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.

Hard Weather, Soft People

-first posted at RTDNA.org on January 12, 2010

I’ll say right up front that this blog will only tangentially be about journalism, news, television, or any of the other things I usually write about.  Think of it as more of an observation that my vantage point as a local television news director allows me, and as a warning about what we’re doing to current generations and the generations to come.  We’re all part of an unintentional conspiracy to rob ourselves and rob our youth of their backbones.  As I’ve said before, I’m a self-appointed expert on the Millennial generation, and this is yet another cautionary tale about the crappy way we elders are handling its upbringing.

So let’s get right to where this connects with news.  For the last ten days or so my part of the country, like much of the rest of it, has been in the deep freeze.  On top of the very cold temperatures, we’ve had three snowstorms that have left about six inches of snow on the ground.  Now, six inches is all relative.  In Dallas, it’s the end of the world.  In St. Paul, it’s springtime.  In central Missouri, it’s mostly an annoyance.  The going is slow on the roads, but none are impassable.  In the worst of it, I made the six-mile drive to work in about 12 minutes.  I did that at four in the morning. Why?  Closings and cancellations, that’s why.

Maybe it’s because I started my professional career in Florida.  Maybe it’s because I have to get up so early when the cancellations come rolling in.  Maybe it’s just because I’ve been doing it too long.  But whatever the reason, my tolerance for people closing and cancelling in a minor snowstorm is shot.  I’m not my generally positive self when I take their calls cancelling their events.  I start to question—to myself—why they’re bothering to close things down for a relatively minor snow.  I made it to work.  The guy driving the snowplow made it to work.  Heck, even the guy who has to work at the QuikTrip gas station at four in the morning made it to work.  So what’s wrong with the rest of these people?

The schools I can understand—to a point.  The men and women who lead the public districts and private schools in our area are collectively responsible for the safety and wellbeing of probably seventy thousand students or more.  If the roads are too bad for any of the buses to travel safely, or for students with other transportation to make it in, then it’s probably best to cancel.   But what if only a handful of the students—those who live in the remote, rural parts of the district—are the only ones who’d possibly have a hard time making the trip.  Should we call off school then?  It may sound cruel, but I say “no.”  Here’s why.  The students who live in town begin to relate a scant few inches of snow with a scary, don’t-go-out-or-you’ll-lose-your-life mentality.  If it’s too dangerous to have school when there are a few inches of snow, then they’ll begin to think you can’t do anything in the snow.  That’s the wrong message to send to this generation.

I see it happening already.  Twenty-four years ago, when I first started at my current station, if the snow was really bad enough the schools would call in to cancel.  We’d put it on the air, everyone would see it, and the kids would get a snow day.  Order was maintained.  But now, once the school cancellations hit, we get inundated with boy scout troops, social clubs, tae kwon do classes, and swimming lessons—all needing to cancel.  Swimming lessons?  What, were they going to have them outside in January?  The culture of fear that too often pervades the communities where we live is hard at work.  Suddenly, everyone is too fearful to travel out.  Our newscasts add to it.  Not just in airing the closings.  I can’t count how many times I’ve heard a reporter in the field doing a live shot on the road conditions tell people, “And if you don’t need to be out tonight, just stay home.”  Every time I hear that (and I have banned it from my newsroom, so if I hear it, it’s coming from one of yours) I want to drive out to the live shot, grab the mic, and tell people, “Don’t listen to her.  It’s not that bad.  Get in our cars and get out and drive in it.  Then you’ll know how to do it.”

Churches are my biggest pet peeves of the moment.  Our station got a competitive edge in the closings game a few years back by fully staffing on Saturday nights and early Sunday mornings to handle church closings.  It’s been good for us in terms of our community service image, but I think we’ve created a monster. Just think about it.  Don’t those ministers and reverends get paid to hold services on Sunday?  It seems like if the QuikTrip guy can make it in to sell gas, the preacher can make it in to save souls.  But the churches in our area cancel by the hundreds when the weather gets just a little bad.  My thought is to have church no matter what the weather.  If someone needs it badly enough, they’ll still come in.  But running the closings as we do, we’ve trained them to close.  It’s our fault.

This is all more serious than some panicky pastors.   The competition to be on top of the weather story is training our viewers to be a bunch of wimps.  I’m especially worried about the Millennials on this one.  They are not a courageous bunch.  Those same teenagers we scare out of driving in the snow will be your reporters and photographers in five years.  Wait until a real storm hits and they won’t drive into it.  Then you will have reaped what you sowed—or snowed, in this case.

So what can we do?  We still have to win the weather wars.  I’m not saying not to run closings.  But let’s pack the newscasts around them with honest assessments of the severity of the storm—not just a “don’t go out if you don’t have to” mentality.  Reporters can start by honestly saying what it was like getting to work and getting to their stories.  Weathercasters can put storms into context and let people know that two inches of snow and twenty-two inches of snow should not elicit the fearful public response.

