See it rather than say it: How to clue in anchors during live TV.

It was early on a Saturday morning. But weekday anchors up and down the East Coast were in their respective newsrooms waiting on a big story to arrive named Hurricane Irene.

As I waited for my on-air shift to begin, I was multitasking as usual: reading over the scripts the producers had written, watching a stream of storm updates cascade down Tweetdeck, and listening to a friend’s broadcast over the internet as he prepared the viewers in his market for what was to come.

Then it happened — that cringe-worthy moment all of us anchors dread. The voice on the phone stopped talking. But my friend was caught off-guard and had no idea what the man had been saying. Producers were talking in his IFB at the time and he was caught with his proverbial pants down on live TV.

What’s worse is that all that chatter over the IFB prevented him from doing his #1 job in a time of crisis: being a reporter. Yes, he was chained to the desk. But that phone was his — and his viewers’ — lifeline to late breaking information about a story that was changing minute-by-minute.

If an anchor isn’t able to hear a phoner or a reporter on a satellite shot in a breaking news situation, he quickly falls behind. In subsequent ad-libs, he can sound disconnected, out-of-touch, and out-of-date.

Unfortunately, it’s not a rare occurrence even on network television. And it’s just as likely to happen during a satellite interview any day of the week.

There are no easy answers for how to make sure the magic happening behind-the-scenes doesn’t intrude on the viewer who’s just trying to find out what’s going on and whether her family is threatened.

But let me throw-out some ideas:

Bring in the interns! It’s the excitement they’ve been waiting for anyway. All those mornings of filling-up the printers and opening the lobby doors for studio guests should at least have this payoff. For goodness sakes, let’s ask them the day before if they’d be willing to help us with our breaking news coverage. I bet they’d love it. (And if they don’t show much enthusiasm they should find another career.)

Use them as runners. To reduce the amount of chatter producers engage in over IFB, I say go old school. Station at least one intern right next to the producer in the control room. Arm them with a stack of paper or a small dry erase board. Have them run routine messages (like the names and titles of guests coming up or the latest statistics on the story you’re covering) to the anchor desk. As an anchor, I want my mic to be hot so I can interrupt or question the person on the phone or the reporter out in the field at any time. So I can’t talk. And I really need to hear what’s being said over-the-air. But I’ve still got my eyes and my hands. When I see I’m off-camera, I can look at what the intern is presenting me, write down any questions or concerns I have for the producer, and send the intern back into the control room.

If your station doesn’t usually have interns, consider an associate producer or the news junkie on the sales staff for this role. If the breaking news comes out of nowhere and you had no time to plan for it, consider the options below.

Text messaging over teleprompter. It’s breaking news. Your anchors aren’t using the teleprompter all that much anyway. Write a message at the top of the story that’s currently cued-up. “***GM has canceled ALL breaks. Stretch. Ad-lib at will! ***” It’s especially useful when you need to quickly convey street closures. “City closing these streets: Broadway from 3rd Ave to 9th Ave & Water Tower Road from Main to Robinson.” Most of us in television are visual people. We digest information easier if we see it rather than if you’re trying to tell us the details over IFB — especially if we’re in the middle of an interview.

And anchors, don’t be afraid to write down this information on-camera as you’re delivering it. The viewers know it’s an extraordinary time and you’re trying to make sure the information is accurate. So write it down. Set it aside. You’ll need to come back to it throughout your coverage. (And your producers have a lot more important things to do than regurgitate information they’ve already given you once.)

Instant messaging/“Top lining.” We have ENPS at my station and my producers are great at doing this. If my co-anchor and I are busy talking and interviewing people on-air, they’ll send us information in an instant message, which appears as the top line in ENPS.

Anchors, the judges will not deduct any points for reading detailed information off of ENPS on the computer screen on your desk. Again, it’s breaking news. They’ll understand.

Any more tips for creating smoother communication during breaking news coverage? Be sure to let us know by commenting below.

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Matthew Nordin is a morning anchor and investigative reporter at WMBF News, Raycom Media’s NBC affiliate in Myrtle Beach. You can follow him on Twitter @MatthewNordin.

 

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Bottoms up! Making sure your newscast is ready, no matter what.

It’s is one of the hardest things to pull off as a producer:  Making it to air, clean and polished, despite managers constantly changing your rundown and getting slammed with breaking news.

