They Want What You Have

-first posted at RTDNA.org on March 2, 2010

My town had its big annual documentary shindig this past weekend, the True/False Film Fest.  In its seventh year, the four-day event draws somewhere around 10,000 people to fill the seats of eight quirky film venues in this town of 100,000.  Organizers roll about 35 different films through the weekend, with subject matter ranging from the war in Iraq to Joan Rivers.  Crowds line up in the Missouri February chill to pack in to get the last few seats for showings that run into the wee hours of the morning.  My wife and I were among them, sliding into squeaky theater seats for about a dozen films—including a marathon six in a row on Saturday.

Crazed Christmas shoppers have their “Black Friday”—this is my equivalent.  I look forward to True/False weekend all year long and block out my schedule completely so that I can immerse myself in the documentaries one after another.  And I’m not the only one.  Walking by the other passholders, we compare notes on how many we’ve already seen, trying to show off our cinematic stamina.  And it hit me this year, amidst my theater-seat travels to Finland, Cambodia, and beyond that the success of this festival tells us a lot about TV news.

You see, the reason people travel from all over the world to a town that’s frankly not so easy to get to, the reason they line up in the cold to see these films, the reason the True/False Film fest even exists at all is because people LOVE real life stories.  And they love them even more on a grand scale.  Immerse some real people as characters in a tale about something really important and you’ve got the recipe for a great documentary.  And can tell you without even checking my news directors’ cookbook that’s the same recipe you use to make great TV news.

In case you don’t have that cookbook right there at your desk, let me tell you what’s in your viewers’ favorite recipe.  It begins with a great central character.  The film fest was full of them.  I was completely drawn to a pair of South Korean-born Danish comedians who found themselves part of an elaborate film project deep in the heart of North Korea—oh, and did I mention one of the comedians has cerebral palsy?  I couldn’t stop watching as an Alaska native returned to his home state hoping that global warming would be the help he needed to realize his dream of owning his very own gold mine.  And I wanted to look away but couldn’t as a pair of Pol Pot’s Cambodian killers related their murderous and cannibalistic ways in the Killing Fields.  The audiences were on the edge of their seats for these characters, just as the crucial characters we use in our very own newscasts draw people ever so much closer to their TV.  The Katrina victim, the hero cop, and the dying cancer patient are the characters we use to tell our stories.  And often, they’re the neighbors and friends of the people watching, carrying even more impact the faraway documentary casts.

Beyond the characters, the recipe calls for some measure of importance in the material at hand.  Some important films at the fest featured wars between nations, while others focused on that quiet war between teenagers and their parents.  Politics, pollution, poverty—those were some of the important topics covered by this magnetic group of films.  How many of those have you covered the past few months?  You can see there’s a familiarity to the documentary recipe that’s just like something you cook every day.

Perhaps the last main ingredient (before the directors add their own particular blend of cinematic herbs and spices) is the liberal application of beautiful visuals and breathtaking sound.  I spent my weekend taking in the delicate landscapes of China, the sturdy peaks of the Italian Alps, and the windswept vistas of the American west, all captured in full-on high definition film and video.  But what industry employs more talented visual craftspeople turning out more beautiful footage every day than the TV news business?  We have captured the tough and tender images of our communities for years.  Filmmakers I saw last weekend talked of the hours of footage they had to go through in a year’s time of making their docs.  Our teams shoot and edit that much every day.

Smart, engaged, and active people paid good money to travel to Columbia, Missouri last weekend to watch what you distribute for free every day.  They’re the kind of people you want watching your news.  They’re the kind of people your advertisers want seeing their commercials.  And all you need to do to get them is to follow the recipe.

We’ve strayed from the right ingredients before and driven this group away.  News that doesn’t matter will ruin the dish.  Too many meaningless crime stories, too many celebrities, too many attempts to cover breaking news before we know it’s even real news.  That leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the people with the palates most in tune with what you’re cooking.

