The Elephant in the Newsroom

There is something that needs to be said. It’s there in every newsroom from New York to Yuma. It’s not a new problem for sure but let’s call it a new challenge. It can be fixed. But first, it needs to be recognized.

We are asking our broadcast and digital journalists to do something that is killing them from the inside out. We are asking young producers and reporters and photographers and writers and digital storytellers to innovate and fill a bigger news basket and take on more responsibility and do more with less but we are not giving them the professional or emotional tools to help them do it.

For some, it’s their first job. They don’t know how to “live” with their co-workers. They don’t know how to have a professional conversation with their boss. They don’t know how to set boundaries for their work life and professional life. They don’t know how to tell their boss they are exhausted or sick or just confused. They don’t know how to and when to take a risk professionally. They don’t know when to be honest and when to lie. Do any of these questions ring true with you?

If the leaders of news organizations want to find a way to “relate” to the new workers. If they really want to keep good producers and MMJ’s, they need to find a way to answer these questions and give their employees the “feeling” they care. Bosses, or newsroom leaders, are not parents or friends. However, they need to be listeners and “understanders” and “feelers”. They need to recognize when a good producer is ready to burn out and walk out. They need to give their “team” a way to get better and feel better. They need to stoke the passion that is being doused by low pay and long hours and rude demands for more.

The solution is somewhere. Many people are searching for it every day. One station even cancelled its’ newscasts for one day to give employees some “therapy”. What do we need to do to change the way we work and interact and lead so we can minimize the stress and maximize the positive passion for our jobs. Do you just need more money? How about more days off? Would it help if you had some personal coaching or training to help you attack your job and make you stronger?

It’s the “elephant” in our newsrooms. It’s driving good people out of TV and digital journalism. Let’s start listening and we will if you start talking. Answer this question: What would make your happier or more satisfied professionally and personally?

“My Child is Missing”

Most of us who have worked in newsrooms have received the phone call or the email. A mother or father sends a photo with a message, “my child has been missing for two days and I need help to find them”.

What do you do? You ask if they have notified the police. If the answer is no, you ask why? “She went off with her boyfriend after we had a fight and I thought she would be back, but she’s not” and then you roll your eyes and say to yourself, she’s a runaway.

When you hang up the phone or shut down the email, the question is do we run this as a news story? Do we show the photo of the missing girl the parents gave us? What if it’s just a runway or someone taking a long weekend with a boyfriend? The parents are probably over-reacting, right? It is justification to ignore the call or the email, until they find the young woman’s body in a dumpster. THEN, suddenly, it’s a story!

I think local news does this all wrong. I think it’s our job to do more. We need to fight the urge to dismiss these as “boyfriend/girlfriend” fights or arguments with parents. We need to treat them the way we treat Amber Alerts when the child is in danger because there is real danger. Here is my reasoning. If we put a girl’s picture on TV and she is a runaway and someone notices her at a gas station and calls police, there is no harm done. Police will decide if there is something wrong and if not, at least the parents will know their child is OK. Whether someone is a runway or was taken against their will they are still in possible danger, especially if they are under-age.

What better way for local news to serve the community than to alert viewers and get the community to help find them and find out if they are safe. We don’t necessarily need to do this on-the-air in a regular newscast (although it’s not a bad idea). News organizations can use their digital platforms to get the photos and info in the hands of people in the community quickly and efficiently.

I had a running debate with a news director about this concept. He felt that unless the police asked for our help, we should ignore young people who were missing or runaways. I disagreed and still do. There is no greater mission for a local news organization than to keep people safe. I would rather show the picture of a missing girl and find out she was just on a two-day, unauthorized trip with a friend, than to show the picture of a girl who was killed or injured or kidnapped and we ignored the calls for help.

I would love to hear what other journalists think about this and how they handle it.

Every Story is the Same….Really?

I have reported hundreds, maybe thousands, of stories during my career and there is one thing that is the same about all of them. Each one has a universal theme. If you find that universal theme or themes in your stories you can make them more relatable and understandable for the viewer.

I know you need examples, but first let me tell you a story. It’s about a woman who was hoping to see the man she loved, but my attempt to get an exclusive story got in the way.

