Things I’ve learned in 15 years of TV news

No news is good news when it comes to managers.

People aren’t as aware of your mistakes as you are.

Mistakes that you think are huge often go largely unnoticed. Mistakes you think will go largely unnoticed are often the ones you will hear the most about.

You shouldn’t say anything in a newsroom or a live truck that you don’t want repeated.

The squeaky wheel usually, always, gets the grease.

Sometimes you should pursue a project or story you believe in even if it’s on your own time.

No one truly understands your role in the newsroom and you probably don’t truly understand anyone else’s. Remember that before criticizing.

Your appearance and attractiveness matters.

Stories about holiday travel, gas prices and weather (hot or cold) are always going to be part of the job.

Viewers absolutely think you have a hair and makeup person.

You will never get as much credit for your work as you think you deserve. Stop worrying about it.

Awards mean very little.

You should always fight for your story. Even if you don’t get to do it. Fight. 

Your job search is of little interest to anyone else. Keep it to yourself.

Be kind. Your reputation will follow you your entire career.

People you have never met will be jealous of you or hate you for no other reason than you are a “woman”…”a minority”…”just a pretty face”… “Really young”…”Cheap”…Don’t take it to heart.

What we do is about people. When you forget that, it’s time to find a new career. 

Enthusiasm is huge

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Dogs have boundless enthusiasm but no sense of shame. I should have a dog as a life coach. -Moby

By: Mandy Mitchell

I was giving a talk to a high school journalism class recently when I got a question from one of the students. The young lady asked “what makes someone stand out in the TV news business? I don’t mean talent. I mean what makes someone different?”

Good question! I thought.

We’ve all been taught to focus on our resume reel and how the first ten seconds mean everything.

I thought about telling the girl how standing out early in your career is about “looking the part” and “having confidence.” (This is important, by the way, but that’s not how I answered)

After all of that went through my head, I answered “enthusiasm.” I kind of surprised myself with the answer, but the more I have thought about it, the more I believe it to be true.

You will eventually get a call from a news director who, not only liked your first ten seconds, but liked your entire reel.

You will get hired and you will go through the first few days of “training.” After that you will either blend in or you will bring enthusiasm and truly stand out.

It is very very easy to blend in in a busy newsroom. It’s easy to come in and produce your newscast without typos or fact errors. It’s easy to get a story in the morning meeting, go out and shoot it, do your live shots and go home.

What truly makes one stand out is enthusiasm. The people who do well are the ones constantly bringing ideas on how to improve the product.

The producers I have seen move up the quickest are the ones who are always looking for great cold opens. They are getting things pre-produced and looking for custom graphics. They are moving anchors around.

Reporters who get the best assignments are the ones who have a constant flow of story ideas.

They want to do live shots. They want to be on the big stories. They pitch sweeps piece after sweeps piece.

The truly good ones are the people who never fall victim to the negativity of the newsroom. A newsroom has a funny way of sucking the enthusiasm out of anyone.

We all have bad days and even bad weeks. When you are going through those times find a way, even if it’s small, to spark your enthusiasm.

People tend to notice.

 

Post is originally from 2016

The stories we tell ourselves

 

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By: Mandy Mitchell

Being a good storyteller is a great trait to have if you are working in TV news. We all need to be able to tell stories to succeed in this business. The one thing we can’t do is tell stories to ourselves.

Most of us have an inner commentary about our lives that is constantly playing out in our minds. The stories can be pretty simple.

You can have a story in your head about how the news director doesn’t like you. Your story could be about how other anchors are favored and given more reads and relevant assignments. You may have a story about why you are stuck on the weekends when others keep jumping ahead of you to Monday-Friday shifts. We all do this and many of us don’t realize it.

The problem with these mental stories is they are not often backed up by actual facts and they can affect your happiness.

Does your news director really dislike you or is it just a matter of her not paying you enough attention? I’ve seen reporters go into a complete tailspin when a news director failed to compliment a story.

Do you think she didn’t like it? What if I never get another good assignment? What if I never get another good assignment and then never move to a bigger market? Is my career over?! My career is probably over!!!

