If you want a job in television news, be a producer. At any given time, more than 20 percent of all the job ads posted by TV news outlets are for producers, but just a tiny fraction of journalism graduates have any producing experience at all.
Madi Van Zile is one of the exceptions. She took part in a newscast producing internship through the University of Mississippi, which led almost immediately to a full-time job at WTVA in Tupelo. With three months on the job now under her belt, Van Zile believes she’s identified five essential skills that a journalists needs to become a TV news producer.
- The first skill is one of the first lessons taught to everyone in their first journalism class: Know how to write a story. While the producer may not be the one going out to cover the story, he or she ultimately makes sure that what is being read by the anchors is easily understood by the audience. That means using short and concise sentences that an anchor can read clearly without stumbling and that are designed to keep the audience engaged.
- The second skill I believe all producers should have is another skill that every journalism graduate should be familiar with: Video editing. Nine times out of ten, the reporters will have their videos, VO/SOTs, VOs and packages edited for the producers before they leave for the day. However, when breaking news happens, the producer may have to take over, and even on a slow day, the producer may need to edit some tease footage or another element within the show.
- The third skill that I believe every producer should have is knowing how to stack a show. Stacking a show is at the very core of what a producer needs to know because producers decide which stories need to be put at the top of the newscast, which need to run later in the show or which need to be pulled altogether. For the 6 p.m. show, I focus primarily on local news and important information that people need to know for the rest of the day or for the next day. Hard news stories such as crime, localized national stories or breaking information usually make it to the top of my newscasts. On the flip side, small event stories or ‘fluff’ stories do not usually make it into the ‘A’ block (unless it is a really slow news day). There is no perfect way of telling a new producer a basic format of what stories should be at the top of each newscast every night. They have to get the feel of what they believe the viewers at home want and what feels natural for the station. It takes time and communication with each reporter, news manager and anchor in the early stages of being a producer to get the idea of what the new station wants to classify as ‘important.’
- Speaking of communication, every producer should have good communication skills. One of the first things I do every day when I walk into the newsroom is ask my reporters about the stories they are covering. Are they doing a live shot? Are they going to have enough information to turn it into a package? Have they communicated with their interviews? Do they need any extra equipment? If a producer just assumes that their reporters are fine and that they can just stack the show when the reporters return to the newsroom, they are surely mistaken. Communication continues throughout the day, but it’s a balancing act. If I call every five minutes for an update on their story, my reporters would not get anything done. A producer needs to find the happy middle between not communicating with his or her reporters and not trusting them.
- The last skill that I believe is essential is time management. For most stations around the county, their primetime newscasts usually run 30 minutes. A new producer might think that it is overwhelming trying to oversee every news story for the newscast. However, if one takes into consideration all the commercial breaks, weather and sports, an average 6 p.m. newscast only has around 10 minutes of news. That makes it all a little less daunting.
There is a reason why most students studying journalism go into reporting instead of producing. Being a news producer can seem extremely stressful, and though they are often unnoticed by the audience, if anything goes wrong, they are usually the first ones blamed. However, I would not have asked for anything else than what I am doing now: sitting in the booth, waiting for 6:00:00 to hit and to hear WTVA’s intro music for the start of another night’s newscast.
Madi Van Zile is a 2016 graduate of the Meek School of Journalism & New Media at the University of Mississippi.