When Reality Hits. TV News The Calling

Small Market, USA — No matter how many hours you’ve spent watching Diane Sawyer over the years and dreamed of anchoring Good Morning America or World News, for some people getting that first TV reporting gig results in a revelation: I wasn’t cut-out for this.

I recently got an e-mail from a young woman who was frank that journalism isn’t the part of the TV business she feels passionate about. Not only that, she worries she’s not doing a good job.

“I went to school, yes, but there’s things they don’t teach there,” she said in her first e- mail to me.

SurviveTVNewsJobs.com has agreed not to reveal the woman’s name or current market, which is small, in order to protect the relationship with her news director and allow her to be completely honest about her feelings in our e-mail exchanges.

“This is my first job outside my hometown,” she said. “I worked in (a large market) and loved it there…I did fun stories and the traffic. Well, I got laid-off and now I’m in (this small market) trying to keep-up my resume, but I’m finding that I’m starting to really dislike this job.”

Judging by how she ended that first e-mail (“you can be blunt with me,” she said), she was expecting the sort of tart-tongued tirade Holly Hunter’s character in Broadcast News would’ve delivered. She didn’t get that from me, though. I actually feel a lot of compassion for her. As I like to tell high school classes, journalism is like the priesthood. It’s a calling. If you don’t feel the insatiable need to be a journalist — if doing something else with your life would literally leave you depressed, thinking less of yourself, or feeling some other variety of intense and sincere mental anxiety — then this is not the career for you. Ok, I’m being dramatic. But you know what I mean.

So first, I had to make sure this young woman didn’t want to be a news anchor. If her desire is to go back to her big market hometown someday and deliver the news to millions of people, then reporting stories out in the field for years is the apprenticeship she’s just going to have to endure. When you’re an anchor, you have to know, based on your own experiences out in the field, which questions are and are not appropriate to ask your reporters in a breaking news situation.

For instance, in the first couple of hours of the Boston Marathon bombing coverage, I didn’t hear a single network or Boston anchor ask a reporter on the scene, “Was this a terrorist act?” That would’ve been irresponsible. We could all see the video. We could see that there were two explosions very close together and that white smoke rose from both. We could see that a lot of people were injured badly. But in those first crucial minutes on the air, your reporter hasn’t had a chance to talk with police. The officers who know anything are too busy to answer your questions and the PIO’s are likely in the dark, too.

What local Boston TV reporters did, which I thought was very good journalism, was describe the scene. I’ll never forget one of them saying in the early-going that he had seen victims who’d lost limbs and that we should prepare ourselves for fatalities. He told us what he saw. He didn’t speculate that this was a terrorist act. Are we bomb experts? Explosion experts? Most likely, no. Who’s to say that if x, y, and z go wrong underground that a utility explosion might not cause similar destruction?

My point is, when you’re sitting on a news set and guiding your station’s live coverage — and by the way, the teleprompter is blank — you’ve got to know what questions are inappropriate. Plus, as soon as persons of interest (yeah, I hate that phrase, too, but it’s a legal term of art we sometimes have to use) or suspects are named, you have to know on-the-spot as you’re ad-libbing which statements about them are fair in light of the on-going news story and which statements could get you and your station sued for defamation if you and the police are wrong. (See: Richard Jewell/Atlanta Olympics bombing coverage.)

The young woman hating her small market TV reporting experience never wants to be an anchor, though.

“Being an anchor, I never much cared for it,” she said in her second e-mail.

I told her not to feel bad, that I think a lot of people force themselves into the TV reporter box just so they can be on television. I really appreciated her honesty. I am also convinced her TV career isn’t over.

Next week, I’ll write about my advice to her about what she should do next. Based on that, she’s made a big decision that I’ll fill you in on, too.


Matthew Nordin is an investigative reporter at WXIX-TV in Cincinnati. Join him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter @FOX19Matthew.



