Road trip! You can cover us, right?

No way around it.  This is an uncomfortable trend in many newsrooms right now.  In fact, some companies are making it written policy.  The good part:  You get a sweet out of town assignment!  The bad part:  You have to pay the travel costs upfront, fill out an expense report when you get back, then wait for reimbursement that can take up to 6 weeks.  And, by the way, your credit card bill will come due before that 6 weeks is up and you get your money back.  It’s a problem a lot of news employees are wrestling with these days.  I recently read a forum entry on b-roll.net from a photojournalist asking how to approach this subject during salary negotiations.  Here are some ideas to deal with this road trip trend.

So what if you are asked to go out of town and just cannot front the money?  You need to tell management flat out.  Yes, it could mean losing out on a primo assignment.  Better that than not paying your bills though.  In many cases, if management really wants you on the story, there is a work around. Sometimes the boss pays the hotel, or perhaps the business manager ponies up some petty cash.  It really depends on the station and the individual managers.  Does saying you cannot pay upfront make you look bad to the bosses?  That depends on the manager.  But even if they seem upset, they usually understand.  Most often it’s more a case of managers being frustrated because they know asking you to pay upfront is unreasonable and the boss is stuck with a policy that stinks.

If you decide to front the money, get a description of any limits for certain expenses ahead of time in writing.  (i.e. – How much per meal?  How much for parking etc.?)  Be firm on this.  Trouble is, some of these policies are so rigid, the limits can be highly unreasonable. For example, some companies have a maximum amount to be reimbursed for hotel stays.  Depending on where you are going and what you are covering, hotel costs can vary greatly.  This can put a crew in a really rough spot especially if the limits were not checked ahead of time.  The last thing you want is to pay $150 for a room only to find out the company policy is a maximum of $100.  That’s your credit card and, therefore, your financial worth on the line.  If no one can provide you with written limits, think hard before agreeing to the assignment.

If you are headed out of town on a last minute assignment you need to ask about clothing and equipment reimbursement limits.  You never know what’s going to happen, and you want to be prepared.  Also, in an open ended return kind of scenario, set a limit as to how much you are willing to pay out of pocket before you go.  Make sure management and the business office are clear you will not front a single dollar more and there needs to be a backup plan everyone is aware of in case you have to stay longer than your money will pay for.

Also ask how far out of your market qualifies a trip as “out of town.”  You don’t want a scenario where you decide to push it driving home, then stop for dinner somewhere too close to your ADI to count for reimbursement.  Yes, you were miles and miles away on assignment, but the button pushers will only look at the location of the purchase if there are ADI restrictions.  You will either get stuck covering the meal or have to go several rounds with the boss to make your receipt an exception.  If that happens it could be held against you later.  Remember, a case like this makes the boss look disorganized.  Even if the boss is sloppy, you don’t want to be the one who makes it obvious to the world.  Asking for those policies ahead of time will avoid the mess.

What if your contract requires you to front the money ahead of time?  The only practical advice we can offer is to keep a credit card that can “cover you” until you are reimbursed.  A contract is a contract and if you signed it, you’re going to have to live up to its terms.

This is a complicated and emerging issue in TV newsrooms.  There may be more ways to deal with it than we’ve listed here.  So, please, if you have other ideas let us know.  You can leave comments below.  Many of us are facing this type of situation for the first time in our careers and need to bounce ideas around about covering that sweet road trip upfront.

 

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Why photographers are a reporter’s best friend.

Chinese philosopher Mencius said:  “Friendship is one mind in two bodies.”  This is the basis of why I tell young and/or inexperienced reporters that their best “friends” in a newsroom should be the photographers they work closely with every day.  Being of “one mind” about the stories you tell on a daily basis is the difference between below-average to average TV news stories and great, memorable storytelling that gets viewers to pay attention and your work noticed.

