If I Can't Hear Your Story, I Don't Need to See Your Story

I have written this advice before, but with many of you taking students to the STN Convention in a couple of weeks, where they will participate in pressure-filled, TIMED contests, this might be a good time to re-visit the topic.  It has to do with editing a news or feature package.

The simple advice, to save time, and focus a story from beginning to end, is this:  Edit. Audio. First.

Sound bites need to be edited and placed on the timeline first in the editing process.

Sound bites need to be edited and placed on the timeline first in the editing process.

When my students ask me to look over their stories, the main thing I do is "listen" to them.  Video is important, but I have to hear the story first.  Sometimes, I simply turn my back to the monitor and have them play the story for me.  If it makes sense, and the voiceovers  and sound bites are solid, then we are in business.  It means I can hear a story.  Seeing it will be fun after that.

Many times, students will return from their shoot and start dropping all the video sequences they shot onto the timeline first.  I hate when they do that.  Sometimes I drop by an edit bay, where I highlight all their edited video clips, and happily hit "delete" as they look on in horror.  Well, I told you...EDIT.  AUDIO.  FIRST.  

It really saves time, because it forces you to first organize your sound bites and write your script.  Dropping in visuals and natural sound is fun, but that comes after you edit your audio.

Kids may not understand at first, but as soon as they edit a story this way and see how much easier it is, they will never again just start randomly dropping down video clips.  Plus, it will save them time, and keep their evil teacher from swooping in and deleting their timeline.    

Abortion Debate: LIVE in 1992

During the third year of our broadcast program at Hillcrest, I had the bright idea of breaking from our monthly newsmagazine format to try a live talk show, something issue-based.  A little "Phil Donahue" (Google him, youngsters) thing, where an audience made up of teenagers could pepper our guests with questions and comments.

Our first live talk show got front-page coverage from our local newspaper, the Springfield News-Leader, back in 1992.

Our first live talk show got front-page coverage from our local newspaper, the Springfield News-Leader, back in 1992.

The show's topic, we decided, had to be something edgy, something that would inspire some passion.  So we chose abortion.  I know, I know.  Just inviting trouble.   It is a good thing Dr. John Laurie, our supportive principal, was really supportive.  He had our guests, each representing opposing viewpoints on the issue, arrive early for a brief meeting in his office.  I was there, but he did the talking.  He asked them to remain professional, and avoid some of the back-and-forth "heat" the abortion topic often inspired.  Both guests said they understood, and would be on their best behavior.

Our set-up was just my regular classroom, with one Panasonic SVHS 450 camera sitting on a small platform in the back of the audience, right in the middle.  "Camera One."  The other Panasonic was perched in front of the room, off to the side of the guests, getting shots of our host, Amy Cookson, and the audience of about 30 teens as they asked questions.  "Camera Two." 

Sitting in a small room at the back of the classroom, switching the show live, was a senior named Dan Arnall.  We had a modulator carrying our signal back to Telecable, where the show went out to all the subscribers in town on the educational access channel.

It was a bold project, and the local newspaper even covered it.  Things went smoothly, but in the last 10 minutes, the two guests did start using some of the inflammatory rhetoric the issue of abortion often inspires.  It was actually getting kind of fun...then our signal was lost for some reason.  Still, we did about 35 minutes of the 45 minute broadcast we had planned.  It was a victory, as far as we were concerned.  

Why share story now?  If for no other reason, I would like to inspire you to take a chance now and then, and to step out of your comfort zone.  We did, way back when.  It was not our only live talk show.  After this one, we did a few more, tackling the AIDs epidemic one time, race relations another, and those were before 1996.  We did a live Q and A format with our local congressional candidates one year, partnering with kids from the middle school gifted program.  They came over and helped run the show and question the candidates.  Again, it was live.  

That host of our abortion show, Amy, is now the mother of one of my sophomore Broadcast I students, Madison.  She is doing a great job, just like her mom did 26 years ago.  Dan,  the director back in 1992, is now the Executive Producer of the NBC Nightly News Weekends.  

