Today I followed up on a Sunday announcement that San Francisco's mayor was proposing a radical change to the way people get to and around the city. He wanted to tear down a major highway and re-route the commuter rail line. This story has all kinds of angles, but a TV story with "all kinds of angles" is pretty much useless. You must find a narrow focus that relays specific, comprehensible and, hopefully, useful and interesting points to the viewer. You only have about 90 seconds, after all. In this case, I narrowed it down to three:
- What are the traffic implications of tearing down the highway?
- How much would it cost to re-route the rail line?
- How valuable is the land that would be opened up by moving the train tracks and existing station?
Arriving at a narrow focus can be as simple as asking yourself, "What are viewers asking themselves?" Much like Chevy Chase advised "Be the ball, Danny" in Caddyshack, reporters must often try to "Be the viewer." You have to assume the mindset of the viewers and think of the questions they might have when they hear about something in the news.
A few other thoughts:
Sometimes, you have to think way, way ahead. We wanted to make an animated map for this story to give viewers a bird's eye view of the new train route. But making animated graphics is much more complicated than the standard graphics that list bullet points on a page. Animation requires the graphics department to get involved to do its magic. That means reporters, early on in the day, have to visualize what they want the map to look like and even what they want to be saying as the map appears in the story. This can be extraordinarily difficult if you haven't finished gathering all your information yet. "But I don't know where it turns north?" "But I don't know how much it costs?" All legitimate questions, but still, it's your job to help make the story look good. So the skilled reporter can come up with a line of script that is generic enough to be valid at 10:30am and also valid at 6pm when the story airs. You can fill in the details in other parts of the story when you've gathered them. The graphic needs to be done now (in the morning) so it'll look good later (showtime).
Go ahead, ask. As I lined up interviews, I got one of the premiere real estate developers in the city to answer his phone. He agreed to an interview and I offered to come to his office. He said: "I'm in the Russ Building." I had the following conversation with myself in about two seconds:
"Hmmm, I don't know where the Russ Building is. Should I know? Is the building so famous and prominent that if I say I don't know, the interview subject will think I don't know what I'm doing. I worked here for 10 years, how can I not know? That's a little pretentious to give the name of the building instead of the address. It's not like City Hall. Maybe I can ask someone later. Did he say Russ or Rust? Would that make a difference? Oh screw it, it's always better to be sure and risk being seen as ignorant than blow the whole interview because you can't find the office."
Really, all that happened in about two seconds, and then I said into the phone, "Can you tell me the address?" Beginning reporters often are afraid to ask questions they think are stupid and might harm their credibility. This fear is founded in some cases. Reporters should know the background of the stories they cover. If you're doing a story on shameless cheating in the NFL, asking, "Which team does Tom Brady play for?" does show your ignorance. But asking for directions, or how to spell a name or the specific charge being filed are all things that show a reporter cares about accuracy and is not careless.
- Your story must be focused. Otherwise you'll try to include too much information in 90 seconds and the viewer won't get anything out of it. Three points made well trumps a dozen scrambled ideas jammed together. "Be the ball."
- Being a team player can mean leaving your comfort zone. Other members of the news team have their own jobs to do, and sometimes you have to put their needs before yours.
- Yes, there are stupid questions. Good reporters should know the answers to those. But there are also simple questions that aren't so obvious. Don't be afraid to ask them. "Where am I?" can make a big difference if you're standing on the dividing point between a city and a county.