That’s what the money is for!

By: Mandy Mitchell

If you are a fan of Mad Men you have seen the scene. Peggy Olson, the ambitious ad copywriter, is complaining how she doesn’t get credit for her work. Don Draper, her boss, looks at her and says “that’s what the money is for.”

Now there are a lot of interpretations of this scene. You can go deep into what this says about Draper and his treatment of co-workers and his simple beliefs in how the world works.

I am not going to do that right now because I am not a television critic. The reason I bring this scene up is simple. I see far too many people in newsrooms who expect praise for what they are paid to do.

I get it. You aren’t paid a lot. You feel you make peanuts and you probably do. But those peanuts come in exchange for your live shots and PKGs and the newscast you produced today.

Your boss hired you because she believes you are capable of the live shots and the PKGs and the newscast you produced today. You can not ,and should not, expect to get praise from her on a daily basis for doing what you are paid to do.

Finding the different way

By: Mandy Mitchell

A photog at my station did something small the other day. The reporter was doing a live shot at a building that was damaged during a fire. He suggested to move the live shot away from the building and to a bridge across town. Why? Because this bridge had a great view of the entire building instead of a close-up of bricks behind the reporter.

I, as just a viewer of this story, noticed how cool it looked to see the entire building. It was simple and it was smart and it’s the kind of thing we should all be doing when we work on stories each day.

Is there a better live location?

Is there a unique and more interesting way to shoot this interview?

Is there a different person we can talk to?

Is there a good shot we can get to illustrate this story better?

Often times we get an assignment and we are afraid, or too lazy, to step up and ask these questions.We also assume good ideas take a lot of time and effort and we just “don’t have time for all of that effort.”

Sometimes the simplest things can make the story better and more memorable.

 

Don’t be so lazy with teases

By: Mandy Mitchell

If the producer asks you to cut a tease for your story what do you do?

Do you…

1- Cut the tease directly from the PKG. There’s no need to go back and cut a new tease when you already have sequences cut for you story. Plus you have to run out to your live shot in 2 minutes and the producer should’ve told you he wanted a tease earlier.

2-Go back and find fresh shots not used in the PKG, which takes time and makes you a little later getting out the door than you would’ve liked.

3- The tease is already cut because you thought ahead. You used shots that you weren’t using in the PKG and took a few extra seconds to make sure this got done.

You would not believe how many times I see people in this business do #1. Yeah, you know what, it’s a small thing, but it’s incredibly lazy and it looks sloppy. Often times your story is one of the first things in the next block. Do you think no one noticed you used the same exact video in the same exact order?

If you are a good photog, reporter or MMJ you should WANT your story teased and should provide the best possible video to tease that story. Take the extra :30 to ask the producer what she is looking for and cut the tease before you start with the PKG.

If you really want to be awesome, and be a favorite of the producers, offer up a SOT tease or offer up really good video that can help sell the story.

Teases keep viewers watching. We all want viewers watching, so stop treating it like something “extra to do.”

 

Sunshine Week

I wrote this last year on Sunshine Week. It’s useful to review it this year too!

It is Sunshine Week and we are celebrating with some really great information about public records from WRAL investigative journalist Tyler Dukes.

You can follow Tyler at @MTDukes on twitter.

You can follow along with Sunshine Week at @Sunshineweek

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Q: Why is Sunshine week important to journalists?

A: Sunshine week is our annual reminder about why we do this stuff. I think there is a greater awareness of the fact these records are accessible to the public than there was 10 years ago, 20 years ago. Sunshine week is our opportunity to educate the public and for us to reeducate ourselves, as journalists, government officials and citizens about what the laws are that govern transparency.

This doesn’t just apply to public records. This is also open meetings, which are extremely important. The decisions public officials are making on your county level, on your state level, on your city level…all of these things are done with this idea that open government is better government. That’s a value that journalists and citizens share and frankly a lot of people in government share too.

Q: For a lot of people who are getting into the business, this is a very intimidating subject. How do you even begin?

A: I think the attitude we try to approach public records with is that if it is created by the government, it belongs to us. It’s important to know public records law typically applies on a state by state basis, so unless you are asking for a federal record which is a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) issue, you’re typically going to be dealing with laws that are different state by state.

In North Carolina, what’s nice, is this idea that “records are default public” is sort of written into our law. Some states have lesser degrees of that.

There are many exceptions to this. There’s patient privacy, there’s academic privacy, there are issues surrounding criminal investigations, but at least in North Carolina those exceptions have to be explicitly laid out and the people who respond to our requests have to point to them.

