It's not personal

Trying to get random people to talk to you about a story is difficult. I’ve noted as the years have gone on, people are more and more wary of engaging with the media. I suppose it’s not our place to determine whether people should welcome interruptions to their days, but still, all I’m asking is will you talk to me - there’s no need to walk by me as if I were a tree or a threat.

But that’s what happened today. My story was about whether the 6.4 magnitude earthquake in Southern California yesterday had prompted Northern Californians to get ready for the next Big One. It’s coming. I went out out on the street to see if they were prepared.

My three key elements to a story:

  • So what (what difference does it make): Earthquakes are a way of life in California. And, like the weather, they affect everyone, no matter where you live, how much money you make, how big your family is. This was a universal story that appealed to everyone.

  • Real people (the people living the story): An easy target - anyone living in California.

  • Show me, don’t tell me (video): This is harder, because earthquake video is hard to come by. But, by focusing on the earthquake kits, and whether people had them, I had more opportunities to shoot.

You get “no” a lot more than “yes” when you’re on the street trying to talk to passersby.

The success rate on getting people to talk to you varies, but you can almost always be guaranteed it will never be 100 percent. Lots of people will say no. And some people will say no rudely – silently walking by glaring at you as if you had just insulted their mothers. But it doesn’t really matter, your job is to get the interview. My success rate today was pretty good, about 25 percent, although I got only one yes out of my first 13 asks. The video above shows what it’s like to be told no or even just flat out ignored.

A few ideas on how to be successful engaging people:

  1. Be ready. Especially when you’re working as an MMJ, there’s no way to hide the fact you’re a TV reporter. So you might as well get all the equipment out and be prepared to do the interview. That means camera on the tripod, INWF (iris, neutral density filter, white balance, focus) and mic check. If you’re ready the moment someone even considers talking to you, you give that person less time to think about backing out. The moment someone shows interest, hit record and stick out the mic. Once the interview’s begun, most people realize it’s painless and will continue.

  2. Get to the point quickly. Long, rambling initial statements just give potential interviews more time to think about saying no. Quickly: “I’m doing a story on….” helps the person make a snap judgment on whether to go further. After you see the person is engaged and at least thinking about it, then you can introduce yourself and give more background on the story. 

  3. Keep your promises. Do the story you say you’re doing to do. Ask the questions you say you’re going to ask. Be as quick as you say you’re going to be.

  4. Be cheerful. No matter how many times people ignore you or are rude to you, shake it off and start anew with a smile and a positive attitude. Each new person you engage is judging you from scratch – no one knows you’re only batting .250.

 Beginning reporters often have a difficult time figuring out how their stories are going to go. Not having a plan is dangerous once you’ve begun gathering elements. Without a plan, they end up shooting interviews and broll they don’t need and won’t use. That’s a waste of time – the most precious commodity a reporter has. Here’s a format that can help you organize your thoughts before you head out and focus your efforts on gathering only the elements you’re likely to use:



Real people → Today and how we got here → Expert



For example, say you’re doing a story on a new plan to battle homelessness, your story might go like this:

homelessness.jpg
  • Real people: neighbors who are fed up with people sleeping in front of their houses

  • Today and how we got here: previous plans that haven’t worked and led to the new plan

  • Expert: politician who’s proposing the new plan

Maybe your story is on opening day of the new baseball season:

baseball.jpg
  • Real people: fans at the stadium

  • Today and how we got here: how the team did last year and whatever’s new this year

  • Expert: manager or player on what’s expected this season


Or you’re covering the car wreck that killed the high school valedictorian:

car crash.jpg
  • Real people: friends who knew the student

  • Today and how we got here: video of the crash

  • Expert: police officer who can update the investigation


I used this formula on today’s story about earthquake preparedness (or the lack of it):

earthquake.jpg
  • Real people: Bay Area people who will experience the next earthquake

  • Today and how we got here: the Southern California earthquake is a reminder what can happen and the years of exhortations of government folks to get prepared

  • Expert: someone who sells earthquake kits and his experience with preparedness

To be sure, not all stories fit neatly into this format, but many do. Having a plan gets your thoughts organized and saves time.

Takeaways:

  1. It’s not personal when people say “no” to an interview request. Stay positive and be ready.

  2. Have a plan before you embark on gathering elements for your story. It’ll help you be more efficient. One option: Real people → Today and how we got here → Expert

 And that’s a wrap for KPIX 2019. Thanks to everyone who helped me get back into the saddle and live new news experiences I can share with my students.

 Some shots of the city:

The news(casts) never stop(s)

Here’s the list of people working on the July 4th holiday. Pretty much the same number of people who work June 4th and August 4th. The news never stops.

Here’s the list of people working on the July 4th holiday. Pretty much the same number of people who work June 4th and August 4th. The news never stops.

