The time I almost quit

“A woodpecker can tap twenty times on a thousand trees and get nowhere, but stay busy. Or he can tap twenty-thousand times on one tree and get dinner” – The Dip by Seth Godin

I think it would be easy to look at someone who has started a blog about TV news and think that I love the business all the time. I wanted to share a little more background into why I started this site and why I am hoping to spread it to more people.

About 6 years ago I was absolutely positively convinced I was done with this business. You see, I was suffering from what many of us go through. I was in my second contract in a medium to small market, was living paycheck to paycheck, was sending out 5-12 tapes (links/reels whatever you want to call it) a month and was getting zero responses. I felt stuck. I felt like I was in some hole and no one knew I was down there.

I would constantly get the “You’re still young”…”It only takes one news director to like you”…”Keep trying. I am sure something good will happen.” I was simply sick and tired of hearing it.

I would see others, friends, move on and up and forget to be happy for them and instead spend the night being bitter and angry about how I couldn’t find anyone who thought I was “worth it.” I’m definitely not proud of how I felt, but that was the reality.

I was at work one day and just decided I was done. I informed my very supportive husband I was done and was going to get into another line of work because the hours and pay and lifestyle would be better. I thought it could be “fun” and “rewarding.” I actually did a legit interview in the field I was thinking of entering and that’s when it truly hit me. I wasn’t sick of TV news. I was sick of rejection.

I realized starting a new career would mean starting over and that all of the years I had put in (6 at the time) would mean nothing to any new employer. Now this feeling didn’t exactly make me feel less “stuck,” but it did make me search for a new solution other than “I’m GETTING OUT!”

If any of this sounds familiar, I have a book recommendation for you. It’s called The Dip by the very talented Seth Godin. I believe this book truly saved my career. It spoke to the position I felt myself in. I was very much in “the dip” at the time and it detailed ways to get through that. The book talks about when you SHOULD quit and I quickly realized I wasn’t there yet.

I read the book, which helped, and I adjusted my attitude to be more like the woodpecker who focuses on one tree. I was going to get my dinner, dammit! I also made some adjustments to my job search which I will detail later. Seven months later I got a call from WRAL, a station that was among my “dream stations.”

I am in no way saying a little attitude adjustment will get you a better situation right away, but I am here to say success is likely right there for you and you shouldn’t quit unless you really truly believe you would be happier doing something else. Sometimes you just need to understand you are not alone in how you’re feeling. That’s what the book did for me.

And in all honesty that’s why I started this project. This business can be really rewarding and can be a fulfilling way to spend a career. It also can be very frustrating. I’m hoping to build a community where young journalists can get answers and ask questions of those who have been there. Once you realize it’s “not just you,” it becomes easier to work through the challenging aspects of everything we do.

The Positive Side of One-man-banding

Todd Summers is a Sports Anchor and reporter at WSPA in Spartanburg, SC. He graduate from VCU with a degree in broadcasting in 1995. Todd has been working in local TV news for 20 years at stations in Richmond, Knoxville, Bristol (VA), and Spartanburg (SC).

When you start out in the TV business, it can be just a matter of days until you are in the field working on stories, by yourself.

I’ve been working in TV for 2 decades, currently work in a top 40 market as a weekend sports anchor, and I’d estimate that more than 95% of the time, I work by myself. It’s not just quick VO’s or high school games. I’ve covered NFL road playoff games, NCAA tournament basketball games, even the College World Series as a one-man-band. So the challenges are not unique to you.

The advantages, you know what you’ve shot and what you haven’t. So when it comes time to put the story together, you can easily write to video because you know every shot. When it comes time to edit, you know where the video is, what shot you want where, and how long it should take you to get it done. Don’t like the shooting? Blame it on yourself and figure out how to do it better. Don’t have enough good sound bites? Ask better questions, more questions, or interview more subjects. Ultimately it’s on you. There is no blame game.

