Wednesday, March 17, 2010

How to think like a journalist:

There's a big misperception about journalists.  Like lawyers, many people rate journalists just above cockroaches, but below rats on the evolutionary chain.  And that's debatable since I know some who value a cockroach much more than they do a laywer or a journalist.
No, I'm not Superman, just a journalist...

But, speaking as a longtime journalist, I'm here to tell you that they're just like you.  They're human beings, they have good days and bad, they bleed if cut and they weep when confronted with human tragedy.

I remember covering Columbine and seeing the circus it had become just a day after the shootings.  Hundreds of reporters, technicians, producers were scurrying all over the park, looking for stories, trying to find any new tidbit of information they could report on.  And to me, it was exciting, thrilling, it was why I became a journalist in the first place.

But I also remember many other reporters who looked tired, sad, done with the whole thing.  I distinctly remember watching one reporter file a report for a network and afterwards she turned around, put down her microphone and said simply, "I'm done.  I can't do this anymore."  She left and never returned to the park.  I sometimes wonder what happened to her.  At the time, I couldn't understand why she would just walk away from such an important and monumental story.  Years later, after 9/11, I understood her fatigue, her frustration, her disgust with being constantly tired and sad.  And so I left as well.

I tell you this not to elicit sympathy, but to paint a picture of the journalist as a human being.  They are prone to weakness at times, they are biased, they sometimes do things with their gut and let the chips fall where they may.  It is for this very reason that you have to try to understand how a journalist thinks in order to meet their needs and make your future PR pitches a success.

I've already covered what constitutes news in previous entries, but let me quickly recap for those who may have missed it.  The general parameters journalists use when deciding on what is newsworthy and what isn't is as follows:

1.  Timeliness
2.  Proximity
3.  Impact
4.  Relevance
5.  Wow factor

But even with these guidelines, there are always disagreements among newsroom staffers about what story should be covered and which one should be left in the futures file.  There's a very good reason for this.  Think about it.  While timeliness and proximity are pretty set variables in the equation, others like impact and relevance, even wow factor can throw the entire decision-making process out of whack. 

For instance, I'm not a parent.  I don't really have a paternal bone in my body.  My interests lie elsewhere.  So a story pertaining to a baby crib recall just doesn't hold that much interest for me.  Certainly I recognize the impact and relevance it has for my potential readers, viewers and listeners, but because of my personal bias, I might only assign this story as a :15 second reader while a colleague might push for a full :90 second package complete with live shot and graphics.  We both recognize it's a valid story, but it's how we approach that story and handle it's coverage that separates us.  And that difference has everything to do with who we are as people.

Would you like to play a game?

With that in mind, I want you to take a moment and play a game with me.  I call it the newsroom quandary exercise, and it's a great illustration of the difficulty of the decisions newsrooms face very day.

I'm not assigning a time limit here (although in my class, I give my students about 10 minutes since they're usually discussing this in a group and debating their points).  If you can do this exercise with two or three others, you'll get more out of it because you'll notice how vastly different their opinions are from yours.

First, let me tell you who you are.  You are a producer for a local television news station, let's call it KDEN, for convenience sake.  Your audience is primarily the front range of Colorado (Denver and its surrounding suburbs).  One final thing.  The mission of your particular station is to deliver hard-hitting, "quality" news stories. Your program also features a local business report.  There's more but we'll get to that after the first part of the exercise.

You have 11 stories before you.  You can only cover six of them.  You have to choose which six to keep and which six to cut.  You're on the clock, GO!

1.  John Elway elopes and gets married during private ceremony in Hawaii
2.  State officials declare snowpack well below normal, warn of severe summer drought
3.  Governor hopefulls attend caucus debates the night before, (story to include caucus results)
4.  10 killed in plane crash in Florida (1 coloradoan believed to be on board)
5.  Police break up massive drug ring in aurora
6.  5-car pileup kills one, delays traffic for hours on I-25 during morning rush hour
7.  Baby crib recall issued for nation
8.  Local filmmaker wins Oscar for best documentary
9.  Local non-profit opens spay and neuter clinic, estimates millions to be saved by City
10.  150 laid off from Coors.
11.  Police still on manhunt following shooting on Capitol Hill the night before (Police press conference included)

Honestly, that's a tough, tough list.  Certainly there are days when producers don't have that many stories to choose from.  Yet, there are days when there are even more. 

