Taking ownership, from the first line of the anchor intro

Reporters, I know this is a big pet peeve.  The producer writes the anchor intro or rewrites it and steals all of your thunder, just gives away the big surprise or the really good stuff in your package.  That’s why I am writing this article my friends.  Good storytelling begins with the first line of the anchor intro and ends with the last line in the anchor tag.  Notice, I did not say package.  I did not say reporter track.  I did not even say live shot.  It all begins with the anchor intro.

This is an important concept for both reporters and producers to understand and take seriously.  Crafting a story begins with the anchor’s ability to make the viewer want to hear it.  Then the reporter’s video, information and hopefully a surprise element or two (or three, four and five!) will keep the viewer engaged.  The tag line should satisfy the viewer that you (as in the team) truly spelled out the entire story to the best of your ability at the time.  Executing this way enhances the credibility of everyone involved and makes viewers trust the whole news team more.

So let’s talk anchor intros and storytelling.  First I have to point out what NOT to do.  Say the reporter is at a hit and run.  The typical way to pitch to the reporter is to have the anchor give a rundown of what happened, then go the reporter with what happened.  Something like: “Tonight investigators are trying to find a driver involved in a hit and run.  Two women were struck (please don’t say and are fighting for their lives FYI) and traffic is still at a standstill while police piece it all together.  Here’s reporter at the scene.”  Then the reporter stands there looking frustrated and repeats the same information, because it just happened and there’s nothing else to explain yet.  In this scenario you just spit out a bunch of facts.  The anchors stole the thunder from the reporter on the scene by stating everything relevant before the reporter that’s standing there got a chance.  The viewer notices you are being redundant and wonders why the anchors and the reporter didn’t talk to each other before the newscast came on the air.  Yes, viewers really do catch this sort of thing.  They may not be able to spell it out as clearly as I just did, but they are great at getting the point across another way, clicking onto another channel.  You become too repetitive.  The remote is too easy to click.  Never forget that.

So what do you do instead?  Give the anchors a chance to interact with the reporter (we will call him Bob) from the start.  In this breaking news situation the anchor would say something like: “We want to check in with Bob right away for you.  That’s because he’s on First Street in Typical City where some women were hit by a car. (take double boxes here)  Bob, you just told me police are there looking for the driver.   So what do witnesses say happened?”

This gives Bob a chance to tell a story even with just basic facts.  He can walk around the scene and point out anything interesting, and stay engaged with the anchors.  In breaking situations like this, I often had my director keep double boxes handy in case my anchors came up with a question during the live shot.  This way I had the option to take the boxes and have the anchor ask the reporter for clarification etc., and stay engaged.

Now let’s move from story telling, breaking news anchor intro’s to planned out  live shots with a package.  The kind you have time to finesse.  First, understand, as an EP I usually required reporters to turn in anchor intros before getting script approval for their live shots and/or pkgs. Tags were due right then and there as well, unless the reporter was waiting on a specific fact.  In that case I asked for an outline of the tag.  Why require an anchor intro with the script?   It forced the reporter to segment out the information.  It helped the entire segment, from anchor pitch, to live intro to pkg to live tag, to anchor wrap up, all flow better.  It helped avoid the situation above.  Again, so we are clear, that scenario was:  Anchor intro gives away all the facts, then the reporter repeats, then the tag repeats again.  So reporters, how do you write the anchor intro?  You pick out the headline, the what’s in it for me or “WIFM” (if you don’t know what that means read “What is viewer benefit really” first.)  Before you fuss that this is giving the story away, hear me out.  That is NOT your surprise.  The “WIFM” is the hook that will make your viewer want to watch your piece.  It is the connector.  That means your package needs a human element and ah-ha moment and/or a surprise to live up to the viewer’s expectation.  If you need help with those elements read “Storytelling on a dime.”

Producers, do not write anchor intros unless it’s the lead story of the newscast or breaking news.  (By that I mean it happened so late your crew will be getting on the scene during your show, or shortly before.)  Yes, you can copy edit the anchor intros for time and to make sure the sell is in the intro.  If a reporter hands you a 30 second intro with sloppy writing and no WIFM make the reporter rewrite.  Remember, this anchor intro exercise helps the reporter break down the facts into sections so they are not: (a) just repeated over and over until the viewer is screaming “Enough I get it move on!” to the television screen.  Or (b) so wishy washy the anchors seem clueless and uninformed.  Remember, hardworking reporter, you do not get dibs on all the facts.  You must share.