One of the strange things about broadcast journalism is in order to tell our stories to the public we must do the opposite of what the public does. For example, when a truck carrying toxic chemicals overturns on the freeway, we tell everyone to stay clear and avoid the area, as we drive as fast as we can to get a close look at the truck. Or, while we report on people enjoying holiday barbecues and days off from work, we leave our families and head into work. Yes, the news happens on holidays, including the Fourth of July.

Keep in mind, even though a holiday is just another workday for us, it does not mean your sources are on the same page. I proposed doing a story on how the Fremont Police Department had been using social media to warn the people who live there that the city was on pace to break a record for the highest number of car burglaries. People were getting stuff stolen out of their cars left and right. I thought this would be a good holiday story because getting my three key elements would be pretty easy: 

  • So what (what difference does it make): viewers would want to know if there are things they could do to safeguard laptops or phones or other valuables.

  • Real people (the people living the story): ideally someone whose car had been burgled. But at the least, someone who lives in Fremont who could react to the news the burglaries are becoming more and more common. Plus it was a holiday, so regular folks would be out and about. 

  • Show me, don’t tell me (video): perhaps the police would have photos or video of a car that had been broken in to. At the least, I might be able to find cars that had valuables inside ready for the taking.

fremont police pio web page.jpg

With that plan, I figured it would be a straightforward day - all those elements seemed reasonably easy to gather. What I hadn’t counted on is how many people were enjoying the holiday and not working, including the people whose job it is to inform the public about what’s going on. The Fremont Police Department website lists four people as public information officers (PIOs). Of all the people I emailed and called, one got back to me, and said no one would be available – too busy with the city’s Fourth of July parade. I get that the police department’s first priority is public safety, not dealing with the media. But some people actually are paid to deal with the media and, moreover, today’s story was indeed about public safety. But the public information officer stuck to her guns about no one being available to inform the public on this day. For what it’s worth, I asked if we could do the story the next day, July 5th – never heard back.

From: Geneva Bosques
Sent: Thursday, July 4, 2019 10:49 AM
To: Perez, Simon; Fremont PDPIO; Michael Gebhardt; Michael Gilfoy; Ricardo Cortes
Subject: RE: Simon Perez, KPIX TV story - auto burglaries
Hi Simon,
Yes, we posted that about a week ago. As with many other cities auto burglaries continue to be an issue. Unfortunately, I don’t have any availability today. I was in for the parade, and now I’m off until Monday. We don’t have an available backup.
Happy 4th!
Geneva
— Fremont Police Public Information Officer email reply

With that story a no go, I moved on to a series of fires in San Jose. The assignment desk sent three crews to cover the scene. Two videographers set up on hilltops nearby and shot helicopters dropping water and long-distance views of firefighters battling the flames. It was my job to try to get close.

Sheriff’s deputies at the bottom of the road that led to the structures that burned would not allow me to drive up because firefighters hate – HATE – it when vehicles drive over their hoses. But, they also were well-versed with the California law (see section (d)) that allows reporters to approach fires on foot. It’s up to the reporter to decide what’s safe and what’s not.

Hiking the hill to cover news.

Hiking the hill to cover news.

Charred hillside in San Jose.

Charred hillside in San Jose.

I parked and pulled out my equipment and trudged up and down the hill several times, trying to get video and interviews with victims and firefighters. It was about 80 degrees (the temperature, not the hill’s incline). The first time up, I felt pretty good – the successive times, I got pretty winded and sweaty. Which just goes to show, this job can be physically taxing. It pays to be in shape. Using your downtime to go to the gym is a good idea.

Takeaways:

  1. The news never stops, even on holidays. Be prepared to work them.

  2. Not everyone gets Takeaway #1, even the people who are supposedly experts at dealing with the media.

  3. Get in shape.

Let 'em go

When you only have one subject in a room or small area, it’s hard to capture a lot of different angles of the subject because two different shots back to back showing the subject in two different places is a jump cut - the subject appears to jump from one to the other. The solution is to let the subject leave the frame. Once the subject leaves and then reappears someplace else, the viewers just assume that’s where the person was going all along.

Like this: Notice how the dog leaves the frame to the left, and then appears facing left at the water bowl. Those two shots back to back work, only because the dog disappeared (left the frame) and then reappeared (at the water bowl.) If the dog hadn’t left the frame, she would have “jumped” from the middle of the room to the bowl - a jarring image for the viewers.

Moca the dog leaves the frame to the left, which makes a good edit point. You can show her someplace else after she leaves the frame.

She’s at the water bowl. Back to back, these two shots allow the viewer to see the dog moving from one place to another without jumping.

This videography technique was part of my story today: pet owners turning to CBD, a supplement derived from marijuana, to help calm their pets during fireworks shows on Independence Day. My three key elements:

  • So what (what difference does it make): July 4th is the day when more pets get lost than any other. That’s because they’re freaked out by the booms of the pyrotechnics and run away. This is a HUGE deal to pet owners.

  • Real people (the people living the story): A pet owner. Better: a pet owner whose dog freaks out during fireworks. Even better still: a pet owner whose dog freaks out during fireworks but has calmed down because of CBD. Found one. 😀

  • Show me don’t tell me (video): The dog and the calming products made with CBD.

