Help! I’m in over my head.

This can be hard to admit, but it happens to everyone.  Cold sweats, waking up dreaming of your live shot or newscast crashing are all part of the gig.  Getting chewed because you cannot complete all of your work happens, especially with more stations lumping on extra packages or making people one man band.

Now let’s talk survival skills.  First, understand there is little to no training in newsrooms anymore.  It simply does not happen in the majority of cases.  Every shop is understaffed and half the workers are also in over their heads.  Many managers are drowning and lost too.  By the way, this is supposed to make you feel better.  That’s because these journalists are surviving and so will you.

Here’s what to do.  Find the go to person who gets the work done every day with little trouble and become a buddy.  Find out how the person does it and figure out how to do it yourself.  If you don’t feel comfortable simply asking, then hook up with others in the know.  For example, if it’s a reporter who you’re trying to figure out, request to work with that person’s favorite photographer. Then pick the photog’s brain.  Look online at the reporter’s past stories and look for patterns.  If a producer is your target, ask the newscast director what this person does to make script printing deadline or create killer teases.  Let’s say your writing stinks.  Don’t worry, this is common.  Figure out who the best writer is in the shop.  It’s easy to do.  Just listen to the anchors dish with each other, you will learn who it is quickly.  Once you do, start printing out this person’s scripts and look for common threads.  Then you can mimic the style.

There also is usually a manager that stays very calm in crisis.  That person will often give you advice if you just sit down and ask.  Managers are not all out to get you.  Replacing staff all the time is a pain and most would prefer not to deal with it.  It’s easier for them to do some training.  But you need to ask the right manager.  The news director is next to never the smart choice.  Often it is an executive producer or managing editor.  They are still in the trenches so they can still relate to what you are struggling with.  Once you identify the right person, ask for a critique of your work.  The manager will probably be thrilled you actually want to improve and talk your ear off.  They also tend to dish about their favorites in the shop.  Now you have a new set of names to watch and mimic.  Best of all, you will gain an advocate in management because you are not whining about how hard the job is, you are asking to grow.

 

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How to generate story ideas when you are swamped

Journalists are constantly told to source build and break stories.  Problem is, in many shops you are given two packages a day and have no time to work the phones and source build.  That’s what you think, but it really is possible.  There are ways to generate fresh story ideas that do not take a ton of time.  You also can source build.  It will take some of your too precious free time.  But the payoff is making you more valuable to the station.

So how do you come up with interesting stories when you have next to no time?  Here are some ideas to get you started.

First, some help for reporters.  Try and “befriend” one person a day while covering the news.  This could be the secretary you have to stare at while waiting for an interview, the officer telling you to wait behind the yellow tape, even the restaurant manager at a local dive where you bought a sandwich.  Ask them about themselves and hand out a business card.  Make sure you get their card too.  A few days later, send a quick email saying you really enjoyed your conversation.  If you learn the person loves a football team or has kids that like to play sports send email links to interesting stories every once in a while.  Bottom line:  Build a connection.  If you have time to write an update on Facebook, you have time to send a quick link to these new potential sources.

Set up a Twitter account and use it.  When we say use it, we don’t mean throwing up a meaningless self-serving plug for the story you are reporting on that very day.  Throw up a comment about something interesting you read about.  Mix up the comments so you are engaging to follow.  Give snippets of what it’s like to be a TV journalist each day.  But keep it positive.  Remember, employers and potential employers often research Twitter and Facebook accounts.  For example, don’t gripe about how much you “hate” your assignment to babysit a “dumb” police standoff.  But do mention that your feet sure do hurt after waiting two hours for the standoff to end.  The first makes you seem look childish, petty and unprofessional.  The second, however, makes you look real and is something your followers can identify with.  Twitter is an amazing resource most people are not using correctly.  It is a chance to tap directly into what people are thinking about each day and what they want to learn more about.  You will gain a following and, eventually, you’ll also start getting interesting tips.  The key to Twitter is creating a human connection not another shameless, weak marketing ploy that just ticks people off.  People on Twitter tend to obsess about being in the know, right now.  You will lock them in if you make them realize they can literally be your eyes and ears and that their ideas may actually make it on the news.

Next, contact the Better Business Bureau and county or state run groups that help small businesses get off the ground.  Let these organizations know you are building a list of experts.  This can help you when you are suddenly asked for an out of the box story on damage prevention during bad weather or the latest housing or computer scam.  These businesses need publicity and cannot, generally, afford to buy ads.  But they can afford to send you a quick email pitching ideas once in a while.

