Tuesday, February 10, 2009

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice To Say………

I’m going to start this by tossing out some letters, which I will refer back to later:
SPJ, NPPA, RTNDA. As you can see, I am teasing you right from the top!

Today’s assignment: explain the concept of “cross talk” or “happy talk” between news anchors.

What am I talking about? Well surely, if you’ve ever watched any local news on TV, you know. An anchor finishes reading the story, and then turns to their co-anchor, and before starting the next story says something tremendously useful like “wow, that just breaks your heart.”

Ah. So that’s how I am supposed to feel. I find this type of news very instructive, because I lack an actual heart. My heart was crushed and removed by a series of pre-teen girls back in middle school, leaving only a shell of a human behind. But I digress…

Now listen, I’m no idiot. I know that the research says viewers like this. They feel that the person giving them the news is their friend, talking with them through the magical box that glows at night. Warm. Fuzzy. Consultants say cross talk gives the station a distinctive personality.

One cannot help but notice that each station is going for a particular feel that sets them apart form the competition. For example, in our market I know one station is the “hip, edgy” station by the cross talk (example: “you are not going to believe what this idiot did!”). Another station is going for the “hometown” feel (example: “you’re heart really goes out to this family”). Yet another station is after the “staid” feel (example: “thanks for that update.”)

But some stations have really gotten very aggressive with their cross talk lately. I mean, they are really cross. Take for example, an anchor in the Cleveland market who recently ended a story about a robbery by saying “let’s hope that scumbag gets what he deserves.” Ok. First, do I really need to give the lecture about the legal system? That being charged doesn’t make one guilty?

Secondly, as was the case in this story, let’s just suppose there’s an eyewitness…a neighbor who tells the news crew they saw the guy doing the thing that is alleged. Again, do I need to dig up the research that shows the great fallibility of eyewitness testimony? Any first year law student can tell you that would be among your first “go to” arguments. “Mr. Witness, how can you be certain it was my client? Wasn’t it dark? Were you wearing your glasses?” Boom. Acquittal.

And finally, any corporate suit will tell you that being sued by an innocent person for calling them a “scumbag” on the air is just a little less fun than a root canal without anesthetic.

So why? Why, oh why does this happen? Because in our rush to establish a feel, we often overlook the actual content of the cross talk, or in some cases, we actually intend the cross talk to rile up our viewers. It’s like we’re saying “We’re outraged just like you are!!!”

And so back to those letters we started out with: SPJ, RTNDA, NPPA. Each of these organizations has published a Code of Ethics for journalists. All three organizations concur: journalists should refrain from injecting opinion into news content. So, that leaves me with only a couple of possible assumptions. First, it may mean many TV news organizations are disregarding these ideals entirely. Or secondly, perhaps it means that many organizations consider anchors to be anything other than journalists. I refuse to accept either idea. In fact, I would argue that you can tell that many anchors actually dislike this part of their job intensely.

In fact I will name names: Stacey Bell of Fox 8, WJW. I am consistently impressed by Ms. Bell’s restraint, and her deft way of steering out of dangerous editorializing with a few well-chosen words. She often slams on the brakes, even when it seems like her co-anchors might want to pull an editorial comment out of her. Joining Ms. Bell on my A-Team is WKYC 7:00 p.m. anchor Eric Mansfield. Forget the fact that I used to scream, “get away from my desk, Derek!” when he was an intern at WAKC-TV. The truth is, Mr. Mansfield is one of the most professional news anchors I have seen. I would like to say he got it from me, but the truth is he was already that way before I met him. WKYC’s “Report the Facts, Respect the Truth” catchphrase is in good hands with Eric. But for every anchor that I could list here, there are three that belong in the doghouse.

Since I am such a class act, I won’t name names here. But you know who you are, and you should be ashamed. It is only my aforementioned gentility that keeps me from calling you on this.

Now, probably it’s because I’m old and crabby, but I will go this argument a bit further out on the limb. I actually yell at my TV when an anchor tells me “this is a sad story.”

I leap off my couch and shout with tremendous ferocity: “No, I am happy! I will not knuckle under to your emotional tyranny. You cannot tell me how to feel, Big Brother!”

After all, if the shooter and the reporter have done their job well, I am quite likely to feel sad at the end of that story. So what is that comment from the anchor about? Empathy? Amplification? Explanation for the heartless (see my statement above)?

I’m sorry, but I cannot help but see this as opinion. Ok for weather stories, but not so much for murders, fires, or political stories.

I understand that the days of Edward R. Murrow’s straight-faced dispassion are long gone. But can we at least all agree that injecting opinion is unethical? I am not making this up, and such esteemed organizations as the RTNDA are there to back me up.

So, I work each day to fight back just a little. I force my students to read the codes of ethics. They are attached to my course syllabus. I make sure they try to avoid editorializing in cross-talk. But I also tell them that someday, if they work really hard and get lucky, they are going to be asked to make a choice between what’s ethical, and what’s popular.

I can only hope that they wind up on my A-Team with Ms. Bell and Mr. Mansfield. The doghouse is already way too crowded.

Dr. Phil Hoffman is a former reporter, producer, and director who now teaches media at The University of Akron. And he is always right, so too bad for you.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Diving Into The Pool?

Saying TV news is competitive is akin to saying one needs air and water to live. It’s such an obvious statement that I can’t imagine why you’re still reading this.

And yet......

How much longer before a major media market begins to explore ways for stations to pool resources rather than compete?

Before you rush to correct me, and tell me the unions and guilds will never allow it to happen, that producers and news directors would rather die in a knife-fight with the competition than rely on them for footage, let me explain why I pose the question.

