Monthly Archives: October 2012

Tourist season

I hear it when I’m seated at my desk.  It’s quiet, with light footsteps treading through industrial carpet; clothing shuffling; a hushed collection of people slowly approaching from behind.

“And — this is the newsroom.”

“Shhh – maybe he won’t notice us…”

The voice is almost always that of a WXIA-TV staffer, standing directly behind my head. Sometimes the voice presents the room matter-of-factly.  Sometimes there’s a hint of ginned-up wonderment.  To me, it’s “only” a TV newsroom, a place I’ve spent my professional life.  To its visitors, touring a TV station, it’s a highlight.

For any tour group entering our newsroom, my desk is pretty much the first thing they see.

“This is where our reporters and producers are getting stories together and preparing for the next newscast.” 

Often the words “hard at work” are also used during this section.  By this time, I’ve usually figured out that there are countless eyeballs behind my head.  I’ve closed Facebook and am resisting the temptation to grab my land-line phone, light a cigarette and stage-voice some sort of crackling monologue:  Gimme the mayor.  No, I need to talk to him right now.  Right now!  It’s very, very important.

It’s too bad Bill Liss’s desk isn’t at the newsroom entrance, coz they’d actually hear that.  Liss is straight out of a Damon Runyon script, minus the cigarette smoke.

Most of our reporters are already out covering stories….

This is a line that starts to disclaim the experience.  What these newsroom visitors are seeing is pretty dull.  Most of the desks are empty– except mine, front and center.  This is the point where I’ll make a decision:  Do I turn and say hello?  If my mood lends itself to being a bright and shiny representative of the 11Alive tour experience, I will do so.  (And if things aren’t going well for yours truly at that particular moment, sometimes I’ll greet the tour anyway, especially if the visitors are kids.  It can only brighten the darkness of my day.)

When I turn to say hello, the 11Alive staffer giving the tour is always visibly grateful.  She’s starting to run out of material pretty quickly.

What tour groups see:  TV’s Jaye Watson holds down the fort between my desk and the rest of the newsroom.

Though my desk is rather nightmarish to behold, I’ve posted a bunch of vintage political buttons on the board above my phone.  I’ve done this specifically to add some character to the desk, mostly for the benefit of the strangers shuffling up in groups.

From my desk, the view of the newsroom is expansive.  The newsroom has no cubicles, so I have a line-of-sight on just about everybody and everything in the room.  To the extent that there’s anything worth seeing, you can see it from my desk.

You can see, we use state of the art equipment to produce stories for TV and our web site, 11alive dot com….

This line is frequently reserved for “official” tours, when the visitor needs to be impressed.  I’ve learned to suppress any snickers; our newsroom, like many others, is famously not state-of-the-art.  Much of the gear is new, however, albeit purchased by bargain hunters who know better than to pay top dollar for overrated state-of-the-art crapola.

The tour group photographed above showed up at about 10:30am one day.  Within a few minutes, a very suppressed wave of low-grade panic crossed the newsroom; the server that plays all our on-air video and graphics had crashed.  The noon newscast was in grave danger.

The tour group had moved on to the studio at this point, which was mostly empty.  “Put ‘em in the control room at noon,” I remember thinking, before the server came back to life.

Now that would have been something to see.

Fire the publicists

The political communications business is much uglier than it used to be.  When I call a publicist, it’s frequently a crapshoot:  Will I be talking with somebody who actually facilitates communication?  Or will I get an obstructionist, somebody who applies the anything-goes absurdity of political campaigning to the business of communicating with the news media?

Too often, it’s the latter.  Although most publicists still work with old-school professionalism — with timely, face-value responses to reasonable inquiries — there are too many who automatically assume that Mainstream Media inquiries equal a pending attack.  Therefore the response is automatically defensive, or a proactive counterattack.

“Go ahead with your liberal hit-job,” one congressional publicist sneered at one of my coworkers some months ago, when he inquired about something-or-other that was outside the publicist’s comfort zone.

“You’ve got two strikes against you.  Third strike, and you’re cut off” another local government publicist told another of my coworkers, when the coworker gently suggested he adjust his almost laughably unprofessional behavior.

This brings us to the lamentable firing of John Kennedy.

John Kennedy, former Atlanta airport spokesman

Kennedy was a longtime publicist for Delta Air Lines.  He was hired by the city of Atlanta to run the communications division of Hartsfield Jackson International Airport.  It was a smart move.  Kennedy knows aviation, knows the airport and knows communications.