The Weather Authority: Common links between incredible TV meteorologists

My career began covering a major flood.  I was a one man band, standing knee deep in floodwater, sandbagging in between shooting packages.  I also learned how the power of video combined with a knowledgeable meteorologist can captivate audiences.

Then, through the years, came tornadoes and hurricanes and massive snow and ice storms.  I produced newscasts through it all watching, and when I could, helping meteorologists explain what happened.  Over the years I worked with some big names in the biz.  They all had several characteristics in common that made them among the best at what they do:

  • An unending hunger to learn more about the area in which they worked
  • Great talent for boiling down conditions and clearly explaining impact
  • The ability to make weather coverage interesting even when the skies are sunny and clear
  • A drive to improve each day
  • Lots of volunteer work in their community

The thing that struck me the most watching these incredible meteorologists over the years was their unending hunger to learn more about the area they covered.  These meteorologists were always looking over maps from past to present, researching and looking for trends and coordinating with the local weather service.  They never tired of looking for a new nugget of information about the area.

When severe weather struck, these meteorologists could boil down what was happening in clear terms. They explained what was happening without using a lot of extra adjectives.  They didn’t pass judgment on a storm’s potential impact.  In other words, they didn’t say things like “this is going to be a scary one folks.”  They would just say, “Now is the time to take cover. Bring your TV or turn on a radio if you can. We will tell you when it is safe.”  These meteorologists knew which schools were on spring break, or when kids would be at a bus stop for each section of the DMA.  They were walking encyclopedias of the outdoor recreation areas, even able to casually mention specific places to take cover.  They could talk about how deep a mark you needed to claim hail damage on insurance and other little tidbits you needed to know.  They truly came across as a friend and confidant that would never lead you astray.

I truly enjoyed working with these meteorologists on sunny days.  They still made their weathercasts interesting with those tidbits of information.  They educated on cloud types, topography, or what local weather watchers might find interesting in the coming days.  You learned a little something every time they spoke.  These true experts made weather teases easy to write.  Most were also not in it for the “face time.”  If there wasn’t much to say and no interesting weather video to discuss, they came to me saying “let’s cut back the time.”

The most interesting trend I noticed over the years though, was how they took sunny days to work on their on-air performances.  One would come sit with me to talk about how I wrote news copy and why I used certain phrases.  Many would review tape of recent severe weather and critique themselves. (to learn how and why to do this check out our previous article: “Humble pie; why a slice of self-examination can change your career”)  Sometimes I was called into the weather center to discuss what we could have done better.  We would sit and brainstorm and make plans to implement before the next storm hit.  These meteorologists truly managed all aspects of weather coverage.

Finally, these meteorologists all had an intense sense of community.  They truly felt like civil servants to the families that watched them.  Many routinely went to schools to give talks and volunteered at various charities.  Their commitment to the community was inspiring.  On the days that severe weather struck, the example they set made us all want to perform even better at our jobs.  We did not want to let these weather experts down.  They set a standard that guaranteed your newscast would be worth watching.



Step out of the box, will you?

It’s a phrase that makes many journalists cringe and roll their eyes: “People, we need to think out of the box.” What does that mean?

Well, it means don’t pitch the same story ideas over and over.  It means the station wants more than police blotter stories.  It also often means news management is getting creative to attract specific audiences.  This is an opportunity to have fun at work again if you know a key secret.  The best TV stories focus on three things:  Real people with compelling video and audio.

When management starts talking about thinking “out of the box,” you need to start presenting ideas in a visual way.  Describe your story idea by explaining your first shot in it.  Another way to pitch is with the “character” you will showcase.  Thinking “out of the box” is a catch phrase for asking journalists to put a human element into a story.

Here’s how to execute “out of the box” for different news philosophies:  If you work in an “action news” shop, managers want to see reporters and anchors interacting with the news in a more visual way.  Add more sequences and nat sound.  Look for a person or interesting business to focus on for a different twist to a news of the day story.  Producers should include more interesting anchor tags with information from the anchor to make them appear more of an expert rather than just a reader.  Add cool opens to blocks with video and nat sound.  Replay cool video in slow motion.

