Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

5 TV news conventions video journalists should scrap

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on March 17, 2011

Time is something TV News does not have.

It does not have much time to turn around a package (anything from 12 hours to just 30 minutes); and it does not have much time on air to explain a complex news event (usually just 90 seconds). As a result formulas and conventions were developed over the decades – which help the journalists tell a complicated story very quickly.

But rarely is online video journalism shackled by such quick deadlines. If a newspaper or magazine decided to invest in a video report, it’s usually for a diary event which they can plan in advance: the video journalist might have days to prepare for a story. Online, video stories can run as long as the streaming platform will allow.

So more time on screen, more time behind the scenes…so why do online video journalists still follow their television brethren so closely? Here are five conventions which TV news designed and VJs could leave behind.

Five TV news conventions video journalists should scrap

 

Classic framing for an interview

.01 the 3-quarter-shot interview

The 3-quarter-shot as it’s known, is the classic framing for interviews in news and documentaries. Traditionally, we see the interviewee off-centre, looking either to the left or the right, presumably having a conversation with the reporter.

It exists in TV news, because it’s quick to set up and execute. The camera-person can frame the shot quickly without needing the subject to participate.

Instead: try having your interviewee look directly into the lens. This allows them to make direct eye-contact with the viewer, and gives the audience use of the full range of their facial expressions. Michael Rosenblum explains it well here, and I’ve been experimenting with it in these films for myNewsBiz. I found my subjects very comfortable and natural looking into the lens, as they would be looking at me.

Just because TV news does something, doesn’t mean online video journalism must follow suit!

.02 cutaways and noddies

Another TV new convention to creep into online video journalism is the ‘cutaway’. It’s that shot that gets inserted to cover-up an edit in the interview you’ve recorded. It’s done so often, we’ve become very accustomed to them – but, they can still be done badly…really badly. This clip is called ‘Police typing fail’ but it should be called reporter and camera-operater, and editor and producer fail:

It exists in TV news because it’s a very quick way to splice an interview together without distracting the audience with your edits. If you were to leave the cutaway out, the audience would notice a sudden jump in the interview, and get distracted. But what TV news is really doing is misleading its viewers, suggesting the interviewee spoke in one smooth uninterrupted flow.

Instead: don’t con your viewers. Be honest with them – they’re smart enough to know interviews get edited. Replace your cutaway with a ‘flash-wipe’ or ‘flash-through-colour-dissolve’. Make it just 10 or so frames long and be sure to put in an audio cross-fade too.

Just because TV news wants to trick its viewers doesn’t mean online video journalists should too!

.03 reliance on voice-overs

In most of the Western world, you never see a TV news report which doesn’t consist largely of voice-over. If you’re not familiar, that’s the reporter’s narration over (often quickly assembled) pictures. 95% of the time it’ll start a new report, and it’ll end at least half of them, unless the reporter decides to stick themselves on camera.

Voice over exists in TV news because it is an extremely quick way to cover over gaps in narrative and explain complicated things in a short space of time, both on screen and behind the scenes. Why go to all that effort to show a story happening, when you can just pull out a biro and tell it? At its worst and most hammy, it quickly becomes a source of parody:

Instead: use voice over sparingly. It should be a last-resort, rather than something you always factor into your storytelling. If you can’t show your story happening or have the people involved tell it themselves, is it a story worth covering in video?

Just because TV news covers stories regardless of whether they’re good visually, doesn’t mean video journalists should too!

.04 skin-deep storytelling

For the same reason, a TV news report is really only trying to summarise a story as quickly as possible. It wants you to know the key development that day – just enough so you can keep up a conversation at the bar and be quickly forgotten. And let’s be honest, there’s nothing wrong with that.

But there is a large audience for more deep storytelling, more engaging explanations and analysis of our spinning rock – and that audience is online…and they’re currently dissatisfied.

So instead: don’t blow your online video skills producing shallow stories which will just bounce off the water. Use it to do what video journalism is best at: getting access to people and places the big cameras can’t go. Your small, intimate set-up will get you closer to eye-witnesses, into the homes of insurgents and weeks on the frontline with soldiers.

