Thursday, February 18, 2010

Nuts and Bolts - All Six of 'Em

"You're not here to make friends."

That was the first lesson I learned about the television business, passed down by my first news director at WTVQ, the ABC affiliate in Lexington, KY.

Jay Mitchell was one of the first reporters signed on by CNN when the cable network launched in Atlanta in 1980. In 1999, I found myself soaking up his wisdom first as a tape editor, and then as a news producer.

As news producer and weekend editorial decision maker, I had a tough time because I wanted to make everyone happy while accomplishing Job #1 - producing the 6 and 11 pm newscasts.

Mitchell taught me early on that the news business wasn't about making friends and being nice - it was about getting solid content on the air.

The second lesson he taught me: A news producer is going to get all of the blame, and none of the credit.

That's what happens when you're charged with managing the stress quotient of an air traffic controller while crafting a newscast of breaking news, compelling teases, a couple live shots and a clever kicker before the anchor desk says good night to the good people at home.

When that breaking news is slow to confirm, when a reporter inaccurately delivers a piece of information, when one of those live shots crashes - the producer is the one who has to take the blame/explain what happened/cry herself to sleep at the end of the night because the other 97 details went on the air flawlessly and unnoticed (see also: Holly Hunter's spot-on performance in Broadcast News).

The flip side to this paradigm is this: the producer rarely gets the credit when something goes spectacularly well. An ace story lead or source? The reporter will get the glory on that one. A clever "prop" and perspective moment for an anchor? The anchor will get a nod.

The producer almost never gets any credit.

It's a scenario I got used to and am actually almost more comfortable with these days. I'd prefer to stay behind the scenes and orchestrate the moment rather than be the one to get the acclaim/attention/affection for something.

It's just the way it is.

Jay Mitchell was succeeded by David Foky, also an experienced newsman who happened to pass on a couple nuggets of his own.

It's not as important to be first as it is to be best and most accurate. The TV news business is fiercely competitive - whereas some towns only have one daily newspaper, almost every city has at least three, if not four network affiliates. Those newsrooms fight tooth and nail to unfurl a breaking news story - some stations rush to air news and fail to fill in all the facts (and even occasionally air inaccurate information in their haste). Other newsrooms hit the air minutes or hours later but present a more comprehensive picture to the viewer.

Foky taught me that it's not about who gets on air first to report the breaker - the kudos go to the one who respects the story and tells it well.

Speaking of telling it well, Foky also showed me the words you choose are the difference between presenting a report of crime blotter scrim and a descriptive piece that connects with the viewer and compels the viewer to think/take action/feel.

The crux of storytelling relies on good words.

Several years later, I packed up my junk, left the heart of the Bluegrass and headed back to Cincinnati - my childhood home and the home of Local 12. News Director Elbert Tucker offered me a job at WKRC, the same hallowed halls - literal or otherwise - where Nick Clooney, Ira Joe Fisher, Edie Magnus and even Rod Serling (yes, that Rod Serling) worked in different capacities.

Tucker taught me my fifth rule of TV news while we sat around the morning editorial meeting.

"What are people talking about?"

The answer to that question will likely lead you to discover an element that is a must-run in one of your daily newscasts.

It doesn't matter what it is - if people are talking about the Delhi Skirt Game or a horrific missing child case-turned murder in Clermont County - that's a story that warrants coverage in some capacity. It's a question that any journalist worth their teeth asks his or herself every morning as they head in to the office. If they're not asking that question, they're missing a major part of local news.

Which brings me to my final lesson learned about television news. Tucker didn't necessarily school me on the concept of Local, Local, Local, but he certainly was the one news director who made a concerted effort to drive home what's important to the viewer at home.

Whether it was in Lexington or Cincinnati, my day consisted of combing any number of local, online newspapers (at one point in Cincinnati, I think it was about 30), listening to the police scanner, making beat calls, calling up contacts and sifting through press releases.

Most local newcasts don't have much use for national news, save for something monumental or completely outside-of-the-box.

I think my favorite international news discovery still goes down as the one about how people in Asia were "recycling" used condoms by cutting them up into rubber bands and wearing them in their hair.

Yes. That was a real story. I ran it in my 4 PM newscast, and Cammy Dierking read it.

But I digress.

Local TV news is, for the most part, hyper local. It gets caught up sometimes in the fleeting drama of a robbery/shooting/car crash du jour, but for the most part, it's about stories that affect your neighborhood, or your mom's, or your co-worker's or your frenemy's.

Gosh, thinking back to those days gets my blood boiling, and that's kind of why I left.

Life's too short to get stressed out over chicken salad - or chicken shit.


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4 comments:

Donald said...

It's a scenario I got used to and am actually almost more comfortable with these days. I'd prefer to stay behind the scenes and orchestrate the moment rather than be the one to get the acclaim/attention/affection for something.

Not that I get a vote, but I think that's a bad decision on your part. I ended up on TV for 10 seconds last night, but only because Fox 19 couldn't find you. And judging from the last time I saw you on TV, you're a much more capable--and telegenic--champion for whatever cause your advocating than I'll ever be.

Donald said...

Bah. That should be "you're advocating," of course.

Chrissy said...

I think that statement crosses all professions... I worked in the banking industry and it applies there as well..wherever there is competition...

Leslie aka "MissusSmartyPants" said...

Good post. This job could be how any profession can make you feel. Overwhelmed.

You learn some hard lessons and move on w/ the knowledge of what you want in a job & what you don't want....

Silly would be the one who continues to cover the "chicken shit" story over and over again!