Thursday, June 28, 2012

Inside the Newsroom: Supreme Court Health Care Decision

I work at the NBC/ABC affiliate in Jacksonville, Florida. (Don't ask how the duopoly works now too much explaining) I walked into work at 4:30 this morning. The top story in my area locally has been Tropical Storm Debby. Many parts of the city and our viewing area are flooded beyond repair. But on the third day of covering this natural disaster I was over Debby and excited for the Supreme Court Decision to be delivered at 10 a.m.

By the time I finished helping with other shows and got around to working on my own it was 7 a.m. The Today show came on. The morning crew and the dayside crew just arriving are all watching and waiting for Ann Curry to announce she's leaving the anchor desk. That announcement didn't come until some time after 8:30. Her tearful goodbye, which will do wonders for Today ratings, was both heartfelt and bitter. Her comment that NBC has given her a whole host of new titles allowing her to do whatever story she wants was the sincere "f*** you" she could not say profanely on daytime television.

Ann Curry went off the air. The buzz in the newsroom at about 8:45 to 9 a.m. was about her leaving, who would replace her and rumors about the inner workings of "network." As I turned away from the gossip and focused on my disorganized rundown of what I was trying to do with my show I sat anxiously waiting the decision. I booked a live shot out of Washington D.C. for the top of my show and then tried to fill the minute and a half of content before the live shot hit at 12:01:00. 90 seconds may not seem like a lot, but in a world where you have 15 seconds to answer a question 90 seconds may as well be a light year.

I pulled a soundbyte from 2010 where the President said:

"After a year of debate. After a historic vote. Health care reform is no longer an unmet promise. It is the law of the land. The law of the land." 

My thought process at 9:15 a.m. was to open the show with this quote. And then have my anchor say "Not Anymore" because I like many other rational individuals expected this court, this conservative John Roberts court, to strike this law down hard.

Visualization for the first 15 seconds of the show before my live shot complete. I have 75 more seconds to fill and then breakouts to find afterward. I pulled a profile of Justice Kennedy who I thought was going to be the swing voter. I pulled video of people lining up to hear the decision this morning. Another 20 seconds. Down to 55. I tried to find Florida based stories on the health care bill to keep the national news local. As I'm trying to see my show in my head before it airs our resident lawyer walks in.

The criminal defense attorney was there to talk to the afternoon producers about the elements and interviews they were setting up for their shows. At this time we all got into a heated debate about the law. She and I staunchly for it. My executive producer against the law for non-sensical and selfish reasons. The three other producers having less passionate positions about a topic that will give them knots in their shoulders until their shows are over later this afternoon. We argued what we should cover, what would be the most important to our viewers, who should we talk to, what angle should we take, what should our reporters cover. We discussed until 9:58. The time I looked at the clock and realized if I wanted to have a great show I kind of needed to write the other areas not focused on health care.

10:07 CNN blasts the world with mis-information that the mandate is struck down. ABC beats NBC to say it is upheld 6 - 3. We would all later discover it was 5 - 4. Then the special reports begin: the law upheld on the taxing power of Congress and not the Commerce Clause. I exclaimed, "A legal loophole. That's my constitutional law professor President right there." I was frantic. I was excited. "Oh Shit!" I'm pressed for time.

In news it takes anywhere from four to six hours to create 30 minutes worth of amazing news. My noon show goes on at 11:58:30. If I start working on the show when I'm supposed to at 6 a.m. then I technically have enough time to make great news daily. But the truth of the matter is news that comes off the wire at 6 a.m. is old by noon. I typically do a blanket "stacking" of the show leaving it 16 minutes light, then at 7:45 a.m. fill in the blanks until it is completely filled and by 8:30 start writing. Today I didn't start seriously writing until about 10:30. I was pressed for time. My editors were pressed for time. All the excitement about the decision and trying to get the facts straight meant I had to see a show in my head as I was building it while still trying to figure out what I wanted it to look like.

If you watched HBO's The Newsroom Sunday you saw some of what happens in the midst of breaking news. Our alerts aren't color coated. News is either BREAKING or it's not. And that whole show without a script where the prompter just says [VAMP] doesn't happen. Anchors may adlib a few points, and if you're watching the news with closed captioning you'll see "adlib" in the captioning at times. But a whole show adlibbed. That just doesn't happen. Ever. I know anchors that will verbally murder you if you mess up their prompter.

I say all this to say that if I need 6 hours to adequately do a 30 minute show of which only 22 minutes is news and I don't start banging out the majority of it until 10:30 I am in a pressure cooker. I'm racing against time with historic news and wishing everything would slow down so I can get to 11:58:30 alive and with something amazing to show.