Just because TV news needs to quickly wrap a news story before 6pm doesn’t mean video journalists are in such a hurry!

.05 zero-transparency

Finally, if there’s something TV news is really bad at, it’s transparency.

Agency footage is never labelled, so viewers are left believing the BBC (or Sky News or CNN) cameras were on hand to catch an event when they were not. (Interestingly, US networks are far better at crediting footage to APTN/Reuters etc). It might seem a small thing, but in the Middle-East, whether footage of a suicide bombing is shot by a Palestinian or an Israeli freelancer can make a lot of difference. It also does not give credit to the crews who put their lives on the line.

We never hear where a story has come from, so people aren’t aware how much of news on television is taken from agencies, lifted from newspapers or worse still, from a press release.

So instead: set a new standard for transparency in online video journalism. Be straight up with viewers, tell them where every frame of video comes from. We can do it with graphics on screen, or in a ‘production details’ section below the embedded video. If we’ve edited an interview, tell our viewers that we have.

One more thing

Marco left a comment on this post earlier this week, raising a valid point:

…since the television formulas have worked for so long (and so successfully), shouldn’t we use them when we are producing video for the web?… I do know that television and online video are different by nature. But is the storytelling process so different as you try to show on your post?

He’s got a point. TV news works (for the most part) doesn’t it? Well, that’s something up for debate. Online video is a new medium, and should be approached as something new. There are lessons from past practitioners we can learn…but my advice is skip television and learn from the early cinematographers. Fritz Lang and Orson Wells really understood visual storytelling – they invented it.

They had the time to devise ways of explaining something visually, passing information, often without any dialogue.

Those devices are still relevant today – and should be used by video journalists when they can. TV News just doesn’t have the time.

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The figure of 8: simplify your storytelling

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on October 20, 2009

Teaching my class on Video & Photo Journalism at Kingston University last week, I introduced my students to the concept of the Figure of Eight.

It’s a handy storytelling tool I was taught when I trained to be a journalist, and I’ve always kept it in mind when I need to put a story together in a rush. It is a tool for broadcast journalists, but applies to newspaper journalists working with video too.

The Print Way

Newspaper journalists are usually told to arrange their facts in the paradigm of the inverted pyramid, still regarded as the best way to display text information. You put all the important information right at the top and work your way down from there.

It was invented around the time of the telegraph message, when you had limited space to get lots of information down.

Many newspaper journalists make the mistake of trying to fit this way of sorting information into their video and audio. It doesn’t work. Why? Because multimedia exists differently.

The ‘Broadcast’ Way

Television & Radio – and now video & audio are temporal media. They exist in time. We don’t talk about TV news reports in terms of word counts. We talk about them in terms of time. Time is a tricky dimension because it means all your information has to be laid out in a linear fashion, and usually your audience has only one chance to watch your piece.

Compare that to newspapers, where the reader can skip ahead, or re-read bits they didn’t understand.

Because of it’s unique time-governed nature, broadcast journalists developed a new framework for organising their facts: introducing the Figure of Eight.

The Figure of Eight

figureof8

Broken down it simply means this:

  1. Start your multimedia piece in the present: what’s just happened? What’s the latest?
  2. Then take them backwards and tell them the past: what’s the context? How did we get here? What’s already happened?
  3. Then, finally, loop back over and tell them the future: what’s going to happen next?

This method ticks all the boxes for getting your facts out: it gives them the who-what-where-when-why, fills in the context, and gives us an idea of what it all means by suggesting what will happen next.

A Classic Example

Say you’re producing a video piece about a court case, for which the verdict has just been announced. You start your piece by saying what’s just happened:

Joe Bloggs has been found guilty of killing his wife in a domestic row. After a trial which has gripped the country, the father of three walked into the dock just an hour ago to hear his fate…etc…

Then you tell us the background – take us back to the history of the story.

This tragic case started a year ago when police were called to the Bloggs family home in London.  They found Jane Bloggs dead with a knife in her chest. After a man hunt lasting three months, her husband Joe was arrested in April…etc…

Then to finish off – a quick line on what’ll happen next.

