The elements of a good news package

As a TV news reporter, your goal every day is to create a good package. A package is basically the best TV version of your story, which uses video, audio and writing to tell a story completely on its own. So you’d be surprised how often young reporters struggle with it.

I’ve seen reporters take one long 2-minute soundbite and call it a package. I’ve seen reporters point to an anchor reading a script and call it a package. What they’re not understanding is that a package needs to contain everything – sights, sounds, and words. A package is a self contained video element – it needs to stand on its own. If all a viewer had to go on was this single package, they should still be able to understand what is being told.

You need video clips, you need short sound bites, you need a reporter narrating the video, you need natural sound, and you need good writing.

Want a better demonstration? What’s a better way to learn about packages than with a package? Here’s a package I put together with the Orange Media Network at Oregon State University to show students what needs to be included to make a good package. This was done with just me and a camera, which is what you will be doing as a one-man-band:

To recap, a package needs:

  • B-roll – video clips illustrating the story, edited in sequences to give the viewer an accurate picture of what’s happening.
  • Reporter track – your voice as the reporter, narrating the b-roll. If you want to compare it to a newspaper article, it’s everything that’s not the quotes.
  • Soundbites – You will be interviewing several people for every package, but you’re not going to use their entire conversation. Chop the interview into short, meaningful soundbites.
  • Natural sound – the ambient noise in an area lets the story breathe, and nat pops (short bursts of natural sound) can jump out to the viewer and grab their attention
  • Stand ups – The reporter on camera, demonstrating or showing something. Don’t use it for face time, use it as a way to illustrate the story. Use props or set the camera at unique angles to show something.

Include these items, and you will be well on your way to crafting a good package!

Learn from the greats

“How the #$%& are you gonna know how to be great if you don’t study greatness? Look at the game tape!” ~ Tracy Morgan

The first question I ask student journalists is, what do you read?

Unfortunately, sometimes it’s met with a lot of blank stares.

No matter what field you want to achieve greatness in, you need to study. If you want to be a chef, you practice preparing dishes, and you read cookbooks by the greatest chefs. If you want to be an actor, you find time to get on stage while studying the work of the greatest actors. If you want to be a scientist, you read up on the works of the scientists that came before you and find new ways to expand on their work.

Working as a journalist shouldn’t be any different. One of the best ways to get better is to study.

read-all-about-itIn some of my first meetings with students, I sometimes hear things like “I don’t watch the news,” or “I don’t read the newspaper.” It’s a big moment of clarity when I tell them it should be mandatory.

Not only does studying work as an inspiration or as a way to compare your work to professional work, but it also shows how similar the process is. Professional media types are still doing the same thing student journalists are: finding sources, shooting video, writing stories. But professionals have two distinct advantages – better equipment, and the willingness to study and get better.

It doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

One of my biggest aha! moments as a reporter came from watching stories that aired on ABC World News. I saw a story on new requirements for PE classes in schools, and I thought to myself, “I could have made that.” The shooting, the writing, the interview techniques, the standups, I was already doing those same things at KDRV. So I watched the story again and again, picking up new ways to write sentences, new ways to frame shots, new ways to incorporate graphics. And I improved in my next story. The more I watched, the more ways I saw to sharpen my own skills.

Talent alone doesn’t get you there. See what others are doing, emulate it, then improve upon it.

It’s an idea shared by journalists, meteorologists, writers and hosts. I reached out to people working professionally in the media today, and they shared their inspirations.

KTVL reporter Whitney Clark studies the work of CBS reporters, including Steve Hartman and Charlie Rose.

“Steve Hartman! He’s a great writer and I enjoy his stories every week,” she wrote. “When it comes to anchoring/producing – CBS this morning is amazing. Always well-produced. Charlie Rose asks the best questions. Him. Norah and Gayle also do an excellent job of mixing hard news with some personality.”

Geoff Riley, host on Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Ore., said he was inspired by Tom Brokaw.

“…among other things, I learned that your name goes LAST in a news update, not first,” he wrote.

