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.

Basic Reporting Tips and Guidelines

From Ross Becker

1. WRITE THE LEAD FIRST. This is where the story begins. Use short sentences to draw the viewer into the story. It is a headline with a transition to the beginning of the video. If you are starting with a sound bite or natural sound, use the lead to “write into” or introduce that sound.

2. Begin the story with your strongest video or sound. AGAIN…if you use sound, use the lead to set it up. Example: if you start with sound of a city council member saying “I wanted to fight this because it’s important” then your lead should say “Jim Reporter found a member of the city council who says he had no choice but to act”

3. Each package should have a beginning, a middle and an end. The end is the summary and usually refers to the beginning. Take us full circle in your reporting.

4. The beginning sets up the story, the facts, the issue. The middle lays out both sides of an argument or tells the story of someone affected. The end sums up where the issue stands and what might happen next. Again, these are general, basic suggestions. Each story is different and can use different storytelling techniques.

5. These guidelines are simplistic. There are no rules for every package. Each one is a work of art, but there are techniques and tricks that work for all packaging.

6. Writing is critical to the success of your story. Use short sentences. Make the story personal with the words you use. Check your grammar. Make it conversational.

7. Stand ups. These can be tricky. The basic rule is to use a standup to show me something, move me from one place to another or help me visually when you don’t have video for a thought or point.

8. When doing a standup make sure the viewer understands why you are standing where you are standing. For instance, “I am here in front of the courthouse, because it’s here in a courtroom where this drama is unfolding”

9. Use the sound bites you have chosen and recorded as punctuation NOT to deliver information. For instance, you might write a line of track that says “the lawyer for the defendant is worried the jury won’t agree (then the SOT) and he says “I know they have a big job and a lot of testimony to consider”. The sound is the period at the end of that sentence.

10. Most of the time you do NOT want to end your story with a sound bite. After the last sound, use one line to end the story in your own words. It is part of the summary. It’s a good place to refer to the first sound or script. Take the story full circle.

11. If your station requires an anchor tag, plan and save something. One last thought or postscript. Remember this is the last thing the viewer hears about your story. Don’t throw it away.

Why Are We Still Begging Some Reporters to Post “Digital First”?

When I was in grade school, some friends and I started a newspaper in the basement of our home. It was only one page and it included some school news and playground rumors. It was fun for us to write the stories and then use an old mimeograph machine to print 20 or 30 copies and hand them out at recess. I know it sounds lame, but it was our way of trying to be the cool guys who were in on everything. We could not wait to hand out those copies because we were the first to tell them the news. First, is almost always better as long you as have the facts rights.

Now, in the year 2020, we have something called social media. There is no need to print the news and hand it out on the playground. Reporters can report the news even before the reporting is over! Yet, I find some journalists still plodding through the process of gathering, then sitting down and writing and then publishing, whether is on paper, on-line or on-the-air. They have the power in the palm of their hands that we craved when we were writing and printing our basement newspaper. Yet, many don’t use it. Using social media, we can involve the potential reader or viewer in every aspect of the hunt for information. We can invite them to the morning editorial meeting. We can take them along on the ride to our story location and talk with them about the coverage plan. We can be there when we introduce ourselves to the people we are covering or be with us as “first on the scene” of a fire or crash or other breaking news. Why don’t we do it?

We can share with the viewer or reader the challenges we sometimes face trying to get the facts or “real story” and help them understand the frustrations and roadblocks. That would help all of us restore credibility in the profession. We can talk with our social media followers as we work to prepare the story for air or print and show them the decisions that need to be made and the compromises that are always part of journalism. And then, we can use social media to reach them with the final product. I believe they will better understand what we do and how we do it.

So, instead of posting dog pictures or food pictures or vacation pictures, use social media to show your friends and followers your professional side. Show them how difficult it is to do your job. Let them in on the secrets. Your work will become much more powerful.
Be the first in your newsroom to try it. It’s being done in some of the major markets by reporters who have been covering news for decades. Now it’s your turn. I would love to see examples of your efforts.

Why Your Stories Need an Onion Volcano

The challenge of any storyteller is to get people to see and feel and appreciate your story. I believe you need a little fire to do that.

We can debate the numbers, but I have seen various surveys that show about 70% of millennials have a FOMO. It means the “fear of missing out”. Younger news consumers are not just looking to expand their minds, they are looking for experiences. Instead of sitting in a room alone listening to music, they will spend hundreds of dollars and drive hundreds of miles to attend the concert. It’s the experience they want, not necessarily the music. Another example is food. Many would rather invest their time and money going to a trendy restaurant and posting the pictures on social media, than getting satisfaction out of cooking a meal at home.

