Once is faster than twice

Deadline, deadline, deadline. Absolutely, positively have to make it. Until you've been under that pressure, it's hard to explain the feeling. It can be overwhelming. But, in those situations, when you can almost physically feel every second tick by, it's important to remember to stay calm. The one thing you don't want to do is make a mistake you have to correct. So go slowly, methodically through all your steps in shooting, writing, editing and sending back to the station. Avoid making a mistake and having to repeat a step. Once is always faster than twice.

SalesforceTower.jpg

Today's story was about a new construction project going up in Oakland. It promises to be huge - as in a million and a half square feet of office space. That's more than the SalesForce Tower in San Francisco. The SalesForce Tower is, depending upon whom you ask, the tallest or second-tallest building in the United States west of the Mississippi River. Check out how much taller it is than everything else in the San Francisco skyline in the photo from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. So when something's bigger than SalesForce, it's news and fits one of the three elements I tell students to look for in a story:

  • So what (what difference does it make): just saying the phrase "bigger than the SalesForce Tower" gets the viewers' attention - it's interesting. But there's also the business element of how so much office space might change Oakland.
  • Real people (the people living the story): this would be the people occupying the building, but since it's not finished yet, those people would be hard to find. So, instead, I went with an urban planning expert.
  • Show me, don't tell me (video): again, difficult because the building hasn't been built yet. But, I could shoot the location and use renderings of what the building is expected to look like.
 UC Berkeley City and Regional Planning faculty.

UC Berkeley City and Regional Planning faculty.

The location where the building was going to go wasn't going anywhere, so I first dedicated my efforts to finding an urban planning expert. The University of California at Berkeley College of Environmental Design has a Department of City and Regional Planning  - perfect because Berkeley is right next to Oakland. And with this long list of professors, surely I could find one. So I sent out a blanket email to 15 people I thought might be able to help. I got one immediate out-of-the office reply. One other got back to me and said he'd help. So I was on my way.

By mid-afternoon, I had video of the location and a standup, but I was still searching for information about the construction project itself. There were lots of groups involved in pulling this project off: real estate developers, investors, designers, public relations firms, the City of Oakland Planning and Zoning Department. I called everyone and was striking out badly. At 4:45 p.m., I was still searching for information. I hadn't reviewed the interview or the video I'd shot. I hadn't begun editing. And my story is in the 6 p.m. show. This is really late. So, I decided to limit the information in my story to what I could confirm from the websites of the people involved in the project: square footage, footprint, goals. So, now it's time to edit, and my heart is racing. I am the lead story in the show.

It's in this moment - where panic is the natural reaction - that TV journalists have to force their minds and bodies to do the opposite. Calm. Control. Focus. Hurrying leads to mistakes and any mistake only means taking time to correct it. Time is the most precious thing you have, the one thing you can't waste on deadline. Beginning reporters must keep in mind, when time matters most, when you're pushing deadline, slowing down and avoiding mistakes is actually faster. As your blood pressure rises, remember once is faster than twice.

 Former Oakland Police Officer Andrew Mallory accompanied me as an armed guard for today's story.

Former Oakland Police Officer Andrew Mallory accompanied me as an armed guard for today's story.

Once again I was accompanied by an armed guard to the story location. Oakland was where reporters first started getting harassed and robbed of their equipment. It's now spread to other parts of the Bay Area, but Oakland is usually one of the places that security is always required. A Google search for tv+news+crews+robbed+in+Oakland turns up nearly a million hits.

 

The hard part about doing a story about something that doesn't exist yet is you can't shoot it. Duh. But if "show me, don't tell me" is one of the essential elements of a TV news story, it's up to the reporter and videographer to figure out some way to do it. In this case, I worked with KPIX videographer Alex Montano, who's also a certified drone operator. (More on his drone work here.) We decided to do a standup that revealed the size of the footprint of the building. This could only be done with a drone. Below is the raw video that shows all three takes. We recorded the audio on the regular video camera via a wireless microphone. And then matched that audio to the video from the drone. The way you do that is with the visual countdown and clap you see at the beginning of the video below. Line up the claps on the audio from the regular camera and the video from the drone and you've got them synchronized. A side note: on the third take, you can see the woman sidles up next to me. I didn't even notice her until after half way through the standup. That's how much a reporter concentrates and can become vulnerable to ne'er-do-wells. She didn't hassle me at all, but it shows why security is a good idea.

Raw drone video of all three takes of the standup showing the footprint of the Eastline project in Oakland.

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There's a lot of planning that goes into a newscast. That planning starts in the morning meeting, where managers and reporters discuss ideas. But there's more to it than just the topic. Everyone on the team needs to know the specific focus of the story, who's being interviewed, who's reporting, what the format of the story is, from where the story will be reported, whether the reporter will be live, and who will be operating the equipment to transmit the live shot. That's a lot of stuff. But communication is key to a successful newscast. Everyone needs to know what everyone else doing and where. Here's a list of the stories that KPIX covered on Friday, July 6, 2018.

So that's it for my 2018 KPIX experience. Thanks, once again, to all the managers and teammates who allow me to do this and help me to be successful. The chance to bring up-to-date television newsroom experience back to the classroom really is priceless. And to get to do it in San Francisco is pretty awesome, too.

Some parting shots of the City by the Bay:

Takeaways:

  1. It's frustrating when people don't call back, but you can't let it get to you. It's your job to find the interviews.
  2. At crunch time, go slowly and avoid mistakes. Once is faster than twice.
  3. Drones are cool.
  4. Putting on a newscast is like directing a symphony. Everyone has to know what everyone else is doing.

Know the rules

There are so many occasions when TV reporters show up to the scene and they're not welcome. This is not meant to be depressing, it's just a fact. If you think about it, quite often, when we're there it's because something bad has happened. People aren't on their best behavior because they're upset or sad or angry. Understandable. Sometimes they vent on us. We should know that's coming. Still, we've got a job to do, so it's incumbent upon us to know the rules that define where we can and can't shoot video.

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Today's story was a follow-up to the #AbolishICE protests that began on Monday in downtown San Francisco - this was day four. In the previous coverage, we'd presented the protesters telling their side of the story, explaining why they thought the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency should be abolished. Today, we focused on how this point of view, while newsworthy and relatively popular in the Bay Area, is not a majority opinion in the United States. In fact, it's very much the minority opinion. A recent poll conducted by Harvard University shows more than two-thirds of Americans think ICE is a good thing, not that it should be abolished.

The three elements I tell my students to look for in a story are:

  • So what (what difference does it make): protesters are making their point in San Francisco, but does it make any difference anywhere else? Probably not.
  • Real people (the people living the story): the protesters
  • Show me, don't tell me (video): the protest
 University of San Francisco migration studies professor Bill Hing.

University of San Francisco migration studies professor Bill Hing.

Step one for the day was to get an expert to explain how what people think in the Bay Area is not necessarily the way people think in the rest of the country. A media relations person for the University of San Francisco was quick to help me out and we arranged an interview with a migration studies professor.

I was given two choices: interview earlier at the professor's home or later at the professor's office. Each of these is appealing. The office would likely provide the more appropriate background. But, the home would be a better time. In TV news, the best time is "sooner." Sooner is absolutely, positively, 100 percent of the time, always better than later. So I chose the home setting.

 

This is something beginning reporters may be hesitant to do - ask for what they want. But it's OK to push for an earlier interview. The worst that can happen is the person says no. But if you get a yes, then that gives you more time before deadline to deal with surprises (see below).

On to the next part of the story, the protest. This is where things got interesting. On Tuesday when I had covered the protest, people were shy about appearing on camera, but they simply turned away or hid behind sheets when the camera was pointed in their direction.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
— The First Amendment

Today, a much more confrontational situation. I showed up and was asked to not shoot any faces. I informed the protestors that would be a difficult proposition given they were spread out across a city block. My goal was to be honest and straightforward: "I simply cannot guarantee no one's face will appear in the video. We're on a public street," I said. That answer was not good enough for the protesters. They decided if I couldn't promise no faces there would be no video at all. I was told I was not allowed to shoot anything without their consent. This, of course, is patently false because of where we were. The same First Amendment that allows them to peaceably assemble on a public city street to protest is the same First Amendment that protects the media's right to shoot video and cover stories on those very same public city streets. We did not come to an agreement, as you can see in the video below.

I spent about four minutes standing my ground. I didn't feel threatened because we were in the middle of the street (as opposed to down an alley), in the middle of the day, with lots of business people walking by. Plus, I knew the law was on my side. But, there does come a point where there is no point and continuing is just asking for more trouble than it's worth. I got the video I needed to tell the story, as well as another element that would help the viewers understand what the protesters were about.

Another view of my First Amendment conversation.

Beginning reporters should know the rules and be aware of where they can and cannot shoot video. However, they should also know when it's time to quit and move on to another part of the story. This is a sixth sense that's developed with experience. You don't want to be a pushover, but nor do you want to push too far and have something bad happen.

 

Takeaways:

  1. Sooner is better - always.
  2. Know the rules, because a lot of the time, other people don't and will try to limit what you indeed are permitted to do.
  3. Stand your ground, up to a point. Each situation is different and you have to judge for yourself. Ask: is it really worth it?

 

 

 

 

Wide, medium, tight tight tight

When shooting video, it's imperative to get tight shots. This is difficult for lots of beginning MMJs, because they feel as though they're intruding when they get close - they feel safer shooting from a distance. But tight shots take the viewer to the story. Notice as you watch a newscast. It's quite likely the most memorable shots are the tight ones; the ones that show you the detail of what you're looking at. Also, tight shots help you with editing. It's hard to find a shot to come after a wide or medium shot in a timeline, because nothing that's in the first shot can suddenly appear or disappear in the shot that follows. When that happens, it's called a jump cut. Here's an example.

So, as you shoot video, keep the title of this blog post in mind: for every one wide and medium shot, get three tight shots.

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Today's story was about a family remodeling its bathroom. No big deal. But, as the construction crews tore down the drywall, they found a hidden message left behind by the previous owners of the house. Now that's cool! This easily fit the three criteria I tell my students to look for in a story:

  • So what (what difference does it make): Important? Not really. Interesting? Most definitely. Lots of people can relate to this story. It's kind of like finding a message in a bottle on the beach. Intriguing.
  • Real people (the people living the story): Of course, the family that found the message.
  • Show me, don't tell me (video): the message.

The KPIX assignment desk did a great job of finding the family while I was driving an hour south of San Francisco to San Jose. Once at the house, I realized shooting the video was going to be a challenge. The bathroom where the message was left was tiny. I had little space to turn the camera without bumping into a wall. So my strategy for avoiding jump cuts was to shoot a bunch of tight shots. Any one of these shots can be followed on the timeline by another tight shot or a wide or medium shot. This way I can talk about construction in the story and each of these tight shots allows me to transition to the next one without worrying about a jump cut.

As mentioned in a previous post, Technology - pros and cons, a smartphone can act as a second camera on an interview. It allows you to diversify the shots you get and make it appear as though there are several members in your news crew, as opposed to just one person - you.

 Main camera angle.

Main camera angle.

 Second camera (smartphone) angle

Second camera (smartphone) angle

Takeaways:

  1. Tight shots are your friend. Tight tight tight.
  2. Your phone can add production value to your story with a second interview angle.

Have a plan

A good reporter is an organized reporter. There are so many variables we can't control, it's important to be in charge of the ones we can. In this case, I had to control my schedule for writing and editing and performing the live shot because I was in both the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. shows.

 Live shot with protest in the background.

Live shot with protest in the background.

Today's story was about the #AbolishICE protest that popped up overnight at the federal immigration office in downtown San Francisco. Protests are a dime a dozen in the Bay Area, but this one had a little extra in that immigration is a hot topic. Is what the folks protesting think becoming mainstream?

The three elements I tell my students to look for in a story are:

  • So what (what difference does it make): protesting ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is becoming ever more popular as mainstream politicians begin to support the idea. One of them is California Senator Kamala Harris, who says the agency needs to start over.
  • Real people (the people living the story): the protesters
  • Show me, don't tell me (video): the protest.

I had all my interviews completed by 3:30 p.m., but that still meant I had to write and edit two different stories - one for each show. Given that after the 5 p.m. live shot, I'd only have 45 minutes before I had to be on in the 6 p.m. newscast, I realized I had some planning to do. I forced myself to not only finish editing the 5 p.m. package before the 5 p.m. show, but to also finish writing the 6 p.m. package before the 5 p.m. show. That way I'd have time to edit the 6 p.m. story after I'd finished the 5 p.m. live shot. This is not rocket science, but beginning reporters should think ahead and know you can't just finish one newscast before beginning to work on the next one.

 The protester interviewed for the story.

The protester interviewed for the story.

"Just present the facts and let the viewers decide." Students in my class hear that all the time. That's what our job is as journalists - not to sway opinion but to present ideas to the audience so it can judge for itself what's believable and worthy and what's not. The protester I interviewed today was a self-described anarchist who blamed racism for a lot of the immigration problems we have in the United States. Her ideas are controversial. But, I thought it was important to let the viewers to learn what the mindset is of the people who are protesting and calling for an end to border control and enforcement. 

 

There's lots of equipment a TV news crew needs, some of it new, some of it quite traditional. Today I worked with videographer Rick Villaroman and we used the new stuff. He also showed me the old - but still useful and necessary - stuff.

New: LiveU. These are relatively new units that aggregate cell phone signals from various carriers (Verizon, AT&T, for example) and allow you to go live from anywhere there's a signal. These units are small and light and can even be set up by the reporter who's performing the live shot. Wherever there is strong cell service, the smaller mobile packs work great.

Old: ENG (electronic news gathering) microwave truck. These are the ones you see in TV shows and movies all the time, with the big tower that rises up from the roof of the truck. Look closely in the background of the photos below. These units are cumbersome and expensive to buy and operate. But, unlike the LiveU, microwave trucks don't depend on anyone else. They generate their own signal so, for the most part, wherever you are and whenever you want, you can go live.

 The traditional huge news van.

The traditional huge news van.

 Microwave transmitter on top.

Microwave transmitter on top.

Here is some equipment Rick showed me that never goes out of style. What's interesting is that he feels the need to carry it with him every day. Better to have it and not need it, than the opposite.

 Fire helmet and goggles. In the summer, fires are big news.

Fire helmet and goggles. In the summer, fires are big news.

 It's common for the police to launch tear gas during protests that turn into riots.

It's common for the police to launch tear gas during protests that turn into riots.

The beauty shot of the day. I call it "Two pyramids."

 How often do you get a live shot location like this?

How often do you get a live shot location like this?

Takeaways:

  1. Know what's required of you and have a plan to get it done in time. Don't try to figure it out on deadlne.
  2. Present the facts and let the viewers decide.
  3. Old equipment, new equipment - TV requires a lot of stuff.

Safety first

Being a TV reporter these days can be a risky proposition. The stories of crews having their equipment stolen are all too common. So, all the stations in the Bay Area have decided when a potentially dangerous story needs to be covered, the crew will be accompanied by an armed guard.

 Julio is the armed security guard who accompanied me on the homicide story. He's a former Bay Area police officer. He stuck with me for every second I was out on the scene shooting video and conducting interviews.

Julio is the armed security guard who accompanied me on the homicide story. He's a former Bay Area police officer. He stuck with me for every second I was out on the scene shooting video and conducting interviews.

Today's story was about an early morning homicide. I was immediately assigned a guard - zero hesitation. The station was so concerned about the neighborhood where I was going, the managers told me: "Don't meet him at the crime scene. Pick a spot ahead of time so you can drive in together." When we arrived, there was another guard there waiting for a crew from a competing station. Later, a third station showed up - and it, too, had a guard.

We learned the homicide victim may have been a security guard on patrol. That's the newsworthy element, and fits the first of three criteria I tell my students to look for in story ideas:

  • So what (what difference does it make): if the crime is so bad it's not even safe for security guards, you've definitely got a story.
  • Real people (the people living the story): the people in the neighborhood who may have known the victim.
  • Show me, don't tell me (video): we had video of the police securing and investigating the crime scene from a morning crew, which was good because by the time we got there at 11 a.m., all the police had left and there was barely a trace of the homicide.

I conducted several interviews and was striking out on the human element of someone who knew the potential victim. The story wasn't really going to amount to much, when the station called at 1:30 p.m. and switched me to a different story, in Tracy. The state prison there built a $32 million water treatment facility eight years ago to serve the prisoners and staff. But it broke. Since October, the state has spent more than $40,000 a month (Whose money is it? Taxpayer money.) on bottled water. Now there's a story.

So I dropped what I was doing and went to Tracy. This is part of the deal in TV news - if you have to switch the story, you switch the story. It doesn't matter how much work you've already done or how far you have to drive or how close it puts you to deadline. You fulfill your role in the newscast.

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One thing that made the story switch go more smoothly was that videographer Alex Montano was sent to the scene ahead of me. He tried to drive onto the prison property to shoot video but was immediately rebuffed. So instead of driving onto the property to shoot the water treatment plant, he flew over it. As one of about 10 licensed drone pilots at KPIX, Alex was able to get the video we needed for the story, even though we couldn't get close to the story. Drones are changing the way news crews cover stories. Sometimes drone video is about a cool, different angle. Today it was about getting the video that otherwise would not have been possible to shoot. You can see the shots in The Story below.

KPIX drone operator Alex Montano getting video of the water treatment plant in Tracy.

The KPIX 5 drone in operation, as seen from the view of the subject being shot - me.

Another example of how unpredictable a TV news day can be.

Takeaways:

  1. Safety first. Don't be afraid to cover a story, just be prepared.
  2. As a member of the news team, you may have to drop what you've done so far and switch to something else. Do it with a smile.
  3. Drones are changing how, and sometimes whether, we tell stories.

The Clash and TV news

There's no way to overstate the importance of time management in broadcast journalism. As my students know: "the best story you ever did never happened if you don't make deadline." So, a reporter's entire day is organized around that principle: make deadline. A bunch of decisions need to be made to ensure that happens:

The Clash - Combat Rock

  • Where to go?
  • How long to conduct the interview and shoot video?
  • When to begin editing?
  • And today, I had to decide whether to go to the station and edit or edit first and then go back to the station.
  • Asked another way:
ocasio cortez screen grab.jpg

 

Today's story was about the apparent surging popularity of the Democratic Socialist party in the United States, generally after Bernie Sanders earned more support than expected during the last presidential campaign, and specifically after an unknown candidate representing the party surprised and beat a well-established Democratic candidate in a New York primary. The socialist politics of the party is not all that out of the mainstream in the Bay Area, but still, the local element was that this party was bucking the establishment, and Nancy Pelosi, who represents the Bay Area in Congress, is the epitome of that establishment.

The three elements I tell my students they must include in each story are:

Nancy_Pelosi_2012.jpg
  • So what (what difference does it make): if the Democratic Socialists can continue beating establishment Democratic candidates as they did in New York, could they possibly take down the most powerful Democrat of all - San Francisco's Nancy Pelosi?
  • Real people (the people living the story): local Democratic Socialists - they've got a local chapter.
  • Show me, don't tell me (video): any activity the group is doing, in this case, preparing posters for tomorrow's "Abolish ICE" rally.

So a pretty straightforward story. The more complicated decisions came at the end of the day. By 4 p.m., I had gathered my interview with the the local Democratic Socialists, got video of them preparing their posters, downloaded file video of the upset candidate and of Nancy Pelosi. Pretty much all I needed for a package. But, I was scheduled to go live in the 6 p.m. show from the set in San Francisco. All my interviews and video had been shot in Berkeley and Oakland and that's where I was. So with two hours to go to showtime, I had to decide: go back to San Francisco and edit the package there or edit the package in Oakland and then drive back to San Francisco for the on-set tag. In other words, I had to figure out how long it would take me to get back to San Francisco, and whether I'd have enough time to edit the story once I got back and still make deadline.

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is notorious for bad evening commute traffic. Plus it was a Friday night so lots of people would be heading into the city for entertainment, dining and partying. I decided it was a safer call to edit and then go. I made the right call. Here's what I encountered when I finally went home.

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When I made the call to edit and then go, I informed the station of my plans. This is a key lesson for beginning reporters to understand. There are lots of people organizing an entire newscast back at the station. Your story isn't the only one in the show. Communicating what your plans are and, specifically, what you can and cannot do is essential for the success of the newscast. Most producers are flexible and can make changes if you give them time and are clear about what the changes should be. My email:

  • My story has already been transmitted back to the station. They can look for it on the server.
  • I alert them to what needs to be added at the station.
  • I gave them something for the anchor to say if I didn't make it back in time.
  • I included an estimate of my arrival.

In the end I made it back to San Francisco way too late to do my on-set tag. But it didn't matter. I had provided the station with what it needed to make the show happen. No reporter on the set wasn't that big a deal. No story would have been a big problem.

 Packed lunch ingredients.

Packed lunch ingredients.

Because everything's so unpredictable in the television news business, I recommend doing some prep work every morning before heading into the station. Sometime's there's time to sit down and have lunch, most of the time there's not. But you never know which day that time will be available. So, packing your lunch to eat in the news vehicle is a good idea. You control whether you can eat lunch or not. It's not glamorous eating a sandwich and an apple every day in the news vehicle, but it beats going hungry.

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One other note: I called a ton of political science professors today to see if they could comment for my story as experts. Usually, this is a bonus for academicians, because media coverage helps raise their profiles in the community and brings attention to the schools where they teach. But despite my offer to even go to their homes (they wouldn't have to come into the office for the interview) I didn't get anyone. Crickets. This is the text from the public relations person, who basically admits, finding a professor in the summer is pretty tough.

 

Takeaways:

  1. Get good at time management. It can save you and the station.
  2. Communicate clearly what you can and cannot do.
  3. Pack your lunch.
  4. Don't count on college professors in the summer.

 

 

Go ahead, ask. What's the worst that can happen?

pedicab screen grab.jpg

Today's story was a follow up to yesterday's hit-and-run crash that left a pedicab driver hospitalized. When I got the assignment, there wasn't much new - the morning shows had pretty much repeated what we knew the night before - someone hurt, passengers OK, hit-and-run driver still on the loose. So, there were plenty of possibilities to expand the story. Who was the driver who was hurt? How was he doing? What happened to the passengers? Was there any surveillance video (surely there was, because this was on the Embarcadero, one of the busiest streets in San Francisco)?

Based on that, I had my three basic elements to a story:

  • So what (what difference does it make): a hit-and-run driver on a busy street is dangerous - people want to know if that person has been caught.
  • Real people (the people living the story): the home run would be the pedicab operator, but he was hospitalized, so that was extremely unlikely. Instead, how about his colleagues and if they're going to do anything differently after the crash.
  • Show me, don't tell me (video): this was a little bit harder. Yes, I had yesterday's crime scene, which was good, but for new video, besides pedicabs driving by today, I didn't have much. After the hospital interview, the best I could hope for was surveillance video.
 The pedicab driver I tracked down to start the story.

The pedicab driver I tracked down to start the story.

So this was one of those days where you just head out to see what you can find. I decided to drive up and down the Embarcadero until I found a pedicab driver I could talk to. Easier said than done on a busy street. Within a few minutes, I saw one, but she was on the other side of the street. At least she was headed in the same direction I was. So I went a few more blocks, did a u-turn, parked and hopped out as she rode toward me. She knew right away what I wanted to talk about, and forwarded me to her boss at Cabriotaxi. "Go ahead, ask. What's the worst that can happen?"

I found the boss, and was able to conduct an interview with one of the injured driver's colleagues. As the interview was wrapping up, I asked the colleague about the injured driver's family. He said he had a daughter.

"Where does she live?"
"I don't know."
"What does she do?"
"She runs a cupcake company."
"What's it called?"
"I'm not sure. Some play off the James and the Giant Peach movie."

Google search: "cupcakes + James and the Giant Peach" yields: James and the Giant Cupcake.

I didn't have time to go to conduct that interview before my 5 p.m. deadline, but the night crew was able to line up an exclusive interview with the daughter based on that information. "Go ahead, ask. What's the worst that can happen?"

My idea of surveillance video from the police was met with furrowed brows in the newsroom. The San Francisco Police Department and the local media don't get along that well. But I thought it was worth a try. So I sent an email asking for the video and any other new information about the case. I'm sure my request was one of dozens, but by 3 p.m., the police department had sent out a press release and surveillance video from a public transit trolley. Again, my email was surely not the catalyst for this, but "Go ahead, ask. What's the worst that can happen?"

 How many screens does a reporter need?

How many screens does a reporter need?

I edited in the newsroom today, because I used a lot of file and internet video for the story. Believe it or not, that actually makes the job more difficult. When you have to use video from other sources, it takes a lot more time to request and download and organize. Sure, shooting it yourself means lugging the tripod and the camera and the microphones, but you know what you've got and what you don't. A lot of MMJs will tell you this: while working alone has some disadvantages; one big advantage is you're in control of everything. There's no need to review video, no need to make sure it's in the right format, no need to deviate from your routine.

Takeaways:

  1. Doing it yourself can be easier.
  2. Go ahead, ask. What's the worst that can happen?

Technology - pros and cons

The technology we use in local television news today is so advanced compared to just a few years ago. How and from where we gather news, how we transmit it, how our viewers consume it - it's getting so much better so fast. But, the flip side to all the new choices is that sometimes they can get us into trouble.

Feeding a story back via the internet is nothing new. But one thing the tech titans haven't figured out is how to guarantee a powerful signal everywhere, all the time. As I was trying to feed back my story today - 45 minutes before show time - I noticed I was having trouble. I was parked at a grocery store near the highway, so I didn't expect to have much of a problem. But as the minutes ticked by, my attempts to send the story back continued to fail. It wasn't until the station told me my location was notorious for poor cell service that I decided to move. About a mile away, my cell signal improved by about 150 percent! My story fed in in a flash. But now it was 10 minutes to show time and blood pressures were going up in my news vehicle and at the station. Beginning reporters should know technology is fallible and make time for that.

usage rights.jpg

The other technology lesson from today had to do with the law. I needed some images to include in my story, and my source offered me some. I asked, "Where did you get them?" The answer: "We pulled them off the internet." RED FLAG. We simply cannot "pull stuff off the internet" and use it in our stories. The best way to think of it is: everything that someone else does (photos, stories, videos) belongs to that person, and you can't use it unless you get permission. There are some ways you can work around that, such as a search on Google Images. Google Images has a tool that will organize photos by usage rights. This is a good start to helping you figure out what you can and cannot use in your story.

Today's story was about a difficult choice. The Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of cutting the grass in a neighborhood that sits on the site of a former air base in Novato. In California, if you don't cut the grass the chance of a wildfire goes through the roof in the summer. A few weeks ago while cutting the grass, work crews came across some endangered birds, so they stopped mowing. There's the choice: prevent fires or protect the birds.

The three elements I tell my students to include in every story are:

  • So what (what difference does it make): fires are a hot (sorry) topic in California every year, so anything that increases the fire danger is news.
  •  Real people (the people living the story): people who care about the birds and, more importantly, people who live near what could be a fire.
  • Show me, don't tell me (video): The grass, the birds, the houses.
IMG_1438 big hill smaller.jpg

The real people weren't that hard to find - just knock on a bunch of doors in the neighborhood until someone answers. At the fifth house, someone agreed to talk to me. The show me, don't tell me was a little more difficult. Hiking up and down hills searching for endangered birds was no easy task. In the end, that's where I relied on internet photos that had liberal usage rights.

We can all learn from others who do their job really well. This video was posted on Facebook and shows some outstanding videography. Watch the video and notice what went through the videographer's mind to get this shot:

  1. Hear the news: a good videographer not only looks for pictures, but hears them coming, too. Notice how the camera swings around when the plane engines roar.
  2. Use the tripod: shooting at that distance, a tripod is non-negotiable. Imagine how shaky video would have made the images much less impactful.
  3. Adjust the iris on the fly: this skilled videographer has complete mastery over all the functions of the camera, in this case, the ability to adjust the amount of light coming into the camera in an instant so the picture is exposed properly.
  4. Anticipate the action: if you know where the movement is going (as opposed to where it is now) you can get that dramatic image of the plane disappearing behind and then rising over the trees.
  5. Let it leave the frame: as great as this video is, it can't run in the story forever. At some point we need to edit and transition to another shot. By letting the plane leave the frame, the videographer created an edit point.

Video shot by KGO videographer Jackie Sissel posted to the Facebook group Storytellers by Wayne Freedman.

Takeaways:

  1. For all its advantages, know your technology isn't fool proof.
  2. Watch TV. Learn from people who are good at what they do.

 

 

 

Not just where you are, but why you are where you are

Going live is a key part of broadcast journalism. It adds urgency, proves the reporter was really there gathering information and can be a powerful storytelling tool. One way to make sure your live shots connect with the viewers is to relate to your background. Beginning reporters often make the mistake of merely saying where they are in the live shot. "I'm here in front of City Hall." Instead, they should tell the viewers why they are where they are in the live shot. Sometimes that's easier said than done.

Today my story was about a shortcut many commuters take to avoid traffic getting onto the freeway (that's Californian for highway) in Fremont. That shortcut is through a neighborhood along a one-lane road so the city wants to shut it down. Originally, my idea for my live introduction to my story was going to be referencing the interstate in the background, saying "this is where the people taking the shortcut want to go." That would explain why I'm there. But, because of safety reasons, we couldn't have the interstate as a background. All I had was a speed limit sign. Good enough. I adjusted the intro to match the different elements behind me. The point here is for beginning reporters to recognize relating to the background is essential for a good live shot. The circumstances, to a certain extent, determine what you're going to say.

Here's the original live shot with the interstate in the background:

Just around that corner is the on ramp to interstate 680 on the west side of Fremont. The direct route is down often crowded Mission Boulevard... so some commuters instead come up through the canyon and down this hill. This road wasn’t made for that.... so the city of Fremont is thinking about shutting it down.

Here's the live shot that actually happened with the sign in the background:

We did go for a ride. We drove Morrison Canyon Road and found there are some spots that are really narrow and difficult to navigate. But that’s not the only danger. The city of Fremont says about 80 percent of the people who drive this road go at least 10 miles an hour over the speed limit, which you can see is just 25. So the solution - close it down.

Television is different form other forms of media in that it can better take the viewer to the scene of what's happening. Reporters should try to exploit that advantage every time they can. In this story the best way to explain why the city wanted to shut down the road was to take the viewer there - with the dash cam. I didn't have a permanent dash cam installed in my vehicle like law enforcement officers do, so I fixed one up myself with my phone, a flexible Joby tripod and a Joby cell phone harness. What you don't want to do is drive narrow, winding roads holding your cellphone as you go. So this admittedly rudimentary set up is a good, safer alternative.

IMG_1430 dash cam exterior smaller.jpg
IMG_1431.JPG
IMG_1432 dashcam interior smaller.jpg

The drive was about 10 minutes of video, far too long for a 90-second story. But, with the magic of non-linear editing, you can give the viewers a pretty good sense of what it's like to drive on that very road. Check it out in the story below.

IMG_1434.PNG

Reporters have (probably deservedly) earned the reputation of being pushy. But it's not because we're trying to be jerks, it's because we're trying to make deadline. Often, beginning reporters forget an important rule: always ask for what you want. The worst that can happen is the interview subject says "no." So, yes, push to make sure the interview happens closer to you and sooner rather than later. In today's story, I was communicating with a member of the Fremont City Council and had to push to get the interview sooner and closer. If it's not possible, then it's not possible. But if pushing helps you make deadline, then do it politely.

In the end, Councilman Raj Salwan showed up just as he said he would - 3:45 p.m. and I was able to complete the interview and head back to the live shot location with 15 more minutes to edit before deadline.

 One of the great things about TV reporting is you never know what you're going to find while you're out on the story.

One of the great things about TV reporting is you never know what you're going to find while you're out on the story.

Takeaways:

  1. In a live shot, always relate to the background. Don't just say where you are, say why you are where you are.
  2. Take the viewer to the story.
  3. Simple equipment can make a big difference.
  4. Get what you want when you need it.

 

 

Which way do I go?

Sure, it's only been a year since I was last here, but ever so slowly, it becomes more difficult to remember how to get around. This is something beginning reporters will feel when they show up in a new market. Thank goodness for Google and Apple maps.

map of cities.jpg

Today's story took me to Santa Clara County, known as the South Bay. San Francisco to Campbell for interview number one and then San Jose for interview number two. This is far out of my memory zone so without the technology, there's no way I would have made it to my interviews on time and to my live shot location and deadline. The lesson to learn here is the better you know your market, the more efficient you can be in gathering the elements you need to tell your story.

One of the basic tenets of journalism is to present both sides of the story. That way you can let the viewers decide which side is making the best argument. The subject today was the crazy high housing prices in the Bay Area that force some people to live far, far away from their jobs - sometimes two hours away or more. With that kind of a commute, some bus drivers for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority have decided it's easier to just stay in Santa Clara County during the week rather than drive home. Where do they stay? In RVs parked in one of the VTA's storage and maintenance yards. Yep - they'd rather live in an RV during the week than drive all that way. But after decades of this practice, the VTA now says enough is enough - it is a transit agency, not a campground operator. So there's the story - he said/she said on whether this is a good idea.

The three elements I tell my students to look for in a story are:

  • So what (what difference does it make?): controversy. This story has two sides and they don't agree. That makes for a compelling story.
  • Real people (who is living the story?): in this case, that would be the people who don't agree.
  • Show me, don't tell me (what's the video?): the RVs parked in the yard.
drone screen shot.jpg

Some of the video we used was shot from a drone. KPIX has about 10 FAA certified drone pilots, which means the station can fly over all kinds of scenes and capture video. Good thing we had the drone today because when we showed up on the scene, the VTA folks were not happy to see us. The security guards came out and they called the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office, too. We had a polite police discussion about where the public property ended (where we as journalists are allowed to be) and where the private property began (where we as journalists are not allowed to be). In the end, no big deal, but another good lesson for beginning reporters - know your rights and what's allowed and what's not. Lots of people will tell you "no" because they don't like the media around. But you have a job to do, so knowing where you can do it legally is important.

Today was my first day reporting, so I was still getting accustomed to all the equipment. There's just so much stuff to keep track of. One way to do that is to be super compulsive about putting things away in the same place every single day. This allows your brain to go on auto-pilot when you need something - it's right where you left it yesterday and last week and last month. You don't want to be searching for a battery or microphone on deadline.

KPIX videographer Chris MIstrot following the rule of "know where your stuff is."

Chris has a lot of stuff, but only because he uses it. Below is a photo of the effort he put into setting up the live shot to make the reporter look good. Not all beginning reporters will have the luxury of working with a videographer who has this skill and is willing to use all this equipment - but it's something to look forward to later on in one's career.

IMG_1401 live shot equipment smaller.jpg

Takeaways:

  1. Learn your geography. Technology can help. The faster you move, the more time you have before deadline.
  2. Get both sides of the story. It's only fair.
  3. Know where you are allowed to work as a journalist.
  4. Put your stuff away, the same way, every time.

 

 

Back to career #1

Tomorrow begins the sixth year of my returning to KPIX, the CBS owned and operated television station in San Francisco. This was my home before I left to teach at Syracuse University's Newhouse School in 2011.

 Taxi to the city.

Taxi to the city.

 Representing SU.

Representing SU.

There's lots to do to prepare for working as a TV reporter. It takes a good bit of equipment to report, shoot, edit and send stories back to the station. And because I'm working as a multi-media journalist (MMJ) I'm responsible for doing all those things. I have to make sure all that equipment works. So, over the weekend I've tested my gear to make sure it's all ready to go. You don't want to find out on deadline that something isn't functioning the way it should.

 Full tank of gas - ✓

Full tank of gas - ✓

 Camera battery charged - ✓

Camera battery charged - ✓

 Computer charged - ✓

Computer charged - ✓

 Camera recording card - ✓

Camera recording card - ✓

I'll be writing updates on my experiences here, with an eye toward what students can expect as they head out into the field after graduation - the challenges, the fun, the hard work, the excitement of local TV news. Come on back.

Landing at SFO.

Now that's a fire!

Facing down deadline pressure is a thrill. Stressful, but still thrilling as you debate each and every decision you make, trying to figure out what is the most you can do and still come in on time. The right call means success, the wrong call and you face recriminations. Missing deadline is the non-negotiable, cardinal sin of TV news.

Today's story was continuing coverage of the devastating fire that consumed a still-under-construction apartment building in Oakland. The first call came in to 911 at 4:30 a.m., the fire fighters were still there well into the afternoon.

The three elements I tell my students are essential to TV stories are:

  • So what (what difference does it make): besides being a huge fire that forced the evacuation of nearly 1,000 people in the neighborhood, this also was the fourth fire to demolish an apartment building under construction. Perhaps the work of anti-gentrification activists? Arson?
  • Real people (the people living the story): the people displaced and witnesses.
  • Show me don’t tell me (video): the fire.

By the time I got to the scene, the towering flames had been reduced to smoldering puffs of smoke. That meant I needed to rely on the video shot early in the morning. The video I could have shot just didn’t compare. Sometimes, MMJs must recognize who’s shot the best video, and use it. That meant downloading all the morning show video from the server and taking it with me.

While this might seem an advantage (hey, I don’t have to pull out the camera and tripod and shoot more video), it’s also got some limitations. When you use someone else’s video, you don’t really have a feel for the flow of the story, where the best sound bites are, which shot would make for the perfect open and the perfect close. Conversely, when you shoot your own video, which all MMJs do, you have an intimate knowledge of all those things, you can just feel what’s right. Still, if you must use someone else’s video, make sure you log it – watch all of it so you can ensure your story doesn’t miss the best shots someone else got.

My assignment was to go live at the top of the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts, with a different package in each. A tall order, but doable. The key was managing the stress and making decisions that would help me make deadline. Have a plan:

  1. Review and label all the file video early in the day so when it came time to edit, I knew which were the best shots and where to find them.
  2. Finish the 5 p.m. package early. With a press conference called for 4 p.m., I had a decision to make - how to be at that press conference and go live with a story in the 5 p.m. show. I didn't know when the 4 p.m. press conference would end, so waiting to put a story together afterwards was too risky. What if it finished at 4:45 p.m.? The solution was to finish and feed back the 5 p.m. package to the station before the press conference. Yes, my package didn't have the latest information, but I did include it in the live intro and tag. Much less stressful. Also, because the 5 p.m. package was already finished, the minute the 4 p.m. press conference was over, I could start working on the 6 p.m. package and make it different.
  3. The order of events:
    1. edit 5 p.m. package
    2. attend 4 p.m. press conference
    3. write 6 p.m. package
    4. do 5 p.m. live shot
    5. edit 6 p.m. package
    6. do 6 p.m. live shot
 The transcription is pretty bad, but you can see the time of the call for all hands on deck.

The transcription is pretty bad, but you can see the time of the call for all hands on deck.

Deadlines arrive at different times depending on which shift you work: morning, dayside, nightside. They become part of your daily routine - until breaking news strikes. At that moment, there is no shift. Everyone should be ready to go. I’d forgotten that. Each night in my non-TV job, I put my phone on “do not disturb.” Who would need to contact me at 5:30 a.m. about homework? But in TV, it might be the assistant news director calling you to say, “There’s a HUGE fire in Oakland. Can you go? Now!” I didn't answer that call because I, and my phone, chose not to be disturbed. In the end, it wasn’t a big deal, because the morning show crews had it covered. But it’s still a reminder how TV news is different from other professions. If it’s a big enough story, “do not disturb” isn’t an option. In fact, if it’s a big story, the good journalist should be hoping for a call, happy to be woken up for work.

On breaking news stories such as this fire, it’s common for the authorities to hold periodic press conferences with updates for the public. Today’s happened at 7:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. The broadcast media reaction to these events is an interesting combination of jockeying for the best position and cooperation to try to make sure everyone gets good video and audio. In this series of photos, you can see the videographers from competing stations working together to set up a stand to hold all the microphones. Cooperation – we’re all trying to get the same thing so let’s make it easier on all of us. Later, you can see the press conference happening with the interim fire chief talking. Notice how all the different cameras have staked out their positions. Woe to the latecomer who tries to squeeze in front of an already established shot. At this point, competition is fierce.

Big stories often result in team coverage; several reporters covering different angles of the same story. When that happens, it’s imperative each person understand his or her role in the newscast. Today, for the 5 p.m. newscast, I was the lead reporter, covering the “nuts and bolts” of the story. “Nuts and bolts” (also known as “hits, runs and errors”) means telling the story of what happened and no more. Not the background, not the controversy, not the big-picture comparison to other locations or events. For example, at 5 p.m., my producers clearly explained my “nuts and bolts” should include the fire reaction, the potential of arson and drawings of what the burnt building would have looked like, but not include information about evacuations because another reporter was covering that angle. At 6 p.m., another reporter at the scene covered the potential arson angle and the drawings were presented by the anchors, so I had to delete those parts from my story. Team coverage works great when there’s no repetition among the stories and the progression from one story to another is seamless. The key to all this is communication, between the newsroom and the field, and in the field among reporters.

That’s it for “back in the saddle” 2017. A big thanks to the management at KPIX that continues to welcome me back and help me succeed. The opportunity is priceless. Here are a few parting shots of good times and pretty views from my two weeks here.

Coit Tower colors.

Takeaways:

  1. If you have to use video someone else shot, review it as soon as you can. It’ll ensure you use the best stuff and help you edit more quickly.
  2. Answer the phone. You want to get the call to come in early or stay late. That means you’re trusted with the big story.
  3. The press conference can turn into a scrum. Know your place. Stake out your place early.
  4. Team coverage succeeds when each person knows his or her role.

The presser is rarely enough

TV news has a lot of lingo: pkg, vosot, breaker, flash cam, presser. That last one is short for press conference, a staple of news coverage. Smart public relations folks will know to call a press conference because when all the media shows up at once, they only have to tell the story one time. That's good for the organization holding the presser, but is it good for journalists? It can be if you make the extra effort.

Today's story was a press conference held by the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks. It wanted to publicize $6.5 million from state taxpayers coming to the city to spruce up three landmarks. It was the typical dog and pony show, with a bunch of politicians thanking each other about what a great job they all did to make this happen. That's not news. The news is found in the three elements I tell students to look for:

  • So what (what difference does it make): $6.5 million is a ton of money. How, specifically, will it improve the parks?
  • Real people (someone who's living the story): someone who uses the parks and wants to see them improved.
  • Show me don't tell me (video): whatever's wrong with the parks now that will be fixed.

The easy way to do the story would be to show up at the press conference and cover what the politicians said. The better service to the viewers is go to each of the places that are scheduled for improvement and talk to the people there about what they think of the plans. That's always the better course. It's tempting to only cover the presser, but that limits the information to what the organizers want to put out. Instead, the diligent reporter not only holds the authorities accountable at the presser, but also heads out into the community to see what real people think of the issue.

So I called the public relations person for the Department of Recreation and Parks and nailed down the locations for each of the improvement projects and drove to each one. Once I got to each place, it was easy finding people to talk about what was needed and what was already working right. As you might expect, no one was upset at the idea of improving the parks they were using, but it still provided better insight than just attending the press conference.

 This is a mult box. The microphone cable sends the audio signal into the box and that signal is sent out through all the various outlets so several news teams can record at once.

This is a mult box. The microphone cable sends the audio signal into the box and that signal is sent out through all the various outlets so several news teams can record at once.

Beginning reporters might not be familiar with a device that's common at press conferences called a mult box. That's another bit of TV lingo that stands for multiple outlet box. It's a way for the press conference organizers to make it easier for all the broadcast news people to get audio. The way it works is the speaker's microphone is plugged in to one end and the MMJs plug in their audio recording cables to the other end - one audio in, multiple audio outs. Without a mult box, each news team would have to get audio individually. This way everyone gets it clearly and at the same time.

 

I began my day shooting a different story, an HFR (another bit of TV lingo that stands for Hold for Release, which means, shoot it today and air it later). I had to come in early, but what a pleasure to get to shoot video at Coast Guard Island in Alameda. This is something even the most experienced TV news people will tell you never gets old: access to places regular people can't go. In this case, I got clearance to go onto the base and then take a tour aboard one of the Coast Guard cutters.

 Start at the blue arrow in the newsroom ➡ east to Alameda ➡ back over the Bay Bridge west through San Francisco to Golden Gate Park ➡ south to Lake Merced ➡ east to the presser at the Geneva Car Barn.

Start at the blue arrow in the newsroom ➡ east to Alameda ➡ back over the Bay Bridge west through San Francisco to Golden Gate Park ➡ south to Lake Merced ➡ east to the presser at the Geneva Car Barn.

Logistics are a huge part of the MMJ's life, because if you plan right, you make deadline; plan wrong and your day is infinitely more difficult. Today began in the East Bay but finished in San Francisco with a bunch of stops in between. This map shows the trajectory. I used Google Maps to plan it all out, making sure I went in the proper order to each location to make the trip as short as possible. Yet another example of how your smart phone is your friend - use it to save time traveling.

 

Takeaways:

  1. Good reporters don't end with the press conference; they know that's only the beginning. Our job is to tell the viewers what else is going on, not just what the event organizers want us to hear.
  2. The mult box is your friend.
  3. Plan out your day geographically. It'll save you time, which you always need right before deadline.

Make chicken salad

The saying goes, when you're handed chicken excrement, make chicken salad. In TV news, that means doing the story even though there's not a lot of good video to go along with it. In those circumstances, it's up to the MMJ to make it happen, to figure out how to shoot enough video to get the story on the air. That's what happened today.

A Bay Area organization is trying to promote personal savings by offering people free money. It goes like this: you save $20 a month for six months, and the organization will add in $60 for free. Savings are important because without them, unexpected expenses can spiral out of control and leave families destitute.

The three basic elements I tell my students to look for in a TV story are:

  • So what (what difference does it make): Half of the families in San Francisco don't have enough savings to pay for an unexpected expense, such as a car repair.
  • Real people (someone who's living the story): someone who's already been through the program and can talk about life before savings and after.
  • Show me don't tell me (video): this is the tough part. How do you show someone saving money?

The organization provided me with the contact information of three people who had been through the program. I got an answer on the second call. But, this person could only meet me at the BART (Bay Area subway) station in Union City, about an hour drive from the newsroom. I was grateful he was willing to talk, but shooting video about how his life has changed after opening a savings account at a subway station definitely did not make for good video. I pushed a little to see if he could do the interview at his house, but he was firm - public transit station or nothing. So, I went with it.

Here are two strategies to make a TV story work (chicken salad) when there aren't a lot of opportunities for video (chicken excrement).

1. Shoot cutaways. These can be two shots or tight shots. The point is to get something where the person is framed differently from the sound bites. This gives you video to show while you're talking about the person, without having to use video of the person talking. Here are screen grabs of several of the cutaway shots I got. Click on the images to advance.

None of this particularly gripping videography. But, in TV news, we need video for everything we talk about. Everything. These kinds of shots allow you to tell a story beyond just stringing a bunch of sound bites together.

2. Shoot a standup. Standups are useful in many ways, but one of the most helpful to MMJs is they allow you to talk about something for which you have no video. When you head out to a story and there's something you absolutely, positively have to talk about, but you don't have any video to cover it, use a standup to help you tell that key part of the story. Watch THE STORY below to see how the standup does a pretty good job explaining just how bad it can be when you don't have any savings and something unexpected goes wrong.

Being an MMJ means lugging around a lot of stuff. Because we're on our own, we have to take reporter stuff as well as videographer stuff. Keeping track of it all can be overwhelming. The key to survival is staying organized. Take your time and have a system so you know where everything is. The last thing you need is to be searching for your IFB (earpiece) with one minute to go before your live shot. My recommendation is to put each piece of equipment in the same place every day. Eventually, the storage of your stuff becomes second nature, and you can quickly and easily find your camera battery, your stick mic, your sunglasses, your mi-fi, your computer charger, your thumb drive, and on and on.

Good thing the desk was big. All the stuff I used to edit today's story.

I was reminded of that today when I was leaving Union City to make the one hour drive back to the newsroom to edit. I panicked because I couldn't see my reporter's notebook in the passenger seat. It had notes, phone numbers, ideas. I had to have it. I turned around and headed back to where I'd shot the standup thinking I'd left it there, but at a stoplight, I found it under the passenger seat. A few minutes of wondering where I'd left something is time wasted leading up to deadline. Don't let that happen. Know where you stuff is by putting it in the same place every day.

If only the uploading were this fast in real life.

There's no stress like TV newsroom stress. Fortunately, up to today, I have made deadline with plenty of time to spare. But I must say the concept of a deadline hanging over you all day is unlike what happens in other professions, including academia. This story, because of all the driving, pushed me closer to deadline than I would have liked.

 

Takeaways:

  1. Shoot cutaways and standups to help tell your story. Not producing a story is not an option. You have to make the best of every assignment you're given, even if that means the video opportunities aren't all that great.
  2. Know where your stuff is by putting it in the same place every day.

 

 

 

Essential TV story elements

Some stories are just made for TV. They scream, "Please tell me." Those stories usually have all three basic elements I tell my students to look for:

  • So what (what difference does it make)
  • Real people (the people living the story)
  • Show me don't tell me (video)

Today's story had all of those, in spades. Every year, the Mounted Patrol of San Mateo County puts on a Junior Rodeo in Woodside so young equestrian aficionados can show off their horse riding skills. For the past 40 years, the event has included a Pig Scramble, where about 15 piglets or pigs are let out in the rodeo ring and about 50 children try to catch them. Grab a pig, win a trophy. But, this year, for the second year in a row, a group of animal activists protested the event, calling it porcine persecution. So look at the elements we've got for a TV story - they're pretty hard to beat:

  • So what (what difference does it make): a decades-old event is being threatened by protesters. This is the controversy - two opposing views - that provides the newsworthiness.
  • Real people (the people living the story): the people hosting the event and the people protesting.
  • Show me don't tell me (video): pig scramble!

"If you didn't get it, you didn't get it." Even a minor adjustment is worth it to make sure the shot looks as good as possible.

"If you didn't get it, you didn't get it" is another truism I relay to my students. Sure, it sounds obvious, but in TV reporting, it means you have to get the right video and audio in the field. A missed shot or crackly audio is not going to improve once you return to the newsroom to edit. Even the most experienced MMJ might have to adjust the camera or microphone mid-interview in order to get it right. Sometimes it's a huge pain to get it right, like when you realize five minutes into the interview you aren't recording. Ouch! "Can we start over again?" Other times, it's a minor adjustment, like the example in the video above. Regardless, if you don't get it right in the field, it's not going to suddenly get better in the newsroom. .

Once again, the smartphone came to the rescue by getting me a shot I couldn't have recorded otherwise. As mentioned in other blog posts, a smartphone is quickly adaptable to the moment. In this case, it provided the standup with action in the background I simply couldn't get with the Sony camera, because of time and because the fence was too high to shoot over. Shoot the standup right now, or miss it. Here's the entire raw video. Notice what the smartphone allows me to do:

  1. See what's behind me in selfie mode
  2. Adjust the iris on the fly
  3. Shoot over the fence
  4. Get as much sun on my face as possible

One of the more common words you'll hear as an MMJ is "no." No, you can't park here. No, you can't shoot here. No, no one's available to talk to you. No, no, no. Young reporters must become inured to this. It's hard, but remember, it's not personal. The majority of people simply don't understand what we do. So, most of the time, it's best to not take the first "no" as the final answer, especially if you're not talking to the person who's got the authority to make the final decision. When I arrived at the Junior Rodeo today, the first person I ran in to was obviously upset anyone would criticize his group's event. When he told me "no media allowed," I asked, "who should I say is preventing media coverage of this event." (Don't take the first "no" as the final answer.) Eventually, I made my way up to the top guy in the organization and interviewed him for the story. 

Takeaways:

  1. Know what makes for a good TV story: compelling video, controversy, people willing to stand their ground.
  2. No matter how embarrassing it is or how long it takes, always make sure you get the video and audio you need for your story. "If you didn't get it, you didn't get it."
  3. Your smartphone is your friend when there's just no time for the big camera.
  4. Don't give up when the first person tells you "no."

ABC, 123

On the eve of July 4th, let's talk about what is, arguably, the whole point of the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Why is that phrase so easy to remember? Why does it seem to roll off the tongue? It's because it follows the rule of three. Groupings of three are memorable when you hear them, pleasing when you see them. Of course, that's why we all can recall Columbus' three ships: the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. We can remember Benjamin Franklin's advice: early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. And let's not forget the Jackson 5 (see title of this blog entry).

But it's not just about words; it's an essential part of videography and photography - we want to frame our shots so the image is divided into a box that's 3 x 3. It just feels better that way.

 San Francisco fireworks in the fog, taken by Eliya on July 4, 2008.

San Francisco fireworks in the fog, taken by Eliya on July 4, 2008.

Today's story was a preview of tomorrow's fireworks celebration. The crews in charge were loading the launchers with mortars all afternoon. The San Francisco show is really something to see, if you can see it. The problem is summer in San Francisco usually entails lots of clouds and fog. So quite often, the fireworks are launched with great fanfair and anticipation, only to have them explode in the clouds, yielding a fuzzy blur of color rather than a brilliant shower of sparks. That's the story background.

The three basic elements (yes, that number makes it easier for the students to remember) I tell my students to look for in a TV story are:

  • So what (what difference does it make): the July 4th show in San Francisco is HUGE deal, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to watch.
  • Real people: no one really, because the show is tomorrow. I'm going to only interview the pyrotechnics expert.
  • Show me don't tell me (video): the preparations taking place today ahead of tomorrow's show.

To be honest, there wasn't a lot of new information the viewers haven't already heard. This is an annual story with the same elements: fireworks + fog. So how to make this story different? I decided to apply the rule of three in several different ways: writing, shooting, editing (there we go again).

Watch THE STORY below and pick out each time the rule of three is used: it's in the voice track, it's in a sequence of shots, it's in the way the story was assembled and edited.

One thing beginning TV reporters quickly learn is, no matter the city where they're working, there's always a place to get the perfect shot quickly and without a lot of hassle. But knowing where that shot location is only comes with experience. As reporters move into new markets, there's a learning curve to discovering where the ideal Black Friday story background is, where it's easy to find parents willing to talk about taking kids back to school, which hospital is media friendly. Time, experience - there's no substitute.

I recalled that today as I was running out of time to shoot my standup. I had determined early in the day I wanted to do a two-part standup showing both locations from which the fireworks would be launched. The first was Pier 39, an area congested with tourists. But, a quick call to the public relations person got me a primo parking space and I was in and out in 15 minutes. The second spot was different. Because I'd spent a lot of time there while I lived in San Francisco during the 2000s, I knew it wasn't as tightly controlled; I knew the shot would look great; I knew the fastest way to get there; I knew where to park. Having that background experience saved so much time.

When you can, spend time being creative; make your stories different from the rest. News directors look for that when they're hiring. Non-linear editing software makes it easy to incorporate some fancy moves that can help make your package stand out. Don't go overboard. Make sure each edit has a purpose. Watch THE STORY below and notice how the standup helped tell the story.

 

Takeaways:

  1. Remember the rule of three. It helps your writing, your editing, your shooting. It helps you turn more creative, memorable, polished stories.
  2. Learn where to go. In every TV market, there are places that are ideal for certain stories. MMJs who are new to the market don't know them. Talk to the veterans in your newsroom. Knowing which location is easy to quickly get to, offers ample parking and provides a compelling and appropriate background is gold - it saves time, which you always can use more of on deadline.

 

 

A second camera in your pocket

It's not new to consider your smartphone a second camera. But I'm still amazed at how easy it is to use and how it can simply, but with a lot of impact, add to an MMJ's story. We have it hard enough already lugging all the equipment around ourselves. But with a smartphone, it's easy to make it look as though we had an entire crew supporting us.

Today's story was about the California Academy of Sciences bioblitz program, where "citizen scientists" are invited to participate in documenting the biodiversity of the Northern California coastline. The three basic elements I tell my students to look for in a TV story are:

  • So what (what difference does it make): documenting the plants and animals that are here now will help scientists figure out what's changed years from now.
  • Real people: the citizen scientists
  • Show me don't tell me (video): people taking photos at the coastline.
 Objects in the foreground add depth to interviews.

Objects in the foreground add depth to interviews.

On the way out to Muir Beach, I was thinking about how I could make the story look a little different. One thought that came to mind was to include objects in the foreground. There was a lot of space on the beach with an bunch of rocks scattered around. Here's what I came up with for some of my broll and interviews. Notice how something in the foreground adds depth to the shot and makes it much more interesting.

I also thought about how my iPhone 7 might help me tell the story in a creative way. I came up with three ideas:

1. The Sony video cameras we use take great pictures, but not up close. I figured if these "citizen scientists" were using their smartphones to get shots of the potentially tiny plants and animals at Muir Beach, so should I. And that proved to be the case - the video camera simply could not get the vivid focus the iPhone could. Click on the photos to advance.

2. It's easy to set up a second two-shot angle with a smartphone. This gives the impression there is another person working with you on the scene. I use a cheap tripod and harness you can buy pretty much anywhere and set up the iPhone always farther away from me than the video camera. This prevents crossing the line (axis) and ensures the interview subject is looking in the same direction in both the video camera shot and the iPhone shot.

When you shoot that second angle, the trick is to synchronize the audio from the video camera with the video from the iPhone. With non-linear editing software, it's pretty easy. Here's a snippet of the second angle I got with the iPhone. It really makes it look as though there are more people working on the story than just the MMJ. See THE STORY below for how it appeared in the story.

This is the view from the second camera; the iPhone 7 set up with a small tripod and harness to record the interview being recorded.

3. Even before I left home for the story, I knew I wanted to try this third option. I took a couple of plastic sandwich bags with me so I could submerge the camera and then pull it out of the water and shoot people taking photos. This is the shot that really takes the viewer to the story and one that is impossible to do with the company-owned video camera. Check it out in THE STORY below.

I bought those gaudy yellow boots at Lowe's the night before the story, because I knew I'd probably get wet. They worked, until I turned my back on the waves. Ugh. The first time they got flooded I was a little perturbed. But after the fourth or fifth time, eh, "I'm already soaked." All part of doing business as an MMJ. Do the story, no matter what.

Takeaways:

  1. Use your smartphone to make your stories look more polished. Yes, MMJs are already overburdened and sometimes overwhelmed with all the equipment we have to carry. A smartphone is not that much more weight, but it is a whole lot more potential. It's worth it.
  2. Put stuff in the foreground of your shots.

Story ideas: you just have to know where to look

Newhouse students find the most difficult part of their broadcast journalism classes is finding story ideas. And it is tough. One strategy Department Chair Chris Tuohey promotes is looking at what journalists in other markets are covering and then seeing if those stories would work in Syracuse. That's how I found today's story.

I started looking for story ideas several weeks before I arrived in San Francisco. One fun story that ran in the local Syracuse paper was about Goat Yoga. Yes, just what you think it is - yoga with goats. So I did a Google search and, to my surprise, there was no goat yoga in the Bay Area. For all the "out there" stuff that happens in San Francisco, this wasn't happening. I did a new search for "Bay+Area+goats" and found the farmer's market in Oakland recently had a goat festival.  I called the public relations person for the farmer's market, and she said, "Yeah, we worked with City Grazing." I then called City Grazing and, lo and behold, yes, they were setting up a goat yoga program with their Yogoats. Their first sessions are in a couple of weeks, so my story was an exclusive preview. The organizer told me over the phone: "I was waiting for someone from the media to call. You're the first." I asked her to arrange a practice session for me and we agreed to meet.

So look at how this came about:

  1. Read the Syracuse newspaper
  2. See a fun story
  3. Investigate whether it's happening in San Francisco
  4. Google search the basic words describing the story
  5. Make some phone calls
  6. Voila - break a (yes, feature) story for your station

It's not any harder than that. But it does take effort, not only to stay up with the news every single day, but also to have an eye for ideas that can turn into TV stories. The three basic elements I tell my students to look for in a TV story are:

  • So what (what difference does it make): A national craze is coming to the Bay Area.
  • Real people: people organizing the yoga classes.
  • Show me don't tell me (video): goat yoga.

Shooting the video was a breeze because the yoga participants and the goats were so cooperative. Except for this shot. Notice how the picture starts shaking in the middle. What's a videographer to do? The little guy was just begging for some attention.

