Thursday, June 17, 2010

Nuts and Bolts

So you want to manage your own PR camapaign?  Great.  Good for you.  You can do it.  I mean, that's why Real Public Relations and Growing Communications exist.  We are here solely for the purpose of helping small businesses and non-profits do just that.

In this space, we've spent a lot of time talking about social media, platforms, strategy, direction, message, story, releases; basically everything that is involved with PR and social media.  We've also spent some time covering releationships and networking.  These are all very important things.  But there is one area we haven't really covered; the language of PR.

In actuality, we're talking about the language of news.  There is a way news organizations write, there is a kind of special language that they use, shorthand that is used to help them do their job.  These aren't words that you'll be using in everyday conversation.  But like being in France, knowing the language goes a long way to earning respect and building relationships.

More importantly, knowing the language will help you sell a story.  When you pitch a story to a news outlet, you're facing stiff competition from other stories vying for the same time.  Producers and reporters are swamped and overworked and looking for anything that will make their jobs easier.  If you approach them with a basic knowledge of how their industry works they will appreciate you and you will have a leg up on your competition.

One of the biggest laments I heard while working as a journalist is that PR professionals have no idea how a newsroom operates.  We constantly said that PR folk should be required to work in a newsroom before being let loose in the world to pitch stories.

The devil is in the details, really.  Using the right words, recommending the correct kind of handling for your story will not only impress a journalist, but will put you on their radar.  Even if they don't take your story, they will remember you. 

Let's start with TV, since most small businesses and non-profits target TV media outlets as their primary media target. 

First, there are some basic acronyms that you should know:

VO - Voice Over
VOSOT - Voice Over Sound On Tape
VOSOTVO -  Voice Over Sound On Tape, back to a Voice Over
NATSOUND - Natural Sound
READER - A story that is read
BOX - An over the shoulder box graphic
CG - Cover Graphic
CGFULL - Full Screen Cover Graphic
SPLIT - A split screen shot
LIVE - A live report, generally from the street
LOOKLIVE - A report that looks live but has been pre-taped
STANDUP - A reporter or anchor standing up or walking as they report, either live or in a pkg.
PACKAGE - A 60-90-second pre-taped story
ONE-SHOT - A single camera shot focusing on one anchor, reporter or guest
TWO SHOT - A single camera shot focusing on both anchors or reporter and guest
DESK - A wide camera shot focusing on the personalities at the newsdesk
WIPE - A graphic or video transition that moves from one element to another

There are a number of other acronyms that are used in a TV newsroom, but these are the ones that you most likely would mention during conversation or a pitch.  I'll get to the practical use of this knowledge in a minute.  But before we do that, let's also take a look at the format for most TV news outlets. 

The Moving Parts:

One of the things about TV news, whether it's on the local level or at a national network, there are a ton of people involved in making the "magic" happen.  With so many hands involved, things have to be organized and run almost like an assembly line.  To give you an idea of the number of people involved in getting a single broadcast on air, let's review the cast of characters:

1.  The Producer - This person decides what stories will air and in what order.  They do the majority of the writing for the broadcast and have ultimate responsibility for meeting time requirements, content requirements and knowing everything that is happening before and during a broadcast.  Consider them the Quarterback.

2.  Writers - Most broadcasts have one, maybe two writers helping the producer with copy.  These writers often double as weekend producers. 

3.  Assignment Editor - This is perhaps the toughest job in the newsroom.  The assignment editor is constantly listening to police and fire scanners from around their coverage area trying to make sure they don't miss any breaking news.  They are also working with the producers to fact-check, research, track down interviews and arrange satellite feeds.  The AE is also responsible for keeping track of news crews, photographers, reporters, fielding calls and requests from outside the newsroom, assigning stories, acting as a map, a tour guide and catch-all for any information filtering into the newsroom.  Oh, and they keep track of all future stories that might pop up for potential coverage.

4.  Reporters - Reporters are on air and report the news, generally from outside the newsroom during a broadcast.  They often write their own copy, intro and outro.

5.  Anchors - Anchors read the news during the broadcast, generally from the desk.  The good anchors read all the copy before airtime, help write and work with the producers closely.

6.  Executive Producer - This is the boss in the newsroom generally.  They work with producers to help write, make news decisions and act as a buffer between the newsroom and the News Director, who is usually involved in non-news related business.  These folks are usually very experienced and do not suffer fools kindly.

7.  Editors - These individuals take the video and edit them together based on the directions of the producer, reporter or videographer.  Photographers also edit.

8.  Videographer - These are the ones that go out and shoot all the video that you see.  They often work with reporters in the field, but also work by themselves to go capture VO's and VOSOT's to fill out the newscast.

9.  Directors - These individuals work with the producers to build graphics and help with the behind the scenes elements.  Once the program is on the air, the director is in charge.  The producer and director are often talking during a show.  The director is the one that calls camera shots, sets up the next element and keeps the show moving during a broadcast.

10.  Sound - To the left of the director is usually the sound person.  They make sure the sound is good.

11.  Operator - The operator or switcher pushes the buttons that makes the show look good.  They listen to the director, they make changes as necessary and moves the show along.

12.  Artist/Graphic Designer - This individual generally hides in a little room and is inundated with requests for artwork, graphics and other things that make the show look good, interesting, pretty.  The producer will often have several elements that the designer needs to build for their upcoming show.

13.  Studio Camera Op. - It's rare today for newsrooms to actually have manned cameras in the newsroom, but some still do.  In these cases, they listen to the director and follow his or her orders regarding camera shots, pans and movement.  More likely, though, the cameras are computerized and move on their own.  In this case, you have an individual who programs the cameras based on the newscript and the director's notes.  This person pushes the buttons that makes the cameras move or adjusts when the script changes.

