A fitting finale

The final day of my two-week return to TV seemed an appropriate sendoff; it epitomized the unpredictability of the job. Simply, three stories in one day.

Story 1: Follow up on the kid who took his boss's Maserati and crashed it into the public transit repair shop. 

 The crashed Maserati photo as it appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The crashed Maserati photo as it appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Specifically, we wanted to find the owner. Here’s how TV news sleuthing works: The police department wouldn’t give us the name of the owner because he’s a victim. The district attorney’s office didn’t have the name because the owner didn’t press charges about the car being stolen. All we had was the picture, which clearly shows the license plate. With that, we can get the owner’s information from the DMV. The owner had such a generic name it was pretty much useless. However, on a whim, I decided to do a Google search for name + Maserati, and a magazine article came up. Lo and behold, a guy by this name is a big-time CEO who, on his daily commute to work, drives a Maserati.

Hey, we’re getting somewhere.

Problem is, his company’s headquarters is in Maryland. But a search of the company’s website shows it’s got an office in San Francisco! Maybe, just maybe, this guy is so rich, he’s got a Maserati in every town where he’s got an office. In the end, I went to the office, and it turns out he wasn’t the guy. A lot of effort to end up at a dead end, but this is what it takes to ferret out a story.

Story 2: The NASCAR race is in two days and that means massive traffic jams around the track, which is just north of San Francisco at the gateway to wine country. On this story I was paired with a videographer and our job was to remind people to avoid the area around the track and include this detail – 85% of the people who drive past the track on race day, aren’t even going to the race, they’re headed farther north for wine tasting. If they went another way, they could avoid two-hour delays.

 Denny Hamlin heading from the garage to the track at Sonoma Raceway.

Denny Hamlin heading from the garage to the track at Sonoma Raceway.

This story went as planned and we even got to enjoy the roar and rumble of the NASCAR cars. But at 4:30pm, a half an hour before our scheduled live shot at the track, we were told to hurry up and feed in the traffic story, and head to . . . 

Story 3: A fire had broken out near Interstate 680, forcing the California Highway Patrol to close the roadway. Moreover, there were houses burning, and with the drought, there was a chance this could get big. Truth is, there’s a chance every fire could get big. So, we leave the raceway at 4:59pm heading toward the fire for a 6pm live shot at the top of the show.

 Story 1 - San Francisco; Story 2 - Sonoma Raceway; Story 3 - Fairfield fire.

Story 1 - San Francisco; Story 2 - Sonoma Raceway; Story 3 - Fairfield fire.

Here’s where the logistics of TV news gets complicated and where more than a little luck is necessary. To be successful for a 6pm live shot, we needed to find a location to set up the truck where the fire would be in the background, where we could leave the truck for the live shot without getting kicked out by the firefighters, where we could shoot video and conduct interviews with witnesses. OK, so we've now dealt with the location. Then there’s the time constraints: travel time, shooting video time, interview time, editing time, feeding the video back to the station time, live shot set up time, all before 6pm when the show starts.

Here’s what we saw on the way in:

 

 

 

 

 

On Google maps, I zoomed in to the area where the fire was and figured out the back way in avoiding the freeway, which was closed. I was basically guessing by looking at a map on an iPad. But this is where experience and luck comes into play. Get this part wrong, and we could waste precious minutes trying to find a location that fulfilled all the criteria listed above. Get it right, and we get on at the top of the show with all the elements.

We guessed right, found a safe parking space with a good vantage point, and hopped out of the truck and began shooting.

 iPhone photo of CalFire helicopter water drop. By the way, it's up to the reporter to get out of the way or be doused.

iPhone photo of CalFire helicopter water drop. By the way, it's up to the reporter to get out of the way or be doused.

My photographer (I was working with one today) ran straight to the fire and got great pictures. The fire won’t keep burning forever, hopefully, so there’s a certain hurriedness to covering these events. Wait too long and there won’t be any video to shoot.

Meanwhile, I dedicated a few minutes to social media, shooting video and photos that the station and others could re-Tweet. I think we were the first ones to get video from the ground of the fire (various stations had already broadcast helicopter video). It’s at events such as these that a reporter or TV station develops a reputation for being first. Once you get that reputation, viewers and followers will come back to you the next time something happens. It’s like CNN – not a lot of people watch daily, but when a war breaks out, that’s where people go. Nonetheless, I was a little worried, as I shot my video and photos for social media, that I wasn’t dedicating time gathering information for my live shot. It was a choice – one or the other, not both.

In the end, we did the job. Live report at 6pm, with video; live report again at 6:30 with video and a live interview, plus live camera shots throughout the show. An exhausting day but one that reminded me of the power of TV. It’s the only medium that can take you to the scene and show you what’s going on right now, live. Newspapers and radio can’t do that. That’s why TV stations push so hard to get on the air at breaking news events. It’s the only way to distinguish ourselves.

Takeaways:

  1. Once again, it’s important for aspiring TV reporters to figure out whether they can handle the unpredictability of this job. “Yes I love it” or “No, I hate it” are both acceptable answers. Only one means you have a career in TV news.
  2. Logistics plays an important, if not well-recognized, role in successful TV news stories. Figuring out where to go and how to get there are skills one develops over time. There’s nothing the folks back at the station can do to help you, really. You’re out in the field making the final calls based on what you see on the scene. A wrong turn can mean a 30-minute delay that jeopardizes or crashes a live shot. The right turn can mean you beat the competition.
  3. Covering breaking news means getting the video and interviews and information you can right now. The event doesn’t go on forever and dallying can cost you.
  4. Social media can be an important tool in establishing your reputation as a go-to source for news – breaking news, exclusive news, interesting news, whatever. Using it expands your reach to a broader audience. However, there’s a delicate balance because time dedicated to social media is time not spent on getting your story ready for the TV broadcast. Reporters have to learn to do more while trying to do it all well.