Producing Alliances: Assign and direct.

Line producers are often in a very uncomfortable spot in newsrooms.  You are in charge of a newscast, yet you are not a manager with any teeth.  Competition between producers generally is pretty intense so you cannot really confide in another producer at your station.  Your job is confusing for other people in the newsroom to really grasp.  You don’t want to spill your guts to your EP, so it can appear in your review a few months later.

So who do you align yourself with?  I always had the best luck with directors and assignment editors.

In the article “Right Hand Meet Your Left” I describe why having a good relationship with your director is important.  Now I want to talk more about the benefits of this smart alliance.

Directors tend to be extremely detail oriented.  That means they can pick up on things you might do that you aren’t even aware of.  When starting out as a producer, I had problems with my weekend newscasts timing out correctly.  During the morning and weekday noon shows, I had no timing problems.  I tried different techniques for several weeks with no luck.  I was ready to pull my hair out!  Then I decided to ask the director for advice. But, he was much more experienced and I was concerned he would think less of me.  When I finally asked if he noticed anything about my timing he said: “Yes. I’ve been waiting for you to ask. I didn’t want to seem pushy.”  Turns out, the final commercial break varied wildly from the rundown format.  I had never known to check the traffic log for my breaks.  That was never taught to me.  He showed me where to get the log and what to look for.  I never mistimed a show again.

Directors also tend to be dismissed by managers and other newsroom employees during a shift. Because of this, they hear everything and if you have developed a strong relationship based on trust, your director may give you a heads up when something big is about to happen that involves you.  Several times I found out management was considering moving me to another newscast, from my director.  I had several days to prepare before news management got around to telling me.  I never betrayed the director’s trust and was able to arm myself if I didn’t like the shift change to try and fight for “my show.”

In some shops directors are considered managers.  They are consulted before changes take place especially when it comes to formatting newscasts.  You want a heads up when possible and you want to be able to weigh in.  Several times directors came to me with proposed format or policy changes and asked my opinion before weighing in themselves.  We wanted to be on the same page to protect our shift.

The other smart alliance is with assignment editors.  (We will dedicate an entire article to assignment editors soon.  They are unsung heroes in many newsrooms.)  I went out of my way to develop a relationship with my assignment editors because often they are the next closest thing to producers in terms of constant grind.  Again, assignment editors are a type of manager, yet don’t really have teeth, just like producers.  And, just like producers, they sit down to work and don’t get downtime until they are in the car on the way home.  Assignment editors are also consulted on things that impact your shift, but involve the crews more.  They are a great resource for understanding what the crews in the field are going through during an actual shift.  Usually the crews are too swamped to fill you in themselves.  Crews know management will check in with the assignment desk and therefore usually tell the desk any elements first.  If you are not respectful to your assignment editor, you will not get as many updates about the crews and will not get to weigh in on how you want those updates. This can have a dramatic impact on your day-to-day job duties.  Also, if you are curt toward your assignment editor, you will end up having to constantly check the assignment file and scroll through hoping to figure out what the newest information is on local vo’s etc.  If you are respectful, you might get a top line or quick phone call so you know when to write local elements and when to wait for crucial information.

So how do you set up a solid relationship with the assignment desk?  If you have even a moment help make some calls when the desk is overwhelmed.   I used to ask my associate producer to check with the assignment editor to see if he/she needed a quick break once or twice a shift.  My AP could listen to the scanners and answer the phone and my assignment editor could at least walk the building or grab a snack and relax a little.  If breaking news hit, I had the AP get on the desk with the assignment editor and help make calls or, if the assignment editor preferred, be in charge of sending me top lines about the information like a crews’ ETA to the breaking news scene.

Bottom line, producers cannot do their job properly without information, and without a way to cleanly place that information on a television screen.  Treat the people who allow you to perform these key tasks with respect and you will get the help you need to put on the best newscast possible each day.

 

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Your Producing Voice: How you get into anchor’s heads.