For my part, I’m starting to spar a bit with the people who call in to cancel.  One recent caller, looking to cancel an event more than a week away when we barely had an inch of snow on the ground, heard me turn him down.  “Call me back when we get a little closer and you can assess the situation again,” I told him.  If I moved him off the panic button—even for just that scant week—then I did my duty.  Care to join me?

A Perfect Example of the Need for a Federal Shield Law

-first posted at RTDNA.org on January 5, 2010

If you follow RTDNA or read this web site on a regular basis, then you’re probably familiar with this organization’s years-long push to pass a federal shield law to protect journalists working with confidential sources on important stories.  A law that nearly every state has in place, the measure would provide safeguards that would prevent federal officials from coming after reporters and their managers to get the identities of confidential sources.  The classic use of the confidential source speaks for itself.  I can truly trace my first interest in a career in journalism to reading the exploits of Woodward and Bernstein as they broke perhaps the biggest story ever with the help of “Deep Throat.”

But investigations at the federal level don’t always go so swimmingly.  Ask Jim Taricani.  In 2004, this Rhode Island TV reporter spent six months confined to his home after a federal judge found him in contempt of court for not revealing who leaked him a surveillance tape he was using as part of an investigation into political corruption.

In December, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a version of a federal shield law, sending it on to the full Senate for consideration.  The House of Representatives has already passed its own version of the bill.  With full Senate consideration looming, this is the closest we have come to a federal shield law.  But the fight in the upper chamber will be tough.

As we were watching the drama over the bill play out in Washington, a perfect example of the need for the legislation cropped up in the days following the Christmas Day bombing attempt on that Northwest Airlines jet headed to Detroit.  Travel journalist Christopher Elliott, operator of the elliott.org travel tip web site and co-host/reporter/producer of numerous other travel-related reporting ventures, published a transcript of the new TSA security measures issued in the wake of the incident.  You can see the transcript here:

http://www.elliott.org/blog/full-text-of-sd-1544-09-06-authorizing-pat-downs-physical-inspection/

Elliott received the text of the directive from an anonymous source.  And when an FBI agent showed up at his door with a subpoena demanding the name of the person who sent Elliott the material, this because a classic federal shield law case.  His subpoena is here (along with an account of his interaction with the agent):

http://www.elliott.org/blog/full-text-of-my-subpoena-from-the-department-of-homeland-security/

The result of the service of the subpoena is that Elliott had to immediately—in that week between Christmas and New Year’s—gather an army of personal and industry attorneys and experts to help figure out what to do.  At no time did he back down from his decision to publish the directive.  But he and his colleagues expended time and money to fight the subpoena.  By New Year’s Eve, the government pulled the plug on its investigation—at least as far as Elliott was concerned.  His attorney received a message from the Department of Homeland Security letting him know Elliott’s subpoena was being withdrawn.

That’s a victory in any journalist’s book, but some of you might be saying, “See, we don’t need a shield law.  The government backed down.  Elliott didn’t face contempt charges or house arrest.”  But that’s where you would be wrong.  In a column from Tuesday, Elliott wonders aloud whether he might now be on the terrorist screening database.  A successful flight this week shows that he apparently is not (he would have been barred from the flight had he been added to the list).   But his question about just how people end up on this list—which is, ironically, secret—makes one think about the long-term consequences of unprotected reporting work when it comes to government agencies.

The great Supreme Court Justice William Brennan used the notion of a “chilling effect” in a case about free expression and the mail—not traditional press freedoms.  But the term can be used in relation to the effect threatened government penalties can have on journalists and their likelihood to pursue stories that might generate those penalties.  In a world without a federal shield law, that chilling effect is surely at play here.  Will Elliott publish leaked government material again?  From reading his blog and seeing his approach this time, I think he probably will.  But will the thought of the terrorist database cross his mind when he does?  I’m almost certain of it.  And think of the chilling effect the threat of an air travel blacklisting must have on a man who makes his entire living traveling by plane and writing about it.  It’s about as great a professional threat as anyone can face.  And face it each time going forward now he must.  Because he published material leaked to him by a confidential source without the protection of a federal shield law.

No one would deny the issue of air security is an important one.  The government spends billions of our dollars every year to run its TSA and other programs.  And people’s lives—millions of them—are literally at stake based on how good a job that government and its entities do.  Even if I weren’t a professional journalist myself I would want as much freedom as possible for reporters to peer into every corner of the system—often with the help of confidential sources—to see that it’s working as well as it possibly can.  And I want them to be able to do that without fear of losing their freedom or livelihood in the process.

This year, 2010, could be the one where we see the president sign a federal shield law.  We’ve never been this close before.  Join me in doing what you can to let everyday people know this law is about their right to know.  Opponents are going to paint this as a special privilege for reporters that weakens national security.  It is exactly the opposite.  It is a universal right for all people—from reporters and editors to the people who consume their work—that will strengthen every part of government onto which we can shine our lights.  That is why we fight this federal shield law fight.

Who Can Afford Checkbook Journalism?

