Five tips for gathering better video and sound

By Bob Gould

I teach broadcast news at Michigan State and one day last year I decided to take the students out and shoot a story with the students watching me work. I figured it was much easier to SHOW them as opposed to just telling them. So, the story was about a contest for MSU students to win season tickets to the student basketball section (called, The Izzone, in honor of coach Tom Izzo–they are hard to get). All they had to do was make a halfcourt shot on a makeshift outdoor grass court and the season ticket was theirs.

Here’s the story.

There were several things the students took away from watching me.

1. They couldn’t believe how CLOSE I would get to people and how unfazed the subjects were when I did. They are horrified by getting close ups like this. It’s important to break the perimeter of the story and get fully inside. By doing this you have a better chance of bringing the story home. I use the phrase, “Take me There, Make me Care.” If you stay too far away, it will feel to the viewer as if we are watching from afar.

2. They also didn’t realize how important it was to just start asking questions on camera without first asking them if they would do “an interview.” You will see in the piece that I talk to students in their element and not pulling them aside. Doing this would ruin the heat of the moment.

3. It’s sometimes better to be lucky than good, but you need to know how to use the luck to your advantage and not screw it up. Coach Izzo showed up about halfway through our shoot. I didn’t know he was going to be there. He’s a charismatic guy that connects emotionally with everyone. The event lasted all day, but he happened to arrive during the hour we were there. I used it to my advantage. The students were upset with me, saying that they would never get that lucky.

4. A wireless mic is the best tool in your bag. I can’t stress it enough. I used it along with my shotgun mic to get good clean sound. The students were amazed at how I asked Izzo to put the mic on without hesitation. He asked what we were doing and I said this was a class. He was floored that a class would be doing this. He gladly put the mic on. I told the students that you have to be aggressive in asking people to put the mic on people like that. They are all afraid to ask and I said that the worst thing he would say is no. I got great sound with him with that wireless. I also used the wireless to get good clean nats throughout the shoot.

5. There are two different possible outcomes for this story. One of jubilation if they miss the shot and go away empty handed and one of disappointment when they don’t make it. It doesn’t necessarily matter which you get, because sometimes stories don’t have tidy endings and sometimes the story is better when they DON’T end happy.


How to land a dream job

Bob Dotson youngNBC’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.



Mobile newsgathering works for covering winter storms

When ice covers the roads, it can be just as hard for news crews to get around as it is for the general public.  So, reporter Margaret Ann Morgan and some of her colleagues at Raycom-owned WDAM in Hattiesburg, Miss. got serious about newsgathering with their smartphones during their recent encounter with winter.

“Last week was the first time that 95 percent of what I did was all from my iPhone,” said Morgan.

With traveling into the station to get gear not a speedy enough option, Morgan says they had to get creative with how they would put together the newscast.

“I was scraping the ice off of my car Tuesday morning and realized, ‘Hey, this would be some great nat sound!’ So I pulled out my iPhone and started recording. I was able to put it into Oasis straight from my phone, and we — and other stations – used it for the newscasts that day.”

Once she got going, Morgan said it just made sense to continue.

“Everything I did, including whips, SOTs, etc., was done straight from my iPhone for three consecutive days.”

These days, mobile newsgathering is synonymous with social media sharing in many newsrooms.  Morgan says she was posting, sharing, retweeting and “just glued” to her phone for the duration of the story.

“This brought me more interaction with viewers via Twitter and Facebook than I’ve had since I started working here. They knew I was an up-to-second source for road closures, etc., so they began to tweet at me directly to ask info, and I was able to share it with them and the rest of the world.”

Morgan’s experience is a great example of the saying that, “Sometimes the best newsgathering tool is the one in your hand.”


TV News: Good news, bad news about audience growth

At Poynter’s Future of News Conference, the Pew Research Center’s Paul Taylor said that — once again — the younger they are, the less they watch.

…researchers in 2012 asked consumers how many minutes they devoted to taking in the news the day before. While the Silent Generation spent 84 minutes with the news, Boomers devoted 77 minutes and Gen Xers reported 66 minutes, Millennials said they spent just 46 minutes consuming news — a figure that hasn’t changed appreciably since 2004.

