Shooting better interviews as a solo journalist

Mitch Pittman hates excuses. Think a multimedia journalist can’t do the job as well as a two-person crew? Baloney, says Pittman, and he’s out to prove it.

Take the common complaint that people interviewed by solo journalists’ face the same screen direction.  That’s because most MMJs are afraid of standing on the “blind” side of the camera where they can’t see how the interview is framed in the flip-down screen.

One of Pittman’s solutions is to shoot “blind side” when he’s talking to people who are accustomed to being on camera, like officials and PIOs. But what if you’re talking to “ordinary people?”

If everyone you’re talking to is a TV newbie, then you just have to read them as you’re chatting before the interview. “Does this person know how to stand still?” Don’t be afraid to politely say to people, “Hey, since it’s just me over here, try to keep your feet as still as possible.” This will keep them in frame. Or, can you have them sitting in a non-rolling  chair? Can you lean them up against their pickup truck? Anything to keep them still.

As an MMJ, Pittman tells TV News Storytellers, he moves the camera a lot to change the framing on interviews. As soon as he hears a good sound bite he’s pretty sure he’ll use, he changes the shot. That way, he’s not stuck with a bunch of bites from the same person that all look the same. And reframing also helps in editing.

As you’re logging…you can just find the places where your shot moves, rewind a little bit, and log that bite instead of listening to the whole thing in a time crunch. We’re shooting, writing, and editing ALL AT THE SAME TIME. Beautiful.

Here’s what it looks like, in a story Pittman shot for KSTP-TV in Minneapolis.

Just five years out of college, Pittman has already worked in two of the top TV news markets in the country–Minneapolis and Seattle, where he’s now a solo journalist at KOMO-TV. One final tip: if you want to shoot this way, Pittman says, “you need to know how to operate your camera inside and out with your eyes closed.”

Remember, no excuses!


Avoid the pack

When you’re just starting out as a TV journalist, one of the hardest things to do when you’re on assignment is to strike out on your own. If you hang around with the other reporters, the thinking goes, you’ll learn from what they do and you won’t miss the big story. Or will you?

Matt Mrozinski, chief photojournalist at WTHR-TV in Indianapolis, says breaking free of the “gaggle” can be the best way to find the real story. On one assignment, for example, while everyone else waited by a command post Mrozinski says he was out with volunteers looking for a missing child. I imagine he got much better video and sound than his competitors.

If you just can’t pull away, Mrozinsky writes on his TV News Storytellers site, at least take time to look around.

The next time you’re at a crime scene, take a look at the cameras that line the yellow tape and rarely ever leave.  If they would just glance over their shoulder, the story is behind them.  People are waiting to model your wireless lav and are glimmering with reactions and moments.

When I share similar advice with journalists, I urge them to “do a 360″–turn all the way around to make sure they’re not missing something better than what they’re getting. You’d be surprised how often that simple technique turns up something unexpected and memorable.

Here’s an example. Reporter Brahm Resnik of KPNX-TV in Phoenix was covering a news conference on the results of a court case blocking the state’s governor from denying driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Instead of focusing only on the podium, he turned his attention to the audience.

“I saw several people crying. I pulled one of the gals outside and she again couldn’t stop crying, she was so happy, thrilled that it had happened,” he told  Talk to people one-on-one, he says, and you’ll get a better story.

You don’t want the sound of a somebody standing at a podium, you want to talk to people away from that….At news conferences, always, always be observant for the person you think would be a great one-on-one. Otherwise they’re just performers; they’re reading from a script.

Try it, and see if you don’t agree.


New edition now available

wenger3eNew…and improved! The third edition of Advancing the Story has just been published by CQ Press and is available for pre-order at Amazon. If you’ve used an earlier edition,  you’ll see that we’ve added a separate chapter on TV producing and renamed some other chapters as we restructured the text. Our goal is to make it easy to find material either thematically (writing, storytelling and producing) or by medium (broadcast and multimedia).

We’ve included lots of new material as well, especially in the realms of social media, mobile journalism and ethics.

Pardon us for tooting our own horns, but we’re excited that the revisions we’ve been working on for more than a year are now in print. Isn’t the new cover great?

We hope you’ll like the book. Please do let us know what you think.



