Allocate Time for Assignments

News Directors ration resources — including the time available for certain assignments. While it would be preferable to let every story organically reveal its own unique time requirements, we are more likely to estimate what we can spare based on past patterns and similar circumstances.

In that spirit, here are some generalized estimates of what is a “reasonable amount of time” for common story assignments.

  • Spots: 2-4 hours
  • Super Spots: 4-8 hours
  • Fast Features: 6-10 hours
  • Standard Features: 10-18 hours

These approximations assume a minimum of two interviews and include writing, editing and production time. Naturally, you’ll need to take into account the availability of sources, travel time to events or sources, complexity of research and verification, and your planned production standards. Where multiple products are included (web build outs, social media campaigns, etc), allot the time needed.

Also, add more time if more people are involved in the process. Series, documentaries and special projects can increase time exponentially — if they are heavy on planning, research, travel, production, etc.

Should News Directors allow different deadlines for different employees to allow for varying speeds of work? Ideally, not. However, inexperienced employees will probably require more time than experienced ones. Still, the expectation can be stated based on averages.

Using general time estimates like these, a News Director can evaluate individual workloads and set approximate productivity goals.

There will always be tension between the desire for depth and the need for quick completion. Strive for accuracy and quality but not perfectionism.

UGC (User Generated Content) Verification

Increasingly newsrooms depend on the eyes and ears — and portable digital devices — of the public. Photos, videos, FB posts, Tweets and text messages can help alert journalists to stories, and can become published content.

The trick is to have a verification procedure in place. A guide was published in 2014 to help newsrooms tackle the verification process. Link: Verification Handbook

The Multimedia Radio Newsroom, Part One

From the PRNDI conference session, “This Ain’t Your Grandma’s Newsroom!”

by M. Marcotte

Be Afraid – But Don’t Get Carried Away

Our radio world is getting rocked, like the newspaper world got rocked.

People with internet smart-phones are listening to audio streams from around the planet. People with tablets are bypassing the local station to get NPR news. Heck, even the former CEO of NPR famously predicted that terrestrial radio towers will be obsolete by 2020. (Though that’s unlikely.)

So, let’s approach what we have to do here with some urgency.

“We’ll have to make some choices about where and
how we devote our limited energies as we endeavor to build our non-broadcast platforms.”

Having said that, we have to temper our actions with the current reality. For example, most folks are still getting public radio via the radio.

Another reality — there are too few people doing local journalism at stations! (According to CPB and PRNDI data, two-thirds of public media stations have 3 or fewer full-time news employees.)

These are not bad times to be in public radio. Even the national dialogue about
the future of news is shining the spotlight on public radio, er, public media, because of our interwoven success with NPR… and because we’re now seen as a bulwark against the collapse of journalism at the local level.

But I digress. The point is that as much as I want to tout high aspirations on new digital platforms, I have to meet my fellow news directors right where they are. We’re still a radio-first system with local departments that are overworked and under-resourced. We’ll have to make some choices about where and how we devote our limited energies as we endeavor to build our non-broadcast platforms.


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(Above: A 2010 survey of public radio news directors shows few doing any consistent multimedia journalism online — other than posting their audio and scripts. Fuerst/Marcotte, 2010. A repeat survey in 2012 showed only modest expansion of online local news efforts.)

Radio First but in a New Media Context

So we start with our radio platform as primary while we consider urgent calls for radical change.  How do we do this? Start by looking at how the “context” for our news has changed.

“Our technological platform is still predominantly radio, but our journalism is now part of the new media ecosystem…”

The 8 New Contexts for Public Radio News

  1. Think audio: Radio is becoming digital packets streaming over the internet.
  2. Think files. As in on-demand, archived content. Our audio is now commonly distributed as episodic podcasts or retreivable archives of clips, stories, newscasts or shows.
  3. Think cross-platform: Our radio messages drive people to websites or mobile apps where they can get more, do more, give more, see more, be more!
  4. Think community hub: Our non-profit, mission-oriented organization provides news as an educational and cultural service to citizens. We thrive when we position ourselves as a community institution like the school, the museum, the library, the arts center. We offer an actual physical place endowed with special technology, where people can gather in town meetings, attend trainings, produce special events, etc.
  5. Think leadership: Our staff is a committed group that initiates and presides over conversations of civic interest and importance. Our people are trusted to help make things go well in our town.
  6. Think wisdom of crowds, shared public insight: The people we aggregate by our service are individuals with expertise, facts, opinions, technology and leadership of their own. In the interactive world of today, they are now encouraged to share in the station’s programmatic mission.
  7. Think original, local content: We no longer serve as a mere terrestrial relay tower for NPR programming. We are valuable because we originate unique and relevant content.
  8. Think aggressive journalism: Our journalistic skills and resources are valued in new ways as commercial outlets suffer the ad-related revenue losses of internet disruption. We need to step up coverage of important local issues providing “accountability” coverage, curating essential facts and adding context.

In other words, the internet has changed us already.

Our technological platform is still predominantly radio, but our journalism is now part of the new media ecosystem: live, social, interactive and voracious.

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(Above: The “Public Media Platform” as diagrammed by NPR planners in June 2010.)

What the web Wants

Let’s just be clear here about where we ultimately want to go. If we are going to sport an online news service, eventually we have to meet this new medium on its own terms. So even if my approach here is to hold onto audio as our primary service, I owe
you some advice on where I think we *really* need to get to soon.

As journalists converge on digital platforms, most arrive from their old traditional one or two dimensional mass medium. Print people were experts in the written word, using a visual layout. Radio people were experts in real-time episodic audio streams. Television people bring knowledge of time-rationed audio-visual experience.

And if you look at a lot of websites today, you can see the influences of the old media at play.  See how the latimes.com looks like a newspaper? Go to a TV network site and
you’ll get gobs of colorful video and anchor people. Our radio sites are the worst: buttons to play audio streams or files, with radio scripts pasted in for good measure.

We’re awful at online news!

In web land, all must communicate in a multidimensional medium where the aesthetic imperatives compete according to message content and user experience.

The 5 Dimensions of Digital Content

In the web world, journalists face at least five dimensions at once:

  1. text-based information
  2. image-oriented experience
  3. audio-accompaniment
  4. networked (linked) opportunities
  5. interactive user control

In the workshop, I showed examples of the lame sites that try to do web in one or two dimensions. And examples of sites that provide a powerful multimedia experience simply by letting the web do what it does best.

Again, we want to aim for the five-dimensional approach. But we’re going to give people permission to approach those one step at a time.

Multimedia News is Just News Delivered Online

The working definition of “multimedia” was a bit tricky to distill as I checked what other people meant by it. Some used the label like special packaging to distinguish a project that took a lot of extra work and mustn’t get lost in the daily flow of news.

“Don’t label your online news ‘multimedia.’
That’s stupid.”

For us, perhaps it is simply adding visual context to our reversioned radio product. But I think it best to define true multimedia news as what you get when all five dimensions are present in your web journalism.

And, by the way, don’t label your online news “multimedia.” That’s stupid.

Just do stories in a way that exploits the power of the web and don’t worry about categorizing it. You will be doing multimedia but you will call it online news.

Let the Story Drive Presentation

You’ve heard this before and it is very important to understand. Different stories warrant different treatments. Just as you might say, “this story is a spot,” or “this story deserves a two-part series,” you may now need to consider the new
media dimensions of a story. 

Three New Questions for News Managers

Try some of these questions the next time you are playing with a story idea trying to make it into an actual reporter assignment with online potential:

  1. What are the visual opportunities in this story?
  2. Does it provide opportunity to aggregate or link to broader content?
  3. Should we engage the community before, during, after?

These questions begin to steer your assignment plan… which in turn steers the final presentation.

No longer can you assume this is all about radio with some tacked-on web
“extras”. You have to decide what proportion of effort ought to be spent on
the web dimension. It behooves you to spend as much as you can muster.

Downplaying Video?

Because we have big steps to take from audio to visual presentation, let’s make the first steps a bit easier. Let’s simplify by downplaying the importance of video.

Video complicates the work in the field and the work in the studio. It also complicates the user experience unless it is done very effectively — as in short, shareable, compelling clips or visually stellar production meant for longer sittings.

If you want to feature video as a prominent component of your online news, that’s great. Go for it. But I am not recommending that approach to people with limited budgets and limited staffs who must also deliver a daily radio product. Nor do I think it well serves a discerning public that has little patience for amateur video… or anything that takes too long to scan on the web.

There are times we will want video in our toolkit. It is great for observing unfolding action or conveying motion, but it is not necessary at this point as a staple of our multimedia news.

My big exception on video will be in breaking news situations. Even grainy video can be compelling if it captures a significant event.  And this is why your tool kit should feature a camera capable of capturing video.

So although my training is about adding effective visual dimensions to your radio news, it will do this primarily though photos, slideshows and text. We’ll also dwell somewhat on visual design, links, aggregation, and interactive opportunities. That’s a lot of content to add even without video.

Radio Folks Have a Head Start

I just want to point out something about radio people that you might under-appreciate. They already have a knack for one of the hardest parts of multimedia news: producing professional audio.

For people who have the knack for visual presentations — especially print people who are familiar with text and photos — one of the big challenges both out in the field and back at their desks is mastering the audio part of their stories.

We’re talking professional audio that adds crucial depth and dimension to multimedia storytelling. Visually-trained people don’t know how challenging it is until they actually have to operate a recorder, position a microphone, set a proper level, maintain steady presence, gather wild sound or conduct an effective interview — all while avoiding catastrophic mistakes.

You already have that skill!

Does that mean the visual part is easy?  No, similar challenges apply to professional photography, but isn’t it nice to know you have a leg up in the audio department?

