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.

 

 

 

 

Dealing with a rut

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By: Mandy Mitchell

If you’ve been in this business long enough you have had your share of ruts. It’s the time when your mind is pretty negative about most things. You think about the bad stuff of the business.

I tend think about how I’ve been working weekends for 13 years and have worked most every holiday for 13 years and how I can’t take time off more than 3 months of the year.

Can’t take March because that’s the NCAA tournament! Can’t take February because that’s sweeps! Can’t take August-December because that’s football season!

It is very very easy to fall into this trap of thinking about the negative stuff, especially when you are burned out after a big project or just a long stretch of time of grinding day after day. We all know this isn’t a 9-5 job. We all know we are going to have to work bad hours and holidays and all of that, but what we don’t really talk about is what to do when that stuff begins to weigh on you and when it takes the joy out of what is actually good about the job.

Telling yourself to “think good thoughts!” doesn’t do much to get you out of a really deep TV news rut. Neither does thinking about how great it would be to get a “normal job” and looking around for things you could to do have a “normal life.”

There are a few things that can help.

  • Have a good cry. It certainly helps me to completely unload all of the negativity at one time. The stuff we do isn’t glamorous. It’s ok to admit that and just let it out. You would not be the first and will not be the last to do this.

 

  • Talk to someone who does the same job you do in another market. Just call them up and tell them you need to vent and then do that. You will quickly find you both have the same stories to tell and it will almost become comical. If you choose to vent to someone else in your own newsroom, you can often be misunderstood and come off as a “complainer.” We all need vent time. The best person to vent to is someone who gets what you do 100%. Reporters, anchors, producers, and assignment editors all have problems, but they are slightly different problems. It helps to talk to someone with your specific job.

 

  • Find your “happy place.” The place at the TV station that reminds me why I got into the business is the control room. For whatever reason, it still seems cool to me. The lights, the monitors, the buttons! If I am ever feeling sad, I just go into the control room for a block of the news and stand in the back. It reminds me that, while this job can suck, it’s also a pretty cool thing to be a part of live TV. Find a place you can go  that can do the same for you. It allows you to take a step back and appreciate where you work and what you do.

 

  • Take a long walk or hike that isn’t part of your daily exercise routine (if you have one.) Find a park and walk, with no music, for an hour. If you have places to hike, do that. Just being in nature for a longer period of time will clear your mind. Try not to think about what’s burning you out. Just focus on the walk.

 

  • Watch a local newscast from a bigger market. Find a station you like and admire and watch what they do. That will remind you of your goals and remind you that TV news can be fun.

 

Most of us who are in this business are really ambitious and have big goals. The flip side of that is learning how to deal with the stress and pressure those big goals can bring. You can be a mostly positive and happy person and still pretty darn burned out a couple of times of the year. Just learn to recognize the rut for what it is and take steps to pull yourself out.

This post is originally from July 2016

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.

 

Words Mean Things

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GUEST POST

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


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

Words mean things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

        “A big deal” – important, consequential

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

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

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

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.

Dress for the job you want

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By: Mandy Mitchell

You may have heard the saying “dress for the job you want not the job you have.”

This is about way more than the clothes you are wearing and is something you should be thinking about the second you walk into a new newsroom.

You may think you want to spend two years in your position and then move on, but I have met so many people who had that plan before spending a decade plus at the same station.

There are ALWAYS chances for advancement within your building and you should be planning for them now and not just when the job is open and posted.

I see this mistake often.

An anchor position opens and all of a sudden a reporter starts working a bit harder…dressing a bit sharper…complaining a bit less. He thinks it’s “his turn” at the anchor desk. Problem is, the news director sees him as a reporter and goes with an outside hire. Why? Because the reporter didn’t carry himself as the next anchor until that chair was open. You want to be an anchor? You should be volunteering for any anchor shift available. You should be acting the part from the way you dress to how you volunteer in the community to how you post on social media.

A prime newscast is now open for a producer. 6pm…Monday-Friday! All the producers want it. What have you done to make it yours before it’s open? Are you someone who volunteers to work an extra shift when someone calls out sick? Are you someone who has creative ideas? Or…are you someone who just does what you are told and “has been here a long time” and expects the next promotion?

Newsrooms are competitive and you have to be ready when a new situation comes up. You want to be the “no brainer” for management so they don’t have a chance to look at someone else, or outside of the newsroom.