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Rereading and rewriting: the importance of giving a news script a second look

Earlier this month, I watched a local TV news story I found genuinely compelling and innovative. I e-mailed one of the photographers to learn more about their process; in his response, he mentioned how much time his team had received to produce the piece:

Two weeks.

“Two weeks?!?” I thought. “I’m lucky when I get two days!”

Time, for most journalists, is always at a premium. Local TV crews, solo or traditional, must typically produce several stories in an eight-hour span. When I mentioned above about getting to spend two days on a story, I was referring to the infrequent chances I receive to do long-form pieces; typically, I work under the same daily crunch as the majority of my colleagues.

And I must always resist the urge to take shortcuts, specifically on my scripts.

I can write a standard TV report very quickly, but when I do, I sometimes struggle to capture why the story matters. That’s why, in almost every occasion, I take a few minutes to reread the script. I try to block out the looming deadline and focus on the words that will ultimately compress and convey my story to my audience.

Those few minutes often make a massive difference.

First, they give me a chance to confirm my facts. Especially on breaking news or issue-based stories, I want to make sure I accurately report every detail. Rereading my script enables me to double-check.

Second, the extra pass allows me to tighten. I can see where I have repeated myself, overlapped with one of my interviewee’s sound bites, or simply used too many words instead of a concise alternative.

Mostly, I reread my script to make sure I am telling the best possible story. I try to remind myself of why the piece matters and how I can best express that. Then I scan my structure to make sure I have lived up to my story’s themes; if I have not, I use whatever time is available to regroup and rewrite — not the whole story, perhaps, but at least a sentence or two.

I use this approach in the daily mix but also for my longer assignments … including my most recent one that aired earlier this week.

I was assigned a powerful graduation story: Andee Poulos had suffered a brain injury at age 14 that put her in a coma. A doctor told her parents she might never eat, drink, walk, or talk again. But she did. This past Saturday, two months shy of her 21st birthday, Andee walked across the stage and accepted a diploma as a high school graduate.

The synopsis is touching, but the details went way deeper. Andee and her family have lived this journey for six years; I was tasked with condensing it to four minutes. My first script felt way too cluttered; I had tried to fit in so many details that I struggled to maximize the ones that mattered most. I often feel this way about stories of such complexity. When I learn so much about a topic, I naturally want to provide my viewers with the same level of knowledge. In doing so, I often fail to present the story in a digestible way … unless I give my script a second look.

My second look at Andee’s story made it much stronger.

I found myself better equipped to tighten my script, remove the details that felt superfluous, and accentuate the themes and personalities that gave extra meaning to Andee’s triumph. When I sat down afterwards to edit, I felt much more confident into my material. Here is the result:

This is a long-form example of a daily scenario. The pressures and deadlines of local TV news are not slowing, but the standards of local TV journalists should not drop. We must push ourselves whenever possible … starting with our words.

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The Solo Video Journalist is available for purchase. You can find it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the publisher’s web site.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

She sounds like she’s smiling: Saying goodbye to “B”

Television newsrooms have a way of draining one’s idealism and optimism.

Journalists often see their big dreams swept under by waves of daily deadlines and demands. They watch too many co-workers depart for other industries, unwilling to withstand the toll and frustrations of the business. They see an industry changing and tightening while their stations’ ratings struggle to sustain. Their wide-eyed smiles turn into weary looks of acceptance.

But not Birnur Richardson.

She worked at my station in Atlanta, WXIA-TV, for more than three decades. She edited video for our morning show, taking the overnight shift to do it. Such a schedule often drains people more than deadlines, but not the person we all called “B”. No matter my mood in the morning, I would walk into the newsroom and receive the greeting of her smiling face. When Birnur retired last year, it left a hole in our building impossible to fill.

Birnur passed away this past weekend.

Unbeknownst to many of us, she had been battling aggressive cancer for several months. I was stunned and saddened by the news, as were many of my colleagues.

I am struggling today to find the words to explain the rarity and beauty of B’s spirit. Thankfully, several of my colleagues have put forth poignant words of appreciation, and I would like to share them with you.

Bumble B: Fellow reporter Jerry Carnes entered the 11Alive orbit at the same time as Birnur. I can honestly picture and relate to every memory he shares, such as this one:

Years passed. B drifted to the morning shift, and eventually, so did I. A newsroom can be a solemn, grumpy place at 3 a.m., unless you employ Birnur Richardson. Nothing could [faze] her. Editing glitches, computer problems, system breakdowns. She handled it all with polite professionalism. And if you had an issue, somehow she would break away from her job of editing two-and-a-half hours of videotape to help. Never, not once, did I ever hear B speak a cross word to anyone. Ever.