Five Take-Aways from Part One

  1. It is important we acknowledge our existing resources and not overwhelm our team with extravagant demands. Rather we can take a strategic approach to web-based news that make incremental advances toward the ideal.
  2. The ideal we hope to reach someday will account for all five
    dimensions of web-based news:

    • text-based information
    • image-oriented experience
    • audio-accompaniment
    • networked (linked) opportunities
    • interactive user control
  3. Multimedia simply refers to any combination of the five web dimensions. By definition, all news online is multimedia news. There’s no need to put a special “multimedia” label on the more polished efforts.
  4. You must begin to consider multimedia dimensions in your
    assignment process.
  5. Finally, your existing audio production skills will come in very handy. Continue to develop your audio skills too!


Part Two: We get down to business

The Multimedia Radio Newsroom, Part Two

(Note: Part One is here.)

From the 2010 PRNDI session, “This Ain’t Your Grandma’s Newsroom!”

by M. Marcotte

The 10 Skills You Need Now

I won’t have time to cover ALL the online skills you need in your newsroom. But I think it is important to list some of the main ones:

  1. Recording, editing and uploading digital SOUND files
  2. Shooting, editing and uploading digital PHOTO files
  3. Shooting, editing and uploading digital VIDEO files (Even though I downplay video, you should learn it!)
  4. Writing and laying-out online multimedia packages combining audio, video or photos
  5. Writing effective (searchable, sharable) headlines, captions and copy
  6. Using hypertext links to exploit the networking power of the internet
  7. Re-purposing, curating, aggregating and archiving content
  8. The basics of online content management systems (from file types to basic coding)
  9. Using social networking to engage users and promote content
  10. Blogging to personalize content and curate comments

Story Mapping

The story assignment process just got more complex. Be sure to allocate more time when you are discussing story focus and reporting tactics.

As PRNDI’s Senior Trainer, I’ve often used a handout to walk reporters and editors through the all-important story mapping process. This is the discussion they have prior to making a call or leaving the newsroom to put some focus and framing in place. It spares wasted effort and makes sure both parties are on the same page (literally, if they use the worksheet). Here’s a revised worksheet to include multimedia dimensions:

__________________________________________________________________

PRNDI Worksheet:

Story Mapping in the Multimedia Newsroom

(For ND’s & Reporters to collaborate on story assignments for stronger results. Use as worksheet or incorporate into your content management system.)

Headline:

Deadlines:

End Products:

 ________________________________

Focus/Framing

  1. What is this story most about? 
  2. Why is it important to us?  Why now?
  3. Who is involved? Who is affected most?
  4. What tension draws our interest?
  5. What main action is taking place?
  6. Where and when is the best setting?
  7. What “contextual frame” is needed on this story? (See Story Framing)

 ___________________________________________

My Focus Statement (Who is doing What and Why):

__________________________________________

Interviews     (List for each source)

Interviewee:   

When/where: 

Questions:

___________________________________________

(What challenges might we encounter in the field?)

 _________________________________________

Multimedia Elements: Sound, Photos, Video, Other

Best Sound Opportunities:

Best Photo or Video Opportunities:

Best Interactive Opportunities:

Data Visualization or Mapping:

___________________________________________________________________

The New Multimedia Considerations

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Work Flow & Work Roles

Producing for two or more platforms (radio, web, mobile, and in some cases, television) present emerging challenges in newsrooms. The reality is that newsrooms must adapt by changing their editorial processes and by expanding their teams.

Five Changing Roles in the Public Radio Station

  1. PD’s are becoming platform directors. They will do much of the advance work on getting new platforms integrated into the station… and driving procedures to maximize benefits to users.
  2. ND’s are becoming content directors. They must think about journalism and their news teams in broader terms (ongoing community conversations, vertical topic depth/aggregation, training and skill development, etc) and in relation to technical platforms.
  3. Editors and producers are becoming platform specialists. In other words, you may have an editor for radio, an editor for web, a producer for interactive, etc.
  4. Reporters are becoming multimedia specialists in the field and at the desk. If they gather solo, they carry more gear and use more skills. If they can work in pairs, one can specialize on one medium, while the other can focus on another.
  5. Hosts can make great bloggers. They have the communication/presentation skills. They have audience connections and often want to extend their service beyond the air.

Mark Fuerst, founder of the Integrated Media Association, once compiled a library of emerging job descriptions at public radio stations.  How familiar are these to you today?

  • Dir of New Media
  • Dir of Non-Broadcast Distribution
  • Dir of Interactive Strategy
  • Interactive Content Mgr
  • Online Ops Mgr
  • web Mgr
  • Online Editor
  • web Developer
  • web Administrator
  • webmaster
  • web Architect
  • Interactive Developer
  • Multimedia Developer
  • Applications Developer
  • Interactive Producer
  • web Producer
  • web Content Developer
  • internet Content Producer
  • website Production Specialist
  • Multi-Media Producer: Graphics
  • Online Community Mgr
  • Convergence Editor
  • Viral web/Marketing Intern

Basically, web masters, developers and designers are not positioned in the newsroom. However, content managers, producers and editors might be. The developers work on the coded infrastructure of the web and its related platforms. They speak HTML and are usually familiar with CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, Python, Django or other languages to build sites, apps and widgets that customize your site and drive your content management system. The designers are artists skilled at advanced applications like those in Adobe’s Creative Suite but may also work with code and computer languages. The more we can get digital specialists into the newsroom, the more we can communicate effectively about the intersection of news and the digital platforms. But, at the very least, stations need someone in-house who can manage the increasing move to online distribution.

Add partnerships and community engagement into this mix and you get even more hats for staff to wear! An engagement editor could help fuse the connections with community news sites and citizens.

One more thing: The GM is still the GM. Leading the organization. Protecting the journalistic mission. Advancing the resources needed. Vision and leadership are needed now more than ever.

Radio’s Edge: Speed & Mobility (and Live Coverage)

Radio has always been about “immediacy.” We write radio copy in the present tense because listeners hear it in real time.

Still, when we defined public radio’s core values in the 90’s, we often concluded that “being first is not a core value.” The point was well taken that public radio listeners didn’t expect us to be first responders with breathless live reports, rather they expected us to get the facts and present them in context without the show biz behavior so abused by commercial broadcasters.

Well things are shifting. We haven’t forsaken the core values but we are surrounded by a somewhat different landscape and our audiences have somewhat different expectations. News directors may want to reconsider their coverage strategies — at least talk about it — because old assumptions may not be best.

“we can’t approach news as though we only exist in morning and afternoon drive…”

For one thing, in many communities the public radio news department has outlived commercial competitors and may need to serve as first responder, at least in major events. It is a vacated space that we can step into with our fundamental values still intact. Even NPR is pressing to be ever more timely on air and online because audiences expect viable news agencies to react quickly.

So now there’s also this networked world in which all of us are instantly sending and receiving information to one another throughout our waking lives. As journalists in service to this world, we can’t approach news as though we only exist in morning and afternoon drive. Now we can serve people whenever and via whatever platform they prefer. Should we? Probably in some fashion, yes. Quick headlines may not be our forte but they aren’t hard to do either.

A newsroom is always gathering news. What we have to learn to do is always publish it. This is where Twitter and Facebook come in. We can instantly post there… then speed certain story components to air or online… and wrap-up with more produced products on morning drive and on the topic page. Does this mean working faster? Yep. Does it mean forsaking depth? No, not if you see each phase of reporting/publishing process as contributing layer upon layer of depth.

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(Above: This workflow model uses the standard radio story publishing cycle but augments it with online activities — speedy tweets at the early stage, online depth packages at the full feature stage, and more user involvement at the interactive stage.)

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(Above: This diagram takes the story cycle stages [down the left column] and suggests corresponding responsibilities in a hypothetical three-person situation.)

A Daily News Example

(This is a fictional account that borrows from real people to illustrate emerging practices in the multimedia newsroom. Note that in the case of KPBS there is actually a third platform at play — television! — which is ignored here for the sake of simplicity.)

KPBS Environmental Reporter Ed Joyce comes to the Monday morning meeting with a story idea: there’s a significant beach pollution study to be released today. He got his hands on the study and agreed to embargo the findings until the 10 am news conference. Ed’s news director, Suzanne Marmion, wants a 4-minute depth package produced for Tuesday’s Morning Edition — after all, ME is still where the biggest audience is. Suzanne also asks Ed if he can phone in a voicer for the noon cast… and of course file several spots for ATC. Sure, no problem, that’s standard coverage for radio news.

What Suzanne then asks is becoming the new normal:

Have you started Tweeting about the study? Yes, Ed says, he began early that morning and has been adding something hourly to highlight the issues the study seeks to address. He’ll begin sharing the results at 10 am. (By the way, Ed’s tweets also go directly to his blog and his Facebook page. Suzanne also oversees the Tweet and FB accounts of KPBS News, so she says she will retweet Ed’s tweets once he has actual news to share. This shows the difference between an environmental reporter’s following which may be quite topic-oriented and the overall news department’s following which will be broader and interested in significant news.)

Then she asks Ed: What are some of the visuals you can file for the web story page? Any need for video?  Ed says there’s no dramatic video for this story — it’s more data driven — but he will provide a picture of the most polluted beach in San Diego (where the newser is being held) and he’ll grab a few shots of the main presenters at the event, so they can be included on the page if their quotes are used.

Suzanne picks up on the data reference: Should we plan a graphic that lists the beaches in So Cal and their pollution levels? And this is trend info, right?  So we want to compare multiple beaches over multiple years?  Ed says he can leave a copy of the relevant data with the web designer before he leaves so the graphic can be ready by mid-afternoon. He says he’s already got at least five links planned for the web text — one to the report itself, others to city, county, state and federal agencies that have overlapping responsibility for pollution control.