-first posted at RTDNA.org on December 29, 2009

As you climbed out from under your piles of wrapping paper (or Midwestern snow—whichever was deeper) this Christmas weekend, you may have had time to follow the exploits of one Jasper Schuringa.  Mr. Schuringa was, of course, one of the passengers on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 who helped subdue the man who tried to detonate an explosive on the plane on Christmas Day.   The Dutchman was quick to contact the media with his “hero” status, willing to tell his story in exchange for what now appears to be certain “considerations.”

In addition to his story of overpowering Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab on the plane landing in Detroit after a transatlantic crossing originating in Amsterdam, Schuringa was also peddling a couple of cell phone pictures.  It was one of those pictures—one in which you can make out the suspect only by the contrast of his white shirt to the darker ones around him—that CNN says it paid a “licensing fee” to use.  CNN told TVNewser it did not pay for the interview that accompanied the photo.  You can see that entire interview here:

http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/us/2009/12/26/nr.jasper.schuringa.intv.cnn

It’s a good thing CNN “didn’t pay” for the interview.  It’s not very good.  Schuringa is a lousy subject who talks about his experience like he’s describing the latest “Die Hard” movie to a friend in an Amsterdam club.  To me, his interview lacked emotion and any semblance of a personal connection to the event.  And why shouldn’t it?  It’s just business now.  CNN didn’t disclose what it paid Schuringa, though TVNewser reports a price tag of $10,000 was running around other media outlets interested in the same “picture.”  Gawker.com reports the New York Post and ABC News coughed up another $8,000 for more picture “rights.”  But overpaying for a crummy interview and a blurry photo isn’t what’s at issue here, not from where I’m sitting.  Checkbook journalism has been around for as long, I suspect, as there have been checkbooks and journalists.  It was a core business strategy for the likes of Hearst and Pulitzer.  But it’s crazy to be relying upon it now.

You see, that’s the angle I’m taking here today.  It’s easy for anyone to write a column or blog and rage against the sin of checkbook journalism. Anyone can talk about the arms race that begins when opposing journalistic forces look to outbid one another for the big story.  It’s simple to point out the story that you have to pay for comes with a lot of questions about how much truth you just bought versus how much fiction.  So I won’t repeat those criticisms you’ve all heard so many times before.  Instead, I’ll raise my objections today on just how shortsighted it is to try to beat the competition by spending what could easily be a five-figure sum to get one interview.  In the new economy of the media today, what sort of decision is that?

This is the era of UGC—user-generated content.  Like no other time in history, news sources—our consumers—will give you their pictures/videos/interviews for free.  If I’m not mistaken, CNN actually had me and maybe a million of my friends pay Apple $1.99 (I assume CNN got a cut) for the CNN iPhone app.  That app allows me to upload pictures and other content directly from my phone.  It’s an extension of the network’s iReport brand.  So CNN not only has people willing to give it all kinds of content for free, it actually has people paying to be able to send in their news through photos and other means.  If that’s the case, is paying an eyewitness really a good idea?

Take a look at this story, also from CNN:

http://www.cnn.com/2009/TRAVEL/12/25/us.airline.incident.passengers/

In it, other passengers on Flight 253 tell their stories about those harrowing few minutes at the end of the flight.  I’m pretty sure no one paid them.  The one passenger quoted, Syed Jafry, was actually sitting much closer to the would-be bomber than Schuringa.  But he didn’t work to sell his story as much as his fellow passenger.  So he didn’t get any money to tell his story (which in my mind offered a lot more insight than Schuringa’s “I’m a hero” story).

What I’m saying is that if someone has an honest story to tell, they’ll do it for free.  We’ve always known that.  In fact, it’s what’s made our system of journalism work for the last 100 years or so.  Now, in a time when we’re wondering how we’re going to keep the news industry afloat financially, it’s unconscionable to think about a bidding war for sources on important—or unimportant—news stories.  Any company that’s laid off journalists but is still willing to pay sources for interviews is on the wrong side of the ledger here.  Let’s leave CNN out of it for a minute.  If a hypothetical news organization SNC (Super News Channel) pays $10,000 for photos or interview or whatever just three or four times a year, that’s the salary of another journalist—at least an entry-level one.  How many stories could that young journalist have turned in the course of his first year on the job?  I’d say at least two hundred.  So paying for a story—a recognized journalistic wrong—yields four stories.  Cultivating a budding reporter—I think most people would see that as a good thing—yields fifty times more.  Even the bean counters at the top of our companies we love to complain about see the first scenario makes no sense.

So make your argument on the old turf of journalism ethics.  Or make it on new battlefield of economic survival.  Either way, checkbook journalism doesn’t make any long term sense.  Sure, you win this story.  But where do you end up in the long run.

So when the next Jasper Schuringa comes knocking, listen of course.  But don’t pay.  You’re buying a ticket on a one-way flight to ruin for our profession.