A difficult day for 11Alive: In a Facebook post the morning after B passed, reporter and morning shifter Jennifer Leslie offered her own memories — as well as photos displaying B’s delightful smile:

I will never forget how kind and loving she was after my boys were born. She was the first to grab and squeeze them during their newsroom visits, and she ALWAYS asked about them. She was an incredible role model who raised the most impressive children. She had a full plate but always had time for those around her.

Finally, I urge you to watch this five-minute video made last year for B’s retirement. I actually never saw it last year, but when a co-worker posted it earlier this week, I watched and nearly cried. Even while describing the mundane details of life on the morning shift, B cannot help but smile. And when video plays over her voice, she sounds like she’s smiling.

I will always remember that smile. I will always remember B.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Atlanta icons & an Alabama firefighter

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

#GoodbyeBrenda: 11Alive bids farewell to an Atlanta icon (2/8/17, WXIA-TV): This past week, my newsroom in Atlanta lost a legend.

Longtime anchor Brenda Wood officially retired from local TV news, signing off Wednesday for the final time. I have used this space quite a bit in recent weeks to commemorate Wood and her work in Atlanta.

But I can think of no person better to honor such an icon than our newsroom’s other storytelling standout.

Jon Shirek is a phenomenal writer and a generous soul; I have interviewed him both on my Telling the Story podcast and for my book, The Solo Video Journalist. In this story, he does his homework and encapsulates the career of our colleague with sensitivity and admiration.

It’s a fitting tribute. After all, Wood never lacked command as an anchor; Shirek never lacks it as a writer.

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5 little-known stories that show the greatness of Brenda Wood

For nearly eight years, I have worked in the same newsroom as an Atlanta TV legend.

But I have only witnessed a fraction of what makes her one.

Brenda Wood has been the foundation of the 11Alive newsroom for two decades; she has been an institution in Atlanta for nearly three. Her last day Wednesday marks the end of a 40-year career in television news – one filled with more honors, distinctions, and trailblazing moments than most of us can hope to accomplish.

Through my much shorter time at 11Alive, I have shared many conversations with Brenda while admiring the command and vision that set an example for so many in our newsroom.

Only recently did I learn the extent of that vision … and how far it goes back.

I was fortunate to interview Brenda for nearly an hour for my Telling the Story podcast. In that time, we covered many topics, and Brenda told some fascinating stories about how she developed into the woman she is today.

Those stories, to me, illuminated what makes her so special.

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How it feels to cover the Super Bowl without seeing it in person

My eyes are bleary.

I am three hours and 200 miles away from finally returning home from eleven days on assignment in Houston. In the last two days I have slept ten hours, which is the same amount of time my co-workers and I have spent driving back to our station in Atlanta.

(As I write this, we still have three hours to go. Hello from Greenville, Ala., by the way …)

The Super Bowl is worth it.

I wrote last week how I had dreamed as a child of covering the Super Bowl, the undisputed biggest event in sports. My dreams had strayed as I grew, I wrote, but I still recognized in this trip the chance to fulfill this original one.

Now that I have, I find myself still trying to take it in.

In more than a week, I have covered nearly every corner of Houston to tell the stories of the Super Bowl. I interviewed players, fans, and celebrities; I attended events; I ate some of the best food of my life; and I stood at the center of the sports’ biggest week.

I did everything … except see the game itself. (more…)

SUPER BOWL STORIES: Hello from Houston!

I have been fortunate to receive some dream assignments through the years.

My current one was once an actual dream.

I don’t watch as much football as I did when I was a kid. To be fair, nobody watches as much football as I did when I was a kid. I loved the NFL, and — growing up in New Jersey — I particularly loved the New York Jets.

In fact, one of my first journalistic exploits came when, in seventh grade, I started a weekly newsletter called The Jet Weekly. I even convinced my friends to write regular columns.

My football infatuation didn’t stop there. In high school I wrote full-length magazines previewing the upcoming NFL seasons. I turned down the volume before Jets games and did the play-by-play into a microphone (and recorded the audio on a cassette player). I simulated seasons from start to finish, and I never missed a game.

But as those years have grown more distant, so has my devotion to the NFL. In my career, I transitioned from a full-time sports guy to a full-time news guy (who, through some extraordinary assignments, gets to dip his toe into sports every so often). In my life, I went from a two-time fantasy football champ and NFL Red Zone devotee to someone who watches the occasional game. I no longer view the league through a lens of infallibility, and I often struggle to separate my enjoyment of the sport with the controversial baggage it carries.

