. The reporter does not need to tell the viewer that the house voted and the senate voted now because the set up took care of that. The package needs to center on what will this mean when it goes into effect. Is law enforcement ready for this change? Will campuses put in metal detectors? Are professors signing up for classes to learn how to use a gun and get a permit? Pick one of these ideas and package it.

The tag then needs to have key facts to sum it all up or move it forward. When will this go into effect? How long does it take to get a permit? Think really useful information you can quickly summarize.

Now let’s look at how to breakdown a very complicated story as a producer. Sometimes you have to update a complicated court case for example, and it needs to be short and sweet. Many producers just write a 50 second vo and hope that’s ok. This is a key area where you can segment a story out, so it has nice flow and you keep things simple. Think 1 main point per vo. Today Joe Smith will be sentenced for the murder of Sue Smith. Smith was murdered by her husband three years ago. WIPE VO You might remember this case because the kids spoke out that Joe Smith abused their mom for years. (kids crying) Their testimony set off discussions nationwide about domestic abuse. WIPE VO The murder happened as the couple’s oldest child called 911. The 911 operator could hear the shooting.
ON CAM TAG Now the kids are being cared for by relatives. The Smith children will not be in court today, relatives fear seeing their dad again will cause too much pain. This kind of story can really bog down a producer. You don’t want to leave out the emotional pull of the story with the kids and the 911 operator. But you are told to keep stories short and sweet. By sectioning each part out, it feels like several stories in terms of pacing, increases the writer’s chances of keeping each part short and sweet and gets all the information in the newscast in a more compelling way.

You can apply this principle to all kinds of complicated stories like tax reforms, school testing results, updates on cold cases and economic stories. Think 1 idea per element you are using. You do not always have to wipe among vo’s. With on-set video monitors so prevalent now, sometimes the first element references a wall image or vo, then you take the next element full etc. The bottom line is think visual pacing, it will help you really boil down the elements and get to what matters.

The other big takeaway to remember when boiling down a complicated story, is no matter what format avoid lunch bagging all the facts. You have to give some sort of visual cue, for each main point you make. Complicated stories have multiple main points you feel you must cover. So think of the story as several mini stories in one, so you can make sense of the most important information and clearly present the facts to the viewer.

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