What is hard news?

Let’s begin with this statement: This article is meant to start conversation.  It is meant to stretch your comfort zone a little.  TV news has to keep growing and reaching audiences differently for us to stay employed.

There is a conflict in television news that many managers, consultants and journalists themselves are not sure what to do with.  The conflict:  Defining solid television news stories.  We call it hard news.  We whine about it every day in story meetings.  You know the mantra:  “We need more hard news.”  So what is hard news really?  If you get a few moments Google “hard news, definition.”  The definitions are fascinating. Here’s a sampling:

news that deals with serious topics or events” from www.wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

News, as in a newspaper or television report, that deals with formal or serious topics and events.www.thefreedictionary.com/hard-news

Serious news of widespread import, concerning politics, foreign affairs, or the like, as distinguished from routine news items, feature stories, or human-interest stories.www.dictionary.reference.com/browse/hard+news

Hard news is the kind of fast-paced news that usually appears on the front page of newspapers.  Stories that fall under the umbrella of hard news often deal with topics like business, politics and international news.  What defines hard news isn’t always about subject matter.  Some might call a news story that’s heavily reported, on a subject matter considered softer (like entertainment), hard news because of the way it was approached.  Hard news is also a term most often used by journalists and others who work in the media industry, though you will hear others outside the industry use it.” http://mediacareers.about.com/od/glossary/g/HardNews.htm

I purposely did not pull many definitions from TV news websites and reference books, because we need to see how the definitions we create impact what viewers think they will get.  See how broad the definitions are?  All describe ongoing types of topics:  Political battles, stories about business in town, foreign affairs.  Yet, most TV news veterans have seen a lot of these topics, especially business stories and foreign affairs, fail in the ratings.  Even political news can be difficult to get people to watch unless it is a key election year or a very controversial subject.  So what is hard news for TV journalist’s day in and out?  Are we defining it incorrectly or executing wrong?

This is where the conversation comes in.  Some talking points: First, what does serious news mean?  Almost all of the definitions above reference serious news.  Defining serious news, often explains a station’s news philosophy, understanding of its community and credibility with viewers.  For the sake of argument, let’s define serious news as facts, events and people that have a direct impact on people’s lives.  Events and topics that make people stop and think about their own lives and surroundings in a different way.  So let’s try and put some tangibles with this idea.  Let’s delve into a serious topic that often is covered horribly, if at all on TV: Education.  This is a huge topic for your viewers.  Your key demographic is raising children.  I have worked at several stations that heralded a calendar year, as the year of education coverage.  In all cases but one, the station dumped the idea within 6 months.  The biggest problem is that education stories are often very video poor.  Many schools do not allow you to shoot any video inside.  But there are other ways to cover education besides sending a reporter to do a pkg.  The biggest opportunity: Debates with local experts on hot topics in the area.  Issues like, whether standardized testing is fair, teacher pay, new educational standards and school closings.  All evoke a lot of emotion.  They do not need b-roll.  They need sound to play out.  Remember the wild success of the cable network talk shows.  You can turn mini-segments that will really get people talking.

Now, the next level of coverage:  Show me the people in the schools grinding every day to make a difference.  Make some of that coverage positive, because frankly most coverage of teachers involves one screaming at, smacking or diddling a kid.  Yes, these stories are important.  But we also want to showcase that there are teachers and supervisors that have very positive influences on students and families.  Many managers over the years called this too soft, or said we don’t have time for “features.”  Remember, hard news needs impact.  It showcases events and topics that make people stop and think about their own lives and surroundings differently.  (Yes, I am repeating that line, it is important!!)  People love to watch stories about other people.  Never underestimate the viewer’s fascination with their neighbors.  It is basic human nature.  Oprah made a gazillion bucks because she understood that.  To truly cover a serious issue, like education, you need to showcase all sides.  You need to show the human connections.  This proves to the viewer you an informed witness, not just another group with an agenda.  Remember, viewers are extremely media savvy in this day and age.  If you come up with an advocacy campaign and ram it down people’s throats without another counterbalance kind of coverage, you eventually lose some respect.  So called “feature” stories about the cool chemistry teacher who reaches students in a unique way,  are as important to the viewer as live coverage during hearings about school closures or new testing policies.  You have to showcase all elements of impact.  That teacher also impacts a lot of lives and seeing a story about the teaching approach helps teach parents ways they can educate their child differently.  That has a serious edge.  Therefore, it is “hard news” coverage.

