What producers want. A solutions list

I expected to get TV news journalists talking with my article on where the producers are and how to keep them. But I must say, the response has been more than anticipated.

Between LinkedIn, Twitter, website link, emails and DM’s this discussion has been seen more than 35 thousand times. I am sharing this number because frankly it seems staggering.

I know a lot of VP’s and other hiring managers follow my posts. I am asking, can we start looking for real tangible ways to offer more support? The old adage, the job is tough, you have to suck it up is only partly true nowadays. If you really stop and look, the job is even harder than when we veterans sucked it up and pushed through. Did this right of passage really make things better? Just because this is how we’ve done it is easy, doesn’t make it right.

As many of you know, I believe that if an issue is brought up, possible solutions must follow. So I want to share the issues brought up the most besides pay, which frankly is a given. You want to have producer candidates and keep the veterans, pay them to make it worth their while.

Biggest concerns:

Sometimes producers reach the limit of what they can realistically do but feel like bringing that up could cost them their jobs.
The intensity of the all day tight deadlines gets very mentally taxing, especially over the past year and a half.
Sometimes they have life issues that come up and want to be able to discuss how to handle that and keep working if at all possible.
They want more training, even if they are considered veterans to remain inspired and connected to other producers.

Let’s expand on these issues and some easy to implement solutions, to start of create change. Producers know they are the solutions branch of the newsroom. They have to make everyone else look good all day each day. They have to absorb everyone else’s challenges and frankly as a result the really passionate producers do not complain. They just do the work. So if you have a producer that kicks butt all the time, is dependable and always says, “Yes” when you ask for more, that producer may still need help. In fact, that producer most likely needs support in some way. Maybe it’s a reminder that they are valued. Maybe it is a nudge to let the manager know, actually that producer cannot work an 11th day in a row (Yes this does happen). These producers need to be pulled aside and asked, “What can I do to help make your job easier?” Then do all you can to fulfill on that request. These are the reasonable employees, the steady. I have to emphasize this because these are the producers I am seeing posting regularly now that the job is taking a real toll on their mental health. A lot decide to walk away from the job, even though they love the work. The demands become too much.

It isn’t in most great producer’s nature to say no or ask for help. So if they do, they really need it. Again, managers can help with this right now by simply doing more check ins where they ask “What is your biggest challenge right now, so I can help ease it for you.” More communication and chances to mention needs can make a huge difference.

This is a very mentally taxing job anyway. The last year and half has not helped anyone. Producers need to take their time off. Many are not, or might be asking for a little more time. With so many broadcasting groups not offering significant raises its worth mentioning, providing more time off and reminding producers who generally don’t use their vacation days that they need to schedule some can be a huge difference maker. This doesn’t cost the company much. It does require disciplined scheduling, but it is so worth it to prevent staff burn out. Once COVID subsides, setting up fun activities producers can go do, like a free meal on the bosses without the bosses also helps. It can ease tensions between shows, let them relax and if the situation feels right they can talk about their challenges and help each other cope.

With the new knowledge that newscasts can be produced from home for example, let’s talk flexibility options. Producers have lives. Sometimes they might have a real legitimate challenge balancing obligations at home and work. Caring for a sick parent, and a child needing to go home sick are two common examples. I received nearly a dozen messages from former producers who really miss producing, but had to choose taking care of their kids over the job. This comes up a lot. News is less flexible than a lot of other careers for parents. But there are ways to help. If there is an issue where a producer needs to come in a little later in their shift to cover their spouse having a flight delayed, or an obligation they cannot cover through daycare, the producer often has to take a vacation day. But should they have to? What if they could log in from home to get the newscast covered until coming in? Its time for conversations like this to happen, to provide a little more flexibility so more producers can keep working.