Before Ed leaves the newsroom, he finishes reading the report, noting his questions, and makes several calls to line up interviews later that afternoon. He wants at least one government official to respond to the report.

Time to go. As Ed attends the news conference, his audio gear is set up to record from a mult-box and he monitors the sound via his headphones. He already tweeted the major findings of the report in three quick bursts while the news event was still waiting to begin. Ed takes photos as various presenters speak. Podium shots aren’t the greatest but they are better than nothing. He adds a few tweets as presenters make dramatic comments. Afterward he’ll get some audio and some photos of tourists on the seashore to provide color for both his radio and web stories.

By 11:30, when Ed is preparing to file his first reports for air (and web), he revisits all his tweets because they actually help serve as his notes!

Later, he’s back at his desk, issuing both afternoon radio and web stories with advancements he’s gathered through added reporting. His radio stories are wraps with audio clips. His web story is a quick rewrite of the wrap with quotes instead of audio clips, plus photos.

For Tuesday morning, Ed will package a complete feature for radio — and it’s very easy because all the components were rendered and polished throughout the day. Online, the feature will be presented as both an audio file, and a text story with photos, graphics and links.

Five Take-Aways from Part Two

  1. You now need a broader set of digital multimedia skills in your newsroom. You will need to hire new people or train existing people to add these skills to your team. Training is a recurring concern because skills change as technology and applications change.
  2. Editors must now work with reporters during the story mapping (assignment) process to flesh out expectations for multimedia handling. Every story has a dominant dimension that should be considered in multimedia coverage: visual, audio, public-assisted, data heavy, etc.
  3. Roles and responsibilities are changing to support multi-platform news gathering. These roles go beyond the newsroom and require systemic changes to our old radio-only model.
  4. Remember radio’s tremendous strengths as a live and mobile medium. Exploit these attributes fully and you’ll have leg up on the new digital platforms.
  5. Consider the workflow changes required for daily news reporting. The news manager is key to planning for team processes and the reporter is key to feeding the separate but hungry distribution platforms.

 

Manage Short-Term Editorial Planning

The quality of the news that comes out of the radio depends heavily on the quality of preparation that went into it. While it might seem that stories begin at the moment of “assignment,” in fact they develop through a sophisticated process involving several news support systems:

  • Story idea cultivation
  • Storage and retrieval of news info and contacts
  • Story shaping

A System for Story Ideas

Newsrooms are story factories. The raw materials are story ideas. Newsrooms cultivate story ideas from numerous sources:

  • Reporters, especially reporters on beats, often deliver the most authentic and unique story ideas drawn directly from their own observations or community contacts.
  • Other media often deliver up good story ideas that can be rewoven into your own version of that story.
  • Unfortunately, all too often our story ideas are fed to us from public relations professionals who are paid to get story ideas on your air.
  • Newsrooms have always received story ideas over the transom from citizens, academics, and opinion leaders.
  • The processes of government often yield story ideas, as do the conduct of business or the proceedings of groups and institutions.
  • Events – whether planned or unplanned – often trigger story assignments. ND’s try to balance the urgency of “the happening” with the importance, or “the meaning” of the event.

Ultimately, the news director is less concerned about having a large supply of story ideas and more concerned about having just enough excellent story ideas.

A System for Information Storage and Retrieval

Your newsroom needs a system for capturing and organizing the constant flow of raw story ideas.

Most use a “day-file” system for slotting ideas by month, week and day. The day-file system employs a central, shared set of folders (physical or electronic or both). Incoming press releases, story tips and other “futures” are slotted for the day or month to be considered.

Similarly, news editors work with reporters to maintain a file for story idea-lists (generated per reporter or beat). Again, the file system is calendar based so that news is pegged for its timeliness.

Meanwhile, access to sources is enhanced by quick retrieval of phone numbers and other newsmaker contact info. Well functioning newsrooms maintain their own deep and reliable databases. Electronic systems are fast, easy to share and easy to update. For more detail, see How-To’s → Establish a System of Contacts

A System for Story Shaping

This is dealt with elsewhere in the PRNDG. See Your News.

Control for Quality Assurance

Quality is essential in news work. It is synonymous with accuracy and fairness. It implies smart story selection and masterful crafting.

It depends on people and systems.

A News Director assures quality by

  • Defining excellence
  • Practicing excellence
  • Monitoring excellence

How Do We Define Excellence?

We start by talking about it. In meetings, in offices, at lunch, over beer. We discuss what makes a good story. We say what failed. We try to articulate it down to the smallest element. We’re obsessed with excellence!

Planning is an opportunity to define quality. We set goals we think will deliver excellence. We appropriate funding we think will deliver excellence.

We train for it. Much of the quality we seek comes by developing skills and abilities. Training can be the key to unlocking greater excellence.

We flag it and we celebrate it. Winning awards is a time-honored way of pointing at quality — especially when the judging is strong and the competition fierce. By reinforcing those traits that win awards, we steer future work to similar high standards.

How Do We Practice Excellence?

A primary method of quality assurance in news work is in the editing. Editing is not just a review at the end of the reporter’s process. Editing is an end-to-end, organizing role by someone other than the reporter telling the story.

At the front end, it is the assignment editing function — clearly defining a focused story idea and helping shape the story with proper sourcing, use of audio, and depth of research.

Along the way, it is helping the reporter adjust the story plan as necessary. And, before air, it is the complete review of the story before committing to a final version.

This practice includes high expectations of the reporter, and the final presenter, and anyone else who touches the story along the way.

Quality is only assured by practicing proper procedures on a consistent basis.

How Do We Monitor Excellence?

We listen and we judge what we hear on air.

Ultimately it is what serves the listener that defines excellence — and so we are attentive to listener response.

Apart from listener response (which is often unknown to us) we examine both what the listener heard and what the listener did not hear. We note what made it to air and what was ruled out. This tells us much about our editing process.

We give generous amounts of constructive feedback. We hold listening sessions and go back over scripts and audio.
Quality can rarely be reduced to a formula — but it can be quantified. You can grade stories and you can rate employee performance.

In this way, we renew the cycle of defining quality.

Establish Beats and Desks

Beats and desks are organizational structures for larger newsrooms. Beats apply to reporters. Desks apply to groups of reporters.

Beats

The beat system is an effective way to organize your newsroom so that individual reporters can focus on a specialty.

Ideally the beat system allows you to divide your team in a way that all your news content falls into one of the beats — though this usually requires a fairly large staff and a broad interpretation of the beat subject.

Even a modest size staff can support a beat system provided the beats are flexible and all reporters retain some responsibility for general assignment coverage.

In no case should the beat system hamper your news coverage. For example, it isn’t acceptable to miss an important story because “it wasn’t on anyone’s beat!” or “that was Joe’s beat and he was out sick!”

Typical subject beats (and possible “side beats”) include

  • Health (and medicine)
  • Business (and economics)
  • Justice (and public safety)
  • Education (and children)
  • Science (and technology)
  • Environment (and land use)

Examples of geographical or institutional beats include

  • The state
  • The city and county
  • The military base
  • The school district
  • Local government
  • Police and fire

Beats based on subject matter usually provide broader story opportunities than beats based on geographic regions or institutions. (For example, an environmental reporter may trace a pollution issue from a city waterway to a state and federal agency, whereas a city reporter may not trace the matter beyond the city’s jurisdiction.) Often an institution figures prominently in a subject beat (like the school board figures prominently in the education beat) but doesn’t define the contours of the beat.

No matter the basis of the beat system, it is important that reporters share across beats and collaborate in the best interests of the public. Sometimes it makes sense to set up temporary beats — say, for an election or after a disaster — to provide a short-term emphasis on a subject.

Before forming a beat system, a News Director should carefully consider staffing levels, coverage area, and coverage priorities. A beat signifies a priority and should be defined in terms of your news mission.

Desks

Desks are similar to beats except they imply a larger unit of organizational structure. Where beats are normally associated with individuals, desks are usually manned by teams. A desk typically includes an editor who manages the desk, and reporters and/or producers who supply the content.

Desks may follow the beat logic — based on subject matter, for example — but allow for greater specialization within the subject matter. So, an environmental desk may task reporters to several beats such as energy, endangered species, etc.

Desks are effective ways to organize the newsgathering in big companies with multiple news shows or channels (which share the central reporting provided by the desk). This reduces duplication of effort by individual shows or channels. An example at NPR is the Science Desk with its team of editors and reporters and assistants. From this desk, spots are fed to the newscast unit, features are fed to the magazine shows (Morning Edition, All Things Considered, etc.), science correspondents are invited on shows, and all science stories are vetted.

Set Up a Staff Schedule

For some employees, flexibility in scheduling is helpful and necessary. Reporters, for instance, may need to adjust to early-morning events or late-evening events. For other employees, scheduling rigidity is essential. Anchors and hosts, for instance, need to be at their assigned posts in time to prepare and deliver the news according to the clock.

So, on any given day, you may have fixed-scheduled employees and flex-schedule employees. You should establish the parameters for each employee based on this model. Fixed schedules will have regular start and end times. Flex-schedule employees will need on-going scheduling attention — but can be given default schedules that only change when variations are communicated. Flex-schedules require as much advance notice as possible.

Holidays may include special variations — such as granting some staff holidays while using others to hold down key airshifts. As holidays are well known in advance, plan your holiday rotations as far in advance as possible.

Similarly, you can communicate the need to plan vacations as far in advance as possible. It is important to accommodate the vacation needs of employees while maintaining a viable news service.