One time I had a news director reworking my rundown so much, I ended up having just two hours to turn an hour long newscast.  I made it with help from associate producers and my anchors, but vowed never to be in that horrible position again. Many of us know producers who write during the newscast, printing scripts a block before they air.  This is preventable.  Here’s how.

You produce bottom’s up.  No you don’t take a flask to work for your top drawer (as tempting as that can be).  You literally produce from the bottom of your rundown to the top.  It works for all newscasts.  Here’s how to do it, using an hour long newscast as an example.  Usually the final two blocks of your rundown are segmented and similar day to day.  Format, assign the anchor reads & graphics and write these blocks first. Have these stories edited first as well.  Next, work on the c-block and :45 block.  Put these to bed.  Then, do the :30 block and the b-block, except the block leads.  Again, finesse what you write, and have the stories edited quickly.  Now, in the last two hours, you can concentrate on the a-block as well as the b-block and :30 leads.  This way when all hell breaks loose you can slam out any breakers that pop.  You will have segments finished that look polished and are complete.  So if a breaker doesn’t make it in time you have lots of finished content.

Now let’s talk about backups.  Have plenty on hand, stashed throughout your rundown.  These backup stories should vary in length to fit different timing needs.  This will help make sure you can hit meters nearly to the second.  You assign these backup stories to your associate producer (AP) early in the day, and whenever interesting stories develop.  Some producers even make AP’s rework package scripts into vo/sot backups in case the reporter moves to breaking news and the newscast gets heavy on time.  Again, you want these assigned as early in your shift as possible.  That way you can spend the back half of your shift rolling with management decisions and breaking news.

Wait to assign which stories you tease in which spots in the rundown, until one hour before printing.  You do this because if the bosses make you blow up your rundown, changing the teases can eat a lot of your precious time.  Write those teases in separate scripts at the bottom of the rundown, so editors can put them together.  Then move the individual tease scripts up into the rundown and assign anchor reads an hour before printing.

A final trick, put dummy scripts in your rundown that have basic formatting (i.e.- “take vo” cues etc.).  If your shop allows it, you can even have these built into the rundown format so you don’t have to create them every day.  Also, throw in anchor reads for the block leads the night before.

Here’s a summary:

How to produce it quick!

  • Bottom’s up!
  • AP writes backup scripts of differing lengths.
  • Write entire blocks early.
  • Assign teases to their spots 1 hour before printing.
  • Format dummy scripts.
  • Assign some anchor reads the night before.

 

 

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Anchor’s Away! How to handle a difficult anchor.

Anchors, the title of this one is strong and may tick you off.  But before you get too upset, read our previous article:  “Throw me a life line, I’m being hung out to dry, AGAIN!”  We are journalists after all and therefore must look at all sides!

As a producer, the largest challenge I faced without a doubt was anchors that “attacked” rather than talked through issues.  It took years of frustration to figure out how to handle this.  Now I want to share what I learned so other producers can relax more.

How to deal with a difficult anchor

  • Know your anchors strengths and weaknesses
  • Remember this person is the face of all that you do as well
  • Establish your role as manager of the newscast
  • If there’s a problem, take the lead and talk it through
  • As a last option, fight fire with fire

I fully admit that a lot of complaints anchors brought to me were valid.  But, because I was being screamed at or worse yet had to listen to the boss tell me that I screwed up, it was sometimes hard to hear the message.   Most of us producers are thrown into the fire without a fireproof suit and are just trying to get out alive every day.  You have to separate yourself from that chaos and listen to the message.  For example, one anchor thought I gave her too many instructions before going to a breaking news story.  Maddening, since producers are often told we give anchors too little information.  I put my frustration aside and asked why.  She explained that she was unable to formulate thoughts to ad lib and felt foolish delivering the facts.  She didn’t like reading scripts cold and preferred I not write breaking news, instead give her a few facts to run with.  Next time we had a breaker, I gave her what she wanted and she did a great job.

Knowing your anchors strengths and weaknesses also means you have to be able to adapt to the anchors needs.  I learned which anchors could ad lib and which needed those breaking news scripts to pull off spot news.   If I had an anchor that could not ad lib, I gave the ad libs to the anchor that could ad lib, then changed anchor reads so the non-ad libber did not feel left out.  I learned who needed compliments in their IFB at commercial breaks.  It is a delicate balance.  It seems like all you do is humor people’s egos.  Frankly, that is a large part of producing a winning newscast.  It’s also something you need to get used to in order to have success at the highest levels.