Really this should make sense internally because our tax dollars have paid for the creation of these records. They’re ours. We are entitled as citizens to access them, to copy them and to use them to expose the inner workings of government good and bad.

So I think really the most important thing if you want to be a reporter who makes use of public records pretty often is you want to come at this with an attitude of “these already belong to me,” and it’s contingent upon the public official to convince you otherwise. That tends to help you in the negotiation.

Q: What should a reporter do if they have their public records request wrongly decline?

A: It is important to remember sometimes, depending on who you are dealing with, if you are dealing records on a city or county level you may have public officials who don’t really know public records law. This is an opportunity for you as a journalist to say “well no actually that is not how this works. There is a state records law.”

You don’t have to be a jerk about it. My default stance a lot of times is “polite insistence.” I try to make sure I am very polite, very straight forward about what I want. Sometimes it does require you to point to a specific law. I think in North Carolina specifically, the public records law is not terribly long and it’s not a bad read as general statutes go. So it helps to know the state law for your specific state with regard to public records. That’s a good starting point because you can literally point to those statutes.

The other thing is to sort of act in good faith. I have argued with many a public records officer about these issues, but one of the things I hope they understand from the very beginning is that I am not trying to make their job harder. I am trying to do my job. I also recognize sometimes accessing and copying or pulling down public records, be it emails or whatever it may be, it does take work on the part of public officials. One of the things I do try to do is make sure the request I am making is as narrowly tailored as I can make it. That doesn’t mean we are always making small requests. Sometimes we are making very large requests, but I typically want to communicate with that public records officer and say hey look, if you have suggestions on how to make this easier, I am all ears. I will consider those. I am not going to back down from what I want but I do want them to know I am arguing in good faith.

Q: Is it important for your station to have legal backing in case something does go wrong? What about smaller stations without access to lawyers?

A: Having lawyers on your side is a hell of a thing. I think here at WRAL we are in an ideal place because we have sued over public records. In fact we are in the middle of a lawsuit right now. That is getting rarer and rarer so what you are seeing is we are entering into the lawsuit with a coalition of news organizations, but you don’t need lawyers. Things have to get pretty bad because a lot of times people will clam up when you start to think about lawyers.

A lot of times you have the ability to go in and argue on the legality of public records without including legal counsel and that is just done by pointing to the law.

 Q: Where is the best place for a  young journalist to go to learn the law in his or her state?

A: One good place is the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press. They have a couple of really great resources including generators that allow you to type in some basic details and will generate a public records request for you or a FOIA request for you. They also have a detailed breakdown state by state of how the records laws work.

Another great resource you might think about is looking at what is typically called “open government coalition” or something along those lines. In North Carolina that’s what it is. It tends to be collection of news organizations and municipalities and counties and other government groups who are all interested in open government.

Q: How do you get to the point when using public records becomes second nature and almost fun?

A: I think probably the first document you get where you really see a story, a big story that no one else has, that you found and you are able to report that out and tell a great story…I think that becomes a real driver. Because it stops becoming a battle for pieces of paper and becomes a battle for true intelligence about government and the way government operates.

I would say on Sunshine week, take the opportunity to submit a public records request to your school or to your city or county or your state. It’s a really great learning experience.

 

Useful links:

Sunshine Week

Student Law Press Center

Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press

How to find stories in a new market

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GUEST POST

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.

A trip back in time

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By: Mandy Mitchell

Last week I was sent on assignment to cover a story in my very first market. I had been back there once or twice since leaving more than a decade ago, but this was the first time I was really back where I used to “cover stuff” when I worked there. I was directly across the street from the old TV station and less than two miles from where I lived all of those years ago.

It was weird. I didn’t go in expecting it to be weird, but it was.

I started thinking about what I was like at 22 when I worked there. I thought about making 19 grand and how I wouldn’t have been able to afford to eat at any of the restaurants that had popped up in the area since I left.

I thought of how much I wanted to learn golf when I worked there. I believed, at the time, that golf would be essential to my professional life and “networking” as a sports anchor.

I thought about the times I dreamed of working for ESPN and always assumed it would happen “some day.”

I thought about the mistakes I made and the dumb decisions I made and how naive I really was. Thinking about those mistakes and dumb decisions made me feel bad.

I thought about how much I disliked that job and hard I worked on my resume reel on random Saturday mornings at the TV station when “no one would be there.”

I thought about how scared of failure I was. I was scared I wouldn’t “make it” and would never “live up to expectations.” I was scared of being laid off. I was scared my bosses didn’t “get me” and my enthusiasm was “misunderstood.”

