What can we learn from crusty old journalists.

There is a very witty blog called Stuffjournalistslike.com that is truly a blast to read.  I had tears streaming down my face with laughter.  One article on Grumpy old journalists, actually made me nostalgic for some of the crusty old reporters from my past.  It reminded me that there are fewer of these old die hards and that the lessons we gained from them cannot be lost.

Mandates of a crusty old journalist

  • No room for errors (especially fact errors)
  • No exaggerations
  • Don’t take a person’s word for it
  • Deadlines are mandatory
  • Don’t screw your team over

Fellow journalists, we have failed those crusty old guys in terms of journalistic integrity.  A lot of embarrassing errors and exaggerations make air.  (The Jeremy Lin, ESPN “Chink In the Armor” reference is just the latest.)   Crusty old journalists do not use cheesy phrases.  (Honestly, even if the people didn’t know that “Chink” can be taken as a highly offensive ethnic slur, it is a cheesy phrase to use highlighting a 1 game losing streak.) Old timers also always made sure their pieces were not just fact checked once, but triple checked.  They did not assume they could not screw something up just because they are veterans in their field.  To them, you had your facts checked simply because, there was no room for error.  These old timers would say “If you can’t get your facts straight, you don’t deserve to be a journalist!”  That’s why you fact check and refuse to exaggerate.

So, naturally, crusty old journalists were special kinds of skeptics.  If a PIO said “This is the way it is!” and walked off in a huff that reporter knew to call “Bullshit!  Prove it.”  To take a line from Missouri’s state mantra, “Show me.” Crusty old journalists didn’t care if they occasionally pissed off a PIO.  They remembered a key fact:  PIO’s need to respect journalists also.  That journalist would go to a source in order to fact check the PIO.  And if the PIO was lying, you can bet that old timer would expose the truth.

But the last two mandates of a crusty old journalist are the most important if you want to survive and thrive in a modern day newsroom.  Don’t miss deadlines and don’t screw your team over.  (These go hand in hand.)  I get that the new mantra is more “me” oriented.  But here’s the deal, putting “deadlines” and “team” first actually puts your best interests first.  If you are screwing over the producer, anchor, photographer or manager regularly you will face payback.  And, oh by the way, it will hurt.  Don’t make yourself vulnerable.  Be an untouchable, crusty old journalist.



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.


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.



It’s GM’s agenda and you are stuck covering it “as news.”

We promise this situation will happen to you. It happened to us at several stations, in small to large markets.  General Manager walks into an editorial meeting and says “So what are we doing to cover such and such, ( fill-in the blank, new road widening project,  special session by legislature,  tax incentive package for a new industry in town etc.) since our viewers the tax payers are getting screwed.”  The news director gives a blank look followed by the lifted eyebrow smirk, then stares at you, “So how will you cover that story today?”

If this happens, say you are going to make some calls and get out of the room pronto.  Better yet, grab your photog and get out of the building while you make those calls! Why?  You do not want the GM to start going off on specific players and agendas for the story.  You do not want specifics on how this story should be told, and exactly what the tease will say.  That way, if it is the GM skimming headlines and misinterpreting reality, you won’t end up having to tell him/her.  Without specifics chances are you can find some small nugget to package.

Next, call the newsroom mega brain.  You know, the walking, talking, human factoid! This person can save you hours of stress and research.  Do the necessary ego stroke and get the person to give you background information on this subject.  You need time to work sources for a backup in case the story falls apart.  The “human factoid” usually can at least provide the name and number for a player in town who will give you insight on whether the GM’s “news” really is “news.”

Do your thing, work it and try to find an interesting character or bit of video to showcase so you can get by.  If there’s just nothing to the story give the basics, then try and include a little subtle perspective in your anchor intro or  tag.  Managers tend to play in that copy more anyway.  This way, if the story is taken out of context and the GM gets a call, it will more likely become management’s problem instead of the reporter’s failing.

If you cannot find a nugget to package, and there’s simply nothing to the story, offer to write a vo or vo/sot and let your manager know early.  That gives management time to derail the GM situation well before the newscast airs.  It helps if you can offer an interesting alternative story the manager can have you churn out instead.  Sometimes management will then take the GM “news” burden off of you and have an anchor front it somewhere cool on set. You are off the hook, and the GM still feels heard without the station blowing a weak story out of proportion.

If you are told to package a story and say certain things in a tease you don’t like, try and do a subtle rewrite.  Also, know this happens to everyone from time to time.  Chances are your credibility is not ruined.  Those in the know in town realize you got stuck “being the good soldier.”



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.