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Print writing help for TV journalists

One of the criticisms leveled at TV news sites is the hit-or-miss quality of the writing.  Part of the problem, as many in the broadcast industry freely admit, is a discomfort with or lack of knowledge about writing in “print style.”

One tool that can help is a solid style guide, and now Reuters has posted its internal newsroom guide online, for free.  Look to the general style guide for help with punctuation, titles, capitalization rules, etc.  There’s even a section focused on sports, complete with advice for avoiding cliches (thank you Reuters).  Plus, the news organization publishes a section called, Standards and Values.

Why share this with the world?  Dean Wright, Global Editor for Ethics, Innovation and News Standards listed a number of reasons in a Reuters blog post.

  • Transparency: At a time when trust is an endangered commodity in the financial and media worlds, it’s important that news consumers see the guidelines our journalists follow.
  • Service: As we’ve seen over the past decade, the barriers to publishing have dropped so that anyone with an idea and a computer can be a publisher. But it’s also become clear that publishers have a varying standard of truth, fairness and style. Our handbook is a good place for budding journalists to begin.
  • Geography: Reuters serves a global audience and the handbook recognises the cultural and political differences that our journalists face in reporting for the world. This is a handbook not just for English-language journalists in the United Kingdom or the United States, but for wherever English is used. 

Whether you’re a broadcaster trying to boost the quality of your online work or a student journalist perfecting a classroom project, this appears to be an excellent resource.

What’s in a word?

Language is always changing, so it’s no surprise to find a few new words in the latest edition of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Among this year’s additions are two media terms: vlog and webisode. But the simple fact that a word is in the dictionary doesn’t make it suitable for use in a news story. Some terms may  still need a definition, and others are better left unused when writing for a general audience. The trick is figuring out which ones.

The New York Times may have found some answers by scouring data from its Web site. The Times online has a “look up” function that allows readers to click a word to get a definition, so it was a simple matter to count the clicks and come up with a list. According to an internal memo obtained by the Nieman Journalism Lab, the top five words on the most-looked-up list were: sui generis, solipsistic, louche, laconic and saturnine.

Deputy news editor Philip Corbett’s memo notes that Times readers are an educated lot, but “they probably don’t carry an unabridged dictionary along with the newspaper as they take the subway to work.”

I’m not suggesting that we should ban these or any challenging words. Some uses may be perfectly justified. But let’s keep in mind why we’re writing and who’s reading, and under what circumstances. And let’s avoid the temptation to display our erudition at the reader’s expense.

Erudition. You know: ” extensive knowledge acquired chiefly from books,” according to Webster’s.

New intel on Web video

As multimedia journalists try to figure out how the Web changes video storytelling, it’s important to stay on top of research on the topic.  Frank N. Magid Associates recently released results of a study that seems to indicate that TV stations need to develop a Web video strategy and fast.

Overall, the most-watched online videos are not professionally produced. According to the survey, video shot by consumers pulls in 43% of regular online video users. The second-most-viewed online video comes from news stories: 32%. Then comes music videos, 31%; movie previews, 29%; and comedy/bloopers, 26%.

Now, the good news in this is that just under a third of videos viewed are, in fact, news stories.  But, what are TV stations doing to encourage appropriate audience contributions?  And why aren’t all TV stations posting their own stories online?  These are the questions TV stations need to be asking before they lose the video edge they still have.

Other important points from the study:

  • 20% of all online video viewers watch less TV as a direct result of using online video.
  • Young males watch the most — 70% of men 18-24 watch online videos each week, including 25% who watch daily.
  • The biggest female group was girls 12-17. Fifty-six percent watch weekly, including the 13% who watch daily.

Six tips from prize winning journalists

When people carp about the quality of local TV news–and they often do–my standard reply is that  there’s still great journalism being done out there. You just have to know where to look.

The Sigma Delta Chi awards from SPJ are a good place to start. The latest edition of Quill lists all the 2008 winners and shares many of the stories behind their stories. The honorees come from markets and news organizations of all sizes, from Anchorage to Memphis, but they all share a commitment to producing solid journalism under often difficult circumstances.

A few lessons worth sharing:

Overcome obstacles. Sometimes roadblocks that make your job harder can make your story better. Reporter Laurie Davidson of Bay News 9 in Tampa couldn’t get to the scene of a tanker truck accident but that didn’t stop her from reporting on her own experience:

It is absolutely a traffic nightmare out here…We have been stuck in traffic ourselves for more than an hour, so it’s very difficult to get anywhere in this area of Manatee County right now.