I was able to find all these things, thanks to some teamwork in the newsroom. As we discussed the story in the morning meeting, producer Cecelia Wong said her roommate was going through this very problem - dog can’t handle fireworks, but CBD helps. This is where all the video of Moca came from. One more clip, again showing her leaving the frame, which allows another shot of her to follow in a different part of the room:

Moca runs in and out of frame making it easy to edit around this shot.

One other videography tip: you always want the light shining on your subject, not behind the subject shining on you and the camera. When that happens (when the videographer is looking into the light) that’s called backlighting. The camera simply can’t handle it. But, sometimes you have no choice but to have the light behind the subject. In that case, do your best to make what you want the viewers to look at look good. Here’s an example:

In this shot, the window is behind the subject, not ideal. But there’s no way to get the camera between the dog and the window. So, choose to make the subject look good - the dog, and accept an overexposed window.

Takeways:

  1. Let ‘em go out of frame. It’ll give you more opportunities to edit when you have one subject in a small room.

  2. Make the subject look good, even if that means the background looks bad.

Ready or not

Covering breaking news is the most exhilarating and demanding part of broadcast journalism. It pushes news crews to their limits, requiring split-second decisions. The choices can mean being the first on the scene or the last, getting the home run interview or missing it. And, most of all, it means being ready to go on the air – right now – no matter how prepared you are, or aren’t.

There’s an active shooter at Tanforan Mall, get there as fast as you can.
— Phone call from the newsroom

At 4:30 p.m., I was in my truck editing a story for the 5 p.m. show – already pretty stressed by the pressure of the impending deadline. That’s when I got the call: “There’s an active shooter at Tanforan Mall, get there as fast as you can.” Of course, I went. But, all the work I’d done so far that day – the phone calls, the interviews, the video – poof, gone. When breaking news strikes, you drop everything. No complaining. It’s part of the job.

You’re on the way to cover what is potentially a dramatic story like a mall shooter, and the traditional search for story elements goes out the window (along with all the work you’ve done that day). There is no time to plan how to gather So what (what difference does it make), Real people (the people living the story), Show me, don’t tell me (video). All those things you have to figure out when you get there.

I packed up and drove to the scene, met up with a videographer who had beaten me there and went on the air live. As soon as we could connect with the station, we went live. I didn’t know what was going on inside the mall or how many people had been hurt or whether the shooters were still around. But it didn’t matter. One of the goals of every TV news station is to establish the reputation as being the first on the scene and the go-to source for breaking news. CNN has cemented itself in that role for breaking international news. Think about it. When the United States launches attacks on another country or a tsunami strikes or a passenger plane goes down in the Pacific, what’s the channel you turn to? That’s what local TV newsrooms want to be for their viewers.

Sometimes the only information you have is what you see. That works for a breaking news live shot.

One way to achieve that, then, is to have a reporter live on the air on the scene first. We were. “Simon, we’re taking you live as soon as you’re ready.” But what do I say? I just got here! Doesn’t matter, the goal is to be live and show KPIX is there for the viewers with the most up-to-date information at the scene. So, I did the only thing I could do which was describe the scene. Perhaps not the specific information the viewers wanted – what was going on inside the mall – but still information from the scene and what was happening right now.

Trying to find witnesses at a breaking news event means walking up to strangers and talking to them. Thanks to KPIX videographer Rick Villaroman for rolling on all this - he knew my students would want to see it.

OK, now that we’re here, it’s time to look for people who may have been inside the mall when the shooting happened. Not surprisingly, people who are shaken up after having (literally) just run for their lives, sometimes don’t like to talk to reporters asking them what happened. But it’s your job to ask, anyway. My philosophy is to always be transparent with the public and not try to play games. Plus, when you’re a TV reporter, there’s no way to just sidle up to a group of people and pretend to innocently be part of the conversation. With the camera and microphone out, everyone knows who you are and what you want. But it does pay to empathize with what people have just gone through and remember you need something from them. You’re asking, not forcing, them to agree to an interview. They don’t have to do it if they don’t want to.

So be polite and direct. Admitting you don’t know what happened and you’d like to find out so you can tell the viewers helps. Again, you’re being transparent, and demonstrating your trustworthiness.

Once someone agrees to an interview, it’s important to remember this may be the first time that person has been on live TV. Most of the public has no idea how it works. It’s your job to help the person through it. The better the interview subject does, the better informed the public is. A few things that can help the interview go more smoothly:

  • Give the subject a quick overview of the types of questions you’re planning to ask

  • Tell the subject to answer only the question asked; the reporter will then ask another

  • Start the story yourself and then turn to the subject at the part where his or her contribution is most compelling

  • Tell the subject to look at the reporter, not the camera

  • Start and end by telling the viewers who the interview subject is and why you’re talking to that person

  • Be friendly and encouraging

As you watch this video of the live interview with the witness, notice: 1) how quickly we go live after setting up the interview, 2) the brief explanation of what’s going to happen and 3) the summary at the end of who the viewers just heard.

