How to figure out what should be in your TV story vs your digital story.

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:

Wide Impact

Strong visual and/or emotional elements

DMA Impact

Timeliness, especially if ongoing

Necessary Digital Elements:

Immediacy

Impact

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. 

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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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Lessons learned from the Flood of ’93. The crisis that seemed like it would never end.

You’ve heard it said, often, “this is uncharted territory.” In many ways coverage of COVID-19 is uncharted territory, especially with so many technological advances. But for some of us, there are similarities to an event we covered awhile back, the midwestern flood of ’93. The scale was obviously smaller than the global pandemic. But for our region it was all encompassing. Some of the lessons we learned could help you navigate this intense time.

The first thing we learned was not to overplay events. We avoided superlatives. People were losing their homes, entire neighborhoods, towns, crops and others were getting sick from the flood water. It was especially hard watching families learn they would have to give up the land that many generations before had lived upon. How to start again? The constant stories of loss were hard. There were inspirational stories too. But sometimes you really had to look. The coverage quickly became hard for viewers to watch. We had to temper it somehow. So we chose to stick with facts and not embellish. We also looked for the “heroes” as much as we could.

This time around it can be harder to tell the hero stories since it is frankly too risky to cover a lot of the stories on the front lines in hospitals. But the stories of people stepping up and helping are still important and it can be most effective to let these stories tell themselves with longer bites, natural sound or just showing the Facebook post with no commentary around it. Notice I did not say no background. That’s different. Background is information that gives context to what the viewer is seeing. But in today’s world we’ve encouraged anchors and reporters to put themselves in the stories and discuss their feelings too. We were asked to do the same in our flood coverage back in ’93. It worked at first. But as coverage continued and the damage kept coming, we felt it starting to backfire. Managers should really try and sit down every few days and gut check the coverage this way. Sometimes there’s just too much human emotion in newscasts for viewers to handle. Anchor commentary is an easy thing to reduce. The facts are craved. So, feed more of them to viewers. 

Another big lesson we learned is, the viewer isn’t with you all day consuming every minute detail of the events the entire time. They are immersed in the situation in a different way. Do not assume they know the basics.  Many are trying to work, clean, teach the kids, cook, order groceries you catch my drift. So they may not be as clear on things like, how much did the flood water rise (flood of ’93) or how much COVID-19 cases in your area have increased overnight. Don’t assume they know know when the river will crest (flood of ’93) or the latest projections for the surge to happen. Viewers like hearing that information every time. Because they are not watching you all the time. They are not reading your updates all day long on the website, Twitter and App blasts etc. In fact they are purposely taking breaks to try and escape the harsh realities. When they do look, they want it boiled down so they do not have to linger too long. The lingering causes more anxiety and stress. This is good to keep in mind for story selection, which elements to showcase and how much you push crews for new content. I am fond of the saying “this is a marathon not a sprint.” It really applies to coverage of COVID-19. Do not withhold important facts. But if you are working on a lot of sidebars and a huge development happens you can hold the sidebars for a mini lull in coverage. It’s better to eat a huge meal in courses rather than shoving it all down your throat at once.

The next two nuggets are for crews braving it in the trenches each day. First and foremost, big gets are great, but safety is more important. This kind of coverage really dictates that you give relevant information that can get your viewer through the day well informed. That means practical elements. Did cases go up overnight? Is Lowe’s closing tomorrow? Is toilet paper finally in plentiful supply? If not, when? There is a place for big gets like a company hiding supplies, people stockpiling items for black market sales etc. But the daily, practical, very useful information will more than satisfy the viewer starved for information and clarity. And you can stay safe. Going into hot zones just to show what is happening and that you were there, is just not smart. Ask people in the hot zones to send you video from their phones. Set up a Zoom session with someone. But make sure your safety is a high priority.

During the floods I drove into a rural area where the flood water was about to crest. My car got stuck. No cell phones back then. But, luckily, a farmer with a tractor came by just in time to save my car and drag it to his house. I filed my live report from his kitchen phone, while his wife made dinner. I made deadline. But my manager was furious. All he kept saying was that the perspective was nice, but it was not worth possibly loosing me! I never forgot that lecture. Please heed that advice. Especially MMJ’s. I was one for part of that flood coverage. It was scary and lonely and I got into a few tight spots. I could have played it safer and brought viewers the same relevant information.

On your days off try and take a break from the story as much as possible. It will not be hard to catch back up and you need to feel that life can go on without the story. When the floods finally tapered off, many of us really came down hard from the intensity of the coverage. Those that took mental breaks on their off days seemed to bounce back faster. You have a right to nurture your own mental health too. 

Finally, this one is for the bosses. If you have the resources try and have someone looking for non COVID-19 stories each day also. There are plenty. And some could be very important. Even one strong non COVID-19 story every few days can make a huge difference to your staff and your viewers psychologically. It also gets you geared up to start thinking about how to transition out of this coverage when the time comes. (More on that in an upcoming article.)

We covered the after effects of the flood of ’93 for years. It eventually became half of each newscast, then a section, then a story and finally an occasional look back. But at its height it was all encompassing. You literally lived and breathed the stories. Many of us were canoeing to places after our live shots in order to help people sandbag. We helped with fundraisers in our off time. We got attached to families we covered and did check-ins. It was one of the most draining, but also gratifying, times in my career. It was excruciating to sit by unable to help as the raging water took another house, town and person’s dreams. The illnesses from the water spread and we had to get Tetanus shots. You never forget the smell once the water recedes and the mud sticks to walls like cement. Then as the cleanup began we were able to help people find hope with information on programs, support groups and even Army Corps of Engineers designs to prevent another breach in an area that often swelled. We dealt with the swarms of mosquitos and fears of the diseases they carry. Being a journalist who could help provide key facts at key times was extremely hard, but also very rewarding. Hopefully many of you will be able to look back and know you helped a family, a business, or a community survive and prosper because of the hours you put in, the extra fact checking you did and the stories you shared. Good luck and Godspeed. (FYI Image used was taken by Sam Leone and used in newspapers across the country in mid July 1993)

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