Which leads to the next point, remember these anchors are the face of all the hard work you do each day.  Your copy will not “sing” unless the anchor can “deliver” it.   Your newscast will be uncomfortable to watch if your anchors are not at ease.  Whether some demands are ridiculous in your opinion, is another matter.  Humor enough of them to calm the anchor down so he/she can perform well.  A key to doing this is to give some compliments even if you never get any in return.  You want to show your anchors that you respect the jobs they do, so they gain confidence that you have their backs.  This is crucial to establishing a strong team on your show.  As the newscast manager this is your primary responsibility, whether you make the most money on the shift or not.

As manager of your show, you do have the right to make the decisions.  If an anchor has a really unreasonable request, you can deny it.  Here’s a common scenario:  An hour before your newscast an anchor comes to you saying their co-anchor has more reads.  You have breaking news, your reporters haven’t fed and you are behind writing.  It is okay to say:  “Today the show airs as formatted.”  Then, after the newscast, take a look at how you divided up the anchor reads that day, as well as a few days earlier.  Anchors usually do not come to you unless they have noticed an issue for a while.  Most people do not like confrontation.  If your reads have been a bit skewed to the other anchor, fix the issue the next day.  Thank the anchor who mentioned it for coming to you.  Also if you don’t know this next trick, use it.  Switch off who leads the blocks every day.  By the law of averages, that means by the end of the week the anchors will have a nearly even number of reads and leads.  If the reads were not skewed, print out a week’s worth of rundowns, highlight the reads in different colors and talk to the anchor that’s complaining.  Do not accuse the anchor of being ridiculous.  Explain what you do to prevent uneven face time, then hand the anchor the highlighted rundowns and ask him/her to look them over and see if there are any issues he/she wants to discuss.  This establishes that you are not a push over, you are conscientious, and you take responsibility for your newscasts.  This simple chat can keep an anchor from lodging attacks.  Thank the anchor for coming to you and let him/her know you are always willing to hear ways “We can make the newscast better.” Again, this will show the anchor that you are the leader of the newscast.

So what if the anchor constantly runs to management to whine about you and never comes to you directly?  Remember, people do not like confrontation.  If a manager comes to you with an anchor complaint, listen, then ask the manager how you should handle the problem.  This shows you are willing to be proactive.  Then, after the newscast ask to speak with the anchor one on one.  Explain that you understand that anchor is upset about XYZ and you will do XYZ to fix the problem.  Then say, “in the future if there’s a problem, please know that I am willing to listen.  The best time for me to talk is right after the newscast.”  Then, walk away.  You want to have this conversation in case the anchor goes to management behind your back again.  At that point ask your direct manager, ideally an EP, to sit with you while you talk to the anchor about the current problem and solution, and respectfully ask the anchor to come to you directly in the future.  You want to let the anchor know you also have a little clout with management to even the playing field.  In many shops producers are becoming more of a commodity than anchors.  There are less people willing to do our job.  You don’t want to abuse that knowledge, but it is helpful to subtly let the anchor know you are a valuable asset as well.  It is also good to include your EP, because this person probably has years of history dealing with difficult anchors and can help diffuse the situation further or divert it to the EP instead of you.

Finally, if you have a really difficult anchor, and no other choice, fight fire with fire.  Tell your EP ahead of time and stand up for yourself.  If you are being hazed, read our previous article:  “Thank you sir, may I have another: How to handle newsroom hazing.”  One anchor of mine, refused to get to the set on time. So, I took her out of the entire a-block and ended up with her screaming at me in the News Director’s office.  The ND told me to include her from then on, and I told them both that I would when she was professional enough to get to the set 5 minutes before the newscast began, not 5 minutes after.  The ND turned to the anchor and said, “ That is a basic request.”  I won a big battle.  The daily attacks stopped.  I also made a weather anchor that constantly ran exceedingly long on weather apologize to the audience for running so long that we could not air a story that was teased the entire show.  He was 30 years my senior.  But, I told him over the studio PA that he needed to take responsibility like the rest of us do each day and he went with it.  We came back from commercial and he offered an eloquent apology.

If you take one thing away from this article, make it this:  When you feel it’s “anchor’s away”, and you are about to be the brunt of a brutal tongue lashing, keep your cool.  Write down the anchor’s complaint and reasoning.  Give yourself a few minutes to breathe and relax and actually look at the situation from the anchor’s perspective.  You may learn some valuable lessons about putting on a better newscast.

