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.

 

A personal story: Moving to a new market

We like to share personal stories here on The “A” Block to give you a chance to learn from others who are moving on and moving up! This one is from producer Larry McGill who is jumping from his current job at WRAL in Raleigh to Philadelphia. 

As I write this, I’m reflecting on a conversation I just had with my news director. After nearly 5 years in my newsroom, I informed him that I’ll be taking a new job in a new market. It was certainly not the tough conversation I anticipated. Actually, I’m not sure what I expected. But I do know for some reason, I wasn’t expecting the joyful reflection we shared before I had to hurry back out to finish a newscast.

I do feel I should explain my current position is in the newsroom where I first got into television news. From the moment I walked in the door as a production assistant, I said I wanted to become a producer. In a world where a lot of people say starting in a top 25 market – #24 to be exact – is nearly impossible, everyone in the building took a vested interest in making it happen. Now, I stand on the verge of making another major jump. This time, to market #4.

When I went to Philadelphia for my interviews with the management team, there was one main question that everyone asked: Why? You work at one of the best newsrooms in the country… WHY come here? WHY leave a comfortable position at a heritage station with winning ratings for a place where we’re in a dog fight with the another heritage station? The answer to that line of questioning is simple.

  1. The Person. I’ve known the news director for a few years now. While I’ve never been in his inner circle of colleagues, I did know he is held in very high regards. The more I asked what it is like to work for him, the more people confirmed how excellent he is at his job, and more importantly… growing talent. They also continued to confirm how great he is as a person. Had anyone else offered the job in a major market, chances are I would have rejected the proposition. Here is another kicker… all of May managers, despite not knowing him personally, know him by name and reputation. To me, that speaks volumes.
  2. The path and process. As I said before, my new news director has a reputation for growing talent. Not that my current one isn’t capable of doing so. The opportunity for me to move up simply is not there. That’s because one of the cons of being at a heritage winning station is that people don’t leave! That means staying at the bottom of a very large totem pole. I am lucky enough that the opportunity falling into my lap, gives me the chance to move into an entirely different echelon of journalism. Between the company, the market, and the personal network… it’s all a level that I thought was never possible in my career.
  3. The change. Philadelphia is a huge ass city. Even after doing my research, the sheer size of the city versus where I grew up and where I currently work is honestly a little overwhelming. The type of people there are different. The culture… different. The number of lifestyles…different. The pace of life… different. It’s being in these types of situations, the proverbial fish out of water, that rounds out a good journalist. And as someone with a medium as powerful as television, it be hooves me to experience a new place to round out my view of the world.

Admittedly, there are a few other items that led me to my decision to move. However, they’re all ancillary to these 3 main tenants just listed. The pay is better. The market is major. Even the newsroom is about to move into a sexy new building. There are even more opportunities to advance at my hobby of photography. But note that the things my decision really hinges on are far more pragmatic. I hope that if and when the time comes for you to pick up and move, you’re afforded the chance to be equally as pragmatic.

Social Media Misunderstandings

Check out this tweet from NBC political analyst Mark Halperin. What is your first thought about that tweet? When I saw it I said “why in the world wouldn’t he want to sit next to that adorable dog?! What a jerk!”

That’s immediately what most people who read that thought. People started blasting him on Twitter calling him far worse than a jerk. It turns out, he just didn’t provide enough context to what he was trying to communicate in the tweet.

Here is the rest of the story:

Oh!!! Well that makes a lot more sense doesn’t it?

The reason I am sharing this with you is to illustrate what can happen if we don’t provide proper context on social media. YOU may know the entire story and what you are trying to convey. The person reading your social media post may read something completely different.

Halperin got to spend multiple days explaining this tweet about a dog on an airplane. While an annoyance I am sure, this kind of error could be a lot worse if you fail to provide context on something involving a news story.

It’s important to always take a good look at a social media post and ask yourself if anyone would be able to question what your post means. We are all in a rush and being pushed to post more and more on social media, but a couple of seconds of reflection can save you a lot of time on the backend.

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.

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.