Storytelling and your Soul ( A simple tip to make you’re a better writer)

I was at my recent gym workout and the instructor was working hard to keep us focused and energized. We were sweating and frantically trying to keep up with our jumping jacks and he suddenly smiled and said, “you know I just remembered that when I was a child, my cat used to swipe his claws at the flapping underarms of my mother!” Most of the class started laughing along with the instructor and then he said something very important. “Isn’t it weird” he said, “we can’t remember most numbers or even names, but we remember the silly things that made us smile or cry when we were younger”. That is the key to great storytelling.

When you meet someone, what do you remember about them? Their eyes, their laugh, how they smelled? Gathering information for a story should include these things. Describing the quirky, intense, funny, or disturbed subject of your story will help your viewers understand the story better. It will help them decide where the truth lies. Most importantly, it will help them remember the story just like my gym instructor remembered his mother’s jiggly arms.

I am asked all the time, “what is the key to great writing”? There is no key. It’s a full key ring of tricks and observations and those keys mean nothing if they are not in your hands with your heart connected. Listening and observing are big. Be empathetic. You need the ability to filter out the noise and focus on the purpose of your story. Then, you need to take everything you have unlocked with the keys and unlock just one door.

Your story, whether it’s in print, digital or broadcast, must “touch” someone or something in someone or else it will never be remembered. We are all bombarded with thousands of marketing images every day. Logos, billboards, digital pop-up ads, tv commercials are all bashing our brains trying to make a mark. Your story is all part of that barrage of information. Most stories get lost. The ones that don’t will live in the hearts and minds of the viewer forever. It’s the jiggly stuff under our mother’s arm. It made us smile. It touched our soul. We will never forget it. It’s not the most important piece of information, but it’s the observation or the understanding that will make the rest of our story be remembered.

Is There a Way to Fix “The Great Resignation”?

I recently posed a poll question on Linkedin. More than 5500 people read the poll and I got some interesting answers and information from the results and the comments.

Here was the question for broadcast and digital journalists: If you can’t have more money, what other “incentive” could the company give you to show you are valued. 14% of those who responded said concert or sports tickets, another 14% said they would like a personal phone call or direct compliment on their work, 29% said a food or gift card would make them feel valued and 44% said travel or lodging vouchers would show them management cares about them.

The raw results are interesting, but it is the comments by scores of working journalists and managers that might help us understand and fix what some are calling “The Great Resignation” in broadcast journalism. Clearly there is a problem when starting journalists in smaller cities are making less than minimum wage salaries to begin their careers. Clearly there is a problem when producers and even some middle managers must work second jobs, just to pay for their apartments.

Some broadcast groups are now controlled by venture capital organizations that are only interested in cutting budgets and flipping the companies. It’s the bottom-line that matters, not the long-term growth and innovation of the product or the people.
So, the question is, what can managers do to make their team members feel valued? They claim they can’t hand out raises, sometimes even when renewing contracts.

Here are some of the comments I received when I posed that question.

One small market producer said, “I love me some gift cards! I can always shop. Especially if I’m using those little plastic cards that don’t send me a bill every month.” Having a sense of humor is very important when you are struggling to pay rent, student loans and utilities.

An experienced news director responded, “I asked this question in one of my surveys and interestingly, less of a workload was just as important, if not more important, than the money.” The issue of stress and workload is a huge factor in this problem. It’s true, money will NOT solve “The Great Resignation” but many who responded also said it’s a good place to start.

Lifestyle issues, however, were a major theme from many of those who responded. One middle manager wrote, “…a lot of things people enjoyed as a fruit of such a labor-intensive industry were the perks that have now gone away in the post 2008 TV business. If the station did your pickup/drop off dry cleaning or provided actual healthy meals regularly instead of election night pizza, the time would be more valuable than money. But he also said, “and that’s ignoring the unbalanced amount spent on “your look”. It’s true, some jobs provide uniforms and other grooming perks but those journalists who are expected to be on TV or appear on social media must look good and the cost of that falls on their shoulders. The era of clothing allowances for broadcast journalists is mostly gone.