The reporter is taking a story and running with it without the basic facts. I assure you, if the ND didn’t say anything about your story, that’s because it was fine and it met expectations. Or she didn’t even see it because she was stuck in a budget meeting and wasn’t watching the newscast. If you knew these facts you would likely feel foolish about the massive story you’ve been telling yourself.

The key is to recognize when you get lost in what is truly storytelling in your brain. When you recognize it you should try to identify the actual facts. You are a journalist, so presumably you can tell the difference between fact and fiction…I hope!

Once you recognize the facts, it’s easier to stop the story.

 

“Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself.”
-Teller, Magician

 

Most of the time when you stop the story, you can relax. If you can’t relax then you should try to explore the facts. Ask your news director for a meeting to discuss the PKG she didn’t seem to notice. This meeting will be a lot more productive than if you start crying 4 months later and ask your ND why she “hates you.”

If you are stuck on weekends, explore the facts. Is it because your boss thinks you like weekends and you seem happy? Is it because your boss thinks you need to improve? Is it because the person who jumped to a M-F gig actually makes less money and is not as valuable? Ask questions to get facts instead of coming up with your own story about what is probably happening.

This is a hard skill to learn but it’s helpful. Try to get a better grasp of what is going on in your brain and save the storytelling for the newscast.

 

A book you should read

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By: Mandy Mitchell

Over the past 6 months I have become really interested in mindful meditation. I have been a sponge about the subject and have been reading and listening to everything I can about how it works and its benefits.

I also started practicing meditation. I got an app on my phone and I try to give it at least 5 to ten minutes a day. I can tell you it does make a difference. I am learning how to better control my thoughts and understand how the mind works. THAT is not what this post is about, though.

I was searching for a book to read about the subject and I came across this one. It was recommended to me in a blogpost about meditation so I had no idea it was written by news anchor Dan Harris.

This book is about how Harris broke into the business, his ego, his temper and how he became depressed after spending time in war zones. He started using drugs and then went to therapy. He writes about the anxiety of this business and the times he would worry about how it may all fall apart. (who among us hasn’t had that worry?) He even talks about what it was like to work with Peter Jennings and what it feels like to be left out of coverage of big events.

Anyway, I went into the book wanting to learn more about meditation and came away from it thinking everyone in TV news should read it. Yes, he does talk a great deal about meditation and even his time going to a retreat, but it is much more than that.

Because he is a reporter he approaches the subject as a reporter. He interviews experts and talks about his process of learning. He also notes how his opinion on things change as he continues to learn from experts. This is useful to any reporter who is diving deep on any subject.

I truly appreciate Dan for being completely open, honest and funny. I can see how the book is helpful to anyone in any profession, but it REALLY spoke to me as a TV news journalist. If you have spent time in a newsroom you will be able to relate to the many stories he tells!

Give a pat on the back

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By: Mandy Mitchell

TV news is a truly thankless job. In fact, it’s one of those jobs where you are more likely to hear what you did wrong than what you did right on any given day and we all know viewers are happy to e-mail in with helpful suggestions on what to do with you hair the next time you’re on TV!

That’s why it’s important to support your co-workers. If you see a live shot you loved, don’t just think to yourself “wow that was really creative,” go ahead and send her a note and let her know you were watching and appreciated the effort.

If you are in the field and the producer rocked it as far as making sure you stayed informed during breaking news, send him a note and tell him you really felt comfortable and appreciated the information in IFB.

I can remember every single note from a co-worker I’ve gotten in the last decade.

Not too many people take the time to do it. I get that. You are busy with YOUR story and YOUR deadline and you don’t often even see other stories. But you do see some and I guarantee you like some of the stuff you see.

So say it! Take the 30 seconds to say “loved the tie!”…”Great question in that press conference!”…”Wow that standup was great!”….”That story was so well shot!”

Praise from a boss is always nice, but praise from a peer can be even better. It also shows you are engaged in the product and not just focused on yourself. A thumbs up goes a long way!

This post is originally from September 2016

Leaving your comfort zone

“A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.”