There’s one final ingredient—one that some think they can leave out and still satisfy their customers.  Reality TV is a good example.  It looks like documentaries—or even news—at times, but it’s a poor imitation.  It’s had its faux success by turning out cheap, greasy junk food versions of the dishes you and the documentarians create.  The characters are there, flimsy as they often are, but the recipe lacks importance and beauty.  Beyond that, it lacks honesty.   Reality TV cannot captivate a news audience for very long because the dishonesty begins to shine through.  That’s the sickening aftertaste it leaves behind that turns the stomach of true news viewers.

I cleansed my palate at the table of a good portion of the great films last weekend.  I left each one with a growing sense of how wholesome and good TV news is if we stick to the right recipe.  The documentary filmmakers know it.  They treasure their recipes like a gift handed down from generation to generation.  We’ve been careless with ours.  Find the recipe again, choose only the finest ingredients, and when it’s ready, serve liberal portions.  If you do, you’ll have them coming back for more.

Bad Eldrick, Bad

May 30, 2010 1 comment

-first posted at RTDNA.org on February 23, 2010

Henceforth I will always refer to the golfer most of you know as “Tiger” as Eldrick.

Why?  Well, after the so-called “news conference” Eldrick held last week, it’s time something be called by its proper name.  So forget “Tiger” Woods.  I’m going to use Eldrick Woods from here on out.  You see, a news conference denotes a sharing of information, a give and take, a two-way street.  While I’m not debating the newsworthiness of Eldrick’s reading of a prepared statement, it was not a news conference.  For that we’d need questions from reporters and answers from Eldrick. We got neither.

Eldrick gave a 14-minute speech that was carried around the globe on the air and online.  The speech, written in advance and rehearsed in both its performance and its reception by the loved ones staged in the room, was not what journalists wanted.  But it was better than what we got before.  Faithful readers of RTDNA.org will recall that, less than a week after Eldrick’s “accident” outside his home in Florida, I wrote to say the golfer should be facing the media right away, telling at least a partial truth about a spat with his wife, and answering reporters’ questions. Had Eldrick done what I suggested then, I daresay he would never have needed to have the most sordid details of his private life go public.  Instead of releasing statements at the time on his web page, Eldrick should have come out and said, “Look, I had an argument with my wife over something stupid I did, drove off in a huff, and crashed my car.”  Men would have accepted the explanation, knowing how they can anger their wives from time to time, and women would have appreciated Eldrick’s admission that he was the one who did something stupid.  And short of Elin divorcing him in the wake of that admission (something that would have probably been less likely then than it is now after the way the alleged affairs went public),  reporters—us—would have likely not seen much of a story there and moved on.

So Eldrick did not then and still has not faced reporters and answered their questions. I made no bones before about my belief that no one becomes a superstar without the complicity of the media and their role in putting an athlete, actor, or other would-be star in front of the public to begin with.  With that introduction comes a debt to the media and the public to be theirs in some special, celebrity-driven way.  Eldrick has hidden from paying back that debt and it has cost him dearly.

What can we do about these celebrity-debt welchers?  First—and you can see I’m serious about this—don’t call what happened Friday a news conference (or a “press” conference if you want to conjure the anachronistic notion that we somehow broadcast through the use of printing presses).  Second, fight back when any number of nobodies in your locale decide they want to do their media appearances like Eldrick did.  Do NOT agree to so-called news conferences that limit your right to ask questions and have a dialogue with the subject.  Once again, I’m reminded of a not so long ago blog in which one clear-thinking news director in Knoxville, Bill Shory, protested that very tactic by the outgoing head football chump at the University of Tennessee.  Do NOT agree to any terms that keep you from asking questions.  For Eldrick, we bent over and took it because of the size of the story.  But that’s a dangerous position in which to leave yourself.  What we saw from him could easily have been recorded and “released” on YouTube.  Do you want that to be the method by which you get all your soundbites?