Look at blogs on local newspaper websites.  People go off on interesting things that sometimes turn into colorful television.  How about the guy with the American flag that is too big for the homeowner’s association by-laws?  Many of these kinds of stories turn up first in these blogs.

Now let’s talk about generating interesting stories if you are a producer.  Yes, it’s hard to source build when you never even leave the newsroom for lunch.  So use the computer to get ideas.  Search for blogs and groups online that target your key audience.  Then browse them several times a week for fresh information.  These groups constantly dish.  Also keep your ears open when you go to the gym, pick the kids up at daycare or stand in line at the grocery store.  You will hear what people are concerned about.  These tidbits can turn into interesting stories that you can “produce up” in your newscast.  Also look at the hottest video of the day online, then try and come up with a local spin.  A Twitter account can be a great asset for you as well.  Build your following in the same way we just laid out for reporters.

Finally check out what other stations around the country are covering.  Go to a few station websites in areas nearby and see what they’ve played up.  Often you can at least find a consumer story with universal appeal.

 

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A Manager Is Out To Get Me, Can I Save Myself?

Personality conflicts are a constant in newsrooms.  There are no shrinking violets and bluntness reaches new levels.  That said, there are times when it is obvious you aren’t just having a heated, “in the moment”, run in with a boss.  Sometimes that boss is singling you out and trying to wear you down.

Since this business is extremely subjective it is hard to fire people.  And despite what you might think, most corporations try to avoid firing when possible.   To an employer firing someone means paying unemployment as well as bankrolling a job search.  That’s not great for the bottom line.  Many corporations also fear lawsuits from firings.  So a common route to get rid of someone is to make their lives so miserable they walk out to spite the station.  Managers count on this.  But in this day and age, with such awful future job prospects, you probably want to avoid letting your temper get the best of you.  So here’s how to live with the daily grief.

Document.  This is true no matter what particular manager you are talking about.  You want to be able to show that the boss was unclear with expectations.  This is key because it helps eliminate “cause” (i.e. – a violation of written or well established policy or job duties) if you are fired.  Most newsrooms are too disorganized to provide two key things to protect themselves:  detailed job descriptions with a listing of duties, and  reviews.  Without them, companies are more likely to have to pay out unemployment and possibly part of your contract to get you to go away.  The reason:  they cannot show “cause” unless you don’t come to work or clearly violate a company policy or do not live up to your job duties.  Without a listing of your job duties and clear cut daily expectations, companies back themselves into a corner.  So if you have a manager that seems out to get you, make sure you ask what the exact expectation is each day.  That means when you get an assignment from that manager you end the conversation with, “So you want me to get this interview and package this way at this time?”  Then write notes on the conversation and any follow-ups so you have documentation.  Often as the day progresses much of what you discussed changes.  Does the manager or a producer call with the changes?  Often the answer is no and that works in your favor if someone is after you.  Newsrooms are notorious for being disorganized.  So when the end of the day comes and the manager calls and chews you out, you now have a legitimate response.  Listen, then let the person know that no manager, producer or assignment editor told you about the changes in expectations and that this oversight inhibits your ability to do your job.  Then you again write down the manager’s reaction to this conversation.  Make sure each time you document you include who called you, when and what they said.  Yes, this is tedious.  However, it may give you great leverage if you end up in human resources, being called on the carpet.  You want to be able to show a pattern of the manager changing the expectations or job duties, with no warning, causing you to be unable to perform your job properly.  The same is true if you are an anchor or producer.  Anchors, make sure you figure out if you are required to copy edit for fact errors in your newscast.  That is a key area where you could be set up.  Producers, demand that managers define the audience and writing style of your show.  Try to get those definitions in writing.  A great way to do that is to design a format template that lists types of stories placed in specific positions in the rundown.   Have a manager sign off.  That helps you create a job description and expectation.  If the playing field changes and you are not told to alter that template, it can help you protect yourself.

If a manager seems out to get you and that person oversees a particular day part, try to get a schedule change.  Turnover is always happening and you can use that to your advantage.  If possible establish a good relationship with the manager on the shift where you want to work.  That way if someone quits, you can ask for a switch and possibly get out of the bad situation before the manager that hates you can build a case.  Problem (often) solved!

