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.

Make air, not art

That headline is a well-known phrase among television news people. There are so many times when we want to do better, when we know there's a gap in our story, another shot to get, another interview to land. But, the fact is making deadline trumps all of that - always. The best shot (art) that doesn't make deadline (air) never happened. That's pretty much my state of mind after the first day back on the job reporting as an MMJ at KPIX.

My story today: the Supreme Court decision supporting and, at the same time, limiting President Trump's travel restrictions on six Middle Eastern countries. The three basic elements I tell my students to look for in a TV story are:

  • So what (what difference does it make): this is a semi-resolution to a hot topic across the country that affects thousands of people around the world.
  • Real people: someone coming to the United States from the countries on the restricted list or people already here with family from those countries.
  • Show me, don't tell me (video): travel, protests, Supreme Court.

So at the start of the day, those are my goals. I immediately grabbed file video of previous protests at San Francisco's airport (SFO) and of the Supreme Court (no way I was flying to Washington, D.C. and back in time for the 6 p.m. show). I also lined up an interview with a constitutional law professor for some analysis of the decision. So what - ✓; Show me, don't tell me - ✓. All I needed was real people.

 FlightView screen grab. Check out the flight duration!

FlightView screen grab. Check out the flight duration!

The law professor put me in touch with the local ACLU branch, which is actually part of the lawsuit against the Trump administration policy, representing families from Yemen. But after several calls and emails and entreaties ("I really want to include you in my story"), I ended up with nothing.

So I went to the airport hoping to find someone getting off the plane from an arriving flight from the Middle East. A quick search on my flight tracking iPhone app showed me there was one coming from Dubai. I asked some 20 people if they were affected by the Supreme Court decision, but no luck: "I'm from Italy, Greece, Eritrea, Ethiopia, the United States" ... no one from the travel restriction list.

At this point it's 4:45 p.m. ahead of a 6:30 p.m. live shot and I make the call: "make air, not art." It's my first day and I'm a little unsure of my editing skills. Better to get off on the right foot.

 Media privileges.

Media privileges.

While I was at SFO, I remembered one of the key benefits of the job - parking where you want, no matter what the rules are. Of course, this doesn't always apply, but even at a high-security place such as an airport, the media gets some breaks. It didn't matter how red the curb was. A police officer even came by and asked if I had permission. A simple yes allowed me to stay close to the story and close to the live shot location.

 

 

In the old days, reporters got video from one place - the camera. No longer. Now we get video from the camera, from servers, from cell phones. The point is, there are lots of tools at the MMJ's disposal - it's the multi-media part of the job title.

 Day 1, pack 1.

Day 1, pack 1.

So yes, it was a stressful Day 1 on the job, mostly because I needed to prove to myself I could do it. Part of what made it successful was preparation. Students should always know they can master the camera, the microphones, the computer for editing with a little practice. Do that, and the unpredictable stuff that comes up frequently will be much more easy to handle. (In my case, I don't have to chew as much gum to cope.)

 

Lastly, a special thanks to my supportive TV reporting graduate students from the Fall 2016 semester, who stayed up late EST and actually watched their professor. It means a lot to know they're interested. They posted photos on Twitter from their "watch party."

 Rob, is that vertical video?

Rob, is that vertical video?

Takeaways:

  1. Practice, practice, practice. Knowing how to operate the equipment backwards and forwards will give you more time and brain power to focus on the stuff you can't control.
  2. Make air, not art.

 

 

 

 

Hello again, San Francisco

 The corner of Battery and Broadway in downtown.

The corner of Battery and Broadway in downtown.

It's summertime and that means it's time to jump back in the saddle.  For the fifth time, I'm beginning my two-week stint as an MMJ reporter/videographer at KPIX TV, the CBS O&O in San Francisco, my employer before I began teaching at Newhouse at Syracuse University in 2011.

I hope to catch up on how this big-market TV station is using social media, drone technology and other storytelling tools to relay what's happening in the community it serves.

Check back here for updates on what I'm learning and details about the hurdles overcome and satisfactions enjoyed in local television news. My goal is to help Newhouse Broadcast and Digital Journalism students get a taste of what their careers might be like.

I begin Monday, 26June17.

 

The flight from SYR to SFO is dedicated to brushing up on Edius video editing software. We use Adobe Premiere at Newhouse, so it helps to remind me what's different. I download a bunch of video tutorials to my iPad and watch them on the way out.

 

Watching the terrain change during the flight across the country makes it worth getting a window seat. I'm iffy on the first two: Nebraska; Utah; Modesto, CA; San Jose; South Bay salt ponds; San Francisco Bay.

 
 Of course, arriving back in San Francisco reminds me of my claim this is the  most beautiful city in the world  because it's got the best combination of natural and man-made beauty. Right?

Of course, arriving back in San Francisco reminds me of my claim this is the most beautiful city in the world because it's got the best combination of natural and man-made beauty. Right?

 Thanks to the bosses at KPIX who make it possible for me to see if I still can.

Thanks to the bosses at KPIX who make it possible for me to see if I still can.

Sometimes, it works just right

A lot of what I've written in the blog posts describes strategies MMJs can use to solve problems. The list of obstacles to overcome on the way to producing a story on deadline is pretty extensive: getting people to agree to talk, getting there in time, making sure the equipment works and on and on. That's part of the job. You can't wish it away. But what you can wish for is just one day - JUST ONE! - where things go right. That happened today, the last day of my 2016 KPIX summer experience.

Over the past two years, the success of the Golden State Warriors has buoyed the spirit of the East Bay community. Folks of all stripes are totally behind the Warriors. So, when the team doesn't do well, when it loses, it strikes deep into the fan base's psyche. In fact, you might say the Warriors fans were whining about last night's Game 6 loss in the NBA Finals. Post-game sound bites included: "It was the referees;" "The NBA wants the Warriors to lose;" "This whole thing is rigged."

That sounded like a story to me: How come sports fans make excuses after a loss? Who on earth can I talk to about that? Some type of sports psychologist, maybe? I started the story process as many reporters do with a Google search: san+francisco+sports+psychologist+fans. The second result looked promising:

And indeed, check out the author's byline in the Washington Post story:

book cover png.PNG

YESSSSSS!!!!! Knowledgeable and local. Perfect. The assignment desk helped me find his phone number and he agreed to the interview in a timely manner. I consider days such as these a reward for all the hard work MMJs typically have to put in to make TV magic happen. Just right. It's not often you can say you talked to the person who "literally" wrote the book on your subject.

Like it or not, journalists need to grab the viewers' attention to be successful. It sounds like marketing because it is. There's so much competing information out there, we can no longer just publish and expect the audience to follow along. Sometimes, being a little provocative can help turn eyeballs our way. In this case, the story could have been presented generically: "Expert says human brains are wired to express passion about sports teams." Fine, but not all that compelling. Instead, the social media and anchor intros I wrote focused on Warriors fans being whiners. That's a hot potato! Check out the response I got to my promo Tweet. I'm guessing she tuned in to watch the story.

 Live at Oracle Arena in Oakland

Live at Oracle Arena in Oakland

Going live is a skill that takes time to develop. There are lot of things to think about, and "just look comfortable" is a lot harder than it appears. But one thing beginning reporters can do to make their live performances look more professional is keep them short and simple. A big mistake many students make is writing an elaborate live shot script. This inevitably leads to stumbles and a painful result. "Short and simple." I kept that in mind today, the only time I was live in the field this week. I didn't need to get into a lot of the details of the story, I only needed to keep the viewers interested until the package rolled.

That's it for this year. Thanks again to all the folks at KPIX who make this possible. Some random parting shots. Click for the caption.

Get it right the first time

Because MMJs are always under the time crunch - ALWAYS - it's tempting to try to cut corners. But the fact of the matter is, it's faster to go slowly and do it right the first time, rather than hurry and risk having to do it over a second time.

 NASA recruiting poster.

NASA recruiting poster.

Today's story was about a new advertising campaign NASA unveiled to try to get average folks to sign up to fly 30 million miles to Mars. I found a researcher at UC Berkeley who was willing to participate. As I set up the interview in the office anteroom, I realized the framing wasn't quite right. It was close, but easily could have been better. The extra three minutes it took to re-frame the shot was worth the effort. The viewers would never know because they'd only see the finished product, but still, a reporter's job is to do the best job possible in the time allowed.

After setting up the interview for the second time, I noticed the audio (by listening through the headphones) had a faint hiss in the background. Again, good enough, but room for improvement. I checked the batteries - they were OK. I then had the interview subject take the wireless microphone transmitter out of his pocket. That did the trick, and now we were ready to go. Another few minutes lost, but the result was a better story for the viewer. Lesson re-learned: it doesn't get any better when you begin editing. What you record is what you get. Get it right the first time.

Before finding the cooperative Berkeley researcher, I had the misfortune of trying to work with some public relations folks at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View. I had called them first, thinking NASA Ames would be able to talk about the NASA advertising campaign and the NASA Mars mission. I didn't get a call back from the public relations folks so I decided to drive an hour from San Francisco to Ames, sure in my belief that these folks would want to talk about their own program. Wrong. When I finally arrived to the Ames Visitors Center (90 minutes later because of traffic), I called the public relations office again: "Hi Simon, I was just getting ready to call you back." Yeah, right. The public relations folks, whose job it is to promote NASA Ames and facilitate media coverage, said today's time frame wasn't going to work and I'd have to find someone else.

Reporters have to get used to this, despite the extreme frustration it causes. Reporters don't always take what public relations people say at face value because our allegiance is to the public, not the companies they represent. But what's difficult for reporters to understand is why public relations professionals, whose allegiance is presumably to their employers, would pass up an opportunity to engage the media and present their message to a wider audience.

 iPhone 6, flexible tripod, harness.

iPhone 6, flexible tripod, harness.

So I left Ames and drove to Berkeley and it all worked out in the end. In fact, it worked out pretty well. I got the chance to use my iPhone as a second camera in the interview. With a flexible tripod and an iPhone harness, the second angle on the interview added professional polish to the story. There is some extra work required: because the iPhone audio isn't any good, you have to sync up the iPhone video to the main camera audio. It's a breeze in non-linear editing.

 

 The iPhone second-camera setup.

The iPhone second-camera setup.

This is another opportunity to be transparent with the interview subject. I told him flat out what I was doing. "I'm experimenting with using my iPhone as a second camera to get extra angles in the interview. Even though I'm here by myself, this allows me to replicate the work of a production team on a multi-camera shoot.." As you'll find usually happens, the interview subject was just fine with whatever the professional journalist wanted to do. Keep in mind the people you're talking to are the experts at something else and trust you to make them look good.

 A screen shot of the interview angle shot with the iPhone 6.

A screen shot of the interview angle shot with the iPhone 6.

I'm convinced TV reporters should use video in their social media posts, rather than solely rely on text. Video is what we do in TV, and being able to take the viewer to the scene in a creative way is helpful in building a brand that keeps viewers coming back. Even though the story was about Mars, the my video Tweet still made a connection to where I was in an engaging way.

Takeaways:

  1. Do it right the first time. It doesn't get better when you get back to the station. "If you didn't get it, you didn't get it."
  2. Be prepared to deal with public relations people who don't want to deal with the public (the media). It's frustrating, but the viewers don't care what problems the reporter has during the day. Keep pushing to get what you need.
  3. Incorporate smart phones in your video gathering process. The HD cameras in them can help add professional polish to the story.
  4. Engage with your background and be creative in shooting social media videos. They help make a connection to your followers and will keep them coming back to you.

TV takes teamwork

While the definition and spirit of the MMJ (multi-media journalist) is to do everything oneself, the truth is, no one person can make a TV story, much less a TV show. It takes a team, and teamwork.

Today's story was about the renewed search for the East Area rapist, a man who is accused of raping and killing dozens of people during the 1970s and 1980s all across the state - from Sacramento to Southern California. The FBI created a new website and was pushing for media coverage in hopes someone would remember something, as we near the 40th anniversary of the first crime.

Sure, as the MMJ on the story, I drove to the scene, I shot video, I wrote the script, I edited video. But there were a lot of parts to the story that wouldn't have happened had my teammates not come through for me:

  • My first task was to get video from the FBI press conference, held in Sacramento and shot by our sister station, KOVR. Because it's been a year since I was here last, I'd forgotten how to get the video from the server. A producer helped me.
  • I wasn't exactly sure where some of the crimes had been committed, which mean I wasn't sure where I needed to go shoot video. An assignment editor emailed me some Google Maps.
  • I needed to import some elements off the new FBI website dedicated to letting the public know the killer may still be out there. An editor helped me reformat some documents that wouldn't work with the editing software.
  • The FBI posted to the website some compelling interviews with victims of the suspect, but there was no video to go with them (I assume to allow the women to remain anonymous). I needed some images to cover the audio in the story. The executive producer put in the graphics request and made sure it was completed on time.
  • The audio booth where reporters record their voice tracks had been revamped since I was last here. A reporter walked me through the new system.
  • Monday's audio meltdown left me gun shy about how my story would sound so I asked for an extra set of ears to review my work before it aired. A videographer stepped in and told me it sounded just fine.
  • I presented my 5 p.m. story from the newsroom. A technical crew member helped me with the lighting.
  • I presented my 6 p.m. story from the studio, the director showed me where to stand.

Granted, many of these examples are due to the fact I'm a sporadic MMJ at KPIX. Still, it goes to show just how many people it takes to put on a newscast and make it look good.

A little creativity with non-linear editing made for another standup that stood out from the usual. It's not all that groundbreaking, but still helps to distinguish the story.

 

While I was out shooting broll and the standup, I tried to talk to some neighbors about the case. Perhaps someone might remember something. I ran into the brick wall that is so common for TV reporters. No one wanted to talk. Granted, it wasn't that crucial for this story, because the elements at the press conference and from the FBI were pretty compelling. Still, it's worth remembering reporters have to have a thick skin. Being told no isn't personal. They're telling the reporter no, not you. Although, one man I approached turned to look at me, and when I asked, "May I talk to you for my story?" he just turned away and kept walking. No acknowledgement whatsoever. Not even a "no."

TV control rooms are an awesome sight. The KPIX control room has been remodeled since I was here last. Truly, it is the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Take a look at some of the photos.

The director is the choreographer. Everyone listens for his instructions to play video, to raise audio, to speak. Here's a snippet of the 6 p.m. show as it's happening live from behind the scenes.

Takeaways:

  1. Don't ever forget you cannot do it alone. Be nice to your co-workers and they'll help make you look good.
  2. Don't take being told no personally. The reporter's job is to ask questions and some people don't want to give answers.
  3. Behind the scenes, putting on a newscast is like a symphony. So many parts, but when it works, the final product is seamless.

Accurate AND understandable

On most stories, TV reporters are like translators. They talk to experts who are well-versed in the subject being discussed (that's one language) but have to present the information to viewers who may have no idea what's going on (that's another language). Knowing what the audience does know, and more importantly, what the audience doesn't know, is crucial to telling a good story.

 A firearm receiver.

A firearm receiver.

Today I covered nearly a dozen proposals coming out of the California Legislature that would make gun control regulations more strict. One bill in particular had to do with requiring background checks on people who bought gun parts. The idea is that some bad guys can bypass the scrutiny of law enforcement that comes with buying a gun by instead buying the pieces that make up a gun. One of those pieces is called the receiver. It's where the trigger, hammer and safety lock go.

The firearms manufacturing engineer I spoke with knew this stuff forwards and backwards, using the precise and proper terminology for each gun part. I didn't understand a lot of what he was saying, and I knew a lot of my audience wouldn't either. So I said as much. There's no shame in saying what you don't know. In fact, it's a good idea to let the expert know the story needs to be understood by lay people, not the expert's colleagues. Negotiate with the experts you include in your stories. Tell them, "I know this is the way you say it, but can we simplify and say it like this?" The goal here is to be both accurate and understandable.

 The drive from the newsroom in San Francisco to the interview in Morgan Hill.

The drive from the newsroom in San Francisco to the interview in Morgan Hill.

Getting started on the story was a challenge. My first task was to review the legislature hearings being fed into the San Francisco newsroom from Sacramento. Once I'd waded through a couple of hours of bill discussion, I then had to figure out a story focus and which local person I'd interview. The firearms manufacturer who came through for me was in Morgan Hill, south of the newsroom - way south.

So once again, I was faced with a decision reporters have to make all the time. Was it worth it to drive that far to get the story? Could I still make deadline?  Would a better strategy be to stay in the newsroom making calls to see if I could get someone closer. For me, the answer is usually, "Get on the road now. Go with the sure interview, no matter how far away it is, instead of waiting and risking no interview at all."

The video upload process: from laptop in Morgan Hill to server in Los Angeles to server in the KPIX newsroom in San Francisco. A 1:30 story takes about five minutes.

Technology is what makes all that driving feasible for an MMJ. There's no way I could have made the return trip to the newsroom in time for deadline. So instead, I just sent the story back over the internet. It's not all that new a technology any more, but it's still pretty cool to see how it changes the workflow for a TV station. No longer do newsroom managers have to worry about who can drive the live truck to the scene in time. Now the question is, "Do you have a strong enough signal?" I did and so the story made it back in plenty of time. Still, watching the internet transfer process can be a little disconcerting. No sigh of relief until the counter gets to 100%.

Takeaways:

  1. Never forget for whom you work - the audience. Negotiate with the experts on the best way to tell the story so it's correct and the viewers understand.
  2. An distant interview in hand is worth two possible interviews close by.
  3. Technology is awesome, when it works. It's revolutionized and liberated how newsrooms operate by changing the logistics paradigm. In many cases, "how far" is now irrelevant.

A fast news day

My story today was to follow up on the Apple World Wide Developers Conference held in San Francisco. One of the big things Apple showed off was an improved Siri, the iPhone function where you talk to the phone and it answers your questions or fulfills your requests. Experts said Apple had fallen behind Google and Amazon and others in perfecting this form of artificial intelligence. Today, Apple wanted to prove it was back in the game.

I found someone who used Siri and a competing product, the Amazon Echo, which can also understand voice requests and responds with an artificially intelligent "person" called Alexa. So the storyline was pretty clear: Siri vs. Alexa, in the battle of the voice bots.

In the end, Siri and Alexa each had her advantages. But by setting up the story as a confrontation between the two, it led to an idea for a standup that demonstrated that confrontation. All it took was a little creative non-linear editing.

 Siri vs. Alexa as shown in the standup.

Siri vs. Alexa as shown in the standup.

TV news is a brutally honest business, in the sense there's no hiding your mistakes when they go out over the air. What's on TV is what everyone sees - you're exposed. That's why it's so frustrating to be surprised when what you thought was a polished piece turns out to be not so hot. That happened today. What sounded good to me in the editing stage ended up sounding like garbage when it played in the newscast. As I listened to the package play live my heart sank. About 50,000 people are hearing my work and it's not up to Market #6 standards.

Everyone's heard the phrase "Must be a slow news day," usually said derisively as a criticism of the stories a TV station decides to air. It's a complaint that the stories that made the newscast weren't worth all that much. Today, my first day back, was not one of those days. The morning meeting began with a slew of potential lead stories:

 The morning meeting story idea list.

The morning meeting story idea list.

Really, any one of these is worthy of the lead story. It goes to show how dynamic covering local news can be. For days it can be nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing and then everything hits at once.

 

 Today's dayside reporters.

Today's dayside reporters.

Day 1 back on the job after a year off always leaves me with butterflies in my stomach. But, seeing your name on the reporter list never gets old.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It's worth pointing out Newhouse students are working with professional grade equipment. Recent graduates and current Broadcast and Digital Journalism students will find the images from my KPIX work kit familiar.

Takeaways:

  1. Time invested in learning non-linear editing techniques pays off with stories told in a more creative and memorable way.
  2. Accept you're not infallible and look at mistakes as opportunities to improve. Also realize, TV mistakes are made in public.
  3. All newsrooms will go through spells where the stories are mundane. Don't despair. Major news always seems to be just around the corner.
  4. Newhouse students are training with the same equipment they'll use on the job. Master it, and you'll be prepared.

Keep digging; you never know what you'll find

Today marks the end of my 2015 return to the newsroom and today's story was a fitting finale. An exclusive story that had pretty humble beginnings.

Last night, the nightside crew heard police scanner chatter about an arrest of a serial car burglar. Not all that interesting. But it happened around the corner from the station, so why not send a videographer to shoot it? Turns out, one of the generic arrest shots revealed the suspect had an Uber placard on his front windshield. Uber is the relatively new app that allows private drivers to work like taxis and pick people up and take them to their destinations. The company has had some bad press because of driver bad behavior. So a little digging into whether the Uber driver was also a car burglar could make for an interesting story.

Turns out, the car burglar was not an Uber driver; he had stolen the placard, too. Moreover, this was the first time the police had heard about a case like this. Apparently the guy would drive around slowly, pretending to be on the lookout for people needing a ride, when in fact what he was doing was scoping out cars he could break in to.

Now we've got a story!

So what began as "Just go shoot the cops arresting a serial car burglar" turned into an exclusive story about a brand new way for criminals to try to cover their tracks. The PR folks at Uber played ball and called me back in time to confirm the suspect was not part of their company. The San Francisco Police department played ball and confirmed this was the first they'd heard of such a ploy and would be on the lookout for it from now on.

While my initial assignment didn't have a lot of promise, the finished product (the lead story at 6pm) did have some heft and certainly told viewers something they didn't know.

Thinking back over the past two weeks, I'm reminded how dynamic the work of a TV reporter is. Varying schedules, levels of difficulty, pressure, story subjects, people to interview. It's hard, but interesting. A sample of the people I spoke to this week. Is there another job that would lead you to this variety?

 For the story on expanding the ferry terminal in Sausalito.

For the story on expanding the ferry terminal in Sausalito.

 For the story on tearing down I280 and re-routing Caltrain to build new housing.

For the story on tearing down I280 and re-routing Caltrain to build new housing.

 For the story on the police officer who was memorialized 62 years after he died in the line of duty.

For the story on the police officer who was memorialized 62 years after he died in the line of duty.

 For the story about the Norovirus outbreak on the cruise ship. She was a boarding passenger.

For the story about the Norovirus outbreak on the cruise ship. She was a boarding passenger.

 For the story on Target moving in to a neighborhood full of mom-n-pop stores.

For the story on Target moving in to a neighborhood full of mom-n-pop stores.

 

Takeaways:

  1. Don't underestimate the value of doing a little digging. What may appear to be mundane could in fact be unique and interesting.
  2. Take time every now and then to think about what you're doing and how the challenges come with the benefit of an absence of boredom.

When they stop asking, we're done

Today's story was about a Norovirus outbreak on a cruise ship that had returned to San Francisco after a 15-day trip to Hawaii. The goals were pretty straightforward: get passengers and video of the ship.

 5pm live shot with the cruise ship in the background.

5pm live shot with the cruise ship in the background.

Because the ship's capacity is about 2,500, there were thousands of people getting off the ship, and thousands waiting to get on, so no problem finding people to talk to. But it struck me, every time I spoke to people who were about to get on the ship, they pumped me for information. I identified myself as a local TV news reporter, and instantly, they assumed I knew everything about the virus, how many people got sick, how it was being cleaned up, what precautions the on-board crew was taking. Gratifyingly, I knew a lot of the answers.

It reminded me how the public assumes journalists are in the know. That's a good thing. The minute people walk past a TV news truck and don't bother asking, "What's going on?" we're done. I always tell young TV reporters and videographers, and even experienced ones, we should  welcome inquiries from the public. Engage the public, strike up conversations with passersby, show little kids all the buttons and monitors. We can't survive if people don't care what we know.

One of the passengers I spoke to told me she received an email from the cruise line warning her of a delayed departure, because the ship was being scrubbed to get rid of the virus. Rather than just note that for my story, I asked her if she could forward me the email. She hemmed and hawed a little about using up some of her phone's travel data plan, but finally did it. Beginning reporters sometimes worry they're being too forward or too intrusive by asking for personal things. But it never hurts to ask. The person you're talking to can always say "no." Better to try than to never know if you could have gathered an extra element for your story.

Newhouse students should know they're working with pretty much the same equipment we use in San Francisco. The cameras are a slightly different version of the Sony NX5U, the Adobe Premiere non-linear editing software is comparable to Edius. Even the remote server is recognizable to students: FileZilla. You're getting real-life training at Syracuse.

One of the great things about TV reporting is, no matter how well or how poorly you did that day, once the live shot's over, there's nothing you can do about it. It's OVER. You get a chance to unwind, ponder how you'd do it differently the next time and start thinking about the unpredictable adventure that awaits tomorrow.

 Finished!

Finished!

Takeaways:

  1. Be nice to the public, AKA our customers. When they don't care what we do, we're toast.
  2. Ask. The worst that can happen is you get a "no."
  3. Don't beat yourself up at the end of the day. You can't do anything to change what's happened. Instead, learn from your mistakes and enjoy the fact your TV reporting job allows you to try again tomorrow.

The first 30 seconds....

Today's story was, for the third day in a row, about an intruder breaking into a home while the family was still there. Weird - three days in a row. This idea, admittedly, came from the newspaper. I wasn't all that optimistic when I received my assignment, because the father who fought with the intruder refused to give his name to the newspaper reporter. Moreover, assigning me to cover this story was pretty risky, because I had to drive from San Francisco all the way to Oakley. This meant, if the story didn't come through, if the dad wouldn't talk to me on camera, then I would have wasted an hour driving WAY to the east and would be a long way away from potential backup stories in San Francisco.

In the end the story did come through. I talked not only with the dad, but also with his 18-year-old son who actually beat the intruder with a piece of wood to make him let go of dad. Two really great interviews and a good story. But it didn't happen by chance. When I first knocked on the dad's door, he answered with a black eye and other bruises on his face, a result of the fight with the intruder. I had woken him up from a nap and he was also loopy from the pain medication. Not a good way to start asking someone if he wants to be on camera for Channel 5 TV. But I think what convinced him to do it was my professional appearance and demeanor.

Something beginning reporters don't often realize is they have about 30 seconds to establish a rapport with the people they hope to interview. Within that first 30 seconds, they must show they're smart, credible, serious, genuine and able to tell a story accurately. Remember, the people you want to talk to are sizing you up from the second they see you, even before you open your mouth. Therefore, how you dress makes a difference. How you carry yourself makes a difference. What you say and HOW you say it makes all the difference. My approach:

  • Be transparent. I hate it when people don't tell me who they are right off the bat, so that's the first thing I say: "Hi, I'm Simon Perez with Channel 5." Wear your station ID on a lanyard so everyone can see it.
  • Be polite, be direct and get to the point. "I'd like to talk to you about the intruder who broke in to your house last night."
  • Show empathy, but don't be too sappy. "This is the third day in a row I'm covering this kind of story. Isn't that crazy?"
  • Understand the public isn't on TV every day and may be a little nervous. Assuage this fear. "We can talk anywhere. I'd just like to chat about what happened. It's all on tape so if we mess up we can start over."

With that, the man agreed to talk to me a couple of hours later, after his son had returned from school. The interview went off without a hitch.

During the couple of hours I waited for the son to come home, I went to shoot some other video for the story. To get that video I had to park on a sidewalk.

This is something beginning reporters must get used to. "The Media" has some privileges when it comes to parking and setting up our equipment. But you must be a little pushy sometimes. I'd never do this with my personal vehicle. However, because the nearest place to park was about half a mile away, I chose this spot. After all, "I'll only be a minute." :)

Moreover, after I parked, I had to walk along the trail to get the video I needed. It was a haul, especially hauling the camera and the tripod. But that's part of the job. MMJs need to be in good physical shape. There's no one to carry the equipment for you, and you need all of it to make the video look good. There's no excuse for not taking the tripod with you. "It's too heavy" just doesn't cut it.

Here's how far I went. Notice the tree over my left shoulder.

Takeaways:

  1. You've got one chance to make a first impression. Blow it, and your chances for an interview go way down. Get it right, and people will tell you all kinds of things.
  2. Be a pushy parker.
  3. Get in shape. Prepare to sweat. Being an MMJ is strenuous.