By: Mandy Mitchell

I haven’t talked about this on the blog much, but I made the decision to leave my job as sports anchor at WRAL back in January. The decision came after a lot of thought about what I want to do in the future and where I want to be. To make a long story short I just wasn’t having fun working in traditional sports anymore. And while I understand it’s a job, and not all aspects of work will always be fun, I wanted to follow my passion for journalism and storytelling and I knew to do that I had to make a major life change.

So I made the jump over to the news department where I am now a reporter focusing on longer term “enterprise” stories. It’s a dream job for me for sure, but that doesn’t mean the transition has been easy.

When you do anything for 14 years, like I did when working in sports, you develop a comfort. There are some tough and challenging days, but it eventually becomes easy. When I made the decision to leave sports I made the decision to leave my comfy little nest of security. I didn’t think that would bother me. I was confident it was all similar work and would be an easy transition, but I was not correct.

I know this isn’t a news flash, but leaving one’s comfort zone is extremely uncomfortable. We all hear that, but to experience it has been eye opening. I’ve been way more anxious and nervous than I ever imagined I would be. I have woken up in the morning feeling sick and feeling a stress I haven’t felt since my first days in the business.

But guess what? It gets easier every day. I learn something new every day and I feel like I am growing. I’m also learning the angst is coming from within and isn’t worth it.

I’m not saying you should jump to some new job at a new station, or to another department at your current station simply to avoid a comfort zone. However, I would encourage you to recognize your comfort zone and make sure you don’t let it keep you from your goals.

We all settle into a “normal” in life and that is totally ok if you are enjoying your work. But if you are not, don’t be scared to take a chance. As uncomfortable as it has been I would not go back and make a different decision.

I am learning to enjoy the discomfort and understand it is what will get me where I want to be.

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Complaining: a newsroom’s favorite pastime

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By: Mandy Mitchell

I have been working in a newsroom on a consistent basis since 1997 when I was an intern at WPEC in West Palm Beach, Florida. I’ve learned two facts about working in newsrooms over the last two decades:

1- they are basically all the same.

2- They are filled with people who LOVE to complain.

I’m not saying every newsroom is equally toxic. I have worked in newsrooms that are better than others. But tv people, if given the chance to complain about something, will complain and will complain often.

I remember the first complaint I heard in a TV newsroom. It was from the sports anchor I was working with and he was explaining how terrible it was that the weekend sports anchor no longer had a producer because of budget cuts. He was distraught. “This business,” he said “is going down.”

If someone said that these days you would get a puzzled look. “What’s a sports producer?”

My how times have changed!

Now the complaints are about social media obligations. There are complaints about stations hiring “young and cheap.” There are too many newscasts now. Too many people being asked to MMJ. Too few media companies owning the stations.

Then there are the personal complaints about schedules, not making any money, not having a social life, not getting any respect, getting taken advantage of. On and on and on…

 

The young eager people will eventually become the bitter veterans. It is a pattern that I have watched personally for 20 years.

My challenge to you is to stop the pattern. We don’t gain anything in a day from complaining. It may be fun and it may be therapeutic at times but it isn’t helping us be better journalists and create better content. It is taking what little energy we have and flushing it.

It is SO easy to be negative about every single thing that comes with the business. If you start to think about holidays missed and your paycheck and how much you are being asked to do, you can find yourself in the gutter quickly.

The next time you start doing that try to think about why you started. There have to be good days where you produce a great newscast and get that high. There have to be moments when you land the exclusive interview and feel the pride.

Focus on that.

If you don’t get any joy from this business and you feel put upon, there are other careers. Go ahead and start looking around and get out because no one benefits from your complaining. You aren’t helping the product. You aren’t helping your coworkers, and you certainly aren’t helping yourself.

I know the enthusiasm still exists.

I’ve been to workshops filled with positive people who love the business and want to make it better. I see Facebook groups where people gather to get better and share ideas. It’s motivating and uplifting to be around people who can see the good.

Let’s bring that kind of energy to the newsroom. It’s just more productive than complaining.

No…you couldn’t.