I have a secret for producers. It’s something your anchors aren’t going to tell you. However, they may say it behind your back. Your voice in our IFB tells us everything we need to know about how good you are at what you do — or whether you have a long way to go.

A friend of mine reminded me of this the other day. In 2004, she produced the wall-to-wall coverage of Hurricane Charley that I anchored at WSPA-TV. As a new hurricane, Irene, was barreling toward the Carolina coast, she was reminiscing on my Facebook wall about the chaos going on behind-the-scenes at the station when Charley hit the Myrtle Beach area.

But her experience was far different from mine. All I remember from that day in 2004 was her soft, reassuring voice in my head calmly telling me which satellite shot to go to next. She’d line-up one. Sometimes it would work out and I could talk with the reporters out on the beach as the wind and rain beat them harder and harder. In those conditions, the satellite shot would go down a lot, though. It probably stressed her out to the max. But you couldn’t tell by her voice. With smooth, even tones, she’d let me know we’d lost that one and suggest where to go next. If she didn’t have a suggestion, I’d just ad-lib until we got back on-track.

Sometimes when she’d open her mic, I could hear someone near her in the booth screaming. It was clear that day who was really in control in the “control room,” the producer really knew what she was doing.

I’ve worked with some brilliant producers. The best are “power producers” in the newsroom who build innovative, incisive blocks of news that showcase their anchors’ full range of personality. Throughout the day, they prod their reporters. And they can be gruff when they’re not getting what they want.

But then, right before their show, they ascend the steps above the director to the producer’s perch in the control room and it’s like they take on the personality of a guardian angel: wise, patient, and soft-spoken. Like Bela Karolyi, the best use breaks in the action to coach their anchors into an Olympic performance.

“Nice ad-lib there on story X,” you might hear them say during a commercial break. “You had the whole control room laughing.”

Or it can be as simple as: “Great pacing on that A-block. We’re right on time.”

That doesn’t mean stroking your anchors’ egos. I don’t want you to tell me I’m doing a good job if the show’s a train wreck or my energy is off. You should still communicate with me though.

“Live shots down all over the place,” you might say. “Gotta love live TV! Just keep doing what you’re doing. We’ll get through it — and we needed material for the holiday party blooper tape anyway.”

It really is like that scene from Broadcast News when the producer, played by Holly Hunter, got the very inexperienced anchor, played by William Hurt, through a special report about Libya. Hopefully you won’t need to be the ventriloquist Hunter’s character nearly becomes in that scene. But this quote from the movie’s anchor is so true:

“You’re an amazing woman,” he tells his producer. “What a feeling having you inside my head!”

So the next time you feel like hitting that button in the booth and really letting your anchor have it in his IFB, remember that. You’re in his head. And what you say will dramatically impact his performance for the rest of that show — and maybe for the rest of the time you work together.

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Matthew Nordin is a morning anchor and investigative reporter at Raycom Media’s WMBF News, the NBC affiliate in Myrtle Beach, SC. He was an anchor/reporter at WSPA-TV in Greenville/Spartanburg, SC from 2001-2005. Soon, he’ll write about communicating with your anchor during live interviews. You can follow him on Twitter @MatthewNordin

 

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Meet my conscience: The importance of setting up gut checks.

Recently in Chicago, there was a drive by shooting.  A freelance photographer got an interview with a 4 year old who mentioned when he grew up he was going to have a gun. The sound bite aired.  Trouble is, after that bite the child added that he wanted to become a police officer.  The police officer part did not air during a morning show at a local station.  The breakdowns in ethics in this case are numerous. Did the photog get the parent’s permission?  Did the person who wrote the vo/sot watch all of the interview before writing?  Why were the boy’s words taken out of context?  Why air sound from a 4 year old at all,  especially in a vosot?  This wasn’t a perspective piece.  It was a quick pacer story.  This is not an isolated case of something that is clearly dicey, ethically, ending up on the air.  Recently a station in Bristol, RI admitted it aired video from a golf tournament without explaining the video was a staged reenactment.

