Storytelling on a dime.

You hear it all the time.  Reporters and photographers say something to the effect of:  “Storytelling is great and all, but I’ve got too much to do and I don’t have time for that stuff.”  And while I understand where those comments come from, I don’t buy it.  TV news today is filled with more deadlines and “side work” than ever before.  Often your day starts with:  “Welcome to work, now get out the door we have a story we need you live on at noon.”  You knock that out and then it’s on to your “real” one or two stories for the evening shows.  Then there are the standup teases, vo/sot’s and versions of your story(ies) for your station’s website.  Most of us also, blog, tweet, and possibly  take some still shots for the website.  No doubt it’s a LOT of work!  But I promise you, storytelling does not have to add extra work to that pile.  It really is easy to pump out good storytelling “on a dime!”  It’s just a matter of shifting your way of thinking.

Typically, the toughest stories to get your storytelling mindset right, are the so-called “boring newspaper” stories.  These are the stories where you have to interview some sort of “official” and, because of deadline demands, no one else.  So, how do you “tell a story” when all you have is an official and their boring “officialese?”  First off, while the photog is setting up for the interview, talk with the interviewee about anything but the story you are covering.  Take a look around the office if that’s where you are talking.  Often, you can find some great tips into who this person really is in “real life.”  When you find something, chat him/her up about it.  I remember one recent interview where I thought I was dead in this respect.  The guy was nice enough but not the most personable and clearly not comfortable about being interviewed on camera.  Then I noticed a photo of him with one of the most well-known politicians of the last quarter century.   It turns out that he once did security work at a very high level.  I asked him about it and it eventually led to some common ground between us.  That little nugget helped immensely.  First, it loosened him up for the interview and allowed me to pull some bites out of him that had a little personality.  Secondly, it gave me a way to make this “official” more of a “real person.”  I started the piece by talking about how this man had once protected some of the powerful people in the country, but now helps offer a different kind of protection for this small town.  His past really did not have squat to do with the story of the day, but it gave me a way to turn this guy into a “character” in our story.  When you can do that, you give viewers a reason to see that person as more than just some “official.”  You have them interested in watching.  Remember, good stories have characters.  Turn your subjects into characters, not just officials who give you sound bites.

Nat sound is another area where you CAN add to your story without a ton of extra effort.  It comes down to this:  Shoot (and use) just about anything that makes sound to give your stories some life.  Seriously use just about anything.  Nat sound that is integral and directly related to your story (the power saws in a story about construction or crackling flames in a spot news fire story) are always the best.  But that kind of sound is not always there.  If it’s not, look around and try to find something else.  The idea behind nat sound is getting people engaged in your story.  Read any study or talk to any consultant about what people are doing when the news is on their TV.  They are normally doing everything but “watching.”  In the morning they are making breakfast, getting dressed for work or getting the kids ready for school.  The TV is on, but it may as well be video wallpaper.  So, your job is to give them a reason to stop what they’re doing, turn around and watch.  Nat sound is a way to do that.  Say you’re on that story about construction.  But, in the time you’ve been given to shoot it, the crew is on a lunch break.  You are stuck right?  Nope, you can overcome.  Look around, are there people getting in and out of cars (car door sound)? Maybe there’s a fire truck or ambulance going by with a siren on.  Sometimes using seemingly unrelated nat sound is just the trick.  Think about it.  You’re at home with the news on but aren’t sitting and watching.  You know the reporter is talking about construction and all of a sudden you hear a siren!  What the…?  You are probably going to turn around to see why.  This is why you shoot and try to use any nat sound you can get.  You want to make viewers turn around and pay close attention.  Again, it’s really not any extra work.  But it will add immeasurably to the quality of your stories.

When it comes to writing, try to use a piece of that nat sound off the top.  Failing that, make sure you start by establishing the character you’ve easily uncovered using the tips above.  Fill in the middle with the meat of the story you’ve been assigned.  Then end it with another tidbit that makes your subject a “real person.”

All stories have a few basic things in common.  They have a beginning, a middle and an end.  They also have characters.  Shoot and write with these things in mind and you cannot go wrong.   Turn these things into habits and suddenly your “reports” turn into “stories” and your work begins to stand out from all the “Just the facts, Jack!”, boring, information presenters.  Quickly you will establish yourself as a “storyteller.”  Your producers, EP’s and News Director will appreciate you more and your resume reel will become stronger and more marketable.  Suddenly the next chapter in your personal, career story becomes much more interesting with minimal investment from a little storytelling on a dime!

