Saturday, November 29

Who's On (In) First?

Joe Riggins said it best. You remember Joe “Skip” Riggins—the manager of the baseball team in Bull Durham? The late Trey Wilson played him on the big screen.

“Baseball,” he said, “"is a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball." He accused his team of being “lollygaggers.”

I think television news is a simple business. You pick some stories, you cover some stories, you tell some stories.

The thing that makes baseball so endlessly fascinating is that down on that field there are a million options, a million choices to be made, many of them instantly. It sometimes seems that getting it right is a million-to-one shot. Yet some teams do get it right, consistently. They’re winners.

Same thing for television news. What stories do you pick to tell tonight? Why did you pick them? What’s your goal in reporting them? How do you decide what resources to assign to each story? A live truck? A helicopter? Team reporting? How much time can you spend on the story in the field? How much time can you devote to it on the air? How do you tell those stories? Graphics? Clever writing? Standups? Live guests? There are so many decisions to be made. But it seems to me that the news operations that do it well and do it consistently all focus on their viewers.

Obviously, I’ve been thinking a lot about WABC-TV lately, and about Al Primo, and about Eyewitness News. I remain struck by the fact that just about everything at WABC, all the story-telling tricks and tips he put in place—worked, has worked, and will work in the future, because it was all viewer-based. His emphasis on using a cast of real people (New Yorkers) as reporters, telling stories about real people (New Yorkers) to real people (New Yorkers) in a way real people (New Yorkers!!!) could understand? It really hasn’t been improved upon. And yet it leaves a lot of room for creative thinking and individual initiative. It’s a simple game—tell me a story!

WABC has been #1 in New York for most of the last forty years by following the plan, by believing in story-telling as a goal, by letting reporters and anchors develop their style to go with the station’s style, and by remembering that it’s all about communicating one-on-one with viewers. Lower the barriers to communication—look ‘em in the eye and tell ’em a story.

When I see TV news that doesn’t work, it’s always because reporters haven’t mastered the craft of storytelling—or have forgotten how—or don’t have the time—or don’t have the resources—or don’t know to put their viewers first.

I know, I know—I’m being an old fart again. But it took me a long time to earn whatever stripes I may have on my sleeves, to develop whatever skills I may have. Along the way I was taught why things are done the way they are. I tune in today—to any TV station you can name—and see people who know what to do (they’ve read the playbook), but they don’t know why. For that reason every newscast looks exactly the same.

I spent Thanksgiving with family back home in Cleveland.

Know the difference between TV news in Cleveland and Cincinnati and Columbus?

Me neither.

All the Cleveland stations looked the same to me—and none of them looked like Cleveland. Cleveland has cookie-cutter newscasts. Great looking anchors. Great looking reporters. Great video. Great looking sets. Great looking graphics. Great sounding music.

It was great. But they looked like lollygaggers, and it was all interchangeable. Your market too, I’ll bet.

Quick note. I had a nightmare the other night. Did you ever have one where you woke up in the middle of the night, got up, went to the bathroom, splashed some water on your face, returned to bed—and picked up the dream at the same spot!?!?!?!?

I dreamed—all night it seemed—that I was once again a news director and I was being ordered to make huge budget cuts. I had some sort of a spreadsheet in front of me. By each name there was a box showing how much money each person made this year—how much each was supposed to make next year—and the savings if I each one go immediately. My job (in the dream) was to add up the numbers from the “savings” boxes—to the penny-- and fire exactly the right people to reach a mandated bottom-line figure. Hit it exactly. Not a penny over, not a penny under. So a reporter whose salary ended in a "6" might stay, but one who's salary ended in a "7" would have to go. In the dream I kept adding and subtracting, trying to hit that exact number while still trying to retain good people and still do news. As I say, a nightmare.

In my last ND job I was ordered to do some serious budget trimming—but I did almost all of it by leaving positions unfilled, or by cutting overtime. I hated it. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a news director today, trimming fat, gristle, bone, meat—a living nightmare, I presume.

One of the local radio talkshow hosts recently was joking about the downturn in local TV revenue. Pennsylvania was a “swing state” this election year, and with two key Congressional races locally, the stations made millions more than in political ads than in any election year ever. Now that’s gone—and so is spot spending in general. After Christmas, what will be left? The host was laughing—laughing—that maybe TV needs a government bailout.

I think maybe I got out of TV news at the right moment. I got in just after the beginning—now I’m out just before the end. I wonder what's next.


Anonymous said...

A college student who was interested in broadcast journalism asked me if this was the right time to get into the business. He reads the trade magazines and online gossip Web sites, and knew about the financial problems plaguing newsrooms everywhere. I told him that with all of the cost-cutting going on, it may not be the right time to jump in.

Conversely, it may be the RIGHT time to jump in.

Why? Television news is looking for its next "big thing," as it now faces competition from the Internet. Lots of things are being thrown at the wall in the hopes that it will stick, and the new crowd of tech-savvy college graduates may have the thing that sticks. They don't view journalism the same way as I did, or those who came before me. They may hold the key to that next "big thing."

Dare I say it, but one of those new graduates could be the next Al Primo!

- TM

c-turtle said...

Don't know what is next either, but 67 million voters say the "next" should reflect at least part of 1947's FD.

Anonymous said...

i think it is an attitude that a reporter, News Director and a news organization brings to the table that is the most important.

Take the Long Isdland trampling of a Wal-Mart employee, as an example. Did anyone say to any shoppers, store management or police, "A guy was just trampled to death...AND YOU ARE SHOPPING."

It's indefensible that people who just fatally trampled someone should be allowed to continue as if nothing had happened. And the same thing goes for allowing the store to maintain business as usual

What would have been the attitude if Walmart were a Jewish-owned business?

We got to get back to comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.