Another thing about breaking news coverage – it’s fluid. A typical live shot is scheduled down to the second. The producer’s rundown says: Reporter live at 6:01:30. But when the scramble is on to cover breaking news, live shots can happen at any time. The crews in the field have to be ready to go, and go again, often several times in a newscast. In the live interview above and notice how soon we went live after this interview was set up.

Asking questions during a live interview can be difficult. You’re on live TV and have to think on your feet. Two things can help:

Asking questions on the fly during live interviews with the chiefs of the San Bruno police and fire departments.

1. Listen - Beginning reporters will often plan how they expect (and want) an interview to go and then only ask the 10 questions they’ve written in their reporter’s notebook. Bad idea. Yes, you should ask the questions you think are important, but you must also listen to what the interview subject is saying. It’s a fatal flaw if you don’t. If the person you’re talking to says something newsworthy that is not part of your pre-planned list and you ignore it, you’ve defeated the whole point of the exercise, which is to get newsworthy information and communicate it to the public. It’s not easy to do two things at once – listen and formulate the next question. But experienced reporters can do it and it makes for much better interviews.

2. Think like a viewer - In a breaking news situation, there is no time to write up a list of questions. You have to go live and ask as the cameras are rolling and thousands of people are watching. In live TV, there are no do overs. So what do you ask? Think like a viewer. What would the viewer want to know? In this case, during a live interview with the San Bruno police chief, what the viewers want to know could be:

  • Is the threat over?

  • Who’s hurt and how badly?

  • What the heck happened?

  • Did you catch the bad guys?

  • What makes this different from other similar events?

  • What’s next?

This is not rocket science but keeping your calm and leading the subject through the story in a way that makes sense to and is satisfying for the viewers can be tough when you’re doing it on the fly, live.

It probably goes without saying, but breaking news coverage is an all-hands-on-deck scenario for a newsroom. You can expect to work harder, faster and more.

can you stay cropped 2.jpg

Takeaways:

  1. Breaking news means dropping all the work you’ve already done during the day.

  2. Being first on breaking news is a big deal.

  3. Breaking news means going live now, no matter how prepared you are, or aren’t.

  4. Prepare your live interview subjects for what’s coming. You know how it works, they don’t.

  5. Listen during interviews, and think like a viewer.

  6. Breaking news means working harder, faster and more. It’s a thrill.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

The viewer doesn’t care.
— Simon Perez, Syracuse University

Sometimes story ideas come through. The way you planned it is the way it happens. Sometimes story ideas don’t come through. And then they don’t again and again and again and again. As you might have guessed from the headline of this blog entry, I attempted to do six stories today. There’s a lot of effort and frustration that goes into that, but as my students have heard me say a million times, “the viewer doesn’t care.”

map of six places.jpg

Starting from San Francisco:

Story 1: An Oakland City Councilor is pushing to close down a street that has become a homeless encampment near a Home Depot. This story had already been done by the nightside team a few weeks ago, but the dayside team had forgotten. No need for me to repeat a story done so recently.

Story 2: A baggage equipment malfunction at SFO left a lot of upset passengers without their toiletries. After I arrived at the airport, we realized the problem had been fixed.

Story 3: A suspicious package at the Facebook mail facility caused several buildings to be evacuated. On the way there, we figured the story would be well over and old news by 5 p.m., so we moved on to something else.

Story 4: Several new laws went into effect in California today, including one that required a background check to buy ammunition. Not much luck finding a cooperative gun store owner in the Bay Area, so on to the next idea.

Story 5: Another law that went into effect in California today raised the minimum wage in several cities across the Bay Area. On this one I made some progress, actually conducting an interview with an economics professor at San Jose State University. As soon as I’d finished the interview, I’d planned to head to one of the communities that was seeing an increase (Milpitas, just to the north), but before I could start the car, the station called and said the Facebook suspicious package story was looking pretty good now.

Story 6: Facebook suspicious package.

Usually, it’s at this point in the blog where I write the three key elements I look for in a story (so what, real people, show me don’t tell me). But today, because I had about an hour to get ready for the first of three live shots (5 p.m., 6 p.m., 7 p.m.), there was no time to figure out those elements. I had to go with the video the helicopter and the videographer who arrived before me had shot and the information provided by the parsimonious (with details) public information officer. There was no time for anything else.

When you’re faced with a situation like this, the goal is to be informative and presentable. It’s essential to remember the viewers don’t care about all the troubles the reporter has gone through (six stories!!!!) during the day. The viewers want news, and they want it from you - that’s why they’re watching your channel.

Hank Plante.

Hank Plante.

It’s also important to remember that your chance to inform comes at the end of all that mayhem. I recall this perspective given to me by longtime KPIX reporter Hank Plante, who told me this is a business where you must look and do your best not at the beginning of the day when you’re fresh, but at the end of the day when you may be exhausted, frustrated and at your wit’s end. True. And you must do your best, because the viewer doesn’t care.

