Take a moment and think about the most colorful characters in the newsroom. For me there are two groups, photographers and assignment editors. We’ve decoded some photographer behaviors in “You exist to hold my tripod.” Bottom line, photojournalists are incredible information gatherers and because they see the facts in a visual way, they make TV news what it is today.
The hardest job inside newsrooms, that all of us love to take for granted is assignment editor. The people who do it are the “whipping posts” for managing editors, assistant news directors, producers and reporters. Photographers usually get their assignments this way and love to grumble as well. Yet, as I look back on my career, I see that the strength of an assignment desk makes or breaks a newsroom. It truly is the tie that binds.
So why are assignment editors so, well, intimidating (or even irritating)? Being everyone’s whipping post is one start. They also tend to really have a grasp on the market and the stations strengths and weaknesses. Heck, when you think about it, that’s their primary job. Yet assignment editors are often not really given a voice in crucial decisions. They actually understand drive times to various places. They understand that the PIO in city A really hates the station UNLESS you call and say XYZ. And they also understand that live truck 13 really does suck! In many cases they try and warn us know it all producer and manager types. They try and give reporters gentle nudges on how to handle a particularly ornery mayor. Do we listen? If the answer is no, then we have a very irritable assignment editor on our hands. Chances are you are going to be yelled at, have papers thrown around the newsroom and hear curse words in interesting sequences you never would have thought possible! Think about it. If you were told to make the ship run smoothly, then saw the iceberg, warned and begged everyone to listen, then watched the boat slam into the iceberg, you would be a tad pissy as well.
A few secrets about assignment editors for you: If you stink at or just don’t get how to source build yet, befriend a veteran assignment editor. They source build as well as most investigative reporters. And they don’t get to leave the station. Heck, most barely get potty breaks. Also, be clear reporters, assignment editors are not your personal secretaries. You need to make the calls to get the information. If you are behind or overwhelmed talk with an EP first about whether an associate producer can help you out. And, yes, I am serious. The assignment editor has you, all the other reporters on your shift, the planning producers, the reporters on the next shift and usually at least one manager asking them to make phone calls. That’s in addition to calling their contacts and listening to scanners and reading 5 million news releases to make sure the station isn’t missing something important. And, if the station misses a big story, it is usually the assignment editor that gets reamed for it.
Producers, your assignment editor can help protect your show from technical disasters as well or better than the production team. He/she knows intimate details about the live trucks, signal strengths, how to get around a lazy person in master control, when to humor an ENG engineer and lots of other very useful stuff. Beyond that, they know which crews are great at cranking out work and which ones need a constant swift kick. If you have a story that must make slot, period, make sure the assignment editor is well aware ASAP. If you see the assignment editor is in the weeds, answer the newsroom phone. Help out. There is nothing more excruciating than trying to take down information while hearing phones ringing all around you. Think about the times when every reporter feels the need to call in for script approval all at once. All of them need it “RIGHT NOW!” to make slot and you can only read/listen to so much at a time and actually comprehend what’s going on. That’s what it’s like being an assignment editor for at least half of every workday. Cut ‘em some slack!
Managers, when an assignment editor walks into your office and shuts the door to discuss a potential issue, stop what you are doing and listen. Most of the time, this person is saving you from potential disaster. If they do, throw them a bone once in a while. Have a favorite meal dropped off for lunch. Buy them a latte. Write a thank you note for all he/she does and throw it into his/her mailbox. Everyone should remember to say thank you once in a while. The strength of the assignment desk plays a huge role in whether your station is #1, #3 or worse. It can set the tone for morale in the whole newsroom because the desk has direct contact with all the key players every day.
So, when you get an assignment that just plain sucks, don’t kill the messenger. The assignment editor is following orders. When you are told do it and like it, remember that’s the mantra these guys/gals live under every day. They often take more crap than the rest of us, and then turn it into gold.