Earlier this week, my friend Angela was preparing to give a talk to aspiring journalists at her alma mater, which is also my alma mater, Utica College of Syracuse University*. Angela put a shout out on Facebook asking if any journalists had advice worth sharing. Angela, a well-respected producer at the top of her game in the number one market in the country, New York City, didn’t really need the help. But that’s what trained journalists do – consider every source, every angle, and leave no stone unturned.
Her request, to no surprise, solicited a mix of solid advice, a bit of lark, and a good dose of professional sarcasm. All in good fun. All true.
Her request got me thinking about the first time Angela and I met.
At Utica College.
At the same event.
I was an anchor at WTVH, the CBS affiliate in town, and Angela, was a UC student.
I was asked to give a talk that would ‘inspire aspiring journalists’ as UC seniors prepared to head into the real world. Yeah, that place that requires a 6 a.m. wakeup call, long hours, and often sludge work to earn your keep. In front of a room full of students, I can still remember exactly where Angela sat, nestled at the end of a long table in front of a full wall of windows. It wasn’t her signature long wavy hair or her beautiful face that first captured my attention, but rather how studious she looked.
‘Notes? Who takes notes at a talk?’ I thought as I spoke.
After the talk, Angela approached me and respectfully asked if we could stay in touch. I said yes, of course, not because we, ironically, were both the same size, came from the same area, and knew some of the same people. It’s my rule that anyone with fire in their eyes deserves a ‘yes’ – a chance to prove themselves. It wasn’t long after that when, on a Saturday afternoon, Angela called me to inquire about a producer job opening at the station. I could at least get her an interview. The rest was up to her.
Angela began her first job in TV news as a producer in the Channel 5 newsroom, a great opportunity for her to learn from the best of the best in the business. Great talent has roamed the halls of 980 James Street: David Muir, Mike Tirico, Al Roker, Kathy Orr, Anthony Calhoun, Ryan Fisher, Scott MacFarlane, Scott Isaacs, Katherine Creag, and Bob Van Dillen – just to name a few of a very long list of respected journalists currently working in top 10 market or national news. Most have won or been nominated for an Emmy.
Young producers, like Angela was at the time, have immense responsibility with a lot coming at them from different directions. On one particular tough news day, Angela walked out of an editorial meeting visibly frustrated, which was out of character for her calm, cool, and collected nature. Later on, we discussed her concerns – which were valid – but all part of the business. Like earlier this week, she asked for advice. I gave her the same advice I gave every news cub. I told her if she wanted to make it in the gritty TV news business, ‘ find your voice’. The pressure of LIVE television can be daunting. Clarity is critical because the red light goes on at 5, 6 and 11, whether you’re ready or not.
And ‘not’ is not an option.
I take NO credit – other than opening what can sometimes be a steel door – for Angela’s talents. She soared on her own, her talents quickly scooped up by the CBS affiliate in Albany, followed by the NBC affiliate in New York, where she’s been for the last four years.
It’s hard to give advice to young journalists because the real world doesn’t soften anything. Newsrooms can be notoriously stressful environments with strong personalities, combined with the white noise of scanners, televisions, phones, deadlines, last minute changes, last minute deadlines and when news breaks, intense chaos. There’s nothing like it. Every newsroom has a dedicated group of news managers, anchors, reporters, producers, assignment editors, photographers and production crews who strive every day, all day, to cover stories that matter, often under limited budgets and sliver-tight deadlines.
Some news days are ordinary.
Like when a local mom has quintuplets.
A school board needs a vote passed to keep their sports program.
Or a village considers a curfew.
To the communities affected, those local stories are important.
Some news days are amazing.
Like when SU beats Duke.
SU heads to the Sweet Sixteen.
SU goes to the Final Four.
SU wins the Final Four.
I mean, really, what could be more amazing than wall-to-wall coverage of an SU National Championship? It seems like just yesterday.
What may seem like glitz and glam to home viewers is really, really hard work, especially when a good news day turns ugly. As is often the case when BREAKING NEWS happens, horrible things happen to good people. As I post this, Angela is dealing with an apartment building explosion in East Harlem that’s killed two, injured 18, and has a dozen more missing. That news is very hard to deliver to people at home, especially knowing someone who cares about that person may be hearing it for the first time.
A child goes missing.
A mother is killed.
A plane crashes.
In those moments, a newsroom transforms into a crisis communication command center in seconds. Each member of the newsroom contributes tirelessly, diligently and painstakingly to find the right voice, the right people, and the right words to tell that story. Right decisions must be made quickly so viewers get the coverage they need round the clock. Every news person knows the power of television. Get the story right and you change lives. Get it wrong and you can ruin someone’s life.
How to you teach any of that? Angela had her work cut out for her. And her request got me thinking about all the lessons I learned in the newsroom classroom which I thought I’d share because – in a way – we’re all aspiring students of life.
The Newsroom Classroom
The story is not about you.
Get out of the way.
The backstory is always the ‘sexy’ part. Find the backstory.
Follow the story, not the clock.
Never betray a source.
Never make one up either.
Wikipedia is not a source.
Know the power of words and keep yours.
The most important word in any language is a person’s name.
Make it important. Get it right.
When someone hugs you, let them let go first.
Success is about building relationships.
Leave your phone in the car and TALK to people.
Better yet. Listen. Yes. Really listen. Listen more than you speak.
Listen to understand, then respond.
Be present. Completely present.
Trust the voice within.
Unless the voice is hooked up to a microphone.
Poke any beast that’s not feeding you.
Be brave even when you’re not. Faith and courage will take care of the rest.
Don’t interpret someone else’s actions as a reflection of you.
Change is constant. Learn to be solid on shifting sands.
Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Outside your comfort zone is where real growth begins.
Move for love, not a job, unless it’s a job you love.
Be grateful you have choices.
Be grateful for your wrong choices, otherwise, you’ll never learn anything.
Work harder when no one’s watching.
Make others look good.
Take full responsibility for the space you hold.
Be willing to go from makeup to mud in a heartbeat – before you’re asked.
Don’t get so high on yourself that you need no one, or so low that you need everyone.
Team work is the best work there is.
Live a life of appreciation, not expectation.
A disagreement is an opportunity to get to know someone better.
Be kind to life’s production crew and janitors – they know your dirt.
Mostly importantly, find your voice.
*Utica College has since annexed from Syracuse University.