Five Reasons to Work on Christmas

-first posted at RTDNA.org on December 22, 2009

So the title of this blog might be a bit of a downer for a lot of you.  You enjoy the holidays and hate to think of those times when you get stuck working.  But I’m writing this for all those newsroom managers out there who’ve been pulling their hair out trying to deal with holiday vacation requests while still having enough people to keep the shows on the air this week and next.  Here’s a handy, pocket—sized guide (if you print it and fold it up) to whip out and drop on your holiday-loving employees.  It’s a list of a few of the best reasons to work on Christmas—reasons news people can stay sane after working all the days everyone else has off.

Reason #1: Short commute to work. With nearly everyone else in the country taking the day off for Christmas, your trip to work will be free of the regular traffic snarls and honking headaches you find most days.  Leave home a bit later.  You’ll still be on time.

Reason #2: You’ll have pretty much the whole building to yourself.  Once you do get to the station, there will only be news, production, and master control people around.  The building will be quiet and you’ll have the run of it.  Go sit in the public lobby and pretend you’re waiting to complain about a story you saw.  Go take the $ sign keys off all the computer keyboards in sales.  Go back to programming and replace the Jay Leno show with something people will actually watch.  No one will stop you.  You’ll have the run of the building.

Reason #3: Big stories happen on Christmas Day (really).  What day did Mikhail Gorbachev resign, setting the end of the Soviet Union into motion?  Why, December 25, of course.  What day did Apollo 8 end its orbit of the moon after sending back those dramatic pictures of Earthrise over the far side?  That was Christmas Day.  And what day did President Andrew Johnson pick to pardon all Confederate soldiers—OK, I might have gone a little far back for that one.  But news does happen on Christmas.  Each of you can probably remember some big story that broke on Christmas Day in your market.  A serious oil pipeline break into a local river comes to mind for me.  The people working that day had great news to cover—all because they didn’t take the day off.

Reason #4: Traveling at Christmas can be awful.  Just look at this year.  That big East Coast snowstorm has left many holiday travelers stuck at home—or worse yet—in the airport or train station. Buying a plane ticket to go anywhere north of Tallahassee in December is like buying your new newsroom automation system from a guy on craigslist.  You’re asking for trouble.  Why take the risk that your trip to see friends and family will be cut short due to weather problems.  Safer to stay close to home and turn those weather problems into great stories.

Reason #5: Why should you take a day off just because everyone else is?  I’ve never been much of a holiday guy anyway, but the idea of set holidays from work has always made me bristle just a little bit.  Why should I take the same six days off every year as everyone else?  Maybe I don’t want the first Monday in September off.  But most companies call that a holiday and tell their people not to come in.  I’ve always liked the notion born and bred in newsrooms that Thanksgiving is just another Thursday.  Let me take my “holidays” when I choose to take them for my own pleasure.

So there you have it, a list of five reasons why there’s no good excuse to stay away from work this or any Christmas.  Sure, I had a little fun with it.  But this really is serious business.  Managers have always struggled to keep enough warm bodies in the newsroom this time of year.  And if you’re just now starting to hire Millennial employees into your newsroom, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  Millennials LOVE their holidays, placing a trip home and a few days off at Christmas at the top of their wants in their professional life.  So this is becoming a problem much bigger than a few managers who can’t fill their schedules easily.  I’ve actually met young Millennials who decided NOT to pursue a career in news because they couldn’t come to grips with working holidays.  And these were good people—not just some slackers who wouldn’t have cut it in the business anyway.  We have a serious problem as the next generation begins to fill most of the positions in our newsrooms.  Perhaps Millennial station managers will be quicker to cancel newscasts on holidays than our Baby Boomer bosses have been in our careers.  That would be one way to fix the problem.  But can that really work?  Doesn’t the web keep its demand even when the newscasts aren’t on the air?  It’s a very sticky problem.

So, to do your part keeping the rampant run to the holiday in check, you still need to fill your newsrooms with enough staff to fill some shows this Friday.  Print this list.  Fold it up.  Put it in your pocket until you see one of your holiday-loving staffers.  What have you got to lose?

New Necessities Are the Mother of Invention

-first posted at RTDNA.org on December 15, 2009

I’m sitting at my desk this week trying to figure out how to Skype back my coverage from the Texas bowl later this month.  Our local team, the Missouri Tigers, plays there New Year’s Eve.  Between now and then I’m trying to come up with the method for my sports people to do live shots via the internet video phone service that I can actually put on the air.  We’ve been FTP’ing for a while now.  But we have yet to Skype live.  I know other stations do it.  I know Oprah does it.  So now it’s time for us to do it and I’m determined to figure out how—all by myself.

Don’t get me wrong.  We have a perfectly good satellite truck.  It’s parked right out back.  In fact, we have two of them (though the old one wouldn’t make it to Houston, Missouri, much less Houston, Texas).  The problem is not that superior technology does not yet exist to deliver a crystal-clear picture from the Texas bayou to the central Missouri plain.  It does.  And we have used that technology for more than 20 years to deliver television coverage from outside the area.  It’s not the machinery we don’t have—it’s the money.