14.  Tape Room Op - This is a bit of a misnomer today as most newsrooms are digital.  But this person is still very important as they stack the video for the show, based on the newsscript and the director's notes.  They also monitor incoming feeds and the technical operations.  If the newsroom were a boat, they'd be the guys in the engine room.  

15.  Engineers - These are the ones often found in the Tape Room, or, more likely, the ones who drive and operate the remote trucks in the field.  These individuals set up the remote shots and make sure they run smoothly in the field.  With shrinking budgets, many videographers are doubling as engineers, but most newsrooms still have specific individuals who are responsible for running the remote trucks.

As you can see there are a lot of moving parts to a regular newscast.  And with budgets getting smaller, these people are working harder and longer, doing more with less.  Everyone has to be on the same page in order for a broadcast to be successful.

Each person has a specific job, but sometimes those jobs overlap and if the communication in a newsroom isn't effective, problems will arise.

Now, about that newsscript.  To many outside of a newsroom, a traditional script can look like heiroglyphics.  There's copy that make sense, but it's surrounded by all of those acronyms you saw above.  These directions tell everyone what is going to happen on a particular news item. 

For instance, if you see this in a script.
B3 - ONE SHOT/BOX (anchor)
        Bells were out today in Lakewood as the town 
        celebrated it's annual "Lakewood Days"

        The Mayor of Lakewood presented the town 
        with a symbol of its history; a Golden cowbell
        which historians say represent the culture of farming
        that helped establish the town.

        TAKE SOT: CG - Fred Durnston, Lakewood resident
        (tape 2, TC: 1:04:44) "This is so much fun, I love

        TAKE 1-SHOT (center, anchor)
        The festivities are expected to continue through Sunday
        and is open to the public.

       TAKE 2-SHOT
       Coming up, we have more on the big fire in Aurora as well as
       the latest from Broncos minicamp
       WIPE TO VO
       It looks like the quarterback controversy is heating up, John Barry
       reports from Dove Valley

Of course that's not a real story, but play along with me.  Breaking down the script, it tells you, and the crew, everything they need to know about what is happening in that story.  You start on a one shot with a box over the shoulder of one of the anchors.  Of course, the anchor would be specified in the script.  You then wipe to video featuring natural sound of people ringing cowbells, no one is talking over this sound.  After that, the anchor begins reading the copy as the viewers sees (hopefully) video of the mayor with a golden cowbell.  This is followed by a soundbite.  The CG signifies a lower third graphic with his identifying information.  From this we go right back to the anchor on a single shot, centered, to finish off the story.  You could also wipe to a FULL CG which might have all of the pertinent information for "Lakewood Days" and THEN take the single shot, or just come out to the two-shot. 

The director, the reporters, the anchor and sound guy, engineers, board ops, tape ops, editors...everyone will look at this script and know what they have to do to make this element work.  Now, imagine you have 15 or more stories that you are covering in your entire newscast (a 30-minute cast) and you can see how complicated it can potentially be.

The Constants:

Every newsroom will have their own personal tweaks and formatting (the above is NOT the format the script would appear in btw), but the basics are all the same.

Because a script can be so potentially confusing, newsrooms segment their scripts into "blocks".  These are separated by the commercials you see and they help the crew keep track of the stories better.

Blocks are lettered, not numbered.  So in the above example, you see B-3 to the far left of the first directions.  This lets everyone know this is the third story in the "B" block.  And each block usually has a specific purpose.

For a 30-minute broadcast, you will generally have four or five blocks to fill.  The content may vary from station to station, but the one constant is that the "A" block is usually reserved for your breaking news, latest news or biggest stories.  This is your headines area.  Sometimes, stations will insert national news in this segment, or they may hold it over to their "B" block.  The big news packages go into the "A" block with lighter fare often being held over to the "B" block. Regardless, the "A and B" blocks are usually reserved for the news of the day, from the hard hitting to the more local, more profile news.  "C" block is usually weather.  The "D" block can either be sports, or, more likely it's a feature segment or a catch all segment where producers can put news in that didn't fit in the "A" or "B" blocks.  Sports is usually the final block.

In hour-long broadcasts the other segments are often set aside for business news, national news, features, interviews and recaps of the top news of the day.

What Does This Mean To You?

First, a basic knowledge of the newsroom operations can only help you when you pitch or try to build newsroom relationships.  But more importantly, you can include coverage suggestions in your pitch to help sell it.

For instance, when you pitch a story, you send out a news release and a pitch paragraph.  In this pitch paragraph, it can be helpful to outline the kind of coverage you would like.  If you think your story is package-worthy, then you can say so.  This means your story may have a harder time being covered.  But if you are simply looking for a reader or a BOX ONE SHOT or just a VO, say so.  A producer might be more willing to put your story in if you're content with just a reader or a reader with a CG.  Of course the story still has to be newsworthy.

I often will suggest options for stories I pitch, starting with an ideal situation, such as an in-studio interview with cover video, to a package to a simple VO.  This lets the producer know a couple of things.  It tells them that I know their business, and it tells them that I'm flexible.  Believe me, producers love to work with individuals who are knowledgable and flexible.

As you watch a news broadcast next time, play a little game.  Try to figure out the directions as you watch the show.  See where the wipes are, see which ones are readers and which ones have a box.  Take note of how the station uses their lower third CG's and FULL CG's.  Identify the VO's and the VOSOT's and the NATSOUND elements.  It will help you understand how a broadcast is put together and will help you when you pitch your story.

In the end, it comes down to being more of a help than a hindrance to the outlet you're pitching your story to.  It may all seem like Greek to you now, but trust me, the more you know about the operations and language of a newsroom, the more successful your pitches will be.

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