I'm typing fast, reading vertically, checking email constantly. Florida's Freshman Senator Marco Rubio released his statement. I pull the video and slug it in my rundown. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi releases a statement. I download the video. Slug it in my rundown. The profile on Justice Kennedy dies a quick death. Wait. BREAKING NEWS. A producer screams President Obama is speaking at 12:15. My question: "Will he be on time?" You the viewers may not notice it but the President is rarely on time to a press event. I check the feeds to see who will carry it live. More BREAKING NEWS. NBC will break in with a special report. It's 10:45 or 11:00 a.m. I turn around and tell my editor the last four stories that haven't been written will probably die. I scream across the newsroom for my anchor. She rushes over. I ask her to write three stories for me and that if she does I'll love her forever. Promise. She agrees. She is now my new favorite anchor. (Few anchors voluntarily write scripts. Many read what's been written and then yell at you later if you make them look bad)

It's at least 11:15 maybe later. I call the control room and tell them the plan for the special report. I talk to my director to make sure everything I've dreamed up will go on air as scripted. The way I see it in my head. I continue banging out the show. I've moved from health care to the remnants of Tropical Storm Debby. The first 7 minutes and 30 seconds of the show are finished. I flip to CNBC to check the market. Still down some 100 points or more. Check the wires to find out why. I begin writing the money block of my show with a live look at the New York Stock Exchange big board. Two financial stories, one on J.P. Morgan Chase's $9 billion trading loss, the other on the fine levied against Barclays for trying to cheat on setting global interest rates.

11:30: My anchor walks by. I tell her to start reading the top of the show and let me know what she thinks and if she has any questions about what's happening. I write. I proof. I format. I jump into the dayside producer's conversation about their health care coverage. I make suggestions. My editor asks me for a video source about a story on the security breach at a CDC laboratory in Atlanta. I find it.

11:45: I'm finished. The last two stories of the show I didn't write. If the President speaks at 12:15 and is on time I don't need them. If he didn't more time goes to weather. I freeze the rundown and print. BREAKING NEWS: Mitt Romney to speakin on health care. I scream for someone in sat ops (satellite operations) to tune in CNN Channel 3. (CNN has five live channels available at any given time of day for news stations. The cameras and video can come from anywhere in the world.) I tell my editor to  roll on the feed and then cut 15 to 20 seconds. "I don't care what he says just get me something good." (Word to the wise if you ever have to give a media statement you want to do it live so there's less likelihood of you getting cut off. If you tape it, I'm chopping it.) With the new Romney development I add a line in my frozen rundown to get him in the show.

11:53: I take scripts to the anchor in the studio.

11:55: I'm in the control room. Headsets on. I check my router to make sure my live shot is where it is supposed to be. It is. My video is in. My director and audio person are taking their places. Another producer comes in to roll prompter for the top of the show.

11:57:20: I tell my anchor in her ear we're a minute out. She knows I will be counting her down to the 12:01:00 live shot.

11:58:30: The animation rolls, we do the 30 second cold open (a tease of what's coming up in the show). Break rolls.

11:59:35: The ID (every station's signature open branding their station and show) rolls. The soundbyte from President Obama rolls. My anchor begins reading. Instead of "Not Anymore" she says, "And it still is."

12:00:00: One minute. I'm counting down to the live shot. 30 seconds. I think my anchor won't finish all I have written and the toss to the live reporter will be a jumbled mess. 15 seconds. Maybe she'll make it. 10. Maybe. 9. Maybe. 8. She'll make it. 7. Maybe. 6. We'll make it. 5. She has to make it. 4. She's wrapping. 3. She's tossing. 2. We've made it. 1. We've made it. Live shot starts and I breathe a sigh of relief. For two minutes I can breathe. The phone rings. It's my editor. He doesn't have much from Romney but the sound is going up. I rush him off the phone. Move the Romney sound into place. Write a quick unformatted intro tossing to the sound. 15 seconds left in live shot. I tell my anchor where it is. Live shot wraps and tosses back. The show must go on.

The first five minutes of the show was dedicated to the health care decision. The last two minutes and 30 seconds were dedicated to the flood. When we went to our first commercial break the phone rang. The man in charge saying "that was a helluva block of news." I exhale. But it's not over yet.

Doing the news inside a breaking news event requires finding a certain level of calm in the midst of chaos. Controlling excitement to get the facts right. Managing stress and tension so no matter what happens, even if the world falls apart around you, you can get the latest information on the air correctly.

Tomorrow I will go in at 4:30 in the morning and do it all again. The big story for Friday will be George Zimmerman's second bond hearing. It starts at 9 a.m. All I know right now is I have the lawyer coming in. The rest of how it all goes down will work itself out in the morning even if it is seconds before it airs.

Instead of giving you questions to answer, you can ask me any question you like about the news process. Shoot. 

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