“News Junkies” and the Tragedies They Exploit

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The Oak Knoll Fire. August 2010.

I remember it was about 4 p.m. I was just wrapping up a package for the 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts about Ashland teachers using iPods in their lessons. It wasn’t a particularly memorable story, but I remember it came together pretty easily that day. I had finished all of my shooting by noon, and was about to finish my editing. Best of all, it was a look-live package; a story with a pre-recorded standup and tag. It meant that I didn’t physically need to be in the newscast, and could go home as soon as I was done editing. I was looking forward to a beautiful afternoon home in the summer sun.

Then, almost as soon as the clock hit 4, the police scanner went berserk.

SQUAWK! UNITS 80101, 80102, 80103, 80104, 80105, STRUCTURE FIRE ON OAK KNOLL DRIVE.




Moments later, our 5 p.m producer approached my desk.

“Steven, we need to send you out there,” she said calmly. “Ric is already on his way with the live van and will set up a shot next to I-5. We’ll have you live at the top of the show.”

I grabbed some gear, got into my news car, and as I turned the key in the ignition, I thought:

“Why me?”

You see, at that time, I thought about my stories in terms of what they meant for me. Was it a package I could put on my reel? Could I shoot a cool standup? At the time of this incident in August 2010, I had been to my fair share of house fires, which were always defined by what I brought back. “I got awesome video of flames! You could see the wall collapse!” or “Man, I didn’t get any flames. The house was burned down by the time I got out there.”

“What could I get out of it” was the prevailing thought.

And in this case, all I could think about was that my early afternoon at home was ruined. But hey, maybe at least I’ll get a cool lead story out of it, and be the first-on-the-scene reporter! I got to the scene and did my live shot, and was disappointed to find that our vantage point didn’t give us anything interesting to see – only some flames far in the distance.

So much for my reel.

Slowly but surely, they allowed reporters to get closer and closer to the scene, and I was soon joined by other reporters and photogs from my station, who came to give the event team-coverage. “Great,” I thought again. “Now they’re going to get the good story instead of me. What’s the point of me being here?”

Soon we all got the call from our producers back at the station. We would have to stay late. I would grab a story. Report for the 11 p.m. news. As my fellow reporters and I gathered around a fire truck, with emergency crews and neighbors standing nearby, I turned to my co-worker Tove Tupper and loudly complained. “Man, now I have to stay late! Is this really that big of a deal?”

Tove, who had worked at the station for a couple years and who had been the reporter who trained me, quickly grabbed me and pulled me aside.

“Steven,” she said pointedly, her eyes a mixture of anger and disappointment. “Eleven families just lost their homes.”

Her words and her tone said everything. Her single sentence changed the way I thought as a reporter.

In what became known as the Oak Knoll Fire, the flames had jumped I-5, caught a house on fire, then went barreling down the block, burning house-to-house, like a string of firecrackers. The neighborhood looked like a bomb had gone off. Everything was destroyed. And most importantly of all, people’s lives were in shambles.

This wasn’t about whether my punk ass got good video or got to go home early. This was a tragedy that happened to real people. I had to work late. Their lives were ruined.

Good reporters like Tove knew that they had a higher responsibility than bringing back good flame video. They needed to inform the public, share what happened, what was still to happen, and how people could help.

To this day, I’m still ashamed of myself for thinking so selfishly during such a devastating time.

Breaking news is some of the hardest assignments for a reporter of photog to do. Often someone is hurt, or killed, or a person’s home or place of business is destroyed. So news teams go in, do the story to the best of their ability, and move on to the next assignment. We don’t revel in it, and we don’t go looking for it, because it always, always comes at someone else’s expense.

And that’s why it troubles me when I hear young reporters refer to themselves as “news junkies.” You’ll see it written in their boisterous biographies on station web sites: I live for that next fire, the next severe weather system. The next big breaking news. They’ll list the big moments of their career, like covering stories of kidnapped children, deadly shootings, or natural disasters. Deadly storms or other tragedies that killed people are treated like fun anecdotes about how they became “inspired” to become a reporter.

(It only took me five minutes of research to find reporter biographies that read like this.)

Inflated egos and self-promotion are already too rampant in local news, even without people reveling in the tragedies that gave them such good video.

These tragedies are likely the worst moments in someone’s life. But to some reporters, it’s just another line on the resume.

I started thinking about this subject this morning, when I saw a video a reporter made about herself to help viewers “get to know her.” She begins by telling the story of the deadly tornado in Joplin, Mo., in 2011, that killed 89 people. But instead of sharing the stories of first responders, or the efforts of the community, or the impacts on families, she told the story of herself; how she saw the sky get dark and heard the news of the devastation come in.

And she told it with a smile on her face.

She showed video with the caption “89 dead.” And she said it was “the moment she had waited for my entire life,” since she was mimicking reporters as a little girl.

But it didn’t end. She then recounted her experience covering the 2013 tornado in Moore, Okla., that killed 24 people. With another grin on her face, she said it was “an addiction, bottled as breaking news, an addiction to creative storytelling.”

113 people died so she could have a good story on her reel.

This isn’t professional detachment. Quite the opposite – news junkies like this embrace the tragedy.

And that’s how some of these so-called “news junkies” view the world. Not as a place with real people, but as stories. As a package to fill 90 seconds. As opportunities for standups. There’s no empathy or human connection. Never any thought of how their actions will affect people. That’s why when a grieving mother hangs up on a reporter, it’s the reporter who says “what a bitch.”