Most of all I thought about how much I had changed. It has been 13 years since I started working there and 10 years since I left. I thought about how much I wanted to go back in time and tell the old me to relax and just be yourself.

So I will tell you that instead.

I eventually made more than 19 grand and can now afford to eat at restaurants.

I never learned golf because eventually I learned I don’t like playing golf. I learned that’s OK and you should never force yourself to do something just because you think you “should” or it would be “good for your career.” I am a runner instead and have gotten a ton of joy out of that.

I haven’t made it to ESPN yet and that’s ok. I think we all have that “ultimate goal” when we start out. That evolves as we mature. Over the years I have realized how much I enjoy storytelling and have chosen to focus more on that and less on trying to anchor Sportscenter. You have to listen to what makes you happy and try to do more of that.

I made more dumb decisions and bad choices. The key is learning from those mistakes and becoming a better person. I think I have done that.

Those lonely Saturday mornings working on my resume reel for hours never amounted to anything. I sent hundreds of tapes (yep–postage and all), but  I left that station with no job and no hope of a job. I spent time unemployed and felt what “failure” is. Guess what? The world didn’t end. I eventually found work and have always appreciated having a job more since I had that experience. A little failure won’t kill you, so don’t spend your precious time being scared of it.

What happens in your first job, or even your second job, will shape you but it won’t define you. Try to remember that as you are stressing about what your next move will be. I never imagined my career would work out how it has. Like all things in life, some of it has lived up to expectations and some of it has been disappointing.

Just relax. One day you will be looking back at these days and wishing you could tell yourself it will all be ok.

What I love about TV News

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By: Mandy Mitchell

We spend a lot of time complaining about this business. You know exactly how it is. You’re in a live truck and your reporter is complaining about her social media duties and how management “cares more about that than my PKG today.”

You’re grabbing a bite through a drive-thru and your photog is complaining about how many live shots you have to do today. There is now a 4pm and “management expects more work with the same number of people.”

Complaining is fun and it’s therapeutic and it allows you to understand you are not alone in frustration. That is why we all do it. (I always argue we should do less, but that’s for another post)

Sometimes it helps to step back and think about the things you actually DO like about this business. I am guessing you wouldn’t be still working in TV news if you didn’t like some if it right? Maybe you just haven’t found the right PR job…I don’t know. There are some things to really love about this business.

1- F*ck is common language and you can say it to a complete stranger who works in the business and you know you won’t be offending that person. I wouldn’t consider myself a huge cusser personally, but for whatever reason, I enjoy when someone knows I am a reporter and therefore knows he can cuss in random conversation. It is part of being in a newsroom and I like that. I love a scene in “Parks and Rec” when Ron Swanson is talking to someone who tells him “there’s no reason to curse.” And he replies “there most certainly is!”

2- You have a chance each day to feel a sense of accomplishment. Do you know how boring some jobs are? Would you feel real accomplishment by filling out forms? We have crappy schedules and work weekends and holidays but at least we get to be creative. We get to shoot wonderful pictures and write beautiful words and try new things with graphics. We get to break news. We get to help people. THIS is important. When you are having a bad day and dreaming about that 9-5 in PR, do yourself a favor and think about what you would be missing in terms of creativity. Yeah, it might be easier, but you didn’t get into this business for easy.

3-There are deadlines. You may be thinking, actually that’s what I don’t like about TV news. But here’s the thing, the “real world” often moves much slower than you are used to. I have heard from friends who have gotten out of TV news who tell me how frustrating it is to not have e-mails returned in a timely matter. They tell me stories of how simple projects that should take ” a half day” are weekly adventures. There is something to be said for having to get something done for the 6. If you are the kind of go-getter who got into this business in the first place, you will likely be irritated by the slow pace other businesses tend to be used to.

4- Each day is different. It’s hard to be bored in TV news.One day you are covering a trial and the next you are on breaking news of some guy who took a machete to his girlfriend (that recently happened in Raleigh). This is a lot better than sitting at your desk all day and waiting with excitement to eat your ham sandwich or get a cup of coffee.

And if you do find yourself bored with gas station robberies or murders or doing a story about “the weather and how people are dealing with it,” there is ALWAYS a chance to branch out and try something new. You can pitch a sweeps story or a franchise. You can try to get some education like at Poynter or through NPPA. There are chances for you to recharge that enthusiasm that many industries don’t offer. If you work a crappy  station, than go work on your resume reel and find a better one. There are always options and that’s awesome.