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?!?” 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.
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 email@example.com. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.