Building a better tape

It’s go time. You may be nearing the end of your four years in college, or maybe you’re coming up on the end of your first two-year contract in the news business. Congratulations! Now you need to make a jump.

Getting hired is not going to be an easy process, but it’s a lot less painful when you have put in the work to develop a good resume tape.

Tape, reel, demo – they all mean the same thing: your video work samples. The best examples of what you have to offer as a reporter, anchor, or photographer.

Your main goal in your job hunt is to stand out. Separate yourself from everyone else applying for jobs. To do that, you need a reel that news directors don’t want to turn off.

It’s an unfortunate fact that many news directors may only look at your tape for a few seconds before they decide to turn it off, and reject you. Your goal then, is to give them something they don’t want to turn off. Have each element grab the ND’s attention, and keep them anxious to see what’s next.

How do you do that? I’m glad you asked.

For an on-air talent, there are key areas an ND is looking for. Can you speak? Do you look good on-air? Can you write? Your tape is going to answer these questions, and they way you present them will keep an ND glued to the screen.

Let’s break it down.

Step 1 – The montage

Your montage should show YOU! It’s more than just face time – show you can tell stories in unique ways.

What: A sequence of standups, live shots, and anchor shots that show you, the job seeker.

How long: Anywhere from :30 to 1:00

For a reporter or anchor, the very first thing we should see on your tape is you. You need a montage of your most polished live shots, standups, or anchoring. Each one should be a few seconds long, and will demonstrate your ability to present yourself on camera. It shows that you can walk, talk, and demonstrate something all at once, while remembering how to tell your story. News directors aren’t looking for newspaper writers; they want people who can be presenters as well as journalists.

As far as the length of the montage, ask five different people and you’ll get five different answers. Some say 30 seconds, others say 45 seconds. Personally, I think you can show what you need to show in about one minute. Anything longer and you’re repeating yourself.

But remember, you need to separate yourself from the pack. Any idiot can stand still in front of a camera for a few seconds. Your standups should immerse you in the story; a way to enhance the information and engage the audience. When you are shooting standups or doing a live shot, be creative! Show me something! Demonstrate, point, walk, use props like cell phones. Set the camera far away to show space. Or get down on the ground and give a unique angle.

Set the camera on the ground and show unique angles in your standup.

A news director gets thousands of tapes with good looking people standing still and saying bland things on camera. Show that you can be a visually storyteller using your camera and your body.

For the best example of this, look no further than Joe Little of 10News in San Diego. Every year he compiles a montage of his best standups and live shots from the previous year. Little is a master at creating a visually compelling standup, and he does all of it as a one-man band. It’s just him, a camera, and a tripod.

As Little shows, you also need to vary your choice of standups. I don’t want to see 10 straight shots of you at an anchor desk wearing different color jackets. I also don’t want to see 10 medium closeups of you standing by a road. Again, be creative in your choices. Pick standups in different locations and circumstances. A shot with a wildfire in the background can be followed by a closeup of you showing details on your phone, followed by a standup where you interact with your environment (jump into the pool, go for a drive, show the documents).

But the very first image should make you look good. Don’t lead with a standup in which another anchor tosses to you (again, the ND needs to see what YOU look like, not anyone else). If you have standups in which the camera starts on something else, save them until after the initial shot.

So while you are still in college (or in your current job) make sure you are shooting unique standups and live shots any opportunity you get. If you are in an internship at a TV station, get as many reps at the anchor desk as you can, even if it means staying late or coming in on the weekends. The more you have to choose from, the better your tape will be. If all you ever shot were six standups and four of them were lousy, then you’re up a creek.

Step 2 – The packages

Choose packages that show your ability to tell different types of stories.,

What: Your best packages as a reporter/multimedia journalist. Self-contained video elements that you shot, wrote and edited.

How long: Typically about three packages. Standard package length is 1:30.

Following your standup montage, you need to include a few packages you created. This is also mandatory! It doesn’t matter whether you are applying to be a reporter, anchor, sports anchor, or photojournalist, you need to know how to make a package.

(I have run into many prospective anchors who think all they need is a few reps at the desk to get a job. News flash: no one is ever just an anchor anymore. Any on-air journalist needs to shoot, write, and edit their own stories. In a small market, you’re not going to be plopped into the anchor seat on the 6 p.m. news right away. You need to show you can work. So start editing packages, or you’ll end up in Public Relations. END OF RANT).

Most on-air talent tapes include three packages, because it allows you to show your writing ability, and how you report on various topics. Again, set yourself apart and be unique! Every ND knows reporters can do stories about house fires. Give them a story they haven’t seen before, or a story told in a new and unique way.

