Playing The Game

Good Morning, Mid-Missouri! Anchoring the morning news with Megan Murphy at KOMU.

This post was also featured at hollyedgell.com.  I added a few extra tidbits here…

Last summer, I got a major reality check:  Not everybody does it like KOMU.

I took an internship for a few weeks at a station in a DMA smaller than Columbia/Jefferson City last summer (It was fairly close to home, I had friends in the area with whom I could stay, and I knew a bigger station would give me better contacts but less hands-on experience).  And when I got there, all of the haughty best practices I learned at Channel 8 got thrown out the window:

WHAT?  You don’t cut a VO/SOT for the 5, and then a DIFFERENT version for the 6?  Why don’t we have an ELS (Enterprise Leadable Story) to lead at 10?  Why are we reporting stories out of the paper?  WHAT?  You PANNED and ZOOMED when you were shooting?  Why did they DO that?

It’s not that this station covered the news in the wrong way.  Far from it!  They just played “The Game” in a different way.

Indeed, there are many ways to play the broadcast game, and not all of them revolve around fresh versions of stories and relevant enterprised leads. The station where I interned wasn’t even an “Action-News” style station — it was just a solid, desk-driven local station.  This doesn’t always win you an award (and actually, this station was one of the more honored small-market stations in the region). For some newsrooms, winning the game involves being in the thick of the news cycle at all times, and being there when stories happen.

Especially in Holly Edgell’s producing class, I’ve been steeped in information on branding and approach.  And while it’s really easy to pick on the stations we work alongside and against, but I came back to KOMU after this summer with a newfound understanding of — if not respect for — our competition.  Whenever anybody asks, “Why did they DO that?” — I think to myself:  they play the game by different rules.  And it’s not because they don’t have two SNG trucks, or hoards of available reporters, or pricey new studios.  It’s because the broadcast game doesn’t revolve around toys and tools, but around your approach to covering the news, and how well you live up to your own branding, for better or for worse, seems to measure your success.

In many ways, you can argue our competition does a better job living up to its branding — no matter how that translates in the ratings.  While I think our competition can be a little over-zealous in proving what great broadcast “gamers” they are — meaning, their newscasts are just as much about the story, but how well they covered a story — 9 times out of 10, they beat us on public safety coverage.  And about half the time, they’ll follow up on something better than we can — because the same news staff covered it 6 months ago and sourced the story better than we did.

I’m not advocating KOMU reporters go out and cover every car fire, but I am trying to suggest that we aren’t perfect.  More specifically, we need to live up to the high standards we set for ourselves, and be mindful of our identity:  We are a station whose primary focus is public-service/public-policy features, which values flow over speed, and storytelling over brevity.

But we lose sight of that a lot.  In fact, there’s no bigger frustration for a producer coming in to do the Six than to look at the assignment board, and see reporters who pitch stories that don’t live up to the best of our branding.  One day, instead of the enterprised lead stories or hard-hitting public policy stories we pride ourselves on, almost every dayside reporter was assigned a story about a recent one-inch snowfall.

Why did they DO that? I’d rather we kept two reporters back and had them turn nothing but VO/SOTs on every meaningless grease fire and minor traffic accident.  We wouldn’t be winning the game by our standards, but at least we’d be winning the game by someone’s standards.

KOMU is not an infallible, unimpeachable beacon of broadcast perfection:  we’re an anomaly.  We have some advantages that we exploit as often as we can, but we’re also hampered by the fact that we don’t have a staff rounded out by people who live and breathe the news cycle in this market five days per week.  We persevere and make the best with what we have, just like everybody else, but we don’t always win.

I don’t want to bash on KOMU either — make no mistake, it’s a pleasure to work at a station that values public policy stories and enterprised leads as much as does KOMU.  But I think it would do us all a little good to remember there are many ways to play the broadcast game — and likewise, many ways to win.

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One thought on “Playing The Game

  1. Jason says:

    Yep.. get used to using newspaper stories. Actually, get used to your station BANKING on the newspaper. As much as some of my own co-workers complain about how the Baltimore Sun is not what it used to be, we still rely on their work for half of our stories. Yes, HALF. Most VO’s come thanks to the local newspaper.

    We also cover crime big time. (Then again, it’s also Baltimore with a ridiculously high homicide rate. Top 5 in the country.) If the crime story is at all interesting… we cover it. I get sick of it, but there’s something we often forget….. is that crime story a talker? And many times, yes. Whether it’s something I talk about with people or not, other people do. There’s 3 types of people: those who talk about other people, those who talk about things that happened, and those who talk about ideas and policies. Yet, it’s not always even determined by education. Sometimes people with high education might simply enjoy talking about less brain stimulating things. That’s all something I realized recently… and I think it’s something to keep in mind. Are we going to be the niche station for one group (and which one?) or are we going to appease all the types of people?

    I think my station actually does pretty well with that. We do the crime that I hate… yet still has to be done… and we cover state legislature and DC politics/policy hard as well. We also do a lot of investigations, and have started a new brand “WASTE WATCH” to check government waste.

    So yeah, it’s what you want to be. Folks shouldn’t just think.. oh we’re better than the others….. because you might not be.

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