By: Mandy Mitchell

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I was lucky enough to spend a few days immersed in the practice of storytelling this past week. I went to the “Sound of Life” storytelling workshop in Asheville, NC which included talks from brilliant storytellers like John Sharify from KING in Seattle, Mike DelGiudice from NBC 4 in NYC and Les Rose who used to work with Steve Hartman at CBS.

These guys really are some of the best! If you need proof check this Sharify story out:

I did notice something, though. I was walking to lunch on the first day and heard a few people making the same kind of comment.

“If I had 4 days to put together a PKG I could do that too.”

“If I wasn’t running around doing 3 VOSOTs and 4 live shots, I could do that too.”

“If I had 7 minutes to tell a story, I could do that too.”

Here’s the truth folks, No. No you could not.

I am not saying I don’t think you are busy and would love more time to work on stories you are actually passionate about. What I am saying is you are not on that level right now. Very very few people are and that’s what makes those stories extraordinary.

These guys have been doing this for YEARS. In many cases they started right where you are. They started by covering the local city council meeting. They got MOS’s. They covered weather. It’s hot. It’s cold. It’s snowing!

Many of you know of Boyd Huppert’s work at KARE in Minneapolis. Do you also know he is general assignment 3 days a week? Yeah, he gets two days to work on his fantastic stories for “Land of 10,000 stories,” but he also covers fires, and his GA stuff is just as compelling as the feature stuff. Why? Because he’s super talented.

You get there by doing it. You get there by telling stories, no matter how short those stories are.

If you are covering the city council meeting, find a way to make it a better story. If you are getting MOSs for a story you hate, find a way to be more creative. Doing this each day will get you closer to being able to do the kind of work the greats do. Les Rose really said it best when he said to bust your tail on the mediocre so you are ready for the great stuff!

So let’s stop using lack of time as an excuse. It’s not about lack of time, it’s about lack of seasoning. You aren’t there yet. If you want to be a great storyteller, practice every single day. Eventually you will get the gift of time and you want to be ready to take advantage.

 

Working for “free” vs. Working for “Me”

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By: Mandy Mitchell

One of the very first things I was told in my very first newsroom was this:

“Never ever ever work for free!”

The photog was telling me this over a Wendy’s lunch that I found rather magical as a 16-year old intern out with a an actual TV news crew. We were covering a story about an endangered bird that had been shot. We had just come back from seeing the dead bird and getting the interviews and had just enough time to sit down for an “real lunch.”

He went on to explain that his “hours” were 9-6:30 and he planned to be out the door at 6:30 every day or they would be “paying him” for every minute he stayed. He then told me how he rarely answered his pager (this was 1998) because those who answer “get taken advantage of more often.”

I get this line of thinking. I really do. This is a tough business and we don’t make a lot of money and we keep getting asked to do more with less. Sometimes you have to draw a line. You also have to have a life outside the newsroom. You don’t want to constantly be worried you will get the call to breaking news on your days off. I get it.

But I don’t subscribe to this philosophy completely. I think there are times where you can benefit from working for free.

Let me give you an example from my own career. I produced a documentary on my own time last year. I didn’t get time to work on it during “work hours.” I was called “nuts” by a few co-workers who claimed I was giving my station content and getting nothing in return. They were right if you are thinking about this strictly based on dollars earned for hours worked. But value isn’t always about how many dollars you make.

I can remember having a conversation with a network reporter a few years back. He asked me what the longest story I ever told was. I answered, as most of you would, “Uh…I don’t know 2 and a half, 3 minutes. You know, sweeps pkg length.” He then told me I should find a way to do something longer. So I did.

I may not have made a dime producing that documentary, but I can now tell anyone who asks, the longest story I have ever told is 24 minutes. There is tremendous value in that.

Sometimes you have to look at the big picture and what will be best for YOU down the line. If you have an idea for a great investigative story, but no one will give you the time during your shift, do it on your own time! You can then put it on your resume reel and eventually you will get a better job that pays more and you may get that job because you took the time to do that story.

I know there will be TV news veterans shaking their fists at this post. I am not recommending doing regular everyday work for free. What I am saying is sometimes it’s worth putting in the extra time…your time… for something special.