Finally, make what you’re doing public.  If someone calls a “news conference” that has no conferencing and doesn’t really allow anyone from the news to participate, say so—on the air.  Every time we get a prepared statement read on camera, something released in a pre-recorded video, or any other form of theater that pretends to be an encounter with reporters but really isn’t, we MUST tell our viewers, listeners, and readers about it.  These cowardly tactics only work if we go along with them.  If we don’t, if we protest and report that protest and the practices they call out to the public, then we weaken the approach.  And once it’s weak enough it will stop on its own.

When people step in front of a room full of cameras and microphones and reporters, they need to know the way those rooms operate.  We call the shots there, not the subjects.  And that should always be the rule, whether some small town politician is facing the glare of the camera lights, or whether it’s Eldrick.

The Discomfort of Change

-first posted at RTDNA.org on February 16, 2010

My station changed its weather web page last week.  We had, up until then, a weather page that was terrific…in 2005.  We made some changes over the years, but it just had not kept up with the needs people had for weather sites online.  I even found myself, while managing our site on a daily basis, needing to look at Accuweather.com for my online weather info.  We knew we needed a change, so station managers went out to look for a software solution that would allow us plenty of customization, but would still give users the chance to find fresh data all the time.

We put the new site up live last Thursday to work out the bugs and then started crowing about it on air Friday.  Our meteorologist did her entire weathercast at five, six, and ten standing in front of the site on the weather wall, running it through its paces for all to see.  Going into the weekend, I was excited we had debuted something this useful to our viewers and site visitors—until I opened my e-mail Saturday morning.

“Your new on line weather is not only more diffecult to navigate it is just as wrong as the old format. Once again if I want the current weather I must go to the Weather Underground to get a real forcast! DO YOU NOT MONITOR THIS SITE AT ALL? Please try to do Better.”

“I am not a meteorologist, I like the old way of looking up the weather better, I will go elsewhere to look up my weather I wish you would change it back to the old method.”

“Just some feedback on the new layout for the weather page. It’s not very good; it looks cluttered and it’s difficult to get to what I want to see. The popups are not as good as having the picture on the page change.”

“I had bookmarked your weather but with the new presentation I am doing away with that bookmark.  You had a great weather site but this new one is terrible.”

I, of course, answer all the e-mails I get—no matter how bad the spelling and punctuation.  In each case here, I asked the writer to be specific in what it was on the old site that was no longer present on the new site—knowing full well that the new site has EVERYTHING the old site had and much more.  That last fellow above wrote back with the most honest reply of the bunch.  He typed—sheepishly, if it’s possible to type sheepishly—these words:

“I guess I just liked the old site.”

There you have it.  Those eight words sum up the biggest problem you’ll have with your viewers.  They don’t like change.  Even if the change delivers more for them, they won’t like it.  Among these complainers above, not one could name anything they used on the old site that they did not also have on the new site.  So it wasn’t the function that upset them, it was the form.

Now here’s the biggest headache from all of this.  There was a time not so long ago that TV stations could find a look, find an anchor team, find an approach, and just stick with it.  How many of us grew up watching a station in our hometowns that stayed pretty much the same for years?  There was strength then in staying the same.  Imagine being that news director.  Your reporters know their beats.  Your anchors know their communities.  The approach that’s worked to tell the stories keeps working over and over again.  And the viewers are satisfied—maybe not stimulated, but satisfied.  So why change?

Here’s why.  Those viewers with an eye on the way things used to be are still out there.  I could tell that at least half of the people who wrote me to complain where older folks, retirees and the like.  They’re still a big part of our audience.  Their steadfastness in viewing habits props up our numbers because they’re there every night.  We hate to anger them for fear of losing them.  But lose them we will. Because of their age, these most loyal—and change-resistant—viewers will not last forever.  So we go looking for the younger set, hoping to lure them with three-screen availability, stories on social media and other young topics, and most of all, change.

We can’t have it all.  Change to bring in new viewers will push away your old reliable folks as fast as our new weather page did.  But sticking with the tried and true is a sure fire ticket to the news graveyard.  For my two cents worth, I’m going to keep changing.  Riding a dying demographic to extinction won’t do anything to serve the future.  We’ve entered an era of micro-audiences and personal news experiences.  We might as well get used to the fact that the massive audiences of the past are exactly that—a thing of the past.  Embracing change—something that’s often as hard to do for journalists as it is for viewers—is the way to survive.

