Listening leads to better stories

By: Mandy Mitchell

How many times have you been interviewing someone when you have no earthly idea what the person just said?

You are busy thinking of your next question. Or maybe there are complicated facts you are going over in your head to make sure you don’t look silly. Maybe you are one-man-banding and the cloud just covered up the sun AGAIN and you have to adjust the iris AGAIN and you didn’t hear what the person you are interviewing just said.

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That is stuff we all do and it’s stuff that gets in the way of truly listening. It’s the kind of stuff that can not only make you less effective as an interviewer, but can also cause you to miss out on something really great.

Quick story…

I was covering the College World Series at my last job and the coach surprised us all by naming a relief pitcher the starter for the next game. It may not sound like a big deal, but trust me, this was BIG news in Columbia, SC. It would be of great interest to our viewers and it was cause for many questions from the assembled press.

As we threw question after question at the coach, Ray Tanner, he mentioned the team’s trip to the local children’s hospital and casually noted that it was great to see an “old friend” who just happened to be a young man with cancer. No one was listening when he said that. Everyone was busy with this big story.

Luckily, I was listening.

I hung around after the other reporters had left and asked coach Tanner about the boy. He smiled and told me all about how Charlie was a bat boy for the team years earlier and how they had kept in touch. “Charlie will be at the game tomorrow,” he said. “You should meet him!”

Long story short, this ended up being an incredible story.

When the story aired another reporter came to me and said “how the heck did you find out about that?”

I told him how he had been there when Tanner mentioned it. “Oh…I didn’t hear that.”

This isn’t the only time this has happened. I have found many a story by simply listening during the interview process. I am also certain I have missed out on stories by not truly listening. It is very easy to focus on the 97 other things in your brain and that looming deadline.

Next time you are doing an interview, make a real effort to listen. Don’t worry about your next question. If you are listening, you will know what to ask. This practice will not only lead to great stories, it can also lead to better questions.

Post is originally from 2015

Resume reel mistakes

By: Mandy Mitchell

Like most people who have been in this business a while, I get asked to look at a lot of resume reels. One thing you should absolutely understand is that I am no expert on resume reels. I don’t think anyone is, really. What gets you a job with one shop could be thrown out in 6 seconds at another.

I can tell you a few things that ALWAYS stand out to me as looking “small market.” These are things I see in reel after reel. Yes, they are coming from folks in small markets, but these folks are trying to move up. It’s time to start looking big market if you want to be big market!

**I can only speak about on-air reels here**

1- Poorly framed interviews

I can’t tell you how many times I see interviews in PKGs on reporter’s tapes that are not framed well. Your interview should look like this:

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There should be head room and room in front of the person and he shouldn’t be looking at the camera, but looking at you.

This is an example of stuff I see often:

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2- Interviews shot against a wall

Please DON’T DO THIS! You want to have some depth in your shot. Let’s say you are shooting in a classroom and want some books in the background. You’ll want to seat your subject several feet in front of the books…not right in front of the books. The idea is to get the books to be a bit out of focus.

I made this mistake many times as a young sports reporter. I thought shooting in a locker room would look “awesome” and “just like ESPN.” So I would put the player on the locker room bench, roughly a foot front of the locker. Didn’t look awful, but you should instead get a chair and get that person as far away from the locker as is logistically possible.

3- A hand holding a mic in a shot

You should be using a lav for any PKG worthy of your resume tape. I don’t want to see your wrist and your ugly mic in the shot. If you don’t have a lav, make sure you frame the mic out of the shot. Most of us have editing equipment with zoom functions now. Use it!

While we are on the subject of lavs and looking “small market,” I don’t want to see  the mic wire hanging from the shirt. Go ahead and take the extra 30 seconds and have your subject hide the wire behind a tie or under the shirt.

4- Jump cuts and too many dissolves

Learn the value of close-ups, and cutaways. If you are an MMJ, learn to shoot those. If you are working with a young photographer, learn to ask for those. Don’t rely on dissolves to get you out of trouble. The best storytellers only use dissolves for impact, not to avoid a jump cut.

5- Clothing that makes you appear young

I can’t stress this enough. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Do not wear trendy clothing. Do not wear shorts in a stand-up. Do not let me see you wearing flip-flops during a live shot. Why am I saying all of this obvious stuff? Because I have seen them all on resume reels.