Which leads to my next talking point about hard news:  It does not always need conflict.  Sometimes you just need to relay the facts in a situation so that viewers can learn information and draw conclusions for themselves.  A perfect example is health news. If you think health news is all feature fluff, you are very out of touch with the average human being.  Everyone thinks about their health.  They worry about family members or friends.  Everyone has questions. Everyone has concerns.  Health news should never be a feature that’s simply considered “fill” for a section of a newscast just to get viewers to weather.  It is a type of hard news and should be treated as such.  Health news has almost as broad an impact as weather.  It’s just usually treated as a throwaway, and therefore comes across that way to the viewer.  Next time an interesting health and/or fitness story pops on the wires, sit down and brainstorm on ways you could make it a lead story.  I am not saying you really must lead with it, but treat the story like you would hard news. (Remember the definition above that references some things like entertainment news becoming hard news because of the coverage approach?). Look at it critically.  Ask a lot of WIFM questions (if that confuses you read     What is the viewer benefit really? ) and see if you end up with a fascinating edgy pkg idea or segment for your newscast.

My final and most crucial point is hard news should directly influence people’s lives.  Again the word impact.  Let’s replace the word serious in the above definitions, with the word impact.  Let’s consider how most stations cover several topics, starting with crime.  There’s a home invasion in a crime ridden neighborhood and police think it is drug related.  If hard news is about serious issues that directly affect your viewers lives, is a live shot outside the house with a banner saying home invasion fair and/or enough?   Are you giving the viewer, who counts on you to be the experts in your community, an accurate representation of where they live?  Or are you in lust for a 40 second quickie that allows you to type in home invasion on a live super because it’s “sexy?”

Studies by The Pew Research Center consistently show that people are interested and looking for news about the economy, and aren’t getting the coverage.  Slapping up a 20 second reader with an over the shoulder that says “unemployment down” is not the kind of economic news they want though.  People are confused.  Concerns over their job security, the worth of their house, if they will ever have enough money to retire, and if more of their neighbors are going hungry are daily topics.  I can honestly tell you that not a week has gone by in three years that I have not overheard or been involved in a conversation with “viewers” about concerns over the economy.  It is a constant.  I hear it in grocery store checkout lines, picking kids up from school, having friends over for dinner, taking a walk in the neighborhood, and in exercise classes.  People are worried. They feel at a loss for information. They need help.  That is hard news.  It has impact.

So remember, when considering if a story idea is hard news, consider the likelihood people are talking about that story and have lingering questions.  Is there a new set of facts people need to know about, but don’t have the information?  Is there something going on they should care about, but may not know yet?  Think about the stories that just stick with you.  A lot of those emotional connections you make with a story, involve coverage and techniques many journalists would call soft.  There is a character.  There is emotion.  You feel differently for having watched the story.  You remember those stories.  But chances are most of the so called hard news you pushed for in a rundown or agonized over turning because you could not find impact… are a blur as of you drive home from work.  Guess what?  It’s a blur to viewers also, because they turn off the TV.  They say to themselves:  “This story doesn’t affect me and my friends.  I cannot relate to this.  Why should I bother to watch.”  Believe me, they really do.  I get bombarded with these comments and questions constantly.  Truthfully, you probably do also from your non-news friends.  Make sure the people make it into the coverage so the viewer can truly feel connected to the topic or event.  Don’t fear lack of video, you can always showcase interesting sound to make your points.  Do not push for or create conflict when there is none.  Sometimes a story is hard just because it has great information. Finally, stop labeling types of news, like health and education as “features.”  Try and show these broad appeal topics respect.   Journalists are feeling more pressure these days to market and brand themselves.  Taking these impact topics and delivering interesting stories with a “hard edge” is a great way to quickly make a name for yourself.  Remember to focus on impact and people.  The hard edge will come out in your coverage, because your viewers will be impacted by the information.  You will become popular with viewers because you get what they need.  You will brand yourself as “real” and “trustworthy.”  Most importantly, delving into these topics can and will be journalistically gratifying.  These topics can provide opportunities to empower people to change lives.  Isn’t that why you got into broadcast news?  What is a harder or a more serious type of news than that?