Whenever I move into a new newsroom, the first thing I do is take inventory of the photography staff.  Who’s good?  Who’s average?  Who’s motivated?  Who’s not?  And most importantly… who gets “it?”  Do you know what I mean by “it?”  I mean simply: storytelling.  It is THE number one thing that can take your career as a reporter to limitless heights.  (For more on storytelling see this article https://www.survivetvnewsjobs.com/?p=306)  Most of us know it when we see it and you should definitely look for it whenever you start in a new shop as well.  Once you have identified the “players” among the photography staff, buddy up with them!  Why?  Because they can make your daily life easy as well as set you up for a successful career path.  On the opposite end of the spectrum… news photographers can also make your life a living hell if you dis them.  Think about that last point for a moment.  You work your tail off turning your story (or in most cases today, stories) for that night’s newscast(s).  You find good “characters”, ask all the right questions and write a gem of a script.  You get it copyedited and it’s ready for the photog to edit into a masterpiece of local news storytelling.  But there’s one problem:  You are the reporter who gives “orders” to photographers rather than asking nicely when you need something from them.  You are the reporter who sits in the truck playing on your smartphone while the photog busts his/her butt breaking down the live shot in the cold.  You are the reporter who calls every story “my story” rather than “our story.”  So, guess what, Mr. or Miss Photog is magically having “editing problems” or just can’t get an edit to take.  Suddenly, that masterpiece of storytelling that was filled with characters and nat sound becomes just another news package slapped together so it can make air.  Think it cannot or does not happen?  Wake up Alice, you’re in Wonderland!  It can and does.

On the other hand, what if you’re the reporter who always helps carry equipment and break down live shots?  What if you’re the reporter who ends every recorded interview by asking the photog if they have any questions for the interviewee?  What if you’re the reporter who asks the photographer to brainstorm ideas on making the standup different and visually stunning?  And what if maybe you’re the reporter who always, and I mean always, tells the photog what a great job they did on “our” story today/yesterday or last week with another reporter?  Well, suddenly Mr. or Miss Photog is busting their hump to get some extra nat sound and a few extra tight shots to really make the story sing!  Keep it up, make it a habit and you’ll soon be getting that effort everyday when you work with that photog.  Then, that photog will tell the others on staff how cool it is to work with you and you’ll start getting the same effort from every photog you work with.  Next thing you know you’re work is noticed as excellent by your bosses and eventually the newsroom you target as the next stop on your march to TV news greatness!

 

The best friend I’ve ever had “in the business” is a photographer.  He just so happens to be what I would consider among the absolute best in the business too with an entire room filled with Emmy and other high level awards.  But there was a time when neither one of us knew what it meant to make really good TV.  We didn’t even know the term “storytelling” much less what it took to do it.  But as our friendship developed so did our relationship as co-workers.  We discovered that we both wanted to know what it took to be really good at making really good TV news stories.  So, we set about teaching ourselves.  We constantly challenged each other to learn and try new things in our stories.  It didn’t take long for both of us to start down the path to great storytelling.  Had we thought of each other as “just a photog” or “just a reporter” rather than as the most important part of the daily equation, neither one of us might have gone on to the successful  and long careers we enjoy.

Unfortunately, there are many, many people in this business who do view TV News Photographers as “just photogs.”  Don’t be one of these people.  TV News Photographers really are THE most important part of the equation.  TV news is at its best when it truly harnesses what no other news medium can harness:  effectively blending moving pictures, with sound and words.  When it makes you feel like ”you are there.”  A reporter can write the words and even say the words.  But without a photographer there is no way you are grabbing all three and making viewers feel connected with great TV news storytelling.  So don’t forget about your true “best friends” in the newsroom.  As Mencius suggested, be of “one mind in two bodies.”  Make sure you make it clear to photogs that you know how important they are to making everyone in the newsroom more successful.  Your job today, and career down the line, will not be sorry and you just might come away with some really good friends too!

 

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The ultimate tease challenge: the daily update on a recurring story.