Treasure teamwork. WBIR-TV photojournalist Gerry Owens credits “a real team effort–several people working to get the different elements we needed to tell a compelling story” about a dike collapse at  a coal-burning power plant.

Be persistent. WREG-TV investigative reporter Keli Rabon “kept digging until she uncovered the documentation and the inside witnesses to get to the truth” of a charity scam. Rabon called the series of reports “an everyday reminder that the work we do is not just something to fill a newscast.”

It’s work that impacts someone’s life, their well-being, the decisions they make, and their families. It has made me appreciate the potential impact a story can have, because the words and pictures are so much more than ‘a story.’

Follow leads. Brian Conybeare of News 12 Westchester uncovered corruption at a New York casino. He says he “learned to listen to my sources no matter how far-fetched their allegations may sound.”

Trust your sources, follow the leads, verify everything, and you never know what may happen.

Cultivate sources. KTUU-TV’s Jason Moore and Scott Jensen told the story of a young boy’s agonizing wait for a heart transplant. Says Moore:

The most difficult, and most important, aspect is the relationship cultivated between the family and the journalist. While it’s important to keep a certain emotional distance from the subject, in this case I couldn’t help but become close to the family as it endured this struggle. Because of that relationship, we gained the access necessary to tell the story, and I think it provided an extra emotional connection that came through in the interviews.

Make a commitment. When Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens went on trial in Washington, Anchorage station KTUU sent reporter Jill Burke and photojournalist Carolyn hall to DC to cover it. The station felt the story was too important to local viewers not to assign a hometown crew. The team spent a month on the story, producing more than 35 live shots and 78 stories. Burke says it was a huge logistical challenge but well worth the effort.

This is the kind of in-the-trenches journalism that we feel the public deserves. It’s our job to be there when they can’t be, to be their eyes and ears and to contribute to their understanding of people and events to the best of our capability.”

Absolutely right.

How reporting has changed

Tools that most journalists take for granted can pay off for their news organizations on stories big and small.  Dave Schultz, assistant editor of the the Bluffton (Indiana) News-Banner, was reminded of that last Thursday when he got an email tip that a local retired teacher had been on national TV.

Schultz first went online to confirm the story: sure enough, a woman from Bluffton (population 28,000) had indeed been one of two people chosen at random for that morning’s Today Show “Ambush Makeover.” After watching the NBC video online, Schultz asked reporter Jerry Battiste to help him contact the woman and her husband.

Battiste naturally turned to social media to try to find them.  Here’s his Twitter post:

We are searching for Dan and Karen York, Bluffton. She was on the Today Show this a.m. getting a makeover…how cool for her! need a cell #

As Schultz tells the story in a recent column, it only took about 20 minutes for someone to provide the number he needed and he was able to reach the couple in New York via cell phone.

So let’s review: an e-mail, a Web site visit, the viewing of an online video (which we posted on our “On The Beat” blog on our Web site), the use of social media (Facebook and Twitter) as a way to get information, a response, and a cell phone call…Would any of these things have been available to us in 1989? Not at all. Not an e-mail. Not a Web site visit. Not Facebook or Twitter. Not a cell phone call.

Okay, so the story itself wasn’t that big a deal. But Schultz says he stands amazed at how quickly they were able to confirm, report and file an online exclusive.

TV news salaries drop

For the first time in 15 years, people working in local TV news have started making less money than they did the year previously.  According to the annual RTNDA/Hofstra University survey, overall salaries fell about 4.4% in 2008 – and if you factor inflation into the mix, the survey says real wages fell by 8.2%.

The positions that took the biggest hits were those of reporter (13.3% drop),  news anchor (-11.5%), weathercaster (-9.1%) and sports anchor (-8.9%).  Only assignment editor and art director salaries held steady.

The picture varies by market and newsroom staff size, but the overall salary drops are hardly unexpected in the current economic environment.

SalariesWhat the survey does not reveal is the salary picture for entry level positions.  According to the University of Georgia’s 2007 Annual Survey of Journalism and Mass Communication Graduates, TV news salaries for recent grads had been slowly improving in recent years, though salaries were down slightly for 2007 from 2006. 

The 2008 survey should be released in early August and it will be interesting to see if those starter jobs are again losing ground when it comes to pay.

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