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.

 

Developing an expertise

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By: Mandy Mitchell

This has been an unusually hectic couple of weeks so my apologies for neglecting the blog. Just when I sat down to write something on Friday morning, I was called in to the station because of breaking news.

A basketball player who played college ball at NC State died. I was the reporter called to do the story because I did a documentary on his hometown last summer. If you missed that, you can check it out here.

I had a unique “expertise” for the story and was quickly able to set up interviews with 3 people and secure a live shot spot.

I totally understand you likely won’t have the chance to produce a documentary on a subject, but you do have a chance to become the “station expert” or the “go-to” reporter for many different stories if you work at it.

For example, I am sure many of you will be working on stories about the travel ban this week. You may be sent to interview refugees or immigrants affected by the ban. It is important to not think of this story as a one day thing. We all have a tendency to shoot interviews, rush to write and go live. This kind of story is where you can set yourself apart.

Get the phone number or email address for anyone you interview. Write down some notes about his/her situation.

Ask more questions than you may need for that day’s story. Does this person have family who could have issues in the future?

Try to really make connections because this will come up again, and when it does, you can be the person who knows who to call and you can be the person who is on this big story.

This advice goes for a lot of the stories we do. It never hurts to get contact information for someone you are interviewing. It also never hurts to save file video of a crime scene or court video or anything else you think you may be able to use in the future. I save stuff on a hard drive. Most of the time I don’t use it again, but it’s handy to have when you need it. I used a bunch of stuff I had saved from shooting my documentary in Friday’s story.

Becoming an “expert” or even developing a strong interest in a subject will make you a better reporter and could get you better stories in the future.

Pick better soundbites…please!

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For the love of good television, please start spending more time picking bites that matter instead of ones that will fill 15 seconds. I am going to start with sports people because that’s the subject I know best.

Sports people: Why are we still airing bites saying things like “We are just going to take it one game at a time.”…”It’s a new season now. We are all zero and zero.”…”We aren’t thinking about that HUGE game next week, we are worried about Southwestnorthsouth State.” ????

SPARE ME!

This is awful. It tells me nothing. It teaches me nothing, and you are wasting your viewer’s time. Not to mention, you are being lazy.

The coach didn’t say anything? What were you doing at the time, looking at Pinterest? Ask better questions to get better answers.

This goes for news too. Don’t just air a bite because you were planning on a VOSOT. I am certain you can find better use for that :15. Isn’t that what weather people are for? (I kid because I love)

Make sound bites count. Put them in the newscast for a purpose and not just to fill time. A bite about a fundraiser telling me how much money was raised is not useful. The anchor can tell me that. Have a bite tell me how big a deal this is for the charity and how much it will help. Have the bite add some emotion to the story.

Put a bite in a newscast/sportscast with a plan. What do you want the bite to accomplish? How will it add to the story? What questions can you ask to get the right kind of bite?

Have a solo anchor and simply looking to break up the reads? Think about a NAT sound pop instead. Be creative!

Bad bites are bad television. Ask better questions to get better answers and make sure what you are putting on the air is worth :15.

This post originally ran October 2015

What’s the story?

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Chris Stanford is a journalist in Wichita who’s worked in a couple top 25 markets, 10+ years experience.

I was 20 something interviewing for an anchor job in Kansas City and the news director offered up some of the greatest storytelling advice I’d ever heard. “You should be able to sum up a story in three words,” he said.

He’d shown me some early Steve Hartman packages, and then asked me how I would tell that story in merely three words. I hesitated (because my interview philosophy is that silence is better than saying something stupid). “Boy loves mother,” he said. He then shared what those three words really meant and how it shaped the story. There were no interviews with the father about how the boy loved his mother. Hartman showed interviews with the boy and his mother, that’s all that was needed to tell that story. Love was the theme, although I don’t recall him ever using the word. But that’s what his storytelling made me feel.

Of all the news philosophies I’ve heard, that is one that needs more attention.

I’m going to use a few different words to describe a bank robbery and each group tells a different story: Man Robs Bank. Search for Bank Robber. Teller Thwarts Robbery. Cops Catch Robber.

Those stories each have a different feel and should be told as such if the real story is recognized early enough. Reporters are told, “Chris, go to the bank. There’s been a robbery.” It should be YOUR job to find and tell the real story, then make sure your producers and managers know ASAP.

