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.