I am amazed at what young people not only think is ok for on-air attire, but think is ok for a resume reel. This should be a reflection of you at your absolute best. Would you wear a tank top to an interview? How about don’t put that shot on your reel!

6- Music in PKGs

I am sure I will spend an entire post writing about this subject alone at some point. Let me first say I am not against music at all.  I have used music many times.

What I am against, and what makes someone appear “small market,” is simply adding a music bed to a pkg to make it “sadder.”

Doing a story on cancer? Add some sad music! YUCK!!

If you don’t know how to properly add music to your story, please don’t do it. If you like music, I encourage you to watch people who use music well and learn how it works. Until then, I encourage you to rely on NAT sound and writing to make your stories standout.

 

This post is originally from summer 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.

Ways to improve your delivery

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By: Mandy Mitchell

I get two questions more often than most from people just entering the TV News business.

The first, and by far the most common, is: When should I hire an agent?

Ugh. Really? Why is that the most asked question? If you want an answer to that question please read this post . Or you can read this one.

Now that we have gotten that question out of the way I will go to the more practical question I get often: How do I improve my delivery?

Honest and quick answer? Time. Time. Time.

I know you don’t want to hear that. I bet you want some trick that anchors and reporters use to “improve” that aspect of performance. All I can tell you is, after more than a decade of being in front of the camera, the answer is time.

Your delivery develops as you get more comfortable in front of the camera.

There are a couple of tips I can offer as you get these reps.

  • Don’t talk in a news voice. One of the best compliments I can get is if someone tells me I “sound just like you do on tv.” That means I am comfortable on air. It means I am talking in a normal voice to the viewer. It means I am not shouting. You don’t have to have some sort of “news voice” to be taken seriously. Just talk to me. Just tell me a story.
  • Write like you talk! I am stealing this from the book (which we talked about in this podcast.) If you write like you talk, you are not only writing in a way that will avoid “news speak” like blaze, or shots rang out…you are writing in a way that will be easier to read. When you write things that are easier to read you  don’t sound like you are reading.
  • Slow down. Chances are, you read too fast. You likely read too fast on the desk and you likely read too fast in the audio booth. You are reading too fast because that’s what happens when you try to inject ENTHUSIASM! and try to have ENERGY! I assure you that you can have enthusiasm and energy without spitting out a million words a minute. Take a deep breath. Tell me a story.
This post originally ran in December 2016

Back Time Your Day

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By: Mandy Mitchell

I totally get it. I understand how overwhelming it can be to work in a newsroom and have all of the demands of the day on your mind when you walk in to the morning meeting. You may have 2 VOSOTs to shoot and a PKG. You have to think about social media. You have to be live at 4 and 5 and 6. Then you have to post your stuff to the web.

If you think about all of that stuff at once you will you feel overwhelmed and behind all day. That will not lead you to your best work.

This is really where time management becomes key. The most successful people I know are the best at “back timing” their days.

I’ll give you an example of a workload for the day. You have your morning meeting at 9. You need to get a VOSOT from the fire from last night. Then you are doing a PKG on “how hot it is” and how people who work outside can “stay safe”. Live at 4pm with your PKG. Lets just say you are an MMJ.

Your Day:

3:40- (Your first hard deadline) When you should be feeding your PKG for your 4pm Live shot. This is also a good time for a pre-live shot Facebook live.

2:15-3:40- Edit time.

1:15-2:15 Writing time.

12:45-1:15 Edit your VOSOT/Feed it in. Do any social media you may need to catch up on. Facebook live etc.

So this gives you from 9:30 (when you leave the morning meeting) to 12:45 to shoot your VOSOT and your PKG. That’s 3 hours and 15 minutes. And remember, we are being rather generous with our writing/editing time.

If you look at your day this way you will realize you actually have more time than you think. This will allow you to relax and use the time you have to shoot your story and shoot it well. If you think of the day as a “whole” you will be tempted to rush through shooting because you think you are going to run out of time. You won’t. You have plenty of time.

You can use this technique for most of your days. Sure, there will be occasions when you are called to breaking news or your story is switched. In that case you just figure out a new schedule. It’s all about creating small “deadlines” for yourself throughout the day no matter how many times that day changes.

If you are a faster writer, that allows you to budget more time for editing. Faster editor, more time for writing. Learn how you work and schedule it. You will be amazed how much more relaxed you feel at the end of the day.

 

 

 

 

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.