If you work in a “big J” type shop, do what you can to showcase how news headlines impact real people.  Write in a more conversational way.  Look for interesting characters.

If you work in a headline news type shop where you normally just chase breaking news, play up any interesting video.  Let some emotional sound bites “breathe” more than you usually would.

“Out of the box” also means thinking beyond putting stories only on television screens.  More and more shops want to see you pitching ideas that also have life in social media or at the very least the station web page.  It really is just another way to establish human connections.  The only difference is making the story more accessible for people to react. That doesn’t just mean creating a blog for people to sound off.  This can be an opportunity to empower with links to associated groups and content.  It just depends on the station’s philosophy how far you will go online.

The best part about being told to step “out of the box” is that your news management team is thinking beyond old fashioned TV journalism.  It is looking for ways to integrate technology with storytelling and to redefine news coverage. This is an opportunity for you to get really creative and carve a niche for yourself not only within the station, but in the industry. So go ahead, think “out of the box.”



Produce it up!

Nothing like hearing this phrase while on deadline: “Be sure and produce it up.”   You think: “Sure, I can barely get the stuff I already have on my plate done, why not!”

Actually this is easier than it might seem.  “Producing it up” really means taking the information you have and putting it in nice tiny bundles. Think of it as buying a sweater set and matching jewelry as gifts.  You wrap the cardigan separately from the tank top underneath.  Then you wrap the earrings separately from the necklace.  Looking at all those boxes makes it seem like you spent a lot more than you did.  It’s all in the packaging.

When you “produce it up” you generally provide a nats/vo or vo/sot set up for the anchors to read that provides an overview in a visual way.  Then you focus the package on a particular element of the subject.  You save an interesting element for an anchor tag that usually is a question answer between the reporter and the anchors or maybe a vo or vosot for the anchors to read.  The point is to make the information you are providing clearer to understand.  You also are making the news more appealing to the eye so hopefully the viewer doesn’t daydream or head to the computer to cruise Facebook instead.

The other reason for “producing it up” is to try and showcase the team.   It’s showcasing your anchors and reporters as experts that work together to get the most information possible on a subject in a given day.  No, you really aren’t usually getting any more information or shooting any more video.  This is smoke and mirrors, but it works effectively. While focusing on the elements, you naturally must write more concisely.  This helps the ear understand while the visuals make the information appealing for the eyes.  Two senses aroused, means less likelihood viewers turn away.

One last benefit to “producing it up”: it makes producers/anchors/reporters and even photojournalists have to talk with each other a little more about the news.  This helps prevent fact errors.  It’s another level of script approval.

Still confused about “producing it up” and the benefits.  Consider the following.  When you watch coverage of a major event, like the earthquake in Japan you probably find yourself talking to the television asking questions.  Many times the questions you are asking could impact you or other viewers directly.  Once again we’re talking about human impact. The first morning of coverage of Japan, I found myself frustrated with all the networks.  I had to get online and see people’s stories on You Tube to really understand how to gage the event.  I needed to feel it.  I needed to know how far the quake was from Tokyo.  I needed graphics describing how the Tsunami came over.  The networks were too overwhelmed getting information.  I had to piecemeal from different stations and  Twitter.  Producing up some of these elements would have helped me understand the true depth of the losses.  Next, I wanted to know what this meant for costs of things from Japan.  Would the stock market crash because of this?  Answering these stories with graphics, live interviews, special maps and packages are great ways to produce up coverage locally.  This is what some stations call the “WIFM” (What’s In It For Me) of coverage.  Simply, it is another way to showcase the human element of stories.  These are things you want to provide viewers so they don’t turn away from your newscast to jump on the internet for the answers.

The final point, I cannot stress enough is “producing it up” is producer friendly.   It makes your job easier. You can visualize your rundown better, you can choose elements like natural sound, sidebars and graphics more easily.  It also will help you write succinctly.  Simply put, it just makes your newscast look sharp. Fear not. Go ahead, give it a try!