Treat it Like Grad School

Drew Stewart is a 1997 graduate from the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina. He spent 19 years working in TV news in South Carolina.  Stewart currently
lives in Columbia, SC, and is a one person video department for the South Carolina Department of Transportation.

Unless you’re the only person in the history of broadcasting who came out of the womb knowing how to do this, you’re going to screw up at your first gig.  You may have been the wunderkind at your Journalism school, but now you’re the noob working nights and weekends covering the Podunk Pig festival in rural God-knows-where. In order to help you not piss off the veterans at your station, including the news director who hired you, here are a few things I did wrong at my first job.

You’re not that good.  Sure your mom thinks your reel rocks, your prof said you had the best reel in the graduating class, but you haven’t been on the streets, where it counts. Beginning my junior year at the University of South Carolina, I got a shot shooting news and sports on the weekends.  This station was a blowtorch, it was considered one of the most prestigious stations in the Southeast, so when I took my first full time gig after graduation at a much smaller station in Charleston, SC, I went there thinking I had all the answers and people needed to ask me for advice. Before long, I was pissing people off right and left. But soon, I saw the error of my ways and began to listen to the more experienced people on the staff.   Before I left, I was considered one of the go to guys for getting things done. All it took was a change in attitude and a will to learn from the veterans in the newsroom.  Years later, when I moved on to running the assignment desk, I found the same types of attitudes from the reporters who were on their first jobs.  I’d tell them when they learned to break meaningful stories, then tell me how good you are.

You’re going to make mistakes, learn from them.  There’s a website for photogs called The message boards attracted photogs of all levels of experience.  There was once a thread where the topic was mistakes.  A well-known seasoned shooter remarked, “You name the mistake, I’ve made it.” You’re going to make mistakes on your first job.  Just learn from them and move on. When I was in charge of a station’s high school football show, we’d use interns to ride with the photographers to log the time codes of the important plays.  I once had an intern forget to log a highlight I knew I wanted to use, but he hadn’t written it down.  I simply told him, “Don’t forget it again.” This person, being otherwise reliable didn’t repeat the mistake. Which brings me to my next thought.

Seek the advice of others. TV News is a hard profession. It’s one not easily picked up without practical experience. No one gets it right at the start.  When you settle in to your first job, find out who the go-to people are.  Seek their advice.  Remember, they were once as green as you are.

Own up to your mistakes. During my career in news I wore many hats. I began as a sports photographer, moved to news photographer and eventually to news/sports reporter anchor. During my news photog days I was charged with making sure our fleet of news vehicles were taken care of.  During this time, the station bought a brand new, state of the art, live truck.  Since the stations other trucks were piles of junk, I warned our staff I had better not see so much as a gum wrapper on the floor of that truck or there would be hell to pay. To make a short story longer, I was using the live truck on its maiden voyage and I backed it into a fence leaving a scuff that went all the way through the paint into the bare metal. I knew I had a butt chewing coming, but instead of trying to hide, I approached the station manager myself and showed him the damage. For my honesty, he yelled at me and told me that because he heard it straight from me and I was upfront and honest, I was off the hook unless I made the same mistake again.  Now my fellow photogs never let me hear the end of it.

Most importantly, have fun. Working in small market news is hard, but you’ll have an experience you’ll treasure for your entire life.

In Case you Missed it

Hope you had a great Thanksgiving! I wanted to provide some reading material in case you are waiting in line shopping today or, like many of us, stuck at work shooting video of people waiting in line!

Here are some of the more popular posts from the first month of The “A” Block. If you are new to the site, you may have missed them.

The Time I Almost Quit

Are You Suited for TV News?

Top Ten Words and Phrases to Avoid

Clothes Make or Break the Anchor

Five small ways to make a successful small start

Holidays in the Newsroom

How many times have you heard “you are going to work holidays” whenever someone tells you about the bad parts of TV news?

Hearing this and actually doing it are two very different things. I always knew I was going to have to work on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it didn’t truly sink in until my first year in the business. I thought I would be ok until I was staring at ENPS and eating cold turkey at my desk on Thanksgiving night. I can’t remember ever feeling more alone.

That’s the year when I figured something out. You HAVE to embrace your work family. If there is not a newsroom party planned, you make it happen. Get everyone to bring in a favorite dish. Do it up with lots of desserts. Bring in candy and cookies and make yourself sick eating too much good stuff.

Give hugs. Ask your coworkers to talk about Thanksgiving traditions. Talk to people about missing family or what it feels like to miss out. You are all doing it!

I can’t tell you how many great memories I have made on major holidays in a newsroom since that one pretty awful Thanksgiving.

You have to make the best of it and realize it does get better as you spend more years in the biz. I get Holidays off sometimes now! And even when I don’t, I am used to it, so it doesn’t sting as much as those first years.

