Interview with a senior news producer
Alex (not his real name) is a senior news producer for ITN, who are responsible for the news on ITV, Britain’s main independent terrestrial TV station. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about how he, and the wider team of which he is a part, work to put together their news broadcasts.
We are probably comfortable with the idea that the news in newspapers, or on web sites like the one pictured (ITN’s own), is “written” by individuals and then subjected to an editorial process which also has to consider issues like length, prominence in the paper, and – for many newspapers – adherence to the editorial policy, which is usually political (for example, The Guardian in the UK is considered a broadly left-wing paper).
However, with TV news, particularly on the rolling 24-hour channels like Sky News and CNN, there is much more attempt made to give the impression to viewers that the news is being reported on “as it happens”. We know newspapers have to be written, laid out, printed and shipped before they arrive on our doorsteps, or in newsagents, in the morning. Newspapers find it easier than TV to include reflection, commentary and other, non-news related material (e.g. lifestyle sections, film reviews, etc.). But all TV news broadcasts are live, and when we see the news on TV, we will often be faced with reporters giving their pieces to camera from the location of the news event. Interviews with participants further the impression that the news is something which is “happening”, as opposed to being “written”.
But what Alex’s answers should reveal is that this is not the case. TV news most certainly is written, and written by a relatively small number of people, as well. Read on and see what you think.
What is your educational background? Was this picked as a way into the news industry or did that come later?
I studied Journalism at University. That led to University-sponsored work experience, which led directly to a paid position at the same company.
What’s been your career path up to this point?
The above, followed by a series of moves to different broadcasters, each time moving up in position and responsibility.
Can you summarise the tasks your role involves?
I am a Senior News Producer. My role varies by the day, but basically involves putting the news of the day on television, within various limits. The most important limits being cost and time.
How many other people in your position? To whom do you all report? Do you liaise with one another or do you basically work separately, each on your own programmes?
There are about a dozen News Producers. We all report to the Head of Output. We work separately in the sense that we each have our own tasks to accomplish, but getting each task accomplished involves liaising with many other people, such as reporters, graphics designers, video editors, interview subjects, etc. And as each News Producer’s tasks must dovetail together to form one news programme, there is a fair amount of liaising with each other to make sure the programme as a whole fits together seamlessly.
However, only about half of the dozen are in on any given day, split amongst three news programmes. So it’s a pretty skeletal staff. The BBC, for instance, would have 3 times as many.
On what is your personal performance judged? How about the performance of the show itself? Do news programmes have a protected status on the network? Does this mean you are judged in different terms from other programmes?
Personal performance is judged on criteria like speed, accuracy and creativity. Creativity is highly valued, but it doesn’t matter how creative you were with something if it wasn’t ready in time for the programme, or if it was in any way wrong. The performance of a programme is judged by the television ratings and the consensus view of the managers. News programmes do have a protected status in that they are a requirement of ITV’s licence to broadcast. Programmes are judged in terms of how they compare to the competition, mostly the BBC but also Sky news.
Where could you go from here, career-wise? (Either within the same job/company, or elsewhere?)
Journalism provides a good background from which to move in quite a number of directions. Some obvious ones would be moving up to management level in the current company or another similar one, into longer forms like documentaries, or into Public Relations or Corporate Communications.
Can you describe a typical working day? Both prior to and during transmission?
There are 3 different shift patterns producers can work on any given day. The most important is the Programme Editor. He or she is usually the first person in, along with the Assignment Desk Editor, who deals with the logistics of getting stories covered by sending cameras and reporters or arranging to take in material from other sources. The Programme Editor begins by ‘reading in’ – scanning through all the latest newspapers while listening to the news on the radio and keeping half an eye on the 24-hour news channels. He then has a meeting with the Assignment Editor and the management to discuss what stories should be in the programme, how each will be covered – that is to say by a taped reporter piece, a live report, a or perhaps short bit of picture only – how graphics will be used, etc. He then puts together a ‘running order’ for the programme from which everyone else works. The rest of his day is spent revising that running order. That sounds simple but is very difficult. Stories turn out to be less than they seemed and fall away, new stories crop up, a dozen problems need to be resolved at any given moment. The programme editor is then in ultimate control when the programme goes out, dropping or adding bits to keep the programme on time, because some elements always take slightly longer than expected, and some slightly shorter.
Who writes the anchor’s links and the news reports? Are you responsible for assigning reporters to cover stories? Do you see/edit/approve of reporters’ pieces before transmission? On what grounds do you edit? (length? content? tone?)
I or one of my colleagues – whoever is the Assistant Programme Editor on the day – will write nearly every word said by the presenters. The presenters check through these scripts to make sure they understand and are comfortable with them, and sometimes make minor changes. It’s an interactive process. Reporters will write their own scripts for their reports. They are guided on what elements to include, emphasise or leave out by the programme editor, the senior producer on the shift. The programme editor tries to view every report before it is broadcast, but this is not always possible because they are often finished very late. The producer assigned to each report will see that report before it goes to air, but again often very late. So reporters are generally trusted to get things right, and usually do.
Is there an overarching editorial policy of the station? What is it, and is it written down? Who approves it? Who reviews it and how often?
No. This is common in newspapers, but most television news strives for complete objectivity, including us. An exception would be a station like Fox News in the US, which has a strong conservative bias.
Are you in charge of the whole transmission, in other words dealing also with things like camera positioning and cuts to commercials, or does a director do this?
A director does that. On more important programmes, like the News at Ten, there are two directors to do it. One who calls the shots and another who actually presses the buttons, because it’s a very busy job and it’s easy to lose track of what you’re doing. The producer tells the director what to do in more general terms, and the director takes the specific actions necessary to carry it out.
The students have seen the clip from Broadcast News in which the anchor is being fed comments through his earpiece – have you done this? Under what circumstances? How often do you and other members of the team create a report “on the fly” like this? [NB: this film is not available to users of this resource, but you might like to try to track down a copy if you are interested]
That is a very good film and very accurate, although the technology is now dated. Things like that happen all too frequently, most often in relation to the sort of thing described in the last question 14. We work hard to avoid such situations with careful planning and backup planning. Things always work more smoothly when they are planned ahead of time.
What criteria do you use to decide between competing news stories, when time is short?
Relevance to people in their daily lives is one of the key criteria. 50 people dying in some far-off land can often miss the cut, when just one has died in Britain. Not because the 50 are less valuable people, but because what happened to them has arguably less bearing on our viewers lives than what happened to the one. Shock value – not meant in a negative way – is also a strong ingredient. Yet another car bomb in Iraq has less chance of getting on the news than a car that’s crashed into the roof of a church in Germany (see photos). Also known as the ‘F*** me factor’.
What’s the worst or most stressful thing that could happen during a broadcast? Has it ever happened and how did you deal with it?
The worst situation is when an edited report fails to be ready on time. It’s awful for a number of reasons. First, it can look really awkward on air, with the presenters stammering and unsure what to do next. It creates a large gap in a carefully timed programme. If the report was 2 minutes long, the programme will now end 2 minutes early, unless you can find a way to fill the time. Returning to the report later in the programme is sometimes a solution, but can look awkward. Often that is not possible, and we have literally seconds to throw together alternate stories. Unfortunately it happens all too often.
Thanks to ‘Alex’ for his help with this resource.