In the past few weeks, I have seen several posts on LinkedIn either asking where are producers, or appeals from stations and broadcasting groups that frankly as of even a year ago would never have to worry about enough applications. This isn’t a surprise to me, since I talk with producers at all levels all the time, but it is a wakeup call for the industry.
Partner these posts with two more important factors: The rate of employees unionizing in the journalism industry is increasing, and a lot of veteran producers are posting about mental health issues and that they are getting out of the business as result. Now we have a better overall grasp of this issue. For a long time the broadcasting industry has recognized producing is a very difficult job. The industry conceptually understands that a big reason is a lack of training. Part of that happens at some J-Schools because frankly, producing needs to be an entire specialty track not just a course you take in case you cannot get that reporting gig. But there’s a bigger factor: Constant practical training needs to happen during a producer’s first job. Most “starter” newsrooms lack the staff to really do this. So producers have to train themselves through trial and error. Does that take grit and persistence? Yes. Does it weed out the weak of heart. Sure. But this isn’t the 1980’s anymore. The industry needs to understand that adding digital responsibilities along with making your own graphics and editing your own VO’s has made the job even harder than when you “bit the bullet and made it.”
The industry also needs to recognize that just because a producer made it for 3 years doesn’t make him/her an expert necessarily and the support needs to continue. No, these producers no longer need to be trained almost daily, but they do need to brainstorm how to showcase, they need to be encouraged how to make the newscast feel like they accomplished something more than slamming a bunch of stories on the air while barely able to even take a quick bathroom break then know they have to do the same thing the next day. Rising up in the producer ranks doesn’t make the job easier. Managers, you take on more responsibility as you move up. The decisions you have to make every day can be very hard, and draining. But you get to take breaks. You can schedule some downtime in your day to relax. And you should. It keeps you fresh, your brain power strong and your mental health more intact. Producers on the other hand, keep adding more complicated elements to their job. More showcasing, more problem solving about why a certain 5 minute period in their show suddenly is losing audience, more tweaking. It is a constant challenge with no real break. No real stride even if you are constantly putting out best effort as expected. This is a job that doesn’t let down. It gets easier in some ways, but the intense constant deadlines do not let you rest in your day. This has to be understood at higher levels. Your veteran producers are tired. They often feel taken for granted. They sometimes question, “Is this all I have to look forward to?” Eventually most realize, they can work smarter not harder in something other than broadcast news. So just when they are at maximum talent, just when they hit the so called 10,000 hour rule, many who don’t want to go into management, but are a huge talent quit. A loss the broadcast industry, with constant staff cuts, constant new editorial demands and constant pushes for savvier editorial techniques really cannot afford.
So how does the industry fix this problem? First let’s stop talking about journalism as a vocation. Yes, no matter what the work hours alone make this a passion type career instead of just a job. Yes, you need to really care about what you do. The issue is, for profit companies use the idea of this is a vocation to not properly compensate for expertise. The mindset is limiting. Executives in these groups are paid well and often receive bonuses for their advanced understanding of the nuances of this business. Seasoned producers need some caveats also. For years the pay issue has come up. Every excuse imaginable has been made. The bottom line is the news industry’s biggest commodity, largest asset, and greatest offering are the people who make its product, the news, credible. This isn’t just about profits, its about long term product stability. Telling veteran journalists who can offer so much insight to suck it up with yet another 2 percent raise and be ok with that because this is a vocation is piss poor. Without these producers, you have a weak product. Call up a newscast from a large market from 20 years ago, then look at modern newscasts at the same station. The new newscasts have more glitz, but focus on the journalism. There is no comparison in content. Viewers know it, that’s why they are looking online. They want facts. They want to be given real information and tools to analyze what is best for themselves, their families and the community at large. Veteran producers know how to do that and make it look good. You have to invest in that if you want the industry to survive long term.
Let’s go back to the need for producers period. You can shoot great stories from iPhones. You can produce news from anywhere now, with a computer and a WIFI link. It is time to spend a bit less on the latest equipment and invest in your people instead. Some broadcasting groups are hiring producers in training. Yes, it is a start in investing in the future. But this is a drop in the bucket. There has to be more investment in training and compensation from the beginning producing job until the last.
There also has to be more investment in listening to the needs of your producers. A key point of contention: No downtime. The tight constant deadlines make this impossible during a given day. But broadcasting groups could start offering more PTO time for producers. Some groups make you earn your time off as you work. Why not set up 2 weeks guaranteed time off at the start of the year, with opportunities to earn more time off as they put in extra hours for those specials, etc you ask them to do above and beyond their newscasts? Producers cannot just run to the doctor quick then come into work. They have to be there to monitor their shows from start to finish if you want high quality. So they need to take more days off.
To keep producers inspired many newsrooms essentially pit producers against each other in terms of who’s considered the best. It is very rampant and very toxic. There is an easy fix. Each newsroom needs to create mission statements for their newscasts that states purpose of the show, and audience goals. Every hour is a bit different this way. By focusing on the content needs, this helps producers stop demanding all the elements for their newscasts and helps them share more easily. Collaboration is huge if you are a producer. Fellow producers are the only ones who really understand what you go through each day. Closeness needs to be fostered.
There is so much more that can be done, but these suggestions really start to address what I hear most from producers. They need time off to regroup. They need support. They need to have each other to lean on. They need to truly be valued and have it shown by more than an occasional thank you and a “treat” brought to the newsroom once in a while. Those are nice gestures. But they need more. The lack of candidates tells you that in stark terms. So please broadcast industry wake up. Deliver. Everyone wins.
Our cliche list is still the most read section of Survive: 10 years later! So it seems like a good time to remind of a few ways to avoid cliche writing.