Scheduling back up and fill in personnel will be easier if you have defined back-up personnel. First back-up and second back-up for an air host, for example, helps clarify who is affected and what procedures are enacted when the host is unavailable.

You’ll have legal and labor rules to navigate in scheduling personnel. Be sure to work in cooperation with your human resource office. Newswork can be demanding and require flexibility in staffing and scheduling, but that should be no excuse for treating employees unfairly or denying them their due benefits or appropriate compensation.

Establish a System for Contacts

Time is always of the essence in news. Having a well-organized directory of sources, information officers and other contacts is key to saving time.

Certainly the power of internet search engines has drastically increased your power to find experts anywhere in the world, but you will still want to have your own in-house system of contact management.

There is no need to invent anything new here. Contact management software is easy to find and afford. If anything, some reporters who insist on maintaining paper rolodexes may need some convincing to switch over. What is important is that all news team members use the same system and dutifully update their contacts to a central database.

As smartphones become standard in newsgathering, you’ll be able to sync your portable device to your central contact database. For saftey, back-up your contact files. You may even wish to generate a paper print-out.

It may be necessary to code some entries as “private” — to indicate a reporter’s exclusive access to a special source. However, as much as possible, contacts should be shared by the news team and easily findable. (Some systems allow coding for shared and personal contacts and easy navigation among them. Again, try to build a shared database as much as possible.)

Be sure to fill in as much information as you can when you enter or update your contact record. Name, title, company, address, phone and email are vital. Adding keywords, associates and alternate contact info is also helpful.
The key to good contact database management is consistency. Managers set this as a priority and teams share the responsibility. Time needs to be devoted to upkeep. And corrections need to be made promptly.

It should go without saying that contacts gathered for journalistic purposes should not be exploited for any other purpose.

Manage a System for Community Relations

News Directors are accountable to the community they serve.

This can create tension because sometimes the needs of the “target radio audience” are separate from the needs of the general population. The resolution to this tension is in how you frame your coverage. You can still address your loyal listeners while presenting them information about other segments of the community. Even better, you can explain the connections between your given audience and their fellow residents.

To be fully accountable to the larger community, it is important to be accessible when members of the public have questions, complaints or information for you. (As news organizations increasingly try to put the user in the driver’s seat, community members may reasonably expect greater access than before.)

It is simple for a newsroom to list a phone number and publish an email address for public use. In small communities the task of answering inquiries might be shared among the news team. However, in larger communities with higher volumes of public contacts, you may need to train a designated person to deal with initial contacts. With training, that screener can handle the common inquiries and pass along to you (or the proper authority) those requiring higher-level response.

It also serves the department well to have a way of sorting public contacts according to their urgency, legitimacy and long-term importance. For example, calls conveying important, timely news should get through quickly. The same goes for corrections to stories. Other contacts may prove helpful as sources or contacts. Some contacts are neither urgent nor all-that important, but they are legitimate nonetheless. Those can be bundled and dealt with at a convenient time.

Newsrooms will need certain screens to avoid having staff time swamped by public requests. websites provide a great alternative to telephone contact. They can provide schedules, network and show contacts, frequently asked questions, and allow you a way to manage any anticipated flood of listener interest (say, during a special series or when asking for community input). Moreover, websites can provide interactive tools that allow residents to weigh in with comments, complaints, suggestions, etc.
Besides being responsive to public inquiries, your newsroom will want to be pro-active in the community in other ways.

It behooves any news station to find ways to cultivate community dialogue on issues of pressing concern. Talk shows are an effective tool for this. Some stations sponsor community forums, town hall meetings, or other special events (whether for broadcast or not). Newsrooms have a stake in these events and can help control for their news value and political neutrality.

It is also generally healthy to dispatch radio news “personalities” into the community for the sake of positive station relations. News Directors can encourage public appearances provided there is no compromise of journalistic integrity. A reporter speaking to students about the profession is a good example.

As discussed in How-To’s → Manage Long Term Editorial Planning, wherever the community is struggling (or undergoing anything extraordinary), you have a service opportunity. We recommend you indentify and prioritize the largest issues facing your community and deploy your resources to address those issues in a meaningful way.

Finally, if you have the time, take note of your many community contacts and keep a record in the station’s public file. Because a newsroom is a natural conduit for public engagement, by recording those contacts, you will have many occasions to show your public service commitment for development purposes and at license renewal time.

Manage A System for Budgeting

Your newsroom budget is the single most powerful tool in managing the allocation of newsroom resources.

The budget is a projection of what you can afford in human resources, technical advantages, training and mobility.
It is imperative that you plan accurately for your future needs and that you track your progress and account for unforeseen circumstances.

The Budget Cycle

Most stations will follow a cyclical budget process on an annual basis. The process includes a planning phase, an implementation phase (the new fiscal year), and a series of tracking and adjustment phases until the process renews itself again. Be sure to make time for budget activities and not to miss any deadlines.

Budget Forecasting

The planning phase requires the news director to engage station management in a visioning exercise that

  • reviews past assumptions of the news department’s mission
  • notes changes to the news department
  • notes changes in the broadcast “environment”

All of which is helpful before discussing the resources necessary to succeed in the year ahead.

As revenue-oriented departments project what they will likely bring-in during the upcoming fiscal year, your mission-oriented department may need to negotiate what portion of those revenues should be invested in local news.

There’s never enough money to go-around, but without a robust discussion during the planning process the station may be shortchanging its strategic thinking. Don’t shortchange news: quality reporting feeds listener satisfaction.

Budget Monitoring

When the news budget is set, the work of the manager is largely to see that rationing of expenses conforms to the prediction.

When unforeseen circumstances disrupt the plan, adjustments may require the department to forego some planned service — or it may require the department and its station to work together to resolve the problem so as not to cut planned services.

Budget Politics

News directors are encouraged to engage fully in the budget process and advocate strongly for the public service value of the news department. Don’t assume other managers understand completely what you do and why you do it. Treat them to a tour of the newsroom and invite them to listen to your plans.

In the best stations, this is not an antagonistic process but a cooperative one in which all managers and all staff share a common vision of powerful journalism for the good of the community — resulting in healthy economic support.

Use the Four Tiers of News Coverage

Before leaving NPR News, program executive Jay Kernis offered “The Four Tiers of News Coverage” — a simple hierarchy for defining news values when making local assignments.

Tier One: COMMERCIAL

“If it bleeds, it leads.” Crime, fires, sensationalized weather, local sports teams, plus those quirky/human interest kickers that inevitably end the TV newscast or create a “fun” moment on the bottom of page one. This is coverage that is led by the local newspaper or TV station, rather than by the curiosity or will of the local member station newsroom.

Tier Two: STAGED

City council meetings, school board meetings, local government and political pronouncements, news conferences. These are scheduled events, pre-scripted in many cases by communications officers and rehearsed by participants. It’s pretty safe to cover this stuff — it will usually sound like news. Much of it is not very important in the long run, or very interesting. Much of it is worth a line or two of copy — maybe an actuality — but not a report or interview.

Tier Three: LOCAL IMPACT/NATIONAL

What is the local impact — or local representation — of a national or international story? This kind of reporting is more difficult, but can be more satisfying to the audience, as it connects local communities and activities to what is happening in the rest of the nation or the world. At its best, this kind of reporting fosters civil discourse, the desire to learn more, and to become more involved.

Tier Four: LOCAL MEANING

What news event, person, trend or new idea is or is about to make a real difference in my life and my community? What truly reflects who we are and why we live here? What will have lasting impact? What trends and events are not being noticed?

APPLYING THE FOUR TIER SYSTEM

This system challenges us to consider these questions:

  • Which tiers are we spending most of our time on?
  • Can we do less of Tiers One and Two… and more of Three and Four?

Focusing your local news programming on Tier Three and Four will accomplish three important goals.

  1. It will clearly differentiate your public radio service from the commercial news media available to our listeners
  2. It will point the way to the most effective allocation of personnel and resources, and allow us to lead coverage rather than follow others.
  3. It will emphasize quality over quantity in your local news programming and deliver greater service to listeners.

The Four Tier Challenge

So how does your station’s coverage stack up? Here’s a good way to find out:

Audit your station by listening to the 7-8 a.m. hour of Morning Edition across a single week. As you listen, map where each element of your coverage falls in the tier structure.

How much time are you devoting to each tier?

Manage Long-Term Editorial Planning

News Directors often have their hands full dealing with short range or daily planning. Yet, one of the higher orders of the job is to manage for the long-term editorial direction of the news department.

Long-term editorial planning is a system by which you indentify and prioritize the largest issues facing your community. Then you strategically and methodically deploy your resources to address those issues in an impactful way.

The importance of long-term planning can be seen in some of the consequential benefits:

  • Greater depth and context in individual stories
  • Greater congruity and direction in serial coverage
  • Greater opportunity for multi-platform build-outs
  • Greater opportunity for promotion of content
  • Greater opportunity for funding of content
  • Greater opportunity for community involvement
  • Greater anticipation of necessary news resources

Here are a few ways to jump-start some long term editorial planning in your newsroom:

When you see a major SPECIAL EVENT on the horizon, begin the planning process immediately. (Example: the Olympics, the Republican or Democratic National Convention, the pope’s visit, etc.)

For large RECURRING EVENTS, begin the planning well in advance. (Example: elections, tournaments, special holidays, etc.)

Hold a NEW YEAR’S ISSUE SUMMIT — an agenda-setting meeting of all station news personnel — and stipulate the top issues facing your region and how you plan to tackle them.

Plan an ANNUAL NEWS SERIES (with town hall meeting?) in which all news personnel contribute to an in-depth, original probe into a major news topic.

