WATE News Director Robb Atkinson invited KnoxViews.com to spend a day with the Channel 6 News Team to see how local TV news gets produced. As someone who has always been interested in how local media works, I couldn't pass up the opportunity.
I accepted Robb's invitation and spent all day Wednesday with the "dayside" 6 News team, from the morning production meeting, to the news gathering and reporting, all the way through to the broadcast.
It was fascinating and educational, not only in terms of what I learned about the business of producing TV news, but also in the sense that I had no idea how much work goes into a local TV news broadcast. A TV news reporter works a full and hectic day to get one minute and thirty seconds of news reporting on the air. The finished product may make it look easy, but trust me, it's not.
Full (and long) report after the jump...
Yesterday morning at 9:30 I found myself in a strange world of "show and tells," "walk and talks," "look-lives," "VO-SOTs", "full screens," and "over the shoulders." I was sitting in a conference room with WATE's 5:00 and 6:00 news teams. FOX News was showing on a monitor in the corner. There was a large white board on the wall where today's newscasts were taking shape in columns titled "crews," "follow," "top story," and "other stories." At the top of the board, someone had written "6 News Style: More Information, Investigate & Discover, Make it Active, Make it Urgent."
Assignment Manager Joey Creed went over some happenings of the day, such as who was in court, scheduled PR events, overnight car crashes, etc., and then went around the room to hear what the broadcast producers, reporters, news director, and executive producer had brought to the table. Story ideas were flying around the room in a crossfire of ideas and discussion. Some hit the mark, other fell short. At some point that wasn't exactly clear, the meeting was over, the broadcasts were set, and we were off to the races.
Story ideas come from a variety of sources. Tips and e-mails, viewer calls, newswires, press releases, local newspapers, and sometimes even blogs. In one respect, the process is similar to blogging -- digesting huge streams of information from a vast ocean of sources, and trying to make enough sense of it to distill it down to a one-minute thirty-second report. But unlike bloggers who depend on someone else to do the actual reporting, people in the newsroom have to hit the pavement to get the story. They make it look easy, but it's a lot harder than it looks.
(One source that apparently isn't much of a source is the Knox County Sheriff's Department, and this is both a sore spot and a running joke in the newsroom. Part of the problem is that the Sheriff's Department doesn't have a full-time public information officer. The Sheriff's Office apparently decides what they want the media to know and when they want them to know it. And in some cases, which media.)
The first thing that struck me was how young all these people are. I'm pretty sure I was the oldest person in the room. The next thing that struck me was how democratic the process is. Everyone from the news director on down pitched their ideas, and everyone's ideas got a fair hearing. (It was interesting to note, however, that two of the news director's pitches became the 5:00 and 6:00 leads.) Once it was decided what the stories of the day would be, reporters and videographers (or "photogs") paired up to go out and get their stories as producers went off to plan their broadcasts. After that everybody is on their own, working independently with no supervision but plenty of support.
As for how it was decided what the stories of the day would be, I'm not exactly clear on how that evolved. The best way I can describe it is that there was a sort of "organic" process at work. My sense was that this is a group of experienced people who know their business, know their audience, and know what to do.
For example, at one point there was discussion regarding who should carry a story about a new hybrid car technology. Some were urging the 5:00 producer to air it. She didn't think her demographic would be buying any hybrid cars, so she didn't think it was a fit. And that was that. The story aired on the 6:00 broadcast.
In general, there was a sort of unspoken communication going on, similar to spouses in a marriage. Which was another thing that struck me. They operate as a family, with everyone watching everyone else's back and cooperating however they can to make a good product.
There are business considerations that influence news decisions, too. News Director Robb Atkinson said that WATE has a huge ratings advantage with the Oprah lead-in to their 5:00 newscast. They own the "women 25-54" demographic at 5:00, and their research shows that 60% of those viewers stay on for the 6:00 broadcast. Their secret weapon, though, is 5:00 Producer Tiffany Myers, a high-energy, hard-working woman who pulls the stories together and runs the control room during the broadcast. Robb said that she is a seven-time ratings winner in her time slot.