Perhaps we do what some of the people we cover do to make sure things don’t last too long.  How about taking a page from your state legislature and putting a sunset provision on newsroom policy?  Any idea you put into effect today automatically expires in three years.  No matter how great it’s working, it has to go on its appointed schedule.  It sounds crazy, but keeping a good idea too long is what got us to the dwindling audiences of today.  I say sunsetting even our best ideas will mean a new dawn for journalism down the road.  And shouldn’t that culture of reinvention be the habit we want don’t want to change?

Things You’re Saying Wrong and Don’t Even Know It

-first posted at RTDNA.org on February 9, 2010

Back when I started working at KOMU in 1986, then news director John Quarderer used to share his journalistic wisdom with me day in and day out.  Many of the things he said have stuck with me for nearly a quarter of a century, but perhaps none more so than a discussion we had once about words and writing.  “People don’t read as much as they used to,” said John, “so we’re the defenders of the language now.  TV news has to be sure to protect English and keep it safe.”

I’ve always kept that lofty charge in mind as I’ve edited countless reporter and producer scripts over all these years.  I’ve done my best every time to protect the language and keep it from deteriorating on my watch—at least in my little corner of television.  But it seems to be a losing battle at times.  And I’m calling on all of you to help.

Take a listen to your newscasts and redouble your efforts to protect the language in all its forms—written or spoken.  I keep track of some of the more egregious errors that seem to happen all the time, sharing them with my newsroom so that the journalists there can learn it from me in case they never learned it before.  I’ve picked out a few that most of you have had air incorrectly in your newsrooms—even if you didn’t know it.

The pronunciation of “often”: A few years back in elementary schools everywhere, I’m guessing the teachers gave up on this one. The word “often” is properly pronounced OFF-en.   The “t” is silent.  Trust me, it’s silent.  I’m guessing this chronic mispronunciation is the product of phonics training or some sort of rule tying together spelling and sound, but pronouncing it OFF-ten is AW-ful.  English has its quirks, but there are some good comps here.  When your reporters start pronouncing the “t’s” in hasten, soften, listen, moisten, christen, glisten, etc, I’ll start accepting it in “often.”  Until then, silence that “t” in your copy.

Meanwhile versus meantime: I hear these two words misused all the time–not just in my newsroom, but on local and national news everywhere.  In my own shop a few weeks ago, we had a story that began, “Meantime, the government is suing the world’s biggest maker of computer microprocessors.”   Wrong.  “Meantime” is a noun that means an occurrence happening at the same time as another.  So a sentence that means the exact same as what my producer wrote would have been, “Simultaneous occurrence, the government is suing the world’s biggest maker of computer microprocessors.”  Nonsense, right?  What the producer should have written is, “Meanwhile, the government is suing the world’s biggest maker of computer microprocessors.”  “Meanwhile” is an adverb that in this case modifies the verb “is suing.”   Your reporters and producers cannot use the two interchangeably.  If they insist on using “meantime,” they must make an adverb phrase out of it by adding the words “in the” in front of it.  So we could have had, “In the meantime, the government is suing the world’s biggest maker of computer microprocessors.”  But why use the extra words?  Get your folks to stick with the adverb “meanwhile” when writing in this way.

Changing the meaning of “long-lived” and “short-lived”: The two adjectives derive from the noun life (having either a long or short one) and not from the verb live (because you can’t do so longly or shortly).  Therefore, the proper pronunciation has a long “i” sound in “lived,” like the “i” in “hive.”  It should not be pronounced like the “i” in “give.”  The problem here seems to come from a desire on the speaker’s part to describe a style of living rather than a length of life.  Change this bad habit in your newsroom and they’ll look at you funny, but you’ll be doing your part.