I still, though, enjoy the game. And I particularly love the way a winning team — in any sport, including the NFL — brings together a city.

It’s happening right now in Atlanta. And it’s why I’m spending this week in Houston.

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PODCAST EPISODE #50: Brenda Wood, anchor, WXIA-TV

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Let me first say the following:

Thank you.

I did not anticipate reaching 50 podcast episodes — or four years of the blog as a whole — when I recorded my first one in 2013. I have continued to write these posts and produce these episodes, in part, because of the consistent and genuine encouragement I have received from readers like you. That feedback helps keep me going.

The other thing that keeps me going? It’s a sentiment expressed with beauty and brevity by my guest on this milestone episode:

“Always the student. Always learning.”

I would admire anyone who follows that philosophy, regardless of profession, but I especially admire those who preach it in local television news … because it can be so easy to do the opposite. The business often seems to conspire sameness, and I strive to find guests on this podcast who never get comfortable or complacent.

Fortunately for me, and for anyone who works at WXIA-TV in Atlanta, such a person has been the spirit of our newsroom for two decades.

Brenda Wood is the reigning dean of Atlanta TV news, and she has worked in the business for forty years. In that time, she has broken barriers, interviewed dignitaries, and collected numerous awards. Beyond that, she has always seized the chance to extend her reach. She has stood out in recent years for a daily opinion segment called “Brenda’s Last Word” and ambitious projects like a half-hour documentary spotlighting the work of the Carter Center in Ethiopia.

In whatever she does, Wood aims to spread influence and make impact. She has been the bedrock of our building for so long that we will face a mammoth challenge when she moves on.

On February 7, she is doing just that. Wood will sign off from 11Alive for the final time.

Brenda Wood is my guest on this 50th episode of the Telling the Story podcast.

This interview was supposed to last 30 minutes, but it went 45. Wood is rich with stories about the past, speaking about the challenges of starting her career as a black female reporter in the South. She also says plenty about the present, offering advice to young journalists on how to exercise their own influence and remain committed to their communities.

And, of course, she talks about her future, which will be filled with that wonderful sentiment:

“Always the student. Always learning.”

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Learning from the audience, and absorbing – not ignoring – criticism

My heart always jumps a bit when I see it in my Inbox.

As a television reporter, I attempt on a daily basis to condense hours’ worth of research, visuals, and interviews into a digestible 90-second story. I rarely put anything on the air until I am entirely confident in every fact and every word.

But, on rare occasions, I get feedback that says I might have missed one.

It arrives in the form of an e-mail or social media comment, and it always fills me with a distinct sense of dread. No matter my previous confidence, I always scramble to see if I have, in fact, made a mistake. For the most part, I find my original research to be correct, and I can then release a giant sigh and resume my day. If not, I feel terrible for the rest of the day.

But every now and then, such a comment leaves me thankful.

Two weeks ago we learned of a freshman at the University of Georgia who had taken part in a student-made music video for Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”. The young man, we were told, was named Luke Bundrum and was deaf; the video featured a group of students performing the song using sign language. The group had already garnered attention on campus.

We loved the idea. I headed to Athens, Ga., met and interviewed Luke, spoke with his friends from the video, and returned to Atlanta with the makings of an enjoyable story. I wrote a script saying how this young man wanted to “raise awareness for the hearing-impaired”, and we aired the piece that night and posted it online to unanimous praise.

And then I saw a comment that said otherwise.

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Logan lives on: the triumph of a heart-warming story

I just spent most of August covering an event that captivates the world. I worked at the 2016 Summer Olympics for three weeks, produced 36 packages, made dozens of social media posts, and wrote 13 entries for this blog. Many of those packages, posts, and entries spread a great distance and performed very well both on-air and online.

But my most-read blog post from last month? It had nothing to do with the Olympics. It wasn’t in any way new; I had written it ten months earlier. And it was read nine times as much as the second-most popular post.

It was about a young man who has now touched hearts as worldwide as the Olympics.

It was about Logan.

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MY OLYMPICS JOURNEY: Every entry from the Rio Summer Games

I’m back!

I’m back in Atlanta, I’m back to my normal routine, and I’m back to work at 11Alive.

The Olympics suddenly seem so long ago.

But the 2016 Summer Games remained a remarkable event, both for viewers at home and for those of us who got to experience it on the ground in Rio. I’m taking the week off from blogging, but in the meantime, here’s a look back at every entry of mine from these past Olympics:

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