You have to think of payment as something more than just money.

A personal story: Part 2

This is Part 2 of Larry’s journey from Raleigh to Philadelphia. If you missed part 1, you can read it here.

Cue the theme song from “The Jeffersons” – because we’re moving on up. In my last post, I told you about some initial bullet points… namely why I left a perfectly comfortable position in a great (winning) newsroom in market #24 for another position in market #4 where it’s a dog fight. While I doubt my family will be living in a deluxe apartment in the sky, this is certainly the big leagues and I’ve got my turn at bat. As it stands right now, the excitement still hasn’t hit me. Namely because to me, this is just another pragmatic step toward getting where I’d like to be in life. Plus I’m just not a terribly excitable person in the first place. I offered up a “Part 2” on switching markets because there were some items that have really caught me off guard through this whole process. Some of it has to do with sheer market size. Other aspects are because I’ve never left the company that got me started in this business.

  1. The paperwork. Although technically it’s not paper (it’s mostly digital)… I do have to fill out a lot of forms. They’re not all just for one company. There is SAG-AFTRA, moving company documents, exit reviews, 401k transfer information, and the list goes on. Keep in mind, I still haven’t arrived at my new station which will probably require tax documents and much more. Given that I have a baby at home an a fluctuating schedule, it’s been tough to get it done. I finally had to stay up through some late nights (when everyone is finally asleep) to get everything done. Keep in mind, I’m a producer… this is the pretty “straight forward” rendition. I hate to see how much more could be involved when lawyers and agents get involved on the talent side!
  2. The size of the city. I still remember driving out from the airport when I went to Philadelphia for my interview. As we turned the curve from parking, and the skyline began to unveil itself, I specifically remember my first thought: That’s Huge!

I said that… out loud… word for word. Keep in mind, I’m honestly just a country boy from North Carolina. I don’t have a habit of visiting major cities. And despite all the research I did in getting familiar with the place, I still was just not mentally oriented for how big that place is. I had to pass the Comcast Center on the way to my hotel, and I’m pretty sure my eyes were the size of saucers. There may have also been some expletives involved. Again, I’m familiar with the streets. I looked everything up on Google Maps and had an idea of the placement of everything. But it is STILL not like physically standing next to one of the tallest buildings in the country… and just looking up.

 

  1. The union. Having to be a part of SAG-AFTRA was not surprising to me. I was told about it up front. The wide gamut that union covers, however, was incredible. From the amount of pay, to the use of cameras, and even the number of people that can write for a newscast. It’s ALL in the collective bargaining agreement. For my new newsroom, the union also serves as the clearing house for benefits (health insurance, 401k, etc). This is completely new to me, as my current benefits come directly from the company. The rules and regulations governing my relationship with my new company is mind boggling. Oh by the way… being in that union costs. As such,what will also be surprising to me is if I don’t get premiere client services.

 

  1. Finding a place to live. As I’ve noted before, I’m a country boy. Raleigh-Durham is the biggest city I’ve ever lived in. And as you can imagine, finding a place to live a similar lifestyle in Philly is difficult. Just the average style of a home in the city and its suburbs is completely different from what my wife and I are used to. There are a LOT of people per square mile in that city. And every one of them seem to be right on top of each other. Literally, everything is either on top of something else or squeezed in somewhere. I personally have resolved that I will end up making a pretty decent haul into work to make my wife comfortable and to live in an area that has enough space. And if you’re wondering, no… I don’t plan on using public transportation right now. Maybe that will change once I get in the city. Maybe the city of Brotherly Love will rub off on me and I’ll love being around other people enough that I can live closer to the city, and not mind being so close to other people.

This is in no way a comprehensive list of everything that has popped out at me thus far. Note these are all things the I knew about before hand and they STILL caught me a little off guard. These technically were not surprises. I only offer this as a point of reference for people who may experience a move in the future. Some of this may not be mutually exclusive to moving into a large market. Obviously, none of these items have been deal breakers, they are simply points I thought would be most interesting to share.