The city won’t say why Kennedy and his two communications underlings were fired.  All three were rated “highly effective” in personnel evaluations obtained by WXIA and the AJC.

Whenever I phoned Kennedy, I always got the communication-facilitator described above, rather than the paranoid political hack who assumed the worst.  Kennedy was smart, experienced and and knew news (as well as aviation and city politics), but was also appropriately guarded.  He viewed challenging news queries through the prism of public relations, and how the end product might affect the public image of the airport and City Hall.  He struck a perfectly reasonable balance between transparency, caution and spin.

Kennedy reportedly got caught in the gears of city politics after some unflattering stories appeared on WAGA and in the AJC about the new international terminal which opened over the summer.  The stories undoubtedly angered Mayor Kasim Reed.  Kennedy, it appears, became a fall guy for problems created far outside the airport communications office.

Was Kennedy supposed to somehow kill the unflattering stories?  “Spin” the truth into something that suited city hall?  Deny the existence of evidence?

Maybe there’s another side to this story, but the city has declined to tell it.  Kennedy’s firing was barely a blip on the news radar.  But news-biz insiders noticed because we respected Kennedy’s unwavering professionalism.

The best publicists are the ones who earn the respect of their potential adversaries — rather than the ones who strive merely for “attaboys” from within their own echo chambers. These days, a lot of politicians seem to think that all you need is a well-managed Facebook page to sell your story.  They overlook the fact that all those links on Twitter and Facebook still tend to come from mainstream-type media.

Those folks need publicists who can juggle the demands of internal politics with the sometimes unpredictable demands of news goons tromping through your airport.

Kennedy was one of those guys

Media relations still matter.  When you fire the guy who mastered that game, you only hurt yourself.

Reverse averse

When I went through the TV sequence in journalism school (U. of Mo. ’79), they issued guidelines for shooting TV interviews.  Among them:  When the interview is over, shoot a two-shot, then shoot a reverse.

In recent days, I’ve learned that ol’ Mizzou got it completely wrong.

Fig. 1: Bad TV

The two-shot shows the interviewer and interviewee together, typically a wide shot framed from behind the reporter’s head. The reverse is the same shot, framed from behind the interviewee.  It’s a shot often lampooned, typically showing the reporter gazing thoughtfully at the interviewee or nodding his head inappropriately.

Until I worked at WXIA, most photographers with whom I worked were of the Mizzou mindset:  Shoot the two shot and the reverse.  It’s a no-brainer.

As a newcomer, I noticed WXIA photogs never shot reverses, unless the reporter specifically asked.  Such a request would typically lead to a snort / smirk that non-verbally said:  Oh, you want to see yourself nodding, eh pretty boy?

I finally questioned this with a well-respected, exceptionally-talented WXIA photog, a guy with NPPA credentials who nonetheless waves the NPPA flag very guardedly.  He was blunt:  I don’t shoot reverses.  Never have, never will– unless the reporter specifically asks for it, or unless I’ve concluded that there are extraordinary circumstances that demand a reverse.

It’s lousy TV, he said.  If you need a cutaway — a shot that conceals an edit during an interview (not to hide the edit from viewers, but to give the story a cleaner look), I’d rather use video from the story to cover the edit.  There’s always a better way to cover an edit than by using a reverse.  If your story requires a reverse, then your story is probably visually flawed from the outset.  I strive to avoid that.

He also said reverses are “staged,” and look it.  If the reporter’s presence in the interview is important, then shoot the interview with two cameras.

Why on earth would you want a reverse? 

Four reasons:

- Sometimes you don’t have a better option editing-wise, if you need to use a cutaway during an interview clip.  I’d much rather see a reverse than the overused white flash, for example.

- Sometimes you don’t want to divert the story, visually, away from the interview at that particular moment by using b-roll.

- Reverses maintain / add the presence of the reporter in the story.  This is local news.  It ain’t Frontline, and we rarely do two-camera shoots.

- Why not?  You’re there with a camera.  Shooting a reverse takes almost no additional work.  If you need it, you’ve got it.  (If you’re a one man band, shooting a reverse is pretty impractical.)

My opinion:  Shooting the reverse should be the default procedure, unless waived off by the reporter.  It eliminates the awkward “hey, shoot a picture of my mug” moment in front of an interviewee.

The photog, a great American whose work I admire and whose company I enjoy tremendously, was completely puzzled by my piss-poor reasoning.  “I learned it in J-School,” I stammered as my flawless logic and persuasive abilities dissolved into a pathetic heap of mush.

“They sure didn’t teach that at the University of Georgia,” he answered.

Welcome to the SEC, pretty boy.