Finally, an I told you so: My colleagues in Columbia will laugh when they see me bringing this up, but ten years ago, we actually sat around trying to figure out how the years of the 21st Century would be pronounced.  Most of the folks then figured the year would be pronounced fully, as in “two thousand and one” (by the way, the “and” is unnecessary and mathematically changes the word, but we’ll have that argument another time).  I told them I admired that they were being influenced by the great Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that the proper way to pronounce the first year of the century would be “twenty-oh-one.”  My logic was flawless.  The pronunciation was shorter, mirrored previous centuries, and shortened nicely to “on-one,” “oh-two,” etc.  We tried it my way for a while, but the public went with Kubrick and pronounced it the long way.  But as we approach the next decade (it begins in 2011, not 2010—trust me), people have come around to my way.  Now it’s getting pretty common to hear references to “twenty-ten,” “twenty-eleven,” and beyond.  So I’m gloating a bit now, knowing I was right all along, even if people didn’t believe me ten years ago.

But there’s no gloating necessary if you fix these and other problems in your newsroom’s use of English.  Instead, just enjoy a job well done as you become a language defender.  Future generations will thank you—even if they do so by texting you “THX“ in return.

Meeting in the Middle

-first posted at RTDNA.org on February 2, 2010

I was lucky enough to take part in RTDNF’s News and Terrorism workshop in my hometown of St. Louis last week.  The event was the 18th in a series of gatherings that bring together journalists, emergency personnel, and policy makers to discuss how to react in the event of a terrorist attack in a U. S. city.  This is the second of the workshops I’ve been able to attend.  The first was on the other side of my state about six years ago in Kansas City.  Both times I was struck with the workshops’ ability to bring people together who are essential to public safety—but who seldom talk unless an emergency is already taking place.  The RTDNF events have been crucial to getting those who respond to emergencies—either to cover them or to respond to them—to talk about what they could do better for their common customer, the public.

This meeting in the middle (of the country and the topic) was healthy all around.  Broadcast news directors John Butler of KMOX and Audrey Prywitch of KTVI/KPLR, along with Pat Gauen from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, schooled the first responders and political emergency planners on just what newsrooms want and need in a time of crisis.  And every journalist in the room, yours truly included, learned how those who run toward emergencies rank the importance of giving the media what they want.  Much to our dismay, that part of the job is not very high on most emergency workers’ crisis to-do list.  There is a gulf between us that the workshops help, but cannot eliminate altogether.  And there’s great risk it will get bigger.

That threat comes from the most striking difference between the 2004 Kansas City workshop and the event last week in St. Louis—the speed with which we must gather and distribute information.  In 2004, there was no Twitter, our websites often waited to post news until after it was on the air, and smartphones weren’t all that smart.  So while a terror attack was still a huge story then, our best way to get it out quickly was through breaking into on-air programming.  The pressure is much greater now.  We actually compete with amateurs who are tweeting or facebooking breaking news as they see it.  Still, our brands mean something to our audiences.  They trust that the information we provide is more accurate than what eyewitnesses spread electronically.  But they also expect we’ll deliver what we know as fast as the amateurs do.  On the other side, emergency responders are not always interested in getting out information as quickly as possible.  They often want to withhold information for fear of causing a panic.  But that does not sit well with our mission.

Kent Collins, my colleague at the Missouri School of Journalism, summed up this conflict when he asked the assembled group in St. Louis how we could close this gulf between the media and their push for the public’s right to know and the government and its desire to withhold information.  No one in the room had the answer to his question.  The gulf remains.

It seems that closing the information gulf is the direction our efforts should go now.   I can’t help but be a bit biased here, falling in with the journalists’ side, but the public does need to know when disaster strikes and it has never been equipped so well to receive news quickly. The question is just what will pass for “news” when disaster strikes.  Tweets from the area with all manner of exaggeration and error will not be what is best for the people.  What people will need in a crisis is experienced reporting from journalists they can trust—and they’ll need it immediately.  Based on what I saw in St. Louis last week, that will take access, information, and cooperation.