While going Iive with teenagers is always risky, I think never doing anything different can sometimes lead to stagnation in your program, and that is even more risky.  I urge you to do that crazy thing you've been thinking about, whether it is a totally different type of show, or tackling a really scary topic.  Or do both, like we did all those years ago.  It can set a tone for your program--that anything is possible--and that is a pretty cool thing for your students to realize.

Teachers: Get Your Hands Dirty

Last week, out of necessity, with deadline crashing down on us, and some illness on our staff, I took it upon myself to grab one of our shiny, fairly-new DSLR cameras to shoot a couple of sound bites in the hall outside my classroom.  

I'm not asking for a medal, but I was thinking it was mighty nice of me to pitch in.  Our show is student-produced, after all, so it is not my job to shoot anything.  There I was, getting the framing right, watching the light, making sure the audio meter was bouncing.  Boy, I just KILLED it.  Except I didn't.

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When I popped in the SD card and imported my work, I went from elated to deflated in about 15 seconds.  My shots were slightly out of focus, the audio was not good, and the color was off.  It looked like first quarter, Broadcast I footage.

So I checked my ego at the iMac and re-shot both bites.  Guess what?  I forgot to hit "record" on the second interview.  I had actually forgotten to stop recording after re-shooting Bite #1, so you know how this goes.  I got great footage of the hallway and my feet as we set up for the re-do of Bite #2.  Then when I hit the "record" button, it was already on, so I actually was stopping it.

I ended up just getting a student to do it all over.  They ended up using one of the bites she re-shot.  And I got a lesson in humility, and a reminder of this:  Teachers, from time to time, we have to shoot, edit, deal with audio recording, and lighting, and just GET OUR HANDS DIRTY with the process.  You can not just stand back and point.  You will become more empathetic with students, and more aware of your equipment's quirks and limitations, by actually USING the equipment now and then.  So shoot your family during holidays.  Or take a camera along on your next get-away.  Just use the gear once in a  while.  It will make you a better teacher.

Considering I run the ASB Workshop, and have for 20 years pushed teachers who attend to shoot and edit, just botching those two sound bites about 10 feet outside my classroom door was a moment I needed to experience.  It actually reminded me of our workshop theme:  "Teacher as Student."  And when it comes to the new cameras and accessories, this teacher has a lot to learn.



Follow the Money...With Care

"Just follow the money."

That line from "All the President's Men" lives on.  Over 45 years later, it is still applied to many stories covered by investigative journalists.

Hal Holbrook portrays "Deep Throat" in "All the President's Men.  "Follow the money" was his advice to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward as he reported on the Watergate scandal.

Hal Holbrook portrays "Deep Throat" in "All the President's Men.  "Follow the money" was his advice to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward as he reported on the Watergate scandal.

For scholastic journalists who want to sink their teeth into a "real story," this can lead them to ask questions about how their school, or their district, is using its funds.  I say kudos to the young people who put in the time, do the research, locate sources, and make an effort to cover school-related financial issues.  There is one problem...it is the fastest way to get in trouble with your administrators.

Do not go into it lightly.  There are some things you need to consider.

*Can you get access to the information you must have to be fair and accurate?  Reporting one side, or just a small part of the story, will invite trouble.

*Is your adviser supportive?  Or is this going to put your teacher in a very bad situation?  It might.  This does not mean you can't cover the story, but do not be naive.  Teachers work for the district, and can only go so far before their jobs can be threatened.  It happens.

*Are your sources legit--do they know what they are talking about?  Or are they trying to manipulate you to get a story "out there" that they can not get the professional press to cover?

*Who are the stakeholders, and have you given them all a chance to talk about the issue?  Remember to cover all sides.  

*Are you prepared to report that nothing illegal, or shady was actually done?  Are you willing to say this was just a misunderstanding, or an isolated incident or mistake?  You may be fired up to "get the goods" on someone, but you have to be willing to report the truth, even if it turns out to be less than dramatic.

*Is your information current?  This can be a huge issue for high school programs that publish once a week, or once a month.  Think about this, because stories change fast.

