Producing the daily news is a challenge in any medium, and when you’re dealing with live television, the complications are endless. How do TV news stations find their stories and decide what’s worth covering?
Title photo by WellPhoto (Shutterstock)
To learn a little about how a local television news station functions, we spoke with Alex Yoder, an assignment editor in Tallahassee, Florida. He monitors a variety of sources, from the old-fashioned police scanner to social media channels, to find the stories as they happen and coordinate with reporters and camera crews to make sure they get deliver the best news coverage that they can.
Tell us a little about yourself and your experience.
My name is Alex Yoder and I am an assignment editor for WCTV Eyewitness News, the CBS television station in Tallahassee, Florida. I have worked for WCTV for just over two years. As assignment editor, I sit on our assignment desk and work with our team of reporters and photographers to assign and develop story ideas. I also monitor multiple sources for breaking news throughout the day. If something happens, it’s my job to get our crews to the scene as quickly as possible. Before working in Tallahassee, I worked as a producer, photographer and weather forecaster at a station in Sarasota, Florida.
What drove you to choose your career path?
I always credit my grandfather. For as far back as I can remember, he always watched the local news at 6pm and the national news that followed each and every day. I think it was that constant exposure to news that drew me in to the field.
I’m also an extremely curious person. I constantly asked why, and was always wondering how things worked as a kid. I can’t think of a better job than one that requires you to ask questions every day!
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
I actually started college as a meteorology major. Through our meteorology program, I met our station’s Chief Meteorologist. He came to me asking if I was interested in working part-time as a fill-in weather forecaster. I got that job while still in college and managed to work my way up to where I am now. While an education is certainly required in this field, experience and connections go a long way.
I have a degree in Information and Communication Technology from Florida State. It’s a newer degree that takes some classes from the communications program, and some from the IT program. This allowed me to take classes such as mass media law and social media management. Before college, I was part of a TV and film production program at my high school.
What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?
I spend most of my time searching for potential stories we could cover. A lot of this time is spent digging through social media posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram looking to see what people are talking about in our area. I also spend a lot of time reading through police reports and court cases. Florida has a very open public records law. This allows anyone (even those not in the media) to request police reports and other law enforcement and government documents. I spend a good chunk of most mornings browsing through the latest arrests from our area looking for serious charges. When charges look like they could lead to a story, we request the police report to find out the details behind that person’s arrest.
I also spend time every day planning coverage of future stories and events. This can be as simple as deciding what reporter will cover a press conference the following day, to as complicated as planning out election coverage several months in advance.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
That the people who work at competing stations are mortal enemies. While we’ll do whatever it takes to get the best, most accurate stories first, we’re always nice to one another and sometimes even hang out outside of work!
What are your average work hours?
I work a fairly normal 40 hour work week. Because our evening newscasts run from 5pm to 6:30pm, I usually work from about 9:30am to 6:30pm. I love what I do, so finding myself at work early, late or even on the weekends is pretty common. I’m considered to be on call just about all the time. If there’s breaking news or severe weather, it’s expected that I will be at work to help coordinate our coverage. We can also have extremely long days if there is breaking news. I think my longest day was over 18 hours last November during the shooting at Florida State University’s Strozier Library.
My schedule seems fairly normal, but operating a 24-hour television station requires someone to be at the station around the clock. In the news department, we also have an 11pm to 8am shift, a 3am to 12pm shift, and a 2:30pm to 11:30pm shift.
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
Google Alerts. It makes it incredibly easy to find updates on things going on in each of the towns we cover. I also make extensive use of searches and lists in Tweetdeck. This lets me keep track of the groups and newsmakers in our area and what they’re talking about in real time.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?
I act as sort of an air traffic controller for our newsroom. I’m constantly monitoring what’s going on in our community, and working to get the news to our viewers as quickly as possible. New technology and social media have certainly changed the way local news operates. I’m always looking for ways to use this new technology in a way to help us get the job done. One thing we’ve been experimenting with over the past few days is Meerkat and Periscope. This new idea of streaming live video to social media is something we’ve never seen before. Not only can our reporters send back live video faster than conventional methods, it will allow our viewers to share the news they’re seeing in real time.
What’s the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
Stress and the emotional toll of some of the bad stories we have to cover.
Journalism can be an extremely stressful job, especially in TV. We have a number of extremely tight deadlines throughout the day. Add in breaking news and equipment that might decide to stop working at the worst possible time, there will be moments when you’ll want to scream. But you can’t. You have to remember the important job you have of keeping your viewers informed. We usually always look back at those stressful moments to try to learn something about what happened to see if there’s something we can do to avoid it in the future.
Then there’s the emotional part of the job. We cover some of the worst possible things to happen in our area. We have to gather information on what happened, decide how to present that information, and then air it in our newscasts. Occasionally the details of what happened are so graphic or disturbing that we decide not to air some of them. Other times, we have to share some of those details in order to tell the whole story. It can be tough to read those details, and sometimes the stories hit close to home. I think everyone deals with it a little bit differently. The easiest way is to leave as much of it as you can at work.
What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?
I think my favourite part of the job is that I’m always learning something. Through the stories we put on the air, you learn about interesting people and groups in our community. We often have to do background research on different topics when starting to work on new stories. I don’t think there’s a day that goes by where I don’t learn something new just because of everything I read as part of my job.
What kind of money can one expect to make at your job? Or, what’s an average starting salary?
Starting out in local news? Most likely barely enough to get by. You can certainly make more when moving up to other stations in larger markets. You won’t find many people working in any form of journalism for the money. We do it because we love it.
How do you move up in your field?
Hard work and experience. Like just about any business recently, journalists have had to do more with less. That means occasionally stepping in and helping do something that is not part of your everyday job. Those who are willing to help out and complete several different tasks will stand out to employers. It shows a willingness to get the best possible work on the air, and the ability to step in wherever necessary.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
A lot of people will tell you “don’t”. Sometimes they’re joking, sometimes they’re not. Working in local news is stressful and challenging. It’s also extremely rewarding if you truly love being able to tell a story each and every day.
Here’s something I tell all of our interns and students I meet who are interested in working in local news. Try to get an internship or shadow someone at both a small market station and a large market station. Everyone who wants to work in news dreams of covering the biggest stories in the biggest markets. You’ll get there eventually, but you have to put in your time in a small market. Getting experience in both will let you know what to expect right out of college, and what you can look forward to down the road.
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