 

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“Thank you sir, may I have another”: How to handle newsroom hazing.

Newsrooms are notorious for hazing.  It happens often in larger markets, but we’ve seen it in small markets too.  You have to prove to coworkers that you deserve the job.  You don’t truly have friends in the workplace. Everyone is out for themselves.  Why?  Because so many people are quitting the biz, less experienced people are being hired.  Some veterans in the newsroom, find this tiring and insulting.  I started in a large market right away and quickly wound up in another big city.  The hazing was awful.  I was asked if I slept with the news director to get my job.  I had reporters and anchors purposely rewrite copy to insert factual and grammatical errors to try and get rid of me.  One anchor even told me and several other producers it was his “God given right” to torture and make me cry.  He had the cry test and graded you on how long it took before you broke down.  People hide your gear, steal your rolodex, sit on the set during commercials and laugh at your news copy.  Coworkers don’t want to carry dead weight.  Many times fellow journalists will decide you are a moron unless you prove your worth, and quickly.  So do it.  Here’s how.

The number 1 rule:  Don’t involve management.  Management doesn’t care.  Period.  There are too many other things they have to take care of.

However, you should take the reigns and show the hazers you are not the patsy they think you are.  That starts with exposing dirty tricks.  The best place to start is befriending the IT person in the newsroom.  You know, the person who knows all the ins and outs of the computer system you use each day.  This person can save you.  News programs like AP Newscenter, ENPS and iNews have ways to call up past scripts and show who wrote each and every version.  This will give you a chance to document and show proof  if an anchor or associate producer is rewriting copy and putting in fact errors which they blame on you.   In some systems you even can lock a script so no one else can rewrite and put in fact errors or change the context of the story once your executive producer copy edits it.  Ask for this ability and you may receive.  Chances are your executive producer will play ball because you will then have documentation the EP can use to get some staffers to shape up.

You can also often find instant messages from all the computers every day.  Yep, all those annoying, petty and smarmy comments binging and dinging around you can be a click or two away.  Print them and hand them over to management.  This can get tricky because management won’t like you digging through the system.  But if it is in a forum where everyone could potentially have access they can yell at you and send a fiery memo saying don’t go there, but you won’t be fired.  Once the nasty top lines are exposed many newsroom bullies shut up or at least save it for the parking lot after work.  How’s that for investigative journalism?  Even more fun:  dump copies of the nasty top lines under the news director’s door anonymously so even he/she has to wonder who’s watching.

Also remember, many staffers who bully love to dish in the studio.  They think it’s a secret hideout.  Newsflash:  Mics are everywhere.  It’s easy to “accidentally” turn one on, hear and record the petty comments.  The studio is the one place where there truly should never be any expectation of privacy.  That’s not what the room is for.   The picked on should wander through the studio to “plot out a section of the rundown” right when a gossip session is underway.  Then, smile as if you are going to dish it all.   Another move is to “accidentally”  have the mics kept live during a commercial break when there’s an anchor who loves to trash everyone in those breaks.   Normally, when the nasty hazers get caught once or twice, they’ll back off.

What if the hazer likes to get in your face and yell at you in the middle of the newsroom?  This one is easy.  Just ignore the person.  Sit back in your chair, with your hands behind your head, gaze up at the lunatic putting on the show and wait until they either explode into pieces before your eyes or finally shut up.  Then as the hazer stares at you indignantly, simply ask: “Are you done?”  Then just  go back to work like nothing happened.  This will drive the bully nuts.  If that hazer really pushes it, follow up with, “You can say what you want about me because bottom line, I’m not the one who just had an unholy hissy fit in the middle of the newsroom.  You can’t expect your actions to prove you have anything worthy to say to anyone.”  Then get back to your work.

Lastly, sometimes you just have to fight fire with fire and stand up to the hazer. I once told an anchor who said I was “too young to write for her” that it’s not my fault she couldn’t handle that someone so much younger was just as capable of working in the same city and on the same shift as her.  She told me she’d have me fired.  I told her I had proof that she was purposely rewriting copy with errors and printing them to try and prove me incompetent.  I asked her if she would like to come with me to turn those documents into the news director so she could try and explain it, or would she prefer the news director to mull the evidence over before calling her in for a chat.  She backed off.  Hopefully, these tips and tricks will help you stand up to a hazer as well.

 

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