I covered the John Delorean drug case and a man named Morgan Hetrick was part of it. Hetrick was accused of conspiring with Delorean to import and distribute 220 pounds of cocaine. Hetrick agreed to cooperate with the Feds and got 10 years in prison in Fort Worth, Texas. So, there he sat behind bars and I wanted to talk with him.

I contacted his wife Joyce who was living in Fort Worth. She said Morgan was given the opportunity, occasionally, to be released for a few hours so she could see him. I begged her to let me talk with him during one of those windows of opportunity and she reluctantly agreed. She said if the prison found out, they might cancel the outside visits in the future. I was worried. I was feeling uneasy. Joyce told me she lived for the few hours he was free and they could just take a walk and catch up. I didn’t want to screw this up for them, after all they were cooperating with me and the prosecutors.

I landed in Fort Worth with a photographer and we headed to the prison. We had two hours to wait before he would be released, so we decided to get a few shots of the facility and shoot a stand up or two. When we approached one of the gates and took out our gear, a guard came and asked what we were doing? I just said we were doing a story about an inmate who was involved in the Delorean case. I did not mention Hetrick’s name. He said OK and left.

When it was almost time for Hetrick to leave the prison for his visit with Joyce and our interview, I met her at a Wendy’s just across from the main gate. When I walked up to Joyce she was crying. “What’s wrong?”, I said. She screamed at me, “it’s cancelled”. The tears ran down her cheeks, destroying her makeup. “They told him if a TV crew was going to talk with him, they would not release him to me. What did you tell them?” she demanded. My heart sunk. I hadn’t told them anything. I didn’t use Hetrick’s name. I just said we were doing a story about the Delorean case. Obviously, the prison officials put the pieces together.
I felt horrible. We were going to miss the story and I had, inadvertently, destroyed the arrangement between husband and wife so they could spend time together. The prison, from that moment on, refused to let him have his time away from the institution. I apologized to Joyce and we headed back to the airport. It was a day filled with emotion.

So, what are the universal themes here? Anticipation. Betrayal. Disappointment. Anger. My story had them all. Find these themes and others in your stories. Yes, even a story about a city council decision has universal themes or emotions. Identify them early. Your initial research should give you a hint, but keep your eyes and ears open for them. Every story has them. They all have universal themes that will help you navigate the job of telling the story. Sometimes they change. When a school board votes to close a school or fire a teacher, the mood in the room may change quickly. The theme of your story could be anger or disappointment or it could explode into jubilation! It’s those universal themes that will make your story memorable. Listen for them with your head and your heart and share them with the viewer.

When Your Fingers Betray You

When you put your fingers on your computer keyboard and start typing, your mind does something that will affect the quality of the story you are working on?

Why is it that you can talk with the executive producer and the show producer and tell them about your story, emphasizing all the great sound you have and the unusual twist when you conducted a particular interview and the great video you have, but when you sit down to “write” the piece your mind freezes?

When you start writing, your mind switches from a conversation mode to a reading mode. Your first sentence of the package is right there on your computer screen. You “read” it and not “say” it. You are writing for the eye and not the ear. It’s a trap.
When we talk, we speak in short phrases and hardly ever in complete sentences. We naturally “tease” our listeners when we begin a story or introduce a new twist in an ongoing story. But, when we start writing for the “eye”, we stumble back into using long, complex sentences to try to explain complex ideas. It is hard to record those sentences. They are not pleasant for the ear. They will kill your stories.

Don’t let the keyboard do this to you!

One of the best bits of advice I received from a boss was something he yelled to me across the room. I was sitting at my desk with a deadline approaching and I was frozen with my fingers on the keyboard. WTHR News Director Bill Dean shouted, “Becker get going or you are going to miss your deadline!” I yelled back that I was struggling with lots of information. It was a complicated story about politics and money. He said, “Don’t confuse me with the facts, just tell me the story!” I put down my notebook. Took my fingers off the keyboard and he said, “what’s this story about”? So, I told him. It was brilliant. He said, “now write that down and get in the audio booth”. It needed some polishing, but a complicated story about money and politics was really about the people fighting about it and the neighborhood that would be affected depending on who won. Sure, I included some of the important facts, but it was a “story” and not a “report”.

Don’t let your fingers on that keyboard prevent you from “telling” a good story. Say it out loud if you must, but “say” it don’t write it. Have a conversation with your viewers. Tell them a good story, a true story and an accurate story. But don’t confuse them with the facts.