If only we could treat people like people, instead of like a face in a soundbite. If only we could view an event for what it means, instead of whether our white-balance was off.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be proud of the work you’ve done, but you shouldn’t be happy about being so close to a tragic event. If the story is done right, it will tell itself, without making the story about you. Then, you can slap it on your resume, or talk to people about the efforts you observed others make on that day. But don’t take the story of other people’s suffering and make it about how awesome your flame video is.

When I think back on the Oak Knoll Fire now, I think of people like forestry officer Brian Ballou and fire chief John Karns, whose crews helped to fight the flames. I think of the volunteers who set up at a nearby golf course with water and food. I think of the homeless, mentally-handicapped man thrown into the spotlight as the one who lit the flames. And I try to forget how inconvenienced it made me feel for a few minutes.

That’s our responsibility as storytellers. We’re observers and information gatherers. We share facts and give information to help people move forward. We show the tragedy, but we shouldn’t use it for our own ends.

Competition and Kindness

Between live hits on the steps of the Jackson County Courthouse. From left: Whitney, Katie and Paul from KTVL, myself and Julian from KDRV, and Will from KOBI.

I get excited over the Portland Trail Blazers, and sometimes I like to share it. A lot. Online.

It was April 2010, and the Blazers were in the playoffs. As I watched the game on TV, I live-tweeted the contest, sharing my highs, my lows, my elation and my frustration as the game went back and forth. Nothing salty, nothing mean-spirited, and nothing directed at anyone in particular. I was still in my first six months at my first TV job, so I was still getting used to the area and to the people. Live-tweeting was my way of adjusting to living in a new place and maintaining some normalcy.

It was some time in the fourth quarter, right in the heat of my frenzied tweeting, when it popped up in my feed.

“non stop twittering during a basketball game? Two suggestions: find a friend, or get a play by play radio job. Seriously?”

It was sent by an anchor at a competing station in Medford. I had never met this man before. Never spoke to him, never even tweeted at him. And it cut me like a knife.

Was this the attitude I was to expect from members of the “competition?” Was this the way we were expected to treat each other?

Welcome to Medford, kid. Now shut the fuck up.

When you begin your first media job, one of your first goals is to get to know the people at your station. After all, you’re living in a new city, hundreds if not thousands of miles away from home, so your new co-workers are often your first link to making new friends.

Not quite as obvious, though, are the relationships you will forge with people at the other stations in town.

You’ll be interacting with them on a daily basis, too. You’ll be out covering the same stories and conducting interviews with the same people. You’ll be waiting around at the same press conferences, looking for someone to talk to in order to pass the time. You’ll be lined up almost side-by-side for live shots from the same area. The people at your competing stations will be almost as close to you every day as your co-workers.

Many of you will be the same age. You’ll be working your first jobs, making the same low pay, drinking the same cheap beer, and pining for the same goal of a new job in a bigger city.

And you’re also competitors.

I’ve worked various jobs in my life, and in the free market economy, you want your business to do well. But I never thought that I wanted my competitors to fail. But news can be like that. News directors, managers, and corporate types want their station to get all the eyes, all the viewers, all the money. And they want the other stations to fall flat on their face. That cutthroat attitude is easily passed on to overzealous producers, who don’t just view the other stations as competitions, but as enemies.

I once saw a producer log on to Twitter, and saw she was being followed by an anchor at another station in town. Suddenly, my producer seemed to get agitated at the idea. “Why is she following me? I don’t want her knowing anything or getting any information.”

She then blocked her. Gleefully, I might add. For no other reason than she was from a competing station.

That’s the attitude some people have about their competitors. And I wholeheartedly disagree.

You can talk to each other. You can tweet to each other. You can say hello on a story. It’s OK. Your ratings are not going to plummet as a result. TV news people and their colleagues at other stations have so much in common. Embrace it. Make new contacts and new friends.

The tweet I received from the competing anchor (who will remain nameless, for the sake of his bloated ego), was one of my first interactions with someone from another station. And it could have changed the way I approached my job and the people I met. Your first interactions with people as a 23-year-old reporter can have a big impact on your life.

But I learned very early on that you have nothing to gain from being an asshole to people.

News directors hate the idea that people from different stations can act nicely to each other. In their mind, saying hi is a slippery slope to revealing vital station secrets (and with sweeps coming up!). But that’s not the reality. We talk, we see how much we have in common, and yes, we even hang out or move in together. Believe it or not, we can separate our personal lives from our work lives.

Some of my best memories came from hanging out with co-workers and competitors. The guitarist in our band was the director at another station. Members of all three stations went out for drinks, and watched the Super Bowl together. We even got members of the TV stations and local newspaper together for a kickball tournament.

And when we all covered the same fire, we would sometimes come back with suspiciously good-looking standups. “Uh, there was a firefighter out there who was good with a camera…”

Why? Because we were all in the same boat.

Of course, we knew where the line was. We are professionals, after all. We never shared story leads or station details. And if a reporter was trying to poach an interview that I was shooting, or stand in the background of my shot, sometimes I needed to chew them out. I learned you had to be firm when someone else’s actions could affect your job.

While on an assignment covering a small plane crash outside Medford (no one was hurt), we were setting up for a live shot near the wreckage. A competing station had set up a short distance from us, when I noticed the reporter was standing inside the perimeter of the police caution tape – a major problem, because plane crashes were federal investigations. I didn’t need federal agents looking into why Medford reporters were interfering with their crash scene, so I called out: “Hey, watch the line, it’s a crash scene.”

The reporter didn’t look my way. “Thank you. Don’t worry about it,” he said, waving his hand dismissively.