Long-term planning implies a system where long-range goals (usually a programming initiative) are defined, then broken down into near term actions. Set deadlines and hold regularly scheduled meetings to track progress.

The earlier you begin, the better you can assure the allocation of time and other resources into the intended outcome.

The ND is often in the best position to lead the effort but doesn’t have to manage every aspect. Consider assigning a team member as lead producer.

Long-term editorial planning can also inform strategies for better daily coverage. For example, an annual retreat may help set goals for particular news initiatives, which then are reviewed in monthly planning sessions, and carried out in daily assignment procedures.

One very strong method of connecting long-term strategy to near-term results is to use a beat system of coverage. The beat system promotes specialization by your reporters and deeper development of sources. In a beat system, you can reasonably expect your reporter to tackle high-priority, long-term issues by chipping away over time, using smaller stories to explore the larger context.

See How To’s → Establish Beats and Desks

Frame Your Story

Framing stories is a way of defining their outer contours so that they go far enough to be complete and as relevant as possible.

News stories are not documentaries; they don’t aim to be the definitive word on a large subject. However, they can go just far enough to make sure important questions are answered. Your job in framing a story is anticipating what the most important questions are.

Framing works in conjunction with the process of focusing. (See How-To’s → Focus Your Story)

In focusing a story, you find the heart of the story — who is doing what and why?

In framing a story, you define its greater reach. Questions may include:

  • What does this mean?
  • How do we evaluate it?
  • Does this fit a pattern?
  • How did a similar situation play out?
  • What came before this?
  • What happens next?

In most cases, you can provide sufficient context to almost any story by including a highly qualified expert in your story to provide analysis or perspective.

Another time-honored method is to grant the reporter a summary paragraph to analyze broader implications.

In some cases, the central story itself is sufficient to convey the level of meaning necessary. It is not unusual for a strong character in a story to simply articulate the greater meaning of their situation.

News Directors and their teams should strive to frame their stories as early in the process as possible. However, framing and re-framing are sometimes desirable later in the process when the core of the story is solid but the surrounding context remains malleable.

Focus Your Story

Think of yourself as a marksman. Your rifle is your radio station. Your bullet is your story — speeding through the air. Your target is the listener’s ear.

A direct hit for you is successful communication. There’s nothing random about it.

In radio, you only get one shot. Before you pull the broadcast trigger, set your sites and take careful aim. You want precise story focus.

As News Director, your most important task may be helping a reporter set their sites on a clear story target.

A sharply focused story idea can be summarized in a sentence: the “focus statement.” It is more than stating a story’s angle or theme. A theme is too broad. An angle is too vague.

The focus statement will usually provide three main elements: Who the story is about, What action that person or persons are doing, and Why they are doing it.

This Who-What-Why formula forces one to serve the natural story-telling power of radio. Most stories worth devotion of your time (both work time and air time) will conform to this because a) the most compelling stories are always about people, b) good stories convey progression or action, and c) it all has to matter to us — so there needs to be an explanation behind these people and these actions. The why for them is usually the why for us.

This is not to say that other story structures don’t have merit or allow focus. Some stories take as their subject an event, or a process, or an issue… But listeners will connect more readily and deeply if they can hold in their minds a picture of someone doing something.

Example: You get word of a bad day on Wall Street. The numbers reflect certain trends in the economy. You could report the numbers. But you choose to tell a story about an investor who refused to sell because he sees the trend differently. Your story includes the numbers and the trends but within a more engaging story.

It is imperative that story focus be articulated as early in the editorial process as possible, to avoid wasted effort later in reporting and writing the story.

To develop a rigorous routine in advance of all feature story assignments, consider using this worksheet to develop the story plan. It extracts best-thinking going into the story: Samples → Story Visioning Worksheet

The biggest obstacle to finding focus early is lack of information. If certain facts are unknown, certain individuals are not yet proven to be involved, or certain outcomes have yet to be established, then you may be prevented from defining the exact focus of your intended story. Nonetheless, it is possible to choose a working focus statement that serves to guide the story early on. If the facts fail to support the original hypothesis, you may choose to change the focus or kill the story.

Other common obstacles to story focus reside in poor planning or lazy habits. Reporters often proceed with vague notions of what might be interesting or important in a story, hoping to discover a focus somewhere along the way. It would be better to aim for what ideally would make it compelling and strive for that. Other reporters lack discipline and keep changing their focus as they go. The sharper the plan at the outset, the easier it will be to stick to it.

Finally, still others allow their focus to widen as they incorporate more and more aspects into their story so that the original thrust of their story fades and they end up with too broad a view without a meaningful focal point.

News Directors should make a distinction between a story idea and a story assignment. An idea does not become an assignment until it has been vetted to the extent that it can be articulated in a focus statement. When the focus statement defines a story clearly — and you deem it interesting and important — then you approve it as an assignment complete with a coverage plan and proper deadlines.

Deal with Difficult Employees

“Difficult” is a label we don’t actually use on our employees. We label the behavior, not the person.

For specific examples of problem behaviors and some customized responses, see How-To’s → Handle Difficult Behaviors

What follows is a series of general measures that will help you manage the troublesome behaviors of people you supervise.

Be sure to act as soon as possible when you see a problem emerging:

  • Document the facts. Identify the problem by clearly articulating it in observable or measurable terms.

As is often the case, communication becomes the key to resolving the issue:

  • Meet and discuss the problem directly with the employee. Don’t let it become personal. This is about achieving your mutual mission and goals through effective performance.

In this conversation, you need to agree on “the situation” and “the effects:”

  • Explain the facts as you see them and explain why or how this is a problem. (If the facts are in dispute, you weren’t quite ready for this conversation!)

You are the manager and you need to hold the employee accountable:

  • Focus on what to do next. Ask the employee for a plan to address the issue.

Come to a clear agreement and be ready to follow-through on your end. Be as formal as you think necessary based on the situation:

  • Write up the improvement measures and set reasonable deadlines. Share this document with the employee. Plan to revisit the issue by a specific date.

In most cases, these steps will isolate the issue at hand and give the employee the benefit of the doubt in rectifying it. Should this process repeat itself, you will have documentation with which to guide your actions. The more this process is necessary, the more you can make the case for termination.

What are some of the common mistakes in dealing with difficult conversations? Check these tips from the Harvard Business Review.

Establish a Crisis Coverage Plan

All radio newsrooms should prepare for how they will work during an emergency. It should go without saying that radio is crucial to the public welfare during a crisis and you’ll need to give an all-out effort in providing timely, accurate information and assistance. Moreover, as a news department during a crisis, you will either greatly increase or greatly decrease your audience’s opinion of you depending on how well you respond to their needs.

Disaster planning does not have to anticipate all possible scenarios. In fact, it can’t and needs to remain flexible. But it can anticipate levels of response and proscribe basic procedures according to those levels.

Here are some simple steps to preparing your crisis coverage plan:

  1. Appoint or hire someone to head up the effort and be sure to provide adequate time, support and resources to get the plan done. Build in deadlines as though a crisis may be headed your way.
  2. Hold meetings as necessary to collate information, strategies and tactics. Include personnel who can inform the effort or help carry it out. If it is the first time developing the plan, stay focused on the broad outline not the myriad details that can arise.
  3. Write the plan and introduce it to the entire station. Allow for discussion and possible modifications.
  4. Use the plan. When there is an emergency, apply the plan as best you can.
  5. Revisit the plan. Do so as soon after an emergency as you can. If you’ve had no disasters, be glad, but revisit the plan at least once a year anyway. Chances are you’ll be able to improve it just by reconsidering it.

So what goes into a crisis coverage plan? A lot maybe. But here are some of the basics. Consider devoting a page or section to each.

  • Mission. Declare your service intentions and their underlying values for times of crisis. This helps make clear why you’re doing this.
  • Response Levels. Use this 5-tier system but define for yourself what constitutes each level and how you’ll respond accordingly.
    1 — is the lowest level and can be managed using normal format
    2 — requires a heightened response while mostly staying in format
    3 — is a medium-high disaster response and breaks format as necessary
    4 — is a high level response but limited in its duration
    5 — is the highest level response and is on-going.
  • Command Structure. Decide in advance who is in charge during a crisis, and what other command roles are necessary for decision making. Often the News Director takes the lead here. Also think about how the plan may connect with city or county disaster preparedness efforts.
  • Programming Procedures. Decide in advance who may be where and doing what to deliver news programming in a crisis. Account for on-air and on-line. The higher the level, the more challenging the response will be. Level 5 may require hours of non-stop coverage. Consider media sharing opportunities and network relations.
  • Operations & Infrastructure: Review your information systems, your communications, your back-up power and transmission facilities. Decide in advance what roles are necessary to support field and studio programming efforts. Discuss roles for all station personnel should a level 4 or 5 crisis require an entire chain of activity.
  • Plan Practice & Upkeep: Assign a keeper of the plan and articulate the process you’ll use to revisit the plan or practice it.

You’ll scale your disaster plan to your station and market… but the bigger the disaster, the bigger the challenge no matter your resource level. Consider sharing resources at higher levels.

As most recent disasters have proven, radio is still the premiere information source — but low cost digital technologies offer new paths for delivery and all paths are crucial in a disaster.

NPR and NFCB collaborated to create a crisis planning toolkit for small stations. See the SAFER site.

Also see: Samples → Crisis Coverage Plan Template

Develop Employees

News people are “knowledge workers” who will grow in value to your station as they grow in knowledge, skill and experience. As a News Director, you play a vital role in helping your staff to grow.

