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Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism University of Southern California

Expect the Unexpected


I never sleep well the night before a newscast, but Sunday night was especially restless. As I tossed and turned in bed, my mind was preoccupied with thoughts of MJS, reporters, packages, the rundown and, most importantly, the lead story. To my amazement, when it came time for me to make the crucial decision as to how to begin my show, the choice was fairly simple. 

That morning, Fast For Families, an organization calling for immigration reform, held a rally to mark the beginning of its cross-country bus tour. From the outset, I knew that this story harnessed the potential to be a lead. This piece took a major national issue and allowed for a local angle. Furthermore, our reporter captured a comprehensive set of elements at the protest, including stimulating visuals and intriguing sound. Above all else, this feature was emotionally stirring. Needless to say, this package provided the perfect combination of entertainment and information. The mark of a truly successful lead is its ability to engage audiences on multiple levels. First and foremost, the lead story should provide an enlightening exploration of a vital news item. However, I also feel strongly that viewers are meant to enjoy the experience of watching a newscast. Since the lead sets the entire show's tone, I believe that it is essential for this piece to have a rich entertainment value. In other words, the lead story must contain compelling information that is told in an interesting manner and, therefore, leaves a resounding impact. The last thing that a producer wants is for their lead to be dull and boring. If audience members are disappointed and unsatisfied following the very first story, they are almost sure to change the channel.  

Surprisingly, after discussing the various options, my fellow producers and I agreed that “Fast For Families” was our strongest story. We were confident that it would capture viewers’ attention and encourage them to continue watching. Indeed, I should have known that the process of selecting a lead story had gone too smoothly.

Around 5:45, I arrived in the studio to realize that my lead package was still incomplete. So, I called the editing lab and was promptly reassured that the package was “almost done.” I proceeded to call three more times to inquire as to the status of the package. With each ticking of the clock, I became more and more panicked that my lead story was not going to be ready in time. One of my worst nightmares was manifesting into a reality. Finally, thirty seconds before the show, I was confident that I needed to figure out a plan B – and fast! With my hands shaking uncontrollably, I frantically began writing the welcome to my new lead story, “Harold Ramis’ Death.” The rearranging of the rundown was so rapid that I only remember it as a blur. It’s almost as if I was operating outside of my own body. Although we were able to avoid this major crisis, I could have minimized the stress of the situation by promptly preparing a backup lead. In the future, I will never again hesitate to take such initiative again. You may think that it won't happen to you, but trust me, the possibility of your lead story falling through is no joke.

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