In the past, we’ve discussed trimming words away, to eliminate a cliche. We discussed reading copy aloud in order to figure out your favorite crutch phrases. We also talked about keeping a list on a notecard at your desk with three alternate phrases to help you get around your crutch phrases in a crunch.
Survive is full of articles about how to write more conversationally as well. But this article is going to talk about a simple technique that frankly I am surprised hasn’t already come up in an article about cliche writing. It’s as simple as asking “Would you say that to your Mom?”
Yep, this question when writing, then scanning over your copy will catch so many errors, and especially cliches. It is a real tried and true technique veteran journalists have used many times over. And it bares repeating in an article on to itself. It is that effective.
You would not call your Mom and say “Hey there was a brutal murder and some residents nearby are scared.” You would not call your Mom and say “A blaze broke out two miles from the house.” Go down our cliche list, none of the phrases would be good for talking with Mom. None.
So let’s thank our parents for giving us a huge gift, teaching us the art of straightforward, conversational non cliche writing. They don’t use it on you. You don’t need to use it on the audience. So glad we had this talk 😉
This is a million dollar question in a lot of ways: How do I figure out what should be in a TV story vs a digital story? There are teams of researchers, consulting groups, and higher ups in the broadcast industry weighing this question every day. But you are a journalist, and you have to turn stories everyday right now while they ponder the future digital universe. So let’s lay out some common sense ground rules.
Necessary TV Elements:
Strong visual and/or emotional elements
Timeliness, especially if ongoing
Necessary Digital Elements:
Strong visual and/or emotional elements
Great Why or How elements
Great extra nuggets of information surrounding ongoing story
These lists look awfully similar right? The key differences are subtle but important.
Let’s jump into the TV elements list first. Wide Impact tops the list for a big reason, TV viewers are getting more finicky. We used to be able to just grab hyper local elements to fill up our local news sections and be fine. Not as easy now though. Viewers are likely two screening when watching TV so if a story or two bores them, you lost them to the other screen! So while remaining largely local, the story has to impact a lot of people. Let’s discuss the meaning of impact. That doesn’t mean a direct effect on the person watching necessarily. It can also mean a strong universal type tie. Think heartbreaking stories. My family isn’t impacted, but I sure care about the other family. Or I sit and thank my lucky starts that’s not my family. Just getting nitty gritty here. That’s why emotional elements are so crucial.
TV news needs strong visuals in its stories. The goal is for every story. That’s not always realistic, but try as much as possible. Especially in this day of big monitors and telestrations and 2d graphics. Discussing the visual impact of the story is as big as the community impact when considering a TV news story.
DMA impact is a little different but very key. There are times especially if you are the third or fourth place station that you want to cater to an underserved audience in your DMA. This helps serve the community better as journalists, and can help bring up ratings. These are important discussions to have to make sure TV stories are truly considering the entire audience, not just a chosen few. (Which can get into the whole idea of not just choosing stories you personally care about to cover. Your opinion is one opinion. Never forget that as a journalist.)
Timeliness is also very important. But this is going to sound half crazy to some, it needs to emphasize more developing type stories, instead of just breaking news. Why? Because digital does breaking news better unless it is a HUGE event in which you are in continuous coverage. Admit that and you will start to produce more relevant stories for your viewers. It is too hard for TV to beat digital. Breaking news desks need to cater to digital first. But you cannot put clearly dated stories into newscasts. That’s where strong data driven journalism is starting to come into play. You have started hearing broadcast groups mention that they want to focus on hard hitting investigative journalism locally. That’s smart. That’s going to provide the key information that will drive audiences to a TV newscast. I want to see that reporter I trust spell it out for me. Then I can research more and see if I agree. That’s what journalism was about for a long time. But TV news went too heavy into pictures and immediacy and not enough into impact. That’s what hurt TV. It’s time to go back to the basics, with a little more showcasing savvy than TV news of the 80’s for example.
Now the digital list. Immediacy is first for obvious reasons. You check your phone to see what’s happening right now. What if I missed something? Due to content constantly changing people are constantly checking. That doesn’t change for local news. You have to have new elements all the time that make sense. Immediacy.
Impact is next. Just grabbing breaking news from all over the world will not impress local audiences. Research shows this for TV viewers and it is not different for internet users for local TV news websites. I promise you do not do it as well as HuffPost/Politico etc. Focus on what the audience wants. Local stories that could make a difference for them or someone they know.
Strong visual and/or emotional elements. Think Instagram mentality here. You go on the app thinking you have 15 minutes to burn and an hour later, you are still looking at posts. Same with Pinterest. Give them great information they can relate to and suck them in with a great image or video. The human brain cannot resist.
Great why and/or how elements are crucial too. It can be really hard to catch everything stated on TV. Consumers are grabbing their phones, starved for more information. They can read the digital story more than once. They can highlight words and research more things. They can really get into the nitty gritty of stories and subject matter they want to understand. This is where we journalists can inform, teach and frankly be relevant again. Give them the facts they crave. Delve into what so many feel is so hard to get right now, understanding.
Sometimes that understanding is a whole series of special reports. Sometimes it is simply the last element of our digital story list: extra nuggets of information on a developing story. This is especially true if your next newscast is not for hours. Keep covering the most relevant stories. Add elements, even a few lines with an updated time stamp under the byline. It helps you get more clicks, more loyalty and more impact. And extra nuggets are usually easy to find and explain. These often become the old “water cooler” elements that people want to share with friends and coworkers. Especially now that everyone wants to show they are in the know and frankly relevant themselves. The psychological draws of digital are crucial to consider throughout your story selection process.
Hopefully these guidelines will make your day to day job a little easier while the big wigs duke it out over who has the big answer to digital.