The Best Job Security A Reporter Can Have

The best job security a reporter can have comes down to one word. Sources. Time and time again I hear about the “untouchable” reporter in a newsroom who can’t ad lib, can’t write, can’t dress, can’t get along with people, yet cannot be fired. The reason, sources. The reporter has so many contacts and so many ways to get relevant information on a dime, that they away with murder day-to-day.

Now, if you are the person with the great sources, hear this: I am NOT suggesting that you act like a jerk in the newsroom. Even the most “untouchable” person can go too far and pay a hefty price. But if you love where you live and want to stay for the long haul, do not underestimate the power of a strong source list.

Simply put, too many people think their looks or on-air abilities are enough to keep them around. These traits are easier to find in the biz, than a die hard reporter with a true pulse of what’s happening in the community and who’s behind the power struggles, conflicts and movements. Your looks can fade or a station can change it’s mind about on-air presentation styles. No matter what, all stations and all news philosophies in all markets need journalists who can call on a hunch, turn a lead story and do it consistently.

So next time you think you are too tired to make that follow-up call, or reach out on a new lead for a potential source, remember, giving that extra effort could make you an invaluable resource. It is worth it. (If you don’t know how to source build check out Cultivating Sources and How to Generate Story Ideas.)

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Story Sources: Beware of the Badge?

Let’s be honest—if you’re a TV reporter, you probably end up assigned to more crime stories than you can count over the course of a year! A murder here, a robbery there, another missing person, oh and don’t forget the occasional 12-hour standoff.

Reporters cover a lot of crime and because of that, they get to know the police public information officers pretty well. PIOs are an important link between the crime scene and your TV viewers. After all, they usually know many more details about the incident than you do as a reporter. They talk with the detectives on-scene, they’re briefed by the brass, and it’s their job to be a link between the department and the public. Many of them do a fantastic job. In my last TV market, a couple of the PIOs were excellent communicators and savvy with social media—they’d tweet basic details on breaking news and direct TV crews to a staging area where they’d meet reporters. That’s good stuff.

It’s a tough job, actually. Many PIOs are on-call 24/7, so when a murder happens on a weekend or a skier goes missing on New Year’s Day, they’re taking calls from reporters or setting up a news conference. They’re under a lot of pressure from YOU the reporter to provide as much information as possible, while at the same time not releasing any details that might jeopardize an investigation. It can be quite the balancing act.

The bottom line is, in many cases, you need good PIOs to give you information for your story. They’re front-line, typically credible sources. But here’s something to consider… something more young journalists seem to have trouble understanding: it’s important to not count on PIOs as your only sources. Never forget who the PIO is working for—and it’s not you. They’re representing their law enforcement agency and, when push comes to shove, protecting their agency. If they think it’s best for a particular case or investigation, police may obviously withhold certain facts they don’t want the public to know. They may even provide false information or ask you to hold a piece of info if they believe it’ll help flush out a suspect.

I’ve known reporters, producers and assignment editors who had very close working relationships with PIOs. They talked with them every day as they did “beat checks.” Over time, some even became friends on a personal level. That can lead to good information or an occasional exclusive story. But you need to keep your guard up. You need to be careful you’re not crossing the line. And certain PIOs can be manipulative and even lead reporters down the wrong path if it means protecting an investigation. There can be other issues that aren’t as ominous, but can bite you anyway. For example, what if the PIO mistakenly gives you bad info? Now you’re going on the air with a fact error.
Treat PIOs as you would other sources—with caution. Truth is you need them to provide detail for your stories. And they need you to distribute certain info to the public. But whenever you can, don’t use a PIO as your only source. Work hard and track down others who may be able to add context and detail—what do the neighbors have to say? How about the suspect or victim’s employer? Check court and police records for yourself to see what someone’s criminal background is. Find out what witnesses have to say, if you can find them. And when you can, talk with a detective or deputy directly. It’s always best to get information form the most direct source, rather than the public mouthpiece of the department.

PIOs can and will continue to be a key contact for reporters. They can save your newscast when breaking news happens late and you need a nugget of info to get a lead story on the air. They can also help you on and off the record. But always remember they may have their own agenda. There are potentially other credible and legitimate sources on any given story, so don’t just call you favorite PIO and call it a day. Do the extra work and make your story that much better.