Is it hard? Absolutely. Can it also be quite rewarding when you pull it off? Absolutely. It’s not impossible, especially if you keep a positive attitude as often as possible.

Dumb and Embarassing Mistakes to Avoid

Your first few years in TV news will have enough challenges. There is simply no need add a bonehead mistake to the mix. I am talking about the kind of mistake that leaves you in your news director’s office feeling like you are ready to puke or cry or maybe both. It’s even worse if this mistake leads you to the GM’s office. I have seen every last one of these errors made, sometimes multiple times, and they are all extremely avoidable.

1- DO NOT have your camera stolen.

This seems simple enough, right? How about don’t leave a piece of equipment worth 5 figures in your car while you are grabbing a burger? How about take the camera in your apartment at night?

“My car was broken into” is not an excuse your ND or GM want to hear. Why in the heck was that very expensive piece of equipment not where you could see it? You live in a safe neighborhood, huh? No excuse. Take the extra 30 seconds to bring it inside. AC is good for the gear anyway. Be smart!

2- DO NOT spill coffee or water or coke in an edit bay

Put the cup or bottle on the ground. Just do it. I get that you are an adult and likely won’t spill your drink, but accidents happen. It’s not hard to reach down and grab your drink. If this sounds too hard, just think what it will be like to explain to your GM why your Mountain Dew made the keyboard “smoke just a bit.”

3- DO label your gear.

Put a business card or a piece of tape with your contact info on all batteries (those are pricey) and all wireless mics. You will likely be rushing back to the shop one day and leave something behind. It happens! Minimize the error by having a chance to get it back. I got a wireless mic I had dropped in the parking lot back because it had info on it.

4- DO NOT leave your camera on the tripod and walk away.

Why why why do I constantly see people doing this? If it falls, it’s toast. Do we need to go back to how much that thing costs?

“The wind got it”…”Some idiot ran into it”…”The audio cable pulled it down”… are not excuses that will get you out of trouble. If you have to walk away to go say hey to a someone, just take the camera down and put it on the ground. I promise you will have the energy to put it back up there when you return.

 

You may not get fired for any of these mistakes, but all of them would be a major strike and could lead to you getting the boot. They also make great stories for the rest of us when you do get fired. “The camera was in 5 pieces!!! It was hilaaaaaarious!” You don’t want to be that kind of legend.

What Do You Do All Day?…The Assignment Desk

“What do you do all day?” will be a recurring theme on this site. I have found that a lot of stress working in a newsroom is caused by a lack of communication (aren’t we all communication people?!) and a lack of understanding of what our co-workers are doing on a daily basis.

We will begin with the dreaded assignment desk. I say dreaded because who really enjoys looking at his phone to see the number pop up? It usually means more work or a long drive to “check on something” when you would like to be eating your PB&J instead. I know one photog has the ringtone for the Imperial March (think Darth Vader) set to play when the desk calls. I laughed when I heard that because, as a person who works in the field, that seemed rather appropriate.

In an effort to learn, I have polled a few brave souls who work on the assignment desk. The question: What do you wish the crews in the field understood about YOUR job?

Yes, fine reporters and photogs, we will reverse this at some point. Read this and then go hug your assignment desk editor today!

**Special thanks for “Kelly from the desk” for the assist on this post**

Grover Wyatt-Murrell, assignment manager Fox 17, Nashville TN

The assignment desk does more than just answer phones and push out emails. We are in the constant know of where all the crews are and what they are doing.

The desk really doesn’t try to jerk you around like some field crews think.