Advice from a multimedia journalist

Study, study, study! That’s just one tip from Nina Terrero, who covers pop culture and entertainment for Entertainment Weekly and NBC’s Today Show. But she’s not talking about what you should do in school. Terrero told the Huffington Post that she preps for interviews the way she did for the SATs.

I try to read as much as possible about my subject in preparation for an interview, and when applicable, watch their movies or TV shows. You want to be knowledgeable about your subject so you can roll with the punches and be as relaxed as possible during your interviews.

As a multimedia journalist, Terrero says she does have one fear–of being a jack of all trades and master of none.

I feel comfortable using a variety of social media platforms, digital tools and traditional means of communicating a story, and I get a huge amount of satisfaction from choosing whether I should share a story on video, tweet out a short report, do a broadcast segment or write a magazine story on said topic. But there’s always the sneaky suspicion: am I doing this the best way I can?… Being able to report in a variety of mediums is a privilege — but keeping up with your skill set in all areas can be a challenge.

Terrero got her start as an intern at Fox News where she learned how to translate broadcast content online. She also learned what she calls a valuable lesson, “that one of the keys to being successful in the business is being visible.” She had a quiet cubicle to work in but she decided to spend at least half her time in the newsroom, where she could meet people and they could get to know her.

Volunteering for assignments wasn’t enough…building relationships would ultimately be what got me to the next step. That’s true in any news job — and to some extent, every job. Raise your hand and volunteer away — but remember, your relationships with people are what ultimately adds value to your [career] in this industry. They’re the ones that can vouch for you, give you assignments, and mentor you – and that was something I couldn’t necessarily get sitting in that cube.

Great advice!


New opportunities for multimedia journalism

One downside of social media like Twitter and Facebook is the way information has to be compressed. The more popular these platforms have become, the more journalists have feared the extinction of something many of them hold dear: long-form storytelling.

But digital technology doesn’t only value brevity over depth. It also opens the door to new story forms, like the BBC’s immersive account of a murder mystery in Iceland. Not every story is suited to this kind of treatment, of course; it takes a multimedia mindset to figure out what will work and what won’t.

Giles Wilson, features editor for BBC News Online, told a recent workshop that one critical decision is how long a story needs to be. Just because the Internet is bottomless doesn’t mean your story should go on forever. “It doesn’t have to be massively long,” he said, “it just has to be good.” Two of the BBC’s most popular long-form stories have run between 3,000 and 6,000 words.

Projects like this take teamwork, Wilson says.

It’s possible you might have a Renaissance journalist who will find the story, do the research, do the interviews, the filming, photography and stitch it together with the right narrative arc and editorial authority. It’s possible that you have someone like that but more likely not. In our experience you need teams.

Another key decision is how to handle video.  “Is the video there as illustration, or is it part of the storytelling?” Wilson asked. “You don’t want to see the join. You want it to be a true multimedia experience where you don’t see the join between the text and the video.”

To accomplish the goal of seamless storytelling, the Iceland story uses a technique that owes a lot to TV news. At a couple of points, the text poses a question: “Where was the body?” or “Why did he confess?” Video is then embedded, much the way a sound bite would be inserted in a TV story.

The BBC uses Shorthand for its immersive stories.  Take a look at some of their projects and see what you think.



15 pieces of advice for journalists

AdviceSometimes you stumble across something that’s just so good, you have to share it.  After spending a lot of years with interns and young reporters, the Arkansas Times posted musings from a columnist with 15 pieces of sage advice for young (and old?) journalists.  Some are nitty-gritty reporting tips, while others are big picture pronouncements, but all are pretty much spot on.

Warning:  It’s a little “homespun” at times, but that’s part of the charm.

Here’s the list:

1) They can cuss you, but they can’t eat you.

2) Follow the money.

3) Follow the condescension.

4) About 85 percent of the time, you can find a phone number for any person in America by Googling their name in quotes, followed by the area code, in parentheses — (501) for example — of where they live.

5) When reporting in a small town, talk to the woman at the laundromat. They’ve got nothing but time, and they seem to know everything. Some of the most insightful quotes The Observer has ever published were collected while socks and boxer shorts spun in a nearby dryer.

6) The story is not about you, stupid. Shut up and listen.