Another example helps illustrate how we can miss the mark on covering developing news because the real story was not understood soon enough. There was breaking news at 5pm of a murder. By 6pm, there was new information about the search for two suspect considered armed and dangerous, however it took about 60 seconds or longer to report the new and more important information. The story should’ve turned from Man Shot Dead to SEARCH FOR DANGEROUS MURDER SUSPECTS!

The newest and most relevant information should’ve been the first words out of the anchors’ mouths. This is a classic example of burying the lead. And, it happened because several people didn’t understand or know what the real story was. I was baffled that no one caught it.

In this example the public’s safety was in jeopardy. It was a disservice to them not to report that there were two armed men who’d just killed someone in a residential neighborhood running from the cops.

Bottom line: if you CAN’T sum up your story in a few words, then maybe you don’t know what your story is.

This post originally ran in November 2015

 

Terms to throw away

Guest post

Larry McGill is a producer at WRAL News in Raleigh.He began his journalism career as a radio producer and on-air talent.Larry spends most of his spare time pursuing an interest in photography, working on getting his own blog off the ground, and trying to keep up with his baby daughter.

I was recently in a meeting with a consultant on the topic of relevance. As he showed a package from another news organization to illustrate a point, I couldn’t help but become distracted from the story as I heard a noise that sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard.

That sound was the term “behind bars” and it was used no less than 3 times in the toss to the package alone. I stopped counting after hearing it the first two times in the package. The anchors and reporters used the term so much, I’m pretty sure there was a bet on how many times they could get it on the air (“Look here, meow…”).

That term is one of many that I exterminate from my newscasts with prejudice. It makes my team sound too “newsy” instead of the normal conversational tone most writers are going for. And to me, they all sound like fingernails on a chalk board. With such a prejudice in mind, I offer a list of what I consider to be the worst in the news vernacular. Some of them, you may be familiar with. Others could be debated; however, I think you’ll agree most of them should be remanded to a time when the news was read by stuffy old men speaking into a large diaphragm microphone sitting on a desk next to an ash tray.

“Behind Bars” – This is one of the worst offenders (no pun intended). Just say they person is in jail or prison. I’ve never used this when talking with regular people which means it shouldn’t be in a script that’s meant to be written at an 8th grade reading level. Oh by the way…

Jail vs Prison – The two are not interchangeable. Jails are generally run by local governments are and meant to store suspects for the short term. Prisons are generally run by state and federal governments and hold criminals long term.

“Police are investigating” – Don’t lead a story by telling me police are doing what we pay them to do. That’s not news… although in this day and age it could be up for discussion.

“Under fire” – If that politician isn’t burning, they’re not under fire. Just tell me what they did wrong and get to the next story.

“Grilled” – Use this when referring to steaks, hamburgers, hot dogs, or any other food being cooked over a flame. Do not use it to refer to people being asked tough questions.

“Death Toll” – Another term you don’t use in normal conversation, so it doesn’t belong in your scripts. And to me, it sounds like we’re waiting in the wings of a disaster keeping some kind of morbid score. I know… in some situations we are, however you don’t need to let the viewer know that.

“Speaking Out” – I have never heard anyone “speak in”

“Shots rang out” – Much like speaking… gun shots generally don’t ring in.

Homicide vs murder – A homicide is the death of one person at the hands of another. Murder implies there was an intent to kill. While every murder is a type of homicide. Every homicide is not a murder.

“Footage” – This implies there is a tape or reel somewhere, which makes you sound old.

“Gearing Up” – Drivers gear up (assuming you know how to use a manual transmission). Political campaigns and other organizations of the like do not.

If you’re using these words, it doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t even make you a terrible writer. But they do make things sound highly cliché. Additionally, because they are so over and wrongly used, they can end up being a mark of overall lazy writing.

When I see a story written by the producers I look up to (which are generally in my own newsroom and in some larger markets) these items are NEVER used. I would almost chalk that up to the list of items that make a writer seem “small market.” Unfortunately, though, I’ve seen these in some major markets, and see them even more in scripts from our affiliate feeds… which you should ALWAYS re-write, but that’s a topic for another post. By keeping these items out of your script, your stories can be more concise and more effective at relaying your message.

Advice from Bob Woodward

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By: Mandy Mitchell

I got a chance to hear Bob Woodward speak this past week at Elon University. He talked, quite humorously, about the campaign and the books he’s written about various presidents. He talked about Watergate. I wonder if he tires of that?