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Steve Kraycik is the Director of Student Television and Online Operations at Penn State University. He has more than 27 years of experience in television news, much of that as a manager. He also is an agent with MediaStars. You can reach him at steve@mediastars.tv and @TV_Agent_Steve.

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Is Enterprising Stories A News Philosophy?

Recently I addressed the importance of defining your news philosophy to end up in a station where you can really flourish.  When I ask journalists to define their philosophy the most common answer I get is “enterprising stories.”  Let’s consider that for a minute.

Enterprising stories is not a philosophy.  It is the result of source building.  However, it is what you should be doing anyway as a news reporter.  Again, “enterprising stories” is not a news philosophy.  A news philosophy defines how you present information to the community to inform, empower and educate.  It includes writing style, graphics presentation, and topic selection.  It delves into which of the 5 W’s and 1 H you focus on the most.

Stations may emphasize unique stories as a key part of coverage.  It can be part of a news philosophy.  But it is not the whole of a news philosophy.  Remember, part of serving the public is covering the issues and events of the day.  You cannot always enterprise every element.  You can look for impact elements others do not have, but the basic facts must still be present in order to serve the public effectively.

Here’s one more thing to think about: Nearly all newsrooms aspire to have some sort of “enterprise” unit no matter their stated philosophy.  (Conan recently reminded us how rare it really is.) Aspire to break this mold.  Delve deeper into issues to find the unique elements.  Source build so you can learn what the reality of a situation really is, and use those skills to define your philosophy.  Think of “enterprising stories” as a means to the end, which is, your news philosophy.

 

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How To Define Your News Philosophy

When journalists contact me, one of the first questions I ask is “What is your news philosophy?”  Most cannot tell me clearly.  I end up having to ask a series of questions, then define it for them.  (This, by the way, includes many news managers who call me looking for employees.)

Now I know some people are already rolling their eyes at me mentioning news philosophy.  The naysayers response:  “Your philosophy is the boss’s philosophy.”  My counter.  Exactly.  If you do not know what type of news you love to do, and you do not define your own mission statement to serve the community, you cannot connect with a manager who thinks the same way.  Want to know why so many journalists burn out in the first 5 years?  This is a big reason.  You and the boss don’t think alike.  The job is simply too intense, too all encompassing not to believe in the message.  Journalism is a vocation in many ways.  You do it because you just don’t know what else you can do.  It is simply a part of you, so you need to define it for yourself.  Personal fulfillment often replaces the great paycheck in those first key years.

O.K., lecture over. Now let’s talk about how to define your philosophy.  It requires exploring a few questions and truthfully answering them instead of saying what you think others want to hear.

What types of stories make you proud to be a journalist?

What issues do you read about in your spare time?

How do you visualize stories?

What news do you love to watch and steal ideas from?

How do you serve the community in your reports/newscast?

Really think about these questions. They are a great guide to helping you define news philosophy for yourself.  Also try and throw away stereotypes. (See article “What is Hard News”) You need to define your philosophy in clear terms a viewer could relate to, not a fellow newsy.  For example, the “New, Now, Next Philosophy” has different meanings depending on what broadcast entity is executing it.  So just telling a prospective boss, I am a “new, now, next broadcast journalist” is only a small part of the picture.  You need to have more detailed discussions.  How will you do this with graphics?  Standups?  When deciding what stories are live?  Do you like a lot of 20 second vo’s or do you like to really delve into an issue and pick apart what’s new, now and next?  Make sense?

Let’s get back to news as vocation for a minute.  Sometimes journalists need to be reminded that the news they put on the air, and over the internet, actually impacts people’s lives.  You have incredible influence over issues, sometimes arguably too much influence.  You owe it to yourself and those you serve to know why you dedicated your life to doing the news.  If you cannot do this, you need to go into PR.  It’s a simple truth.  Call me an idealist, a purist, a fool.  But news philosophy is crucial to excel at this vocation you have chosen.  Don’t shortchange yourself.

 

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