7) At the end of the answer to a particularly hard question, count to five, medium-slow, before you ask the next one. If it’s a REALLY hard question, count to eight. Sometimes the whole truth gets stuck behind a person’s teeth, and it takes a little silence to coax it out.

8) Record the interview, or take good notes. Sometimes a sentence that doesn’t seem important enough to bother writing down turns out to be the key to a person’s whole life when you step back and look at them in full.

9) Even if the guy’s name is Dave Johnson, get him to spell it. There aren’t many D’havf Geonsaans floating around out there, but if you’re a reporter, you will eventually find one.

10) When they offer, accept the glass of water. Water’s close enough to free for gubmint work, and besides: It’s not really about the water.

11) Don’t take that smartphone in your pocket as an excuse to avoid stopping for directions. You can get a lot of good stuff while asking for directions.

12) When reporting on something that seems unfathomably big, the trick is to focus on something very small. Few people want to read long, War College dissertations on troop movements. Lots of people, on the other hand, want to read about a soldier praying in a foxhole — how he survived, why he stayed, how he found the thread of his life again once the war was over.

13) Buy your photographer breakfast every once in awhile, and keep your ass out of the shot.

14) Even crazy people are right sometimes. Resist the urge to hang up when they start talking about conspiracies.

15) Write the correction, get drunk and move on, penitent.


Getting on-air when you’re hired behind the scenes

It’s a dilemma faced by many on the hunt for a reporting or anchoring job.  Do you take an off-air position as a producer or work on the website to get your foot in the door?  Or do you reject any opportunity that doesn’t involve doing your dream job?

Talent coach Nick Dalley says there are variables to consider.

“Does the ND see such a transition in the cards at all? Does he/she have something personal against non on-air people becoming on-air  — that is, has it been tried before with unsuccessful consequences?” asks Dalley.

WTVA news director Dave Beech says producers can become excellent reporters.  Photo by Christina Jones.

WTVA news director Dave Beech says producers can become excellent reporters. Photo by Christina Jones.

Dave Beech is news director at WTVA in Tupelo, Mississippi.  He says working an off-air job first can be a bonus.

“I have always found in my career that reporters who start off as producers, for two or three years, make the best reporters and the best producers start off as reporters ,” said Beech, “A really good producer has that reporting background and the really good reporters have that producing background. “

Another variable is the candidate’s approach to the job, according to Dalley.  Are you the type of person who is willing to go over and above consistently so as to make yourself attractive?  That may mean coming in early, staying late and illustrating qualities that will make you seem seem indispensable.

That’s what Christina Garcia did when she was hired as a Web producer at WLOX-TV in Biloxi, Mississippi.  Her background was in print journalism at the University of South Alabama, but she had interned at WKRG in Mobile and got the job at WLOX in 2011.  From that moment on, she tried to learn every job in the newsroom to make herself a more valuable employee.

“While I was working as a Web producer, I would put in extra time on my weekends, I would go out with the reporters, I would sit and watch the anchors and I would sit and learn everything I possibly could,’ said Garcia.

Garcia is now anchoring the 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts, and Dalley says her path is one other job candidates can walk.

“Keep your axe sharp. Meet the talent coach. As a talent coach, it’s always impressive to me to have someone come up and ask for five minutes of feedback. I rarely refuse if it’s at all possible,” said Dalley.  “Short of this, ask people who did get coaching what the coach went over in the session. Ask for coaching from the ND or the EP.  Sometimes five minutes can be very effective.”

Dalley says it’s also important to keep lines of communication open with the news director — make sure he or she knows of your aspirations.

“Overall, I think it’s a good idea to have a strategy,” Dalley said.  “… give oneself a time-limit to achieve benchmarks. If the goal isn’t being reached, it may have nothing to do with the newcomer, it may have to do with things that are completely out of his/her control.  At the point it’s apparent that the goal just can’t be reached at this particular station no matter what, it’s time to move on.”

Garcia was so busy that Dr. Nancy Dupont, who contributed to this post, had to talk to her while she was putting on makeup for the 6’clock show with meteorologist Mike Reader.  WTVA producer intern Christina Sallis also contributed to this post.


The importance of follow-up questions

News conferences are part of every journalist’s work life. Some reporters can’t go a week without covering several–largely because the newsmakers on their beat hold group sessions regularly but rarely schedule one-on-ones.

