It's a scene everyone is familiar with - the young, attractive reporter with perfect hair speaking in urgent tones as chaos unfolds on screen. They speak fluently, clearly describing the events which at times seem too unreal for words at all. The person behind the camera follows the reporter's every direction, allowing viewers at home to get a perfect sense of the magnitude of the story. Behind the scenes, a person wearing a headset is holding the strings to maximize the impact of the coverage.
When civil war erupted in Syria, this team was in the streets risking their very lives to let the world see what was happening. When two IEDs detonated in Boston and shocked the nation, this team rushed to the scene to capture the tragic moment in history. When a gunman opened fire at a Texas military post that had already seen another mass shooting not five years before, this team was there to relive the fear alongside grief-stricken family members.
Nobody really talks about the other 364 days of the year.
That team also has to cover town hall meetings, police briefings, agriculture conferences and empowerment seminars. All these events are certainly important, but anyone hoping for dramatic live shots every day is in for disappointment. It's not always the excitement depicted on the big screen. Movies rarely capture the frustration of a satellite truck's generator overheating, or the absolute fury of finishing the perfectly edited package only for the computer to crash and erase the entire sequence.
That's why it's of vital importance that when those ideal moments do materialize, you save them forever. On at least three different hard drives. One of which is preferably locked away in a safety deposit box in Switzerland. A journalist must have a wide variety of gifts - from looks to intelligence, charisma to dedication. One of the first steps to proving you have such a skill set is the all-important reel.
A little context seems necessary. I'm a producer currently working for the CBS affiliate in Wichita, Kansas. I attended film school for a year, then took a few courses in broadcasting before I ultimately dropped out of college completely. You could say academia was not exactly my calling. However, I got a job at the CBS station in Amarillo, Texas, as a part-time editor. Something that has always been true about myself is that once I find a passion for something, I dial it up to 11. In less than a year, I was working as Executive Producer, overseeing reporters, editors and other producers, many of whom were older and far more educated than myself. Don't get me wrong, I was terrible at it at first. I had a boss who must have had tremendous faith in me. But I caught on and helped keep the newsroom afloat, maintaining dominant ratings over the rest of the market for several years. Having grown up in Amarillo, however, I was ready for a change. Hence, my current tenure in the Sunflower State.
One of my tasks eventually included the hiring of newsroom employees. I can't recall the number of reels I watched while searching for the perfect candidates. And if there's one thing I cannot stress enough, it's that there is a right way and a very, VERY wrong way to cut together a journalist reel.
Start With the Basics
There are a few different methods depending on what position you are applying for. The three paths to choose from are reporter, photographer, or producer. Each job has a distinct way to display their related talent. While the step-by-step art of putting together reels is a subject of its own, the importance of putting it together correctly is undeniable.
One of the main problems I have seen when viewing reels of aspiring journalists is the tendency to over-burden it with unrelated content. As journalists, we are frequently bombarded with the obvious idea that we include all sides to provide a fair take on any given story. Remember, a reel is not being viewed by the general public. It is not being viewed to gather information. It is being viewed only so that employers may scrutinize the person who puts it together. Reporters, I'm looking at you. Yes, I'm sure the time a police officer shot a pit bull was incredibly controversial. Yes, I'm sure it garnered you quite a bit of attention. But there is a time and place for lengthy stories to be aired in their entirety. And the place is not at the beginning of a reel. It can be included (sometimes), but it's certainly not the first thing you want to see. Cut to the standup montage right off the bat. Get to the full package a little later in the reel. Here's how the typical session goes in the hiring process: look at resume, find link to reel, watch first 60 to 90 seconds of reel, begin discussion of approval or disapproval. Most reels tend to be roughly 10 minutes in length. If the news director makes it to minute 5 and is still interested, you have the job already.
Alright, let's say you are looking for your first job. It wouldn't be unusual in some larger cities. If you're fresh out of college, you aren't going to be sitting at the anchor desk in Los Angeles any time soon. We must all pay our dues before we obtain our dream jobs. A word to the wise, however, is that there are no such things as "starter markets." Coming from market 130, I can tell you there is no greater way to make enemies than to treat the station some people spend their lives working at as a stepping stone. Treat every job with respect. That being said, you might need a helping hand putting together a reel if you have no actual experience to use. That's where the magic of editing comes in. As an employer, I don't care one bit if the story you're covering actually happened (within reason... nobody is going to believe your standup if it's in front of a town that three hurricanes just destroyed). All you need is to display your talent in a convincing way. All that takes is a camera and a creative mind. Of course, much of what I'm saying has to do with reporters. Don't worry photogs and producers, I'm not forgetting you. Photogs, you might need to get a buddy who can act like a reporter, then shoot a creative standup together. Producers, you might have to take an extra step and put together a conglomeration of stories that are well written. There are ways to display what you are capable of doing without ever having actually done it for a living. Your resume will reflect the fact that you haven't had a job in the field before, so don't think of it as dishonest (so long as you don't lie to the employer and say the video was picked up by CNN).
Whether you have a job or not, there are ways to spice it up to give the impression of professionalism. Specifically, having your own website goes a long way. Nothing says "I want this job" more than proving you took the time to write code, or have someone else write code, to show how awesome you are. Having designed a website before, I understand how tedious it truly can be. Another tip, your slate needs to be simple and elegant. There is nothing more toxic to a job application than a slate that has your contact email as firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember, you're the person who will ideally be trusted to deliver important, potentially life-altering information to the general public. Employers are looking for people who deserve that trust.
Use Social Media to Stay Tuned In
This is a tumultuous time for the news industry. Print media has been sinking for a while, that's no secret. Television media is something different. We don't exist as inhuman faces inside the magic box anymore. Social media is now the primary way people gather news. That includes news people. Anyone who does not use Twitter as a news-gathering tool will be far behind their competition. As such, there are different ways we have to approach the job. Viewers cover both ends of the spectrum - they are wildly informed on every topic and will not hesitate to criticize you; they are unfathomably dependent on you for even the most basic knowledge. As much as I'd like to say otherwise, they scare fast and they learn slow. Think of it like Tommy Lee Jones said in MIB, "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it." Sad, but true. So every word of every sentence of every story that is made available online or on air will come under intense scrutiny. That is your job as a journalist.
So, doesn't it make sense that the person who is hired should understand all this? You are trying to encapsulate talent, judgement and ambition all into a product that can make or break you before even having an interview. News people all want to have that moment, that breaking news situation we remember forever. The first step is to prove you have what it takes to actually do it.
Everett Carlisle worked as Executive Producer in Amarillo, TX for several years before recently taking a job in Wichita, Kansas.