(As an aside regarding the competitive nature of the local TV news business, I was amused by a sign posted in the newsroom with week-by-week recognition of news teams in categories such as "Best Live Shot", "Best Video", "Best Clear-and-Easy to Understand", and "Best Hustle". The last category was the "Straight Through the Heart Award". If you're from around here, you'll get the reference.)
After the meeting, I spoke briefly with Assignment Manager Joey Creed about his role. All the news is funneled through his department, where it gets filtered and fact-checked (as you can imagine they get lots of calls from nuts, including some regulars), and assigned to reporter/photog teams. Joey also listens to the police monitors (which are constantly blaring in the newsroom) and can pull a reporter off their story at any time if there is breaking news. Joey is also there to provide support such as directions to a scene, backup information, phone numbers, or whatever a reporter in the field might need.
I also spoke briefly with Executive Producer Derrall Stalvey about the meeting. He noted that even with all the ideas tossed around, there wasn't enough on the board for a 30 minute newscast, and that in addition to the local reporting, anchors would cover stories from other sources such as news wires. On a slow news day, he said they would "enterprise" a story, which means taking something like a wire report or local event and doing more in-depth investigation or analysis that adds to the story. He also noted that all of it could be out the window if there was breaking news.
So, with those initial thoughts out of the way, here is my minute-by-minute account of a "day in the life" of a WATE 6 News story...
9:30 AM: Production meeting
Assignment Manager Joey Creed goes over the day's events, with an update on the animal crematory case in court, the Jo Dee Messina performance for a benefit at Farragut High, a new hybrid technology being developed at ORNL, new forensic research at the Body Farm, and a fatal overnight crash involving teens.
6PM Lead Reporter Erica Estep has a Tri-Cities brewer who takes used vegetable oil and makes alternative fuel, an idea about 911 emergency call center backup in case of weather related disasters and whether there is any in Knox County, whether child care workers know what signs of child abuse to look for (as a tie in to April being Child Abuse Awareness month), and the effect of all the recent bad weather on worker's paychecks (such as construction workers, road builders, etc.)
5PM Lead Reporter Amelia Graham has a tip on a restaurant worker shortage in Gatlinburg related to the recent immigration sting and rumors that some immigrant workers aren't showing up for work because they are afraid they will be arrested. (Ed. note: I thought this was a pretty good story, but there seemed to be a sense that the tip might be weak and that it would be hard to get employers on the record.)
Consumer Reporter Don Dare (6 On Your Side) has a story about home warranties and how not to become a "victim of fine print."
6PM Producer Kara Pesavento has a story from the Maryville Daily Times about meth user's life expectancy only being 5 to 7 years once they start using, which led to discussion about the impact on health care workers and families, and suggestions that it was something they could show with cat scans, or even autopsy reports.
5PM Senior Producer Tiffany Myers has an item on a juvenile murder suspect's trial being moved to adult court, remains of a missing Blount Co. woman possibly being identified, and an item from Good Morning America about an online children's ID registry service that could be used if needed for Amber Alerts (which I believe aired but I can't find a link).
Executive Producer Derrall Stalvey has an item about the "power of words" related to gas prices in South Knox being down 8 cents after Bush's speech on gas price initiatives the previous day, a report from personal experience about pediatricians recommending hepatitis-A shots for children over 2 because of last year's restaurant outbreak, and a suggestion that teasers for the Body Farm story need to promote what's new about the story because they have done so many Body Farm stories.
News Director Robb Atkinson has a bomb threat involving an 11 year old girl as the suspect (but details are sketchy), an e-mail sent to Anchor Gene Patterson from a U.T. professor who observed service dogs being kicked out of Foothills Mall, a note to 6PM Producer Kara Pesavento to tease an 11PM story they are investigating regarding a tip that the World's Fair Giant Rubik's Cube was found in the dump, and UT's plan for football games at an empty Neyland Stadium in the event of a bird flu outbreak.
(Around this point, someone popped in to report that a car had just crashed into a building downtown. A quick decision was made to get a videographer over there to shoot video for a "show and tell," meaning no reporters or interviews with cops or victims or anything, just video from the scene with anchor voice-over during the broadcast.)
Assignment Manager Joey Creed has an item about Knox County getting their first check from the KnoxRX prescription card program (this story aired and I can't find a link, but the amount was $1100), and a study from a Christian news wire service about children of gay parents growing up to be gay.