Now don’t worry, the paragraphs below are not about to go into a long-winded retelling of the woeful (I’ve never liked that word, actually) path we all have traveled over the last year or so.  Everyone reading this knows times are tough and we have to make sacrifices to do the things we used to do without even blinking an eye (or closing a wallet).  I guess I’m using my current Skype dilemma as an example that hard times can be a good thing if they move us in the right direction.  And dare I say they’re doing that for us right now.

If you’re old enough, think back to the way we solved our newsroom technology problems 25 or 30 years ago.  If something didn’t exist, the solution was to—wait for Sony to invent it.  That’s what we did.  Sure, there were some modifications we photographers would do in the field or the edit bay to save some time or work (just ask me some time about how masking tape could save me a ton of time when editing video).  But the truth was there were no major breakthroughs in newsgathering technology that didn’t come from the big companies first.  And the engineers liked it that way.  I can recall trying to get an early form of user-generated content on the air back in the mid-1980s.  A man with a full-sized VHS video camera/recorder brought in video of his son making a full-court basketball shot.  I was excited to get it on the air.  But the engineer in charge told me it was not “broadcast quality” and would be an “illegal signal.”

The tyranny of the technology giants is over, as is the egotism of the engineers.  Video democracy is here and with it comes a new chance for those of us with creative sides to solve the empty wallet problem through some late nights and unorthodox approaches.  Who among you hasn’t done it already?  Are you tweeting from trials to get word out quickly?  Do you use Cover It Live to simulate live coverage of events where you can’t put a camera or mic?  Have you ever put cell phone video on the air because it was the only camera pointing a certain direction when news was happening?  Of course you have.  And Sony does NOT approve.

Is the picture cleaner and clearer when I use my satellite truck?  Sure it is.  But aside from the costs holding me back, maybe that truck is, too.  When I stop thinking about the limits of my old technology—the cable runs, the parking space, the overbooking of the satellite space—I stop limiting myself by all those factors.  New technology begins with “new,” and that also represents the new ways of thinking we employ when we invent our own solutions to our current problems.  The old technology is a prison, confining us to thinking about things the same way we did in 1985.  But the cell door is off its hinges now and I, for one, am on a dead run in a new direction.

This surge of invention from the new necessities facing us is more than in the technological realm.  As we rethink everything from the assignment desk to come up with stories to the delivery systems to get stories to the end users, we are finding ways to do it cheaper, more often, and in easier-to-access manners.  And the beauty is anyone out there reading this could be the one who invents the next big thing.  It doesn’t need to be the big boys in Japan anymore.  As we move to innovate in my own shop, dealing with both the added challenges of an all-Millennial workforce and a savvy audience that wants news every which way it can get it, I told my people earlier this year that we have every bit as good a chance to figure out the new, best way to do it as the next guy.   There is a democratization of innovation going on right now that excites me to no end.  The ideas this paragraph has spurred you to think about—that ideas you’re not sure you want to let loose on your newsroom yet—those could be the next group of big ideas.  And there are a million of them out there.

So turn them loose now.  Try them out.  Your assignment desk is your workbench.  Your edit rooms are your laboratories.  In them are working thousands of willing investigators ready to help you invent the tools and practices you need to succeed in this climate of increased necessity.  Use them.

And let me know if you have this Skype live shot thing figured out.

Breaking the Human Chains

-first posted at RTDNA.org on December 8, 2009

I just spent the past weekend in Los Angeles helping judge the southern California RTNA’s Golden Mike awards.  The folks from RTNA were great hosts and I really enjoyed watching the work from all the talented folks in Los Angeles and the surrounding markets.  But what I didn’t enjoy was getting there.  Thanks to my RTDNA chairmanship, 2009 has been a very busy travel year for me.  And that has meant a lot more time in airports and on interstate highways.  And that’s where I’m running into my problems.

What I’ve noticed, whether flying or driving, is the growing occurrence of what I like the call “human chains.”  The phrase began back in college, coined to acknowledge a phenomenon my brother and I were noticing on campus.  It seemed that, especially when we were in Middlebush Hall (where most of the business classes met at the time), that we would run into groups of students strung out across hallways and other access areas.  They were talking or smoking (remember, people could smoke basically anywhere in the 70s) or whatever, but they were also completely blocking passage to anyone trying to get through.  The phenomenon was confined mostly to Middlebush and business students, so I attributed it at the time to the rudeness or stupidity of students in that particular major.  I used to assume the former, but the events on Wall Street and in major companies over the past 18 months or so now have me preferring the latter—the people running things now are all from my time in college.  But I digress.

Getting back to the travel problems, I’m seeing the human chains manifest themselves more and more.  You’ve seen them by now—that long string of people looking confused and blocking the entire airport hallway.  Or that series of cars driving slowly in what I was raised to call the “passing” lane on the interstate.  With both of these groups, there’s no passing possible.  You end up trying to thread the needle with your suitcase or your car, hoping to slip through the tightest of spots and get back to a normal speed.  These folks are REALLY frustrating.  And the more of them you run into the more you want to just barrel through them.  But I was raised to be a polite guy, so I try to pardon my way through—with my voice or my turn signal—hoping they’ll get the sometimes too-subtle clue and move out of everyone’s way.

