Thursday, July 12, 2007

Time to embrace "Backpack Journalism"

If you're still falling asleep each night to dreams of TV news stardom, you need to make sure you looking through the lens and not just at it.

Backpack Journalism or BPJ is here to stay. No longer are just small-market stations expecting their young reporters to shoot and edit their own materials. Now, medium and larger market stations are expecting anyone who can walk and talk to be a "one-man band."

What USA Today predicted four years ago: ( has now come true. Recently, USA Today's parent company, Gannett, added "outstanding backpack journalist" as a category to its Best of Gannett Awards. Still think BPJ's are just a rumor?

So as you're preparing those audition tapes and resumes for that first job interview in a TV newsroom, here's a few thoughts to make sure your backpack is ready to go.

Learn the basics of a video camera. Just because you can shoot Aunt Betty's 80th birthday part with your home VHS doesn't' mean you can shoot news. Can you white balance a camera? Can you steady a tripod? Can you pan or zoom without the finished product looking like an earthquake?

If you can't or even if you can, it's best to get some guidance on videographer basics before you head off to that interview. If you've had an internship, go back and find a videographer who can share the basics with you. Even better, find a BPJ at one of those stations and have them show you the ropes.

Then, get out on the weekend and practice. Sign out a camera from your university's communications department. If you don't have access to a college TV shop, take mom and dad's VHS camera and practice finding a mark, hitting "record" and running around in front to shoot a standup.

In today's TV news world, be prepared to be a BPJ as part of your interview itself. Don't be surprised if that News Director leans across the desk and says, "OK. Let's see what you can do. Grab that camera, head out and get some interviews on the street about (choose a topic), shoot a standup, and come back and write a package for me. Go!"

Also, there are quite a few good blogs out there written by BPJ's about the daily grind of their job as both videographer and reporter. Google them and find a good one to read daily.

Remember, this isn't to say that BPJ is your long-term future in TV News, but you have to survive the short-term if you're still hoping to be on-air.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Five great ways to get your foot in the door of a TV newsroom!!

It's more challenging than a one-on-one with the President, and you'll lose more sleep over it than you will before your first network live shot. Landing that first TV job. It's kind of like landing the space shuttle: experts make it look easy, but deep down you know it's not. Getting that first job is far and away the most difficult task you'll face in the TV news business.

Let's face it: it's not easy, it's not fun, and it's not supposed to be this difficult! After all, in Up Close & Personal, Michelle Pfeiffer got her first on-air job in big-city Miami right? So why shouldn't you at least be able to get a job in small-town Wyoming?

The answer is "Yes!" Here are five tools of the trade for getting your microphone in the door of TV news departments without having to sell your soul to get on air:

1. Know the market size for your talent and experience. If you're just out of college with a few years of university TV experience, you need not apply to NBC or CNN. You need to find a TV newsroom for y-o-u. I meet a great many college graduates who say, "I'd like to start in Cleveland or Detroit or maybe even Pittsburgh." Few if any of them ever research those stations to gauge the years of experience in the on-air folks or even to see if the stations in those markets are hiring. More important, they don't compare their own on-air work with the daily news stories they see on the station's websites.

If you're 22 applying to a newsroom consumed by reporters in their 30's with 10+ years experience, all you're really doing is giving that station a blank tape to use for their blooper reels. If you're trying to get a job without a college degree, which a great many on-air folks have mastered, you need to realistic about your job possibilities. Can you write effectively? Are you comfortable in front of a camera? Do you really think you can earn a living in this business? If yes, then make a demo on your home VHS and give it a whirl.

2. Broaden the skills you bring to the newsroom. If you'd really like to be an entertainment reporter for E!, that's great, but as you apply for your first job, you need to be multi-talented. Learn to shoot, edit, and write for behind the scenes and you'll stand a better chance of getting a j-o-b. A great many young reporter-wanna-bees make the mistake limiting their skills to their specific area of interest. TV newsrooms are about using people in multiple rolls. If you like to report on news events but you can do sports and even weather too in a pinch, you're more valuable to a small station looking to give you that first job. Once you're in the door, you can target the job you truly desire. Remember, even David Letterman was once a weatherman.

3. Stay in touch with your internship contacts. Internships are not only great opportunities to learn the business, but they're also your best early contacts in your career. A great many interns say goodbye to the newsroom staffers they met during their semester of training and never touch base again. Who else can give you better guidance on getting a real job in the business than those who've done it? This is not to say that they can get you a job at their station, but so much of this business is based on relationships and who you know. The professionals you met during your internship know people in the TV business. You need to know who they know!

I recently found out that one of our former interns here at TV3 got a job at a small station out of state. She left here more than a year ago and this is her first job. While I was happy to see her success, I shook my head that she hadn't kept in contact with me to tell me she was looking for a job in that city because I know the assistant news director there and I could have smoothed the waters for her there much sooner. You should keep in regular contact with the professionals with whom you developed your best working relationships during your internships. You'll want to use them as references on your resume anyway, so there's no reason to surprise them a full year after your internship when you suddenly reappear asking for advice.

4. Be willing to relocate. A great many of the college students I meet in class tell me they're willing to go anywhere, but I can tell that only a few really mean it. You may have dreams of being a CNN war correspondent or even the top anchor at your local station so you can be the local-boy-who-grew-up-and-made-us-all-proud but the reality is you'll probably need to develop your skills in a small -- make that tiny -- market first before you'll get consideration at a venue that leads to your dream job. Places like Tyler, TX (market 114) or Albany, GA (market 145) or even Dothan, AL (market 179) might not sound intriguing at first, but they may be the best place for you to learn your craft without the pressure of a big market news director breathing down your neck. Ask those in the business about the job where they learned the most and they'll tell you it was their first job at a small station. For on-air folks, you'll find out if you can really beat-the-clock and get your stories on the air while also generating creative live shots to go with those stories. While your lead story might not be the sexiest thing you've ever heard (think "new sewer line that county leaders are hoping to put through State Route 94"), but the experience will pay big dividends. You'll probably have to room with one of the other station staffers and maybe work at Kinkos at night to make ends meet. Still, whether your spend six months or a year-plus in a tiny newsroom, the skills you hone will make you more attractive for the next job.

5. Watch, watch, and watch some more. When you're not searching for a job in TV News, you need to be watching the latest and greatest from you local, national, and cable broadcasts. Watch how the reporters do their live shots. Do they look stiff or loose? Did they use any kind of props that added to the story-telling? Listen to their writing. Record the best stories so you can watch them again and dissect how those reporters put their stories together. Then, take those techniques you've picked up and apply them to your own writing. A good audition tape with a bright smile might get you a first interview, but good writing skills will improve your chances of getting a callback. If you can't tell a verb from a pronoun and you don't know how to write in active voice, you'll have a short career in TV news.

Eric Mansfield is an anchor/reporter with WKYC-TV and a part-time newswriting instructor at the University of Akron. His blog, "Get Me On The Air," provides tips and guidance to those looking for on-air opportunities in the world of TV news. read his blog here: