Playing it safe in Oakland

The beauty of local television news is every day is a new day. No matter what happened the day before, it’s a clean slate tomorrow. After yesterday’s success, today was bound to be a little more difficult.

While reviewing the Oakland City Council agendas online, I found the Public Safety Committee had this item on its agenda for next week:

Subject: Banning Automated Purchasing Machines

From: Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney

Recommendation: Adopt An Ordinance Of The City Of Oakland, California, Amending Title 8 Of The Oakland Municipal Code To Add Chapter 8.21 Prohibiting Automated Purchasing Machines Which Buy Back Personal Electronic Devices Or Electronic Equipment

Reviewing agendas often leads to nothing, they’re so boring. But sometimes, there are nuggets that make for interesting stories. After all, what government decides, we all have to abide. This one piqued my interest, more than anything else, because I didn’t know anything about it. After a little research, I discovered other cities had banned these machines, which allow you to turn in your old cell phone for cash, kind of like an ATM. The city doesn’t want these machines set up in Oakland because it thinks making it easy to exchange phones for cash will be an incentive for people to steal more phones. Already the number of cell phone robberies in Oakland has doubled to nearly 3,400 since 2009, when there were only 1,600.

So what do I need for this story? Cell phone video, video of the machines and interviews with the council member, police and someone from the company that makes the machines. Pretty simple.

The council member’s office agreed to an interview, but not until the afternoon. The station found tons of file video of cell phones and the machines. But the video was at the station in San Francisco and I was in Oakland, which mean I wasn’t in control. The more people involved in producing a story, the longer it takes. But in this case, I was willing to rely on the file video, because I really had no choice.

The Oakland Police Department Public Information Officer didn’t call me back until 5:37pm! This was after calls to her at 11am. Surely the folks there know how TV works, right? “The story’s running at 6pm tonight.” It’s amazing how often people whom you expect to understand the rhythm of local TV news – TV time – just don’t. In the end, I couldn’t include the police.

And the machine manufacturer is in San Diego, so it only offered a phone interview, ugh – phone interviews bring television stories to a dead halt. So I just asked them to email me answers to questions.

So by 3:00pm, all I have is one interview with the council member; I have to make a call. The story airs at 6pm. And my call is, “that’s it.” This is going to be one of those uninspired one-interview stories (just the council member’s aide) and a bunch of broll. It’s time to head back to San Francisco to get the file video and edit the package.

Again, because there are lots of professionals in the newsroom, the file was ready and the graphics and editors were standing by to fill in the holes in my story super fast.

Compared to yesterday, this story didn’t have the day-of video, compelling interviews and creative standup one would hope for, but, tomorrow’s another day.

Even though I worked as an MMJ, I wasn’t by myself today. Evan accompanied me. He’s a former Oakland Police Officer who now works as an armed guard. Our station, and many others it the Bay Area, now require reporters to cover Oakland with someone with a gun. We’re not allowed to go alone. Why?

I must say I never felt threatened during our day. So it was strange to have Evan sit with me in my car as I researched my story online and made phone calls. He accompanied me to Oakland City Hall where I conducted my interview, and he was vigilant, checking on not only me, but looking out the windows to keep watch on my car parked nearby.

 Working a story with Security Guard Evan Frazier in Oakland, CA.

Working a story with Security Guard Evan Frazier in Oakland, CA.

I guess this is part of being a television reporter today; MMJs, because they’re alone, are even more susceptible to having their equipment taken. 

Takeaways:

  1. No matter how well you plan, you still have to depend on the public to make your story a reality. Sometimes those people get it, sometimes they don’t. Regardless, you have to make deadline, so that means your stories may meet your standards or not. The good thing is once today’s chapter has been written, we get to write another one tomorrow.
  2. The public doesn’t fear the media or hold it in such high regard as it used to. I can remember going on assignments where people cowered, whispering, “Oh, that’s the TV station.” Nowadays, especially in cities like Oakland, but also in San Francisco, the bad guys treat us like any other potential victim in possession of expensive equipment. TV crews, and especially MMJs, must be on the lookout for threats to their safety and never trade health for a story.