Welcome to the PIT List!

I'm a network field producer who also worked in local tv as a line producer and field producer. Over the years, I have had the great fortune to work with super people. Now I'd like to pass along what I know and rant a tad.

"Dear Maggie..." pitlist@gmail.com
I check it sporadically, but I love answering emails, so if you have an issue or difficult person you need help with, don't hesitate to shoot it my way.

Maggie L

Maggie L
One of the rare times I'm in the office

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Grammar Game: Weird Plurals

I found this on Twitter. It's evil but fun. I missed four. So much for being a smarty pants.


Monday, March 16, 2009

Cops Kick Out/Arrest One Man Band in South Texas

Reporter/photog was covering a scene and was asked by police to move back. Story and video below:


News Business: Glass Half Full

And then there's this... thoughts that news isn't dying but just transitioning into a new model.



A local station where I used to worked laid off a lot of good people last week. Layoffs are happening all over. If you're fortunate enough to have a job, it might make some sense to plan for the worst, just in case. I don't mean to be gloomy, but I think we'd all be in a better position to take a layoff if we take a couple precautions. Even in a great economy, good people get laid off or fired in newsrooms for no other reason than a new management team came in and wants to change things up.

My advice?

1. Always have a resume ready.
Keep an updated one in an online email account or somewhere where you can get to it easily.

2. Always have a tape or two handy.
As a producer, you might want to consider recording your shows nightly and then recycle them weekly. My friends last week were escorted from the building the day the were laid off. If you have a stack of recent tapes handy, you don't have to scramble about what to send out. Also, you should be recording show tapes regularly anyway for self-critique.

3. Have a cushion.
Nobody has extra cash, but now, more than ever, pay yourself first. Financial experts say have three months saved. That may seem unreasonable, but even a month helps. Take 5-10% off the top of your check and have it direct deposited somewhere (ING Direct has good rates and it's all online). If the worst does happen, you'll have a little cushion.

4. Network now.
Join Linked In if you haven't already and other social network sites like Facebook. Any way you can stay connected to former coworkers and friends is good. If you hear of openings, send them to people you know. Hopefully they will send them your way as well. Go to seminars like those sponsored by RTNDF, IRE and Poynter when you can to meet people and keep your skills sharp.

Business is Bad

Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism put out its state of news media. It's not looking great for local news. Apparently ad revenues were down 7% last year (in an election year!). Interesting stuff...


Thursday, March 12, 2009

P.S. On Small Versus Big Market

I forgot to add a really important point: when making a decision on where to move, consider management, not market size. I cannot emphasize this enough. I would MUCH rather be in a small market with awesome management than a large market with goofballs running the show. A good shop is worth a lot no matter what its market size. There are great managers is big markets too, but don't let market size alone drive your decision making or your career.

There is also something to be said for people who produce in their hometown, no matter what its market size. You are doing your community a great favor in that you care enough about your town to stay and make sure the news is covered and presented correctly. It is no understatement to say that as someone who grew up or has lived in the community, you are a huge asset to your newsroom. You have something to bring to the party! And sometimes you pass up lots more money to do so!

Small Versus Big Market

The main difference between small and big markets is help (and pay)!!!

With small markets, you are struggling to write the show yourself, make sure you know what's going on with the reporters, are we covering that shooting?, etc., etc. Basically, you have your thumb in everything. The higher market you go, the more help you get and the more narrow your job description becomes. So for example, in Phoenix, I had two or three writers and an Executive Producer. The EP and I split duties. I might look through the scripts the writers wrote and the EP would take reporter scripts. Or vice-versa. Or some of each. I'd write opens and teases and give them special treatment. We'd both be on the phone with reporters. We'd both take care of anchor concerns, depending on what it was. I was VERY lucky in that all the EPs I've work with have been rock solid and taught me a lot. Also, we were generally of the same mind so that I never felt like I wanted to do something and then got vetoed. My writers were pretty sharp too. Some wanted to be reporters, others wanted to be producers. Either way, it was nice to have the help. I would still write, but I'd be able to focus on other things a little more.

The higher up you go, the more you are concerned with the overall look and feel, concept and content of the show. You're not just cranking it out, you're also trying to give it an overall brand, graphics, etc. In my opinion, you should also be the catcher of potential tragedies, double-checking everyone's work (including your own) to make sure everything is running smoothly.

When I got to Philadelphia, I was a field producer (I filled in on a show a few times and did a couple specials). The show producers were still more focused on overall show stuff. There was one manager to run the crews (so 15 people aren't calling each crew), one manager to approve reporter scripts, and one manager who oversaw all other show scripts. There was also a staff of professional writers (meaning people of the producer's experience or more who chose to write instead of show produce). Each reporter would be assigned a writer who's responsiblity, in addition to everything else, was to write the intro for the reporter as well as make sure their pkg came in ok.