Several educational and manager types reached out to me struck at how often training came up. Even among producers with a lot of on the job experience. A quick explainer, producers tend to love a couple of things the most about their job:

Thinking of new ways to make the newscast visually exciting
Learning new things, period

Producers tend to be life long learners, tinkerers and have a real creative flair. Yet their job is in some ways the same routine each day. They have to be highly disciplined to get the newscasts done. Once the many challenges to pulling that off are mastered, they want to reward themselves by getting more creative. Often, they will hit walls: Writers block, too much showcasing, too little showcasing, figuring out performance area usage. They have to dabble a little all the time. That’s why seasoned producers will ask for side projects. To keep that tinkerer inner self satisfied. They need chances to come together and learn and create.

Writers in other industries have conferences all the time. But there is not enough of these kinds of gatherings for producers. Yet. Again with a little creativity, especially with virtual options, more get togethers and training sessions can happen. The connections from these gatherings are also important to feed that it’s a vocation element of this job. Talking with others in the same boat is a real help. A help that doesn’t diminish with job experience.

Let’s address the mental health element a little more as well. Stations could bring in counselors more regularly and offer meditation sessions etc. It might seem hokey at first, but look at the tech industry. This type of benefit extra is offered a lot. Catering to your staffs mental health also increases employee output. It makes you a quality employer who gets quality returns.

I hope these ideas are a good start toward investing more in producers in the industry. There is hard work to be done for sure in terms of pay etc. I do tire of the my hands are tied mentality though when it comes to making efforts now. The ideas listed above have minimal cost but will offer high returns.

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How to tell if you are putting too much information into a story.

Writers are being asked to write more, in different formats and faster than before.

You have to decide what is better served on a digital platform (more on that in an upcoming article), or shown on a big monitor. You are told the pacing has to be high, but still understandable. You need to showcase. You need to think of your audience. No mistakes. The list goes on and on.

But with all the talk of transforming graduates into the digital age and futuristic journalists, there are still glaring issues in newsrooms today; very little writing training and often even less copy editing. You are thrown into the fire quickly, and you simply must perform.

One of the biggest challenges is learning how to write a relevant story, concisely and with the correct facts mentioned. This can be really confusing when being told to write quickly, to the video and saving a nugget for digital. We need to start with the basics. What does a well written story look/sound like?

Let’s delve in and help lay a strong foundation with a simple formula that can help you with a clear outline for your stories, no matter the format.

ELEMENTS OF A STRONG STORY

The sell

Video available

Facts explaining the sell

(ie relevant information so viewer can understand the story)

Looks simple right? Well its not for many until they practice a lot and get the hang of it.

So let’s start breaking things down.

VO’s.

When you title a story in your rundown, even a vo, you should aim to put the sell in the story slug or a unique element. Yep you read that correctly. But you only have a few words to work with, right? Keep in mind, you also will use that slug to find the story from now until the end of time. The slug cannot be a throw away. 

Let’s go through some examples:  House Fire is too generic. Think about it, you will have to scroll through dozens to find it for a follow up later. Child escapes house fire is better.  Or fire on Smith Street. Fire downtown can sometimes work but try and get even more specific. That’s part of the relevance. Fire in BBT Building, is likely how you will refer to it in the future. That’s why you hear things like Parkland shooting or Pulse shooting for example when discussing ongoing elements of these stories. The location helps to immediately identify the story. Some Tampa journalists will know this slug too; lobster man in court. The case was covered extensively in part because of the defendant’s deformity.  It was a unique element that caused viewer interest. The sell.

Once you have boiled a story down in the slug it is easier to write the story, no matter the format. The second thing you should immediately consider is the video. This is important whether you are writing a vo, vo/sot or package. Heck it is crucial when writing teases and opens as well. What image depicts the story best? Is it a static image or moving? If it is static you might want to put it in a monitor and have the anchor directly reference it in the first line or anchor intro. If it is moving, do you need to take it full natural sound up for a few seconds? Is the video itself your sell? Ask that every time.

Now that you defined the sell, and referenced an image right away, explain what the viewer is seeing and why they should care. This should play out easily. The fire is still burning up this house on this street. This family barely got out. This neighbor helped or watched terrified. Firefighters are still on the scene.