I appreciate you taking the time to read the stuff we put on this blog. Have a Happy Thanksgiving and make some memories even if you happen to be spending it in a newsroom (or at a mall shooting video of the crazy people)!

How it Was: Part 3

Over the last couple of weeks we have been talking about how the business has changed recently. We discussed the invention of FTP and the flippable monitor on the camera. Today I would like to talk about the tapeless newsroom.

Those of you who have gotten into the business in the last five years or so, probably do not remember the days of tapes. I am not just talking about shooting video on tapes, I am talking about editing “tape-to-tape” and having a story on the tape, and handing that tape to an editor where it will be put into a tape machine to play during the newscast. Now we just attach video. Isn’t that nice?

My first job in TV was editing the 5:30pm newscast at WPEC in West Palm Beach, Fl when I was still in high school in 1999. One of the biggest parts of my job was getting the tapes for the newscast in order. This could be a VO I edited or a PKG coming in from a photog in the field. We all had our own systems. I would get a rundown, color-code the numbers and cross off items as I got them in. I had a huge cart where each shelf represented a “block” of the newscast. I had to keep this extremely organized because the entire order of the newscast depended on me.

I would then go back to a giant feed room that included six large tape machines. I would stack the tapes up at each deck in the order the director gave me. If a story was “dropped” during a show, I would have to manually change the order. I assure you, this was complicated and I truly had to learn to be calm under pressure while “running tapes.” Getting one VO wrong could cause a chain-reaction and a very bad newscast. I saw one editor get fired because of his inability to handle the changes quickly and in order.

When I first started as a sports anchor, we had a stack of tapes to deliver to the editors. I had many occasions where I accidently had a tape out of order and that caused a fun sportscast!

The tapeless newsroom is absolutely fantastic for those of us who remember these days. Finish your VO seconds before the newscast and attach it.

Yes, there are days when the computer has a glinch and the wrong VO runs. I can assure you it is no worse that the many levels of human error that used to be involved in this proccess.

Things I do not miss:

-Labeling tapes. There were labels everywhere! All over the edit bay. Stuck on the bottom of your shoe. We would often take the old labels and make a huge “label ball”. (I guess I kinda miss that)

-Laying “countdowns”. This took a lot of your time. Good job for an intern, though!

-having to remember to cue something up from a previous newscast. Want to run the same VO at 11? Better cue that up or you will get to see the end of it on air and likely the countdown to the next story. Great TV!

If you don’t remember any of this, consider yourself lucky. Enjoy attaching that video as you work today and know you will never have a moment where the machine eats the tape of your exclusive interview!


Words Mean Things

A few months after college, Stephanie Beck started as a part-time videotape editor at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, NC. In the nearly 19 years since, she has edited every newscast, produced every newscast, produced half-hour specials and special event coverage, won 2 Emmys and a Murrow, and earned her Master’s degree along the way. She now produces the 6pm newscast at WRAL and On the Record, the weekly public affairs broadcast. In her free time, she is a competitive West Coast Swing dancer, blogs food competitions and freelances as a writing coach.

A few weeks ago, The “A” Block brought you a list of 10 phrases and cliches to avoid in your writing. One of the items on that list led me to crawl upon my own personal soapbox, which can be summarized in three words:

Words mean things.

This is a phrase my friends and co-workers will hear me say often. Some of them have even adopted it themselves. We use it most when we read an article or hear something on TV – and not necessarily the news, either – where someone has blatantly used the wrong word. They don’t mean to do it, and you don’t either. However, it happens, and when it does, it waters down your writing and your audience’s understanding of what you want to say.

At times, using the wrong word can change the meaning of a news story entirely. I’ll leave it to one of the many other bloggers out there to help you learn the difference between lie and lay, or effect and affect. Here is a list of words that are so commonly misused that many writers don’t even realize their true meaning.

Electrocuted: The dictionary definition of “electrocute” includes death. If the victim did not die, they “received a shock.”

Totally Destroyed: Redundant! The dictionary definition of “destroy” is to damage something beyond repair, so to completely damage something beyond repair is rather repetitive.

Decimate: While we’re talking about destroying things, “decimate” is not synonymous with devastation. “Decimate” means to damage a part of something, not the whole thing.

Strangle to death: By definition, “to strangle” means to cause death by cutting off air flow. Do you really want to say “He caused his death to death”?

Nauseous: This one is almost always used incorrectly. People use it in everyday language to mean “to feel sick.” Actually, it is used to describe something that causes nausea. (Pro tip – make sure not to confuse it with “noxious”, which means “harmful”)

Migrant/refugee: I had to include one pairing on this list, because it’s timely and I’m hearing it almost every day somewhere. No matter how much you need a synonym for “refugee”, “migrant” is not it! The difference between the two is choice. A refugee is someone forced to flee their country to escape persecution, war, or natural disaster. A migrant is a person who chooses to move to find work.  