Despite my protests, he stayed. After the live shot, I approached him and explained about the legal risks of what he did. I told him his actions could get all of us in trouble.

“Ok, well, thank you for your concern,” he said passive-aggressively, not able to look me in the eye. “But why don’t you let us worry about our own live shot. OK?”

I explained again how his actions affect everyone else, and he walked away. I had never had an issue with him before, but he was being disrespectful and breaking the law. You have to call out people like that.

But those rare interactions cannot affect your overall demeanor with your competition. You may not be best friends, but you need to know how to get along in the field. Know how to do your job without being at each other’s throats.

I always tried to say hello when I met new reporters in the field. I made it a point to welcome them to Medford, and ask where they were from. And I tried to hide my grimace when they asked me how long I’d been in the market (pro tip: if someone tells you they’ve been at the station for four years, don’t remark “Wow!” You are not below your job. Even if you don’t plan on being in the city for long, don’t look down on someone’s home.)

Maybe I would never become their best friend, but I knew a warm greeting went over better than a mean tweet, or a passive-aggressive argument. I knew that meeting someone with a smile will mean so much more to a person in their first job.

I knew all of this, thanks to Carolyn Carver.

In my second month on the job, I was sent out to a car wreck a short distance from the station. I didn’t know many people yet, and I didn’t know whether I was any good yet as a reporter. Basically, every day was terrifying.

While I was at the scene, with police lights flashing, and two wrecked cars taking up most of the highway, I sensed someone walking up to me from my right. I turned and saw Carolyn, who was the top reporter at KTVL. I had seen her work and knew she was as good as it got in our market. I immediately got nervous that she was going to tell me to get out of her shot, or try to step past me to get an interview.

Instead, she smiled.

“Hi!” She said, extending her hand. “I’m Carolyn! You must be Steven.”

I shook her hand. She continued:

“You’re doing a great job so far! Welcome to Medford! If you ever need anything, let me know. See you around!”

And that was it. The whole conversation barely took 30 seconds before we were both back to work.

But those few moments completely lifted my spirits. It showed me how far a smile and a friendly greeting can go for a young reporter new to an area. Carolyn’s warm welcome stuck with me to this day, and I made it a point of saying those same things to each new reporter I met. Hopefully their day was a little less scary as a result. Hopefully they passed those same things on to new reporters they met, and made the world of TV news a better place.

Thank you, Carolyn Carver, for showing me that, even from a competitor, a little kindness goes a long way.

Ask, and you shall … receive?

Screen shot 2015-01-29 at 5.06.38 PMIn my first week on the job, I had to type up my bio for the station web site. You’ve likely seen them before – the reporter’s smiling headshot greets readers to an over-exaggerated list of “accomplishments.”

John Smith is a PROUD graduate of the Wassamatta University School of Broadcast Journalism, where he won awards for his coverage of presidential campaigns and international hot dog eating competitions.

Really, it’s all BS, and most likely these reporters were simply former interns trying to seem like they actually did work before their current job. No one ever actually reads them. So when I built mine, I went through the motions – listing my alma mater, trying to find some accomplishments and awards – and at the very end, I included my email address.

“Steven welcomes any story ideas you may have.”

I figured I was in for plenty of interaction with viewers. I pictured myself balancing a phone on one ear while replying to an email and texting back a source. After all, people are always watching, and always looking for publicity, or help, or answers from their local news.

Not so much.

It was never the steady stream of phone calls and emails I was expecting. It was barely a trickle. People weren’t sending stories in. I would even tweet out a message – “what’s happening in Medford today?” – and be met with nothing but silence. The first few weeks on the job I would sit down at my desk, open my email, and stare at the vast wasteland of press releases and spam, but no tips from viewers. It left me scrambling to find a couple story ideas in the half hour before my morning meeting. “Uh … it’s a couple weeks ’til Christmas … maybe a story on toy sales?”

I quickly learned that most people were not going to hand you stories on a silver platter. It would take hard work and research on my own and with my co-workers to mine sources and find stories.

That’s not to say it was completely empty. Some of my favorite stories came as the result of a viewer’s Facebook comment, or an email, or a phone call. During the Arab Spring in 2011, I found out a local man was in Egypt watching the revolution and capturing it on video, all thanks to a phone call from the man’s family that morning. Thanks to the call, it led to two of my most memorable stories, and several other follow-ups in the years after.

Still, moments like that were the exception, not the rule. Ask reporters in local TV and they’ll say the majority of their best stories came from hard work, asking questions, mining sources, and bouncing ideas off co-workers.

Which makes an experiment conducted by a Portland TV station very interesting.

On Thursday, KATU rolled out a campaign called “Connected 2 You.” During its 3-hour news block from 4 to 7 p.m. they asked viewers to call in with their news tips. “Our anchors are standing by!” they said. Anchors and reporters sat at a desk, answering your grandmother’s old touch-tone phones, with large easels of paper behind them. An animated graphic crawled across the bottom of the screen, instructing viewers to call and email with story ideas.

It looked like a PBS telethon; anchors would get up from the desk and walk in front of the phone bank, asking for support while 30-year-old telephones rang in the background.

“So-and-so reporter said one of their proudest stories came from viewers like you!” the anchor would say. “Now we want to tell YOUR stories. Call in, our anchors and reporters are waiting for you call!”

It was an exercise I had never seen done before. It even extended online; the station’s web site was plastered with banners asking for phone calls, and every reporter tweeted about a story they reported thanks to a viewer tip.