The board is filled for the 5PM and 6PM newscasts and teams are assigned to the stories. The lead stories will be the service dogs at Foothills Mall, and the UT bird-flu football plan. 5PM Reporter Amelia Graham will cover the service dog story, and 6PM Reporter Erica Estep will cover the UT bird-flu story.
News Director Robb Atkinson asks which reporter I'd like to tag along with. It's a tough call. UT football at an empty Neyland Stadium is sure to cause mass hysteria, and mass hysteria is always entertaining. On the other hand, I live in Blount Co., I shop at Foothills Mall, I'm a dog lover and pet owner, I have a sister with multiple disabilities who has been involved in ADA lobbying and activism, the story involves civil rights and a big corporation v. disabled people, and bonus -- it has puppies. I choose the service dog story.
10:45: Amelia works her sources
Starting from an e-mail to Anchor Gene Patterson from a UT professor, 5PM Lead Reporter Amelia Graham has tracked down the principals in the service dog story. She's on the phone trying to reach Tiffany Denyer, the operator of Wilderwood Service Dogs, a Maryville non-profit that trains service dogs for people with mental or psychiatric disabilities. Tiffany and another trainer were apparently told to take their service dogs and leave Foothills Mall.
Amelia finally gets hold of Ms. Denyer and asks her what happened. She makes a few notes about the details, and asks Ms. Denyer if she is available for an interview. Ms. Denyer works until 5:30. The story airs at 5:00. Amelia is very persuasive. She asks if they could do it during her lunch break. She says they can meet somewhere away from Ms. Denyer's workplace if that's a concern. She gets Ms. Denyer to agree to a lunch-hour interview. She also asks if the dogs can be there. Ms. Denyer will have to get back to her on that.
News Director Robb Atkinson stops by to see how it's going, and suggests maybe Amelia could get a quote from an ADA lawyer.
(While we're waiting for the return call, I notice Amelia's diploma from the University of Florida. Her real name is Amelia Earhart. No, I'm not making that up. She has a book about "regular Americans with famous names" in which she's featured. She said her producer on her first TV job told her she couldn't use that name, so she chose to use her middle name, Graham, and it has stuck ever since.)
At 11:00, Ms. Denyer calls back and says she can get the dogs, but the trainer is two hours away and the dogs will need to be bathed and groomed. Amelia arranges to (hopefully) meet the trainer with the dogs at Foothills Mall later in the afternoon and sets up a second interview and video shoot.
By now, I was wondering how Amelia knew the tip was good and how she knew she would be able to get the story. It's already getting pretty late for the 5PM news cycle (to me, anyway), and I would have been pretty nervous about this all coming together. But Amelia is a pro who has done this before. She knows the tip is good because it came from a UT professor by way of Gene Patterson, so there's plenty of credibility. The rest of it is instinct, and confidence in her ability to get people to talk. She says stories like this turn out to be duds only about twice a week, usually because they can't get anyone to talk. But she adds that it usually happens to someone else and not her.
At some point, Amelia goes over to see Matt Barrick, who works in marketing and is in charge of those "teasers" you see all day that promote upcoming stories on the news. She explains her story, and he seems to be giving her a hard time. He acts like he doesn't get it and says something about "seeing eye dogs." Amelia goes off on him, explaining that this is exactly the kind of public misperception about service dogs the story is all about. He says, "OK, but can I call them 'capable canines'?" Amelia rolls her eyes. As we're walking away, I asked her why she was pitching her story so hard? Was it because Matt could yank it if he didn't like it? She explained that he was just kidding around with her as usual, and that she was selling it hard because she wanted him to promote it hard.
At 11:15, Amelia checks in with Assignment Manager Joey Creed, asks where her "photog" is, and gets directions to Ms. Denyer's workplace which is way out in the sticks. (I ask Joey why their news vehicles aren't GPS/nav equipped. He said "I'm the GPS navigation system" and showed me his extensive collection of detailed maps.)
While we're waiting for the videographer to bring the newsmobile around (we didn't get to go in one of the super-expensive tricked-out satellite-feed-equipped live-remote rigs -- we went in WATE Mercury Sable #5) I asked Amelia if she knew what she was going to ask Ms. Denyer and the other trainer. She said she usually just asks them to tell their story in their own words and tries to avoid prompting or leading them so it's more real. But, she said that for government official types she would have prepared questions.
