Monday, December 1

Breaking, or Broken?

He was a good looking young guy . . . check. He had a great background (big-time J-school) . . . check. He was well-groomed, with a healthy tan . . . check. He was a good dresser (his ties probably cost more than my suits) . . . check. He sounded good . . . check. He had self-confidence galore . . . check. He said he was a reporter . . .

. . . he wasn’t. He was a “coverer.” I just made that word up, because I don’t know what else to call him. He was a microphone holder.

One of my rules had long been that every reporter was expected to come to the “morning meeting” with at least one story idea. Hopefully it would be something we could cover locally—something of vital interest to our viewers—a “sit up and take notice” story that would cement our reputation as trusted news gatherers who put our viewers’ needs first. Our slogan was “On Your Side.” Even though I had nothing to do with picking the branding, I didn’t want to just pay lip service to it, I wanted us to live it and breathe it.

But, I told the reporters, if you can’t work your sources and come up with one solid idea a day (!!!) at least come in with a story that might kick-start discussion: something you’d heard on the radio, seen on TV, read in a newspaper or a magazine or on the Internet.

Most mornings this guy said, “I don’t have anything today.”

What the . . .

You’re a reporter????? You didn't read a paper today? You didn't listen to the radio? You drove to work with your eyes closed? Nothing sparked your curiosity?

So we'd give him a story off the Daybook. Every day. And that’s OK, in a way. The day’s “news agenda” leaves room for enterprise reporting, for investigative reporting, for looking at old stories in new ways. But the “news agenda” also includes several stories each day that your viewers expect you to cover: they read them in the local paper, heard them on the radio, saw them on your early newscast. They want—they expect—they demand--a payoff during your dinner-hour broadcasts, and they’re going to figure you’re not doing your job if you miss the “must-covers.”

The consultants even invented a word to describe the attitude of frustrated viewers: “anticappointment.” You’ve been anticipating a certain story, counting on learning more, looking forward to it all day, and you’re disappointed when you don’t get it—GET IT?

So every day our young reporter was assigned a story off the Daybook—and most days he never got around to covering it. I don’t think he had any intention of covering it. I think he and his photographer drove around town aimlessly most days—stalling, stalling—with the police scanner turned up full-blast, waiting for breaking news.

They’d hear the report of the shooting—or the two-alarm fire—or the fisherman who’s boat capsized in the river—and they’d be on the two-way in seconds to announce, “We’re close, we’ll take it.” I’m not sure they were in the same county but they were always “close.”

So that became the drill. The guy wouldn’t—or couldn’t—come up with a decent story. Golly gee whiz, that would be like . . . like . . . work! Phone calls would have to be made. Sources would have to be checked. Notes would have to be taken. Interviews would have to be arranged. File tape might have to be pulled. Archived scripts might have to be located. Probing questions might have to be asked.

Hard work! Eeeeewww!

It’s a helluva lot easier to shoot the flames breaking through the roof and to ask the lady who owns the home, “How do you feel?” Following the lights and sirens has the added benefit of getting your juices flowing in a way no mayoral news conference ever could.

All the pluses of a lead story without any of that pesky work.

This, of course, from a guy who was once trapped in a traffic jam by a blizzard for four hours—and didn’t get around to shooting any footage of the snow or the stranded, frustrated motorists. I guess he was busy.

Before long he moved on to a much bigger market—one of the biggest. Shootings and fires and drugs, Oh MY!!!!!! I have no idea if he’s done anything to develop the reporting skills he refused to hone while he was here in the medium-time, but he’s big-time now.