This sharing is especially true if you’re discussing the lead story.  I used to let the reporter I had tagged as the lead know as soon as I could.  This meant we would write the anchor intro together. Yes, we would actually sit on the phone and hash it out.  Why?  I needed the copy to be compelling and accurate.  I needed to make sure that the anchors were able to set the tone for the newscast authoritatively and effectively.  I also wanted the reporter to really shine.  We had to do that as a team, from the anchor intro on.  Yes, that meant my lead package elements were often hashed out earlier than the other stories in the newscast, unless the facts were late breaking.  But even with late turning stories, the reporter knew what the sell was going to be in the anchor intro, so he/she could flow easily to the next fact in the story before air.

Now let’s talk anchor intro rewrites.  Producers, you cannot just copy edit the anchor intro, change the essence of it, switch the pitch line and not inform the reporter.  Simply put, that’s unacceptable.  If you do this, the reporter will (a) stop giving you anchor intros at all (b) call the EP or AND and pitch a fit about you or (c) be caught off guard when you go to him/her and seem uncomfortable.  Treat the anchor intro with a lot of care.  If you cannot wait for a rewrite from the reporter, copy edit then call and read the reporter what you wrote.  Make sure you are not stealing any thunder.  Try not to change the essence of the copy.  Your job is to make the anchors and reporters look like a cohesive unit, not two independent entities that happen to come back to back and talk about the same subject.

Which leads to my final point about why reporters should always begin their stories by writing anchor intros:  It forces you to talk with your copy editor during the day.   You have a responsibility to make sure your idea of the sell for your package jibes with the ideas of the producers, managers and the promotions writers.  Good story telling involves solid sells.  You cannot story tell if you have no point.  The point of the piece is what the anchors need to allude to in the anchor intro.  The promotion is just as crucial and the point of the piece is what is promoted.  You do not want promotions to air a tease that is way off base.  It makes all of you look bad.  Calling in to the producer or a manager with an outline of your piece, including the anchor intro, will prevent miscommunication.  It will make your life easier 90 percent of the time.  It is a true mark of taking ownership and telling good stories.



Game on: Secrets to raising the roof during sports.

No doubt being a sports anchor isn’t what it used to be.  You can’t just put up highlights and scoreboards and survive.  Many are being asked to one man band.  Some stations are getting rid of sports departments and many others have already done it.  Yet sports still dominates many conversations among regular people, daily.  We all know that ESPN has changed the playing field. So what does a sportscaster do, to not only stand out but possibly keep his/her job at all?  One phrase (and it’s one we at survivetvnewsjobs.com love) storytelling.

Often when I would tell sports anchors to do more of this, I would get puzzled looks and the sports anchor would walk away shaking his/her head.  So let me spell it out.  Playing and watching sports are commonplace among many of your viewers.  Leisure activities involving sports are an integral part of many people’s lives.  You just have to think of sports as more than the latest college or pro game on the weekend.  And when you do cover those weekend games, you need to make them have impact. Before you shake your head in confusion and disgust, look at these key ways to provide that impact.

Storytelling During Sportscasting

  • Let’s hear it
  • Memorable moments
  • Character build
  • Make it real

First let’s hear it. Use a lot of natural sound throughout your sportscast. Think about it, what are the latest techniques you are seeing when watching national games?  The networks are taking you into the event with mic’s in places they’ve never been before.  The commentators stop talking and take those special mics so you hear the cars screeching around the track in NASCAR, you listen to the quarterback call plays in mic’d up segments during games.  You hear players talking on the sidelines for a few seconds.  No you cannot do the exact same thing, but take the general idea and run with it.  This is a type of storytelling using natural sound.  You can ask to mic up a player during practice.  You can set a lav mic up when you do stories to catch ambient sound, you can use natural sound in vo’s and vosots and packages throughout your sportscast so viewers are engaged.  Going to cover a sports event, be it a practice, newsconference, or game and thinking about the natural sound will help you look at the event in a different way.  You will become more engaged and notice things you may not have caught onto before.  This could help you find interesting elements the other sports anchors and reporters in town aren’t doing.

Which leads to our next point:  Creating memorable moments.  You will hear a skilled EP tell his or her producers this all the time.  Photojournalists really get this concept as well.  Memorable moments are partially visual, but the key is that they play out emotions.  Sports are full of emotion.  They are utterly human.  You see incredible joyous moments, incredible pain, anger, angst, fear, intense drive, painful defeats and wondrous victories.  Looking for memorable moments each day in sports should be like the old saying… “shooting fish in a barrel.”  Even news conferences have emotion behind them.  Play it out. Search for the emotion in the sound bites, and the backstories to what lead up to the news conferences. You follow players’ tweets, you monitor sport blogs.  The emotions are all there, easy pickings.  Use them.