A good rule of thumb is to include a good hard news story, a funny feature, and an in-depth story. These terms are loose, though – you don’t need to be a comedian in a funny feature, but show you can be light-hearted with a sense of humor. An in-depth story doesn’t have to be an Pullitzer Prize-winner, but it should show you put thought and research into a story. The specific topics themselves might not be important, but if you can show you are able to write, shoot and edit a variety of different stories, and do it in an engaging way, that is much more important to a news director.

For example, in my first tape, I included packages about increased winter heating bills, a feature on a comic book store, and a profile on men’s basketball open tryouts. I wasn’t applying for a sports job or a feature job, but those packages showed me at my best – my writing was engaging, my shots were steady, my edits were unique, my standups were creative, and it showed my ability to excel in any assignment. Coming out of college, where opportunities for live shots or heavy stories are rare, that tape got me a news reporter job.

Just make sure it is your work. If you are interning at a commercial TV station and a reporter lets you re-voice one of their own packages, don’t put that on your tape. Sure, it’s easy, but you’re not doing yourself any favors. You’ll find out very quickly when you start real news jobs that re-voicing a package, and actually shooting and editing one, are two different things. And when a news director sees that you don’t know how to make your own stories, you’re going to get bounced very fast. Instead, as an intern, take your reporter’s raw video, then write your own script and edit it together!

Step 3 – The emotions!

Troy-Community-Emotions-1To be extra valuable to a news director, you need to show that you are comfortable in any situation, whether it’s breaking news or the cat fashion show. So choose work samples that show you are a human being with actual emotions. Combine serious standups with ones where you let your guard down and show a sense of humor. Show you are just as comfortable laughing at a story as you are with grilling a politician with tough questions. So many reporters are robots; they just want to read the news as seriously as possible. Show them that you are a human, who can have fun and be serious when the different situations call for it.

Step 4 – Tinker and tailor

Know what job you are applying for and tailor your tape to it. If you are applying to be an investigative reporter, go back and edit a new version of your reel that emphasizes your investigative work. If you’re applying to be a morning show feature reporter, make a tape that includes more live interviews and funny features. You still want to show that you are diverse and more than a one-trick pony, but be willing to show your attention to detail.

Step 5 – The sound

microphone-in-sound-mixing-30You’d be surprise how often job-seekers neglect the sound of their tapes. After spending weeks crafting their reel, choosing the best standups, reordering the packages, checking and double-checking to make sure there are no jump cuts or black frames, many people never bother to put on headphones and listen.

Your audio is just as important as everything else. It should be clear and crisp with consistent volume.

If you have a dynamite standup, but the microphone was too blown out, get rid of it. It doesn’t matter how good it looks; if you put on bad audio, the ND will know you don’t take the time to make sure your work is high quality. Same thing if your microphone was too quiet on-air or had static issues. Just drop them and find better work samples.

Listen to the audio levels between different standups and packages in your reel. If one is higher or lower than the rest, fix the volume to make sure it’s even throughout. You don’t want an ND fiddling up and down with the volume when they should be focused on you.

Step 6 – The slate

Screen shot 2014-12-30 at 8.42.00 AMThe slate is the full screen graphic that includes your name and contact info (typically email and phone number, although web site addresses or Twitter handles are also becoming popular). Basically, make sure the ND knows how to contact you. In my opinion, the slate should come at the very end of the tape. Some people like to place it right at the beginning, but I don’t think it’s necessary – the ND already knows whose tape it is, and they’re not going to call you until they’ve seen something worthwhile. Besides, don’t waste any time at the beginning of the tape when we could be seeing your pretty face!

Everything is going to come down to the right fit at the right time. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how good your tape is, because the universe may have different plans.

You can never make a perfect tape – one news director may love it for the same reason another news director hates it. One news director may think you look polished and professional, but another may think you come across smug. One news director may like your youthful enthusiasm, another may want you to take up smoking to “age” yourself.

But in the end, if you have put in the work to make yourself a better journalist, and if you have reflected that work in your tape, someone will notice. As we’ve said before on this site, there’s no single way to get into the news business. Sometimes it’s instant, sometimes it takes months. But the right fit is out there. If you have a solid resume tape, you’ll find it.

And of course, we’re never done improving. Just like you are always looking for ways to improve as a reporter, you should also always be looking for ways to improve your tape. Save your good standups, live shots and packages, and edit them into your reel as soon as you can. You never know when that next job may come available, and you need to be ready. You should also seek out advice and feedback whenever you can. Talk to your professors, advisers, mentors, or co-workers and get their thoughts on your tape.

And you can always come to me! It doesn’t matter whether you are an OSU student, someone at another school, or someone trying to take their first professional leap as a reporter. Feel free to email me a link to your tapes, and I am always happy to give feedback.



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