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.


News anchor roles changing

It’s an unfortunate reality that a good portion of students go into broadcast journalism because they want to be on TV.  They dream of being someone like Oprah or of anchoring a newcast because they think it looks fun and easy.  They may be right about the fun part, but it’s probably never been easy, and now anchoring is becoming much more demanding.

In an interview with TVNewsday, Susana Schuler, the VP of News for Raycom, said that every anchor at her stations should be reporting. 

It keeps them connected to their communities.  It gets them engaged in what their audience is interested in.  So the anchor role is evolving.  Their connection to a community, to the audience remains critical, but their role in the future has to go way beyond their performance in a newscast.

And it’s not just Raycom that’s demanding more from the people on the news set.  Recently, a news director at one of the Cox stations was calling for references on a potential anchor and asked only questions about the candidate’s reporting, leadership and mentoring abilities, not about his ability to deliver the news.

So what’s the takeaway from all this?  It’s more important than ever for today’s job seekers to be journalists first and to showcase their reporting and storytelling, but it’s also important for those who want to be anchors to look for oportunities to manage newsroom projects or to make time to mentor those with less experience or who lack a certain skill set.  Getting that experience and then selling yourself as an anchor who can deliver the goods both on air and off is the key.

Surviving a live shot disaster

It’s a given. If you’re going live on television, sooner or later something wacky will happen and it will be caught on camera. Back in the old days, you could expect to be teased by your newsroom colleagues and perhaps a few sharp-eyed viewers. But you could feel fairly confident that cousin Carl in Chicago would never know. And once it was over, it was over–unless some wag decided to play it again at the company holiday party.

Not anymore. These days, a blooper can make its way around the world before the newsroom stops giggling. And your colleagues often are the ones making sure that happens. This one showed up in my Twitter stream yesterday, courtesy of a KOMU-TV producer:

It could happen to anyone.  And the reporter, Brandon Lewis, coped about as well as he could, considering he was out there all alone.

But here’s a tip. If something happens in your live shot that viewers can clearly see or hear, don’t try to ignore it. Take a second to explain what’s going on. For example, if there’s random music playing in the background, say where it’s coming from. Otherwise, the audience may be so distracted they’ll get nothing out of what you’re saying.

Tweeting the news

CNN’s Rick Sanchez has almost 90,000 followers on Twitter, making him one of the top TV news Tweeters in the US. His frequent posts are a mix of requests for feedback on the news, commentary and personal observations like this one yesterday:

i got to go slap on some make-up. be back in a jiff. hate this part.

I follow Rick, but I confess that I rarely read what he posts. Maybe that’s because there’s so little actual news in his feed. CBS’s Mark Knoller, on the other hand, is an essential read for me, providing a quick update on what’s happening at the White House every day.

It’s easy to find other national journalists who use Twitter by checking MuckRack, but many local stations are using the service, too.

Allison Watts, executive producer at WHAM-TV in Rochester, N.Y., calls herself a “Twittering Twit.”  She posts updates on breaking news and says she often gets tips and feedback from Twitter users in her community.

Reporters at the station use Twitter from the field. Last week, Watts says that reporter Rachel Barnhart Tweeted from court on the sentencing of a former police officer convicted of hit-and-run.

In a span of 30 minutes and 40 tweets, she painted a detailed picture of what it was like in the courtroom. It included everything from emotional statements from family members to the judge’s decision.

Other local TV journalists using Twitter include reporter Jason DeRusha from WCCO-TV in Minneapolis and assignment editor Misty Montano from KCNC-TV in Denver.  Who would you add to the list?

By the way, if there’s an online directory of local TV Tweeters, I haven’t found it yet. Let us know if you know of one.

Writing better news stories

Tom Hallman, Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who conducts narrative writing seminars for the Society of Professional Journalism and writes a column for SPJ’s Quill magazine.  This month he wrote about what separates a great story from a good one, and though they’re geared primarily to print reporters, most of his comments make a lot of sense for those writing online and for TV stories, too.

