This article idea came from a reporter on Facebook who recently moved to night side. If you have ever worked this shift, you already know what he asked. How do you find stories, much less break news, night side when everyone you’re calling wants to just go home for dinner and offices are closed?
No doubt generating solid content can be challenging on a night where there is not a big event planned, a huge story that easily carries through or breaking news. The biggest key to “owning the night” is recognizing you will need to give up a little of your off time to build sources and set up stories. When you first begin as a night sider this will be a little time consuming, unless you’ve already worked in the same city for a while and have sources. But, once you build up some sources (read “Cultivating Sources” if you need help building up sources), it will not take that much time to call and make your checks. In fact, in some ways, it can be easier to see if a story you are hearing about really is sound, than it is for dayside reporters. Remember, day siders have to try and figure out if a story is legit when people are eating breakfast, getting the kids to school and running late. You can make calls as they come back from lunch and are often tying up loose ends and actually have some time to talk. So, eventually, it will be easier to get the info verified quickly. You just need to figure out who to call on your beat.
Speaking of beats, act like you have one, even if there is no formal defined beat system in your shop. By that I mean, figure out what types of stories management bites on at night, and source build around those topics. (see “How to Pitch and Pull Off Stories in Producer Driven Shops” for more on how to do that) You just don’t have the time to source build in every section of the DMA on every subject. Pick a couple of subjects and areas of the DMA and stick to that at first. It will help you. Just make sure the veteran night sider hasn’t already built up a rapport with the same agencies and sources, so you are not double calling and confusing the agencies.
Try and work a day ahead if you can. Forward looking stories about an upcoming hot button issue in town, or a major event, you will probably cover in a day or two can be great “fall backs” on a slow news night. You can informally set those types of stories up ahead of time.
When I managed PM newscasts, my go to night side reporters, usually called the desk around lunchtime to see if an assignment editor had heard of anything that might pop that night. Then the reporter would make a few calls and come in with a solid story idea. I often got calls on my way into work from reporters who had checked with sources to feel out interest on potential stories they could pitch when we got to work. This was a great help as well. I could say, “Set it up.” or “Look for something else.” early in the process. It took all of us just a few minutes, and often paid off in the end.
This may sound obvious, but another station in town used to routinely “break” interesting crime stories a day ahead of us. We eventually figured out that one of their night side reporters would stop and pick up police reports (now you can usually just check them online) on their way into work. That person then knew anything that happened after a typical 9 a.m. check by a dayside reporter. The other stations didn’t check until the next morning either. So this station ended up with constant “exclusives,” “first on’s” etc. until we figured out the trick. It’s proof that simple moves can pay off big time for night side content.
My final suggestion is to buddy up with a dayside reporter. That person may know of three people you can begin to call in the early afternoon to build sources. Sometimes day siders get tips as they are coming off of their shift. If that reporter knows you are willing to get calls before you come into work, you might get the tip call instead of it just going to the assignment desk. But make sure you pay it forward. If you hear rumblings of something good that might pop in the morning, shoot off a text to that day sider. Having each other’s back only helps.
Those are some tricks to “own the night.” If you have more suggestions, please send ‘em so we can all learn.