Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Newsroom

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.

Written by Interviewer

May 2, 2016 at 00:38

Real News

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Thigh Cream

This is a quickie.

The National Zoo in Washington DC helped its panda, Mei Xiang, give birth to two panda cubs overnight.  CBS This Morning has spent a lot of time covering that story, repeating it each hour and dedicating several minutes each time from it’s reporter Jan Crawford, who is covering the story.  Guest anchor Anthony Mason, after one commercial break, began by saying something like, “In our ongoing panda coverage …”.

Anyone who has spent anytime in TV might wonder if what he’s really saying is, “Is this real news?”

This is a perennial conversation in newsrooms.  I remember back in the early 90s, when I worked at WKRC, Channel 12 in Cincinnati, there was a story about thigh cream.  The manufacturer claimed that using this cream would reduce wrinkles and fat on a woman’s thigh.  At the time, reporters were furious that a business product was being elevated to a news story.  And afterwards, it became shorthand for a ridiculous story that masquaraded as real news.  Some people might have accused CBS of doing the same thing a few years ago when “This Morning” featured the new Dyson bathroom hand dryer.

How does this happen?  Sometimes, the news cycle is thin and assignment editors and news directors are looking for anything to fill time.  Sometimes, the more strategic intention is to try to appeal to an important demographic.  And sometimes, (although no one will admit it) the sales department drops a bug in a news director’s ear because a business has just purchased a lot of commercial air time.

Ms. Crawford’s story, however, was likely in none of those categories.  When CBS went to her, she responded to Mr. Mason in her intro by saying the panda story was indeed important because these were the first babies born in captivity in many years.  And she said that because such panda cubs rarely survive, the zoo was essentially in a life or death struggle to keep them alive in their first few hours.

Was it breaking news?  No.  Was it thigh cream?  No.  But this story and many others like it are fuel for the ongoing argument on both sides of the screen.

What is news, exactly?