 

Kelly Riner, WRAL, Raleigh NC

I get along great with the crews, and it takes a lot to get me frustrated. But, please never say, “must be nice sitting back there at the station.” When there is breaking news or severe weather–whatever we may be sending a crew to–rest assured it’s busy and stressful back at the station as well. Also, when given an assignment, please don’t ask what all of the other crews are doing. The assignment editors and managers work closely with the producers to decide who needs to be on what and when. Logistics you may not even know about come into play, and we make the best choices we can with the resources we have. We do not have time talk you for 10 minutes about why it’s you, and not someone else, going to the story. Last, please read plans and emails. A big part of what I do is planning coverage of big events. A lot of meetings and hours of planning go into the emails you receive. When you are part of the plan, read it before asking, “so what am I doing?” 99.99 percent of the time, I can promise you, everything is on the plan.

Lauren Leslie, News Editor at CNN, former; content manager at NBC 17 and Assignment Editor at WSOC in Charlotte

I wish the crews in the field knew that we really aren’t trying to make your life miserable and make you miss your lunch–breaking news happens and it changes our entire day plan as well. That’s how it goes. I also wish crews in the field understood that we are continuously working to get further details for you and on your story, along with 10-15 other stories of the day. We understand that you’re busy and we hope they understand that we are as well.

AnnMarie Breen, Assignment Manager WTVD, Raleigh NC
I wish they understood the sheer amount of communication that we receive and put out in any given day. It feels as if they think we sit at the assignment desk waiting by the phone for them to call. In fact we are dealing with viewers, producers, management, pr people, emergency responders, editors, master control and on and on. Everything comes through the assignment desk and everything falls on us.   We are the the first stop on the assembly line for every story that originates at our stations. It seems the field crews especially don’t get that.

Devetta Blount, WFMY News 2, Greensboro NC

Our contribution to the news product is often overlooked but is HUGE thanks to our rapport with the community and first responders.

We are not your administrative assistants.

We have first names, and it’s not News Desk people.

PLEASE and THANKS goes a long way.

Sara Finch, Assignment Editor, CBS 13, Sacramento CA

I wish they understood that I am one person dealing with 17 scanners, 5 reporters, 5 photogs — I can not cradle them and do all 147 things they ask me to do all while talking to crazy VIEWERS!

Jamila, WRAL, Raleigh NC

It’s frustrating because we get the push back. Sometimes it’s not us sending them. It could be the news director or managing editor telling us to tell them the assignment. But, they complain to us rather than the managers. They don’t have the balls to complain to who is actually making the decision.

 

Pick Better Sound Bites

For the love of good television, please start spending more time picking bites that matter instead of ones that will fill 15 seconds. I am going to start with sports people because that’s the subject I know best.

Sports people: Why are we still airing bites saying things like “We are just going to take it one game at a time.”…”It’s a new season now. We are all zero and zero.”…”We aren’t thinking about that HUGE game next week, we are worried about Southwestnorthsouth State.” ????

SPARE ME!

This is awful. It tells me nothing. It teaches me nothing, and you are wasting your viewer’s time. Not to mention, you are being lazy.

The coach didn’t say anything? What were you doing at the time, looking at Pinterest? Ask better questions to get better answers.

This goes for news too. Don’t just air a bite because you were planning on a VOSOT. I am certain you can find better use for that :15. Isn’t that what weather people are for? (I kid because I love)

Make sound bites count. Put them in the newscast for a purpose and not just to fill time. A bite about a fundraiser telling me how much money was raised is not useful. The anchor can tell me that. Have a bite tell me how big a deal this is for the charity and how much it will help. Have the bite add some emotion to the story.

Put a bite in a newscast/sportscast with a plan. What do you want the bite to accomplish? How will it add to the story? What questions can you ask to get the right kind of bite?

Have a solo anchor and simply looking to break up the reads? Think about a NAT sound pop instead. Be creative!

Bad bites are bad television. Ask better questions to get better answers and make sure what you are putting on the air is worth :15.

Learn to Plan Ahead

Andrew Marden is the Sports Director at the CBS/NBC duopoly in Fresno, CA. He has 12 years of experience in sports broadcasting and is a 2003 graduate of Syracuse University.

If you show up to work on any given day and don’t have the slightest idea of what you’ll be covering, you’ve already lost.