Again, I remember the head shaking, followed by “I only get 2 minutes and I have to get these highlights in.”  If the ratings fall off during your sportscast then, no, you do not have to show the highlights like you traditionally would.  You can take one key element, let it play with nat sound to create a memorable moment, then throw up a score board if you need.  Take the viewer into the event.  Don’t just cram a million factoids into a 2 minute segment.  Fans watched the game, saw highlights on ESPN, got onto the internet to check out their favorite blogs, are signed up on Twitter to check out what their favorite players say etc.  Think about what makes you love covering sports.  That’s why fans love watching sports.  The memorable moments are the draw.  The emotion of it all.

Early in my career there was a sportscaster at a competing station, who won Emmy’s for his sportscasts all the time, often beating veteran sports journalists in much larger markets.  I started watching his sportscasts to see why.  The answer: memorable moments. He made each sportscast interesting.  They did not look like all the others in town.  And this sports journalist was making a big name for himself.  He also would turn in packages every year and beat out reporters for Emmy’s.  He was a storyteller that just loved covering sports.  Believe me, this guy never worried about his sports time getting cut.  He became a real draw in a small community that didn’t have any professional teams to follow.  What did he even have to talk about?  Plenty.  He also did pieces on local sporting events, by character building.

So what is character building exactly? It is centering a story on someone who can really help you explain the issue or to simplify even more:  someone that spells out the point of your package. (see storytelling on a dime.) It also means branching out.  Sit your assistant news director or executive producer down and ask them what the trends are in town for recreation.  Chances are they have seen research and know what topics (i.e. – sports) people in town love to do.  Let’s take biking for example.  Many places have incredible trails families explore each day.  Hit the trail on a Monday or Tuesday when you only have retread elements on the professional or college games and start looking for characters.  Ask people why they ride.  Ask the history of the trail.  Listen to what people are talking about.  You will find stories. Contact the local Y and ask about inspiring athletes on and/or coaches for their different teams.  Check out the intramural leagues in the area.  You will find amazing slice of life stories with cool characters doing a sport.  Before you know it, you will have compelling packages to air on those hum drum Mondays and Tuesdays.  Your sportscast might just be a package those days.  And they might get a bump in numbers when viewers catch on.

Then carry the character building into your coverage leading up to the “big games.” It’s like watching the incredible pieces about athletes before Olympic events.  These stories about particular athletes or coaches or fans, make viewers care more about the event itself and what you will have to say about it.  Finding the characters will take you into the sports you cover, not just make you a seemingly detached sideliner.  This will help you make connections with coaches as well.  Maybe more exclusives will come your way.

Finally make your sportscasts real.  When you sit on the set, talk to the viewer.  Don’t just throw a million one liners and stats and quick highlights at people.  And please, don’t yell at the viewers for two straight minutes!  Making the sportscast real means using the statistics to add color to the story, instead of making the stats the story.  Think Dan Patrick.  He always makes sports issues really conversational and boils controversies down in ways even a casual fan can easily follow.  You can do this visually by taking the viewer into the event with nat sound and characters and memorable moments.  That will help the viewer connect with your content and you.  This should help make your sportscast raise the roof each night.



Ah-ha! What Meteorologists Can Learn From Story tellers.

It is no secret that meteorologists are often the number one reason viewers tune in for newscasts.  Still the weather section of rundowns is not always getting the numbers it used to.  There are several reasons for this. Let’s take a look at one that can be tricky to solve: Trust.  Research keeps showing that viewers, even though they still watch newscasts do not always think they are getting accurate information. In fact, a recent survey by George Mason/Yale Universities on climate change showcases some of the issues for weather coverage.  It interviewed more than a thousand Americans in May, 2011.  52 percent said they trusted “television weather reporters.”   48 percent said they distrust “television weather reporters.” Nearly 50/50 isn’t bad you say?  Consider this:  The trust level for TV forecasters is down 14 points since a poll in November 2008.

You might be saying this was specific to weather climate change, a small element in our day-to-day coverage.  It still points to trust levels for a perceived large weather event.  Trust over severe weather coverage is a make or break for many stations and, therefore, its staff meteorologists.