Remember, this isn’t about reward (or punishment). It’s about making the most of your company’s investment. Besides, every employee wants to succeed. Your challenge is to match their desire with a well-crafted program.

Here are the main components of an annual employee improvement plan. Within your HR or labor policies, you should have a plan customized for each of your employees. Write it out, working collaboratively with the employee. Review it quarterly and as part of the annual review process. Apply it regularly or as opportunities allow.

  1. Goals for Skills: Based on job duties, identify key skills. Aim to develop skills through training and practice. Monitor and measure improvement.
  2. Goals for Empowerment: Based on leadership ability and experience level, identify ways to grow in responsibilities. Develop through training and practice. Monitor and gauge improvement.
  3. Goals for Compensation: Plan for adjustments to salary and benefits commensurate with role, responsibilities and growth in value.

The improvement plan proceeds from the requirements of the job description — but conforms to the individual’s particular assets or deficits. It is communicated through private meetings, periodic reviews (formal and informal), and routine feedback and discussion.

An improvement plan can also be used as a tool to cross-train employees and divert them to new areas of responsibility.

In the case of problematic employees, the plan may serve to head-off a termination — or it may help document the ultimate necessity of termination.

Hire Employees

Hiring is one of the most important processes you manage. By selecting the right person at the right time, you add immeasurably to your public service. Successful hiring requires effort long before and long after the hiring handshake.

Of course, you’ll need to work within the policy framework of your human resources department and/or your labor agreements. Just don’t leave hiring procedures to others. As News Director, you need to be as engaged as you can be in spelling out your needs and taking on as much of the process as you are able.
Hiring involves three phases: Recruitment, Selection and Orientation.

Recruitment

Recruitment is the most important phase. Bill Wareham of Minnesota Public Radio says he is always recruiting because he is also on the lookout for diverse talents and wants to be prepared when a position opens up.

When recruiting for a specific role, take time to define the job clearly while being mindful of your future plans. Recruitment also begins by articulating your ideal candidate’s qualities and skills.

Then you’ll need to lead an active effort to target the person or pool of persons who most fit your ideal profile. In general, you should cast your net far and wide being open and inclusive to all applicants — provided they meet your minimum criteria.

When you are clear on what you are seeking, you’ll need to construct an objective way of measuring those qualities prior to reviewing applicants. KPBS used a scoring system in which the News Director was able to assign values to key qualities.

See Sample-Reporter Hire Scoring Criteria

This instrument will help filter those candidates that are the strongest contenders for personal interviews later.

Selection

The selection phase begins when the recruitment has yielded a pool of eligible contenders. You’ll benefit by having multiple candidates in close competition. Moreover, though it can seem unwieldy, the process also benefits by having a well-selected hiring committee to help sort the contenders and conduct interviews. This is because an effective committee brings broader perspective to the selection process. Try to make the process expeditious for the sake of the candidate, but deliberate enough to assure a good long-term decision.

The strongest contenders should be invited to the station to meet the staff and consider the benefits of employment there. This usually corresponds with a formal hiring interview. Because of time and expense to conduct such visits, you’ll want to narrow your field of candidates down to the final two or three, maybe four. And while the criteria you used above still applies, you’ll now want to have a set of questions that you will ask each candidate equally.

See Samples → Reporter Hire Interview Questions

Orientation

Begin the orientation phase as soon as a candidate has accepted the job offer. Be sure to follow through completely. This phase should include an assessment of the candidate’s training needs and a break-in period during which the News Director (or a designate) will be highly attentive to the new employee’s needs. A proper orientation takes nothing for granted (such as understanding your news mission, staff roles and responsibilities, specific expectations, etc.) Gradually, your orientation process gives way to your employee performance improvement process.

Improve Your Delivery

News Directors may be the ones to coach their personnel toward more effective on-air delivery.

The basics every ND should know:

How to Hear and Analyze Delivery
How to Address Deficits
How to Encourage Good Habits
How to Promote Individual Styles

Hear and Analyze Delivery

Start by knowing the variables affecting delivery. You could sort the many variables into three main categories:

Vocal Foundation

  • Breath: the diaphragm and lungs
  • Vibration: the larynx (vocal cords)
  • Shaping & Toning: the pharynx and nasal cavity
  • Shaping & Articulating: the mouth and jaw (tongue, teeth, musculature)

Language Control

  • Pitch: high and low tones
  • Tempo: slow and fast speed
  • Volume: soft and loud intensity
  • Rhythm: pausing and phrasing
  • Enunciation: articulation

Practices and Environmental Influences

  • Scripts written to be said
  • Ability to concentrate and relax on-air
  • Ability to think and ad-lib on-air
  • Knowing accurate pronunciations
  • Proper microphone placement
  • Confidence and stamina
  • Good eyesight
  • General good health

ND’s should listen to their staff’s on-air delivery as a stranger might. They should encourage staff to conduct frequent air-checks to review their own delivery. Periodically, sit down and playback air-checks to discuss delivery. Note strengths and deficits. Be kind but be honest about what you hear. Make a plan to focus on improvements. Emphasize only one area of improvement at a time so as not to distract on-air performance. Allow time for practice and adjustments.

Address Deficits

Here are common problems in delivery and possible remedies:

  • Breathy — practice more shaping and articulation
  • Nasal — divert more breath through mouth
  • Hoarse — rest the vocal cords, perhaps adjust pitch
  • Pattern: Sing-Song — mark copy to emphasize key words
  • Halting — read in phrases or full ideas, not in words
  • Mumbly — exercise the musculature, practice articulation prior to air
  • Whiney — see remedy for nasal and sing-song
  • Slurred — see mumbly
  • Too Fast — mark copy areas to slow down: on complex ideas
  • Too Slow — mark copy areas to speed up: on simple or routine content
  • Monotone — work on using at least three levels of pitch — mid-pitch for most content, upper-pitch for emphasis on key words, low-pitch for endings.

When air-checking your staff, use this or a similar tool to rate performance:

Overall “Likeability”  1   2   3   4   5

Distractions? Describe: _____________________________

Vocal Foundation  1    2    3    4    5

Language Control 1   2   3   4   5

Practices/Other  1   2   3   4   5

Practice Good Habits

Emphasize the Goal: Clarity plus Humanity = Trusted Delivery

  • Clarity conveys information.
  • Humanity conveys feeling.

Manage Your “Physicality”

  • Exercise the diaphragm. Use diaphragmatic breathing.
  • Use good posture. Stand up if possible.
  • Warm up the larynx, pharynx, jaw and tongue.
  • Use “extreme exercises:”
  • Hold tongue behind teeth through script
  • Laugh through the script
  • High cry through the script
  • Hold low pitch through the script
  • Speed through the script
  • Relax!
  • Take pre-broadcast stretch.
  • Take cleansing breath (during countdown).

Manage Your “Mentality”

  • Be Alert. Concentrate.
  • Get good rest, diet, exercise.
  • Ignore distractions.
  • Shun “last minute-itis.”
  • Be natural. Conversational.
  • Speak to one listener – a likeable acquaintance.
  • Use a volume consistent with a 3-5 foot distance to the listener.
  • Relax but assert control.
  • Be empathic but not emotional.
  • Be focused but not intense.

Manage Your “Technicalities”

  • Know your microphone & settings.
  • Stay on microphone “beam.”
  • Aim breath past microphone diaphragm.
  • Set levels in advance. Mic first. Then the monitor.
  • Remove the headphones (if free to do so).

Manage Your Copy

  • Know what it says.
  • Know what it means.
  • Picture it.
  • Feel it.
  • Use hand and facial gestures.
  • Write it the way you say it.
  • Pre-read all copy out loud.
  • Keep one idea per sentence.
  • Mark copy as needed – such as key words, optional end points, etc.
  • Pronounce words properly:
  • Pre-read to avoid surprises
  • Use clear pronouncers, liberally
  • Look up, check any questionable terms, names

Promote Individual Styles

Longtime CBC trainer David Candow says your unique gift to the listener “is you.” Be yourself when you speak.

Turn a weakness into a strength. David Brinkley’s halting delivery was his trademark. He did it with conviction.

The more you “perform” the more you risk losing authenticity. Base your style on what comes naturally.

Style can be associated with the content. Newscasters cannot radiate too much personality, but reporters or hosts are given greater license. Are you more “Reflective?” “Hard boiled?” “Nutty?”

Newscasters and hosts often succeed when their delivery is not noticed. They still have a style – it just happens not to call attention to itself.

Do a ‘Sound Edit’

This is a simple but powerful technique to help you tell better stories. Use it after all facts and audio are gathered for a feature, but before writing the script.

  1. After gathering all audio for the feature, isolate or “pull” your preferred actualities.
  2. Using your audio editing software, arrange the bites in the sequence you plan to use them in the story.
  3. When you are ready, invite your editor to sit with you to hear this “audio skeleton” of the feature.
  4. Talking out loud to the editor, tell the editor your story while playing back the cuts from your computer. In other words, say generally what the anchor introduction would be, how you would set up the first bite, make a transition, and so on until you tell how the piece ends.
  5. Try not to interrupt the story for a conversation with the editor until after you’ve gone through the entire series of audio clips.

Several helpful things are accomplished by this exercise:

  • The power of the sound itself is laid bare. We better respect the sound’s tendency to drive the story.
  • It becomes instantly clear if the bites are in their “natural order.” Every story has a certain arc to it and the bites must support that.
  • Likewise, it will become eminently clear if you are lacking an essential voice.
  • Finally, if all is on track with the story, the reporter has now carried out a dress rehearsal for the actual writing of the script — writing that will approximate the conversational presentation just concluded.

Should the sound edit reveal a problem with the story, both the reporter and editor are in a much better position to make adjustments than if the reporter had already invested significant time in writing a script.