He also talked about journalism. As I was sitting there listening, I was thinking is there anyone better to learn from than Bob Woodward? I wanted to pass some of his knowledge on to you.

 “Learn to shut up.”

Woodward says he digs one of his nails into the side of his finger to remind himself not to interrupt or interject when he’s interviewing someone.

He lets “the silence bring out the truth.”

He told a story of interviewing President Obama and how the President offered up “what bothers him the most,” while they were sitting in silence.

My personal thoughts on the subject: There’s no reason for you, as the reporter, to say “right”…”I see”…”ok”…just because you want to fill the silence. Learn from Woodward and learn to shut up.

Learn to see past the BS

Woodward  told a story about interviewing Bill Clinton and how Clinton “doesn’t blink.” He explained how Clinton made him feel during an interview. He was going along thinking he was getting fabulous quotes. Then he got home, looked at the transcript and noticed it was mush.

I couldn’t help but think “been there!”

This happens to me a lot with experienced coaches. They are so good at the game that you don’t realize they are feeding you BS. I learned a lot from Woodward from this story about Clinton.

This goes back to listening. Are you really listening when you are interviewing someone? What are the REALLY saying?

“Never? Don’t ever tell me never.”

Woodward told the story of working on the Watergate story and a meeting he had with Katharine Graham, the Publisher of the Washington Post at the time.

She wanted to know when the truth of the story was going to come out…when the paper would be proven correct. He told her probably “never.” She looked at him and said “Never? Don’t ever tell me never.” The Washington Post is planning to put that quote up in the newsroom now.

Woodward said he left that meeting motivated.

I’m sure you have had a story (and if you haven’t you will) where you feel the answer is never. It’s probably best to not use the word.

Mistakes

Woodward talked about making mistakes in stories. Not really of the fact error variety, more on the lines of perception going in and thinking something means something when it really does not.

He used the example of Gerald Ford pardoning Nixon. He said it always felt like the perfect “corrupt ending to the perfect corrupt story.”

He interviewed Ford 25 years later and realized it was much deeper and much different than that.

He said “neutral inquiry” is very important. It gives you pause and lets you step back and look at what is really going on. Said there’s not enough of that in today’s journalism.

What’s In It For Me? (W.I.I.F.M?)

 Guest post from: Jeff  Butera

He is a three-time Emmy Award-winning journalist. A summa cum laude graduate of the University of Florida, he has reported for stations across the county, including in Phoenix and Tampa. He is currently the primary news anchor at WZVN-TV (ABC) In Fort Myers, where his work earned him a coveted Murrow Award for Hard News Reporting.

The most important sentence you write is the first one. Your lead sentence often decides whether the viewer watches your story or changes the channel. That’s why you have to make sure it’s a good one.

A strong lead accomplishes three things:

1) Gets the viewer’s attention and makes them want more

2) Sells the story, letting the viewer know why they should care

3) Gives the story direction so the viewer knows what’s coming next

All three are vitally important, but let’s focus on the second one. If we’ve decided to include a story in our newscast, we’re suggesting to our viewer that they should care about it. So, you have to answer the question: Why should they care?

Or, put another way: What’s In It For Me? (W.I.I.F.M?). That’s what the viewer is thinking. People want to know how the news impacts them. They care, first and foremost, about their own lives and their own families. If you want their attention, tell them how this story matters to them right away.

How does this story impact their life?
What are the questions they might have about the story?
How can we make it more relevant to them?

Those are the questions you should be asking yourself as you decide what to include in your story, and specifically what to focus on in your lead sentence. Remember, W.I.I.F.M? 

Examples:

NO: The public utility company has won approval for $54 million dollars in rate increases. YES: Your electric bill will be going up a dollar-and-a-half a month.

NO: The president has proposed 12 billion dollars in tax cuts.
YES: The president’s new tax plan would save you about 50 bucks a year.

NO: The city of Tampa has passed a new dog leash ordinance.
YES: If you live in Tampa, you must now use a leash when you walk your dog.

NO: State lawmakers have passed a law making the process of getting a driver’s license more efficient.
YES: If should soon take you less time to get a driver’s license in Florida.

Jeff Butera is the author of “Write Like You Talk: A Guide To Broadcast News Writing.” It is available at www.WriteLikeYouTalk.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @WriteLikeUTalk.

Other posts by Jeff: Top Ten Words and Phrases To Avoid