Let’s take one of the hardest subjects to boil down, a court case. When using the outline above it gets easier to boil the case down.

A court case story should start out this way:   Now an update on this case (that surprises, captures attention or fascinates viewers for a specific reason). Court video rolls… (since you defined the case and sell summarize the latest) today the person accused of stealing money from the company said it was a lie. The attorney for the company said that’s not true because of this and this fact (two most interesting/relevant ones). We have more on the court hearing on our website. Why did I mention that? Court hearings are the number one story overwritten in newscasts period. So the writer whether it is an associate producer who drew the short straw or the reporter stuck sitting in the courtroom all day needs to know right away that explaining everything will only confuse the viewer. You must boil down the highlights. Then do not be afraid to add more details on the website for people who love all the nitty gritty.

One other important note, yes, the video is mentioned early in the court story even if it is static. Why? It is part of the sell. The case is in court. You cannot make up more than is there, and you need to reference reality. You can use file from the scene if you like at some point too, but reference it directly. That is part of showing the relevant information in the story.

A final note, the outline above for how to write a good story does not have the five w’s and the all important how mentioned. Why? Not all will fit, or be relevant information at that point in the description of the story. That’s why the sell is the most important part of what you write. Sometimes the sell is we finally know why something happened. Or how. Sometimes we only know where, what and when. Trying to answer all of these elements every time, every story causes the copy to get bulky and increases the risk of fact errors. Especially when covering  breaking or developing news. Be clear about what you do know. Be clear about why you are reporting on the story (the sell). Do not make assumptions about facts. Only state what you absolutely know. If you find that you are writing and writing and the vo is 50 seconds long chances are you either do not know the sell of the story and are adding elements hoping to find the point, or you do not understand the facts well enough to tell the story yet. Same thing with long packages and/or long anchor intros into your package. If you have a really long story, you need to step back, look at our checklist above and start again. 

Hope this helps you boil your stories down more. You can even take past copy you’ve written and then put it to the outline test. By doing that you should quickly see where your writing crutches and/or pitfalls are so you can eliminate them. 

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How to handle it when asked inappropriate questions during an interview.

Recently FTVLive reported that someone posing as a recruiter for a network and someone who actually is a recruiter are making uncomfortable statements and asking lewd questions to women being interviewed. Let’s talk about how to handle these situations, specifically blatant sexual comments and/or requests for sexual favors.

First, it’s ok to say the question/statement was not appropriate. Responding by saying something like “I am hoping I misunderstood that last question, but this interview needs to remain professional questions only,” is fine. Do it. Yes, this will be uncomfortable. But you have the right to defend yourself and let the person know that’s not ok. You are remaining professional. More on this later.

If you have an agent or contact at the company where the recruiter works, let them know about what happened. It is ok to report it to someone you know. In the case of an agent, the person should then go up the food chain to address the issue. In the case of a friend who works at the company, it will at least be on record then with someone who could report it with credibility. You might have to answer questions later. But it is important for all involved to know that you want a fair workplace. That is not unreasonable.

I have heard over the years about hiring managers, who have gone so far as to ask about a sexual act while taking a potential employee to a restaurant. That is scary. You are in a strange town and this is your ride back to the station after lunch as well as possibly to your hotel room. Here’s what to do. Say that the question makes you uncomfortable. Excuse yourself. Then go to the bathroom and call for your own ride to the airport or your hotel. To be clear, you do not have to go back to the station. In fact you could end up in another very uncomfortable spot at the station with that manager. If you need to pick up your stuff, go to the hotel and get it. If you’ve already checked out, head to the airport. Only go to the station if you need to get your stuff. And then stop long enough to pick it up, then leave. But no matter where you are going, get a ride. It’s worth the money to get out of the situation. If you want to really get the point across, invoice the bill for that ride to HR at that station and say you would like to discuss why your method of transportation changed.