Access to the scene will be critical.  Our amateur competitors will already be there.  In the St. Louis scenarios, two downtown buildings were the scenes of bomb attacks.  Should such a tragedy truly strike, those buildings and the ones in the area will be filled with people tweeting, texting, and blogging about what happened.  Our reporters need the same access.  We must work to have the right to get in close to the scene when something important happens.  There was a light moment at the event when, after revealing there were elevated radiation readings around the blast sites, moderator Aaron Brown asked Audrey Prywitch if her reporters had radiation suits.  Everyone laughed, but the point was made.  Access brings with it the necessity to protect our crews in what could be some very dangerous situations.  If we plan to be a close to the scene as the Tweeters, we need to start on our preparedness now.

Once the crews do make it into the affected area, we’ll need information.  This is at the heart of the question asked at the event.  We must continue to work to get government and other emergency officials to see the value of providing as much information to the public as possible.  Our best way to win them over is to show how responsible we can be with accurate information and how we can separate that from rumors and other false information.  Acting as a trusted conduit for official information will be part of our reporting task.  That will not eliminate our need to work independently and dig for information from other sources.  But I hope the officials can see we are the best way to reach the public with as much accurate information as possible.

Finally, cooperation will be key to making this all work.  I’m not talking about giving up our arm’s length approach to government agencies.  Our watchdog role will continue.  We cannot team up with the people we will cover during a crisis time.  But we can cooperate with them to deliver coverage that serves that common customer.  That cooperation won’t be easy, but it will be necessary.  Otherwise, we’re going to lose out to the Twittersphere and that means our customers will lose out, too.

The scenarios in St. Lous were chilling, just as they have been in all the other workshop cities.  They spelled out a possible future where thousands are dead from terror attacks and the eyes and ears of the survivors turn to us to find out what’s happening and what to do next.  I’m proud to be part of a profession that can meet those expectations. But that won’t happen if we sit back and just wait for it.  Be proactive now.  Start talking to the officials in your area about this.  Team up with other journalists to give your arguments more weight.  Meet in the middle now so that when disaster strikes, you can bring the public what it needs to know.

I Blame Smuckers: A Cautionary Tale

May 29, 2010 1 comment

-first posted at RTDNA.org on January 26, 2010

My blood ran cold while traveling a few weeks back as I sat in my hotel room and checked in on the station web site to see how things were looking.  As our rotator ran through our top stories, the worst four words a news director can ever see on his site popped into view.

“Woman Celebrates 100th Birthday”

There it was.  There was no denying it.  The station—in the absence of my wisdom and guidance—had covered a 100-year-old’s birthday party.  Did they know the havoc they had called forth with this story?  Could they even begin to understand the unspeakable horrors that would come from this one, senseless act?

Veteran news directors, read no further.  Unless you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ve already lived through this horror.  There’s no reason for you to relive it again in what I write below. Save yourself and click away now.

But you younger readers out there, dare to forge ahead.  The tale I’ll tell is not a pretty one, but hearing it now could save you from the living nightmare this sort of story can bring.

How, you may wonder, can covering someone who’s spent a century on this earth lead to so much dread?  Let me tell you, this threat is very real.  Covering a 100-year-old’s birthday changes you, your managers, and your station—forever.   Sure, it seems innocent enough.  Perhaps, you’d even consider it kind.  But it’s the cruelest thing you’ll ever do professionally.  How, you might ask, is this cruel?  Showing a person reaching the milestone of 100 years has got to be an act of celebration, not cruelty.  In that, you would be right.  Show one person would be a fun story.  But you can never show just one.

Do the math with me for a moment.  The latest estimates put the total number of centenarians in the U.S. population at about 72,000.    That’s an average of 1,440 per state.  Worse yet, that’s an average of 346 per television market. New York would have more, of course, and Glendive would have fewer.  But look out Lincoln/Hastings, Nebraska.  As the median market in population, you’re looking 346 right in the wrinkled face.  That means those mid-sized markets are going to do just about one hundredth birthday celebration every day.  In Philadelphia, prepare for ten a day.  The numbers are staggering.