She also confides that she's a little uncomfortable about the story, because she was once bitten and severely injured by a German Shepherd and hasn't liked dogs ever since. But she's a trooper and the show must go on. (Or to paraphrase Tom Hanks, "there's no whining in TV news!")
11:25: On the road with Amelia and videographer Mark Mowbray
At 11:25 Amelia, videographer Mark Mowbray, and I are on our way to Ms. Denyer's workplace, which as I mentioned is way out in the sticks in Blount Co. At 12:00, we're lost and it's my fault. Mark had asked if our turn was past Pellissippi Parkway, and I said yes. It wasn't. We drove right by where we were supposed to turn just as I was saying that. I felt awful, especially since I live over here and should know the area. But it has been years since I had been to this particular location, so that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.
Amelia gets on her cell-phone to get Joey's help in guiding us back on track. As she's holding, Ms. Denyer calls on the other line with an update on the dogs and wondering where we are. When Amelia tells her, she says we are way on the other side of the county and gives Amelia directions.
At 12:06 we are recovered from being lost and approaching Ms. Denyer's workplace. We meet her outside at 12:09 and drive to another location for the interview.
Mark sets up his Sony Betacam SX video camera and tripod, as Amelia explains to Ms. Denyer how the interview will go, positions her, puts her at ease, adjusts her clothes a little, and gets some names, dates, and other facts for the story. They hook up the microphones, Mark shoots a blank white page from Amelia's notebook to get a "white balance" (a term that should be familiar to digital photographers) and Amelia begins the interview.
Ms. Denyer is an excellent interviewee. She appears perfectly at ease, she is expressive, articulate and well-spoken, and she's knowledgeable. She has her facts down and communicates her story well. (I later remarked that the interview "seemed pretty golden to me." Amelia and Mark agreed, and Mark noted that it's always easier when you are talking to someone who knows their stuff.)
At 12:29 the interview is finished, Mark packs the video camera away, we drop Ms. Denyer off at her workplace, and we are back on the road to Foothills Mall to meet up with the trainer and the service dogs and to shoot more video.
While en-route, Amelia gets the number for Foothills Mall, calls, and asks to speak to the manager. The manager is away at a conference in Atlanta. There's no one else who can speak to Amelia about the incident. Amelia is polite but assertive. This story is running at 5:00 today, here's what we're going to say, so please get a message to the mall manager that we would like to get a statement so we can report their side of the story. She finds out who owns Foothills Mall, and gets C.B.L. & Associates, Inc. of Chattanooga on the phone. She asks if they have a PR person or someone from management who would like to comment. I didn't note how that conversation went, but I believe the answer was no and that they referred her back to the mall manager.
At this point I was wondering why Amelia hadn't already contacted Foothills Mall, and what she would do if they didn't respond. She said that if they didn't return her call she would just go on the air and say they "declined comment." (Memo to self: if a reporter on deadline leaves you a message seeking comment, you probably ought to return the call pronto.) As for why she waited to contact them, she explained that until she talked to Ms. Denyer, she didn't have all the details about the story for the mall to respond to. (Which is the perfectly logical answer that should have been obvious, but I'm a little slow sometimes.)
12:52: At the Foothills Mall
We arrive before the other trainer and the dogs, and we are on the lookout for a "chartreuse" older model pickup. (And yes, it really was chartreuse.)
While we're waiting, Amelia discusses her "ins and outs" with Mark. She explains to me that she will record her lead-in to the story from outside the mall, and that she will record a couple of different "lead-outs" -- one with a spot to insert a "full screen" with a voice-over of the mall's response if she gets one, and another with "declined comment" if she doesn't, plus different endings for WATE and the local Fox affiliate who contracts WATE for all their on-air news. ("From Maryville, this is Amelia Graham reporting for 6 News" v. "Amelia Graham reporting for Fox43 News.")
Also while we're waiting, Amelia calls her producer to get her to read the "anchor toss" (the on-air anchor's introduction to the story when it is broadcast) so she can tie it in with her lead-in for continuity. (Yes, this stuff is done pretty much on the fly without a script, which actually comes after the fact.)