First, I am not alone in posing this question. Writer Lauren Rich Fine recently asked the same question, and offered some reasons why she believes that stations may move in this direction. In Cincinnati, stations have agreed to pool resources in covering Bengals games. In Denver, reports say the NBC affiliate and Telemundo are playing somewhat nice together,

I am not crazy. It’s not impossible, And in many cases where there is shared corporate parentage, the idea is already being implemented.

But what about in cases of hardened competitors? People who engage in battle every day to beat the other by seconds? Can they ever rely on each other for footage? Are they so trained to seek exclusives that this idea will never take root?

Well, anyone who’s ever actually BEEN out in the field knows the truth: we already do. Listen, news directors know this goes on, but nobody really wants to admit it: colleagues often share non-exclusive footage with each other as a matter of professional courtesy.

There were many occasions when I would go to folks from other stations because we missed something. And they gave up the video. And there were plenty of times where we provided video to someone who had missed a press conference, etc. Although we were competitors, we were also mostly friendly with each other, and so nobody wanted to see somebody else get a whooping from the ND because they (God forbid!) missed the press conference of the opening of another fast food chain or such other nonsense.

So my question is this: why not formalize the agreement? Not for exclusives, not for investigative reports, but for the daily dog-and-pony shows, press conferences, weather footage, and other routine items it would make sense.

In fact, I would argue that having full-res video online as a shared local resource would make local coverage cheaper, and would also result in fewer crews getting “jerked around” from story to story. And not being asked by an assignment editor to be in two places at one time for two different B.S. stories is something I think we all could live with.

Would this also mean a loss of jobs? Probably. But aren’t we already shedding jobs like a dog sheds it’s winter coat in May? Maybe if stations are able to maintain coverage with a pool approach, the jobs that still exist will continue to exist.

But hey...we know you gotta get the EXCLUSIVE video of the same thing everyone else has. That’s the rule, right?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Missed it by thaaat much!

Get a REAL Job- Working for The Akron Schools
Phil Hoffman

On my first day at the Akron Public Schools, I was notified that since it was the week of Thanksgiving, 1992, I would only work til Wednesday. The schools were closed Thursday and Friday, so I wasn't to come in either day.


After nearly 10 years straight of working on every Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day, I was about to find out how normal people lived. And apparently, normal people don't work on holidays. This was an auspicious beginning to a job in which I would discover that the "glamor" of working on TV wasn't so glamorous. Although, truthfully, there is always a sort of cheerful playfulness in the newsroom on a holiday...everybody resigned to spending another holiday away from family, but united in a weird way with their work family. And usually we didn't work a full day, so it really wasn't that bad. To us. To our spouses and kids, it was hard to explain this situation. To us, it made sense. It's just what we did.

So the second day on the job I get a letter in the mail from Bill Spratt, an Akron administrator who turned out to be a huge influence on me. Here's the thing, Bill wrote: "you MUST take a vacation day between now (Thanksgiving) and December 31st, or you'll lose that day."


I'm on the job less than 9 hours, and I need a vacation?

I won't even go on to belabor great benefits, much better pay than in TV or radio, or a myriad of other things I discovered in my new job.

And I would start working for Karen Ingraham. Karen has been in charge of communications at APS since the early 1990s. She is great at her job, but what few people know is that she is a brilliant leader of creative teams. I would learn more in the years I worked for Karen than in all my radio and TV years combined. In fact, much of what is now my approach to management is actually her approach. Or my imitation of her approach.

In the end, I would spend from 1992 through the summer of 2000 working for APS. I would be in charge of 91.3 FM, WAPS and the APS TV channel on Time Warner position 15. That's another story entirely.

But....shortly after I started at APS, I got a phone call from Mark Williamson. WAKC was sold. A new company, ValueVision was taking over and they were going to make a big investment in news. Would I consider coming back? Mark set up a meeting with the new GM, a guy named Mike Jones. I had barely left WAKC, and already they wanted me back.

But that meeting would be a very odd one indeed. More on that in the next installment.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Writing Is On The Wall

I knew something was up. I saw strange people coming and going, writing down serial numbers from our equipment. It was late 1992, and I just had a feeling that something bad was in the making. I had already been through the process of getting new ownership when I worked at WSLR/WKDD, WAKR/WONE,and WCUE.

It almost always started with strange people taking inventory, somebody figuring out what the property was worth. Then it would get eerily quite for a year, 18 months. Then would come the announcement: "We're sold." I knew what this meant: changes that would probably result in people losing their jobs. Then there would be a period of doubt, as the change went through the FCC. Maybe it won't happen. Maybe things will be better under the new owners. They'll all realize how underpaid we are, we'll get big raises and new equipment. Things will be better.

But by now, I had been around enough to know that wasn't going to happen.In fact, I had already developed what I tell my students to this day, I call them "Phil's Rules of Media."

Rule number one? "Sale always bad. Get out."

I went home that night and told my wife "I have to leave." We had just had our first daughter two months prior, so now I couldn't afford to risk losing my job. It might take two, three years for it to happen. But when it did, it would be ugly. I had time, I figured, to find a new gig. But I needed to get going.

As luck would have it, (and I know you're gonna think I'm making this up, but I swear it's true) the very next day our News Director, Mark Williamson dropped job postings on my desk.

"Did anybody here know the Akron Public Schools were looking for somebody to run their radio station?" Williamson asked. As per usual in any newsroom, he was greeted with grunts and guffaws. Who could possibly want to leave the glamour of TV for a school system?

I admit it. I casually slid the postings into my desk. I snuck them home that night, careful not to let anyone see them. I was destined for this job. By Thanksgiving of 1992, I would leave WAKC-TV 23 to become General Manger of WAPS-FM and APS-TV at the Akron Public Schools. I would escape the painful day that would come just over three years later, when allot of my friends would lose their jobs.

And I would start working for the person who would radically change my life.

Tune in next week...you won't believe what came next.