Screen shot 2015-01-29 at 5.06.30 PMRight now I’m not sure I feel about the entire thing.

Part of me applauds KATU for trying something different and encouraging viewers to directly engage with the newscast. Reader tips always help, so promoting how to get involved could improve the news operation afterward. Plus, newscasts are filled with so much fluff, this type of segment actually provides something potentially useful.

On the other hand, there’s something about it that irks me as an old-school and new-school journalist.

I feel like viewers already know how to get a hold of a TV station. The tip line is posted online and is often shown during newscasts. And it seems like no matter how technologically-impaired people may seem, they always seemed to find ways to call the station about the strangest things. I can still remember a prodigious amount of callers, including: the woman who wanted to speak to Diane Sawyer, the man who thought we were pronouncing a tribe’s name wrong, the people who wanted to know where the old meteorologist went, the many old people who complained about Jeopardy being pre-empted, the people who faxed complaints about weather cut-in’s during “Lost,” the woman who said our anchor couldn’t speak, the man who didn’t like our anchor’s wardrobe, the man who didn’t like our reporter’s wardrobe, the mountain-dwellers who didn’t understand how to operate their cable, and last but not least, the woman who wanted to know how to spell the word “through.”

Clearly people know how to find the phone number.

It also struck me as odd that KATU would go to such great lengths to say “give us some news.” Isn’t that the journalist’s job? In the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, the very first item is “Seek truth and report it.”

Seek. Get out of the office, go talk to people and gather the news. The average MMJ in a small TV market is on the road 90 percent of the day, gathering stories while they work, not waiting by the phone. I’m sure many of them would love to take that worth ethic to Portland, and I’m sure the KATU anchors manning those phones had some work to do, stories to research, and interviews to conduct.

So the entire campaign leaves me feeling unsure about its results. If it resulted in a plethora of viewer tips and story ideas, good for them! But how long is that plan sustainable?

Today, news stations have a better ability than ever to connect with viewers on the air and online, and we are seeing news outlets take advantage of them more and more. Twitter lets reporters interact directly with viewers. YouTube, Instagram, and even Snapchat gives stations more avenues to receive viewer-created content and share their own work (Instagram photos graced a cover of the New York Times this week, and a new service from Snapchat gives users access to news). The strongest news outlets are branching out into new territories, and understanding that viewers and journalists interact with news differently than they did five years ago.

So with so many amazing new ways to deliver and share content, what kind of message does it send when a station’s strategy involves touch-tone phones and paper maps?

How I Got the Job: Erin Maxson

Everyone takes a different path to their first media job. Some people land their first choice right out of college. Others need to apply to dozens of places before landing an interview. There’s not a perfect way to get the job you want, but it can help to learn from the experience of others. In our feature “How I Got the Job,” we talk to some of the best people working professionally in media about what they did to get a foot in the door, and what it took to finally sign the contract. This week: Erin Maxson, news anchor, reporter and producer at KDRV in Medford, Ore.

Erin-Maxson-500x500-250x250When did you start looking for your first TV job?

Right after my internship. I interned in entertainment news in LA and realized I loved news but … real news … so I started applying to small markets, mostly in the Midwest where I am from.

Do you remember what you included on your first tape?

My internship mentor helped me shoot a bunch of generic newsy stand ups … gas prices, World Cup influence, heat wave, food drive. I also included two packages – one on tourism in LA and another about a new aquatic center in my college town. Technically I shot that after I had officially graduated but I sweet-talked my professors into letting me use the schools gear.

How many rejections did you get?

A lot if you count the number of stations who didn’t reply. I did three interviews and was rejected for the first two – to be fair I totally bombed them – and accepted my first TV job following my third interview. In the meantime I worked at a small town newspaper as their sports editor (!) But I knew I wanted to stay in the “biz” as much as possible … and I learned a lot about writing and the difference between print and broadcast that I did not learn in the classroom.

Did you have to change anything about your approach to the job search?

After the first round of tapes went out and I didn’t hear anything I figured I was aiming too high … so I sent a second round to even smaller markets. Most were hiring, some were not.

What happened in your first interview?

I was sooooo scared! The news director was really intimidating and it was actually my first time in a real news station (yeah, really – to be fair though, I thought I wanted to do entertainment news). I was completely unprepared for his questions about how I would respond to different situations with interviewees, topics, ethical issues, etc.  After that terrible experience I started studying – thinking about hypotheticals and asking fellow grads and current students what they thought.

What was your experience like during your in-person interview?

It’s nerve racking. The interview for the two jobs I accepted were so casual, very laid back. More “get to know you” rather than “are you good enough to hire.” The two interviews in which I failed were very standoffish, almost like they knew from the moment I walked in like I was not the “one.”

When did you get an offer? How did it happen?

My first offer came two hours after my interview ended. My second offer came one night while I was out with friends for my birthday. I almost deleted the message (don’t tell Rick Howard) but I called him back and we started to negotiate the details.

Looking back, what would you have changed about the process?

I was totally unprepared during the application process the first time. I wish I would have done more internships because I must have sounded totally clueless in those first interviews. I would have worked to get harder stories on my reel and personalize my cover letter to the stations and the community I was applying to. Back when I first applied, web stories were almost non-existent, social media was non-existent in news, and people still submitted VHS tapes (It was so expensive!) If I ever apply again I will make sure my Facebook and Twitter accounts reflect the atmosphere, environment, and priorities of the kind of station I want to be a part of. I think that’s most important to me now that I’ve worked out the early green years; being at a station with coworkers and a management team that I don’t work for, but truly work with. Of course, that doesn’t happen 100% of the time but it’s a good goal to have.