Trainer and Wilderwood kennel manager Loran Moyers arrives with a pickup truck load of the cutest puppies and dogs you're likely to see. Chaos ensues as we all try to corral the dogs long enough for Amelia to get an interview and Mark to get compelling cute puppy video. The interview goes well, and Mark gets some close-ups of the dogs' "service dog" vests and certification/credential tags, and of Loran's laminated pocket summary of ADA service dog regulations.
Mark seems a little nervous. He's keeping an eye out for mall security. He's worried this is taking too long and that they are going to show up at any minute to run us off. There are also some creative differences between Amelia and Mark regarding her lead-in shot. He says she doesn't look poised all tangled up with the dogs, one of which is chewing on a microphone cord, and that the shot doesn't have continuity with the other video they have.
Amelia takes the camera and reviews her lead-in through the viewfinder. She's satisfied. She wants to lead off with the dogs, because they are the story, and the "anchor toss" says something like "Reporter Amelia Graham tracks down the key players," which Amelia insists are the dogs.
By 1:30, Amelia has wrapped up her interview and her "lead-in", and we wait in the car while Mark gets "locator" shots, also known as "b-rolls" (which is a term relating to how audio was recorded with film in pre-videocam days, according to Mark's great technical explanation that went right over my head). "Locators" (or "b-rolls") are shots of things like the mall's sign or people coming and going at the mall that are inserted in the final video to set the scene and for fills between interview segments for voiceovers (if I understand it correctly).
Mark likes the light today. It is overcast, so there's no harsh light or reflections or stray light bouncing around. Amelia likes it too. She hates it when her nose casts a big shadow on her face in direct sunlight.
While we're waiting, Amelia gets a callback from Foothills Mall management. It sounds like they are being pretty defensive, and denying that they kicked anyone with service dogs out of the mall. There's apparently some discussion as to whether these were even really "service dogs" because they obviously weren't "seeing-eye dogs", which is sort of the whole point of Amelia's story - not all disabilities are obvious, and not all service dogs are for those with obvious disabilities. Anyway, Amelia gets the spokesperson to agree to provide a written statement.
By 1:45, Mark has finished his "locaters/b-rolls" and we decide to get lunch while we wait for the mall's written statement. Mark takes his video camera out of the trunk and inside the restaurant with him. (This made me a little nervous about leaving my camera in the car.) I asked if he would be on the hook for the cost of the camera if it got stolen. He said they have insurance, but he would probably get fired if he lost such an expensive piece of equipment so he doesn’t take any chances.
During lunch, Amelia gets a call informing her that the statement is ready. At 2:26 we are back at the mall and Amelia has the written statement in hand.
At this point, Amelia decides to re-shoot part of the video now that she has a statement. Mark is even more nervous about security, now that mall management knows we're there and probably none too happy about it. We spot a security car, but they were apparently watching something else. Mark and Amelia get the shot in one take and we are out of there in a flash.
This was something else that impressed me. These guys work fast and efficiently, and they don't make mistakes that result in wasted time and effort. I remarked that it sometimes takes me 20 or 30 shots with my camera to get one I like. But unlike me, Mark and Amelia are pros, and they've done this before.
Another thing that's interesting is the transformation that comes over the on-air reporter once the camera starts rolling. In normal conversation, Amelia talks and acts just as normal as you and I. (Well, actually more normal than me, but that's neither here nor there.) When the camera starts, there's an exaggerated precision in her speech, her posture is perfect, leaning in to the camera giving a sense of urgency, and her gestures are very precise and practiced. I didn't ask her about it, but I'm sure it's something you learn and that it has to do with how you come across on TV. At any rate, it's interesting how she can casually switch it on and off.
(I also noticed that somewhere along the way Amelia learned the correct pronunciation of "Murvul". When the Mrs. watched the web video, this was the first thing she noticed. "Hey, she knows how to pronounce 'Murvul'!")
On the way back to the studios Amelia was explaining what would happen next, and I asked about how the story gets on the web. More on that later, but I mentioned that I was impressed how WATE is frequently first online with breaking news, and I mentioned Fire Chief Perez's resignation as an example.