The end result of the human chains is that they hold everyone back and keep things from flowing forward smoothly.  Airport gates back up, keeping arriving passengers from getting out of the airport and to their ultimate destinations.  On the highway, traffic backs up and everyone gets where they’re going later than they should.

I bring up this problem with two goals in mind.  First, while I doubt any of the astute readers of RTDNA.org are particular problems in airports or on the highway, perhaps you can help me spread the word to educate these dullards to get out of the way.  But more than that, I couldn’t help but see the similarities these blockades have to the problems some of us have in our newsrooms right now.  You see, the changes newsroom are experiencing now are like the flow of traffic through an airport or along a highway.  I don’t mean the literal flow of people in the newsroom.  I mean the changes we’re making to improve and modernize the way we do things are a fast-paced trip forward in the evolution of news.  And as the smart news managers work to navigate their teams on this trip into the future, they’re running into human chains along the way.  The chains are made up of those people who don’t want to break news on the web, those people who think social media are a fad, and those people who won’t adapt to new delivery technology like Skype or Slingbox.  The human chains exist among reporters, photographers, engineers, or any other group of people unwilling to make a change.

The key to breaking the chains has to be education—forcefully so in the case of the most pigheaded links in the chains.  But how to send those messages?  In the airport, it’s a loud “pardon me.”  On the highway, it’s the flash of your headlights or a blast on the horn.  But the newsroom doesn’t have simple answers like those for its lingering link problem.  Each chain has to be addressed differently, with the right approach for the kind of chain it is.  The rusty old reporter chain needs its own sort of attention.  Managers can spend time with that group trying to build back in the old feeling of victory for breaking a story on air, transferring that same thrill to breaking it first on the web.  Photographers annoyed by ever-smaller cameras (and their unquestionable drop in picture quality) can be won over by the convenience factor of always having an HD camera in their pocket, eady to catch news 24/7.  And engineers—always suckers for new technology—just need a Slingbox to take apart and put together to see how it works.  They’ll come on board.

I’m hopping on a plane again today.  And I’m hoping my trip won’t be delayed by any annoying human chains along the way.  But I’m ready.  I’m hitting the road prepared to deal with them when I encounter them.  And when I return to my newsroom next week, I’m ready to face the chains here, too.

Memo to Tiger Woods

-first posted at RTDNA.org on December 1, 2009

To: Tiger Woods, Professional Golf Superstar
From: The Media, Professional Golf Superstar Makers

Mr. Woods:

It has come to our attention that it is your desire to keep the details surrounding your recent car accident to yourself.  You have issued a statement on your web site saying, “This is a private matter and I want to keep it that way.”  That may be well and good for the other 300 million people in the country who are NOT Tiger Woods, but this approach—both the written web statement and the request for privacy—just won’t due.  You are who you are thanks as much to media interest as to your own golf ability, and we, the media, won’t settle for this approach you’re taking.

Let’s start with the notion that anything that occurs outside (and many of the things that occur inside) your home can be private.   Mr. Woods, this is just not the case.  You have chosen to live your life publicly by cultivating your superstar sports status.  Had you chosen a private life without the attention on your golf—not to mention the multimillion-dollar endorsement deals—that would be different.  There are talented people everywhere who do not use those talents to make money on the public stage.  They have private lives and no one cares when they crash their cars into trees without hurting anyone else.  You, Mr. Woods, are in a different situation.  What you consider your “private” life is part of the package that is Tiger Woods, Inc.  It deserves attention every bit as much as your work on the links.  And if America is going to consider you a role model and leader among young men, then it deserves to know as much as possible about the person who has allowed himself to be put into the position in which you are in now.

Now let’s turn to the idea of releasing a written statement through your web site.  Come on, Mr. Woods.  Had you taken such a timid approach on the golf course in your years of play you would have never won a tournament.  In fact, some of our ilk would call it cowardly.  Quietly releasing a few paragraphs online does a disservice to your fans and to your reputation.  Our professional advice is to step forward and tell the story of what happened last week.  Sure, there are probably some details you’d like to keep to yourself.  But a general outline of the events of that early morning, followed by a chance for reporters to ask questions, would go a long way toward clearing away a growing gray cloud on your reputation.  People, you see, take a written statement as a sheet of paper behind which you are hiding.  Trust us, we know.  We’ve seen this many times before.

You see, we’ll keep working on this story whether you want it to be private or not.  Truth be told, some of us will report rumors or speculation without any evidence it’s true.  Others will report more correctly, doing our homework to find out what we can before we air it.  But we will find out.  And the longer the facts are hidden behind a false assumption of privacy, the longer and harder we’ll work to pull back that veil and show what it is you appear to be hiding.