*Are you the best person to do this story?  Are your motives pure?  For example, if you are on the soccer team, and the story is about some of the funding for soccer being diverted to another sport, are you the best person to report this?  It might be better to kick it (sorry) to another reporter.  Even if you can be totally objective, the perception will be that you have an ax to grind if you are involved in the story.

There is always a need for journalists at any level to ask questions, and keep an eye on those in charge of public funds.  I encourage you to keep on top of these stories.  Just go into it with your eyes wide open.  Following the money is not always as fun, or as rewarding, as it may seem.  


Ending 2017 With Random Thoughts

For background, I have been teaching Broadcast Journalism since the fall of 1989, when I started something called "HTV Magazine," a monthly newscast produced by my students at Hillcrest High School in Springfield, MO.  We also have a new podcast we like a lot, called "Bay 11."  Find it and try it, please. 

I'm older than most of the people who take time to read this blog.  Not necessarily wiser...just older.  So here come some random, often disconnected, and sometimes trivial reflections as the year 2017 dissolves.   And stop using so many dissolves.  They are not necessary.  But I digress...

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*I am sort of tired of the hand-wringing over "fake news."  Yes, it's out there.  Best way for teachers to battle it is to make kids actually cover the news.  Demystify the process.  Make them make ethical, fair decisions on news coverage.  Oh, and fake news is nothing new.  It's just got a better PR team these days.

*Goodness I'm tired of irresponsible, self-absorbed, device-obssessed, app-addicted, petty teenagers, the 2017 version.  But every time I want to just rant on one of my students, I try to remember what my 6th grade teacher told me after I was cutting up in class for the zillionth time:  "You're annoying."  Probably still true, so I will continue to bite my tongue for the most part.  After all, I was annoying my teachers without the benefit of smart phones.  I just used a smart mouth.  #gifted

*Contests suck.  Unless you win.  Sorry.  A little crude.  But come on, we always want to win, and we always blame the judges, say they're stupid, say the rich programs have an advantage, the schools with more diversity get more love, blah-blah-blah.  We did win a biggie last spring, our eighth RFK Award.  That was cool.  But still, contests generally suck for all the losers, and if you keep entering, you will become a loser.

*We tried to change our show to a quarterly.  Epic disaster, so as of early November, it's a monthly again.  I gave them two months to produce the first (an only) "quarterly" version and it was actually worse than our normal monthly productions.  Better to keep them a little busier, cranking out more, not less.  It just goes to prove you are never too "seasoned" to totally screw things up and have to back track.  #notgifted

*I am finding there are more kids with a passion for fictional storytelling than ever, and that is fine.  Actually, it is not fine.  Journalism is the hill I will die on, but I can meet good kids half way.  They do some journalism each month for our show, and the rest of the time they can make up whatever stuff they want for their short movies, or for a non-journalism contest.  

*DSLRs.  So over them.  Can someone invent the next affordable, better video camera for scholastic news teams?  

*FCP vs. Adobe Premiere.  I just don't care.  Any kid who masters either in high school can certainly move on to whatever software the colleges are using.  "Industry standard" gets thrown around way too often.  Good stories are good stories, and NOBODY watching cares how they were edited.

*Podcasting is fun.  Really fun.  And it is here to stay.  I hope more high schools join in and find their own unique approaches to audio programming.  By the way, it is an inexpensive way to get started in broadcasting.  Somebody should actually write a blog about that. 

*While we all agree contests we don't win suck, it is a good idea to enter your student work and get some feedback.  Why?  Because after a while, they stop listening to us.  Let a total stranger with some street cred (the "professional") hassle them about shaky, out of focus shots, or boring, lightweight content.  I will try to follow this advice in the months ahead.  Enter my kids more, and let the pros kick them in their egos.  Note to professionals:  Kick them more.  We need you to do that.

*To 2018 I say, "bring it on."  We are a nation bickering with each other over pretty much everything.  It's our season of discontent in 'Merica.  If young journalists can not find stories with conflict--and any good story has to have a conflict--then they just aren't paying attention.  






Broadcast Advisers and Politics

Before you read my opinion below, one you may hate, please watch this seven-second clip.

