Bridget Doyle and Patrick Rollens (formerly of the Chicago Tribune) have taken you inside the front page of a newspaper. We now turn to Shawn Patrick Floss for the insider’s tour of your local television station. Shawn anchored the local news in Milwaukee, Denver, and Shreveport. Shawn has relocated to Portland, Oregon and currently, is the media communications manager for Wisconsin Ovarian Cancer Alliance.
Shawn Patrick Floss, a suburban Chicago native, has 15 years of communications experience. He has worked at FOX6 in Milwaukee, WI, KUSA-TV in Denver, CO, Shreveport, LA and Bowling Green, KY. Currently, he is the Media Communications Manager for the Wisconsin Ovarian Cancer Alliance where he increased brand awareness by securing story placement with several media outlets, including a six minute live morning talk show segment. Shawn is a graduate of the University of Missouri.
by Shawn Patrick Floss
June 19, 2014
So many times when I gave tours to visitors or community groups at a news station, I treaded lightly while parading them through the newsroom. Let’s face it, people want to see the studio and how much smaller it looks in person, where the anchors sit when they’re “reading the news” or how the weather guy knows where to look when he stands in front of a blank green wall (A monitor on either side of the wall off camera helps them navigate their maps). Visitors don’t want to see a bunch of stressed people they don’t recognize sitting at their computers or staring at a TV monitor at their cubicles watching a live helicopter chase. At least that’s what I thought.
It wasn’t until I left the industry that I finally realized how little people actually knew about the operation behind a newscast. To be frank, if you don’t want to know how the sausage is made, then ignorance may be bliss. However, there are government employees or business owners who wonder, ‘why didn’t they cover our event?’ or ‘that reporter talked to me for five minutes and that’s all they used?’ It’s good to understand what’s competing for attention with your news release, email or phone call.
Here’s a look at what goes on before you watch the local news
A story idea either flourishes or flops during the first conversations of the day before a group of decision makers. Gathered around a conference table at 9:00 or 9:30 a.m. you’ll find about a dozen people who will likely shape the direction of an evening newscast. The food chain for the team begins at the top.
The king of the jungle in charge of every piece of news a viewer will see. Like anyone else in the room, he or she wants to know how many people will care about this story, what the video will look like, or where a reporter can stand live to introduce a report. The pressure for this job is extremely intense and it’s rare to see anyone in this role with the same station for more than a five year span (somewhat similar to the lifespan of a city manager). Their position is on the line when it comes to the ratings. News Directors can put in 12 or 14 hour days (many do) living and breathing the product, but if the newscasts don’t develop good ratings, the news director will be headed off in the sunset.
Assistant News Director
The number two who’s responsible for putting out the daily fires with personnel and managing the day-to-day activities. Similar expectations as the News Director, only this person is truly hands-on while the News Director is often juggling dozens of meetings a day.
Usually the person answering the phone while listening to a police scanner blaring in the background, and managing logistics for crews in the field, all at once it seems. If you don’t have a relationship with a reporter, this individual can become your best friend when you’re trying to find out a newsroom’s plans or the chances of anyone showing up to a photo opportunity you’ve been planning months ahead. The best time to call this person is long before the 9 a.m. meeting and hopefully well before your event or program is scheduled. A great time to call a newsroom is usually between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. This is the quietest part of the day (usually) for the staff between morning and afternoon meetings, and the evening news doesn’t start until 4 p.m. for many stations.
The worst time of day to call an assignment editor or anyone else on staff is 3:30 p.m. or especially anytime during those evening newscasts. Deadline time is hitting fast and many reporters are talking to themselves at a computer as they read over what they’re writing before a manager comes along to review it and pepper them with questions. If you can control it, avoid planning any of your news conferences during the late afternoon. To ensure you’ll see cameras at your news conferences, schedule them in the late morning or mid-day, but avoid anything later than that.
Content creators who not only write but also manage the flow of information in a newscast, while making sure the half hour (or hour) you watch is timed out to the exact second. They’re putting together a newscast for several hours, knowing everything they worked on all day could vanish before their eyes when breaking news develops before or during their newscast. If you can find a name for one of the producers, they’re also a good contact to have because their voice is important in those editorial meetings and they have the best sense of what a particular newscast is looking for. A morning producer or 4 p.m. producer may be interested in live interviews or segments, while a later broadcast at 11 p.m. only has enough time for harder news and issues.
Don’t hesitate to call a newsroom sometimes and even ask for a producer of a particular newscast and see if you could talk to that person. That doesn’t happen often, so you may see better results than hoping an assignment editor or reporter read your email. Remember though, morning producers work graveyard shifts, so they show up typically around 10 or 11 p.m. and they’re gone by 7 or 9 a.m. depending on the length of a newscast. When I worked as a morning news anchor, I started my days at 3:30 a.m. The people you see on your TV at 6 a.m. will likely never run into those same faces you see before bed.
Reporters and Photographers
If you’re trying to secure coverage or story placement, these two positions are your best people to know. When you make a pitch to either one of them, just remember the editorial meeting mentioned earlier with dozens of people from various positions sitting around the table. A reporter is not only trying to convince his or her boss on a story, but several colleagues as well. Get to know a reporter as best you can. It’s difficult when so many of them come and go at stations, but thanks to Facebook and Twitter, you can see what they’re covering and if they have a particular beat or interests. The more you know about a reporter, the better you can develop a relationship and trust.
Cultivating these relationships with reporters is not only important toward improving your chances of coverage, but also develops a familiarity with each other long before a crisis hits. As a reporter, I found the public information officers or government leaders who I knew well were the easiest to communicate with during an emergency or unfavorable story. Give each other a chance to trust one another before assuming the worst. It takes time, but you can make the effort early on in the relationship when a reporter is either new or new to your office.
After meeting a reporter, don’t forget to follow-up. It’s just like networking. Send an email thanking them again for covering your story, or you can check in periodically with ideas they might cover. Try to avoid only showing up in their inbox or on their cell phone when you need a favor. It works both ways of course. I learned from veteran reporters along the way to send a follow up email to my interview subjects after my story aired in a broadcast. Good reporters will let their subjects know that they’re not just showing up when the sky is falling.
You can usually add them to the mix when a new group gets together around 2 p.m. for the afternoon editorial meeting that decides the fate of the 10 or 11 p.m. newscast. While many organizations think of news anchors when they’re trying to find an emcee for a charity fundraiser, don’t hesitate to reach out to these people with your story ideas as well. You may notice a number of familiar news anchors who have lived in the community for years, so they can offer a newsroom great background or historical perspective on a story.
The best news anchors I’ve worked with are the ones who really get involved with content producers and reporters to learn as much as they can about the stories in a newscast. I used to laugh during tours or at speaking engagements when people asked me if I “showed up an hour before the news to start reading.” Any veteran anchor knows he or she is not only a face attached to a viewer’s daily habits, but also the first person mentioned when a mistake is made. Now you know why the good anchors are involved in content a lot more than you think. Without your credibility, what do you have?
Again, go ahead, email an anchor about your story pitch, and see if they could at least become a voice for you or pass it along to the right channels. Many people assume a veteran anchor is flooded with similar emails, and you’re right. Nevertheless, from personal experience, if I received a well thought out personalized note, I wouldn’t hesitate to at least reply and let that person know I can try my best but make no guarantees.
Part II: The Newsroom: Translating the Jargon