Somehow (my fault again, actually), this led to a long and heated discussion about how that situation was reported, and how it appeared that local media was either being manipulated by City Hall or just going along with a "hatchet job" by the "good old boys". It turns out that Mark shot the video for one piece of the evolving story, and he was proud of it. Amelia asked what they were supposed to do and how should they have handled it differently? She has a point, but my feeling was that they should either ignore stuff like that or dig deeper to see if there is something else going on. I think we agreed to disagree, but I hope I didn't offend either Mark or Amelia because that wasn't my intent.
3:05: Back at the WATE newsroom
We arrive back at the WATE newsroom, where the real work begins. As Mark is stowing his video camera, I ask if the videographers always use the same camera. He said they usually do, because they get it setup exactly how they want and that over time they get to know how it will perform and what they can expect, including all its quirks.
It's 3:05 and the 5:00 deadline is looming. The first thing Amelia does is to re-type the written statement she got from mall management. She takes it over to graphics to have a "full screen" made from it. A "full screen" is just what it sounds like -- a full screen of information in text form that gets inserted into the report, in this case to report the mall's response because she doesn't have a video interview. Then she logs on to the station's news production software (ENPS by AP) and creates a new entry for her story.
Next, Amelia "logs" the tape. This is the most tedious part of the process. She goes into an "editing bay", which is a closet-sized room with a computer and some seriously cool video editing toys. She loads up the tape, and starts scanning the interviews and her "ins and outs", picking out what parts she wants to use and what order she wants them in. She probably has 20+ minutes of video she must edit down to a 1:30 report that tells the whole story.
She logs on to the ENPS system from the computer in the editing bay, brings up her story, and notes the exact start and stop points of the video segments she wants to use in her on-air report. She then transcribes exactly word for word what is said in each segment. This is the first step in creating a "script" for the story. She notes where she will use the "SOT" (sound on tape) and where she will insert "tracks" (her voiceovers that will be added later to explain a part of the story, for example the "full screen" of the mall's response) and writes the exact text of what she will say on her "tracks".
During this process, the ENPS software displays a red box showing the calculated story time. Amelia reads her "tracks" aloud (using her on-air voice) to verify the timings, and trims it to get close to 1:30 (I believe her story came in around 1:50).
Amelia gives the tape back to Mark, who heads for an editing bay to work his magic, slicing and dicing the video Amelia has selected, referring to the notations she made in the ENPS system. Mark copies the tape to the the editing machine's internal hard drive, where he assembles the first cut of the story, inserts the "full screen" graphic, and adds fillers for Amelia's voice "tracks".
At 3:59 the basic "script" is finished. Amelia sends the story electronically to Executive Producer Jay Quaintance. She walks over to his desk, where she explains her story and they review it together. He discusses the story with Amelia and asks a few questions about it. The deadline is approaching. Amelia is animated and full of nervous energy, bouncing all over the cubicle as she speaks. Jay makes a couple of minor changes and approves her story.
Amelia explained earlier that she is thankful for a second pair of eyes to go over her story before it airs. She said that by the time the tape is being "logged" and the detailed script is written, most reporters have been out all day hustling to get interviews and video. They are tired and not at their sharpest, so it's easy to make mistakes. But as we said before, she's a pro and the show must go on, and there's no whining in TV news.
As we're walking back to Amelia's desk, I ask 5PM Producer Tiffany Myers how her newscast is shaping up. She says it's looking good and she's happy with it, but they are tracking some storms and she's getting a little nervous about the possibility of having to bump some stories if there is a major weather development, noting that they are "weather-driven" at WATE when there are dangerous storms approaching.
Sometime around 4:00, a sort of calm panic descends on the newsroom. There are seven (I believe) editing bays, and people are scrambling for time on them to finishing editing their stories. Everyone is respectful of everyone else's time and scheduling constraints, and somehow it all gets sorted out. I would be a basket case by now, but it's always amazing to watch pros in any line of work who know what they are doing and can remain calm and work efficiently under intense pressure.
At 4:15, Amelia and Mark are hanging around outside an editing bay where WATE Meteorologist Matt Hinkin is finishing up recorded weather reports for several radio stations in the area. All the other editing bays are in use. They need to record Amelia's "tracks". They are watching the clock and getting a little nervous. Matt is finished recording, but he's on the phone with somebody.