The survey shows that tangible rewards are always needed and appreciated, but sometimes it is the rewards for the heart that mean the most. A TV station creative services director said, “, employees ask me for either free tickets or an Amazon card. That’s not too hard. The biggest thing they want is to feel like they make a difference.”

A former TV newser answered the survey and added a comment I am sure many were thinking. Forget about the gift cards and the compliments, he said, and start paying people what they are worth. “Those broadcast companies are not telling the truth. They can afford to pay people what they are worth. They choose not to, then rationalize it when their ratings/clicks plunge. The suits are not nearly as smart as they think they are and until they are the ones suffering…they won’t figure out what’s killing journalism”
And this comment sums it up for those who say forget about the perks and show me the money. One person said, “I want to be paid what I’m worth for the years of experience and sacrifices I have made in the industry. Too many years of working 6-7 days/week, 12+hour days and missing holidays with family due to the demands of the media. Sorry, your perks don’t interest me. A respectable wage is not too much to ask when the big bosses are receiving crazy bonuses and pay.

Some of those who responded wanted the option to work from home or to work with no contract if they are not getting more money. They wanted flexibility in their schedules and few “life” interruptions. More personal time off was a big demand. Journalism is not like that. News cannot be scheduled around parties or PTA meetings. It’s that reality that adds to the pressure many broadcast journalists are feeling. Also, the universities are not preparing graduating students for the real world they are about to join.
One respondent said, “If they truly can’t pay more…this was concerning to me thinking about my future in an industry that was so strapped that it claims it actually cannot pay its employees more. So, figure out a new business model, or cut back on the output so that you CAN pay a smaller number of people to do less.”

I suggested a controversial idea in the comments section and didn’t get much input. Maybe no one likes it. How about, for instance, 10 paid PTO days a year with the option of buying more with a slight pay reduction or reduced vacation time? This plan would give the worker the option of planning their life and time off while partnering with the company for flexibility.

Here is the bottom line from the survey. The problem is real. Talented professional journalists are abandoning the newsrooms because they feel under-paid and unappreciated. There is no one way to fix it. Listening is the key. Managers need to listen to the “room” and react. If it’s more training and coaching to help the employees do their job and excel, invest in it. If it’s historically low pay that is infecting your newsroom, fight to change it with a real plan.

One former news director and agent responded to the survey with four words. This might be a way to get everyone reinvested in making broadcast journalism strong and viable again. He said, give me “stock in the company.” If you were a part owner, maybe you could help find a solution.

“Knockin’ Down the Door to Get In” …?

Have you ever had a snarky news director say, “if you don’t like it…leave! I have people knockin’ down the door to get in and take your job.” Well, not anymore.

In broadcast journalism right now, there are advertisements everywhere for open jobs. News directors need producers and reporters. They need MMJ’s and digital content managers. They need executive producers and assignment managers. Some are calling it the great exodus or the great resignation. People are quitting the low paying, time-demanding, high stress jobs and finding other things to do with their lives. It’s a real shame, but the people who run the newsrooms and their bosses are causing it.

The business of journalism is changing but many of the people who run the business are not. They are still running the newsrooms and stations the same way. The people working for them have been forced to change drastically and are shouldering the brunt of the burden. Now many are “knockin’ down the door” to get out!

So, I must tell you a story about a recent negotiation for a news manager position. The offer was made. The negotiator countered, asking for a little more. Not a lot, but enough to make the incoming manager happy and ready to go to work. The corporate manager said, “No”. It was an emphatic no. He told the agent and the general manager that there would be no consideration of more money and that if the candidate, (the one the company chose to lead their newsroom,) didn’t like it, they would pull the offer and move on. He said, “we have plenty of other candidates ready to take the job for that money.” It was a lie.