Bloggs will return to the Old Bailey tomorrow where he’ll be sentenced. The Judge has warned him to expect a long jail term…etc.

That way, we’ve covered the bones of the story, in a logical fashion.

It’s a great technique for two reasons: it organises the information for you so you don’t have to; and it is perfect for a temporal medium like video.

…wait! There’s more!

If you found my 6×6 series for multimedia journalists useful, from Monday you’ll be able to download it all in one handy (free) ebook. More details on the way!

Journalism & the environment

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, International Development by Adam Westbrook on October 15, 2009

On the weekend dozens of climate change protesters climbed onto the roof of parliament in the latest stunt to get public attention for the cause. They used ropes and ladders to scale perimeter fencing before climbing up onto the roof of Westminster Hall.

The purpose: to ask MPs to sign a climate manifesto on Monday morning.

I write about journalism and multimedia for most of the time, but because it’s Blog Action Day today, I’ve been thinking about where the two meet. And the answer, it seems, is not in many places.

Let’s think about how the mainstream media cover the issue of climate change. It is of course well documented in broadcast news, with reports every few weeks (for example, from the BBC’s David Shukman). Big newspapers like the Guardian and Times have their own ‘environment’ sections online, featuring the calls of action of Bibi Van Der Zee among others.

And of course there have been landmark cinema releases including Al Gore’s glorified powerpoint presentation, Inconvenient Truth and Franny Armstrong’s Age of Stupid.

As for new media, when I checked 63,000 climate change related websites had been bookmarked by delicious. 69,000 videos are on Youtube with the similar tags.

Are we more informed as a result?

It’s an important question because there is little argument climate change is the most significant and global threat facing us today, and tomorrow. And for the next century.

It deserves more than 90 seconds in the 6 o’clock news every few weeks, and a feature in the G2.

The mainstream media, I think, have missed a massive opportunity to really inform the public on a regular basis. It affects us all, there is an appetite for news, analysis, advice on climate change. Yet it has no regular and protected space on our TV screens, supplements or radios (with the exception of One Planet on the BBC World Service).

PlanetDoes it not deserve a regular, accessible, digestible and regular form of coverage?

I would love to see a weekly magazine show, dedicated entirely to the environment. It would have the usual magazine-format mix of the latest news, interviews with important people in the fight against global warming, reviews of the latest green cars or gadgets, and practical advice on cutting your own carbon emissions.

The closest we ever came to that last item in the UK was Newsnight’s failed Green Man experiment.

Importantly this new video-magazine would not be preachy, it would accept the realities and practicalities of modern living, but show us solutions to those problems.

Perhaps we could all become united around this weekly offering, which shows us how to work together and take small steps as individuals to limit the effects of climate change, and make those dramatic Westminster protests unnecessary.

Just a thought. I suspect though it will be for new & social media to fill the gap.

A snapshot of how video journalism should be

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 30, 2009

A big hats off to US journalist Paul Balcerak, who has found and posted two examples of what he calls artistic video journalism.

What they are, are two examples of how video journalism ought to be, if we can persuade VJs and newsrooms the world over to drop their book of TV conventions, put down the voice-over microphone and engage some creative juices.

The first, tells the story of a man trapped in a lift in a New York skyscraper. Before you watch it, imagine how it might look as a human interest piece on your local news programme.

FOOTAGE FROM INSIDE LIFT

REPORTER VO: “Nicholas White got more than he bargained for when he went for a smoke break last Friday evening”

WHITE, ON SCREEN: “I told my colleagues I was going for a cigarette break and I’d be back in five minutes.”

REPORTER VO: “But it became the longest cigarette break in history when the express elevator Nick was in broke down somewhere between the 30th and 43rd floor.”

REPORTER PIECE TO CAMERA, OUTSIDE BUILDING: “It began a 40 hour ordeal for Nicholas…” etc. etc.

We might also expect to hear from the manager of the building, defending lift safety, and if the reporter’s got more space to fill, some kind of medical expert about what happens to the body after 40 hours with no food or water.

All very….meh.