So, Mr. Woods, here’s what we’re advising you to do.  First, do what you should have done in the first place and come out and talk to us.  Hold a news conference and give us at least an overview of what happened that night.  List the events leading up to your departure from the house.  What happened inside?  Why did you leave at that hour?  Regarding the accident and the moments following it, give us some details.  How did you come to hit the hydrant and the tree?  What are the extent of your injuries?  Why do they seem inconsistent with the damage to your car?  And what was your wife’s role at the scene of the accident.  None of these questions invade the amount of privacy a celebrity in your position still can hold as his own.

This advice is free—it’s not costing you a thing.  We cannot say the same about your actions so far.  The makers of the products you so readily endorse have much more invested in how this comes out than we reporters do.  They have been watching since the moment this story broke to see how you would handle things.  So far, despite some public statements of support, you can trust us when we tell you they are not pleased.  They see their chief pitchman hiding from the media and stonewalling the police and their investigation.  Are those the actions of a role model?  We suspect most people would say “no.”

We’ll keep our memo brief and say that the next move is yours, Mr. Woods.  Take the discipline that has made you the legend you are on the fairways and put it to work on your image.  Follow the advice you’ve stood behind since your first endorsement deal and “Just Do It.”

Gluttony is Good

-first posted at RTDNA.org on November 24, 2009

Here it is Thanksgiving week and I feel the need to write something connected to that holiday.  I began to tick off my possible topics and realized I’d already robbed Peter to pay Paul in some earlier blogs.  I recall writing about what I am thankful for in modern newsrooms way back in the summer (great timing there).  I also wrote about football regarding our ongoing scrimmages with athletic conferences and their shortsighted media policies.  So if thankfulness and football are out as Thanksgiving topics, what’s left?  It could only be gluttony.

We’re raised to think that gluttony is a sin.  It’s literally on a list, of course.  Around the end of the Sixth Century, Pope Gregory I took eight sins the Greeks saw as the most egregious, narrowed them to seven (changing a few in the process), and thus, the Seven Deadly Sins were born.  There’s no need to go through the whole list here (check in with Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt for that), but suffice it to say gluttony—or the act of too lustful an appetite—made it high on the list.  Looking back 15 centuries, I’m guessing gluttony was an easy sell as a sin, seeing that most churchgoers didn’t have enough to eat anyway.  It was a bit of a early Middle Ages softball to throw the peasant class as they envied the rich (envy, another deadly sin).

By now you’re wondering what all this has to do with Thanksgiving and journalism.  Hop the metaphoric Mayflower with me and leave the old world behind.  Our new world habit of stuffing ourselves on Thanksgiving stems back to that first feast of the pilgrims, giddy over growing enough food in 1621 to survive a winter.  After the deadly scarcity of the previous year, think how overwhelmed the first settlers in Massachusetts were to have so much from which to choose.

The world of journalism (yes, I finally got to journalism) is having its own harvest of 1621 right now.  The relative scarcity of news content and delivery methods has given way to a cornucopia of stories and ways to find them.  Turn away from the problems with the business model right now and just look at the content.  There is so much more than we could have ever dreamed having at our fingertips.  And we can use our fingertips—literally—to touch so many methods of delivery.

The day of the news glutton is here.  And we should celebrate him and his gluttony.  Imagine what your stations would be like if you were still only producing news for a handful of static newscasts per day.  Sure, you might wish for those simpler days, the days before you ever heard of the term “24/7.”  But with the audience erosion we’ve all seen over the last 30 years or so, where would we be under that old model?  I fear we would be an afterthought in most people’s day.  Instead, our craft has embraced new technology and used it to deliver more news faster each and every year, ingraining ourselves in people’s personal habits.  I entered the TV news business at a time when ENG vans and SNG trucks were new technology.  We could bring those stories live, delivering more and better than we did before.  Today, the push is for “three screens” to keep news a button’s push away around the clock.  The demand for stories, then live stories, and now mobile stories is all a product of the growth in news gluttony.  Celebrate it.

Is there a downside to embracing a deadly sin as a driving force behind our profession?  Sure.  Unbridled voracity can lead to swallowing a few things that might upset your stomach.  And our modern news gluttons swallow more than a few spoiled meals in their haste to have it all.  The figurative bad taste such an encounter leaves is sure to put a consumer off consuming from you for a while.  But the solution to that problem is a simple one.  Serve only the finest items on your buffet.  Since the cost nearly everywhere to consume is nearly zero, why not become known for serving the best there is to offer on your three screens.  Skip the junk food and serve what’s good for your gluttons—a healthy serving of important stories.  That will keep them coming back.

Now, daring to take this analogy so far as to turn your stomach, let me make one final point.  The first Thanksgiving celebrated a bountiful harvest grown right there where the settlers had put down literal and figurative roots.  We can learn a lot from that local approach, keeping our gluttons grazing close to home.  As local foods gain in popularity as a way to combat carbon build-up and corporate farms, let’s not forget that news is a dish best served local.  Our future is not as a provider of content for gluttons across the globe.  Instead, most of us will harvest again and again with a local audience in mind.

So, as you settle in this week after stuffing yourself with a little too much of everything on that dining room table, think about when gluttony is good.  It has taken us a long way as a craft and promises to continue to carry us forward for many Thanksgivings to come.

