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Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism University of Southern California

"Oh, That's My Slug?"

I've been an ATVN producer for a little over a month, but one of the things I'd like to focus on has to do with a position I held for more than a year and a half.

I need to work on communicating with my reporters. Clarifying what story elements I need them to gather before I send them out in the morning - and making sure to check in with them when they're out in the field - can save me a lot of time and trouble later in the day.

Ironically, one of my complaints as a one-man-band reporter was the lack of communication between my producers and myself. I often found myself running into MJs at events and press conferences that I thought I would be covering in my reporter package; requesting graphics or file footage first thing in the morning, only to have a producer say, "Oh... I forgot!" at 5:50 p.m.; and finishing my script before being told I was supposed to be covering a completely different angle.

But enough with the outdated complaints. One, I had fantastic EPs who always managed to fill in the gaps by air-time. Two, these are things I am now subjecting all my own reporters to, without fail, every Wednesday and Thursday.

I'm not sure if it's because I assume they have the same sense of news judgment I do, or if I expect them to figure things out on their own, the way I sometimes had to. Neither is a legitimate excuse.

I guess my only explanation is that I'm simply overwhelmed as a producer. With an entire newsroom of other people I need to check in with and a rundown of non-packaged stories I need to keep an eye on, trusting reporters with their assignments - and not worrying about their packages myself - is the easy way out.

Easy, but absolutely illogical. How can I expect a reporter to glance at two lines in a coffee-stained CNS budget, head out without asking any questions and come back with a story that flows with the rest of my newscast 10 hours later?

Coordinating coverage with reporters is especially important - and difficult - when packages are collaborative efforts. We often have to assign individual elements of a reporter package to MJs - for example, when there are events happening simultaneously or we schedule back-to-back inerviews in different counties.

As a producer, it's my responsibility - not the reporter's - to make sure MJs aren't doubling up on things or leaving any elements out. I can't have them waste time asking questions the reporter has already had answered or shooting b-roll at a location the reporter has already gone to, but I also can't let them glaze over things I think the reporter "should get" or "can get" or "is supposed to get" unless I'm absolutely certain they already have it.

It's also a challenge when a package isn't a stand-alone piece, but part of a broader story that spans multiple lines in the rundown. I need to decide early in the morning, before sending a reporter out, what their specific angle is and let them know what they aren't covering. I've had too many reporters check in with me during the afternoon rundown meeting and say, "Wait, what's my slug? I can't find it in the rundown."

I've even produced newscasts where information that was laid out at the top of the show was repeated - with almost identical wording - in multiple VOs and a package. Again, it's my responsibility to prevent mistakes like this - not the reporter's.

Looking ahead, I'd like to write up a checklist of questions and reminders to discuss with my reporters before they leave the morning meeting. I need to keep this taped to my computer screen and physically check off the items that have been cleared up. This list should include:

  • Package slug
  • Specific package angle
  • Whether it is or isn't part of broader coverage in our show
  • Specific people we need interviews with
  • What the different sides of the story are
  • Who represents those sides
  • What elements we cannot air the package without
  • Whether or not we need a stand-up tease
  • Whether or not we want a cold open
  • If so, ideal NATS or SOTs
  • Possible locations for a stand-up
  • How much time we are budgeting for the package
  • Developments that could break later in the day
  • MJs who will also be covering the story - contact info, location(s), interviews
  • What stories will come directly before and after their package
  • Photos or live udpates we need for and Twitter

I thought running around Southern California with a tripod and a 6 p.m. deadline was tough - turns out coordinating a team of people running around Southern California with tripods (some broken, some holding cameras with dead batteries) and that same 6 p.m. deadline is much more difficult.

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