Now watch this:

That’s how the New Yorker ran it on their website. No reporter. No voice over narration. No interviews.

But which one tells the story? Which one gives you even the slightest inkling of the fear, boredom, desperation, despair you must feel being stuck in a lift for 40 hours?

The second piece was produced at Pnwlocalnews.com:

[blip.tv ?posts_id=2665749&dest=-1]

But there’s lots to be said about it, the first being I watched the whole thing through, even though it was about transportation policy in a US state thousands of miles away.

  • It uses vox pops, not to tell us how ‘disgusting’ something else or how ‘the government need to sort it out’; instead they’re used to share how people commute
  • It favours captions with artistic b-roll over droning voice over
  • Some footage is not full frame
  • It is beautifully shot with excellent use of depth-of-field/focus, which gives the story an extra quality

On the other side I’m sure you noticed the poor quality of the sound in the interviews, and I felt it was a bit slow in places, but otherwise this is storytelling on another level.

So what can we learn from this?

The way news is gathered is changing. So is the way it is funded. And the way it is delivered. But it is also vital the way news looks changes too. It would be a crying shame if, after the dust of the digital revolution settles, we are still watching formulaic 90 second packages fronted by a reporter.

Now is the time to make sure that doesn’t happen: video journalists need to let go of the rule book and think freely – and let storytelling take the lead.

The last word is best left to Paul:

The industry is going through a complete and utter reformation—and a lot of us aren’t going to make it. Most of us who do will be the ones who innovate, who experiment—who go against everything we’ve been ever been told about journalism.

5 video rules you can break (and 5 rules you can’t)

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 1, 2009

Some people didn’t like my recent suggestion that one thing for multimedia journalists to do with their video was “break the rules”.

Offering advice like ‘Break the Rules’ doesn’t do anything to help online video journalists to improve their work” said one. “Frankly, it’s nonsense. If convergence is going to work content is key. In other words, videos have to be produced to the same exacting standards that are demanded in television, because viewers and readers are not going to make allowances for the fact they have been produced cheaply for the internet.

At one level they’re right: content is the watch word and the quality must remain high. We just need to be more specific when we say “break the rules”.

Why break the rules?

Simply: because with all the change in the media landscape, with films easier to shoot and edit than ever before, available to more people than ever before, and able to be watched by more people than ever before, it would be such a crying shame if – stylistically – the video journalism we all produce is as formulaic as what the mainstream media produce today.

And because some of the best pieces I’ve seen over the last year have trodden over all the rules.

5 rules you can break

01. vomit voice-over: if there’s one thing I’d be glad to see got rid of, it’s the overbearing reporter voice over telling us what we can already see. It is in effect telling us how to feel and we should be able to do that for ourselves. Voice overs are really only used because they’re an efficient way of pasting over the narrative cracks in a deadline driven newsroom.

02. tell your story in a linear way: your typical news story moves  from intro-to-case study-to-interview-to-context-to-other side of the story-to-look ahead/wrap up pretty seamlessly. Again it’s quick and helps beat deadline. The result? Every story looks the same.

03. use cutaways and noddies:they’re used to paste over edits in interviews, but  most of us are media savvy enough to recognise they were shot after the interview (a la Broadcast News). Why mislead your viewer? A simple flash dissolve retains some honesty in your editing while looking OK.

04. do standup piece-to-cameras: I have no problem with stand-ups when there’s some action or walk through involved: when the journalist is showing us something. But although a standup outside a building solves practical problems for mainstream news reporters, the multimedia journalist should be asking whether they are really necessary.

05. open with GVs/telling shot: again this is a technique which has remained for its ease. You can open your film with any shot, interview, graphic you chose. Be imaginative!

5 rules you can’t break

01. shoot sequences: sequences are vital to visual storytelling. They are the demonstration of an action over a series of 3 or more shots and (if used well) tell us more about the subject or story than words can. Our brains piece sequences together and engage us with the story.

02. do your white balance: and sort your focus. Even online there’s no excuse for badly framed, badly lit, badly focused shots. You should aim to be technically as good as TV but more creative.