My Take:  Broadcast Journalism teachers should not be publishing, posting, or sharing their political leanings or opinions.  If you advise a high school journalism show, you can not risk it.  We are to be objective, as are our young journalists.  If you want to campaign for this party, or that candidate, then you open yourself up to mistrust:  "Are you using your little high school show to push your agenda?"  "Are your students' stories reflecting your politics?"    

If you think this is totally unfair of me to suggest...have you been paying attention to what much of the general public thinks of the news these days?  

I know it is a challenge to keep quiet when issues hit close to your heart, but I can honestly say I never had any idea what my journalism advisers' politics were in high school or college.  Do your students really need to know yours?  It is much easier to insist your reporters provide both sides, or all sides, of a news story when they do not have to worry about your left-wing or right-wing or whatever-wing leanings. 

Just like the producer above who flinched at the anchor's comment, our student-reporters, even at our end of the journalism food chain, have a right to expect objectivity from us, because we expect it of them.

Now, fire away.  I can take it.  I think.  

Ten Things That Can Drive Broadcast Teachers Crazy

Ten Things Can That Drive Broadcast Teachers Crazy

10.  Keeping students on task consistently.  Deadlines vary.  Some kids finish work and have nothing to do, while others continue various projects, and of course some students are just not team players, so they end up working alone.  It is a balancing act, and you hope your admins understand.  SOLUTION:  In your syllabus, protect yourself.  "Each quarter, students will be assigned independent production activities."  Then find one-man-band stories for the lone wolves to cover, things like school clubs, assemblies, promos, the bake sale.  Anything, really.  Maybe an audio story, or a print piece for your website.  Be creative.  It should not be a punishment assignment...it's just a regular part of your class.   

9.  Keeping track of all the equipment.  Talk about a headache...who took what?  Students will grab things at the last minute, not tell you, and three days later, you are missing a wireless mic, a tripod, a laptop.  SOLUTION:  Have a sign-out board in plain site--and make kids sign out every item.  It makes a nice visual reminder of who has which piece.  If this does not work, you have to take away the privilege.  Your equipment is too important, and every camera not returned in a timely fashion is a piece of equipment another student is waiting on.  

8.  Those outside projects.  You know the ones...the PSA for the non-profit...the football game you were asked to shoot...the "welcome to our school" video for incoming students.  It is not that colleagues or friends have little respect for your time.  It really can be more about them trusting you and your kids to do good work (at little or no cost).  SOLUTION:  You have to learn to say NO.  Remember your syllabus--did you include the outside projects as part of your curriculum, your class expectations?  If not, say NO.  Or...say yes, but for a fee.  Use these opportunities to raise some funds for some equipment, a trip, batteries, SD cards, whatever.  But ultimately, this one is on you, teacher/adviser.  Saying NO can save you.

7.  Controversial stories.   Talk about a pain.  Your kids keep pitching stories that will make others uncomfortable, or rock a boat that might be easier to leave alone.  This one comes down to a number of things--do you have tenure?  That helps.  Teachers can get fired or reprimanded for controversial stories.  Do you control your show's content, or do the students?  If you are an "open forum for student expression," it's the kids' call (and they have to answer for it).  If not, you, as an employee of the district, can be ruled insubordinate for bucking your superiors.  Know where you stand.  SOLUTION:  Decide if you are a journalism program, or an information/entertainment program?  Make that clear to all from the outset.  If you are doing journalism, part of that job is covering news someone does not want covered.  It comes with the territory, even at the scholastic level.  If doing journalism pushes you out of your comfort zone, or you have little journalistic training yourself, there may be too many land mines in your future.  Maybe change or clarify your program's focus.  You know where your strengths are, and what you are qualified to teach.