Maybe you’re lucky and you have a news director, executive producer and/or assignment editor who comes to the rescue every morning with a list of story ideas. While that could bail you out for the day, you’re still behind because you’re just now reading about the story you’ll be covering and your competitor is already making calls on it. Or maybe he/she is in the car on the way to a shoot.

This business is not a 9-to-5 job; we all know that going in. But we also know that it takes time to develop good stories. Not everything you do is going to be award-winning, but why not at least try to put together each PKG with that thought in mind? “Filling the black” should never be the approach.

This is even more important in sports, where you DON’T have anyone generating story ideas for you. You are your own assignment desk and producer (and photographer/editor/reporter, etc but that’s a topic for a different blog post).

You need to be informed of what’s going on and you need to think days and weeks ahead. Know your community calendar. Read the newspaper. Talk to as many people as you can. You may be working on a “holiday travel” or a “DUI checkpoint” story for the billionth time, but maybe you’ll bump into someone with a unique story or maybe you’ll discover an interesting fact that can be the seed of another story in the future.

And the organization and planning doesn’t stop there.

What if your story happens to be far away so you have to spend an hour or more of drive time? Do you know where you’re going or do you need to map it out? What if there is no photographer available and you have to be a one-man band, and you are using unfamiliar equipment? Are there fresh batteries in the wireless mic? All of this needs to be factored in.

The more organized you are, the better prepared you will be for all the obstacles in your way. And of course, when breaking news happens disregard everything I just said because you obviously can’t plan your day around that.

Study a Story: Steve Hartman

I am a very big fan of the storytelling genius of Steve Hartman of CBS. Unlike a lot of network tv, which is sometimes overproduced, Hartman keeps it simple. You can learn from him and use his techniques even if you happen to be a one-man-band in market 126.

Here is a recent  Steve Hartman Story  I really enjoyed. Check it out and then read below as I dissect it. Let’s figure out why it is good and how you can use what he does well in your next story.

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Look at the first 15 seconds of this story. Hartman sets it up by BRINGING you to a certain place “The Tenderloin District”….He doesn’t tell you about this place with flowery writing. He’s brief. You hear a police siren. You see a homeless man. You get the gist quickly.

Notice he’s using one static NAT sound track for audio while changing the pictures. This makes for a much smoother transition than using the actual NATs from each shot. Steal that technique. It’s useful from ballgames to crime scenes.

The first sound bite gets to the heart of the story quickly…You learn “This guy is different”…You don’t even hear the guy’s name until :38 in and you’re already very much into the character because of how he was introduced.

The heart of the story works well because it’s a mix of NAT bites and actual interview sound bites. “I don’t need the money, go give it to someone else”…You can do this too. Don’t ever think sound bites can only come from your structured interview. 

The bites he picked tell about different things. How many times do you see stories that have multiple bites saying the same basic thing? Waste of time. Hartman’s bites advance the story…

“Who would want to come and fix people’s dirty nasty clothes?” Hartman: That’s a good point. GREAT writing. Work to find bites that help you advance your stories.

The line also allows a nice transition into the “why” of the story. He allows NAT sound to ask a question for him. “What a beautiful sewing machine. Where did you pick this thing up?”

Yep, that’s lucky that he got that genuinely, but he was smart enough to use it. Know what you have and how to use it.

In classic Hartman style, he uses terms from the subject of story to write the story. “Less about letting  out pants and more about taking in stories.” Terms used in sewing! You can use this to make your writing more creative without venturing into a flowery or verbose script. This works well with more subtle terms. You don’t hear him comparing the man to a needle and thread. It’s “mending” and “taking in”. “Repairs the fabric of his community”- He’s literally talking about fabric, but the line holds more meaning.

I liked the simplicity of this story. A man and his sewing machine, told in a beautiful way through well placed NAT sound and good interviews. The biggest thing I take from any Hartman PKG is his ability to truly make you care about character/characters. He does that well in this one.

