Six Tips for a Better Assignment Desk



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Six Tips for a Better Assignment Desk
by Deborah Potter

A bad assignment desk in a TV newsroom is a little like the weather. Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything to change it. The desk should be the newsroom’s nerve center, but far too often, it’s a dumping ground and a blame magnet. How can you make your assignment desk work better?



1. Find the right person
“Most assignment editors are placed on a desk because they aren't perceived as doing well in the positions they currently hold,” says Diane Mulligan-Fairfield, former news director at KMGH-TV in Denver, CO. “Too many desks become the whipping boy of the whole newsroom,” says Joe Nolan, news director at KHWB-TV in Houston.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Building a better desk begins at home, according to experienced assignment managers and news directors. “You don’t hire [assignment editors], you grow them,” says Frank Wolff, assignment manager at KCRA-TV in Sacramento, CA. “You’re looking for a journalist first.”

That could mean finding and training a sharp intern or production assistant, or converting someone who’s already on staff or working freelance. Wolff is a prime example—he’s an ex-photographer who began his desk career by filling in on the weekends. What sold him on the job full time was the opportunity to deal with the big picture and touch a lot of stories, not just the one he was shooting on any given day. “For somebody who likes a challenge, it’s great.”

2. Give the desk authority

To meet the challenges of the desk, assignment editors need both management support and the authority to act quickly. “The assignment manager has to have clout,” Nolan says. He favors a newsroom structure in which the top desk person is third in the table of organization, right behind the news director and executive producer. That tells everyone in the newsroom that the desk is about making decisions, not just relaying them.

Once the hierarchy is established, the news director needs to let the desk do its job. “The hardest thing for me to do as a news director when there’s breaking news going on is to step back and leave the desk alone,” Nolan admits. Second-guessing goes with the territory, of course. “If you cure cancer, you’re going to have somebody in the back by the water cooler asking why you didn’t do anything about heart disease.” To thrive on the desk, he says, you need a tough hide. You also need people skills.

“My biggest job is keeping everyone happy,” says Ron Lopez, assignment manager at KFSN-TV in Fresno, CA. “The key is making people feel they’re worth something when they’re working for you.” That means treating everyone with respect, and establishing a mutual sense of trust. It probably helps that Lopez came to the desk with previous experience as a photographer and producer. “I know what producers want and I know what photographers can do,” he says. “I don’t have unrealistic expectations.”

Desk editors without that kind of background can pick it up on the job, with management support. “I look for reasons to get my assignment editors out of the building,” says Nolan, who gives them opportunities to field produce stories and specials whenever possible. When Mulligan-Fairfield was on the desk at KTVK-TV, her news director sent her on overnight trips to produce features once a year or so with the photographer she was having the most trouble with at the time. “I would begin to understand the other’s world much better and our relationship would improve dramatically,” she says.


3. Encourage communication
A desk that communicates early, often, and with everyone stands the best chance of success, says Mary Ellen Donovan, former managing editor of WRC-TV in Washington, DC.

WRC uses a conference bridge function in the phone system to get everyone on the same page fast. When a reporter calls in with information or questions, desk editors, producers, writers, and managers can all be on the call. WRC also uses mobile phones that work like walkie-talkies to stay in touch. It’s expensive, but the station believes the system has paid for itself many times over during a crush of breaking news from 9/11 to the sniper shootings and last winter’s snowstorms. “If you continue to communicate all day long,” she says, “you’re going to come out looking great on the air.”

Low-tech systems also work well, says KCRA’s Wolff. He uses a large, white dry-erase board to keep track of who’s doing what. Story suggestions that don’t make the cut for that day get written down in a spiral notebook. “On Friday when it’s slow, we flip through it and get something for the weekend or next week.”

4. Make the desk accessible

The physical layout of the newsroom can help or hinder communication. At KCRA, a recent redesign removed a glass wall that separated the desk from the show producers and reporters. “They hated it because they have to hear the scanners,” Wolff says. “But I think the three little factions feel more as one.”

Bill Carey, news director at WXYZ-TV in Detroit, likes having the desk in the center of the newsroom so everyone can see and hear what’s going on. “I like it when they stand up and shout,” he says. KHWB’s Nolan also favors an elevated desk in an open newsroom. “If reporters don’t like to listen to scanners, buy some earplugs.”

One key to a smooth-working desk is planning ahead. “When we didn’t have a planning editor, 9 a.m. press conferences were breaking news,” jokes Wolff. KCRA now has a full time person who does nothing but look ahead, but most stations can’t afford one. Wolff’s advice: “If you’re a one person desk, get off the desk for an hour [to look at tomorrow], put an intern there to listen to scanners and answer phones. You get a lot out of that.”


5. Think ahead
A well-prepared desk assigns stories at least a day ahead, and tells crews to roll from home first thing in the morning. “You don’t come in completely bare,” says Donovan. “It really does take the pressure off.”

Bigger assignment desks have different issues. “The desk disaster, where you have really unhappy people, I’ve found, is when nobody knows what they’re doing,” says Wolff, “or they’re trying to outdo each other and you end up duplicating all your work.” A larger staff needs clearly defined roles so when news breaks, everyone knows exactly what to do and no effort is wasted. When it works, Wolff says, “It’s almost like a football team running a play.”

