Of the thousands of decisions a producer makes daily, choosing a lead story for your newscast is probably among the most important ones. The lead is tricky because it can either suck viewers into the show or turn them off. In addition, the lead is almost always subjective – there is no right or wrong lead. It’s a judgment call. I use three sets of criteria to help guide me toward the best lead, based on all the stories I have available to me.
The first is my Lead List:
- Is it new?
- Do we have visuals?
- Do people care?
The lead list narrows down your options. Ideally, the perfect lead has all three elements – it’s new, you have great video and it’s something a wide range of people care about it. Usually, most lead stories don’t have all three. So you’ve got to weigh your options. And be aware, you can’t possibly choose your lead story until you know what all the options are. You as the producer need to scan all your news sources- whether it’s your network affiliation’s news service, CNN, the AP wire and all those cool niche websites you go to in hopes of finding unique stories that the competition scrambles to find once you’ve teased them. I talk below about a hypothetical story – the discovery of a new cancer drug. That story may be on the AP feed. If you haven’t adequately reviewed their selection of stories, you lose one possibility of a good, solid, interesting lead story. Never delegate this job to someone else on the staff. You should always be the one to skim through as many news sources as possible – not only for the lead, but for the kicker and the stories you put in the show simply because they make for good teases. I can’t stress how important it is that you are armed with a long list of possible stories. When one falls out for any number of reasons, you’ve got backups ready. You can also save lots of evergreen stories for a no-news day.
I don’t include two other parameters on the lead list. The first is gut instinct. If it feels right, do it and don’t over-question it. This is about news judgment but it’s also about views judgment – you need a story that keeps the most amount of viewers from your lead-in. Using news judgment alone can mislead you into the wrong lead and cause you to lose a good chunk of your lead-in.
What I also don’t include is whether the story is local. That’s a given for me anyway. Local almost always wins out. Here’s the regional priorities hierarchy for lead stories:
- Local (Non-Spot News)
- News For Everyone
By “local” I am not talking about spot news stories. Shootings, stabbings, minor fires and other nickel and dime crime is not going to suck viewers into a newscast. It will turn off everyone except the people in the neighborhood where the spot news story took place. “News For Everyone” is a very good option for a fallback lead. NFE is simply stories that affect everyone but don’t fit into a specific region, such as “researchers have found a new drug that kills cancer cells without destroying surrounding tissue, offering hope to millions of cancer patients”. Depending on the details of this story, it could easily be built into a lead story because cancer touches everyone’s lives – whether you have it, your mom does or a close friend is being treated. Getting reaction from local doctors or cancer specialists or patients is quick and easy – and the whole shebang can be put together and fronted by a reporter if need be. NFE doesn’t need to be just health stories. There are all kinds of subjects that fit here. The recent story of Bank Of America backing down and dropping its new ATM fees could be a solid lead because everyone has to pay those fees – and in this rare instance, the consumer wins. Sell it as a rare win for consumers! I, as a viewer, would much rather get that information first than the shooting of a crack dealer on the east side, which has absolutely no effect on my life whatsoever. Categories for NFE include Health, Money, Entertainment, Tech, Travel and even Opinion.
I am almost universally opposed to leading with an international story. Producers who regularly lead international are either a) lazy, or b) fearful for their jobs. The bottom line is, most international stories turn local viewers off simply because what’s going on today in Cairo “has absolutely no effect on my life whatsoever”. You say, “Yes, but it’s important”. I reply, “Important to whom?” That “who” always wins out.
Let’s look at a list of current international stories listed on the CNN website as I am writing this:
- Cairo Protesters
- Russia Slams America’s Sanctions on Iran
- Pakistan U.S. Ambassador Quits Over Memo Controversy
- 7 Missing After South Korean Ship Sinks
- Turkish Prime Minister Tells Al-Assad To Step Down Or Risk Death
- Mexico’s Military Seizes Vehicle Containing $15 Million
- South Africa Passes State Secrets Law
- International Prosecutor Arrives In Libya
The networks will lead tonight with Cairo. Guaranteed. And the simple fact is, viewers who want all the details of the protests in Egypt know to watch the networks because network news covers international stories in detail. Same with CNN, Fox News and the others. Viewers do not tune in to local newscasts for details on most international stories – unless it’s truly a huge story or directly impacts them locally. So as a news producer, if you feel you must include them in your newscast, I would advise you to put Cairo, Russia and maybe the Turkey stories into a quick international roundup segment lower in the show. Those stories deserve no more than :30 seconds each – or viewers will begin to turn. It’s a fact. And for God sakes, don’t tease them. Who’s going to sit through a break to hear about any of those stories?
Some producers lead international because they think it’s “safe”. “Leading with Cairo is important because Egypt is getting a whole new government and the protestors played a major part in changing their country’s future… blah blah”. In their minds, their news director can hardly say they made the wrong lead choice because Cairo is such a big story, so how can they possibly call a producer out for leading with it? I could. It’s a story whose details are better left to the networks. The only element this story hits on the lead list is #2, good visuals – not great visuals, but good. So in this instance, there is a slight possibility that it could lead a show – but if the only reason a producer leads with it is because “it’s safe”, then they’ve made the wrong choice.
The final step I take in choosing a lead is to talk to (and observe) the people around me in the newsroom and seeing what’s trending on-line.