It should be said that this technique is not meant to replace the script edit. That should always happen prior to producing the final story.

Increase Story Impact

News Directors can lead routine processes that lend extra impact to any story worth the effort. Increased impact, in this case, means creating greater awareness of the story and increased likelihood the audience will receive the story.

Trigger any or all of the following procedures as soon as the reporting work is done.

  • Begin On-Air Story Promotion.
    1. Have the reporter pull a strong audio clip
    2. Have the reporter or editor write promo copy to go with it
    3. Route the promo to operations or air hosts
  • Begin web & Social Media Publishing (if you haven’t already)
    1. Have the reporter pull a photo
    2. Have the reporter or editor write headline and web brief
    3. Publish photo and copy to web
  • Extend Story to Talk Show
    1. Notify talk producer of story findings and reporter availability
    2. Help schedule reporter for Q and A in next show

Note the heavy demands on the reporter. But the ND is key here by asserting these processes are worthy, budgeting time for them, and coordinating the responsible parties to carry out the related tasks.

Schedule Employees

Scheduling is a basic function of management. While most employees come to expect rather fixed schedules, newsroom employees may not. After all, the nature of news defies predictability and convenience.

For reporters, scheduling flexibility is helpful and necessary. Reporters may need to adjust to early-morning events, or nighttime meetings, or weekend breaking news.

For anchors, of course, the opposite is true: schedule rigidity is essential. On-air shifts require anchors and hosts to be at their assigned posts in time to prepare and deliver the news according to the clock.

On any given day, you may have fixed-scheduled employees and flex-schedule employees. Fixed schedules will have regular start and end times. Flex-schedule employees will need on-going scheduling attention — but can be given default schedules that only change when variations are communicated.

While workers on flex-schedules are willing to adjust accordingly, they still desire as much advance notice as possible when deviating from the default schedule.

Holidays may bring variations to normal scheduling. It is common to grant some staff holidays while scheduling others to hold down key air-shifts. As holidays are known in advance, plan your holiday rotations as far in advance as possible. Use rotations to distribute the work fairly.

Similarly, you can ask employees to ease scheduling challenges by planning their vacations as far in advance as possible. It is important to accommodate the vacation needs of employees while maintaining a viable news service. With a combination of teamwork and planning, the newsroom can avoid “doubling up”on vacation dates.

Scheduling back up and fill in personnel will be easier if you have defined back-up personnel. Naming someone as “First Back-Up” and another “Second Back-Up” for an air host, for example, helps clarify who will respond and what procedures are enacted when that air host is unavailable.

You’ll have legal and labor rules to navigate in scheduling personnel. Be sure to work in cooperation with your human resource office. News work can be demanding and require unusual scheduling, but it is never an excuse for treating employees unfairly or denying them their due benefits or appropriate compensation.

Pitch Stories

The story pitch process requires at least two individuals, the person pitching the story idea and the person vetting it.

When a pitch is vetted and approved it can become an assignment.

When a reporter pitches a story, he or she usually has done enough research to say what the central focus is. To be focused, the reporter is clear on who the main players are, what action they are involved in, where the story tension is, and why this is of importance or interest to the public.

Typically, the reporter writes a “focus statement” to distill the idea down to a single sentence.

An editor vetting a story pitch will usually ask questions to elicit tighter focus, a better angle, a missed opportunity or some compelling aspect of the story. Questions may include: Who does this affect? How do you know this? What is missing here? Where will you go? What sounds would I hear? Why do I care about this? What other stories have been done on this?

See Samples → Editor Questions for Reporters

Other considerations may be logistical — such as time or cost or risk.

By challenging ideas this way we try to make them stronger. Sometimes ideas don’t hold up to the challenge and should be discarded. Sometimes the original idea morphs into a better idea.

Manage Meetings

News Directors are hinged to many activities at their stations, and that means they need to attend meetings. The trick is to make keep those meetings necessary and effective, focused and controlled.

Well-structured meetings are extremely helpful in accomplishing goals. Group meetings provide a good format for sharing, discussion and consensus. Private meetings are indispensible for dealing with individuals.

Unlike special meetings that are called for a specific purpose, regularly scheduled meetings are often the time-wasters. But these needn’t be the case. In fact, making strong use of the regularly scheduled meetings is a key to time management.

Here is a suggested schedule of standing meetings for a typical news director:

Annual with Team: Large agenda-setting meeting, or retreat, for annual or long-range planning. (2-6 hours depending on agenda) Schedule strategically within the budget planning cycle, or at the start of the calendar or fiscal year. If properly conducted, you’ll propel your most important initiatives.

Annual with Individuals: Annual performance reviews and individual goal-setting. (60 mins) Schedule on employee anniversary or as required by Human Resources. Requires 30 mins of preparation per review.

Quarterly or Semi-Annual with Individuals: Periodic “unofficial” personnel reviews to monitor goals and review performance. (30 mins approx.) Stagger schedule in relation to the annual anniversary. Will save time in the official review and go a long way in steering performance.

Monthly with Team: Offers opportunity for monitoring long-range plans. Can be devoted to special issues, training, or projects. (60-90 mins max.) Schedule in same window as weekly meeting time.

Weekly with Team: Opportunity to discuss past or upcoming editorial agenda, conduct listening sessions, and review recent issues. (30-60 mins max.) Consider scheduling on a Friday or Monday for best look ahead.

Daily with Team: Daily agenda setting. (Brief — 15-30 mins max.) Schedule as early as possible. Hold standing up.

As Needed: Schedule other meetings for groups or individuals requiring special consideration, or projects requiring special handling. Be sure to define the focus and set a time limit.

When it comes to planning a meeting, here is quick video tutorial that will help you “turbocharge” your meetings:

Manage Network Story Assignments

Ideally, you’d see it as part of your mission to file stories with NPR, Marketplace or other national or regional networks on your air.

There are many positive benefits in it:

  • your station receives wider audience recognition,
  • your station’s work is credentialed as network quality,
  • your newsroom grows its editorial linkages with the network,
  • your reporter gains experience,
  • your reporter earns some extra money.

But here are some of the issues that arise over network story assignments. The reporter may expect to work on station time or use station resources. The station may object to the extra reporter earnings or wish to control some aspect of the assignment.

In most cases, a simple policy can be adopted that extols the virtues of partnering with the network while establishing some respectful boundaries for all the parties.

So here are the tenets of a “shared work policy” that solves some of these matters:

A. The “shared work” policy is designed to maximize public service to station XXXX listeners.
B. Under the policy, the station news director may authorize reporters to work with an outside editor — on station work hours — to provide shared coverage when certain conditions are met.
C. These conditions are 1) The report is original (not a reversion), 2) The reporter’s time commitment is consistent with time typically allotted for an XXXX story, and 3) The reporter does not incur overtime.
D. The station reporter may accept the customary “filing fee” as an offset to extra work required.
E. If a reporter has already done a story on station XXXX and then pitches it to an outside editor, it does not qualify for this shared work policy. However, as an incentive to encourage wider distribution of station stories (for many of the same benefits mentioned above), reporters can reversion the local story on their own time, while using station XXXX facilities. The reporter may accept a filing fee for a re-versioned story to compensate for the personal time required.
F. Any public radio network or program that is not carried on station XXXX cannot share the reportorial resources of the station under this policy. Should a reporter wish to file a story for that other entity, the reporter may discuss with the News Director the option of doing the assignment for station XXXX first — then re-version the story on his/her own time.
G. At no time should a station reporter use XXXX time or XXXX facilities for personal purposes.

As you can see, this policy encourages the best kind of network assignment — one that hasn’t aired on your station yet. When it does air, it will be in a network news slot, which should be welcomed by you. Though the network technically owns the rights to the work, it is customary to treat the rights as shared allowing you the right to air the work again in another slot if you choose. However, should you wish to distribute the work on other platforms or submit it in an awards program, you should check with the network first.

Also, note that the News Director must authorize the network assignment. It is generally unacceptable for a station reporter to proceed on a network assignment without ND approval.

Manage Your Time

Time management is critical if you are to be effective in your job and maintain a balanced life.

To make your time management systematic, you will need a calendar-based organizer (paper or electronic). You should stick to ONE organizer for all your needs, professional and personal.

Your organizer should include (or connect with)

  • An ongoing project list — This is a convenient collection of all the things, large and small, you are juggling in your job. A project is anything that cannot be done in a single action.
  • A daily action list — This is a collection of actions you intend to complete on any given day.

There are three main tricks to tackling projects and actions efficiently: Prioritizing, Scheduling and Delegating.

Prioritization

Prioritizing is the deliberate process of categorizing projects or actions according to their importance in your success and happiness. It is helpful to assign an A, B or C to each item to help choose where to put your time and energy.

Sample-Priorities Worksheet

To help clarify the process of prioritization, practice using this worksheet. It works for both projects and daily actions. The worksheet would have you categorize your items in one of the four boxes. Note that the most urgent items are not always the most important, yet urgency tends to drive our time allocation. If you can quickly dispatch the items in box “A,” you can devote more time to the important items in box “B.” Avoid the temptation of box “C” and don’t even think about doing those items in box “D!”

Delegation

One way of quickly dispatching a “to do” item is to delegate the work to someone else, provided it can be handled as well or better by your delegate. Make the delegated task clear. Having an assistant whose job requires frequent handling of delegated tasks can be a great resource — allowing you to use your time for the high priorities.

Time management in busy newsrooms is made extra difficult by the very nature of news. You cannot ignore unplanned occurrences because you live to deal with them — however you don’t need to manage everything. Show your trust in others by allowing them to help manage some situations.