How did you choose?  What did you cut and what did you leave in? Here is my list in no particular order.

Elway gets married
Police manhunt
Snowpack below normal
Baby crib recall
Coors layoffs
drug ring break up

It was a tough one for even me as the estimated millions saved by the local non-profit is tempting to pick.  But I made a decision that it was a story that could be covered at a later date with little or no loss to the impact of the story. 

I chose NOT to include the pileup knowing that it would have been covered already by previous shows, plus, a follow up to the story the next day would offer more perspective and allow for a more in-depth story.  It might also be a story I hand off to the 10pm news for deeper coverage.  The same holds true for the award winning local documentary filmmaker.  I wanted to put in the caucus story, but by the time I get to it, it's almost 24 hours old.  A better follow up story is required for me to be able to put it in my broadcast.  Finally, I chose not to cover the Florida plane crash because it's not confirmed a Coloradoan was on board, and the national networks will cover that story better than I can at this point. 

What were your reasons for choosing what you chose?  I'd love to hear them.  Listen, there are no real right or wrong answers in this.  Frustrating isn't it?  The best you can do is make your decisions and be able to justify your decisions if asked to do so.

Now, the hard part.  You need to rank the stories.  In other words, what do you lead with, and in what order do you cover them?  Here is my ranking:

1.  Police manhunt
2.  Snowpack levels low
3.  Baby crib recall
4.  drug ring break up
5.  Coors layoff
6.  Elway gets married

My top three are all stories that have an immediate impact on my viewers.  The police manhunt (complete with police press conference), the cuacus and the recall all have the potential to impact the lives of area residents. There's also a contextual issue to deal with here.  While the possibility of a severe drought in the summer may seem like a long way off in March, based on the fact that Colorado is still suffering the effects of our last drought, it takes on a larger meaning.

In much the same way that school shootings have taken on a larger profile since the Columbine shootings, when news happens that is related to a previous big story, it can also take on a bigger presence.

Now, keep in mind, that producers also must decide how to handle each story.  Would you give more time to the crib recall?  Maybe you'd move Elway farther up.  Or perhaps you'd focus on the layoffs.  These kinds of decisions will be influenced, like it or not, on your personal biases.  Producers have to decide which ones to give a package to, which ones to just assign as short readers and which ones to provide graphics for, soundbites for, plain video for.  Each of these decisions take up time in your newscast.  Producers have to decide where in their broadcast each story will be placed.  Some in the A-block, some in the B-block and so on. 

As you can see, there are a ton of decisions that go into putting together a newscast.  The same holds true for newspapers and radio broadcasts.  Radio reports generally get 2-3 minutes, tops, to report on the news of the day, while newspapers only have so much space to print their stories, complete with graphics, sidebars and photos.

What this means to you:

First, as you can see, it's vitally important to keep up with the news of the day.  If you know that an important event is happening on a Thursday, you should know about it and try not to hold an event on the same day, or make a pitch that day as it could get lost in the shuffle of the coverage of the news of the day.

Second, knowing what the news of the day will give you an opportunity to make a pitch that relates in some way to what a news outlet is already covering.

Third, by understanding how these news decisions are made, you'll be able to better tailor your pitch to meet their needs.  If, for instance, you know that one news outlet prefers hard news stories over more feature stories, then you can adjust your pitch to meet that requirement. 

This exercise also helps in understanding the pressures journalists are under.  If you can understand the personal biases involved in these decision-making processes, you're less likely to get frustrated when a pitch is declined.  A story you pitched on Monday and was decined on Tuesday might be a viable story when news gets slow a few days or a week later.  It might be a good time to repitch.

As always, I'm available to answer questions and take your feedback.  In the meantime, have a great St. Patrick's Day!

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