Try to make sure when the manager threatens you, it is done in front of witnesses.  Remember, with most companies, you have the right to a witness when you sit down with a manager behind closed doors.  Most managers are taught to do this for their own protection and they are not going to offer you the same protection.  Usually a manager brings in another newsroom manager.  If that’s the case you can ask for the human resources person to come in.  The human resources person will probably side with management, but they are also very aware of corporate policies.  If that person sees that the manager simply has a personality conflict with you for example, the manager will often get a warning behind closed doors.  If you can show that you were not given a clear directive that day and are now getting in trouble, the manager will probably get a lecture behind closed doors.  If you are still leery of having human resources present there are other options.  If you are an anchor, your co-anchor could be a witness.  Reporters can have the photojournalist they worked with present.  Producers could ask an assignment manager or another producer to witness the conversation.  Having a co-worker present helps, because it ups the ante on the manager to exactly follow corporate policies.   If that person makes an error, you may have bought yourself enough time to find another job before you get the axe.

Fight fire with fire.  Confront the manager in a non-attacking way.  That sentence seems contradictory, but it’s not.  Here’s what to do:  Come in early or stay late one day and sit down one-on-one with the manager that is giving you hell.  Say you want to clear the air.  Let the manager know you respect him or her and the job the person does.  Often the manager will then fess up that you are not the problem, it’s actually a litany of other things.  The supervisor may even apologize for jumping on you.  No matter what, this conversation lets the manager know you are there to do a job and are willing to grow.   Again, it gets back to the manager’s responsibility to let you know about your job performance and what you can do to get better.  If the manager gets defensive and starts telling you that you stink and why, then you know where this person really stands and it’s time to get a witness for all future conversations.

Research this manager and find out the person’s quirks and weaknesses.  It is possible that you have a habit that gets on the person’s nerves.  If you can change your habit, the person may back off.  It really is a small price to pay when you consider the difficulty of trying to find a new job in the current economic climate.

If it’s the news director who seems to be coming after you, try to lay low especially if you are working at a chronic third or fourth place station.  These stations tend to go through news directors often.  So, odds are high in these stations, that if you can avoid the news director’s ire, he/she will be gone before you will.   Again, document, stay quiet and show up for work on-time.  Make it hard for them to let you go without some sort of compensation.  If the news director says you stink at producing, ask to work on the assignment desk.  If the ND says you are a bad anchor ask to report.  Buy yourself time to job hunt.  Some news directors are disarmed if you fight to stay and will give you a shot at the other job for a little while.

Finally, if you are fired, write a thank you note to the manager that had the problem with you.  Yes, write a “thank you” note.  Make it brief and complimentary.  Tell the person you appreciated the chance to work at that station and under that manager.  Wish that manager luck in future endeavors.  This is hard to do, but it might keep the boss from blackballing you later, when you’re looking for another job.  Remember, this business is very small and everyone knows everyone else.  Taking the high road never hurts you and could keep that now ex-boss from burning you again and again.

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“Rule The Word.” Write Killer Copy.

Think about who you respect most at your shop or your dream TV station.  Usually it’s the people who produce stories or newscasts you cannot turn away from.  That person knows the secrets of compelling television writing.  Now we are going to dish the secrets they know.  We’re going to teach you how to “rule the word” and write killer copy.

When you attend writing seminars on Saturday mornings at the station, you are told a lot about active voice, introducing sound bites, cause and effect, writing to video and strong lead sentences.  Here’s why: These techniques help you boil down the story.  What we will outline here, should help you do that even more and in a way that’s easier to understand and execute.

All of the techniques you hear are trying to get you to find and showcase the human element of the story you are covering.  This goes for reporter and producer copy.  In order to figure that out you must understand the facts of the story but more importantly you must understand how the story impacts people.  An easy way to do that is to take a look at the facts, then write down your personal reaction to the story.  Think about your spouse’s reaction and maybe what your best friend would say.  Is there a common link?  How did people react in the newsroom to this story during the daily editorial meeting?  This gut check will help you draft interesting copy beginning, middle and end.  The key is acknowledging your personal reaction and the reactions of others.  You want your copy to cause a similar reaction with viewers.