Now, I’m way ahead of you here.  You’re saying to yourself, “Well, I’m not going to cover that sort of story every day.”  Fair enough.  But how do you choose which birthdays to cover and which to skip?  You know, the birthday boys and girls probably wouldn’t mind it a bit if you ignored their big days and didn’t send out that camera.  But it’s not them you need to worry about.  It’s their kids.

That’s right.  You have not lived as a news director until you’ve received the angry phone call of the 78-year-old son of a local centenarian who’s birthday you just skipped covering.  There is no good excuse you can give that will get that person off the phone.  He’ll look at every other story you did in the newscasts that day and declare them inferior in news value to the anniversary of the birth of his mother or father. You just cannot win that one.

What’s worse, once someone lives to the ripe old age of 100, they have a lot of progeny.  Skip that party and you’ll hear from children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and every other person remotely related to the person reaching the milestone.  I even heard one time from the big brother of a woman turning 100, complaining we did not cover her party (he was 102 at the time).

I blame Smuckers and Willard Scott for getting us into this mess.  It was probably 25 or more years ago that someone at the Today Show got the idea to plaster faces on jelly jars and have Willard struggle with their names.  It was the television equivalent of feeding a stray cat.  Once you do it once, it just keeps coming back.  Willard and the jelly people created a TV birthday culture anyone with a relative nearing 100 thinks about.  They plan a party, hope for a mention on the Today Show, and settle for local TV just in case.  The problem is, they’re not calling Willard Scott if he doesn’t do his part.  They just call us.

Young reporters, heed my words.  You do NOT want to head to the local retirement home when the call on that birthday party comes in.  I tell my reporters they should never lie.  So keep a good enterprise story in your back pocket you can use as an excuse when those 100th birthday feelers come in.  You’ll thank me for this advice some day.

P.S.: So far, the story we ran hasn’t caused any serious repercussions.  But I still duck down in my car when a Buick drives by.  I never know who’s looking for me.

Cameras Roll as a News Director Stands Tall

-first posted at RTDNA.org on January 19, 2010

We news directors do most of our work in anonymity. Our viewers think the anchors run our shops.  Most callers with complaints can’t decide if we’re important or not when they’re yelling at us.  And while the editor of the local paper is usually a town celebrity, no one can tell you the name of the much more powerful men and women who run the local television newsrooms.

I, for one, like my anonymity around town.  I can go to the store, the movies, wherever, and not get bugged about the news like my anchors do.  I have even heard the occasional conversation about my station’s newscast coming from my supermarket neighbors.  It’s like a free focus group when that happens.  You get to hear what they think about you and they have no idea the guy standing right there next to them actually runs the newsroom they’re talking about.

Now, with the anonymous nature of our jobs also comes the realization that when you’re doing your very best work as a news director, no one will know you’re the one responsible for it.  Sure, they know when your news team is nailing the big story.  But who gets the credit then?  The anchors do, of course.  You can work your butt off, staying at the station for 36 hours at a time.  But no one will know it.  Now, that’s fine with me, and fine with most of the news directors I know.  If we wanted to get the credit, then we would have been the anchors.  Still, it’s sad the public never really gets to see us do our jobs well.  Well, almost never gets to see us do them well.

I say “almost” because, as of this writing, 167,693 people have been able to see Bill Shory, news director at WBIR-TV in Knoxville, do his job VERY well.  We can thank YouTube for opening a window for us all to watch a news director show the rest of us how it’s done.   Perhaps you’ve seen it already, the video called “Lane Kiffin Quits; Pre-Presser Drama.” If you have not, you can see it here now:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dbNBd4S8II

Bill is the balding, dark-haired guy you see to screen right of Sports Information Director Bud Ford (sorry Bill, but I feel like I’ve already follicly earned the right to call other guys “balding”).  He listens for the first minute or so of the video and then, he goes to work.  The background is that the media opportunity was offered with the stipulation that departing University of Tennessee football coach Lane Kiffin would come out and make a statement on camera, then the cameras would shut off for an additional off-camera statement.  In the first two minutes, Bill does what too often we don’t do—he stands up to a boneheaded policy set out by some source we’re looking to cover.  When the UT folks said the cameras would have to go off for part of the appearance, Bill said “no.”  And, at least at first, it looks like he’s managing to change the plan for the better.