Now let’s talk news icons.  The people you trust when you watch.  Here are two names to consider: Charles Kuralt and Bob Dotson.  Both master storytellers, who took facts, gave them meaning, and made you think of your world a little differently. (Dotson is still doing it for NBC News.) “Television weather reporters” have the same burden, despite being the scientists on staff.

So how do you connect the two?  Let’s take some basic storytelling principles and apply them to weather coverage.

Storytelling Principles for Television Weather Reporters:

  • Start with an image.
  • Be able to explain story in one sentence.
  • Showcase how it impacts people.
  • Find an Ah-ha moment. Let viewers see the situation in a way they haven’t before.

All of these bullet points are aimed at helping you provide perspective.  For all elements of television news this means identifying and clearly explaining an image.  This is why, when there is severe weather clean up, you hear management asking for the most compelling picture of the damage.  The goal is to burn an image in the viewer’s mind of what the storm meant for people.  Using visuals has to be more than calling up a weather map, full screen.  That’s because, for most viewers, weather maps look pretty much the same.  If you see something interesting on radar that you want to make your “headline” for a weather hit you need to be able to explain it in one sentence right away.  Spell it out.  Then expand on it.  Be visual while you do it.  Draw diagrams, telestrate, ask for interesting video or animation to spell out what the viewer should watch for.  This helps the viewer relate to the weathercast more.

The easiest way to pick your headline and spell it out is showcasing how an element of the weather will impact people each day.  Yes, you already sort of do this with hourly forecasts, school bus stop forecasts, game forecasts etc.  But it all looks the same, usually falls at the end of the weathercast and in a very predictable manner.  I know research shows holding those graphics helps with the all important meter points.  This means making the beginning and middle of the forecast more personal with mentions about how the weather will impact certain activities and neighborhoods while showcasing it in a more visual way than just putting up a map like viewers are used to seeing.

Often you are asked to give themes to each weathercast when you have multiple hits in a news show.  Frankly, many of those themes are not obvious to the viewer until the final outlook is put up with the weekend forecast, or a look ahead to an event.  The beginning of most weathercasts seems the same and can be confusing to viewers.  To viewers, the information is not clearly supported with visuals.  Remember, after a while, maps can appear like video wallpaper to the viewer:  Always there, no reason to stare at it.  That’s why I mention telestrating, animations and video to explain your headline along with those maps.

If you take away one suggestion for storytelling from this article make it this one:  Give viewers an “ah-ha moment” out of your weathercast every day.  Storytellers call this their “surprise.” Often it is an ironic twist or a very interesting fact that you didn’t know, or did not see coming, and makes the story relatable.  Weather has universal appeal, but forecasts often are not easily relatable for the viewer.  You watch all the graphics and hope you are actually guessing correctly where your location is on the various maps so you can figure out the impact.  I understand a meteorologist cannot give every person across the ADI a personal twist specific to their area.  But you can give them a headline that has impact and explain it in an extremely relatable way.  A recent example: Florida got a bunch of rain for a week this summer.  It lasted all but a few hours a day.  Usually Floridians see a couple of hours of rain late afternoon or early evening.  Many meteorologists focused on where the rain was in a broad base and what the next day would look like.  Helpful yes, because I was trying to figure out when to hit the amusement parks and beaches.  But everywhere I went I kept hearing: “Why is it raining like this?”  I watched the news for several days.  A few off hand comments I could not understand.  I went onto the weather channel website and searched “Why Florida rain?” Bingo!  I found a great explainer on why this was happening.  It was a change in a low over Texas and part of the midwest that drifted over.  Too often weather reporters are told to put so many graphics up for futurecasting etc, that the “why” gets glossed over in the middle of the weathercast.  You don’t need extra time to showcase the “why”, you just need to define it clearly in a sentence, with an image then, expand a few lines.  Here’s a big secret from storytellers:  The “why” in a story is often your most compelling and potentially ironic element.

Yes, many of the things I am mentioning technically exist in weather hits already.  So, what’s the big deal?  Too often the message is lost in the delivery.  The comments are thrown in as asides or transition lines when talking with the news anchors.  The perspective and the “why” elements need to take precedence.  This is where you establish that you are keeping watch, wanting to make sure the viewers are safe.  These elements will build your trust with viewers.  Storytellers are trusted.  They know the facts and can let viewers see those facts in a way that wasn’t clear before.  So learn from the storytellers and provide more “ah-ha” moments.  Your credibility in your market will soar!


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!