A Swipe at the Audience with Occam’s Razor

-first posted at RTDNA.org on November 17, 2009

There are those times in our newscasts and our stations when things don’t go exactly as planned. Luckily, most of those gaffes happen without too many people taking notice. After all, we’re only human. Compound those human frailties with the complexities of modern television and radio facilities, and even more problems can erupt. As I said, most happen without much fanfare or complaint, chalked up to a “%#@%$ happens” philosophy among much of the audience.

Other times though, it seems as if everyone is watching when the big error hits. Yesterday was one of those days at my station. We carry Oprah. And in case you were in Antarctica for the last three weeks or so, yesterday was the day Oprah interviewed Sarah Palin. This was a much-anticipated interview, long awaited by both friend and foe of Mrs. Palin.  So, at four o’clock, just as planned, the program began. Oprah and the former Alaska governor sat down to begin their talk.  At 4:10, the program stopped. That was not planned.

I’ll pause right there before I get to the cause of the problem to talk a little bit about the reaction this program stoppage caused. I was in my office going over material with a reporter before the newscast. One of my anchors came in and said, “The phones are going nuts out here because of the Palin thing.” I had not been watching Oprah and did not know there was a problem.

I went into the newsroom and immediately found half a dozen people answering phones, apologetically trying to explain what happened — even though they didn’t know yet themselves what had caused it. I wanted to find out, so I dashed back to master control to see what was going on. There, two operators were examining the playback server, desperately trying to will a recalcitrant file back into play mode again. I could see it looked hopeless. I jogged back to the newsroom and took over phone duty, explaining to viewers about the glitch and our desperate attempts to recapture this computer gone rogue.

About ten percent of the callers accepted my explanation, thanked me for my time, and crossed their fingers we could restore the interview quickly. I said ten percent.  That left 90 percent who just wanted a piece of me. They weren’t buying my “file error” explanation. They just knew we knocked the interview off the air on purpose. They said things like, “This doesn’t happen when Oprah has Obama on” and “It figures you would do something like this to her.”  I, of course, new that “we” hadn’t done anything to Mrs. Palin.  Instead, one of the dozens of computer servers locked away in a dark and chilly server room “decided” to drop a bit here and a byte there until one of millions of files on those servers would no longer play.

All this brings me to Occam’s Razor. Scientists around the globe know the razor as the first approach to explaining any unknown situation. The axiom has been stated many ways, but probably the best is this: “When you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.”  Read that a couple of times and admire the beauty of it.  What William of Ockham (the author of this brilliant idea) was saying back in the Fourteenth Century is that none of us need try too hard to figure out too complex an explantion for anything we observe.  Instead, go with the simplest explanation first.

Applied to yesterday’s offense against Oprah, the razor considers these two possibilities:

Possibility 1: a computer file many gigabytes in size suffered a corruption that rendered it useless for playback.

Possibility 2:  a person or persons unknown evaded station policy, security, and quality control protocols, accessed password-protected server space, and placed an up-until-then imperceptible corruption in the file containing the interview of a significant political figure, all for the sake of silencing her views and promoting a liberal agenda.

Now, with the clear brilliance of Occam’s Razor squarely in your mind, which possibility would you choose?   Unless I’ve missed my guess about the intelligence of readers of this blog, you’ve chosen Possibility 1.  So why is it 90 percent of the callers to the TV station were going with Door Number 2?

Perhaps they just haven’t been schooled in the physical or social sciences and therefore never introduced to Occam’s Razor or any other logical reasoning strategies. That’s probably part of it.  And frankly, I don’t worry too much about that part of the explanation. It’s this other part that worries me. The part I’m talking about now is the incessant drumbeat many of our audience members hear, telling them the media are all part of a left-leaning conspiracy to deprive them of valuable political information.

Those of us who work in the media often laugh at the conspiracy notion. I’ve been in enough newsrooms to know that the 10 o’clock producer often doesn’t know what the six o’clock producer’s doing.  If those two people can’t communicate while sitting one desk apart, how can the thousands of us in the news media secretly conduct the conspiracy to silence those views with which we disagree? Beyond that, in this particular case, where’s the proof the conspiracy is keeping Sarah Palin from our audiences?  Her book is the most talked about thing on the talk show circuit, whether TV or radio. Newspaper headlines and photos depict her return to the spotlight. And Oprah herself, perhaps the most important non-news interview anyone can land, did play successfully in more than 200 other television station yesterday.  Can anyone be convinced a conspiracy exists? And if one can, is there any proof it’s working?  I’m discouraged so many people are buying a complex, often ludicrous explanation for why they don’t see 100% what they agree with on legitimate news programs.  The simpler explanation out there is that we cover all points of view—not just the ones they favor.

We’re replaying the Oprah/Palin program today.  I do hope it airs without a hitch. But even if it does, I expect I’ll still have a number of phone calls and e-mails complaining that it didn’t air properly the first time. Most of those complaints will involve calling me names or impugning my character. I’m just glad I’ll be carrying a razor.