Meteorologist Megan Parry of 10News in San Diego studied the work of Los Angeles meteorologist Dallas Raines, and learned from him in person as an intern.

“I love him on air, he just had an air about him and I wanted to do that,” Parry tweeted.

For KGW executive producer Wiley Post, he can find examples of good work on shows like Sportscenter or NBC Nightly News. He also said he studies his own work, looking for ways to improve.

Ryan Pfeil, reporter for the Mail Tribune in Medford, Ore., finds himself on Poynter to learn more about journalism. He also said he reads Malcolm Gladwell, and “anyone who can do narrative really well.”

SWX sports reporter Greg Talbott closely listens to sportscasters Keith Olbermann and Jon Miller.

“Olbermann taught me that it’s best to write/anchor creatively. Miller taught me how to use my voice as an instrument in play by play,” he tweeted.

And some sources don’t even need to come from news. Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter Tony Schick said he was inspired by “Fletch,” the film starring Chevy Chase as a newspaper reporter.

And that’s really the key – your inspiration needs to come from somewhere. You need to identify top quality work and study it.

Sports Illustrated NBA writer Ben Golliver visited our students here at Oregon State in October, and one of the biggest pieces of advice he gave was to read, regardless of what you are reading. Read books, look at the lyrics of your favorite musician, click on articles, pick up a magazine, just read something. Because everything you read becomes internalized, and helps you recognize your own strengths and weaknesses to find your voice as a writer.

You can’t be a journalist if you don’t read the newspaper, or watch the nightly news, or visit news web sites. Find something or someone what inspires you to be better, and keep reading!

Time is not on your side

During my freshman year of college, my parents got me an out-of-state subscription to the Oregonian newspaper, as a way to make me feel less homesick while living in Spokane. Twice a week, issues of the Oregonian would arrive in my tiny mailbox, filled with stories from my hometown.

But the more I read them, the more I noticed a recurring problem: it was old news.

Because I was an out-of-state subscriber, the issues were printed at different times of day earlier that the normal deadlines for Portland. As a result, the information in the issues was outdated; anything that happened after a certain deadline didn’t make the paper. On top of that, the issues needed to be mailed to me, which meant longer travel time from the publisher to my mailbox. I would flip through the pages and find news stories and NBA box scores from two days earlier.

Oh, and there was a little thing called the Internet.

Like most people, I wasn’t waiting for the print edition to reach my mailbox in order to get the day’s news. I visited the Oregonian’s web page every morning, along with the web sites of the Spokesman-Review, the New York Times, and others. I had already read these stories in three different places. By the time I actually got those physical copies, it felt like I was reading ancient history on papyrus.

This was in 2005, a couple of years before Twitter and other social media tools changed the way people consumed news. Now, people want as much information as they can as fast as they can.

On the surface, it can be difficult to keep up. The more I became involved with media, the more I learned about the importance of immediacy. I worked on a weekly student newspaper while in college, and we learned quickly that coverage of an event from two days prior was unacceptable. All of our readers had the time and ability to gather that information much faster than waiting for us to publish once a week. When I started work as a TV news reporter, I found out stories needed to be done immediately. From the time I got into work, I just had a few hours to put an entire story together for air – interviews writing, editing, everything. If you wait until the next day, the competition gets it first, and you’re finished.

That’s not even including tweeting out information, sharing stories in Facebook, or posting raw video to YouTube. Readers and viewers have made their choice, and the choice is NOW NOW NOW.

What’s a print edition to do?

You have to play to your strengths.

The big advantage of print editions is time. You don’t have a 5 o clock deadline, so you can take time to craft a story or lay out a page. The key is providing the right kind of information.

People want breaking news immediately. They want to know what’s happening right now. Who won the election? How many points did the basketball team score? Where is the fire burning? Give that information to them quickly. Then, use your print edition to go in-depth.

Young college newspaper staffs struggle with finding the right stories, so they turn to what’s easy: events, meetings and games. Things that happen at a specific time and place. But in this day and age, waiting for two days to publish about a specific event is too late; people consume their news faster now. So feed them a steady diet of breaking news and developing stories online. Then, feed them a dessert of in-depth coverage.

