Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

A Shout Out to the Assignment Desk

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tornado

It seems strangely calm, that place in the corner of the TV newsroom.  A single person taking phone calls, listening to police scanners, reading press releases, flipping through traffic cameras or watching social media.  But, the assignment desk is the broadcasting equivalent to the low pressure area at the center of a tornado.

The assignment editor sits at the assignment desk.  In radio. the news director can be the assignment editor too.  But in both cases, they are responsible for taking the minute by minute pulse of story newsworthiness by watching their city electronically.  And they are also gatekeepers by taking tips from callers and forwarding them to the right reporter.  They then send those reporters and camera operators out the door into storms, floods, power failures, traffic accidents and crime scenes.  They run them ragged, from one shoot to the next or divert them in route.  They command them back because the story needs to run at noon, or five or eleven.

Everyday, stations have news meetings where the anchors and reporters postulate on what the best stories that day will be and where they are likely hiding.  And everyday, they walk out of that room, with that plan in hand and into a shower of tiny wrenches.  The assignment desk reminds them that the location of the open house has changed because the keynote speaker is delayed, or the city just closed Highway X, and now, you have to use Highway Y, which is going to make getting to that 1:30 press conference a challenge.  Or what was going to be a voice-over video only shoot is now going to be a live remote, and oh, have you been trained on the new module?  And BTW, you were going to have a reporter but now, you have to shoot it yourself.

Back in the newsroom, reporters, camera operators and producers hover around the assignment desk like moths to a flame.  Or they yell back and forth to it from across the room.

“Who, again?”  “What was it?”  “When does it start?”  “Where, exactly?”  “Why are they doing that?”  “How the hell did that happen?”

In response, assignment editors can be grumpy, but it is a grumpiness that I think is really a kind of world weariness.  They know everything in their town; every schedule, every intersection, every official, every phone number, URL or email address.  They know their team and may have even gotten into a shouting match or two with some the more high-maintenance among them.  And they know each other.  The know other desks can be just has loud, hot and turbulent as their own..

They truly are, constantly, drinking from a firehose.  I can imagine that when these folks go home at the end of the day, they want to be as far away as possible from any word, voice, sound or picture that comes out of the end of a wire.

Seven days a week, 24-hours a day, the assignment desk is manned (or womanned).  I have watched assignment editors work.  They look calm, sitting over there by themselves.

But they are a force of nature, and everybody knows it.

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Written by Interviewer

May 2, 2016 at 00:38

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