How to pitch, and pull off, stories in producer driven shops.

I got a huge response to our article about decoding producer driven shops.  (If you missed it, check out “Producer driven doesn’t mean absolute power”).  So now let’s talk about what kind of stories managers want to showcase in producer driven shops.  First let’s summarize what makes a newsroom “producer driven.”  It means a heavy emphasis on content.  Anchors are considered advocates for viewers.  Reporters are educated witnesses.  Producers must have a deep understanding of the audience, its wants and needs.  Producers tend to have more say in choosing content and set the tone for the “feel” of a newscast.  In some ways anchors are showcased more in producer driven shops than in more spot news type of newsrooms, because they are given a more interactive role with content.  They ask more questions and are often required to turn franchise pieces with hard edges.  Because content is king, reporters actually play a huge role when showcasing coverage.  But for some reporters it can seem like you have little say in what you do, because producers and managers often “map out” the coverage each day.  So let’s decode how those decisions are made.

First and foremost, producers and managers are looking for segments and themes to weave throughout the day part.  This showcases advocacy and emphasizes community involvement.  From the time you pitch your story, you need to be thinking about the big picture.  Reporters, this means not holding back any interesting elements when you pitch the story in the editorial meeting.  It is important to explain how the anchor can pitch to your story with some sort of interesting information and/or visuals.  Do you know someone who could do a studio interview after your package that would provide interesting perspective?  This means you really have to understand the story you are asking to cover. You cannot just scan a headline and hope you “get a pass” in the meeting.  You have to be able to take the story beyond a newspaper headline.  Producers in content driven shops tend to read multiple newspapers.  Managers also try to be very in tune with what’s happening.  They will be familiar with most content you bring up.  Showcase how your package will advance the story. You need to explain why a viewer would watch your story rather than the other stations in town.  And don’t forget, this also means you cannot save all the “good stuff” for your live and package scripts when you actually produce the story later in the day.

Before you think you must come in with an Emmy award winning “big get” each day, understand, there are many ways to think big picture beyond finding daily exclusives.  Exclusive elements don’t happen every day on every story.  Try and relate the content you are pitching to the key audience the station wants.  Will it appeal to 25-54 year olds?  How?  That might be your spin.  Can you make the story relatable to even larger audience groups with a clear character you can put in your package?  If so, explain that right away.  Can you add “a slice of life” element into the story you want to turn?  Any way you can make the story feel real, to a broad group of people, will make you and your story ideas very appealing.  This also means you must have a good idea of the kinds of visuals you will provide in your package and for teases and set ups.  (See “Make your sell” for more on how to effectively pitch stories.)  You don’t have to have great flames, dramatic car chases or screaming people to sell your story.  You do have to help the producers and managers visualize how the story will play out.  Remember, they are not just looking to fill 1:30 that day.  The more they can really delve into content in a compelling way, the more appealing your story idea becomes.  You have to help them see and feel the story.

If you really want to stand out in a producer driven shop, pitch stories in areas of the market where the station wants to grow audience.  Source build there and look for stories you can turn in that part of the DMA that people living nearby would also find interesting.  You have a key advantage over the producers and managers that are driving content.  You leave the newsroom each day and get access to more people.  The faster you source build and can provide information on developing stories, the more the “powers that be” will trust your instincts and trust your story pitches.  By focusing on areas where the station wants to grow audience, you show you are savvy to the “big picture” which is a huge draw.

When it’s a slow news day don’t be afraid to pitch consumer stories and interesting new developments from stories you have covered in the past.  Remember, a key part of producer driven shops is showcasing community involvement.  That means follow ups are very important, as long as they have substance to them.  Consumer stories usually have broad appeal.  Viewers in nearly all income brackets are looking for ways to make the most of their money right now.  That opens the door to a lot of interesting stories that can naturally be broken into several elements.  Keep a list on hand, with good contacts for slow days.

Lastly, story tell, story tell, story tell!  If you make a name for yourself as a versatile reporter who can weave interesting stories out of many types of content, you will be well respected in producer driven shops.  You will get more leeway when pitching stories because managers know you will find something compelling to turn.