Takeaways:

  1. The viewer doesn’t care.

Don't start with yesterday

yesterday today graphic.jpg

One of the difficult habits for beginning writers to break is putting their stories in chronological order. While this may work on occasion, what’s better, in most cases, is starting with what’s happening now.

In modern journalism, timeliness is perhaps the most newsworthy element. Our audience is consuming news all day long, on its own schedule. We don’t really now how up to date people are when they watch our stories. If viewers have already heard about our subject on the radio or online, the last thing we want to do is start the story with something they already know. This kills the appeal of the story. They think: “Well, I guess there isn’t anything new, or else the reporter would have started with that.”

That applied to my story today. My assignment: follow up on California Senator Kamala Harris’ performance in last night’s Democratic presidential debate. She’s from Berkeley, and one of the highlights of the debate was her talking about her childhood experiences being bussed to school as part of the city’s desegregation plan in the late 1960s.

The three elements I wanted to nail down for my story:

  • So what (what difference does it make): because the Bay Area is so into politics in general and Democratic politics in particular, the audience was pretty tuned in to the debate. And because many analysts said a local candidate stole the show, it was a no-brainer to follow up on where Harris went to school.

  • Real people (the people living the story): Harris would be great, but impossible because she was still in Florida. Someone who knew her from that time would be a good second option, but tough - a 30-year-old kindergarten teacher in 1969 would be long retired today. So the realest person I could find was a current school board member who could talk about the importance of desegregation and how Berkeley took a leading role in it with bussing.

  • Show me, don’t tell me (video): again, tough, because Harris isn’t in town. But showing the school where she went and the route the busses took from her neighborhood to the integrated school would work.

Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley, one of the first in the country to be voluntarily integrated via bussing.

Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley, one of the first in the country to be voluntarily integrated via bussing.

Once I had gathered all of my elements and began to write, my first instinct was to get right to the part of the debate where Harris talked about the bussing. It was certainly the most compelling part of the story. But then, I remembered “don’t start with yesterday.” Most of the audience had probably already watched the debate and read the analysis that mentioned this comment. So, instead, I started with today. Re-arranging the story in this way doesn’t seem like much, but it most likely held on to viewers who would have changed the channel if what they’d first seen was video they’d already seen the night before.

The modern day newsroom is adjusting to the increased number of ways viewers consume news. It’s not only at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. on TV, it’s all day long on computers, on phones, on smart devices, at home, on the bus, in the bathroom. To feed this beast, more is being asked of news crews in the field. Here’s what the newsroom asked me to do for this story:

Feeding video back to the station for the 2 p.m. streaming newscast over wi-fi as I’m driving to my next location. Another way technology makes doing more possible.

Feeding video back to the station for the 2 p.m. streaming newscast over wi-fi as I’m driving to my next location. Another way technology makes doing more possible.

Notice the part highlighted in yellow - not only are we now working for the newscasts on TV, there are also additional streamed newscasts on the web that require content. That has consequences. At 1 p.m., I was in scramble mode waiting for my interview to come through and searching the Berkeley Public Library for historic photographs and newspaper stories that might help me show what life was like in the late 1960s when the bussing plan was approved. The extra assignment made me stop all that, and go back to the truck to feed back some video for the 2 p.m. streaming newscast. Sure it’s more. Sure it’s hard. Sure it affected what I was able to gather for the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. shows. So what. This is the new reality and newsrooms have to figure out how to make it happen.

How much time you have left before deadline controls everything you do. This seems obvious, but when you’re in the moment, trying to make editorial decisions, it’s important to remember everything’s a tradeoff. My interview with the school board member came together at 3:15 p.m. - pretty late in the day to be getting started on an interview for the 5 p.m. newscast. But, the interview was necessary, I couldn’t trade that off. What I could trade off was an extended interview to gather lots of information. So I kept it brief - three questions and thank you very much, have a nice day. If I’d had more time, I would have spent it. But I didn’t, so I focused on the one non-negotiable - making deadline.

Takeaways:

  1. Don’t start with yesterday.

  2. As journalism evolves, be prepared to be asked to do more, all day long.

  3. The length of the interview is directly proportional to the time left before deadline.

Can I text you?

So many times, reporters will resort to the Person on the Street interview to fill out their stories. Unfortunately, so many times, the people included in the story are just random people who agreed to be interviewed. They don’t have any relationship to or knowledge about or passion for the subject - they’re just there to fill time and allow the reporter to say, “See, I found out what people think.” Yes, the reporter found out what some people think, but what those people think isn’t serving the viewers.

The real people I included in my story.

The real people I included in my story.

The person on the street you want to include is someone whose sound bite will enlighten the viewer or with which the viewer can identify. After all, that’s really the purpose - to present people who represent the viewers.

Today, my story was a preview of the Democratic presidential debate. Pretty straight forward, and my producers encouraged me to get some people on the street for the story, in addition to the political expert. So I included that in my three necessary elements for a story:

  • So what (what difference does it make): this debate included two candidates from the Bay Area. This fulfilled the newsworthiness criterion of proximity to the audience.