It’s Time to Adjust your Dreams

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By: Mandy Mitchell

I’ve been struggling the past 24 hours with how to put my feelings into words about what has happened at ESPN. I know a few people who have lost their jobs. I also know people at the network who are lucky enough to still have a job. I feel a deep sense of loss for both groups of people.

The people who lost a job are now in a saturated market with very few opportunities and a whole heck load of talent. The other group is left wondering when the call will come and left feeling a dreadful insecurity. Not to mention, guilt, I am certain.

I think we all feel sympathy and have thought “man…THAT sucks.”

But this news didn’t just leaving me feeling that way. This news really hurts me deep to the core.

I’ve said this before on this blog, I shifted my goals and dreams long ago. I’ve learned ,through time in the business, that my strengths and passions are in storytelling and reporting. Because of that, my daydreaming about sitting on the Sportcenter set ended. It just really wasn’t a fit for me.

But I don’t think there’s a single person who has gotten into the sports journalism profession in the past two decades who didn’t have a goal of working at ESPN “someday.” This is the “World Wide Leader” after all.

And ESPN seemed to be doing things right. They developed an enormous digital staff because online was “the place to be…the place it was ALL going to be some day soon.” They got into podcasting, and a lot of the talent was involved in all platforms from anchoring to radio to writing for the web.

THIS was what I would tell young people who asked me how to get there one day. “You have to do it all,” I would say. “Look at a guy like Andy Katz. He started online and is now a fantastic on-air presence.” Andy Katz is among the many now looking for work. And I am not too sure who is going to cover sports…any sports…for ESPN in the future.

I am certain they will hire people again at some point. Sports content is still something people want. ESPN just has to figure out how to make money in the changing marketplace.

So back to my real point here, the reason this hurts is because it feels like a dream is now gone. Breaking into sports journalism is really damn hard these days. We all know what’s been happening with newspapers and local TV stations have been trimming sports departments for years (because of ESPN of course, but that’s another blog post.)

When you are lucky enough to get one of the 4-6 jobs in any given market, you are signing up to bust your tail. Because there is only one of you, or two if you are super fortunate, you get to work 60 plus hours a week running around, shooting high school football on Friday nights, anchoring the 30-minute show, waking early on Saturday to drive 3 hours to the college game you are covering only to then shoot the game for four hours, shoot your own live shot after the game and then drive home.

People do this, myself included, because they think there is a payoff. I spent many a Friday night sweating through my third high school football game saying to myself “this will all be worth it someday.”

Now what?

The ugly truth is local TV stations are in a changing landscape too and they aren’t going to go back to hiring big sports staffs. The whole “regional network” thing I heard so much about a decade ago isn’t going to happen because cable TV is failing, not expanding. So people who do have jobs will stay put, leaving very little mobility and very little chance for career advancement for anyone else. Remember, a whole bunch of people who reached the top are now being pushed back down.

So what should young sports journalists do? What is the best path?

I’ve thought a lot about this and I think the answer will involve some soul-searching for you.

If you enjoy storytelling, you should focus on that and get good at that. Stop worrying about telling SPORTS stories and tell GOOD stories. Become more of a “television reporter” and less of “the sports guy.” Find investigative stories you can do and get your work into other parts of the newscast. You may have to consider switching to news. I know, for some of you, that was like I punched you in the gut. I want you to have options and there are growing options for people who can tell great stories that are good for TV, the website, and are shared on social media.

If you got into the business, or are thinking about getting into the business, because of your love for sports and not your love for journalism, I suggest sticking to sports. Professional and college teams are now hiring their own reporting staffs. I’ve known a few young people who have taken that path and have been successful. I am not going to get into the ethics of working FOR a team, I am just laying out options here.

If you want to continue working towards a sports network I think you need to have opinions about sports and you need to be willing to share those opinions on many platforms. It will be much more about analysis and much less about facts in the future. “Hot takes” are here to stay. If you have some of those, you could be in luck. Start a podcast, a blog, your own Youtube channel. Do whatever it takes to form opinions and learn how to communicate those opinions.

Overall this should be a wakeup call for anyone who was still practicing “catch phrases” in the mirror and thinking you would one day be able to sit on a set and call highlights. Your new goal is to figure out what you are TRULY passionate about and why you got into the business in the first place.

Don’t stop working your butt off just because this is all really disappointing. Take a few days to think, and adjust your dreams.

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.

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.