Next, consider which fact really gnaws at you in this story.  That is the fact you need to lead with.  Here’s an example.  Once we covered the story of a highway patrol trooper who was shot and killed during a traffic stop.  Turns out the person he pulled over was a serial bank robber.  The officer was young and just recently began patrolling on his own.  It took a long, wild, police chase and shootout to catch the bank robber.  People across several counties were impacted by detours because of the shooting and resulting chase.  Our station had video of the shot up police car, a picture of the trooper who was killed, lots of incredible video of the police chase and the takedown from the station news chopper.  We also had sound with the patrolman’s former training officer that said the downed patrolman always promised his wife he’d wear his bullet proof vest, as well as sound from the feisty sheriff who ordered his men to shoot at  the suspect’s car to stop him on a busy interstate.  (Obviously this was a team coverage scenario.)  Guess what we opened the newscast with?  We started with a photo of the trooper, then dissolved to video of the shot up cruiser in which he died.  Yes, we chose those shots over incredible police chase video.  Why?  By waiting, we made the chase video which we showcased next, have meaning.  We tied those two shots; the man and his shattered car window with lines similar to these:

Highway Patrol Officer Eric Nicholson promised his wife, he’d always wear his bullet proof vest so he’d come home to her. Today, the vest didn’t matter.  He died in a hail of bullets and shattered glass.

In an era when newscasts across the country featured near daily car chases and officers being shot, we had to make that trooper real to the audience, because he was a real person.  His simple promise to his wife made him one of us.      

Need more convincing?  Watch how news stories play out on the internet.  At first you see tweets with just the facts.  Then emotions start coming out.  People go on Facebook and start writing how they feel.  Blogs pop up and people start talking about how they feel and ways to try to change what happened.  They talk impact right away.  Most television stations tend to stick to the facts with a few gratuitous sound bites, hoping that’s enough to carry the emotion throughout.  Instead, for many viewers, it comes off forced, shallow and even trite.  Television stations that do it come across as stale and out of touch. Writers who “rule the word” immediately showcase the impact to avoid being trite.

Now that you’ve identified the facts that will trigger a real human emotion in your audience, use them to create a beginning, middle and end to the story.  Here’s another example; a fiery crash blocks traffic during rush hour.  By all means, show the flames.  Then get to the impact right away.  Let sound from witnesses set up each part of the 5 w’s you need to cover.  Show someone shaking his head at the long line of traffic, then show a map of what’s blocked off.  Describe what people are doing in line.  Describe whether the firemen look particularly worn out from the fire or need more chemicals.  Take the audience inside the story like no Twitter headline can.  Weave in human elements throughout the story.  When you show one of the firemen, say if he’s a veteran and is tired of seeing these kind of crashes.  Was he hoping to avoid this kind of call one shift this week?   Keep the story real while presenting the facts.  Have a reporter and/or photographer drive the detour route and time it, so people know when they need to leave to get around the mess.  A meaningful line here and there will make your copy rock because you will tell a story.

When you write any kind of news story, engage the senses.  This involves more than just writing for the ear and the eye.  If you can, describe what the fire smells like.  How far away can you feel the heat?   If you can consistently engage two senses at a time throughout your copy, viewers will not turn away.  For television, that means marrying video and news copy.  Describe the video, but not so closely you detach the audience from it.  You want your copy to add another layer to the video you are showing.  Applying interesting facts is a strong way to do this.

This may seem like a lot of work, but it isn’t.  Once you get a little practice, this is a much easier and engaging way to write.  The words really do seem to type themselves.  You also become more personally invested, so you tend to double check your facts more and write fewer errors.  The stories become real for you as well, not just another bit of copy you have to pound out on deadline.

If this still seems strange or cheesy to you, consider one last thing.  While viewers are watching your work on television, most are also on the internet nowadays.  They hear something you say and look it up and start paying attention to the copy on the computer screen instead of your work.  Then they might start surfing YouTube to see if there’s any home video.  Why, when you’re showing them video on the television screen?   It’s because a regular person shot the home video, someone just like the viewer on the computer.  You don’t count as a “regular person.”  You are a detached journalist.  Now consider this.  While those viewers are online they are looking for a way to influence the story, whether it’s with more facts so they look smarter at work the next day or by finding a blog where they can throw their own two cents in.  They ignore the rest of your work.  Marketing researchers call it “continuous partial attention.”  That is what you are up against every day.  This is a far cry from the old lectures about people getting ready in the morning so you should “write for radio.”  For many, you are not the expert with final say.  You are the journalist who gets an idea into a viewer’s head (if you are lucky!) just before the viewer runs away with it.  While your news managers sweat over how to capitalize on the internet reaction to TV coverage, you have one job:  Making sure the viewer doesn’t turn away from the TV.  Letting viewers feel the emotion and/or impact of the story always sells.  Especially if you can engage viewers senses better than an internet story or video.

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