Also, if you hate the first job, or you are having a tough time getting an interview or offer, don’t give up! Each station, city, boss, owner is different. I almost left the business after my first job and I can honestly say I am SO glad I didn’t!

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!

Holidays With Your News Family

I could see my co-worker struggling. She had been on the phone for several minutes, not knowing where the conversation was dragging her. She looked at her notes, she tried to interject, she repeated herself, but nothing was working. Time was running out. We needed to land this now.

Finally, I asked her to hand me the phone.

“Yes, hello?” I said. “We want the BBQ pork combo plate please!”

If we were going to celebrate Christmas in the newsroom, we were going to do it right.

There are a few guarantees when you start your very first news job. One – you will work in a small town somewhere. Two – you will work shifts with bad hours. And three – you will work on the holidays. Once you put in a few years on the job and accrue a little vacation time, you can get the better shifts and get time off for the holidays. Until then, you’re the low man on the totem pole. Expect to work.

It’s a big eye-opener when it happens. Our entire lives leading up to our first jobs taught us that holidays are off-days. We get holiday breaks in school and college. We see stores and businesses shut down on Thanksgiving and Christmas. But the news doesn’t stop, and before you know it, you’re assigned to fill the roles of three different people on a short-staffed holiday.

It takes some getting used to.

Sometimes, it’s annoying for a person in their 20s. Instead of kicking back with a beer and watching the fireworks on Independence Day, I was rushing to find a parking spot along Fir Street so I can jump out, shoot video of the fireworks show, and rush back to the station to edit it for the 11 p.m. show.

But sometimes it’s something different and unexpected. Instead of attending the usual Halloween parties, I took my camera and followed a family through a haunted house, capturing every scream, shriek and shout as monsters leapt out of the darkness at them. I cut a fun package that I will remember for longer than another party with drinking games and Monster Mash on the iPod.

And sometimes, it takes reshuffling. Instead of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in the afternoon, I’d arrive home to have my meals with my wife and visiting in-laws after 7 p.m., always with my work phone in my pocket in case of breaking news involving a turkey fryer fire.

Christmas is always the toughest. Christmas is supposed to be a time for waking up early, opening presents, eating cinnamon rolls, and naps by 11 a.m. Instead, I was driving 30 miles to Grants Pass in a dinky Subaru.

It was my first Christmas at work.

The hardest part was that the work made it feel like any other day. There was nothing going on that suggested to me that it was indeed Christmas. It was simply another assignment, another drive, another editing session and another newscast. For some people, that helps soften the blow of having to work on the holidays. But for me that day, it only emphasized that I wasn’t home enjoying my Christmas morning

I went to Grants Pass that morning and stopped in at the St. Vincent de Paul kitchen, which was serving a holiday meal for the less fortunate. The people there were wonderful. At that point I had always known much of Josephine County to be populated by hard, cold people, but their displays of generosity on Christmas changed my perception. For the couple hours I was at the kitchen, I allowed myself to be lost in the story, interviewing organizers, talking to people who came in for a warm meal, getting shots of people smiling as they accepted trays of food and talked with one another. But the moment I was done and I sat down in my news car, it hit me again. I was practically an outsider, watching other people take part in the holiday spirit. Sharing those stories with the community is immensely important, but in that moment, my 24-year-old self was missing the feeling of being part of that community.

A few minutes later, my phone rang. It was my producer, Erin, asking how the shoot went. Fine, I told her. She asked if I could swing by a location in Medford to grab another quick story, seeing as I was the only reporter working that day. Sure, I said, exasperated. She could hear it in my voice, and knew something wasn’t right.

“You doing OK?” she asked me.

I blurted it out. “I just want to go home and see my wife.”

I shouldn’t have said it. I should have been a good soldier, sucked it up, and kept doing the job I was being paid to do. It was selfish of me. After all, she was back at the station, away from her loved ones. There were production staff preparing for the shows who were also missing Christmas. I had no right to act as if I were being personally wronged.

But she was a pro. And she knew how to make the most out of the situation. Rather than stoop to my level, she did something about it.

I got back to the station later, and edited my stories together. After a while, I saw my producer begin carrying two-liter bottles of soda into the conference room.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“What channel plays the marathon of A Christmas Story?” she replied.

“Uh, TBS, I think. Why?” I asked.

“Finish up what you’re doing,” she said. She called out to the sports office, where our sports director was cutting highlights. “Same for you. When the show’s done, we’re having Christmas in the newsroom.”

And that’s what we did. We finished our newscast. Erin got on the phone and called a local Chinese restaurant. I took the phone from her when it became clear the scribbled orders she had taken from the newsroom were too hard to read. My wife was even invited in. And our little group sat in the conference room, eating Chinese food, watching A Christmas Story, laughing, and celebrating Christmas together.

Christmas night in the newsroom, watching A Christmas Story and eating Chinese food.

When you get your first TV job, in a tiny market, working strange hours, and rearranging holidays, one of the dumbest things you can ever think is that you are alone. Everyone at your station is likely going through the same thing. They’re also working the odd hours. They’re also in a new city. And they’re also separated from their families.

So, your news team becomes your family.

I will never forget that Christmas in the newsroom, the way it brought all of us closer together and allowed us to celebrate. Ask people at stations around the country, and it’s likely the same story. Maybe it’s a Super Bowl party for the weekend crew. Maybe it’s a potluck Thanksgiving in the newsroom. Maybe it’s sitting on the roof of the station to see fireworks on 4th of July. No matter what it is, it’s much more special to do it together with your brothers and sisters on the news team.