03. don’t cut on pans or zooms: our eyes will always be distracted by a jump cut or a cut on movement. Unless it’s for a reason, you don’t want to detract your viewers from your story by having them wonder ‘why that shot didn’t look right’. Having said that, these kind of unsettling edits do create an effect you may wish to use.

04.treat audio with respect: bad audio is bad video. The hallmark of poorly produced video for the web is bad audio.

05. don’t  go overboard with your transitions: video editing software offers hundreds of different ways to move from one shot to another. In multimedia journalism as in television journalism you need but two: cut and dissolve. Even think about using some kind of rotating 3D cube? Go take a bath.

“Lamentable and predictable”: BBC News writing?

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 6, 2009

 

BBC Look North (Leeds)

BBC Look North (Leeds)

Interesting letter made it into the Yorkshire Post today

 

 

MY 11 and 14-year-old sons Frankie and Tommy are very critical of TV presentational style, especially Look North [BBC’s regional news programme from Yorkshire].

From Alan Partridge they understand the ridiculous “epithet inversion” technique for an intro to a story.

At its worst, this involves simply repeating some dramatic accusation or cry of pain eg, “You’re killing me and you’re killing my family” (dramatic pause), followed by, “Those were the words of…” or, “That was a 59-year-old Leeds woman’s response to…”

But by far the most common device – in fact every story on Look North was introduced like this last night – is a simple inversion  of the second part of the sentence with the first.

Thus, “Passengers on trains into Sheffield yesterday were stuck for over two hours due to flooding of the track” becomes, “Stuck for two hours on a flood track. That was the fate of passengers on trains into Sheffield yesterday.”

I suppose the editors have come from newspapers and don’t realise that dramatic headlines sound stupid when they’re read out. I imagine it was the same with early films when actors used to projecting for the stage encountered the much more intimate medium of the film camera. But they’ve been making news programmes for 50 years now.

It makes for the most lamentable and predictable TV. Why not aim a little higher, BBC Leeds?

From: Mark Wilson, Headingley, Leeds.

A very good dissection from, what appears to be an ordinary viewer. He could have a background in journalism, but if he’s just an ordinary punter, the overuse of one style must be really noticable.

In TV news you should be writing in a conversational style, and always trying to surprise the listener – while always being accurate.  The “epithet inversion” as Mr Wilson calls it, is a good one…if used sparingly.

And in fact there’s an argument starting a news story with a dramatic statement – and then clarifying it afterwards, is inaccurate and bad writing. But watch the BBC Six O’Clock news tonight  and see how often it’s used.

Lamentable and predictable indeed.

(Hat tip: Larry the News Guy)

Dear BBC, please get rid of the News Channel

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on July 1, 2009

It has tens of thousands of viewers, has won two RTS awards in the last 3 years, and is (according to its own branding) ‘Britain’s Most Watched News Channel’.

But, dear BBC,  you should scrap your 24 hour rolling news.

Now when I say that, I don’t mean close down transmitting, or make hundreds of people redundant, or pull out of the “race” for breaking news. I don’t even mean stop broadcasting news altogether.

It just seems in the growth of satellite news channels, which brought us  CNN and Sky News, and then Fox News, and then ITV News, which then closed down, and then Al-Jazeera…it just seems you have missed a trick.

What I want to see is a BBC News and Information Channel. Except with a better name than that, obviously.

With a whole channel dedicated to news, with 24 hours to fill,  how come fewer documentaries are produced? How come in order to find out about under reported stories from both the UK and abroad we have to turn to the internet? How come for some well thought out analysis of global events, you’re better off in the hands of Radio 4 or the World Service?

Because in the race with Sky News, the BBC News Channel fills its 24 hours with breaking news stories and following them as they develop, just like Sky News. And with that comes all the trappings and distortions of rolling news.

The pointless 2-ways from outside buildings where the newsreader clearly knows more about the story than the correspondent. The irrelevant updates on local, but gruesome crimes. The live broadcasting of police press conferences, of interest to hardly anyone. The parading of guest after guest after guest, each adding very little to the story. The over-reporting of PR news. And the speculation – oh, the speculation!