There are a couple of storytelling techniques I tried to apply in this story:

  • Surprises: Rather than jump right in, I let the goat part of the story come a little later. To start, I used a lot of closeup shots of the participants doing yoga that wouldn't reveal what was going on until we were already into the story. Surprises are great for storytellers because viewers remember them. A lot of times the inverted pyramid is the way to go - start with what's most important right off the bat. But when you can, you should try to save the point of the story for later; it makes the story more memorable.
  • Parallel parking: Hat tip here to KARE TV master storyteller and reporter Boyd Huppert. If you want to learn how to do great TV, watch Boyd's stuff; go listen to him talk. This technique, he says, "is a way to stay in the moment." The idea is to park parts of your voice track in between what the interview subject says. Watch THE STORY below and you'll find it during one of the yoga moves.

Lots of students ask "What should I wear when I'm reporting?" I'm a little old school, so I advocate dressing up. Jacket and tie; the equivalent for women. The reason is I want people to take me seriously. We all get dressed up for important moments in our lives. It sends a message.

However, there's a caveat to that. What we don't want is to distract the viewers with our attire - it must be appropriate for the circumstances. So, when you're reporting on a typical Syracuse blizzard, it would be distracting if you were out there in a sports coat or blouse instead of a parka and hat. Wear what's appropriate. That's why I went home and changed after I knew I'd be goating today.

 Just because it's pretty.

Just because it's pretty.

Takeaways:

  1. One of the best storytellers of all time, Tom Wolfe, said when he's reporting he flips on the awareness switch. He makes a conscious effort to be hyperaware of what's going on around him. MMJs should do that, too. Take notice of your surroundings, what you read, what you see on TV. Story ideas are everywhere if you just look for them.
  2. Seek out the industry experts, the folks who have been doing this for a long time. They've got tips on how to tell a better story. You can apply them if you know what they are.
  3. Don't distract the viewers with what you wear. Err on the side of formal, but dress appropriately.

Think before you shoot

The minute good MMJs get their assignments they're thinking about who they're going to talk to and how they're going to shoot the video. Different stories present different opportunities for visual storytelling. Sometimes there are so many things to shoot the key is deciding what to leave out. Other times there may only be one subject in the story, and that means using some basic but essential videography techniques that will make the story shine.

Today's story: a veteran is walking to the four corners of the United States to draw attention to PTSD and suicides in the military. He's in San Francisco. The three basic elements I tell my students to look for in a TV story are:

  • So what (what difference does it make): The Veterans Administration says 20 veterans commit suicide a day.
  • Real people: the walker.
  • Show me don't tell me (video): Him walking.

All pretty straightforward, but that last one requires a little more attention. Think about it. If the majority of the video is going to be of him walking, that could get boring, fast. Also, there are several stylistic conventions that need to be addressed:

Jump cuts: we can't see him walking in one place and then immediately again in another. This would make it look as though he'd "jumped" a couple of city blocks. Solution: lots of tight shots you can use as transitions between the wide shots. Check out these shots and notice how they could be used between wide shots of different places. The tight shot is effective because the viewers don't know where you are.

wide shot on Sutter street ➡ tight shot ➡ wide shot at Union Square = no jump cuts

 Tight shot.

Tight shot.

 Tight shot.

Tight shot.

 Tight shot.

Tight shot.

A rudimentary example of how allowing the subject to walk out of frame avoids a jump cut to the next shot.

Jump cuts: same as before, we cannot show the subject (our only subject) walking in one place and then suddenly someplace else. Solution: let the subject walk out of frame. That's a simple technique many beginning MMJs fail to execute. All it requires is discipline. Simply hold your shot until the subject leaves the frame. That allows the viewers to think "OK, he's walking somewhere, I wonder where?" The next shot shows the viewers where.

Crossing the line (axis): In this case, you don't want the subject walking in one direction for some of the story and in another direction during other parts of the story. That creates confusion for the viewers - which way is he going? Instead, it's more comforting and logical for the viewers if they see the subject going one way the whole time. Solution: stay on the same side of the subject. Watch THE STORY below and notice how the subject is always moving from right to left. It gives the sensation he's always moving forward. How to make that happen? Stay on the same side of the subject for all the shots. Put another way, draw a line between you and the subject and don't cross it. In this case, notice how during those walking shots, the camera is always to the subject's left.

MMJs spend so much time on the phone. It's a really efficient way to line up interviews. And with cell phones, we're always able to reach out to or be reached by someone. It's not like the old days when reporters had to drive around with pockets full of dimes in search of pay phones. But what we say on the phone can make a difference. The goal is to make it easy, to make it appealing for someone to call you back. So when leaving a message, keep these things in mind:

  • Speak the important words slowly. We've all received voice mail messages that are spoken so quickly we don't have any idea who's leaving them. Slow down on your name, on your TV station and on your call back number. Repeat your call back number - first time slowly, second time to confirm. Think about what you do when writing down a number - you write it down and then wonder if you got it right. As a reporter, you can mirror that thought process - one time slowly, one time quickly to confirm.
  • Give a verbal time/date stamp. Sure, lots of voice mail programs apply an automated time/date stamp to each message, but how cumbersome is it to re-start the entire process to figure out when the call came in? We've all been through this: "Press four for messages. You have three new messages and one saved message. Press four to listen to your new messages. Message one...." Arrrgh!! Instead, make it easy for the person you're calling by saying when you called.
  • Leave your contact information at the beginning of the message. Think of what you do when you get a voice mail message and someone leaves you a number to call back. If you don't have paper and pen handy, you miss the number. If the person leaves the number at the end of a 60-second message, you have to listen to the whole thing over again to get to the number. But, if you leave it at the beginning, the potential interview subject only has to re-start the message to immediately get your call back information.

For example:

Reporters need to make it easy for potential interview subjects to call them back. It starts with leaving an easy-to-understand voicemail.
 The one that almost got me.

The one that almost got me.

Oh yeah, that whole thing about parking wherever you want because you're media - that doesn't always fly. Today, I was editing in my work vehicle with headphones on and my back to the windshield. I didn't hear the tow truck pulling up to me and actually putting the lift under my front axle to take me away. Thankfully the tow truck driver saw me inside and knocked on the window. Phew! In some places, when they say "No Parking," they mean it.

 

Takeaways:

  1. On the way to the story location, think hard about how you want to shoot it. Some of it is about aesthetics, but also keep in mind there are some inviolable videography rules.
  2. Make it easy for someone to call you back by leaving a message that communicates clearly.

 

The early bird gets to be creative

In TV news, the clock is always ticking. It's a strange sensation knowing every minute, every second that passes is one moment closer to deadline. But that's the life of an MMJ. So it really pays to get started as soon as you can. If you can come up with an idea and make calls and line up interviews early, then that leaves more time for creativity later in the day.

 Day 2, pack 2. A little less stressed; one piece left.

Day 2, pack 2. A little less stressed; one piece left.

Today's story was about a battle between local mom and pop bike rental companies versus a brand new bike sharing company. The rental companies focus on tourists who rent for the whole day and visit the Golden Gate Bridge and other spots.  The bike sharing company focuses on San Franciscans who want to get from one neighborhood to another or from a public transit drop off to work.

In the last week, the bike sharing folks came up with the idea of offering a three-hour pass, which would have been really attractive to the tourists the bike rental companies depend on. So the rental folks complained and the sharing folks backed down. With that as the background, the three basic elements I tell my students to look for in a TV story are:

  • So what (what difference does it make): local, high-profile businesses (bike rentals) fear they'll go under if this plan doesn't change putting dozens of people out of work.
  • Real people: one of the owners of the bike rental companies.
  • Show me, don't tell me (video): bikes, bikes and more bikes.

Rather than going into the office for the morning meeting today, I pitched my idea from home and got approval at 8:17 a.m. Immediately I started emailing and calling contacts and by 10:00 a.m. I had lined up a real person, the "other side" with the bike share company and permission to shoot lots and lots of bikes.

Now we're in business. Heading out the door at 10 a.m. with interviews already lined up meant a super early start on the day. With my interviews finished and logged by 2 p.m. I had some time to do a creative standup and include a lot of nat sound in the package. That's the luxury you have when the clock starts ticking early in the day.

The standup was a pretty basic one that students find easy to execute. But it's important to note how the standup is a great tool to transition between two places or two ideas. In this case, the idea was to transition between two ideas: bike sharing companies go after one type of customer, while bike rental companies go after another. Here's the raw video of the two-part standup:

Again, this was possible because I had the time to two different places to shoot a standup. This is a luxury that doesn't happen without having started early. Check out the finished product in the story at the end of the post.

Takeaways:

  1. Start early when you can. It gives you a lot more flexibility later in the day. Trust me, you'll need it
  2. Standups are an important part of TV storytelling. They're the one thing the reporter has complete control over. You can use it to transition, point out something interesting, be funny. Give yourself the opportunity by heeding point 1.