Written by Jeff Rowe
Putting together a newscast that is informative, compelling, engaging and interesting is one of journalism's great challenges.
It's like preparing a great meal: all of the individual items must be good, and they should be presented in an appealing way. A flea on the salad can spoil the rest of the meal.
A newscast is a delicate mix of items, just like that good meal. Putting the segments together in an engaging manner is the producer's task.
Conventional wisdom in broadcasting says your lead story will determine how many listeners or viewers will stick with your station for the rest of the newscast. However, at all-news stations and on web sites, nothing really leads the newscast because listeners and viewers are coming and going all the time. Even so, the half-hour newscast remains the standard for local stations around the nation, and it's important to know how such a newscast is created.
First of all, we generally only have 22 minutes to work with - the rest of the half hour is given to commercials. Typically, the half-hour will contain four two-minute commercial breaks.
The producer must decide on the order and mix of the newscast - how to structure the packages, live shots, voice-overs, weather, sports and business in a way that is engaging and makes sense.
Like the top headline on a newspaper, the story chosen to lead the newscast says a lot about your station's news judgment and values. Given access to the same reporting, one station in your town might choose to lead with a story about an elderly woman attacked by dogs, a rival station might lead with a legislative development affecting school programs.
Let's say you are the news producer in charge of a certain newscast. A good question to ask yourself is "what story is most broadly interesting and significant to our listeners or viewers?" Often, the quality of the pictures is a key factor in that decision. A strongly visual story often will bump a more thoughtful piece from the lead because the thinking is powerful pictures will capture the viewers and induce them to stay for the duration of the newscast.
Try to arrange your newscast so viewers are rewarded for sticking with you. Not every story can throb with energy or be drenched with emotion, but you can sprinkle little gems throughout the newscast. Tell your audience what you must but do it with as much grace and style as you can muster.
Connecting the segments
Beginning producers (and some who should know better) often fall to the temptation of trying to hitch together the stories in a newscast as if it were an episodic play. It's a good idea to group the items in the newscast in some sort of logical order, but avoid the trap of trying to connect unrelated stories with a thin string of false transitions.
A few years ago, a television sportscaster was dismissed for alluding that athletes resembled monkeys. The sportscaster's ill-advised remarks were an attempt to connect with the previous piece on chimpanzees at the local zoo.
Although you want to group related stories, there's no reason to try to stitch together what can't be linked. Imagine how foolish it would sound if in the course of a conversation between friends about the weather one said:
"And speaking of rain, it looks like I'm getting soaked on my investment in General Products Industries."
Think of your radio or television audience as a group of your friends.
A pause and change in inflection are enough to carry us to the next story.
Teases are an important part of broadcast journalism. Seminars are devoted to the writing of these references to what is coming in the news¬cast. They can be sprinkled into breaks in programming before the news, but most often they are used to lead into a commercial break. The purpose is to leave the audience so intrigued that they will not even flip through other channels during the commercial break for fear of missing a single sec¬ond.
Oftentimes though, teases are so pumped up that they sound as if a huckster rather than a journalist wrote them.
"Will a new scientific breakthrough change life as we know it?
We'll tell you when we come back!"
"A local man is suspected of brutal crimes against orphans, widows and puppies - find out right after the break!"
"Is Hurricane Hattie going to devastate our city? Carol Cumulus is next with the weather!"
Telling the audience what will follow a break is a good service but leave the theatrics to carnival barkers.
Exercise: Building a half-hour newscast
Today we begin creating a half-hour newscast for the mythical KCSU Channel 3.
From your group. you will have a producer and at least two wnters Together. you will create the newscast. You will decide what stories to use and how to use them - VOs. VOSOTs, anchor reads or some other treatment. In consultation With the writers. the producer Will deCide what stories to include and how to present them.
Figure on eight minutes of commercials. which you can place in four two-minute blocks. That leaves you with 22 minutes of news time.
For planning purposes, let's figure we will have five reporter packages.
Among your group. you will determine what these five stones will be. For this newscast. let's assume we are affiliated with whatever news sites you use to find your matenal.
For those packages, you need only to wnte an anchor lead and tag. Make the le~d a maximum of two sentences and the tag one sentence. To simplify. let's figure the packages - including lead and tag - are two minutes each.
For the live report, come up with a story that lends itself to live presentation. Write an anchor lead and then toss to a field reporter. Build in at least one follow-up question and perhaps two, depending on how the time works out. Plan on 60-90 seconds for the live shot.
That leaves you with about 11 minutes for the rest of the newscast. Write the stories as VOs, VOSOTs or anchor readers. Remember to show how you would use b-roll, graphics and bites.
Include weather, sports and business and perhaps an entertainment report and some other topical report, such as health and fitness.
Strive to get the planning done today; including how you will divide into a "talent" team - a main news anchor, sports anchor, weathercaster and field reporter, to whom you will go for that live shot.
Plan to get together for a few hours to assemble and rehearse your newscast, so make sure you have telephone numbers and e-mail addresses for your fellow team members.
Present the newscasts during class.