But when the cameras roll again, Ford is back saying Kiffin is insisting some of it be off camera.  Bill once again steps up to object.  But listen to what some of the other “reporters” say.  They want to knuckle under immediately and take the restriction on their access and ability to shoot.  “This guy doesn’t represent all of us,” they say.  It’s too bad we can’t see their cowardly faces when they say it.   They’re so ready to give up their rights as reporters they don’t even realize it.  But Bill does.  He calls them out for being so quick to give up those rights.  “We want it on camera,” he says.  That’s something everyone in the room should have been saying.  But there’s another comment you almost can’t hear under all the commotion.  Faced with the rest of the media turning on him, Bill says the most important words of the whole afternoon.  Referring to Kiffin, he says, “He doesn’t get to set the terms.”

And that’s the bottom line here.  Too often, we let the sources set the terms.  Even as Bill states this obvious truth, the crowd of his peers nearly shouts him down, yelling “Yes, he does!”  That’s absurd.  This group of reporters in a major sports market is so cowed by the university media machine that it doesn’t even know it’s the victim here.  Talk about Stockholm Syndrome.  Perhaps the new term for sports reporter/hostages who’ve spent so much time under the thumb of sports information people they don’t even know they’re victims anymore should be “Knoxville Syndrome.”

That day at the news conference, Bill—and all of us—won.  Kiffin’s remarks were all on camera.  He came out, talked for one minute and two seconds, and left.  Was it great TV?  No?  Was it all TV?  Yes.  And that’s how it should be.

Talking to Bill to write this blog, he told me about the aftermath.  I wasn’t shocked when he told me some bloggers and even other journalist told him he should have just lied—said he wasn’t recording the news conference when he really was.  It’s sad that some journalists—remember, we’re supposed to be the good guys—have fallen so far they’re willing to lie to get a little bit of video.  It’s sad, but it didn’t surprise me. But Bill did tell me something about the reaction he’s gotten that honestly did surprise me.  It seems when people really usually get to watch us stand up for them as journalists, they don’t realize what we’re accomplishing.  Admittedly, we can come off as arrogant jerks when we fight for our freedoms.  But in this case, Bill came out of top—on top of Kiffin and on top of the rest of the reporters there.  He says his comments from the public have been 100 percent positive. And there’s one reason for that.  The public wanted an answer for why Kiffin was leaving and they wanted to see him say it on camera.  Though they didn’t get as much as they wanted from him, the public knows that giving Kiffin a pass to talk off-camera would have been worse.

There are lessons for all of us in this and most of them come right from Bill Shory.  He told me he was at the news conference because he saw this sort of thing brewing in advance.  When the news conference was called, his people called him in to have an authority present.  I like that.  We news directors should go throw our weight around with these media relations hacks more often.  Our presence at a tough-call situation like this would help our sports (and news) people know we have their backs.   Beyond that, Bill says news directors should make it clear to their people in advance of crisis situations like this just what it is we’ll stand for when the other side starts to dictate terms.   Certain hills, Bill says in his own metaphorical words, “are worth dying for.”  There won’t always be a chance for a reporter in the field to call back and get some help making a call.  So Bill says we should all give our people an idea of what to fight for and that we’ll back them up if they do.

Bill did chide us all a bit in his talk with me.  We news directors, executive producers, assignment editors, reporters, photographers—all of us are the ones who let it get this bad, the ones who let the Lane Kiffins of the world think they can dictate the terms under which they’ll squirm out from under the public microscope.  I say, if we follow the example Bill Shory set last week, we can be the ones who make it better.  Thanks Bill.