I am not judging if this is right or wrong. The fact is, it is real and if we are going to inspire, influence or mentor people with the FOMO, we need to get them to experience news not just watch it. This is where the onion volcano comes in.Whe ther you are producing an individual story for TV or digital or you are putting together an hour of news Monday through Friday, you need to ask yourself which parts of the story are going to be remembered. When we go to one of those Japanese grill places, what do we talk about? Sure, we will say the food was good and the chef at the table was funny, but we all remember the fire. Even if we have seen it scores of times, we always wait for and take pictures of the flaming onion volcano. I call it the FOMO moment. We are afraid we are going to miss it. It’s part of the experience.

So, if you want your story to make an impression on younger news viewers, give them a FOMO moment. It’s the one element of the story, whether in writing or video or sound that the viewer will talk about and remember. It could be a sound bite, interview, picture or production technique. It could be your unique standup or maybe it’s an exclusive angle to the story. It is the “experience” of your story or newscast. That is what millennial viewers are craving. Give them a new viewing experience they can share. If you do, they will invest their time with you because, if they don’t, they might be afraid of missing out. Give them a flaming volcano of alcohol and onion along with the great food and drink (your information and facts) and they will watch your stories and newscasts.

How Country Music Can Improve Your Storytelling

Have you seen Ken Burns PBS documentary about country music? It confirms what I have believed for a very long time. If you want to improve your storytelling, listen to country music and feel it. He says it’s the intervals between the notes that tell the story. The same is true for you. The intervals between the copy or the sound bites will give your pieces “soul”.

What we as reporters do on television or radio, internet or over the top is very powerful. If we stay in our “head” and report the facts, we are cheating ourselves and the viewers. If we move our stories to our hearts, we will become powerful influences in the lives of the people who we serve.

Country songs are passionate, personal, emotional and real. We always joke that in country songs we lose the house, the car, the girlfriend, the boyfriend or the job. We lose the will, the loved one or the desire. It’s real life.

When you are assigned a story or you have an idea for a possible story, think about how you would write a country music song about that story. Silly? I don’t think so. That story will move someone or change someone or help someone or convince someone and that is why we celebrate great storytellers. I am not talking about ignoring the facts. I am talking about finding the passion or emotion in each story we do.

So, listen to country music. Listen to the words and the passion. Listen to the hurt or the excitement. Listen to the pain. When you pitch a story at the next morning meeting, tell it like a country song. You will do more than convince the minds of those in charge, you will convince their hearts.

Why you need to develop “emotional range” to become a better storyteller

As reporters we use our senses to immediately begin gathering information for our stories, but sometimes what we see and hear is not the whole story. Our own hearts and our life experiences may help us see more of the story than we have ever seen before. Don’t let the obvious lead you to a story with no emotional range.

So, let’s begin developing your emotional range. Start your own life experience checklist. Remember what it felt like to be dumped by a lover or how you felt when you had that car accident. Go back to the time when you got a big holiday cash bonus or when your child brought home her first handmade Valentine’s card. How did you feel when your first child was born? How did you feel when you had your first kiss? If we are going to be great storytellers, we need to experience life ourselves and then draw on those experiences to make our stories better. So, use the experiences in your own life to begin developing your emotional range. Think of how you felt on your child’s first day at school or when your grandfather died and find words in your stories to help us better understand the story you are covering today.

A news director told me that when he is hiring a new reporter, he looks for a candidate with a developed emotional range. They tell more powerful stories, he said. Life is powerful and it should be jumping off the screen when your piece airs.

Conflict is an essential element of most stories, but conflict only scratches the surface when you are talking about emotional range. Conflict is the catalyst for the universal emotions such as fear, anger, frustration, happiness, and sadness. Can you show the quiet sadness or frustration of a family whose life was changed by a tornado? They are not yelling or crying or even talking. Does your emotional range allow you to recognize that emotional numbness?

In order to begin finding and developing your emotional range in storytelling you must look back. Pull out your stories from the past two weeks and look at them again. Think about how you felt about doing the story and then think about how the people in the story felt. Did you capture those feelings? Did you show the quiet frustration of the city council woman who is trying to do something good for her district? Or, did you just do the obvious and show the argument in the council chambers?

Every story we do affects the viewer emotionally. Even the most mundane city council budget story touches some emotion. Hopefully it is told in such a way that it touches the anger button or victory button, but maybe it’s just the boredom button. Whatever emotion a story elicits, it should be an integral part of our storytelling arsenal. But, does your emotional range even allow you to recognize that “feeling”.