Scheduling

Seems obvious but takes discipline: scheduling is the process by which you break your project list down into “daily actions” for particular days and perhaps even for particular times.

To schedule, review your project list weekly. Prioritize the list. For high priority items, decide the “next action necessary.” Then schedule that action on an upcoming daily action list.

Every day, review and prioritize your daily action list. (Your first action each day should be to prioritize your list.)

Following these methods will help impose order on the chaos. By reviewing all your projects, breaking them down into manageable actions — while constantly checking your priorities — you can handle them in your discretionary time.

Use your discretionary time wisely. You may try protecting certain hours in a week for your high priorities. Let your staff know that those isolated hours are crucial for the long-range stability of the department and ask that they support you in the effort.

Finally, don’t forget to drive out the time-wasters: many high-urgency/low-importance phone calls, emails and office visits are unproductive and sap your valuable time.

Handle Difficult Behaviors

In a training session by the Poynter Institute, PRNDI managers were given a set of techniques for dealing with different types of behaviors one would consider “difficult” or “negative.”Here are links to the worksheets used. Each sheet provides “tools and techniques.” (Below each link are hints of the content covered by that worksheet.)

Managing Behaviors 01

  • Active Listening
  • Boomerang
  • Naming a Behavior

Managing Behaviors 02

  • Confrontation
  • Document Behavior
  • Enforce Rules
  • Feedback Session

Managing Behaviors 03

  • Firing Someone
  • Ground Rules
  • Humor
  • Ignoring Behavior

Managing Behaviors 04

  • Illuminating Situations
  • Open-Ended Questions
  • Role Reversal
  • Silence

Managing Behaviors 05

  • Unexpected Response
  • Validation

Plot the Interest-Importance of a Story

Ultimately, the value of your news is defined by the subjective experience of the listener. One listener may value highly a story that another listener finds irrelevant. Your challenge, in general, is to identify and shape stories that have the highest likelihood of providing the broadest and deepest relevance to any random listener.

Determining what is newsworthy is part art, part science. It is important that you explore both and not leave the definition to others. In this way, you make your station’s news as distinctive and as relevant as you can.

Many factors drive news value. A person involved may be well known. An event may command wide notice. The topic seems to preoccupy everyone. A predicted outcome threatens to impact all residents. We may be drawn by the immediacy of the news. Or the severity of it. Even the local-ness of a story can cause the news value meter to jump.

These are all valid. But with limited resources at our disposal — and serving a discerning audience of high expectations — we must make strategic decisions about what to cover. Those stories, ultimately, need to be Important and Interesting.

Here is a simple way to compare relative news values of stories by quantifying their Interest and Importance.

News Value Matrix

The graph below uses a vertical vector to measure a news story’s “importance.” It uses a horizontal vector to measure “interest.” The scale ranges from “few” listeners to “many” listeners.

IMPORTANCE
/\
(many)
|
|
|
|
|
(few)————(many)> INTEREST

To use this matrix, take stories you are considering and plot their relative IMPORTANCE and INTEREST on the graph. A story completely on the x axis would be terribly dull (no interest) and a story completely on the y axis would be entirely without consequence (no importance). A story placed toward the lower left affects/interests fewer people than a story toward the upper right.

For example, Story A is about a film celebrity who reportedly had an extramarital affair. Story A is interesting to many but has actual importance to few. Story B is about a rewrite of the state tax code by a bi-partisan task force. Story B affects many but is not too scintillating. Story C is about a local boy killed in an accident. Story D is about a food-borne pathogen in the nation’s meat supply. Story D is clearly our most interesting AND important story.

IMPORTANCE
/\
(many)
|
|  B                        D
|
|
|
|
|  C                       A
(few)—————–(many)> INTEREST

Our goal is to find and tell stories that are both important and interesting to the most listeners. Over time, the points on our map should cluster along the diagonal… and as far toward the upper right as we can make them while still serving our particular audience.

Jay Allison’s Tips for Gathering Tape in the Field

Jay Allison is a much admired independent radio producer. Among his honors are PRNDI’s Leo C. Lee Award and the CPB’s Edward R. Murrow Award. These tips were originally published online by AIR.

Note: Although many of these notes apply to any interview situation, they focus on talking to people in their own environment, people who are not accustomed to being recorded.

One of the advantages to working in radio is that you are low-impact. When setting up interviews by phone, remind your interviewees that you are not a film/TV crew. It’s just you and a tape recorder…non-intimidating. They’ll still ask you what channel it’ll be on.

Make using your equipment second-nature — if you do, it will disappear. Know your tools well enough so the technical details won’t get in the way of communicating. Become comfortable. If you are, everyone else will be.
For Vox Pop, go where people are waiting. If it seems appropriate, walk right up with your sentence about what you’re doing and attach the first question to it. I’ve heard it suggested that the best tape comes from people in funny hats.

Have everything set up before you walk in. Sit in the car (or the subway station, or the bushes) to load and label your first tape, prepare your next tapes for fast changes, set your levels, etc. You might even want to walk in with the machine running, if it’s appropriate.

Close-mic…about six inches from the speaker’s mouth and a bit off to one side to avoid P-pops. Go closer if they speak very quietly, or further away if they are loud.

Use micing distance as a volume control, i.e. move in for whispering and out for loud laughter. Don’t change the volume at the machine for this kind of quick change. You can use the built-in limiter or automatic gain control (AGC or ARL) in very changeable level situations. If you are in a very noisy background that you want to reduce, mic your subject even more closely (2-4 inches) and re-set your record levels.

Try to record away from hard surfaces…walls, etc. Don’t record across a desk because you can get phase cancellation from the reflected sound. In general, it’s risky to let the interviewee hold the microphone. Sometimes lavaliere mics can be helpful, but they attract noise and eliminate your control.

If you’re recording more than one person at a time, get them to gather around you and follow the conversation with your microphone.

If you want a quiet interview, try to get on a couch in a room with curtains and a rug. Set everything up the way you like it before you start. Be sure to check for interfering noise, like air conditioners, florescent lights, refrigerators, traffic, radios, noisy crumpling of candy wrappers in front of the microphone, etc. Get away from noise or have it turned off. A musical background is very difficult to edit. Loud hums are annoying, because they add nothing and don’t make sense.

Often a noisy environment is exactly what you want. And be sure also to get the noise by itself without any talking over it.

I often like to move around during interviews. Get people up and walking — “Show me”. This can relax people and take their minds off the recording. Have the person describe where you are and what you’re doing. Refer to objects and sights around you. But try to keep the mic close to them. All this will reinforce a sense of place, action and immediacy for the listener. Moving around also gives you a variety of acoustical environments as structuring options in your final piece… possibilities for movement in time and space.

Let people talk. Allow silence. Don’t always jump in with questions. Often, some truth will follow a silence. Let people know they can repeat things — that you’re not on the air — it’s ok to screw up. And remember to offer something of yourself. Don’t just take. Think of the listener’s innocence; ask the obvious, along with the subtle.
If you interrupt or overlap your voice with your interviewee’s, you won’t be able to edit yourself out. This will eliminate that sense of the interviewee communicating directly with the listener; instead the listener will be an eavesdropper on your conversation. It commits you to a production decision. If you want to leave your production options open, don’t laugh out loud, or stick in “uh-huh” or other vocal affirmations. You must let your subjects know you’re with them, but use head nods, eye contact and develop a silent knee-slap and guffaw.

If you do want your presence in the interview, think about perspective. Do you want your voice to be very on-mic? If so, then you should move the mic up to your own mouth for your questions. Do you want to defer the primary focus to the interviewee, but have your questions legible? Then, pull the mic back half-way to yourself or speak up loudly. Practise these choices and use what approach is best for a given piece.

Remember eye contact. Don’t let the mic be the focus — occupying the space between you and the person you’re talking to so you have to stare through it. I usually begin by holding the mic casually, as though it’s unimportant. Sometimes I’ll rest it against my cheek to show it has no evil powers. I might start off with an innocuous question “Geez, is this as bad as the smog ever gets out here?”, then slowly move the mic, from below, into position at the side of the person’s mouth, but not blocking eye contact. You’ll find your own way of being natural with the mic, but it is important.

Don’t be afraid to ask the same thing in different ways until you get an answer you’re satisfied with. Remember you can edit the beginning and ending of two answers together, but be sure to get the ingredients. If a noise interferes with a good bit of tape, try to get it again. You can blame it on the machine, but it might be better just to wrap the conversation back to the same place so you don’t get the quality of someone repeating himself.

For repeat answers or more enthusiasm, try: “What?!” or “You’re kidding!” or “Really??” Remember the question: “Why?”, especially following a yes or no response. Don’t forget the preface: “Tell me about…”

Make idle conversation when you must turn over or change the cassette, so you don’t break your flow or re-attract attention to the recording gear. But don’t take that moment to inspire a wonderful response.

Sometimes I make a list of questions before an interview and half-memorize it. I don’t follow it during the interview, but keep it handy to check before the end to pick up anything I forgot.

Get all the sundry sounds, like phones ringing, dogs barking, clocks ticking, etc. — they can be useful for editing. Leave the machine running for stuff that seems irrelevant…it might not be. Yes, leave the recorder running. If you turn it off, they’ll say the most perfect thing you ever heard. Don’t pack up your stuff until you are gone. Allow people the chance to say things in conclusion. Ask them who else you should talk to. You might want to record them saying their names and what they do. Get room tone at the end.

Remember you can always use your recorder like a dictating machine, either for on-location narration or for note-taking. Don’t forget to look as well as listen. Note specifics about what you see and feel. Immediately after an interview, make some notes about what you remember…what mattered.