1.  Distance – According to Hallman, stories suffer if your audience is kept at arm’s length by your writing.  “If you look at your notebook and have nothing but quotes, then you have a problem,”  says Hallman.  He believes you need to bring the reader in close with descriptions — of sound, gestures, perhaps the look of a room.  By focusing on all the senses “writers give the reader the chance to know the character, and that makes those good quotes even better because they’re placed in context.”

2.  Stories about things – Hallman says the best stories are built around people, not a spokesperson.

3.  Direction – Hallman says great stories give readers a sense “that the story is headed someplace, that something is about to unfold.”  He suggests you should know “what emotion you want your reader to experience.”

4.  Pacing – Don’t get locked into the two-sentence paragraph.  “Sentence length and paragraph blocking are two important ways we can slow a story, or speed it up.  A long paragraph followed by a short one draws attention to the short one.”

5.  Theme -” The best stories touch the universal.”

6.  Voice –  This doesn’t mean first person, rather Hallman says you strive to give your audience “a sense of the narrator behind the story.”

7.  Strong middles and powerful endings – Though openings are important, Hallman says, “The body of the story is where we keep the reader interested.  The ending is the payoff.”

Breathing for broadcast

All the effort you put into writing and shooting a story may be wasted if your narration doesn’t measure up.  Voice coach Ann Utterback says how you sound can make viewers decide to click away or stay tuned for the rest.

The most important aspect of a broadcast voice is breathing, Utterback says, but it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. After all, everyone knows how to breathe, right? The trouble is, many people breathe all wrong when it comes to vocal delivery. Learn and practice proper breathing techniques and you’ll be on your way to improving your delivery:

Why stand-ups matter

Stand-ups should never be an afterthought, says award-winning photojournalist Darren Durlach of WBFF-TV in Baltimore. He makes a point of talking with reporters on the way to the story to plan the day’s stand-up. Many photojournalists dislike shooting stand-ups, but Durlach calls them “crucial.”

Delivery with energy

If your narration sounds flat and your stand-ups lack spark, maybe you need a little extra energy before recording your track or going on camera. KSTP reporter-photographer John Gross, who also shoots for NFL films, shared a routine at a recent NPPA workshop that he promises works better than a cup of coffee:

Specialized journalism will win

The Internet has taught old media plenty of lessons, but none more significant than this:  “News as the product of mass production no longer seems sustainable now that it is feasible to create content for an audience of one.”

So writes Phil Meyer, whose book “The Vanishing Newspaper,” seems ever more prescient on a day when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is publishing its last print edition.  In a tour-de-force summary of 100 years of journalism history in the March edition of SPJ’s Quill, Meyer notes that specialization has been the key to success for magazines, and suggests it may be the answer for newspapers, as well.

Sports and business sections will be broken out and sold separately, like chicken parts at the grocery store. That will make print advertising a more efficient buy than it has been because the advertiser won’t have to pay for newsprint that goes unread. Community newspapers, specialized by definition, will continue to do realtively well.

The chicken parts analogy echoes one of the recommendations in this year’s State of the Media report on future business models for the news industry:

Develop subscription-based niche products for elite professional audiences. These are more than subject-specific micro-sites. They are deep, detailed, up-to-the-minute online resources aimed at professional interests, and they are a proven and highly profitable growth area in journalism.

What this means for journalists is that they, too, must learn to be specialists. As Meyer points out, the old maxim, “A good reporter is good anywhere” no longer applies in a targeted media world.

Articulation matters

Delivering the news in a conversational way should not mean sounding sloppy on the air. Articulation makes the difference. If you suffer from “lazy mouth,” you may be hard to understand. Worse yet, you may lose credibility when poor articulation turns “ask” into “ass” or worse. This CNN bloooper should be enough to prove the point:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Broadcast voice specialist Ann Utterback says practice is the best way to improve pronunciation. She’s shared some tongue twisters and warm-up exercises in a new post at NewsLab. Be sure to check her online voice updates on a regular basis for more useful tips on how to improve your delivery.