The holidays are about family. And that Christmas, I celebrated with a new one.

Christmas with my news family!

Choosing Your Life Over Your Job

It was a night shift like most night shifts in TV news.

Get in at 2:30 p.m., be asked to turn a quick story for 5 p.m., find time to make calls and set up interviews before sources went home at the end of the work day. Dinner in the news car, frantic editing, followed by the inevitable breaking news at 9 p.m. After rushing to cover a grass fire 25 miles away, there was more frantic editing, followed by another 50 mile round trip to and from the live shot. Back to the studio. Make sure you post your story to the web! Transcribe, write, edit, post. Oh, and could you re-edit your package for the morning show? More editing, more rewriting, more posting. Got an ear on the police scanner, praying that the squawk box would stay quiet.

By the time it was all over, it was 1 a.m. Or, as we are commonly pressured to list on our timesheets, 11:30 p.m. Wink Wink. All in a night’s (or day’s?) work, right?

At the end of the night, like most nights on the late shift, all I wanted to do was go home and kiss my wife.

I finally escaped the building, walking alone into the darkness of our poorly lit parking lot. I pulled out as the morning show producers were pulling in, just starting their day. Sometimes I’d wave. Most times I just didn’t have the energy. Took the same drive home I did every night, past the empty Food-4-Less parking lot, past the rows of homeless shopping carts near the freeway entrance, past the brightly lit airport where all the planes were already tucked into their hangars. Of course, I seemed to hit every red light on the drive home, making my night even longer and putting further time between me and my wife.

Mercifully, I finally rounded the corner in my neighborhood. Home sweet home.

As I pulled up, I could see the lights inside were off.

I sighed.

I knew the dance steps from there. Had lots of practice at it. Got out of the car. Quietly fumbled for my keys and unlocked the door. Slipped off my shoes. Walked in through the darkness into my bedroom.

There, asleep and breathing softly, was my wife. Just as she should be at 1:15 a.m. The dance continued. I quietly undressed in the dark, crawled into bed, tugged some spare covers from my wife, and eventually fell asleep. I didn’t say anything to her, because she didn’t need me disturbing her sleep – she would be getting up for work in a couple hours, when she would perform her part of the dance. She’d get up quietly, prepare for work in another room, and give me a quick peck before she left.

It was the extent of our interactions during my weeks on the night shift.

We were experts at the choreography – two partners, both dancing on their own. We performed five nights a week.

And I hated it.

Love the work, hate the job. It’s a phrase I’ve heard echoed by TV news people. We love being able to tell stories, travel to new places and meet new people. But we hate the sacrifices we have to make to do it.

The hours are one of the major factors. News never sleeps, so it means there needs to be a constant, vigilant watch from journalists at all hours of the day and night. It might mean you work on the morning show, adjusting your schedule so you wake up at 2 a.m. to begin your day. It might mean you work a “day” shift until 7 p.m., unable to be there when your kids come home from school. It might mean you work the night shift, finally ending your day when everyone you know is already fast asleep. No job in any field ever gives you the perfect set of hours, but TV news schedules things at just the right times to keep you in a permanent long-distance relationship with your own life.

After several years of it, I couldn’t handle it any longer. Frankly, the hours were one of the reasons I decided to get out. Over my time working the night shift, I found out that I personally didn’t like the thought of never being able to see my wife in the daylight during a whole week. I didn’t like only being able to hear her voice over the phone. I didn’t like both of us having to eat dinner alone, yearning for each other’s company. I needed my wife, and the night shift hours stole me away from her.

I never figured out a way to handle it that worked for me. Some people have no problem with the hours, and others find ways to handle the stress on their bodies, their mental health, and their relationships. If that’s the case, then go for it, by all means. Whatever works for you to help balance the demands of the job with the demands of your life is very important, and something you need to hang on to in this business. (I also encourage you to share your stories in the comments section).

But as I’ve seen journalists grow older, meet people they love, and start families, I’ve seen how important those precious hours become.

Recently, Dallas news anchor Karen Borta announced she was moving from the evening shows to the morning shows. In an emotional speech to her co-workers, Borta said the move was a chance to make sure she never missed another moment with her family.

“My kids are getting older, and I’m missing so many things,” she said.

I’ve never heard the struggle of balancing life and a TV news job summed up so perfectly. Life is short. And we need to find ways to cherish the moments with the people we love. More importantly, we need to find ways to be present for them. The news business is a demanding job, and you need to balance your priorities to handle the pull of the job with the pull of your family. It can be done. It’s hard, and emotionally taxing, but it can be done. But if you ever come to an epiphany regarding your job and your life, you need to take steps to correct it. Borta saw that, and made the switch from evenings to mornings.

““I’m going to love, love, love, being able to go home at 11:30 and to be that mom who can pick up kids, and go to games, and have dinner with my family,” she said. “I’m going to suck up every minute that I can with my family while I have those years left.”

Borta speaks for any TV news employee who has ever missed a soccer game, or missed nightly dinners, or canceled holiday plans, or missed playtime with their kids.

Or spent weeks never seeing their wife’s smile in the sunshine.

How I Got the Job: Rob Scott

Everyone takes a different path to their first media job. Some people land their first choice right out of college. Others need to apply to dozens of places before landing an interview. There’s not a perfect way to get the job you want, but it can help to learn from the experience of others. In our feature “How I Got the Job,” we talk to some of the best people working professionally in media about what they did to get a foot in the door, and what it took to finally sign the contract. This week: Rob Scott, news reporter at KXAN in Austin, Texas.

rob-scottWhen did you start looking for your first TV job?