 

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Produce it up!

Nothing like hearing this phrase while on deadline: “Be sure and produce it up.”   You think: “Sure, I can barely get the stuff I already have on my plate done, why not!”

Actually this is easier than it might seem.  “Producing it up” really means taking the information you have and putting it in nice tiny bundles. Think of it as buying a sweater set and matching jewelry as gifts.  You wrap the cardigan separately from the tank top underneath.  Then you wrap the earrings separately from the necklace.  Looking at all those boxes makes it seem like you spent a lot more than you did.  It’s all in the packaging.

When you “produce it up” you generally provide a nats/vo or vo/sot set up for the anchors to read that provides an overview in a visual way.  Then you focus the package on a particular element of the subject.  You save an interesting element for an anchor tag that usually is a question answer between the reporter and the anchors or maybe a vo or vosot for the anchors to read.  The point is to make the information you are providing clearer to understand.  You also are making the news more appealing to the eye so hopefully the viewer doesn’t daydream or head to the computer to cruise Facebook instead.

The other reason for “producing it up” is to try and showcase the team.   It’s showcasing your anchors and reporters as experts that work together to get the most information possible on a subject in a given day.  No, you really aren’t usually getting any more information or shooting any more video.  This is smoke and mirrors, but it works effectively. While focusing on the elements, you naturally must write more concisely.  This helps the ear understand while the visuals make the information appealing for the eyes.  Two senses aroused, means less likelihood viewers turn away.

One last benefit to “producing it up”: it makes producers/anchors/reporters and even photojournalists have to talk with each other a little more about the news.  This helps prevent fact errors.  It’s another level of script approval.

Still confused about “producing it up” and the benefits.  Consider the following.  When you watch coverage of a major event, like the earthquake in Japan you probably find yourself talking to the television asking questions.  Many times the questions you are asking could impact you or other viewers directly.  Once again we’re talking about human impact. The first morning of coverage of Japan, I found myself frustrated with all the networks.  I had to get online and see people’s stories on You Tube to really understand how to gage the event.  I needed to feel it.  I needed to know how far the quake was from Tokyo.  I needed graphics describing how the Tsunami came over.  The networks were too overwhelmed getting information.  I had to piecemeal from different stations and  Twitter.  Producing up some of these elements would have helped me understand the true depth of the losses.  Next, I wanted to know what this meant for costs of things from Japan.  Would the stock market crash because of this?  Answering these stories with graphics, live interviews, special maps and packages are great ways to produce up coverage locally.  This is what some stations call the “WIFM” (What’s In It For Me) of coverage.  Simply, it is another way to showcase the human element of stories.  These are things you want to provide viewers so they don’t turn away from your newscast to jump on the internet for the answers.

The final point, I cannot stress enough is “producing it up” is producer friendly.   It makes your job easier. You can visualize your rundown better, you can choose elements like natural sound, sidebars and graphics more easily.  It also will help you write succinctly.  Simply put, it just makes your newscast look sharp. Fear not. Go ahead, give it a try!

 

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Help! I’m in over my head.

This can be hard to admit, but it happens to everyone.  Cold sweats, waking up dreaming of your live shot or newscast crashing are all part of the gig.  Getting chewed because you cannot complete all of your work happens, especially with more stations lumping on extra packages or making people one man band.

Now let’s talk survival skills.  First, understand there is little to no training in newsrooms anymore.  It simply does not happen in the majority of cases.  Every shop is understaffed and half the workers are also in over their heads.  Many managers are drowning and lost too.  By the way, this is supposed to make you feel better.  That’s because these journalists are surviving and so will you.

Here’s what to do.  Find the go to person who gets the work done every day with little trouble and become a buddy.  Find out how the person does it and figure out how to do it yourself.  If you don’t feel comfortable simply asking, then hook up with others in the know.  For example, if it’s a reporter who you’re trying to figure out, request to work with that person’s favorite photographer. Then pick the photog’s brain.  Look online at the reporter’s past stories and look for patterns.  If a producer is your target, ask the newscast director what this person does to make script printing deadline or create killer teases.  Let’s say your writing stinks.  Don’t worry, this is common.  Figure out who the best writer is in the shop.  It’s easy to do.  Just listen to the anchors dish with each other, you will learn who it is quickly.  Once you do, start printing out this person’s scripts and look for common threads.  Then you can mimic the style.