  • Real people (the people living the story): this could be any voter but I wanted to make sure I pushed harder than just anyone on the street. So I found people who were attending a watch party. That elevated their expertise and relevance to the story. They weren’t just people who might cast a ballot, they were participating in the process and would provide information the viewers would more likely find enlightening.

  • Show me, don’t tell me (video): this was a tough one because my story was a preview of the debate - when I went live, it wouldn’t have started yet. So, file video of the local candidates would have to suffice.

The advantage we have in television news over radio and newspapers/web is we can show what’s happening right now, as it’s happening. Don’t ever give up that advantage in your live shots. It doesn’t take a whole lot to notice what’s going on around you. Once you figure it out, tell the viewers, and show them, too.

Here’s the live intro I had written for my live shot before I actually got to the scene:

It’s no secret the Bay Areas tilts Democratic... and this watch party shows it. Last night... about a hundred people were turned away because the room was full. The folks here expect the same tonight.

What’s different about the debate tonight is we have Bay Area candidates participating.

A former Clinton and Obama administration appointee tells us... each one will have a different strategy for success.

But after I got on the scene and saw all the glasses of champagne, I realized this was going to be a real party. So I included that in my live intro. I also saw people lined up outside, fully one hour before the debate was even going to begin. So I included that, too. This is not rocket science. Notice, and then show and tell. When you do it, you’re maximizing the way television can take the audience to the scene in a way no other medium can.

Glasses of champagne.

Glasses of champagne.

The line outside.

The line outside.

Lots of students ask me what they should minor in - what’s the best subject to know well, after broadcast jouralism, of course. Political science and economics are usually what they’re thinking about. I think a language can be a real boost. As a reporter, sometimes you need to communicate with people who can’t speak English. When you can speak their language, you’ve got an advantage over all the other reporters on the scene who can’t. This was my first story of the day, and this man had relevant information.

KPIX reporter Joe Vazquez, left, sharing his contact information with a source.

KPIX reporter Joe Vazquez, left, sharing his contact information with a source.

You’re never to old to learn new tricks. Don’t ever think you know it all. There will always be people more experienced than you who can share their tips with you. I began the day working with my KPIX colleague Joe Vazquez. He’s been in the business for decades. I have, too. But today, I learned something from him. He was working a story and talking to passersby. One man offered to get in touch with Joe later in the day if he found out more information. Here’s how the conversation went:

Man: Do you have a card?

Joe: Hey, let me text you my contact information.

Man: OK. Here’s my cell phone number.

Do you see what Joe did there? He got the man’s phone number without having to ask. That is brilliant. As a reporter, you never want to wait for people to call you back. You want to call them when you need the the information. The only way to do that is to have a number to call. Joe showed me a great way to get those numbers.

Takeaways:

  1. Real people aren’t just anyone. They’re people who have an interest in the story. That’s who you want to talk to because their information will enlighten the viewers.

  2. Live shots are your chance to show and tell. Notice what’s going on and let the viewers experience it, too.

  3. “Hey, let me text you my contact information.”


"Do your job." - Bill Belichick, football coach

The famous coach of the New England Patriots professional football team, Bill Belichick, is known for a quote that many say is key to his and his team’s success: “Do your job.” What he means by that is don’t worry about the difficult circumstances you’re presented or what other people are doing. Focus on your job and do it the best you can no matter what. If you do your job, the team will succeed. That applied to today’s story.

Male suspect.

Male suspect.

Three teenagers cooked up a scheme where the female would lure unsuspecting online dates to a remote location and then two males would ambush the date, shoot him and rob him. No one died, so the victims lived to tell the police and eventually the three teenagers were caught. The difficult part about this story is we had missed the Solano County Sheriff’s press conference announcing the arrests. Still, my story, my job to do.

As I strategized on how to report this event, I relied on the three things I tell students they should include in every story:

Female suspect.

Female suspect.

  • So what (what difference does it make): in the grand scheme of things, not a whole lot, but the story still included the newsworthiness element of interest. This was a story people would tell to friends after they saw it on TV.

  • Real people (the people living the story): this is tougher - the only people living the story were in jail or recovering at home from gunshot wounds, and the authorities wouldn’t tell us who they were.

  • Show me, don’t tell me (video): this was the toughest of all - the events happened weeks ago.

As you can see, there wasn’t a whole lot to go on here. Still, my story, my job to do.

I went to the crime scene, thinking, at least I know I can shoot video there. Once I arrived, I realized, further, that this would really be the only place I could shoot video, because I wasn’t likely to get interviews with the suspects or the victims. So I did my job and made the most of it by shooting a standup that helped tell the story in a creative way. Plus, I threw in some getaway car dramatization for good measure. Check it all out the The Story, below.