Mark and Amelia give Matt a pleading look. He steps outside the editing bay with phone in hand and the cord stretched out through the door, and continues his conversation while Mark sets up to record Amelia's tracks. Mark has decided to record them directly to the hard drive version of the story to save time. Amelia nails them in one take, and at 4:20 Mark starts working his magic again, playing the editing machine like a Wurlitzer organ to merge in Amelia's "tracks" and produce the final edit of the video as it will air.
Amelia then writes up bullet points for the "extended over the shoulder" that will appear on the left side of the screen during her story. An "over the shoulder" is a graphic with a text summary of what she's saying. It's "extended" because it fills the screen from top to bottom. This is something that is apparently unique to WATE's newscasts, and Amelia says viewers like it because they can get the gist of a story if they are doing something else like working out on a treadmill at the gym.
She also bangs out "supers", which are the superimposed banner graphics that appear at the bottom of the screen identifying who is speaking or the location of a scene. Neither the "over the shoulders" or the "supers" are actually recorded onto the final video that gets aired. Instead, they are loaded up on a computer, and the director cues a board operator in the control room who punches them up at the exact times for the exact durations that Amelia has noted in her script.
Amelia finishes her story script by writing the "anchor tag". This is the conclusion that the anchor (Gene Patterson in this case) reads after the story "package" airs and they go back live to the studio. Amelia uses this opportunity to drive home the point that not all disabilities are obvious, and that service dogs aren't just for people with obvious disabilities. With this finishing touch, Amelia's story is ready.
(At 4:34 there's a buzz spreading through the newsroom. "Hail reported in Kingston." There are a few audible groans. A major weather development could wreck the entire newscast that everyone has worked all day on.)
Meanwhile, Amelia's day is not quite done yet. While waiting for the final edit of her video, she prepares the web version of her report. She wants it up before the newscast because her report refers viewers to WATE.com for more information. I don't know how this works at other stations, but WATE's website is frequently the most complete and up-to-date in terms of its content.
Reporters basically rewrite their stories, using the ENPS script as a starting point. They copy the story and paste it into the station's web publishing system, called WorldNow. If you think blogging software is slick, you should see this thing.
News Director Robb Atkinson and WATE Online Media Director Jim Smith (pictured here -- hey, his desk looks just like mine!) told me earlier in the day that the WorldNow software was a corporate decision by Young Broadcasting, WATE's parent company, but that WATE has spent countless hours, and a lot of money, getting it customized to work exactly how WATE wanted. The result is pretty nice (award winning, in fact), but Jim said they are always looking for ways to improve it.
Amelia is editing the web version of the story, adding details that the broadcast version doesn't allow time to cover, and including narrative to describe scenes that are otherwise communicated by video in the broadcast version.
During this process, I am introduced to Content Producer Angie Vicars, the other key ingredient in WATE's award winning website success. Not only is she a web and Photoshop wizard, she's a walking, talking AP Style Guide. ("Hey Angie, do you capitalize 'class-C-misdemeanor'?" Amelia asks. "Just the 'C'," Angie replies. Amelia has a newsroom advantage because her desk is right across from Angie's.) Another part of Angie's job is creating and posting the streaming videos, and extracting stills for web articles.
At 4:41, Amelia clicks "save" and her web version is filed and live on the web.
At 4:44 (sixteen minutes from deadline), Mark is finished with the final edit of the video. We go into the editing bay to review it. It looks great. Somewhere towards the end, Mark and Amelia exclaim in unison "a cut!" "Huh?" I add helpfully. Amelia explains that they spotted a stray piece of video imagery in the transition between two scenes. This is called a "cut". Mark backs it up to show me. I never see it until he shows me again in slow-motion. He punches a couple of buttons, and it disappears. The video is ready.
Somewhere behind the scenes, somebody (Mark?) copies the video package to tape, and the tape is sent to the control room where it's loaded into a player, cued up and ready to air.