 

How to Generate Story Ideas in a New Market

Kyle Grainger is a reporter and weather forecaster at WVLT in Knoxville, TN. He’s done almost every job in the newsroom from the assignment desk, to producing to anchoring.

I believe reporters have to get to know a wide variety of people in the community they serve. You may not have an interest in something, but your viewers do, and if you show an interest they’ll appreciate it. Once they feel you are one of them, they’ll call you with their story ideas.

This means, go to the football game on a Friday night and mingle with the crowd, even if football isn’t your thing. Simply hang out in the diverse places where your community hangs out.

I don’t circle myself with other reporters, I see all the time media people hanging with media people.  Circle yourself with the people in the know. This is lunch, dinner, drinks with the mayor, congressman, etc yes this means building trust, but again once trust is built they’ll give you a few nuggets to report on, or dig into at least. Back to my previous point you’ll make those connections by going to those special events.

Read minutes from community meetings, we can’t make every meeting, but read public comments and see what issues people brought forward. There’s usually a story here.  Go to the courthouse! Make friends with the judges, lawyers and even the ladies who file all those court papers. They have lots of gossip, sometimes pretty good.

This is last point is where I think news directors and producers should take note, the story that we didn’t put the post effort into, maybe it’s not the lead lead, but give them a reason to watch!  I have covered small VO’s & VO/SOT’s that were worth 15 seconds at most on TV, maybe just the web, but because I was the only person who cared, they now care about me. Those same people at the ribbon cutting, hospitality luncheon, or Civitan Club scholarship awards are the people who go home to watch to see their story. Even better, they now like you and they now call you every time they have a story.

So my point, know your community, know the players, and in all reality LIVE in the community you serve. I know it’s tough to know everything in the small town one hour away, but those people are the people watching and have needs too. I’m proud to say I did it here in my market. After about a year working here, I break all the stories in a county we never used to win. This was how I did it, not by reading the paper.

Are You Suited for TV News?

Marc Dopher is a sports anchor and reporter at WYFF in Greenville, SC.

It seems appropriate to start this “A Block” blog post by giving you a frame of reference of where I am coming from. I have worked in television news as a sports anchor/reporter since 2003. Before I got into television, and probably like many of you, I worked at wide variety of jobs. Jobs in high school and throughout college were simply meant to put a little extra money in my pocket, keep gas in my car, etc. When I say “variety of jobs”, I MEAN variety. I’ve washed dishes, taught arts and crafts at a Boy Scout camp, delivered pizza, hung dry wall, worked in the news department of a public radio station, and (this is the point of the post) I sold suits at a men’s store. While I only worked at a men’s store, much of what I am about to tell you can also be applied to women trying to get into TV news/broadcasting.

You are entering an extremely competitive field that (for good, bad, or ugly) is based initially on your appearance. You will be sending out links to your work and your appearance in that work will go a long way towards a possible employer deciding whether or not they are interested in learning more about you as a perspective employee. You want to get hired? You have to LOOK THE PART! Here are a few tips for those of you trying to get going in the television news business.

1. Charcoal gray, navy blue, and black with a light pattern should be the first three suits you buy. This is a professional set. It will work for any situation both personally and professionally. It’s a solid base to operate from. No employer in this country will be shocked when you show up to an interview in one of those three colors. When I say black with a light pattern, I mean don’t buy a flat black suit. It needs a little definition like a REALLY light pinstripe.

2. Suits don’t have to cost $1,000 to look really sharp. I’ve been in this business more than a decade and I have never paid full price for a suit. Every suit store out there has sales virtually non-stop. You don’t need a $500 suit. You need a $150 suit that looks like a $500 suit. How do you do that? Proceed to the next point.