The Philly station was also interesting in that it was a union shop. As producer, in the booth, you didn't talk to talent. By that I mean, you couldn't give them direction (like wrap!!). You talked to the person who then talked to talent. That part seemed a little goofy, but in larger markets (including Phoenix) you often have someone who handles your liveshots for you in the booth. The thinking is that you have a lot of them and must manage the rest of your show. This is especially helpful when you have major breaking news and you're doing a lot of juggling.

Also in bigger markets you get better toys (chopper, multiple live trucks, sat truck, killer studios with a million fun places to put your anchors, editors dedicated to making your opens and teases look like they have rock star quality).

But the best part of bigger markets is you finally get paid. After years of eating Top Ramen and Peanut Butter, you may actually be able to buy a house and take a (well deserved) vacation.

That said, if you are a control freak (and most of us are) it can be hard to let go of some responsiblities.. and transition away from skills (like writing) that got you interested in producing in the first place.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Email: It's Personal

I touched on this in a previous blog post but it's worth a whole one. If you use your work email address for personal emails, consider this: Any email you send on your work address is company property.

I am a conspiracy theorist who suspects there is some superuser in each company holed up in an office somewhere reading everyone's emails. Even if that's not the case, remember Enron? Like a gazillion employee emails were posted online when the company imploded. For an article on it... http://tinyurl.com/bs5oyd

Step away from the Blackberry

Thought I'd do an entry on one of the comments posted on a blog below.
Anonymous wrote:


Check this out - the view of producers and their crackberry's - the cameraman's perspective:



I checked it out and-- it hits a little too close to home! The post is about how a photographer couldn't get a question answered by his field producer because she was too busy tip-tapping on her Blackberry.

An admission: I do a whole lot of tip-tapping on the Blackberry. I check it constantly because I get emails constantly, both internal and external. I try to keep my personal emails on a separate device (that's almost a whole nother blog entry-- if you use your work computer for personal emails, understand these emails are company property). Hopefully, if I was engrossed in my blackberry, I hope I would have enough sense to snap out of it long enough to answer a question, or, in the case of an important email, at least to say-- hold on a sec, let me finish this up quickly.

Maybe the producer was not answering an email at all... but updating their Facebook page?

In any case, as for the question itself, whether to use a shotgun versus wireless, I tend to prefer wireless mics. That said, I generally try to defer tech questions to the people who use the tech. Shotgun or wireless? Well, what do you like for this one, Mr./Ms. Photog?

One of my favorite TV jokes: How many producers does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer-- Hmm, I don't know, what do you think?

Friday, March 6, 2009

White House Press Corps

Saw this on the Daily Show and thought it was funny.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Couple Quick Show Notes

I see a common mistake on TV all the time:
The tease video ends up being the first few seconds of the actual story.

Some editor just grabbed the cut tape and stole the first few seconds of it instead of going to the raw and cutting something fresh. This is weak. It tells the viewer that you're just repeating stuff and have nothing new to offer. This type of mistake is another reason to record your shows and watch them the next day-- it's hard to watch your show in the booth. Make sure if you see this to have a follow-up conversation with whoever edited the tease. Ask what happened. Figure out a way that it won't happen again.

Another common mistake I see:
Too many words stuffed into a font.

You only have a certain amount of space for a lower third. If you're writing a lower third that looks like it might have more words than usual, preview it. If you can't preview it at your desk, go to the booth and have the chyron operator pull it up for you to make sure the font doesn't look all smooshed together. Or, just figure out a couple words to cut out so you're not in the danger zone. Same goes for full screen graphics.

Field Trip

If you've never been out in the field, or it's been a while, it might make some sense to ask your news director to let you off field produce one day. It's a great opportunity to see the flip side of your job. You'll get a much better perspective on how long it takes to do things and how tough they can be. Ever doorknock someone who just lost their child? It's something you've probably asked a reporter to do. Intellectually, you can probably imagine it would be tough. Actually walking up to someone's door is a whole nother story.

If your news director doesn't want to let you out of the newsroom, come in on your day off. Maybe just go out with a photog for a half day. You will learn more than you might imagine. You'll also get to interact with your crews in a much different way.

The Next Job

There is a huge need for producers because there aren't a whole lot of people who want to do it (comparatively). I've said that for any reporter opening, news directors get dozens of tapes, but for any producer opening, they'll get like, four. And half of those may not be qualified. Stations cycle through producers because producers get hired away by other markets and/or get promoted into management positions. So! Good career choice. As a producer, your career is golden!

As for tapes, I've usually just recorded whole shows and sent them out. I'd try to record your show every night. Save one if it's good, but keep recording each night (as an aside, review your show the next day so you can self-critique). I've always liked being able to send an interested news director my tape with a note that says-- here's last night's show. As in, I don't have to save up a good show for you, I do good work every day of the week. On the other hand, if you have a kicking show-- by all means send that. Just make sure it's recent.