Ethical issues like this do happen and some would argue they are getting more common as stations grind more news out.  A recent RTNDA/Hofstra University study shows nearly 35 percent of stations added newscasts in 2010.  With more news churning out and smaller staffs to accomplish it, more ethical mistakes will happen unless there are systems of checks and balances as well as continued training on how to effectively write under intense deadline pressure.  Sometimes even the news managers are so tied up just trying to churn out the news, they cannot truly serve in a supervisory role.  University newsrooms cannot replicate this type of environment.  It is simply too dangerous to do while also teaching the basics of being a broadcast journalist.  But once you get your first job you are often thrown in, and there may not be set checks and balances to review your work.  For example, in several shops where I worked there was not an EP overseeing shows.  In fact there wasn’t a news manager at all during several shifts.  There was no one with clear editorial control.  You would write, the anchor would rewrite then, maybe, an associate producer would rewrite the copy again.  In other shops there was a manager (usually an assistant ND) who was ostensibly overseeing the daily mix.  But that manager was so swamped you could go all day without seeing the person.  Even if there is not a set system of checks and balances at your station, you need a personal one.  That means setting one up yourself, and leaning on fellow staffers.

So let’s talk gut checks.  In each shop I set up a relationship with several co-workers where we could give quick calls and exchange thoughts on issues that would come up.  This usually was not someone with the same job as I had in the newsroom.  I wanted someone with a different perspective and different crunch times.  Remember it is easy to armchair quarterback, but when you are standing in the pocket with a nasty linebacker bearing down, you just want to get rid of the ball!  As I mentioned, often there was no EP on staff to help oversee and check my work.  Other producers would think more like me or possibly have bad habits like watching raw video only until they heard a “good” sound bite, then starting to write without watching the rest of the video.  As a producer I leaned on my anchors for help.  If a story just didn’t feel right, or children were mentioned, I asked for a gut check read from an anchor that I trusted.  If the anchor was an attacking type personality, then I went to veteran reporters in the shop instead.  I even had my associate producers and editors watch raw tape and tell me what stood out as possible ethical issues on sensitive stories.  Notice some of the people had more experience, some less. All of us had enough ethics training that someone’s gut check would go off.

Reporters, your photogs are a great resource you probably have already considered.  Here’s another great resource, anchors.  They tend to have a little more free time to brainstorm with you.  If you are lucky enough to have an EP on staff, lean on him/her.  That person is paid to help you gut check.  Don’t let him/her off easy.  Call in.  If you do not trust your EP, or there isn’t one on your shift, lean on the anchors more.  Depending on the time of day, your producer is also an asset.

It is also critical that you set up a person with final say on rewrites.  If there’s no EP, then a producer or veteran anchor should have final say.  This should be clear to everyone who copy edits for the newscast on your shift.  That includes reporters.  That way if a fact error or ethical dilemma comes up there is a clear cut person who either makes the call or is in charge of contacting management so the bosses can make the call.

What if you do have an EP or assistant ND on staff monitoring things during your shift?  Set up a gut check system with other staffers anyway.  No one is perfect and managers are often pulled away or distracted by other duties.  It is good to have other staffers to lean on in case you feel like the manager is too distracted to help.  In the end, if you wrote the story you will be held accountable.  If you end up making an ethical mistake, and we all do at one time or another, you need to protect yourself by being able to say you took steps to check your work.  This should not get the other staffer you consulted with in trouble.  At least that never happened with me.  If I wrote the story, I was held accountable.  Showing you made efforts can make the difference between a stern scolding or suspension or being fired.  These gut checks will also help you grow as a journalist by seeing other perspectives and staying on your toes.  So ask someone to be your other conscience and return the favor.  As you can see from the examples at the beginning of this article, our industry needs more gut checks.

 

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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.”

 

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