I filled in the rest of the story with video from a Sacramento station that had covered the press conference and was a fellow CNN Newsource affiliate (that allows us to share).

triple standup.jpg

The drive was daunting. And, truth be told, I thought to myself, “I’m driving all this way for a story that doesn’t really have a lot of video or interviews?” But, I answered myself, “Do your job.”

map of drive.jpg
IMG_4103.JPG

One other tip to offer: never, ever leave your camera on the tripod unattended. Murphy’s Law rules in TV news, and the minute you walk away, a gust of wind will materialize and knock it over. Trust me, the only way to get a news director more angry than missing deadline, is for the reporter or videographer to break a camera by leaving it unattended. Don’t ever do that. Instead, if you must walk away, take it off the tripod and put it on the ground.

Takeaways:

  1. “Do your job.” You signed up for this, so make it happen the best you can every day, every time.

  2. Creative standups can help you tell a story for which you have little video. More tips on standups are here.

  3. Don’t ever abandon the camera while it’s on the tripod.


Kitchen sinks don’t make for good TV

Performing in front of thousands of people and talking to them live isn’t easy. It takes a lot of courage and confidence. One way you can build that is to be prepared - really, really prepared. Gathering the information you need to know the story forwards and backwards means you’re going to know a lot more than you can tell in 90 seconds. Still, it’s not wasted. It’s what gives you the confidence to inform so many people at once.

Today’s story was about the Alameda County Grand Jury’s report on the public transit train system known as BART - Bay Area Rapid Transit. The report detailed tons of problems with the system, including homeless people riding the trains all day, people getting into fights and doing drugs on the trains, scofflaws jumping over gates and not paying their fares and, most alarming of all, a huge increase in the number of robberies and assaults with victims being injured on the trains. Customer surveys show BART has lost the confidence of the public and ridership is down.

This story easily fulfills the three key elements I tell my students to look for in a story:

  • So what (what difference does it make): If people are abandoning one of the main forms of public transit - that’s a huge deal. Why spend all that tax money on something people don’t use?

  • Real people (the people living the story): BART riders.

  • Show me, don’t tell me (video): trains and people on the trains.

The first step, before talking to anyone, was to understand the story. If you click on the report above, you’ll see it’s 148 pages. No way I had time to read it all, but it was still my job to understand the important parts. This is a common challenge for TV reporters - how do we condense a HUGE report like this one into a 90-second story? One way is to get a really sharp focus. This means you’re going to have to leave out some stuff. But that’s OK, because a story told clearly, that focuses on one or two elements, always trumps a vague, meandering story that covers a bunch of stuff and none of it well. I chose to focus on the crime.

My first interview was with the president of the BART Board of Directors. When I contacted him, he told me he had interviews already set up with competing stations and when would I like to meet. Here’s what you always, always want to say - “now.” Trying to plan for later opens you up to unforeseen events that can ruin your day. Push to get what you can get for sure; nail it down. The competing stations were just down the street from KPIX, so I went there, and set up my camera outside of their offices. Hey, it’s a free country, right? The point is, whether it’s to get the jump on the competition or to have something shot early in the day, now is always better than later. You’re in control once you’ve got the interview on tape.

Take a close look. This is one reporter, using both hands, to hold three mics. Nice guy to help.

Take a close look. This is one reporter, using both hands, to hold three mics. Nice guy to help.

Despite the reputation broadcast journalists have as cutthroat competitors, I’ve always found my professional colleagues to be pretty collegial in the field. No one’s going to share a scoop (they worked to hard for it), but they might help you out by watching your stuff while you go to the bathroom or holding your microphone. That happened today. Fellow reporters who I hadn’t seen in 50 weeks offered to hold my mic.

Takeaways:

  1. Having a sharp focus is the only way to tell a coherent, appealing 90-second TV news story. Even if that means sacrificing some elements of the story. Resist the temptation to throw everything in there. Kitchen sinks don’t make for good TV.

  2. Now is always better than later when it comes to shooting interviews. Don’t wait. Something could go wrong.

  3. Play nice. You help people now, they’ll help you later.

Story ideas - you find them in the boringest places

By far, the number one most difficult thing for Newhouse Broadcast and Digital Journalism students to execute in class is finding good story ideas. Granted, they are new to Syracuse and Central New York, so that’s an acknowledged hurdle. But, there are some tried and true places to look for stories. City council agendas almost always lead to something, even though the language can be boring and byzantine. That’s where today’s story came from.

Before I made the trip out to San Francisco, I spent several days scouring agendas from city councils across the Bay Areas. One item that caught my eye was from the city of Burlingame. This:

What on earth does that mean? What would be the point of an “Office Space Cap?” A little curiosity will take a reporter a long way. Turns out the cap was an idea being floated by the regional transportation commission, with the goal of pushing businesses out of areas with lots of jobs and little housing into areas with few jobs and lots of housing. The goal: get people to live closer to where they work so they don’t have to drive.

Once I figured that out, I had to nail down my three key story elements:

  • So what (what difference does it make): this would make a huge difference to the cities, like Burlingame, that are successfully attracting businesses. A cap on office space would be an economic blow.