Now, think about that. This is a newsroom that needs a strong, forward-thinking leader to grow and mentor a typically young staff. It’s a newsroom, like all newsrooms, that needs energetic leadership. How will that happen if corporate leaders who do the hiring are always looking for the lowest common denominator? If the candidate decides to just take the smaller offer, do you think he/she will be motivated to go the extra mile to make the room successful? Sure, they will try but as soon as it gets rough, the words of the corporate boss will ring, “if you don’t like it, we will find someone else.” Also, as soon as the PR job in town paying $150,000 comes available, they are gone!

The real problem also is there IS no one else. People are not breaking down doors to work for less than they should to do more than they should with unreasonable expectations and no budget. Read that sentence again. That is the problem in a nutshell. Despite the erosion of the broadcast news audience and the abandonment of the older demographic (where the money is), corporate media types stuck their head farther in and up “you know where” and are refusing to listen to the middle managers or the professionals who make the tv stations and digital platforms work every day. They are the ones who know how to fix this.

So, how does this get fixed? I suggest there is one thing. It’s a simple thing. Eventually there will have to be money and resources invested to repair the damage, but first just “listen”. It seems corporate managers are refusing to listen to those who manage and work in the nation’s newsrooms. Listen to those people! They are on the front lines! If they say they need more money, find out if they are telling the truth. Don’t just dismiss them and pretend that your company is well and healthy and growing. Listen and act. It costs nothing to listen and analyze and ponder and consider. Right now, those who make those decisions are refusing to listen.

In the negotiating example I used in this article, the story ends with the company middle manager pleading with his corporate boss to give him just a little more to get the newsroom leader they want and need. Instead of listening, the middle manager got an angry and rude rebuttal along with an emphatic “no” with no explanation. That is not listening. It’s not leading. It’s not managing.

So, now instead of #thegreatresignation, let’s make this hashtag go viral in the broadcast and digital news world. #listenandletsgrowtogether

Management By Crisis in Broadcast Journalism

Everyday there is a new post on LinkedIn lamenting the great exodus going on in TV and Digital newsrooms nationwide. People are packing up their backpacks and leaving the profession claiming burnout and a lack of respect by those who own and run those newsrooms. News organizations are having trouble finding people to take their place. It’s a “crisis”.

It’s not surprising. It’s what I call “Management by Crisis”. For years, in the broadcasting and journalism world, workers have been talking about how salaries are shrinking and workloads are increasing. Changes in technology and the new demands of social media to share journalism are stretching journalists to the limit. At the same time, newsroom salaries and benefits are being pulled off the table. There is a “take it or leave it” attitude among some managers and owners, so producers and reporters and photographers and anchors and writers are deciding to leave it. The crisis is real.

Here is why I call it “Management by Crisis”. Some managers could see this coming. Just like a faulty roof with a forecast of heavy rain. They knew as soon as the rain began, the roof would start leaking. Some tried and tried to get the attention of their division managers or corporate leaders, and some listened. The ones who tried to be proactive were forced to implement cuts anyway. Some even were forced to add newscasts or web duties but added no additional staff. However, some ignored the warnings of a coming crisis. They didn’t want to be the ones who asked the owners or the CEO for more money to fix the roof before it began leaking. Maybe, they were hoping by the time the leaking started, they would be able to blame someone else for the problem.

Well, the problem is here in TV and digital newsrooms now and we are all screaming “crisis”! The major media companies are having emergency meetings to deal with it. They are begging for middle managers to come up with solutions. Some are scratching their heads wondering how this could happen, when some who saw it coming kept quiet. That’s management by crisis, wait until the ceiling starts leaking before responding and fixing it.

This latest leak will be stopped. There are some very smart veterans who are working on solutions for this crisis. If you are one of them, let’s all work together to find a way out. But, what’s the next leak? Will we fix this one but then cause another crisis with the solution?

Listen to your middle managers and your workers. Ask them how they can do their job better and safer and easier and then act. Don’t fall into the “Management by Crisis” trap. Recognize the crisis before it hurts your people, your station, your organization or the profession. Let’s fix this one and learn from it.

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.