If you ever wondered why you see producers sitting at their desks mumbling to themselves, then pacing in a hallway, this is it.  Teasing the story that seems like it just won’t end.  The rising flood waters waiting to crest, the trial that drags on forever, the storm damage cleanup that is so important to cover, but looks the same each day.

These are stories that, after a while, management and producers must debate on whether to tease at all, or does the viewer just expect the coverage to be there and watch for something else.  While that debate rages, producers are often faced with a looming deadline and overnights that say they get a spike when coverage of that topic airs.

So what do you do when there’s no obvious unique element?  Look beyond the obvious.  Sometimes you need to come up with an interesting sidebar tag that would have viewer benefit.  This is the time to search Twitter and tweet your sources for interesting tidbits that you can fact check and possibly add to your coverage in some way.  You can also call a buddy who’s not in the business and ask where the coverage seems to be lacking for the story.  They might have an idea you never thought off that would make a great vo/sot or even an outboard package.  Also, have reporters keep an extra eye out for interesting character development that you can turn into an interesting tease.

Anchors are a great resource in this difficult time.  They often are approached by people with interesting questions you could answer as an added element to your coverage.   It’s a great tease option because it enhances your anchor’s credibility, with a viewer benefit.  You asked and we got the answer for you!  It engages viewers who often feel we talk at them instead of to them.

If there really is nothing interesting to tease about the ongoing story, talk with management about whether you can move the tease out of its traditional place, like the end of a block.  This is a great time to do stealth teases (see article “You’re Hooked“) in the middle of the a-block for example.  You can put the anchors on a two shot and have them say something like, “Hey, in 5 minutes we’re going to get an update on the trial.  I hear (reporter) has (a quick line with the gist of the pkg).” Then go on with the newscast.

The one thing you want to avoid at all costs is the tease that goes something like these “Up next the latest on the Casey Anthony case.” or “We have the latest on cleanup of the tornado damage in Joplin.” These are the ultimate throw away lines and will cost you credibility with the viewer.  Keep in a mind that viewers expect you to have the latest on a big story.  That’s the reason they are tuning in.  They believe in your ability to cover the ongoing stories.  Don’t let them down by trivializing it with only a “coming up, the latest.”  It makes your station seem callous and sloppy.  Viewers are taking this story seriously.  You need to as well.  You don’t have to have a wow factor each day.  A simple headline in a tease is okay.  It helps viewers know when they will get the daily update.  Taking a quick hit with a live reporter also can work, but coordinate with the reporter ahead of time to make sure he/she doesn’t give away too much.  Viewers think it is cool if you check in live on something, it shows immediacy.  Have the anchor say something like, “We’re hearing court is about to wrap up right now, (Reporter) interesting day?”  Reporter says: “Yes, in fact we had something just happen that we will tell you about in two minutes.”  You aren’t exaggerating, you are not giving the story away, you are showcasing a live ongoing event with immediacy.  Again, viewers love feeling like they are in the moment.  Another way to consider this along similar lines:  Teasing these kinds of stories is like teasing weather.  Some days the information is huge and you need to blow it out.  Some days there’s not much to it, but you want the viewer to know you always have their best interest in mind, even on a sunny cloudless day.  You want to shoot straight and build credibility for the times the teases are easy to write, because what you have to share is fascinating.  Do these things and the amount of time you spend mumbling to yourself in the hallway, will begin to shrink!

 

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Storytelling on a dime.

You hear it all the time.  Reporters and photographers say something to the effect of:  “Storytelling is great and all, but I’ve got too much to do and I don’t have time for that stuff.”  And while I understand where those comments come from, I don’t buy it.  TV news today is filled with more deadlines and “side work” than ever before.  Often your day starts with:  “Welcome to work, now get out the door we have a story we need you live on at noon.”  You knock that out and then it’s on to your “real” one or two stories for the evening shows.  Then there are the standup teases, vo/sot’s and versions of your story(ies) for your station’s website.  Most of us also, blog, tweet, and possibly  take some still shots for the website.  No doubt it’s a LOT of work!  But I promise you, storytelling does not have to add extra work to that pile.  It really is easy to pump out good storytelling “on a dime!”  It’s just a matter of shifting your way of thinking.