It’s long been assumed that once someone ages, he or she is more likely to get interested in news, but Taylor says this “life cycle” effect doesn’t actually have scientific support.

So, getting young people hooked on TV news may actually be getting harder, but additional research from Pew does make for some short-term optimism.

…the audience for local TV news grew in all three major time slots in 2013. Viewership climbed 6% in the morning (5 to 7 a.m.) and 3% in the early evening (5 to 7 p.m.) newscasts, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis. The audience barely edged up—by .1%—in the late night slot (11 p.m.), a newscast that had suffered the biggest decreases in recent years.

The repPewViewershiport suggests that significant news events during sweeps periods, such as tornadoes, floods and the health care website controversy in November, may have prompted some of the improvement in audience numbers.

Whatever the reason, TV news organizations have a reason to go into the February sweeps period with a bit cheerier outlook.

Television remains the No. 1 source of news for Americans with 71 percent indicating that they watch local newscasts, according to Pew.

Graphic courtesy of




How journalists track what’s new in social media tools

Social Media ExaminerEvery time you turn around, it seems like there are new social media tools to try out.  From Rebel Mouse to Storyful Multisearch, they just seem to keep coming.  For journalists, it’s important to keep up with what’s going on in the social media space and to do it as efficiently as possible.

At Hearst Television, Judy Stone has the title of executive digital media product manager.  Part of her team’s job is to be sure they’re not missing a social media opportunity.

“We like Mashable, Inside Facebook, and Social Media Examiner. Mashable especially is a dependable resource for news business, technology, social media, etc.,” Stone said.

At Townsquare Media, digital managing editor Lauren Zimmerman agrees on the relevance of Mashable, but has a few more strategies for staying current.

“I also find it helpful to follow the game-changers in social media,” Zimmerman said.  “I follow Mark Zuckerberg and Vadim Lavrusik on Facebook because they often post about changes they’re making to the site. Although the founders and employees of other social media companies aren’t as well-known, if you can manage to find and follow the decision makers, it’s helpful to get a first-hand account of changes.”

Steve Safran is a social media consultant with a long career working in broadcasting and online.  He says he uses social media to monitor social media.

“Five years ago I would have listed the sites I visit in order to keep up on what’s happening in the news industry. Now I have no idea,” said Safran. “What I mean by that is that I visit stories, not sites. Social media points me toward stories I will find interesting. I don’t really care who has the information, as long as they’re credible.”

Stone says that, wherever you get your information, you need to make sure you’re thoughtful about which social media tools or strategies you buy into.

“We know doing our own research and testing is essential before making big changes.  Again, don’t jump at every shiny new social toy or you’ll wear yourself out and spread yourself thin.  When a promising new tool comes along and testing proves its helpfulness, indeed fast adaptation is critical.”



Storytelling the Bob Dotson way

Bob Dotson photo by Linda Dotson

NBC’s Bob Dotson has never been one to follow the herd. He’s built a career out of telling the stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things on his American Story franchise for the Today Show. How did he get where he is?  “I think almost every break I got in this business is something I started on my own time,” Dotson told News Photographer magazine.

He shot his first documentary for WKY television in Oklahoma on his own time. “They just gave me film,” he says. He wound up producing 19 docs before leaving the station for the network in 1975.

“Success in this business is not a question of being dealt a good hand,” Dotson says. “It’s playing a bad hand well over and over and over again.”

Dotson has played his hand so well he now has the kind of job many TV journalists envy. He has the luxury of time to discover and report feature stories. He gets more time on the air to tell them. But he firmly believes great stories can be told without those advantages. The key is to excel within the limitations you face, he says, whatever they are.

You may not have a chance or even the desire to be a feature reporter, but you can still apply Dotson’s approach to visual storytelling in your own work. Thanks to Bob Kaplitz of AR&D for annotating one of Dotson’s stories to spotlight his techniques.

