News people can be a jealous, petty lot. Out of frustration or insecurity they often belittle their competition, and even their colleagues.
“How did he get that job?”
“How did she get that story?”
“How did he get that shot?”
“Can you believe the luck of that guy?”
The fortune that follows from luck, however, is not accidental. If the mythical ‘news genie’ were to pop from a bottle and ask, “Would you rather be lucky or good?” choose the latter. Luck makes a difference only when you’ve prepared to take advantage of it.
It reminds me of the first time my father took me fishing. Being a typical kid, I spent most of my energy baiting the hook and casting the line. Meantime, Dad caught all the fish. This didn’t make sense. I was working harder.
“Nobody ever caught a fish without his hook in the water,” Dad said.
“Fisherman’s luck has a lot to do with knowing where the fish might be, and then keeping your hook wet.” The fisherman, Santiago, had a similar attitude in Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. He kept his gear ready for “the big one”.
Extend the metaphor, and you’ll find this theory also applies to life. Television news is no exception.
Clinton In The Woods
On November 12, 2002, Iraq’s parliament rejected a United Nations weapons inspections resolution, pushing our nation loser to a possible war. The next day, KGO-TV’s assignment desk received a tip that former president Bill Clinton was playing a round of golf at San Francisco’s Olympic Club. Our assistant news director, Tracey Watkowski, broke us off another assignment to track him down. We were hoping Clinton would comment on the situation.
The Olympic Club is an exclusive establishment. When we telephoned and asked for admittance, the head professional politely referred us to the general manager, who was “unavailable,” according to his office. So, instead of trying to get information from the highest levels, I went in below the radar and called the desk in the pro shop, where assistants answer the phone. That’s an old trick. You can get plenty of tips on stories by speaking with lower level secretaries, bellmen, waiters, and parking attendants, among others. They love to show off what they know. People with the least amount of power often turn out to be your best sources.
“So, Clinton already teed off?” I prompted the kid who picked up.
“Sure did,” he volunteered. “Nine forty-five on the Lake course.”
This meant Clinton had been golfing for almost three hours. I calculated he would be approaching the tenth or eleventh hole by then. Having played Olympic, I knew the thirteenth runs along the course’s edge next to a chain link fence, a creek, and about fifty feet of woods on city land, next to a road.
Photographer Doug Laughlin and I drove to the spot, parked our truck, slashed through the bushes, and waited. A few minutes later, two Secret Service men appeared, followed by the former president’s foursome. Mr. Clinton looked surprised to see us. He waved.
We waved back.
Clinton finished the hole and we shouted for him to come over. “Sir, how about a word with a couple of bushwhackers?”
He laughed at the pun, walked twenty-five feet out of his way down a bank, and answered a question about Iraq. “We knew President Hussein was homicidal, but not suicidal, ” said the ex-president. “I hope there won’t be a conflict, but if he doesn’t let the inspectors in there will be.”
Clinton gave that interview over a fence and across a creek from fifteen feet away, but Doug and I didn’t care. While our sound and lighting were not perfect, that interview made the day, the week, and the month. We scored an exclusive one-on-one with a former president who then moved to the next tee, hit a bad shot, and took a mulligan.
Yes, we saw that through the clearing, too.
Here is a link to the segment:
There is a lesson in how we caught up with Clinton. We had local knowledge, and applied it. As a reporter or photographer, try to do the same every day. Do you know the radio frequencies of your fire department, police, and airport? Do you have good working relationships with the people who run them? Do you have a reliable reputation overall? This is a business of relationships. People speak to, and take chances with, reporters and photographers they trust.
At the scene of a murder, do you know the detectives by sight and name? Are you familiar with the routines and protocols of an investigation? If so, you’ll also recognize when police will remove the body. If you’ve worked with the coroner before, he might tell you his exit route in advance. With such information, you can place your camera to get just the right angle.
After finishing a piece, do you file information in a computer? Do you cross-reference names, telephone numbers, job descriptions, and areas of expertise? That kind of data pays off quickly. There is more to this job than shooting and writing. It begins with contacts.
When checking documents in the local courthouse, talk up the clerks. Get to know their names. Leave business cards with them. Ask them to call when they see or hear something interesting. Clerks don’t miss much, you know.
How often do you call sources or people from previous stories, just to chat? If you made one extra call a day, they would total five in a week. With that many hooks in the water, you have a good chance of catching something
‘Luck’ In Getting A Job: You Never Know Who Will Be Watching:
Even if you don’t like an assignment, always give it your best effort. You never know who will be watching. Remember, your worst stories reveal as much about you as your best ones. Maybe more.
Commit to high standards in every phase of your job, from making the phone calls, to prepping for your interviews, asking the right questions, to getting the sound, lighting and video right if you’re shooting, to logging your shots and sound, to writing the script, to voicing the copy, to scrutinizing the edits. One or two frames, pictures, facts, words, or phrases can, in a lucky situation, advance your career by leaps and bounds.
That’s the process. It’s a personal philosophy. Fishermen, too, follow a process when they cast their lines. Why else would they call it fishing instead of catching?
Do you still think it’s better to be lucky than good?
(((It is always an honor to write a ‘Tip of the Week’. For this one, I pulled excerpts from a chapter of IT TAKES MORE THAN GOOD LOOKS TO SUCCEED AT TELEVISION NEWS REPORTING. Shameless plug? Sure. Yes, Of course. Guilty, as charged. If read this far, however you might like the rest. Kindly visit www.awealthofwisdom.com, and ask my publisher for the free shipping deal.)))
Editor’s Note: Freedman’s book can be found at this link on his publisher’s site. Please buy from there instead of Amazon since he gets more of a percentage of royalties back – you get free shipping as well anyway. He had to buy back the copyrights to the 1st edition of his book in order to publish the 2nd edition.