  • Real people (the people living the story): someone like the mayor who could represent the city and a business person who could talk about what goes into the process of choosing a place to set up a company.

  • Show me, don’t tell me (video): shots of business parks, office buildings.

The mayor was totally on board with this story, which was to be expected given the agenda item said the council approved of her sending a letter complaining about the office cap plan. Because she was into it, she connected me with a local business owner who eagerly agreed to tell me about the process of picking a location to set up shop. And, with a good stroke of luck, I found plenty of office video - Facebook bought all 767,000 square feet of an new office park in Burlingame for its Oculus unit. Jackpot.

I already knew driving in the Bay Area was going to be a bear. What I didn’t know is how grizzly it would be. This is video from 1:30 in the afternoon heading into the city:

But because it’s San Francisco and the Bay Area, you never know what you’re going to see. How bad is the traffic? It’s so bad you drive slow enough to roll a joint - from the driver’s seat.

IMG_4074 tight.JPG
tight cropped iphoto.jpg

Takeaways:

  1. Story ideas are hard to find. You have to be on the lookout all the time. Local government meetings can be a good source.


Back to the big city

It’s time for another round of returning to the old job at KPIX to see what’s new in the television news business. For all the stories about how San Francisco has problems on the street with homelessness and general filth, I was eager to see to what degree. Upon arrival, I found beautiful vistas at every turn.

Downtown San Francisco from Telegraph Hill.

Downtown San Francisco from Telegraph Hill.

The San Francisco Ferry Building along the Embarcadero.

The San Francisco Ferry Building along the Embarcadero.

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge from Telegraph Hill.

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge from Telegraph Hill.

But there were also reminders things might not be as nice as they seem:

IMG_4025.jpg
IMG_4018.jpg

As usual, I show up several days early, with plans to review the equipment and editing software to make sure I’m ready to go on my first reporting day. The last thing I want is to miss deadline because I’ve forgotten how something works. Long-time videographer and friend Chris Mistrot set me up like a king with all the stuff I’d need to succeed.

You can always count on TV news being unpredictable. I showed up in the morning meeting on Friday, just to get a better feel for stories and the newscast flow, but instead ended up with an assignment: report on the record low unemployment rates, live at 6 p.m. Lesson remembered: flexibility is essential in this job. If you’re looking for predictability and consistency, this is not the place for you. Everyone in a television newsroom must adapt and be ready to change plans on a dime.

So how to tell my first story, three days before I’d planned to tell any story? I resorted to the three elements I encourage my students to consider:

  • So what (what difference does it make): Record low unemployment means a lot of things to different people. For employers, it’s harder to find employees. For employees, it means they’ve got choices. For people who usually have a hard time finding jobs, it presents opportunities.

  • Real people (the people living the story): This was easy. It’s obviously the employer and employee.

  • Show me, don’t tell me (video): I definitely needed shots of a business in operation, preferably with a boss and an employee who could talk about their experiences in this tight job market.

Next step: find these people. Who would know which companies were looking to hire? Driving around looking for help wanted signs was an option, but the least efficient one. The random, needle-in-a-haystack- search should be the last resort. Better to make contact by phone first, as you can go through many options quickly - keep calling until someone says yes. Reaching by phone is much faster than driving to each location. Still, I needed a way to formulate a list of businesses that would fit the story. Craigslist, of course. A quick search for companies looking to hire in the San Francisco Bay Area led me to Juice Shop in Corte Madera. I spoke with both the owner and an employee. They gave me the viewpoints I needed to tell the story.

Labor attorney Michael Bernick.

Labor attorney Michael Bernick.

But, I also needed an expert to put the numbers into context - we really were talking about unemployment rates so low they’d never been seen before. A long-time collaborator with KPIX agreed to an interview. And, I remembered him very well. I was headed into an interview with this same labor expert, Michael Bernick, in 2010, when Newhouse BDJ Professor Chris Tuohey called me to start the conversation about my coming to Syracuse University to teach. And here we were, nine years later, talking again about labor markets in the Bay Area.

Takeaways:

  1. Be flexible: TV news is always changing. In fact, in the morning meeting, the assistant news director’s reply to a producer’s worry there weren’t enough stories for later in the day was: “Wait 45 minutes. Something always happens.” This is true. But when something happens, such as people calling in sick and requiring you to start reporting three days before you’d planned, the answer you want to give is “yes.” This is what you signed up for. Go with the flow. And enjoy it. It’s never going to change.

  2. Search and ye shall find (most of the time): It’s hard to find people who are experiencing the story you’re writing about, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out there. In this case, a search on craigslist came through. Be determined. It always makes the story better.

  3. Enjoy the variety of the people you meet: Not every day is going to go well. Not everyone is going to want to talk to you. But many people will, and this job gives you the chance to reach out to a lot of them. Do it. Be open minded. Give it a shot. Interviewing again the person who I talked to nine years ago when I began a new journey in my life was a hoot.