Typically, the toughest stories to get your storytelling mindset right, are the so-called “boring newspaper” stories.  These are the stories where you have to interview some sort of “official” and, because of deadline demands, no one else.  So, how do you “tell a story” when all you have is an official and their boring “officialese?”  First off, while the photog is setting up for the interview, talk with the interviewee about anything but the story you are covering.  Take a look around the office if that’s where you are talking.  Often, you can find some great tips into who this person really is in “real life.”  When you find something, chat him/her up about it.  I remember one recent interview where I thought I was dead in this respect.  The guy was nice enough but not the most personable and clearly not comfortable about being interviewed on camera.  Then I noticed a photo of him with one of the most well-known politicians of the last quarter century.   It turns out that he once did security work at a very high level.  I asked him about it and it eventually led to some common ground between us.  That little nugget helped immensely.  First, it loosened him up for the interview and allowed me to pull some bites out of him that had a little personality.  Secondly, it gave me a way to make this “official” more of a “real person.”  I started the piece by talking about how this man had once protected some of the powerful people in the country, but now helps offer a different kind of protection for this small town.  His past really did not have squat to do with the story of the day, but it gave me a way to turn this guy into a “character” in our story.  When you can do that, you give viewers a reason to see that person as more than just some “official.”  You have them interested in watching.  Remember, good stories have characters.  Turn your subjects into characters, not just officials who give you sound bites.

Nat sound is another area where you CAN add to your story without a ton of extra effort.  It comes down to this:  Shoot (and use) just about anything that makes sound to give your stories some life.  Seriously use just about anything.  Nat sound that is integral and directly related to your story (the power saws in a story about construction or crackling flames in a spot news fire story) are always the best.  But that kind of sound is not always there.  If it’s not, look around and try to find something else.  The idea behind nat sound is getting people engaged in your story.  Read any study or talk to any consultant about what people are doing when the news is on their TV.  They are normally doing everything but “watching.”  In the morning they are making breakfast, getting dressed for work or getting the kids ready for school.  The TV is on, but it may as well be video wallpaper.  So, your job is to give them a reason to stop what they’re doing, turn around and watch.  Nat sound is a way to do that.  Say you’re on that story about construction.  But, in the time you’ve been given to shoot it, the crew is on a lunch break.  You are stuck right?  Nope, you can overcome.  Look around, are there people getting in and out of cars (car door sound)? Maybe there’s a fire truck or ambulance going by with a siren on.  Sometimes using seemingly unrelated nat sound is just the trick.  Think about it.  You’re at home with the news on but aren’t sitting and watching.  You know the reporter is talking about construction and all of a sudden you hear a siren!  What the…?  You are probably going to turn around to see why.  This is why you shoot and try to use any nat sound you can get.  You want to make viewers turn around and pay close attention.  Again, it’s really not any extra work.  But it will add immeasurably to the quality of your stories.

When it comes to writing, try to use a piece of that nat sound off the top.  Failing that, make sure you start by establishing the character you’ve easily uncovered using the tips above.  Fill in the middle with the meat of the story you’ve been assigned.  Then end it with another tidbit that makes your subject a “real person.”

All stories have a few basic things in common.  They have a beginning, a middle and an end.  They also have characters.  Shoot and write with these things in mind and you cannot go wrong.   Turn these things into habits and suddenly your “reports” turn into “stories” and your work begins to stand out from all the “Just the facts, Jack!”, boring, information presenters.  Quickly you will establish yourself as a “storyteller.”  Your producers, EP’s and News Director will appreciate you more and your resume reel will become stronger and more marketable.  Suddenly the next chapter in your personal, career story becomes much more interesting with minimal investment from a little storytelling on a dime!

 

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