Short answer: I began applying March 5th of 2012, exactly two months before I graduated from college.

Long answer: In a lot of ways, I began looking for that first job a year and a half in advance. It seems obvious to me now, but I had no idea how employment with local news worked. I knew you don’t just start in Phoenix (where I was living/studying/interning at the time) but then again, I didn’t know how [the hiring process] worked.

At my internships I would study the reporters’ careers as much as their actual work. THIS paid off. I learned which “small market” produced talent that ended up advancing their careers. I quickly realized places like Medford, Yakima and El Paso were better for hungry journalists than other small markets.

The first words out of the mouth of the first reporter I ever shadowed (and a man who become my favorite reporter to shadow) were “First thing’s first: ALWAYS make sure you get paid hourly — not salary,” as he choked down a cigarette. Wise words. Once I became a professional, I quickly realized why he was right!

I continued to learn more about good places to start and by the time I applied, I had a list of eight places I wanted above all others. Truth be told, I would have taken ANY market that gave me a call first. I checked websites for the stations in those markets everyday – multiple times a day – until I found openings. Then I sent my application immediately.

Do you remember what you included on your first tape?

I followed a strict formula I had developed after time spent talking to reporters at internships, professors, and peers. 45 to 50 seconds of live shots and standups followed by my three best packages. A five-second slate started things off with my e-mail and phone number.

I spent HOURS perfecting it, getting feedback by only a select few before leaving it be. Looking back, that reel is TERRIBLE — in every way. (Editor’s note: our first reels always look terrible when we look back on them!)

How many rejections did you get?

Honestly… zero. You either hear back or you don’t.

On March 5th I sent out four applications – Santa Barbara, Lansing, Anchorage and Medford. The next morning I had a phone interview request from a Medford station. A week later, the ink was dry.

I don’t think this part of my career is anywhere near normal, knowing what I know now.

My second job was a much different experience. More realistic too.

Three official rejection e-mails, literally 50+ unanswered applications to about 15 total markets. Took 7 months, countless hours of working my contacts and refining my work, weekly pep talks from either parents or mentors, and three legitimate times I questioned getting out of the biz.

I got my hopes up with one market after a few phone interviews. Never heard from them again.

A total of three stations even showed interest. But it only takes 1, and I was on cloud 9 when the phone rang.

Did you have to change anything about your approach to the job search?

Perhaps I’m stubborn, but no, I stayed the course. Keeping an open mind but trusting your instincts is key.

What happened in your first interview?

A very nervous college senior did all he could to impress a Medford news director with his… shall we say… generously represented news “experience.”

Did you ever turn down a job offer? Why?

Well actually, in a way. I had already signed the Medford contract when my #1 choice, in Anchorage called looking for a phone interview. I had to decline.

When did you get an offer? How did it happen?

I got a phone call on the way to Vegas… what a day!

They wanted an answer right then and there. I asked for an extension. They gave me until the end of the day. I called at the end of the day (a Friday) and asked to think it over and have an answer that following Monday. Went back and forth on it all weekend. Woke up Monday morning not going to take it. Picked up the phone, dialed the number … took the job.

Looking back, what would you have changed about the process?

Excellent question. I would not change anything. Some say I wasted too much time preparing to apply and searching for openings. I say if you want something bad enough, it’s up to you to make it happen, and that’s the mindset I followed.

I take it back, the BIGGEST piece of advice I’d give ANY journalist at ANY stage of their career: Visit, in person, the station you are about to sign your life to. You will never regret a round-trip ticket. Seeing if both the market and station are a good fit for you is key.  It may seem like you know what to think, but so much can be learned about a station from mere minutes in a newsroom.

How I Got the Job: Sharon Ko

Everyone takes a different path to their first media job. Some people land their first choice right out of college. Others need to apply to dozens of places before landing an interview. There’s not a perfect way to get the job you want, but it can help to learn from the experience of others. In our feature “How I Got the Job,” we talk to some of the best people working professionally in media about what they did to get a foot in the door, and what it took to finally sign the contract. This week: Sharon Ko, news reporter at KENS in San Antonio.

1402675627000-KENS-bio-mug-534x712-ko-sharonWhen did you start looking for your first TV job?

Right after I graduated. I worked in retail while I waited for calls back. A few months seemed like forever!

Do you remember what you included on your first tape?

I had variety in my stand-ups. Interactive with a prop, movement in shots, walking and talking etc. The idea was to keep the news director interested to keep watching my tape. News is a business about storytelling but it’s also about your physical appearance/presentation. I made sure I looked good in all of the stand-ups and edited in my best-looking one for the first stand-up.

How many rejections did you get?

I applied to more than 20 places. Only two called me back.

Did you have to change anything about your approach to the job search?

I wanted to stay in Oregon for my first job and luckily, I did. After that, I was stubborn about staying in Oregon but really, that limited me. Here’s what someone told me in the past and it’s true: you’re young and have a whole lot more to live! Don’t limit yourself. So, get over your fears and see where life takes you. For my second job, I applied to stations from California to New York. I got a call from a station in Texas. It was one of the best moves of my life.

What happened in your first interview?

I was nervous but determined to get the job. There are moments during the interview where you want to embellish but stay true to yourself and your skill sets. Honesty is key.

Did you ever turn down a job offer?

Yes. Before I got my second job in Texas, a former co-worker of mine told me his station was hiring a reporter. He told me he would put in a good word for me. The very next day, I got a call from him that his boss wanted to hire me. I turned it down. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Not that I doubt my abilities, but I never once talked to the news director and I was offered the job. It came off as reckless on the station’s end.