TVJobs.com is a good place to look for job postings. You can also target markets. Say you're dying to get to Austin. Call each station-- you guys looking for producers? Find out who the news directors are and send them tapes with a note: "Hey, I know you're not looking for anybody now, but keep me in mind if something opens up. If you have a sec, I'd love your feedback on my tape." I have no pride when it comes to looking for a job. But you'd be amazed how many news directors will chat with you even if they don't have an opening.

How I got my jobs:
In HS, a reporter came by our school for a story. I attached myself to her and asked if they needed any help. She said call the news director. I did and they needed someone to rip wire (AP wire stories came over printing machines and you'd have to monitor it to make sure you weren't missing breaking news) and do beat checks.
By the time I went to Cincinnati for college, I had a year experience. I hounded each of the TV stations there and one of them had an opening for a PA.
After college... FOX was starting news at its local affiliates. I had a friend who got hired there. She put in a good word and I got hired as a weekend assignment editor/weekday field producer.
Next, Phoenix. I targeted Phoenix as a market where I wanted to go. I hounded the news directors and eventually (within a year) something opened up at a station I liked.
For my job in Philly, it was just an ad on TV jobs I think. They called and like me.
Finally, for my current job, I found out about it through a friend and he recommended me.

I think the common denominator is just being persistent and not taking it personally if you get blown off. For a lot of postings, they may already have someone in mind but they have to post it anyway for legal reasons.

A great way to find out about jobs is through friends/former coworkers. Since you've been in your newsroom, there have probably already been people who have moved on. Keep in touch. Over the years, you may hear of something they're interested in. Tell them about it. Hopefully they'll do they same for you. I have also enjoyed going to meetings/classes through professional organizations like RTNDF and IRE. They're great places to learn and meet people. Again, stay in touch. You never know when they'll have an opening-- or, your station might-- and you can help someone good get a job in your shop.

What news directors are looking for? Warm bodies. Just kidding. Really-- it depends on the news director. I'd say if you're looking at a specific station, you obviously want to do your homework. Check out their station's website. What kind of feel does it have? Is it a real hard news place or does it do a lot of lifestyle pieces? See if you can watch a newscast online or get a tape. You want to get a sense of their culture so that you can tailor your pitch to them. More importantly, see if the shop is a good fit for you. If you live and breathe spot news and they're doing stories on "do these jeans make my butt look fat," it may not be a good fit. Sometimes, news directors have you critique a showtape. I love doing this, but it can be tricky. You want to offer enough criticism to show you have something to bring to the party but not so much that you sound like a cocky idiot. I tend to fall on the cocky idiot side.

I think most news directors are looking for someone who is sharp, innovative and organized. You have to be able to play well with others and problem solve. In terms of shows, I think it's important to stress that you enjoy spot news and don't have a problem juggling a rundown at the last minute. Be aggressive in terms of news. Don't be afraid to change things. Some producers put their rundowns in at 5pm and nothing changes till ten pm. That's unconscionable and lazy. Embrace change. Find the freshest stuff to put in your show. But also look for places to "produce" your show. Sometimes in smaller markets, you don't have any help and it's all you can do to write your show and get it on the air. Maybe give special attention to your open/headlines or teases. Always give the top of your show special attention because it's the news director's (and viewer's) first impression of you. Do what you can. Eventually, you'll be in a market where you have some help and you can focus on the "look" of your show as well as the content.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Scripts, They are a Changing

How many anchors does it take to change a script?
One, but they keep changing and changing it.


It's hard to see someone eviscerate your carefully crafted script, but try to take your ego out of it. In the end, anchors are the ones who have to read it. I always encourage anchors to make their changes an hour prior to showtime. That's fair for you to ask. And if you make a change to his change, go to him and tell him why. "I changed the lead so that we can get to the video more quickly... Or, "The desk tells me it's four people killed in the car crash."

If your scripts keep getting changed, go to the anchor when he/she is not busy. Maybe it's after the show or maybe it's when they first get in. Say, "I'd like to talk about scripts. I notice you change a lot of my scripts. What can I do to make them better for you?" Don't take it personally.

There are a million ways to write a script and just as many styles. When I am writing, I try to hear the voice of the talent who is going to read my script. For example, the script you write for Shepherd Smith of Fox Report is not going to sound like the one you would write for Brett Baier of Special Report (not that I write for either of them, just an example). Even within shows, there's a difference. Bob may be bombastic, whereas Suzy his co-anchor plays it straight. Consider the end user and write for their voice and their style. Your anchors are the biggest assets to your show. People watch or don't watch because of anchors. Help them look better by writing for their particular style.

