NBC’s Bob Dotson has what many television reporters consider their dream job. He travels the country, finding and telling engaging stories about “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” In a new edition of his book, American Story, to be released tomorrow, Dotson shares his own story, explaining how he made that job what it is today.
Young people, longing for a more exciting job, always ask me how I got mine. They want to travel the country on someone else’s nickel, “looking for interesting people, taking all the time you need.”
This is what I tell them: Back when I started writing for the Today Show, my American Stories couldn’t run longer than a minute ten. They aired in a newscast and the length had to be short. So I spent a year doing 59-second stories. Never asked for more time. When everyone else begged for an additional ten seconds, I gave ten seconds back. Meanwhile, I searched for the tale worth more time.
A year later, I went to my boss and said, “Could I have a couple of minutes to do a special piece?” And he said, “You can have four minutes.” That’s blockbuster movie length in TV news, but I had earned a reputation for doing a good job without complaining, so my boss took a risk that I would use the extra time well. We all have to do the work someone hires us to do, but we can polish our skills until that work shines and the folks who sign paychecks see the best we can do.
Dotson’s back story reminds me of the advice I once heard from Lane Michaelsen, a former TV photographer who is now a news director. He’d tell young journalists that every time they exceed expectations–turning a story early, for example, or picking up an extra vo/sot–they get the equivalent of a penny in a jar. Over time, those pennies pile up. And one day, when you need more time to develop a story or to tell it, you get to cash in the pennies.
And then? You start earning pennies again.
Words from the wise.