What was your experience like during your in-person interview?

The news director definitely intimidated me. The questions were basic … tell me about your internships, what’s your background etc. I wanted to impress him. I’m pretty sure he could see me sweat and hear my voice shake. But dammit! I wanted the job and I’m sure he could tell. Who knows, maybe my nerves worked in my favor.

When did you get an offer? How did it happen?  

I had one offer on the table for my first news job. The station was willing to pay me 3 bucks more per hour, which is huge because you don’t get paid well when you first start out. But for some reason, I felt drawn to another station that I applied to and had yet to receive an official offer (they were going to pay me less). I was honest with that station that I wanted to work for, told them I had an offer, but wanted them. I got the offer the next day and took it.

Looking back, what would you have changed about the process?

Nothing. I believe all my life experiences and choices happened for a reason. I hope that doesn’t come off cheesy. But every challenge along the way has turned out to be a blessing because I learned from all of them. If you truly believe in what you do, that journalism is your calling, then keep that goal in your mind and never, ever stop working hard. Determination and dedication will always win. I promise.

Wearing blue to a GOP event, and other election night stories

The NewsWatch 12 crew after a late election night, May 2014.

I honestly didn’t mean anything by it.

It was election night 2012. Barack Obama was seeking a second term while being challenged by Mitt Romney. Oregon was voting on marijuana legalization. Several Oregon congressional seats were up for grabs. And I was going to be on the air all night with the results.

I was a big part of our station’s “team coverage” of election night. We had reporters following results in the newsroom, others stationed at ballot boxes, and me, live from the Republican Party headquarters. My producers would be cutting to me many times throughout the night, where I would conduct interviews with politicians and explain how people were reacting to the results.

Because I was such an important anchor of our coverage, I wanted to look my best. So I put on my newest gray suit, a freshly pressed white shirt, and my best looking tie.

The bright blue one.

I never had a second thought about it. I looked sharp, and that was all that mattered. It never dawned on me that a blue tie might look a little out of place at a Republican event.

So there I was, reporting live in red state country wearing my blue tie. I knew something was off right away when I started to get a few sideways glances. Eventually, two older women came up to meet me and my photographers.

“You’re wearing the wrong color!” one woman said, wearing one of those smiles that seemed anything but sincere.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“What are you wearing blue for?” the second woman asked, flailing her fingers at my tie.

“You do know this is a Republican event, right?” said the first woman. She was wearing a bright red blazer, had red nail polish, even her short-cropped hair was dyed an unnatural shade of crimson.

I get it. Red.

“It’s just a tie,” I said, exasperated.

“Oh, we’re just giving you a hard time,” red woman said. She smiled one of those phony smiles people have when they try to seem like they’re joking, but are actually deeply offended. My blue tie had cut her deep.

Such is the nature of election night; where even something as innocent as wearing a certain color tie can bring out the emotions in someone.

Interviewing Oregon state representative Dennis Richardson on election night, November 2012.

Election night was one of my favorite assignments as a reporter. It’s fast-paced, it’s exciting, and it matters. Best of all, it’s fun. Whether you’re stationed at a ballot box watching ballots be dropped off, or frantically clicking ‘refresh’ at 8 p.m. to see the first preliminary results, it’s a night where something is always happening.

And it’s an experience you share with your best friends: your fellow reporters. You are all required to stay late and come in early, and you bond over it.

The calm before the storm is between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., when the final ballots are dropped off. Then, it’s dead silent in the newsroom, except for the frantic click click click click click click click of every reporter trying to see the results first. It’s like newsroom Bingo, except everyone has a winning card. Whoever yells first, wins.

“The public safety levy is a ‘no,’ 56 percent!” someone might yell. “And Smith is winning the commissioner race with 67 percent!”

Everything goes into overdrive after that, as reporters rush to their phones and leap into their cars, hoping to get a hold of the candidates before all the circuits get jammed. Earlier this year, I was covering the Jackson County Sheriff’s race. When the results came in, I called and hung up and hit redial 12 times without stopping, just so I could catch leading candidate Corey Falls, whose phone was likely being blown up by calls from friends and other reporters.

Pizza and hard work on election night, May 2014

You’re not just looking out for yourself, you’re helping everyone else, and everyone seems to join in that team-first mentality. Our news director always ordered several pizzas to feed hungry reporters. Sports anchors were helping to shoot interviews with politicians (by the end of the night, they would joke about it. “Well, see you in four years!”) When I was standing in the rain, attempting to do live shot next to a ballot box, an elections office worker walked over while I was on the air and held out his umbrella to keep me dry. It was one of the nicest little gestures anyone had ever done for me as a reporter and I thanked him on the air.

And when things get stressful, as time starts running out and deadlines are looming, we always pick each other up. In May’s election, Rob Scott, who is now a reporter at KXAN in Austin, Texas, sensed the mood in the room beginning to turn sour, and started making up jingles to keep people laughing.

“Life is a hashtag, I’m going to tweet it all night long…” he sang. Even the most stone-faced reporter couldn’t help feeling a little happier. All of us ended up singing those jingles on our way out the door at the end of the night.

Yes, election night can be stressful. It can be a long night with a heavy workload that carries you into the next morning. But it’s one of the most memorable experiences you get as a reporter, and it only comes once every four years. So take a deep breath and enjoy the plunge.

The calm before the storm on election night 2014.

The calm before the storm on election night 2014.