There also is usually a manager that stays very calm in crisis.  That person will often give you advice if you just sit down and ask.  Managers are not all out to get you.  Replacing staff all the time is a pain and most would prefer not to deal with it.  It’s easier for them to do some training.  But you need to ask the right manager.  The news director is next to never the smart choice.  Often it is an executive producer or managing editor.  They are still in the trenches so they can still relate to what you are struggling with.  Once you identify the right person, ask for a critique of your work.  The manager will probably be thrilled you actually want to improve and talk your ear off.  They also tend to dish about their favorites in the shop.  Now you have a new set of names to watch and mimic.  Best of all, you will gain an advocate in management because you are not whining about how hard the job is, you are asking to grow.

 

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How to generate story ideas when you are swamped

Journalists are constantly told to source build and break stories.  Problem is, in many shops you are given two packages a day and have no time to work the phones and source build.  That’s what you think, but it really is possible.  There are ways to generate fresh story ideas that do not take a ton of time.  You also can source build.  It will take some of your too precious free time.  But the payoff is making you more valuable to the station.

So how do you come up with interesting stories when you have next to no time?  Here are some ideas to get you started.

First, some help for reporters.  Try and “befriend” one person a day while covering the news.  This could be the secretary you have to stare at while waiting for an interview, the officer telling you to wait behind the yellow tape, even the restaurant manager at a local dive where you bought a sandwich.  Ask them about themselves and hand out a business card.  Make sure you get their card too.  A few days later, send a quick email saying you really enjoyed your conversation.  If you learn the person loves a football team or has kids that like to play sports send email links to interesting stories every once in a while.  Bottom line:  Build a connection.  If you have time to write an update on Facebook, you have time to send a quick link to these new potential sources.

Set up a Twitter account and use it.  When we say use it, we don’t mean throwing up a meaningless self-serving plug for the story you are reporting on that very day.  Throw up a comment about something interesting you read about.  Mix up the comments so you are engaging to follow.  Give snippets of what it’s like to be a TV journalist each day.  But keep it positive.  Remember, employers and potential employers often research Twitter and Facebook accounts.  For example, don’t gripe about how much you “hate” your assignment to babysit a “dumb” police standoff.  But do mention that your feet sure do hurt after waiting two hours for the standoff to end.  The first makes you seem look childish, petty and unprofessional.  The second, however, makes you look real and is something your followers can identify with.  Twitter is an amazing resource most people are not using correctly.  It is a chance to tap directly into what people are thinking about each day and what they want to learn more about.  You will gain a following and, eventually, you’ll also start getting interesting tips.  The key to Twitter is creating a human connection not another shameless, weak marketing ploy that just ticks people off.  People on Twitter tend to obsess about being in the know, right now.  You will lock them in if you make them realize they can literally be your eyes and ears and that their ideas may actually make it on the news.

Next, contact the Better Business Bureau and county or state run groups that help small businesses get off the ground.  Let these organizations know you are building a list of experts.  This can help you when you are suddenly asked for an out of the box story on damage prevention during bad weather or the latest housing or computer scam.  These businesses need publicity and cannot, generally, afford to buy ads.  But they can afford to send you a quick email pitching ideas once in a while.

Look at blogs on local newspaper websites.  People go off on interesting things that sometimes turn into colorful television.  How about the guy with the American flag that is too big for the homeowner’s association by-laws?  Many of these kinds of stories turn up first in these blogs.

Now let’s talk about generating interesting stories if you are a producer.  Yes, it’s hard to source build when you never even leave the newsroom for lunch.  So use the computer to get ideas.  Search for blogs and groups online that target your key audience.  Then browse them several times a week for fresh information.  These groups constantly dish.  Also keep your ears open when you go to the gym, pick the kids up at daycare or stand in line at the grocery store.  You will hear what people are concerned about.  These tidbits can turn into interesting stories that you can “produce up” in your newscast.  Also look at the hottest video of the day online, then try and come up with a local spin.  A Twitter account can be a great asset for you as well.  Build your following in the same way we just laid out for reporters.

Finally check out what other stations around the country are covering.  Go to a few station websites in areas nearby and see what they’ve played up.  Often you can at least find a consumer story with universal appeal.

 

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