10 Tips for Covering the Big Event
WUSF News Director Scott Finn and WFAE News Director Greg Collard reflect on their coverage of the national conventions. This is republished from PRNDI.org.
"This is the best thing we've ever done."
That was the judgment not of a General Manager or someone else at our station. This came from a hard-bitten engineer who's been working at the station since the Nixon Administration...and does not usually hand out compliments.
He's talking about our station's coverage of the national convention.
At WUSF in Tampa and WFAE in Charlotte, we knew we’d have to really up our game during these conventions. WUSF temporarily tripled the size of its newsroom, from 9 to 27. It added a daily hour-long talk show in the morning AND a half-hour magazine show called "The Convention Today" at night.
WFAE changed its award-winning daily show “Charlotte Talks” into more of a magazine show. The show featured multiple guests and special feature stories with follow-up analysis from its own reporters. In addition, WFAE had lots of coverage in Morning Edition, ATC and throughout the day in newscast – and its new NPR Core Publisher website.
What we did really surprised folks in our community. We OWNED the radio airwaves when it came to the conventions, and had a surprisingly good digital presence too.
We showed the community how much our stations could accomplish. We also learned a lot of lessons about how to cover big events with limited resources.
Let's start with the happy - six things we got right:
1. Go local
NPR did thorough and comprehensive coverage of the convention itself - the national politics, the speeches, the old-men-talking-to-chairs stuff.
So we focused on how the convention affected our community - the protests, traffic, the huge security presence, the economic winners and losers of having more than 30,000 people come to town.
Both stations focused on how the media was covering our cities - because one of the supposed benefits of holding the convention was the city's stature would increase.
This is what our audience wanted. These issues dominated their discussions during our talk show and on Facebook and other social media.
One example from WFAE: following a bartender trying to go into work, amid problems with traffic and security.
We focused on stories that, to be honest, are more interesting anyway.
2. There is no such thing as a “fluff” story
We captured a lot of the interesting people, the characters of the convention.
WUSF did stories about escorts trying to take advantage of the convention, and even the press conference of a stripper who looks like Sarah Palin.
There are serious stories lurking inside the fluff. The Sarah Palin stripper made a compelling case for dealing with sexually-transmitted diseases in the adult film industry.
And WFAE explored the ethical pitfalls of the open bar at a media party.
3. Use your own reporters as experts
Often, we turn to newspaper reporters or academic experts for interviews. But WFAE and WUSF used its reporters for analysis on its talk shows.
These would be two-ways with sound, sometimes using things that weren’t part of other stories.
It was a fresh sound. The reporters talked directly to the listeners and told them things that don’t always make it into our stories.
It is a little additional work, but it’s worth it.
4. Get help you can trust
WUSF needed to ramp up its staff to pull off our coverage plan. But how to find people you can trust?
One of the best ideas came from WUSF reporter Bobbie O'Brien, who for years has mentored interns and young reporters. She suggested we reach out to former interns and ask them to "come home" for the convention.
It worked! One produced WUSF’s evening show. Another followed anarchists around at night and produced some of the most entertaining radio of the convention.
WUSF also hired two freelancers we trusted, and WLRN in Miami "lent" us their top political reporter, who just happened to have lived in worked in Tampa.
WUSF’s entire budget for the convention was $25,000, which was raised through underwriting and donations. About a quarter of that went for equipment, telephone and computer connections, mileage, etc. The rest was salary.
5. Focus on the web - including video
WUSF didn’t usually have a web editor, but hired a former newspaper reporter to be one during the convention.
It also asked two members of our team to focus mainly on videos for the web.
It paid off. WUSF’s web traffic more than tripled the week of the convention.
WFAE also asked a staffer to focus on video and posted lots of video and photos – with great results.
6. Set up beats
With a beat system, there wasn’t any question about what people were supposed to cover that day. Everyone knew what they were supposed to get.
Some of the beats included:
And here are some of the things we got wrong -- call it "lessons learned."
7. Share leadership - you can't do it by yourself
When Tampa won the bid for the RNC, Colorado Public Radio and Minnesota Public Radio offered advice on their convention coverage.
One of their best pieces of advice: you will need help. Get more editors. Give others leadership. Delegate!
Scott thought he’d listened to them, but apparently not enough. He was trying to deal with logistics (Where can I park?), editing, assigning and placing all radio features, helping produce the talk show, etc.
It would have helped to have an assistant news director...but like a lot of small and mid-sized stations, WUSF didn’t have one.
Meanwhile, Greg at WFAE turned one of his reporters into, basically, an assistant news director – helping to edit, assign, etc.
It saved time and helped everyone be more productive, even though it took a reporter out of the field.
8. Asking people to report and edit is hard to pull off
So, Scott dealt with problem #1 by creating problem #2. He asked three of his best reporters to lead teams of other reporters (protests, economy, and politics were our three teams.)
But he also asked those reporters to keep reporting thinking they were just too good to "waste" on editing and managing alone.
Those reporters were so busy with their own stories, they had real trouble editing the other reporters under them - so Scott ended up doing it anyway. Meanwhile, they felt a lot of unnecessary stress.
9. Logistics, logistics - get help
Dealing with the traffic, security, and parking hassles of a convention is a full time job.
Just handing out the credentials that allow people access to the secure zone was a constant nightmare.
It would have been a good idea to have one or two people with the sole job of dealing with those logistics.
After it was all over, WUSF’s General Manager said, "You could have borrowed Merlina," (her administrative assistant.)
Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
10. Don’t start anything new before a big event.
WFAE switched over to NPR’s Core Publisher two days before the convention weekend.
The station had little choice, for many reasons. But it was tough. It affected how quickly stories were posted, and there were the inevitable bugs that come with change.
In general, don’t make any last-minute changes unless they are absolutely necessary.
WUSF and WFAE had the luxury of being able to plan for this big event. But the general lessons (ask for help, deputize others, set up beats, go local) still apply for breaking news as well.