- People In The Newsroom
- What’s Trending
I almost always ask the news anchors, the assignment editor, and the reporters coming back with stories their opinions on a good lead story. Let me make this clear – I always make the decision on what my lead story is – always – but I ask many people’s opinions in the newsroom because a) they may see something I don’t, and b) it’s important for them to feel included and have a say. But frankly, 99% of the time, I ignore their opinions and do what I want. I’m the producer. It’s my prerogative. And it’s my ass. Asking other people’s opinions is not a sign of weakness – or a sign that you don’t know what you’re doing – it’s a simple courtesy to other people involved in the show. Obviously, you want to follow the progress of your reporter throughout the day so that the story they’re coming back with is what you’re expecting. There’s nothing worse than seeing your reporter’s lead story on the air – and it’s not even remotely close to what you were told it was.
Another important step is to simply “observe”. Oftentimes, photogs or PA’s are gathered around a TV monitor in the newsroom watching something. If it’s getting that kind of attention, it may be worth considering for a lead. A good way to know you’ve succeeded is when you’re on air and the T.D. or audio guy (if you still have them) reacts in a positive way to what you’re airing. Those guys are so jaded that getting any kind of reaction from them is a good sign you’ve got the right lead.
And finally, see what’s trending – what are the top searches on Google and Yahoo. This is a vital resource as it gives you instant access to what millions of people are searching for at any given time on-line. Usually it’s nothing more than the latest celebrity hijinks, but occasionally it points you to a good story.
Once you choose your lead, you have to sell it to your anchors (and a reporter if they’re assigned to it). You have to essentially say something like “Dude, this is the right lead because the pictures are amazing – look at how everybody is gathering around the monitors to watch. No one’s gonna turn this off.” – or – “Dude, this cancer story is the one story we have that affects the most people (viewers). It’s breaking medical news and we should promote the hell out of it and lead with it – and it’s new for 11!” You can skip the “dude” part. I suppose Walter Cronkite’s producer never addressed him as “dude”.
Once you sell it to your anchors, you need to sell it on the air to your viewers. I usually insist on writing the lead story because I know exactly how I want to sell it. You can do the same or hand it off to someone else – just make sure they know what you’re going for and which selling points to highlight. Also keep in mind, your lead story is not always your lead “tease” as well. Many times I won’t tease the lead story at all, but use that tease time for more teasable stories lower down. In those 10pm and 10:30pm newsbreaks I used to write in Detroit, I often did not tease the lead story so as not to tip off the competition what we’re up to. Not teasing the lead doesn’t mean you don’t have faith in the lead story. It’s a strategy move that often makes sense for a lot of reasons.
You will also have to live with your lead story choice, sometimes long after the show is over. At WDIV, one of my most “infamous” 11pm lead story choices was Roseanne Barr when she sang the national anthem at a Padres game in 1990. It was an obvious lead. (Look it up on YouTube). She grabbed her crotch and spit and sang off key. It was new, we had great video, and even the first George Bush commented on how unpatriotic and un-American it was – all right there and ready for the 11pm lead. I make no apologies. The news director and the anchors were 100% behind me & Roseanne for the lead story. One of the “Capital J” anchors on one of our other shows started “secretly” calling a pal at the Detroit Free Press – who began trashing us regularly for our story selection in his TV column. You need to be on-guard for that sort of petty nonsense. Roseanne was as big and controversial then as Charlie Sheen is now. If he pulled that stunt today, I suspect most stations would lead with it without thinking about it twice. But I was branded a traitor and a “sell-out” among a select few Capital J Juveniles, er, Journalists at the station and a few of those people actually stopped talking to me! This is the kind of b/s you can sometimes encounter when you produce right-brain TV. You have to rise above the noise and not lose your focus. A couple of old-time DIV’ers still mention Roseanne to me now and again, as it was a huge controversy in the newsroom when we did it. I have no regrets! We were just ahead of our time!
I have been very lucky in my career that in every producer job I’ve worked in – except one – I was the one who decided the lead story. I once took a job as the 6pm producer at WJBK in Detroit. Every day after the production meeting, the Executive Producer would “assign” me, the 5pm and the 5:30pm producers our lead stories and our teases for each block. I was livid. I did not work that hard to make it to a Top 10 market only to be assigned my lead story and teases. Essentially, I did the paperwork for the E.P. who made all the decisions. I tried to buck the system and make a case for my own lead stories, but I usually lost. It was my own fault. I failed to ask the proper questions in the job interview, namely, who chooses the lead for my show? Never forgot to ask that one again! After three months in that position, I was able to move across the street to WDIV where I stayed for three years. Under News Directors Bob Warfield and then Carol Rueppel, I grew leaps and bounds as a producer and will always be grateful to them and to Mort Crim and Carmen Harlan who were the dream team of hard-news anchors.
Your situation may be different for a variety of reasons. The trend lately, especially in the larger markets, is to have a show producer AND an executive producer on each newscast. I am not one who makes decision “by committee”. When it comes to a newscast, I don’t want to compromise. Making decisions by committee, whether it’s the producer and the EP, or the news director and managing editor joining in, whenever more than the producer is involved in the process of choosing the lead story, the producer is forced to compromise – and that’s no good for the show.
When I eventually became an E.P., I’ll tell you, it was hard to live by that rule of letting the producer choose the lead. Giving up that “power” is not easy, but it’s essential if you want the show and the producer to grow. A good producer “gets it”, begins to take risks and sees the possibilities in not-so-obvious lead choices. I always give my line producer input but make it clear the decision on the lead is his/hers. It still kills me. But I do it.
If you’re a line producer stuck in a situation where the lead story is chosen for you, you have two choices. Discuss with your boss the need for you to begin making those decisions yourself, or get out and move to a news outlet where your opinion in valued and trusted. Choosing a lead story and putting it on the air is an awesome responsibility. You’re making decisions that affect the stations’ credibility, its investment in your multi-million dollar news anchors (in some markets), its technical prowess and its reach to its millions of trusting viewers. It’s not a game. But it sure is a helluva lot of fun!