In the wake of: This saying comes from the use of “wake” to specifically describe the path a boat cuts through water. Use “in the aftermath” instead. Regionally, some parts of the country also use it as a synonym for “instead of”. For that use, I recommend “in the stead of” or “in place of”.

Get: This is a verb that is overused to the point that it has nearly lost its meaning. Every time you use this word, there is probably another verb with more specific meaning that can both clarify your writing and save you time. A few examples:

        “Get milk at the store” – Buy milk at the store.

        “He didn’t get it” – He didn’t understand it.

        “She got sick on the trip” – She caught a cold.  

        “Get me that book” – Hand me that book.

            “He got the book from her.” – He received the book from her.

Big: This is also so overused it has little meaning. A few examples:

        “A big deal” – important, consequential

        “A big man” – he’s large… in what ways? Tall? Wide, solid? Imposing? Or perhaps you don’t mean his size at all, but his power. Is he a powerful man in his line of work? Is he a key player in something?

Pro tip – don’t forget – each of these synonyms carry not only their own meanings, but also their own connotations and mental baggage.

What are your pet peeves when it comes to misused words? Please share, so we can all learn something.

Don’t get caught up in comparing yourself to others

So many assume. So little know.

The one sure way to make yourself miserable in this business is to compare your journey with the journey of others. I can speak with authority on this subject because I have done far too much of it in my career.

If you are in TV news you are likely a driven and competitive person who sets big goals and has high expectations. Those are all qualities that will help you be successful, but they are also qualities that have the potential to mess with your head.

When you start out, you have a goal of where you are going to be when. Maybe you plan to be in a top 10 market by 30. Maybe you have goals that have to do with salary or status in a newsroom. What you don’t realize at the time is a lot of that is out of your control. Opportunity has to line up with timing and your skill set, and sometimes that doesn’t happen as quickly as you would like it to.

That’s when you start looking at other people. “THAT person is way less qualified than I am and got a job in a bigger market!”…”She only got that job because she’s HOT.”…”He only got that job because he worked with the assistant news director 5 years ago.”…

You feel sorry for yourself and you get bitter about your inability to reach the goals you set for yourself. The problem is, you really do not know what that other person’s journey is actually all about. You assume you do. You look at the surface and you make a judgement, but you don’t really know.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone tell me I am a woman in sports so my path must’ve been “E-Z.” Without getting into details, I can tell you that hasn’t been the case. If I simply wrote out my path, without you knowing my gender, I think you would find it to be pretty typical of a hardworking sports anchor in a top 25 market. There was some struggle to move up, some unemployment along the way and a few lucky breaks. All that being said, there were people, even in my newsroom, who didn’t think I had earned my way there because of the assumptions.

I make the mistake too. I look at news bios and try to find out how old someone is and try to see where the person worked prior to the network job so I can decide whether I feel the person “paid his dues.” I make these judgements having no idea how hard the person works or what they went through to achieve success. I don’t even know if that person has the job they really want in the first place. All I know is that I wanted the job and they have it, so I am upset about it.

I’m in no way saying everyone who gets a job is hardworking and completely qualified to be there. We all know that’s not true! All I am saying is, most of the time, you don’t truly know.

Learn to step back and think about what facts you know before judging the path of others. Realize someone has and will judge you based on what they assume they know. Understand we all have a unique journey that includes its share of good breaks and bad luck.

Once you learn to do this you will find yourself with far fewer moments of angst and more energy to simply focus on your journey and how you can make it better.

You will never see me on TV and that’s ok

Kelly Riner is an assignment editor at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, NC. Kelly’s experience ranges from producing to working on the assignment desk. She also field produces and plans special projects. Kelly graduated University Valedictorian from North Carolina State University with a degree in Communication Media, and she has a Masters of Humanities from Duke University. She’s worked at WRAL for 14 years, and prior to that, she wrote for the Fayetteville Observer. Kelly also oversees the News Production Assistants at the station.

​When people find out I work at a television station, usually their first question is, “When will I see you on the news?” I always say, “Oh I’m not on TV. I work behind the scenes.” For some, the follow up questions lead to a great conversation where I get to share what I do every day. But, often, I get a look of sympathy, followed by words of encouragement. “Just keep working hard. They’ll put you on TV one day,” the well-intentioned person says. It hasn’t happened once, twice, or even three times, but rather countless times by a variety of people. And in some cases, I’ve given the same folks the same answer for the last 14 years I’ve worked in the business: “You will never see me on TV, and that’s ok.”