Hopefully, any anchor you approach is open to working with you. If they come at you with something like:
"I'm tired of training producers. It's not my job to teach you how to write..."

You can come back with:
"I respect you as an anchor and think you do a great job. It's a privilege for me to work with you. I am trying to make the show better. I want to do anything that accomplishes that. Mr. News Director hired me because he thinks I'm talented and can do the job. I've got a lot to learn, but I plan to do great things with this show and I'm happy to talk with you about them."

Understand, that for some anchors, there is a revolving door with producers. They've worked with so many producers who end up putting in a year or two and then they move on. They feel like they have to groom each producer and it gets tiring. Keep their side of things in mind. You'll probably put in a year or two and move on to the next market too. Good or bad, you'll learn real lessons from this person that will help you down the road.

Being a (ring) Leader in the Newsroom

Unfortunately, you can't force people to respect you. What you can do is be patient, and make the right calls and wait for them to see how good you are. There are ALOT of bad producers out there. If you are only marginally better than the bad ones, your co-workers should thank their lucky stars they get to work with you. Make calls that make sense. Include people in the decision making process. Even when you don't need their opinion, ask for it.

One of the complaints from field crews is that you're at the mercy of someone in an air-conditioned building who has no clue what the story's like. Genuinely listen to your crews. Check your own ego at the door. Figure out who you can trust in terms of judgement. Some reporters just whine because they are lazy and don't really want to cover anything. Others are not trying to be a pain-- they have a legitimate issue and you need to adjust accordingly.

Utilize your anchors, desk folks, reporters, photos-- any smart people in the newsroom. Ask their opinion. Like I say... ASK. Doesn't mean you have to accept. But I'd say, when it's 6 of one, half dozen of the other, who cares? Cave and let them have it. You don't have to rule on everything.

Pick your battles carefully. Stand your ground on important issues. Again, if you are the one who is going to get hammered the next day for making a bad call, you need to be able to defend it. But in the end, you make the call. Period. That's why you're the producer.

If you make a call that's unpopular, you can say something like this:

"I hear what you're saying. I understand you don't like this call. But this is my call and I answer to Mr./Mrs. News Director about it. He/She will let me know if it's the wrong call. Let's do this tonight, and I'm happy to talk with you and the news director about this issue and my decision... tomorrow."

This obviously is a last resort to be used on really big issues only. More often, you need to work with folks, find where there's common ground and move forward.

Front-end coaching helps cut off surprises. Let people know what you expect before they even leave the building. In the meeting, Suzy Reporter is going out to cover a car accident, say, "Ok, what are we thinking we want to get with this? I think we should talk to the woman who was in the car. We should also try to get the police officer who came up on the crash. Is that what you were thinking Suzy?" This kind of conversation, EARLY, brings up issues Suzy may have with the story.

Follow-up is important too. A few hours after Suzy's gone out, check in. Say, "What did you get?" If she doesn't mention the woman and the cop, say "In the meeting, we talked about getting the woman and the cop. Did you get that? No? Go get that." If you have consistent trouble with one person, go to that person when you are calm and set up a time to talk with them.

I think it's important to bring issues to the person directly BEFORE you ever mention it to a manager. They could be completely clueless. I find a good way to start these things is... "How can I make your job easier?" As in, "Suzy, I noticed you miss deadline three times this week. How can we avoid that? How can I help? Are you getting assignments too late? Is there a phone call someone on the desk can make for you?" If you come in from a position of trying to find a solution, you're much better off. Being direct with people (not angry, not rude, but just direct) can help you a lot. Remember, talk about specific incidents, not about generalities. Genuinely look for solutions that start with you.

It also helps to have a trusted friend to review YOUR performance. This maybe your boss or an old boss or a fellow producer. Give them a situation as it happened (don't be defensive) and ask what you could have done better. Do this in situations where you think you nailed it-- and also in ones where you second guess your judgement. Be open to their comments and suggestions.

Throw people a bone sometimes. Reporters will pitch ideas sometimes that are BAD. But they like them. Let them go out on these every once in a while. It's hard to do Chester the Molestor all the time. Giving them a chance to do a story they pitch makes them feel like they have a say in their own destiny. You also may be surprised that the story they go out on is not so bad after all. Same goes for photogs... if a photog busted his/her ass to get you a story, do him/her a favor and put it in your show. The desk will send a photo to cover a fire in East Bejesus and you won't run it. That's frustrating. Throw in a 15 second vo, even if you don't have room.

Provide positive feedback. No one gets enough compliments in this business. Look for opportunities when people do a good job to thank them for it. "Hey, that sunset shot was nice." "Hey, great live shot." "Hey, thanks for the hustle on that garbage can fire. It didn't turn out to be anything, but if it would've been, we would have been all over it."

You are talented. But you are not talented in every area. None of us is. Lean on the talent in your newsroom to learn to be a better producer and journalist.