Click, Newswatch and Hardtalk are all well and good, but they are too few and far between. And you stick ’em on at 5am on a Sunday morning.

This race with Sky News (which, if it was an actual race in a stadium or something, would have about 15 spectators) has created a terrible distortion in news and facts, where both channels zoom in on a story to such an explosive magnitude, making it seem like the biggest most important disaster since some kind of climate change nuclear tsunami.

And, dear BBC, it really isn’t a race you need to win. Or even run in.

So how about this: a channel with short live news bulletins twice (or even four times an hour), with more 30 minute news bulletins, and the rest of the time filled with amazing documentaries, and great longer interviews with really interesting people, and some right-on analysis from all those clever correspondents. Hey, you’d have so much space to fill you could commission some riskier pieces from non-British journalists or young journalists. They might work, they might not, but it would be interesting.

You could whack more science and history on there. You might even get to be creative and dynamic.

But suddenly – breaking news! What do you do? It’s OK – if it’s not that important, there’s always the ticker at the bottom of the screen. And if it is important, then you can dip out of the programme for a bit. And if it is really important, then you can revert back to your news-channel ways.

We know you covet your “most watched news channel” crown, but come on BBC, the licence fee payers deserve more than this tit-for-tat war with Sky News, right?

Kurt Lancaster: an important voice

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 29, 2009

I just discovered the blog of documentary video journalist and lecturer Kurt Lancaster. And this guy’s right on the ball when it comes to knowing TV style film making is dead.

In Kurt’s own words:

No narration provided by a reporter. No heavy-handed production telling the audience how to think or feel.

By placing himself into the short documentary, Kristof thankfully eschews the tired style and omniscient voice of the broadcast journalist who typically stands with microphone in hand, almost pleading with an audience to emotionally engage their sensationalized, “must-see” story. “Look at me and what I have to say!”, seems to me the pervading style of the news broadcast journalist.

In an interview with doc filmmaker Ellen Spiro (Body of War 2007), she told me that a lot of broadcast news sets up the classic confrontation of one side versus another side. But she feels there are as many sides to a story as there are people experiencing or witnessing the event

Broadcast news tends to give us a snapshot of either a victim or an overly-cute feel-good subject, as seen on the outside looking in. Documentary filmmakers build trust and take us into a slice of life of their characters…And this is one of the core differences between broadcast news and documentary filmmaking — the building of that trust in order to get the subject to open up.

So…he’s a film maker, a documentary maker, a video journalist. But he hates opening GVs, he hates overwritten voice overs and pleading pieces to camera. In fact, all the things which make standard TV packages so repetitive and unimaginative.

Like I say, he’s right on the money. Click here to visit his website.

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Video Journalism: “a concept we have to learn”

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 11, 2009

Interesting post from American TV journo Joe Larkins, over at his blog. It’s a rare examination of the pros and cons of video journalism as an option for TV newsrooms, as opposed to newspapers.

He reckons – state side at least – most small market newsrooms will see a shift towards video journalism.

And he says:

“If one instills the positive side of OMB/VJ early on, AND they get the proper training AND the OMB/VJ is NOT ABUSED by some moron manager/desk person who has never been in the field and doesn’t have a clue as to what goes on on a video shoot AND the pay is as good as anyone else shooting and reporting then I think the OMB/VJ concept has the potential to take off and in fact be embraced.”

Not much to ask then!

Sony Z1

Sony Z1

Police seek Hamster murderer

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on February 5, 2009

TV news producers: a good example of why default graphics images are not a wise idea:

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A new era

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism, News and that by Adam Westbrook on January 20, 2009

So it was as powerful and emotional and historic as November 4th, and more.

Billions, they reckon, watched Barack Obama’s inauguration; 4 million made the pilgrimage to Washington DC to see it for themselves.

From a journalist’s perspective days like this are always fascinating and exciting. I thought some mind find it useful to see how the local radio station I work for covered it today.

Local v national

Generally, local media have 2 choices when it comes to big national/international stories:

  1. You are a local station, you cover local stories primarily
  2. You are an outlet in tune with your local audience and the wider world.