​I admit when I first decided news was going to my career choice, I fully intended to be on television. I was going to report and then anchor. I would work my way up through local stations with the hopes of landing a network job one day. Never, as a seventh grader sitting in middle school, did I say to myself, “I really want to be a news assignment editor or news producer when I grow up.” But, as I got older and learned more about the business, I quickly realized my talents were better suited for a job behind the scenes.

​That decision changed my career path, but for me, it was absolutely right. I love when an intricate coverage plan comes together. I love writing the scripts that are delivered during the newscasts. I love being the visionary for special reports and special events my station covers. I enjoy the excitement of never having two days alike on the assignment desk. I am motivated by the desire to be first on breaking news.

​The best folks who work behind the scenes aren’t the ones who wanted to be on air but “settled” for a producing job because they didn’t find a reporting job right away. The best ones are not the ones who are always scheming about scenarios that will get them in front of the camera. So, if you are aiming for an on-air job, go for that. But, if you think you’d like to stay behind the scenes, I’m here to tell you, it’s a great place to be.

​As you are weighing your options about which direction to take in this business, here are some pros of being behind the scenes, based on my experience:

​-You’re on the front lines of the decision-making process.

​-You get to know what every crew is doing. You learn a lot about every single story that’s in each newscast.

​-You’re in control of what goes on the air. The story ideas come through you. The scanner information is filtered through you.

​-You get to know everyone in the newsroom, and you become a resource for them.

​-You typically can start in a larger market and bigger city, and it’s more common for behind the scenes folks to work their way up from part-time to full-time positions.

​-It’s an excellent track to management.

​Being on-air is a great career, but it’s not the only path in this business. It takes producers, directors, assignment editors, photographers, editors, writers, crew members, and so many others to put on each and every newscast. If you love news but don’t want to be on TV, I’m here to tell you, join the club, and the next time someone asks when they’ll see you on the news, proudly say, “You’ll never see me on the news, and that’s ok!”

How It Was: Part 1

I had a moment the other day when I really felt old. I was talking to a photog from another station when I said “you know, it was back in the ‘book a window’ days.” He looked at me with a blank stare and said “what do you mean?”

Oh dear. Have I finally run into a point in my life where I can tell you “how it was” and you will have no idea what I am talking about? I started thinking about what I had to do when I first got into this business and the things that have changed to make it better and easier for someone just breaking in. I came up with a pretty good list, so I decided to make this a series for the next few Mondays. It will be nostalgic or educational depending on how long you’ve been around.

Booking Windows

There was a time, not too long ago, where if you wanted video from another station you had to call them. Then you had to call your network in New York and book time for your friends at the affiliate to send you that video. Then you had to write down the coordinates and bring them to Master control to tune them in. This was a process. You couldn’t just say “hey, drop it in the FTP would ya?”

This was a “fun” process because you had that moment, roughly 30 seconds before the window, when you would wonder if the feed would pop up properly. If you saw the video pop up as it should, at the right time, it was such a delight. “I see you, I see you!”

If the video didn’t pop up when the window opened you had to call the network in New York and argue over “who’s end it was on.” That usually would mean the 5-minute window would run out and you would get to spend more of your station’s money to book a new window and try again. This was all super fun under deadline!

Plusses of FTP and Large file transfer?

You don’t have to do this anymore. That video can be yours in a matter of seconds and it can be downloaded and attached in very little time. There’s no calling three different people and there’s not as much room for error. It also doesn’t cost anything. Those windows, and messing them up, can add up. I once had to book 4 different fiber windows (even more pricey) to get one PKG back. My ND wasn’t pleased!

We have a MUCH better system these days and the video even looks better. I can’t tell you how many times we had to do the feed again because the video was grainy. We can now send HD video via e-mail. If you had told me that during my first two years in TV, I would’ve laughed. Enjoy that luxury!

Minuses of the new technology?

You don’t truly get to know anyone anymore.

I got to know some of my best friends in tv news through this process of booking windows. I had to actually CALL and TALK to them. I couldn’t just go into the station’s FTP and grab the video…sometimes without even asking. It was fun to call and have a nice 3-minute chat with someone from another station. Maybe we would use the time to vent about the hours or working on a weekend. Some of the people who have written for this blog became great friends because we booked so many windows back-and-forth.

I wonder how those relationships form now?

I am super glad we have made these advances over the last 5 years or so, but I am also thankful to have done it the “old way” because it really took effort to get video from another station and it seemed to mean more. I also got to know more people in the newsroom. We all had our favorite master control opps who could always be counted on to tune in a feed quickly.

Next week we will discuss another FANTASTIC technological change that makes our jobs easier: the flippable screen on cameras. (we DID NOT have those 10 years ago!)