Many seasoned reporters can look past the facts of the story into the hearts of people and understand what makes them act. Young, inexperienced reporters deal with what is in front of them and report it. They have not yet developed their emotional range. Start exercising yours. Think about it before you even make the first contact on a story. Where is this story going to take YOU? Emotionally. It will make you better.

A Prayer and a $20 Bill

(I have been writing stories about some of the stories I have covered so far in my career. Each one taught me something about myself or my profession.)

We can now instantly shoot and send video around the world from our phones. That was not always the case and that made covering news even more of a challenge. You could have the greatest story and the most amazing video, but no one would see it unless you could get it back to the station in time for the newscast. This story is about taking the ultimate risk/reward in order to do your job.
Just over 4 decades ago, in 1977, I was working for WFRV-TV in Green Bay. It was August and that means summer storms in Wisconsin. I had worked all day and was finally home. Dinner was done and we were just watching TV when we saw the tornado warning. It was not to Green Bay yet, but the storm was heading this way.

A short time later the phone rang. The night producer told me to get into the station fast! The boss was sending me and a photographer to Wausau, in Marathon County, where there are reports of a tornado touchdown with significant damage. Wausau is about a 90-minute drive from the station. It was going to be a long night.

I met Chief Photographer Del Vaughn at the station. He already had the car packed and ready. WFRV had just received its’ first videotape news camera. We were going to use it tonight.

Let me outline the tools we had to work with the cover this breaking news. There were no cell phones, just phone booths that took a quarter to make a local call. We had no “live” trucks or microwave connections. We had no computers or wi-fi links to the station. We were heading out into the night to chase the destruction of a tornado with a camera and a pocket full of quarters.
We arrived in the outskirts of Wausau. It was dark. Power was out everywhere, but we didn’t see much damage. We drove to the middle of town and took a right turn and saw the flashing lights on the fire trucks and police cars. The tornado had ripped a patch through a residential neighborhood just west of the city. We got as close as we could, grabbed the gear and headed down the first street. It was the first time I had witnessed the damage from a tornado. It was eerie. We saw a two-by-four turned into a spear that had pierced the side of a metal camper. We also saw a telephone pole turned into a porcupine. When a tornado hits it creates extremely low pressure. That low pressure opens the pores of the telephone poles and the wind blows sticks and straw into the open slots. When the tornado passes, those hole or pores close quickly trapping the debris. The pole looks like it had hair! The power of this storm was amazing. We shot video, did interviews and even told the story of a woman who was found a block from her home still sitting on the mattress from her bedroom. The storm had taken her for a ride. We had great stuff, but no way to get it back to Green Bay. The next newscast was the morning broadcast and we had to stay in Wausau until the sun rose.

We took a break and found a truck stop open near the interstate that runs through town. We were frustrated, we could not get to the station and back in time for the morning news conference, but we wanted our video to get on the air on the morning show in two hours.
There was a truck driver sitting at the next table and I had an idea. I slid into his booth and introduced myself. I asked him where he was heading next. He said, “Green Bay. I am dropping my load at the Proctor and Gamble plant on the east side of town.” The plant was about 5 minutes from the TV station. I took a chance. I grabbed the ¾ inch videotape from the machine and handed it to him. This was our only video and if we lost it we had nothing to show for our long night. I said, “would you drop this at the guard gate when you pull into Proctor and Gamble? I will have someone from my station drive over and pick it up.” He smiled and rolled his eyes, “what’s in it for me?” I laid a $20 bill on the top of the tape and said, “you are going that way anyway, wanna make an easy 20 bucks?” He nodded, grabbed the money and the tape and he was gone. We watched the big rig and our night’s work heading out of the parking lot. Del and I wondered if we would ever see our great video again.

I called the station and told them the plan. If the driver did what he agreed to do, WFRV would be the only station with tornado coverage for the morning news programs. We all crossed our fingers. Del and I went back to work covering the story and about two hours later I called the newsroom to see if our scheme had worked. The driver did exactly what he promised. The videotape was waiting at the guard shack. Our intern picked it up and our stories and video made the morning broadcast. In the end, this storm injured 30 people. Luckily, no one died. Winds were clocked at 150 miles per hour.

We had to cover the story and we found out there is always a way. It was risky trusting a truck driver, but what good is great video if you miss the deadline. For us that night, it was a prayer and a twenty-dollar bill that did the trick.