4:56: Inside the WATE Control Room
At 4:56, Amelia takes me into the control room. There are radar images of massive storms on some of the screens. Matt Hinkin is suiting up for a previously unplanned severe weather alert. 5PM anchors Kristin Farley and Gene Parterson are yukking it up on the set. Oprah is winding up. The 5PM teasers run. Producer Tiffany Myers is at her computer, and casually notes that they are going in a minute heavy (meaning they've got about one minute too much news to fit in 30 minutes.) By now I would be a nervous wreck. Everyone is calm, cool, and collected. It's just another day at work.
At 5:00 sharp, the spiffy new WATE 6 News animated logo rolls, and everybody gets serious. Matt Hinkin updates viewers on the severe storms developing, and tosses it back to Gene Patterson, who introduces Amelia's lead story with the "anchor toss" at 5:02.
Watching the people in the control room at work is like watching someone conduct a symphony and a ballet at the same time while keeping mass chaos at a rock concert under control. It's an amazing thing to watch. Everyone is calm, cool, and collected. Everything proceeds perfectly according to plan. They make it look easy. I'm exhausted.
Amelia takes me down to the set, where we watch more of the live broadcast. An operator dials the teleprompter up and down to keep pace with the anchors and keep the newscast moving along. 6 & 11PM Anchor Lori Tucker is standing in front of the "green screen" preparing to deliver a live report with video superimposed in the background.
Meanwhile, somewhere out on the streets the "nightside" teams are working on their stories, getting their interviews, and shooting their video for the 10PM and 11PM programs as their producers start assembling the parts and pieces of a news broadcast. Their day started with a 2:30 PM production meeting.
Amelia and I go back up to the newsroom, where the "dayside" teams are wrapping up their day, checking e-mails and sources for tomorrow, getting ready to start all over again at 9:30 the next morning. I am quite certain that I could not do this job, working under these kinds of deadlines. After just watching for one day, I'm a wreck.
I asked about the Sports department, so Amelia took me over to meet Sports Anchor Jim Wogan. The sports department is separate and has its own newsroom and editing bays. Sports news is fairly quiet this time of year, so Jim is producing everything himself today. He was editing a feed of some NASCAR footage. Jim and Amelia both said that if I wanted to see real chaos I should come back during football season on a Friday night.
A few minutes later, 6 & 11PM Anchor Lori Tucker comes in to the newsroom to shoot some teasers for the evening broadcasts. She later introduces herself and says she enjoys reading the blog. She is most gracious. She asks if I want to be in the background of her shot, and I realize they are setting up for another shot and that I'm in it. I thank her for the warning and move out of the way. She said she was just going to leave me in it, but thought she would be polite and ask. I appreciated that, and I'm sure 6 News viewers do, too.
So, here we are at the end of the day and this incredibly long and way too detailed report that has morphed into an experiment in "first-person immersive citizen journalism" (if there is such a thing) run amok. If you're still with me, I presume that you are either a WATE employee or some kind of obsessive-compulsive news junkie like me.
A couple of other final observations about things I learned.
First, TV news is a labor intensive business. As Amelia, Mark, and I discussed, a print news reporter could have done Amelia's story over the phone and had it filed in an hour or so. Amelia and Mark spent all day on this one story. TV reporters have to go out and get interviews on video. You can't do that over the phone. And actually seeing the subject of a story telling the story is compelling.
Second, TV news operations have a HUGE financial investment in just the technology required to gather, report, and broadcast the news. Just one of their satellite-equipped remote news vans would bust most any local company's budget. And we're not even talking yet about renting satellite time, all the video cameras and monitors, the editing bays, the broadcast transmission facilities, and so on and so on. Not to mention that any or all of their technology could be obsolete by this time next year. It's amazing to me that they are able to make a profit at all, and it would seem that advertisers definitely get their money's worth. Managing a successful local TV news operation is clearly a tough job, and it's certainly not for the timid or weak.
Anyway, I'd like to thank the WATE 6 News team for their hospitality. Everyone was super nice and they couldn't have made me feel more welcome. Amelia was especially kind to let me tag along, and incredibly patient in explaining everything that was happening as the day progressed. Mark was a wealth of knowledge, too, and I appreciated the insights of a guy who knows the TV news business. I'd also like to say a special word of thanks to News Director Robb Atkinson for inviting me. It was a fascinating look into the world of local TV news, and a day I won't forget.
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