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 Al.com.  

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.



4 surefire tips for more effective TV writing

WXIIReporters usually get all the credit for great broadcast writing, but if you consider the amount of writing TV producers do in a single day, you’ll understand why we thought WXII-TV’s Executive Producer Brian Neal might have some good advice after years of writing and editing scripts in the Winston-Salem market.

1. Keep it short. Less is more. Many stories suffer from wordiness.  One of the worst offenders is any script written from a news release. “For example if you get a press release from Greensboro Police with maybe a minute’s worth of information, I guarantee maybe about 20 seconds of it’s going be relevant,” Neal said. Writing shorter sentences helps out the anchors, too – making the content easier to read and reducing the chances he or she stumbles over words.

2. Get to the point. Scripts should always be as conversational as possible. If you don’t usually hear certain words or details used in everyday conversation, it probably doesn’t have a place within a script. “The biggest mistakes I think some anchors and producers make is putting too many details in the story,” Neal said, “you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Is it absolutely essential to the story?’ ‘Do the viewers really need to know this?’”

3. No vague titles. “One word that I hate is officials, be more specific — who are the officials that you’re talking about,” Neal said. The facts are important.  Stories should be brief but informative. Unless there’s just a general spokesperson speaking on behalf of for example a city, the name should be included.

4. Reel in the viewers. It’s very important to grab the viewers’ attention at the very beginning of a story. “There should be creativity in the writing that makes it come alive…where you can get creative is the lead line of the story,” Neal said. The rest of the story can be just the facts, but the lead line is the most important line of the story, the most compelling, interesting detail of the story should be placed at the very beginning.

Thanks to University of Mississippi broadcast journalism student Gabriel Austin for this post.  Austin is interning at WXII-TV in Winston-Salem.


TV reporter tips for better storytelling


Rachel Beech is an investigative reporter for WDAM-TV in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Photo by Pete Porter.

The old inverted pyramid approach to storytelling — reporting the most important information first — is still a useful tool, especially in breaking news situations.  But creative reporters like to  change the approach to fit the content.  Rachel Beech at WDAM-TV in Hattiesburg, Mississippi says she has a favorite technique for writing feature stories.

“With the hourglass approach, I start off with something really interesting to pull my viewers in, narrow it down in the middle, and then at the end I have the explosion and deliver it,” said Beech. “Sometimes people in the business say put your most compelling video first, but I say put the most compelling video at the end because you want to keep those viewers waiting for that big conclusion.”

Research suggests that chronological stories — describing events in order of their occurrence — can also help viewers make sense of news reports, especially if they follow certain narrative rules.

The rules include:  letting emotions speak; slowing down the story’s tempo; using silence; focusing on concrete words and images and matching audio and video.

But how do you all that on a deadline?    Jeff Daley, a videographer and reporter for WDAM, says he begins to piece together the story in his head as he drives back to the station to help speed up the writing process.

“While I’m coming back with the story, I’m laying it out because I’ve listened,” said Daley. “When you’re at the scene, listen to your people and know what your sound bites are going to be. Once you pick the sound bites, write in your head what you want to come before that.”

Both reporters say one of the keys to turning stories quickly is to lay the groundwork with sources.  Daley says having a good working relationship with sources has often helped him get the jump on stories, earning him more time to work on the writing.

“I know the State Director for the Humane Society of the United States. Whenever they go out and do a raid on any of these puppy mills or people being abusive to a large number of animals, I’m the first one in the state to get the call to go.”

Beech and Daley also say good writing means focusing on what really matters to the narrative.

“Avoid the fluff and remember it’s not all about you, it’s about the person and about the story,” said Beech. “A lot of broadcasters forget that it’s about the person and they want to put themselves on TV 24/7. There will be several instances where you’re not going to be in a single shot because the best way to tell a story is to focus on your source.”

Thanks to producer intern Pete Porter for his contributions to this story.



Station says shorter stories serve audience better


At WXII-12 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the newsroom has been rethinking the way it delivers news to viewers on air, now that so many are consuming content on smartphones.

“The biggest change I would say from when I started in 2000 is the ability of people to get news and information now; it comes so quickly it’s just so much easier for people,” said Executive Producer Brian Neal.

Instead of teasing news stories throughout the day, the challenge has now become to keep the newsworthiness of stories alive until the show is aired. The stories on WXII are also much shorter on average, as news managers believe many viewers are quick to lose interest in longer pieces. Reporters have had to adjust.

“It’s changed a lot, I was used to doing packages when I started out in Miami, but here at WXII, it’s kind of a different format where everything is really condensed and everything is in a VOSOT-style — whether that’s a live or look-live VOSOT,” said reporter David Jeannot.

The upside for viewers is getting news in a way that’s conveniently fast-paced; however, with the brief stories some things may be lost.

“We’re thinking in the world we live in right now people get things quickly, so we want to give people information quickly,” said Neal. “The risk in that is you’re not giving people a lot of depth, you can tell almost any story in 20-25 seconds, but are you telling a better story?”

With the shorter pieces not being able to deliver all of the details, the station relies on technology. Viewers can use WXII’s social media and websites to get more information as they desire.

“We can use social media so that we can do those 25 second stories and say, ‘Hey, if you want more information on that story, go to our website or our Facebook page, so there is some value in throwing to your other resources’,” said Neal.

Neal also said he does believe that there is value left in putting together longer packages, as long as they are well done, so journalists still need to be able to produce in-depth stories.

This story was contributed by Gabriel Austin, a senior in broadcast journalism at the University of Mississippi.