It’s not easy to get good material from a news conference, but some journalists are skilled at it. What’s their secret? Good follow-ups.

Bob Holt (above right, in blue shirt) covers sports for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and is known as the king of the follow-up. If he doesn’t get a good answer to a question, “he’ll ask it three or four different ways,” Ron Higgins of the New Orleans Times-Picayune told  

There’s a fine line between pressing for an answer and just hogging time, but Holt appears to have avoided alienating his colleagues by combining a “folksy Midwest charm and aggressive interviewing methods.”

People kind of make fun of me for, I don’t know, wearing people down. I’m not comparing myself to [late CBS newsman] Mike Wallace at all, but if you ask someone enough questions … I just have a natural curiosity that I think every reporter should have. I just like to ask questions.

Those questions are carefully researched and planned, and that’s the real key to Holt’s success. He also packs a lot of confidence and doesn’t take it personally when a coach takes offense at a question.

My thing is if a coach will give me access, then I don’t mean he can kick me in the face or anything, but if I have access, I don’t mind a coach unloading on me. As long as there’s a give and take to it. As a matter of fact, a lot of times it can be pretty healthy.

After more than 30 years on the sports beat, Holt has earned the right to ask more than one follow-up. The next time you cover a news conference, take note of the best answers and then look at the question that led to the answer. There’s an art to asking productive questions, and it can be learned.


5 things I wish I knew when I started my TV news producer career

WDAMProducerOne of the most popular pieces on the Fast Company website right now offers up nine pieces of advice for someone just getting started in a career.  It’s worth the read if you’re a recent grad looking for work or are relatively new on the job.

Now, if that job you’re seeking is that of a newscast producer, Advancing the Story rounded up some advice that’s tailor made for you.

1.  It seems silly now, but until I started my first job, I don’t believe I fully understood the responsibility I have to viewers. That said, it took all of a day before it hit me like a brick. Whether it’s calls, emails, or Facebook comments, I quickly learned how deeply embedded viewers are in the news-gathering process,” said Miriam Cresswell, newscast producer at WAAY-TV in Huntsville, Alabama.  “As a producer, you’re not only a decision maker in the newsroom, but you’re also a decision maker within your community. The stories you choose, as well as how you choose to cover them, directly affect your viewers. Because of that, I have to continually ask myself, “Is this important to my viewers? What do they need to know? What would they want to know?” There’s a good bit of power in a producer’s hands, and if you want viewers to keep tuning in, you can’t take that lightly.”

2.  “I didn’t realize how stressful the producer role can be,” said Erica Davis, a producer for the 6 p.m. show at WDAM-TV in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. “If something goes down or goes wrong in the control room, you’re the first person people look at to fix it. Management and the other people working expect you to be the one to take care of any problems.”

She also thought the pay would be a bit better.  “Coming out of school, I was under the impression the producers made better money than reporters did. But honestly there isn’t much difference, and for the amount each does and the responsibilities of each, I was surprised to learn this.”

3.  “I knew as a producer I’d have to be a jack of all trades, but I didn’t realize how much. Daily I write, act as phone book for MMJs, stack the show, build graphics, run the TelePrompTer, edit video, and pull video from network,” said Brit Stack, the executive producer at KALB-TV in Alexandria, Louisiana. “There have also been times where I have had to go shoot video, haul boxes of paper for the printer, and I’ve even had to run the audio board once or twice, which is hilarious because it was of necessity and I had no clue what I was doing.”

4.  “One of the things I didn’t know that I definitely know now is the tremendous amount of responsibility that goes with producing,” said Doug Morris, a producer for the 5 p.m. newscast at WDAM.  He  also made the point that the producer must be the brains behind the whole operation.  “You’ve got to be the architect of the broadcast to look it over with a very sharp eye because missing any detail could lead to a mistake on air.”

5. “I  didn’t know anchors have different read rates,” said Tamara Hinton, a producer for the 10 p.m. show at WDAM. “Honestly I thought something like that wouldn’t have a big effect on the show, but it has a huge effect on the timing of the show which obviously the producers are trying to perfect for each show.”

So, what have we missed producers?  What do you wish you had known before getting into that control room for the first time?  We’d love to have your comments.

Thanks to newscast producer Pete Porter for his help in producing this post.