6.  The changing technology.  It is such a challenge, just keeping up with what is happening with gear on a regular basis.  Moving to the world of DSLRs is pretty much a given for scholastic programs these days.  Everyone wants the prettier pictures, the depth of field thing...just one more piece of equipment to learn and teach.  And should you go totally with laptops, or are some iMacs still a good idea? Wireless mics?  A drone?  A GoPro?  Do we need all that?  The technology you purchase requires lots of homework on your part.  SOLUTION:  Talk to colleagues who have been at this a while.  The veteran broadcast teachers have all been burned by bad gear purchases.  They are usually very willing to advise others so they avoid the same mistakes.  One more thing--you do not need a green screen to produce a show.  You really don't.

5.  Editing software.   It used to be an ongoing debate.  Mac vs. PC.  Final Cut Pro vs. Premiere or Avid.  Even Avid vs. Premiere.  On and on it went.  Then Apple totally changed things with Final Cut Pro X, which looked nothing like the previous versions of FCP.  It was a huge letdown for Final Cut users who thought X was just iMovie on steroids.  Many bailed.  We hear a lot about school broadcast programs moving to Premiere, even if they held on to their Macs.  SOLUTION:  I asked a college broadcast teacher a couple of weeks ago about this dilemma.  Should I dump FCP X and go to Premiere?  Am I hurting my kids who might go "into the industry?"  He looked at me and said, "Do you know if something was edited on Adobe or Apple just by watching?"  No.  Of course not.  Good point.  He continued to say that he has both FCP and Premiere, and the students who come in knowing FCP have little trouble learning Premiere, and then he lets them edit on either.  Wow.  What a concept.  

4.  The show thing.  What kind of show do you do?  Is it the kind of show kids are watching?  Or are we stuck in a rut in scholastic broadcasting?  It seems like we ignore the data in front of us.  Viewers online give a clip less than 10 seconds to get their attention.  They click away fast if it is not something they care about.  How many viewers actually will sit and watch your 15 or 20 minute program unless they are a captive audience watching it in a classroom?  I wonder if you are having discussions about your programming with the kids who produce it?  It looks to me like the only place long-form shows are popular is in national contests that still have categories for longer shows.  SOLUTION:  We all need to think about this, and see if our model is just "what has always been."  Maybe it works for you, but maybe you just think it works for you.  

3.  The film thing.  If you polled your students right now, many of you would find out just how many of them prefer to do "film" stuff, and not "journalism" stuff.  Kids are into film.  They really like making short movies.  Do you embrace this?  Is it time to surrender, to set aside all that journalism you try to do, and give the creative types the freedom to follow their passion?  SOLUTION:  In high school, we have the luxury of doing both.  We can maintain a journalism class that occasionally steps into the movie-making world.  It can be a great change of pace.  It also is playing fair with the film-ish students.  They do journalism part of the time, with the understanding they can have time to create a short movie for a contest or screening down the road.  I think we can meet kids part-way on this.  Best case scenario, kids from both sides learn to appreciate the other.

2.  To enter or not to enter.  There are contests for broadcast and video production all over the place.  Teachers can submit student videos every week somewhere, it seems.  Should you?  It is always a good idea to seek outside feedback on your work.  Many of the contests provide this in the form of critiques (STN, JEA, ASB all do this with their contests).  SOLUTION:  Instead of contests driving your productions, consider making contests an afterthought.  Approach it like this:  "Hey, if we do some really good work, I will see about submitting it."  Make contest submissions the icing on the cake.  Make doing good work the constant goal in your program.  Applaud improvement and effort.  Not everyone needs a certificate.  They do need a teacher's encouragement now and then.

1.  Grading.  Yes, grading is a fact of life for all teachers.  How fun is it when so much of what your kids produce for your class has to be graded subjectively?  We battle this all the time--how to give a fair assessment of student work in video classes.  SOLUTION:  Grade the process, not the result.  You can have daily or weekly grades to reflect the progress of a production.  You can also use a checklist for the project, grading kids for meeting a number of small deadlines (shot list composed, interview conducted, clips organized, script drafted, etc.).  Then, of course, you can give some sort of grade for the final project, but maybe it should not be worth more than the process grades.  In other words, grade the journey, not the destination.  