In radio certainly – many managers consider local news a major facet of their “localness” requirements – and will often inforce ‘Lead on Local’ policies.

Even without, local journalists sometimes feel guilty at covering non-local stories.

Where I work, we take option 2. There is a wider world out there, and often things happen nationally/internationally which affect our listeners lives.

When people turn on the radio, they expect to be briefed on all the big stories – and what’s happening NOW.

We decided editorially last week it would be THE story today, despite another strong local story which has been developing for a week vying for lead.

So we put lots of effort in advance of today getting local reaction to the historic inauguration. In our main lunchtime bulletin we ran an in-house report looking back at Bush’s legacy. We also tracked down American’s living in our area, as well as academics and politicians.

Mixed with audio from our national news wire service we had comprehensive coverage.

Perhaps overambitiously we tried to take a live feed from Washington at 1700 to catch the opening words of Obama’s oath. A nice idea, thrown out of whack when the ceremony was delayed (for the first time in 200 years!).

In terms of writing, a day like to day is a journalists dream, with all sorts of options for epic and creative copy.

Compare that to our local rival (who I won’t name); at 5pm, as Obama was about to step up to take the job of President of the United States, they led with a local crime story.

The inauguration came last “and finally…”

As a listener/viewer/reader would you feel in touch with the world?

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How to avoid being “that annoying PR person”

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 17, 2009

The phone rings – London number.

“Newsdesk, Adam speaking.”

[Excitedly] “Hello Adam, it’s Christabelle here calling from Markettowers PR*, how are you?”

Markettowers. Bollocks.

[Tersely] “I’m OK thanks.”

“Great, that’s great. Hey look, I’ve got a great story which I think you’ll really like – with some great local stats.”

“…go on”

“Well we’ve done some research into when people fill in their tax returns, and discovered that 18% of people in your area leave it until the last day.”

“Right.”

“And we’ve got David Nobody from Tesco.com available for interview tomorrow morning to talk about why we should get them in sooner – can I book you in for a slot?”

“Send a press release and we’ll take a look delete it immediately.”

And so another London PR agency calls with another lame story. It’s one of the minor annoyances of local journalism, albeit a neccessary one, as once in every 15 calls, they bring you a story with some tickle factor that you know will make a light mid-bulletin filler.

It wasn’t until I saw a job ad in the Guardian that I realised what the game really was: it advertised a position at a marketing agency – and the job was to “sell” (their word) stories to radio stations.

Essentially it’s a glorified call centre job. And when I also spotted they get paid £10k more than me, my patience for PR hacks fell through the floor.

So if you work in PR, if – heaven forbid – it is your job to ‘sell’ stories to busy journalists, please read the following advice – it might stop your press release entering the recycle bin.

Don’t call anywhere near the top of the hour

Radio journalists in particular read the news at the top of every hour. Calling anytime after 00:40 will most likely result in a brisk “sod off”. It’s different for newspaper and TV journos of course.

Pitch in 10 seconds or less

It’s a skill journalists are trained to do, so you should too. If you can’t explain your story in less than 10 seconds, don’t bother.

Do your research

I have actually had calls offering me “great local stats” for the wrong county. The phone was hung up pretty soon after. Also, for many local media, regional stats are not local stats.

Do your research

I’ve had calls offering stories about where to invest your money-when most of my target audience shop at Iceland. Sell it to Classic FM, not me.

Do your research

Local commercial radio does bulletins of no longer than 3 minutes. They never do longer interviews unless its with someone off X-Factor. So don’t pitch long 2 ways. Journalists need short clips.

Don’t keep calling

Newdesks fully realise the more times you call, the more desperate you are, ergo the fewer other outlets have used your story, ergo your story blows. Call to pitch, and don’t call back. If a journalist likes the story they’ll make the call – we’re quite clever, you know.

And know your client will very rarely get a name check

You may pitch them as ‘David Nobody from Tesco.com” but 9 times out of 10 they’ll be referenced on air as ‘Money expert David Nobody”. We’re not interested that it’s Tesco, sorry.

*not a real company