Top 5 social media writing tips

It’s not hard to find a slew of articles on best practices for social media tweets and posts, but if you can only focus on five things, here’s where to start!

1.  Share “news.”
Before you say, “Duh!” — let us explain.  In addition to sharing pieces of information about any story you’re reporting, be sure to add value to other content you may share.  Vadim Lavrusik of Facebook says posts that include some interpretation are shared 20 percent more often than posts hat just state the facts.

2.  Add media.
Study after study finds that adding images — video and still – boosts engagement in posts.  People are more likely to favorite, share and like a post that incorporates multimedia.

3.  Ask away.
If you ask people for a response,  you’ll often get it.  Whether you’re looking for opinion, a source or for information to help you better cover a breaking story, the social media audience is ready to help.

4.  Consider quotes.
Quotes from newsmakers add interest and credibility to tweets and posts.  If you have a Twitter or Facebook user name for the source, be sure to include it.  You’ll not only alert the person quoted, but potentially add relevant background about that person for anyone who clicks on the name.

5.  Hashtag it.
Those hashtags are a form of shorthand for identifying tweets or posts with a specific topic.  Be sure to double check any you use to verify that they’re appropriate — and don’t overdo!  One or two per post is plenty.

Check out the screencast for some examples of these best practices in action.


5 easy ways to better produce an online story

writingonlineIt’s a rare TV newsroom that does not require its journalists to write a Web version of their stories.  Lynn Walsh, who produces multimedia for the Scripps National Digital Desk has done more than her fair share.

She offers some excellent tips for making sure those stories are viewed and enjoyed by more audience.  We’ve captured what we think is her best advice and supplemented it to create our Top 5.

1.  Think visuals

Don’t come back from the field without at least one good still shot from the scene.  You might take it with your smartphone or convert a video frame to a jpeg, but a story that includes a photo is going to look more attractive to the online viewer.

If your station embeds the video version of the story as part of the website template, that’s great.  However, if that’s not going to get posted for hours — consider shooting a little b-roll or an interview from the scene on your smartphone, so you can get that uploaded immediately with the first text.

2.  Love those links

The more relevant, bona fide links you have in your story, the more boost that piece will get in the search engines.  As Walsh says, “Always link back to original source documents, previous coverage and related stories. This is only going to help your SEO opportunities and create greater transparency for your users.”

In addition, you’ll want to give some time and attention to the story’s headline.  What keywords will people use to search Google for this story?  Use your best judgment and put those words in your headline.

3.  Invite the viewers

Let’s hope this post does a good job of incorporating online writing best practices.  We’ve created more white space by breaking the information down into a bulleted list.  We’ve kept our paragraphs relatively short — 1-2 sentences long, for the most part.

By making the text look accessible, we’ve made it easier for someone scanning for content, a common online reading practice.

4.  Add data and details

Most of the time, you’re going to uncover a lot more information about your story than you can ever use in the TV version, so make your online story richer by reporting more.  From the list of all the teachers getting awards to the specific crime stats for the neighborhood you’re covering, you can tell more of the story online, and you should make the time to do it.

5.  Get interactive

Now we’re getting greedy, but if you want to make that story the best it can be, consider making it more interactive.  If your story involves multiple locations, would a Google Map help the reader keep things straight?

If a timeline is the answer, a free and open source tool like TimelineJS is an option.  And if you want to make that data you’ve uncovered about the delays involved in building the new stadium easier to understand, Infogr.am is an amazing free and easy tool for creating interactive graphics.

It’s like your grandma always said, “There’s no sense doing a job, unless you’re going to do it right!”  So, improve those posts and start tracking your stats — then compare them to the last five stories you did before you began to optimize for online.  We’d love to hear what happens!  And thanks, Lynn Walsh, for getting us thinking about these issues.


Finding new online storytelling forms

The Internet is really still in its infancy, and according to USC’s Koci Hernandez, that means journalists still have time to help mold it as a storytelling platform.

“We have small opportunity while the Internet is still a baby to change the way things are done, presented or seen on this new creative platform,” says Hernandez.  “It’s not a single canvas anymore.  It’s not about the desktop, not about mobile – it’s about all these devices at once.  It’s not a single canvas, and we have to stop thinking about it like that.”

Instead, Hernandez urges journalists to check out sites like Pitchfork and The Verge, where people like Jonathan Harris are creating masterpieces of visual journalism.

“Find inspiration in places where you wouldn’t normally look; we have to avoid copying ourselves,” Hernandez says.

National Geographic’s project on the Serengeti lion is another must view, according to Hernandez – it combines images and word together in a way that he says may help reinvent the future.

“My charge is that we must experiment.  What can story be?  This is what I’m most inspired by; the Johnny Cash Project could not have been told without the Web.”

CashProjectThe website devoted to Johnny Cash invites users to take a single image of Cash and using a custom drawing tool, they create “personal portraits,” which are then incorporated into a video of a Cash performance – the community votes images up and down and the song itself is constantly changing as more people add their views.

This combination of knowledge, information and technology is what Hernandez hopes will lead to new narrative forms.  Though he admits that the journalism business is facing some real challenges, he says it boils down to one decision for individual journalists.

“Are you in or out?  I know I’m in.  I know I’m going to be doing this until the day I die,” says Hernandez.  “It’s not that I don’t worry about [the challenges]; it’s not that I’m not being entrepreneurial enough; there’s just no room for negativity to prevent me from doing what I want to do.  Right now, we have an opportunity to change, experiment and to play.”