By Lynn French
Photographer KPNX-TV Phoenix, AZ
A few Fridays ago I was fervently pounding out a script for our High School Football show when a fellow photographer passed by and asked what I was doing. "Just throwing the Ironwood-Peoria script in the rundown," I replied as I shuttled back through the tape to make sure I had the right name from the roster. He laughed, "I didn't think photogs were even allowed to log onto the computer."
There are reporters who can run live trucks, there are producers who edit in a pinch, even anchors who shoot when the chips are down, so why don't we write stories?
Here are a few of the reasons I have been told through the years:
---We take the pictures, edit the tape and run the live truck, isn't that enough?
---I don't want the responsibility of it.
---That is someone else's job.
---I don't know how and I would not know where to start.
Here are a few reasons why we should be writing stories:
---We were there.
---We know exactly what is on the tape.
---We know how to tell a story.
---We take the pictures, edit the tape and run the live truck, why not complete the circle?
How many times have you been told to shoot an anchor pack or a good VOB, handed the tape to a producer or anchor, then got the script back and said to yourself, "They missed the point completely"? Unlike the people who don't leave the newsroom other than to go to lunch, we are out there every day touching the stories. There is a good chance that while you are setting up your tripod or clipping a lav mic on a subject, that you are talking about the story or asking them questions to put them at ease before turning on camera. When the tape gets rolling, so much of that is lost. But you where there, you have the best understanding of anyone at your station what the subject wanted to convey to the viewers. Also, you are the person that subject will associate with how accurately or inaccurately the story aired, so why not make sure it is right? Finally, there is no greater power than to look a reporter in the eye and say, "I can do this without you". Granted, I have never had to play that card, but it is good to have. On the nicer side of that, when some reporters know you can write, they will seek out your approval for scripts or ask your advice on the best way to marry the words and pictures, giving you the chance to get a great story on the air that includes YOUR best video.
So are you sold? Don't worry, I did not pay attention during that requisite "Writing for the Mass Media" class in college either (7:00 am on a Monday, c'mon!). I learned to write out of necessity and fear. Several people told me during the early years that I would never have a successful career in television. A wise old sage from my first station, the PBS station in Portales, New Mexico once said, "If you can write or run Master Control, you will always have a job in TV." I learned both just to be safe. Sure enough, my next job was as a one-man-band reporter where writing was not a choice.
The master control switcher I learned on is so antiquated, that skill probably is not viable anymore, but pen and paper never go out of style. I can't guarantee you will be Bob Dotson or Steve Hartman by the end of this, but I bet you could crank out a package that would make your co-workers step back and say, "Hey, that photog can write!"
Where to begin? Get a feel for good writing. Maybe there is a reporter at your station who has a great writing style. Or maybe there is a network reporter who puts some jaw dropping TV on the air. Tape the news and watch those packages over and over until you can recite them with the sound off. Yeah, it sounds crazy, but it will give you a sense of cadence and delivery. A few of my favorite sources for great writing: almost anything on CBS Sunday Morning, "Everybody Has A Story" on CBS every other Thursday night/Saturday morning, Frontline on PBS, Photographer of the Year tapes/DVDS---love you for that Keven Strehle! (a lot of POYs have great reporters to showcase their shooting), Dateline and 48 Hours pieces.
Build yourself a tape of great writing. Try to find a variety of stories like you are making the ultimate resume tape, but for writing rather than shooting and you can use anybody's stuff (umm, no nat sound pieces). So seek out spot news, features, in-depth pieces, sports---and include the anchor lead-ins and tags, you will want to write those too very soon (I am not kidding, but I see you rolling your eyes). Now watch it over and over until you quit seeing new things about the stories. I used to watch mine at the end of my shift every night for months and even now drag it out if I need a little inspiration. Don't worry so much about the editing or lighting or regular stuff we get wrapped up in, just listen and watch. Then start to answer these questions about your tape going through story by story:
----What is it that you like about the story in general?
----At what point in the story did you say, "hey, this is a great piece"?
----What is it about that point in the story that is unique?
----What was the most memorable point in the story---The "ah-ha!" moment?
----What was the most memorable thing the reporter/anchor said? Was it the same as the previous question?
----Was there a formula to the story or was it kind of unorthodox? If there was a formula, what is it?
----What would you do differently or is it the perfect piece? (again, it is not the shooting, the lighting or the white balance, just the writing)
You have your assignment. Next time we will find a story, shoot it, and start writing it. Here is where I need your help. As we go through this, please let me know what parts you liked, how they helped and what I can do to improve this process. I can be reached at LEFrenchNM@msn.com or email@example.com.
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