Post originally published at NewsLab


Interviewing tips to get vivid sound bites


The elements of engaging stories are universal: strong characters, plot, beginning-middle-end, tension, surprise, resolution. What’s more, they’re central to every kind of story, not just features. Just ask investigative reporter Daniel Zwerdling, who has reported on everything from pesticides to mental health in his 30 plus years at NPR. “You can do the greatest investigation of all time and dig up a gazillion important facts–but if you don’t tell a great story, nobody will listen,” Zwerdling writes in the IRE Journal.

One of Zwerdling’s goals is to get his characters to tell their own compelling stories, and he admits that can be a challenge, especially for broadcast. I’m willing to bet that most of us have interviewed people who couldn’t seem to make even a dramatic story interesting to save their lives. What you really want is “a gripping and detailed anecdote–the incident that best illustrates the conflict, or a turning point, or an aha moment in a larger story,” says Zwerdling. And that takes work.

So how does Zwerdling do it? Here are four techniques he uses to get people to recount an anecdote in vivid detail.

1. Mapping. Using an approach he credits to veteran newspaper editor Bill Marimow, Zwerdling asks the subject to draw a map of what happened: Where was he or she sitting, where was everyone else? “It helps spark…memories deep in the recesses of their brains–and suddenly, rich details come flooding back.”

2. Hypnotizing. Credited to investigative reporter Eric Nalder, this approach also is designed to put the person back into the situation you want him or her to describe. Zwerdling begins with the basic details: Day, time of day, weather, and so on. “These mundane details help show me whether my character is truly remembering the incident or making it up.”

3. Conversation. Zwerdling may ask how the character shared the incident with someone else at the time, a spouse or a friend.

4. Dreams. “When subjects seem really stuck in telling a dry, lifeless version of the incident, I’ll try this: ‘Have you dreamed about this incident? Tell me about it.’”

The bottom line? Asking the right questions can help people tell their their own stories in vivid language, making the one you tell on the air far more memorable. And if the questions fail, just be direct and explain to the people you interview why the telling of the story matters so much. “You’ve got to remember, my listeners are driving in the car, they’re making dinner for their family,” Zwerdling tells subjects. “They’re distracted – you’ve got to grab them and tell them, ‘Folks, THIS is what happened. This is why it’s important!’ And then they kind of get into it.”

Zwerdling also goes out of his way to make people comfortable with his radio gear before beginning an interview. He told the Nieman Storyboard he’ll even scratch his back with the microphone, anything to show it’s really just an extension of his body. None of his “tricks of the trade” would work, however, if he didn’t care deeply about the answers.

The most important thing about interviewing is that you, the interviewer, be really interested in what these people have to say. Genuinely interested. If children can spot a phony from a mile away, adults can, too. If you come in with some kind of persona that’s not you, then nothing will happen.

Here’s an example of Zwerdling’s work, Suicide by Cop, one of a series of stories he’s done about traumatic brain injuries suffered by Iraq war veterans. It’s long, but well worth your time.

Post originally published at NewsLab


Expectations for digital journalists

For all the gloom and doom you hear about the future of the news business, new opportunities seem to pop up all the time. Take the job Holly Edgell has at WCPO, the Scripps-owned television station in Cincinnati, Ohio. She’s the “community editor” for WCPO-Digital, a new position that puts her in charge of social media strategy and hyper-local digital news. She’s also been charged with fostering the integration of web and TV content.

The station has a staff of seven “digital first” reporters covering beats like business, education, crime and courts. They’re primarily responsible for feeding stories to the web and mobile sites, but that content may also go on air. “One of my jobs has been to identify the stories that need to be on TV,” Edgell says,”supplementing what [the digital first reporters] are doing in terms of breaking news or scoops, and then deconstructing them in a way that may make sense for TV.”

Edgell has a say in who gets hired for digital journalism jobs at her station and she’s very clear about what she’s looking for.

Edgell’s station is trying lots of new things these days. WCPO is about to become the only local TV station so far to put much of its digital content behind a pay wall. This week, the site features an in-depth story on an unsolved murder, Exit 34, that’s an example of the kind of content the station will soon restrict to subscribers.


Better TV producing: The morning show

According to this year’s RTDNA survey, when TV stations add newscasts, they add morning shows.

The big winner was weekend mornings. Over 20% of the news directors who added newscasts listed Saturday morning, Sunday morning or both. Next came the early morning on weekdays, with the 4 am hour and 5 am hour each getting about 10% of all the additions.

WPTV morning executive producer Matthew Harris knows a lot about producing morning newscasts. He oversees 4.5 hours of morning news every weekday, supervising about 30 people, including multiple reporters and producers. He describes his job in three words.

“Interesting, trying and frustrating.”

Ch9-HarrisHarris says the job is interesting because every day is different.

“Like a lot of stations, we try to own the “Big Story,” says Harris. “We ask what are people talking about today and what do they need to know so they can leave the house informed?”

That part of the job can be trying when it’s 3:30 in the morning and the reporters don’t have as many options as they do during regular business hours.

“We have to figure out where are they going to be live and innovative in a way that tells the story; not standing in the dark in front of a courthouse or in front of police station,” Harris says.

The reporters seldom do packages, instead they work to come up with three important bullet points on the story and then tease ahead to the next hit.

“In the four and a half hours in the morning show, there may be 6 or 7 packages,” says Harris.  “The typical story count in one hour is 65 stories.”

Harris says morning show producers have to realize that people are tuning in all morning long.

“We stack the newscast backwards, we’ll put in a fast-paced block of news with a bigger story at the bottom of the hour.”

The morning block has also done a way with headlines and long pre-produced opens, concentrating more on live pictures and breaking news.

“Headlines were traditionally there to sell the newscast, but you don’t have to sell me if you already have something good.”

WPTV’s morning show strategy has been very successful for the station.  Yet, the sheer amount of content and people and platforms to manage can be frustrating, especially during breaking news.

“It’s not just TV,  it’s the website, mobile, Facebook and Twitter, your crawl,” says Harris.  “Then there’s moving crews, coaching the anchors and babysitting the control room.”

Of course, now we’re back to what makes producing morning news interesting.

“Today we had such a terrific morning; it was such a rush, we had breaking news and we really owned it,” Harris says.  “We had crazy wind with high tide and waves were crashing against the shore.  Right at the top at 4:30, we were already rolling with breaking news.  That’s the thrill of producing; you’re the puppeteer behind all that.”


Ethics made simple

Ethics code Temple

The news business seems to get more complicated all the time. Journalists are expected to work faster, file more often and serve more outlets. With less time to think, mistakes can happen and errors can be costly. News outlets lose credibility; journalists can lose their jobs.

The recent case involving the venerable CBS News program 60 Minutes is just the latest ethical lapse to make headlines. Reporter Lara Logan and producer Max McClellan were ordered to take a leave of absence after an internal investigation determined their story about a terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, was “deficient in several respects.” Their critical error was to ignore information that should have made them doubt their key source.

If two experienced professionals can get caught in an ethical morass, how can student journalists avoid missteps? Temple University’s School of Media and Communication offers a road map in a new pocket ethics code (printable PDF) that breaks decision making into 10 steps: five dos and five don’ts.

The basics will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the SPJ Code of Ethics and the guide itself acknowledges that ethical decisions are rarely easy. But it does provide simple and highly practical explanations of what to do and what not to do. Under the heading “Do Tell the Truth,” the pamphlet offers advice that 60 Minutes would have been wise to follow.

…always report with the goal of 100 percent accuracy of all facts, quotes and ideas presented. Do not stop reporting when you are tired or bored, stop when there is nothing left to be uncovered or said.

All journalists should also pay attention to one of the don’ts: “Don’t Suffer in Silence.” The guide suggests that students ask a professor for help if they find themselves unsure of how to proceed while on assignment. I’d expand that advice to urge journalists to speak up about any ethical concerns, not just on stories they’re covering but whenever questions arise, whether in the field or in the newsroom.

It can take courage to challenge more experienced colleagues, and they won’t always listen. But I’d be willing to bet that the team at 60 Minutes wishes someone had waved a red flag vigorously enough to draw attention to the flaws in their story.