If a sexual request is made at the station in an office, get up and walk out of the room. Go to the front reception area and call for a ride. Your safety is the most important thing. If you feel safe in doing so, you can also go to the HR office. That person should help you get a ride to the airport. It just depends on if you want to tackle the issue right then, or get out of the station first.

If you are worried about backlash, please know this: While there are still some creeps hanging around in these powerful positions, there are a lot less of them. And companies know they cannot risk a public scandal. Your worst case scenario is you will not be called back for that job, or reimbursed for that Lyft ride. But let’s be honest, do you really want to work for a boss who acts like that or a station who hides from this kind of behavior?

Right now there are several managers, all the way up to the corporate level that want to help crack down on this type of behavior. But they need evidence. If it comes out that you protected yourself, you will still get jobs.

If you have an agent, and that company doesn’t report what happened and demand some sort of explanation and guarantee that the situation will be dealt with, fire the agency. This is a huge reason to have representation. You need backing. The company might tell the agent where to go, but demand the agent try. Frankly, reputable agents will want to make those calls anyway. The station and company do not want word getting around in this very small industry that something like this could have happened.

If the person is just direct and rude about your answers, saying things like “That’s your answer really?” about a job scenario question, or “Are you stupid” or “I am only interviewing you because I have to” report those things too. Companies have to provide fair interviews. There are common practices that have to be done. Period. Be polite during the interview and then inform your agent or someone you know in the company about what happened. Sometimes managers need job interview training. In this case, going back at the person will not really help. Kill them with kindness as the saying goes. Then when its over, you know this isn’t the person to work for. And if it’s reported the issue should be addressed for future candidates. I am telling you this first hand from having to report when interviewers are inappropriate. The first question I get when stating a case is “What did the interviewee do?“  The right answer in all cases is remain polite. Even in the scenario of the rude request at the restaurant.  Do not scream. Do not cuss out the person. State that the request was not appropriate. Excuse yourself then calmly remove yourself from the situation. If that person sees you leaving. Just simply say, “I appreciate the interview, but this situation is not right for me and my career. Good luck in your search.” Witnesses help. Like restaurant management. 

Good luck. Stay strong. Stay polite but firm that you deserve respect. Because you do.

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Why you have to be willing to blow up your rundown to succeed as a producer.

It’s no secret that producers are protective of their rundowns. They simply want them a certain way. Many get downright nasty about making a change. Here’s the deal though, if you are one of those producers married to their rundown, you need to be ready to lose your job. Yes, it is true. That’s not producing, that is stacking.

Producing is about explaining news in a compelling way, through a conversation with visuals and sound. More importantly, producing is about anticipating change and still executing flawlessly. That is what managers want. The ability to do that, means you can showcase, you can protect your anchors, you story-tell and most of all you own breaking news every day, every time.

The thing managers hate the most is when a breaker needs to go in the newscast and the producer says no or pitches a fit because it will mess up their rundown. This is why old timers will often jump your business about calling what you put on the air a “show” instead of a “newscast.” A show is entertainment that can be put to bed early, and dressed up in pretty bows. This is not “show business.” It’s the news business. A newscast demands that you put in whatever is new, anyway you can and inform the viewer from start to finish. See the difference? The newscast can and should have showcasing elements. It can get dressed up, but if there’s a breaker, those pretty bows might have to go so the new story bursts through. In other words, your job is to inform. You cannot expect or demand to write a few things early in the day, then refuse to change the rundown. That is failing at your job. There, I said it. So many tip toe around this idea but, it is the truth. As much as all of us producers want it to be our newscast, it belongs to the viewer. It serves a purpose to inform. “ New” takes precedence, always. This goes for anchors too. It’s not your newscast. Again, the newscast belongs to the viewer. You are all vehicles by which information gets out. Take the ego out of it, put the great information in as a collective unit and you will win. So, remember, the best rundowns are those which you can easily blow up and put in new information. If that is more than you can handle, think about a career change.

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