3. The way to make good look great, is by taking your suits to a real deal tailor. It took me years to learn this and I am very frustrated that I didn’t do this sooner. Forget the seamstress at the suit shop when you need your pants hemmed, get on Google, and find a tailor. It’s actually cheaper than paying the suit shop to adjust your slacks and your jacket. They will help make sure your suit has a really great fit. It will be more comfortable and it sharpens your look so that it doesn’t look off the rack.

4. Learn to tie a good knot in your tie. Nothing drives me crazier than people who wear ties every single day and they tie a crappy knot. Take the time to learn and tie a very triangular knot. It seems small but this is a detail that helps sharpen your look and tells people you are put together and you care about the details (TV is all about details).

5. Avoid trends!!!!!!! If you hear an employee at a suit shop tell you, “this is really the look right now”. They mean right now and not next week. You are building a foundation of a professional wardrobe, you need standard suits, standard button up shirts, and ties that don’t say Tabasco on them. I promise, if you buy a really trendy suit….you will ultimately be really sorry. Standard suit with a great fit is a great start as you enter this business.

Overall, I really make a huge effort to look and dress so that I can look back in 15 years and NOT laugh at what I was wearing. Think Ralph Lauren (no I’m not saying buy Ralph Lauren). If you look at Ralph Lauren’s website, most of what they sell is very simple and very classic. A nice pair of khakis with a light blue button up shirt. It won’t ever go out of style. Think that way as you start to piece together the things you will be wearing 50 hours a week, 50 weeks a year.

If you are sitting there thinking “how am I going to pay for this?”- a quick suggestion. Christmas/Hanukah are right around the corner and you will likely be receiving some gifts. Ask for the things you need to start your career. In the case of television news, ask for clothes. Companies like Joseph A. Bank and Men’s Wearhouse always have sales of buy 1 get 3 free, 3 shirts for $99, etc. Personally, my suits come from Joseph A Bank, I order my shirts from J.C. Penny when they are on sale(last time I bought shirts I found them for $12.99 each), and I buy my ties from TJ Maxx, Ross, or any other discount clothing store that has ties. The tie I wore on air tonight cost me $6.99! It’s not about spending a lot, it’s about spending on the right things and making sure they fit the right way.

Please feel free to reach out to me at any time on Facebook or Twitter if you would like some help. I would be happy to help in any way that I can.

I’ll leave you with this. My best friend Phil and I often say to each other “Man makes the clothes, clothes make the man”. The one thing I can tell you about Phil, he always looks like a million bucks!

Team Panic

“Those who hurry do not arrive.”

I just want to ask you one question. Have you ever been impressed by someone who is panicking? You know, that producer yelling in your ear “WRAP!!!” “WRAP!!!!” “NOW!!!”… That anchor screaming “WHERE ARE WE?!? WHAT IS DEAD?! B6, D4?!?”…That reporter who always seems to be in a dead sprint to the audio booth at 8:30pm?

My friends in the industry and I have often referred to these people as members of “team panic.” It’s the group of folks who always always always seem to be incapable of a deep breath. They approach deadlines the same way most people would approach trying to outrun a hungry grizzly.

Here is just a little advice for you: Don’t join team panic.

Yes, I know there are stressful moments in TV news where you feel like minutes just seem to be moving quicker than they normally do. Time always moves fastest when the editing computer is rebooting at 11:02, and you have a newsroom live shot at 11:08, and your PKG hasn’t sent. I am here to tell you jumping up and down and screaming at the computer won’t fix the issue. (I’ve seen many try)

Breathe, say some silent bad words, and compose yourself because you have to be on air, or in the booth or on the desk soon. Use that new calm to figure your way out of the problem.

Try to view deadlines, and problems leading up to those deadlines, as a way for you to shine. Be the person who doesn’t get rattled under pressure.

The very best producers, editors, reporters, and anchors I have met over the years always appear to be calm as heck. They are annoyingly calm. THAT is impressive. So just learn to relax, solve your problem and make slot. You’ll be amazed how far a deep breath can go.