Avoiding the "Same Ole" High School Broadcast Show

Let's shoot my credibility right off the bat.  I can pretty much write a Hallmark movie.  I have watched a few through the years as part of my membership in the "aging demographic" many of their advertisers target, so I'm very qualified.  Here's the plot rundown, and I would prefer it star Kelly Martin or Erin Krakow if possible.  They can bring it home, big time, with warmth...

*Girl (probably a widow) gets sent by her boss from the city to a postcard-ready small town to close down a local business, or to help on the family farm after Dad has a heart attack.    

*She bumps into her former boyfriend,  probably a widower with a super cute-yet-annoying child, there is a mild disagreement, they argue, but they eventually (whew!) get on the same page.  Happy ending.  Pass the cocoa.  All of this "action" happens with the most annoying soundtrack underneath it, telling us how to feel each step of the way.

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SO, you know what else?  I can probably draw up a rundown for a lot of high school broadcasts.  I do this not to offend, but to challenge.  So here we go.

*Lead story:  Disease of the Month.  A profile of someone in the school, or connected to the school, who has a serious illness, or has been a bad accident.  These stories can be very touching.  But please consider this:  Why NOW?  Why are you covering it now?  Is there "news" to report?  It may sound heartless, but some of these segments verge on exploitation for the sake of making a show seem "serious."  What the people you profile have gone through is very, very serious.  Just think about that "Why NOW?" thing.

*The Local Organization.  You know the one.  The non-profit group of do-gooders who are helping the poor, the suffering, the disenfranchised in your town.  They are probably having a 5K and you are probably covering it.  You are probably interviewing the fundraiser...er...the Executive Director, or the media relations person, who say all the usual things about their mission and why they need support.  You might get some folks at the 5K to talk about why they run for the cause.  Hope it doesn't rain on race day.  A thought:  Don't do PR stories for local groups.  

*Sports segment:  We are WINNERS!  If you have a successful team, they are guaranteed to be on your show.  We will see them scoring points, dominating, with cheerleaders and fans chanting and cheering.  It is a story that takes place on hundreds of campuses every year.  So what is your unique angle?  What am I going to see and hear that I have not seen and heard before?  Just because you are covering a sports team does not let you off the hook--dig deeper.  Bring me something new, something I have not seen or heard before.  Note:  One of the best sports stories my students have ever produced was about a sister school in our town that was on a horrible, long losing streak.  Their players, coaches and fans were inspirational.  It made me, as a viewer, re-think what a "winner" really is.

*Funny Guys.  You know, those guys at every school who are just so clever.  The problem is, being truly funny to viewers who are not on your TV staff is a bit of a challenge.  Humor is HARD.  These segments often rely on two minutes of bad acting and set-up for a punch line that is just not worth the journey.  Or they are a pale copy of something on SNL or YouTube.  Instead of producing a humorous segment, how about finding humor in the people you cover?  Find funny characters in the real world.  Cover something quirky and offbeat that will amuse your audience.  There is certainly a place for lighter fare on a school broadcast, but nothing is worse than "funny" that isn't that funny.

*Featured Teacher.  A safe, predictable profile of a teacher with a heart of gold, probably full of boring b-roll of said teacher sitting at a desk, standing in front of class, typing on a laptop, plus supportive bites of admiration from a few "A" students.  This one fails to answer the "Why NOW?" question, and does not meet the "tell me something I don't know" test.  Extra points for showing clever posters, mottos or desk ornaments.  Instead of covering the "good teacher we all love," go further down the hall until you find a teacher often misunderstood, or ignored, because they are not as dynamic, or quick to draw attention to themselves.  Scratch beneath the surface and you may have a great story about someone not so popular, but maybe more interesting.

Okay, okay, I will stop.  You probably hate me by now, and I would not blame you.  But before you leave a comment below that puts me in my place, can I say one more thing?  

My kids have done ALL OF THESE more than once.  We are totally guilty of committing cookie-cutter journalism.  My challenge every time we pitch stories is to shoot down this stuff.  Or lead the kids to understanding they are not pitching anything new.

Oh, and on our recent show, we did a really sweet story about a person with a disease, and by golly, we covered a local non-profit.  And we had a segment that was supposed to be funny.  It happens.  Sadly, it happens all too often.