Was there a big football game Saturday, but you publish on Monday? Get the game recap online after the game, then give me a feature story on a key football player on Monday. Marijuana get legalized in a recent election? Give me the results online, then publish an investigative feature for the next print edition.

It takes a lot of work. Reporters and editors will need to devote the time to writing stories ahead of time, or working hard to turn a story for the next day. Waiting any longer just doesn’t cut it in today’s media. It’s tough; students have classes and jobs and responsibilities. But that’s the reality of daily media: you’re always on. If you are not constantly looking for new ways to keep readers from jumping ship, you will fail.

And in case you’re wondering, I cancelled that subscription to the Oregonian when it became obvious that I had already read everything before the paper got to me.

Don’t give people a reason to cancel their subscription to your paper. Don’t give them a reason to leave it on the newsstand. Balance the immediacy of social media and the in-depth advantages of your print editions. Keep it timely.

Knock on the door: The courage of getting feedback

The most nerve-wracking experience for a reporter isn’t a big-time interview or driving into the heart of a storm. It’s not your first time going live or your contract negotiations.

It’s the 30 seconds before you knock on your boss’ door, holding a recent story in your hand.

The first time I had my news director look over my stories, I was a nervous wreck. I had only been reporting with the station for a few weeks, and had taken on various small-time stories: harvest fairs, free health clinics, the typical things you cover on a weekend in a small town. This was also my first period of time where I was expected to turn a package and VOSOT every day, which, as all reporters know, is a challenge.

So when I heard myself asking the question “can we go over my work sometime?” I immediately thought. What on earth did you do that for?

Would be criticize my stories? Tear them apart? Tell me I’m no good? Would he not like the content, the editing, my appearance? Hundreds of scenarios ran through my head, and all of them ended with me being labeled the Worst Reporter Ever. I considered walking through an open construction site without a hardhat.

But 30 seconds before I knocked on my boss’ door to show a DVD of my stories, I took a deep breath, let the fear wash over me, and walked in.

And you know what? It wasn’t perfect. This is not the part of the story where I tell you that everything turned out great, that I got a glowing review and was heralded as the second coming of Edward R. Murrow.

Instead, I was told my voice could be stronger, my stories could use more natural sound, and my writing needed to be tighter. My interviews should take place away from a person’s desk, and I needed to do a better job of lighting my subjects. At the same time, he said my shots were clean, I did a good job of writing to my video, and my standups demonstrated something that added to the story.

It’s all part of growing as a storyteller.

Young people involved in media are almost always afraid to get feedback, out of fear that they will be told they’re no good. It’s scary. You put your heart and soul into a piece of creative work, and someone could tear it apart in five seconds. You feel naked; all of your hard work laid bare for your boss to critique.

But it’s the only way you’ll get better.

Your boss, whether it’s a news director, editor, or publisher, has the same goal you do: to create the best content possible. Some bosses are nurturers, wanting to ease their employees into a career in media. Others have less tact and less time, and will tell you what they think regardless if it hurts your feelings. No matter what type of boss you have, take it all in. Recognize where you need to improve your storytelling and the areas in which you’ve succeeded. Take all that feedback – positive and negative – and channel it back into your work.

In college it’s easier, because you have advisers, professors, and staff members whose sole job is to grade your work. When you become a professional, you don’t have that luxury. No one is going to seek you out at your desk and tell you to bring in three packages for review. You need to have the courage to seek it out yourself. If you don’t, you’ll fail, which means something a little more serious in real life than in school.

I’ve seen reporters and producers insulate themselves from their news directors because they were afraid of criticism. They did their work day after day, working on shows and creating stories, but they never got any better, because no one else ever put eyes on it. If you want to succeed in this business, you have to get over that fear. Once you do, the quality of your work can only improve. But if you’re not actively striving to get better, you never will. It’s never going to be fun, and it’s never going to be easy, but it is always necessary.

Take the first step and knock on your boss’ door. You’ll be amazed at the difference a little feedback makes.