Experience counts on the desk. At WTOL-TV in Toledo, OH, Frank Seely has been assignment editor for 16 years. “He knows the city, the politics, who to call for what information,” says news director C.J. Beutien. “He knows who the publicity seekers are and who are the ones with good information.” You can’t always hire that kind of experience, but news managers can help desk editors develop it by giving them time to meet with newsmakers and citizen groups.

6. Don't micromanage.

A successful desk doesn’t do all the work for the newsroom, however. “If the desk is there to make all the calls, set up all the stories, think for the reporters,” says Nolan, “you’re doomed.” KFSN’s Lopez agrees. “News is a group effort. It’s not all on my shoulders.”

“Our newsroom isn’t healthy because the desk feeds reporters stories,” says Andy Still, news director at WYFF-TV in Greenville, SC. It’s healthy, he says, because assignment editor Kim Deal “has all food groups handy for a healthy meal,” and can help a reporter quickly turn an idea into a story for that day. Deal has been on the desk 13 years. “Any normal human would have burned out years ago,” says Still. “She seems to thrive on more pressure.”

Desk editors also thrive on recognition, says WXYZ’s Carey, himself a former assignment editor. “In memos and in real time, I make sure I praise and single out the assignment editors that steer the ship,” he says. He routinely submits assignment editors’ names for awards, and rewards outstanding work with a day off.

“The better assignment editors out there have the aggressiveness of Vince Lombardi, the planning and decision-making abilities of Norman Schwartzkopf, and the cheerleading abilities of Rudy Giuliani,” says anchor Tim Blotz of KOAT-TV in Tucson, AZ. “If you can also find one with the compassion of Mother Teresa, clone him or her and you’d make a fortune.”


This article was originally published in RTNDA Communicator, October 2003


 

 


Six Tips for a Better Assignment Desk
by Deborah Potter

A bad assignment desk in a TV newsroom is a little like the weather. Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything to change it. The desk should be the newsroom’s nerve center, but far too often, it’s a dumping ground and a blame magnet. How can you make your assignment desk work better?



1. Find the right person
“Most assignment editors are placed on a desk because they aren't perceived as doing well in the positions they currently hold,” says Diane Mulligan-Fairfield, former news director at KMGH-TV in Denver, CO. “Too many desks become the whipping boy of the whole newsroom,” says Joe Nolan, news director at KHWB-TV in Houston.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Building a better desk begins at home, according to experienced assignment managers and news directors. “You don’t hire [assignment editors], you grow them,” says Frank Wolff, assignment manager at KCRA-TV in Sacramento, CA. “You’re looking for a journalist first.”

That could mean finding and training a sharp intern or production assistant, or converting someone who’s already on staff or working freelance. Wolff is a prime example—he’s an ex-photographer who began his desk career by filling in on the weekends. What sold him on the job full time was the opportunity to deal with the big picture and touch a lot of stories, not just the one he was shooting on any given day. “For somebody who likes a challenge, it’s great.”

2. Give the desk authority

To meet the challenges of the desk, assignment editors need both management support and the authority to act quickly. “The assignment manager has to have clout,” Nolan says. He favors a newsroom structure in which the top desk person is third in the table of organization, right behind the news director and executive producer. That tells everyone in the newsroom that the desk is about making decisions, not just relaying them.

Once the hierarchy is established, the news director needs to let the desk do its job. “The hardest thing for me to do as a news director when there’s breaking news going on is to step back and leave the desk alone,” Nolan admits. Second-guessing goes with the territory, of course. “If you cure cancer, you’re going to have somebody in the back by the water cooler asking why you didn’t do anything about heart disease.” To thrive on the desk, he says, you need a tough hide. You also need people skills.

“My biggest job is keeping everyone happy,” says Ron Lopez, assignment manager at KFSN-TV in Fresno, CA. “The key is making people feel they’re worth something when they’re working for you.” That means treating everyone with respect, and establishing a mutual sense of trust. It probably helps that Lopez came to the desk with previous experience as a photographer and producer. “I know what producers want and I know what photographers can do,” he says. “I don’t have unrealistic expectations.”

Desk editors without that kind of background can pick it up on the job, with management support. “I look for reasons to get my assignment editors out of the building,” says Nolan, who gives them opportunities to field produce stories and specials whenever possible. When Mulligan-Fairfield was on the desk at KTVK-TV, her news director sent her on overnight trips to produce features once a year or so with the photographer she was having the most trouble with at the time. “I would begin to understand the other’s world much better and our relationship would improve dramatically,” she says.


3. Encourage communication
A desk that communicates early, often, and with everyone stands the best chance of success, says Mary Ellen Donovan, former managing editor of WRC-TV in Washington, DC.

WRC uses a conference bridge function in the phone system to get everyone on the same page fast. When a reporter calls in with information or questions, desk editors, producers, writers, and managers can all be on the call. WRC also uses mobile phones that work like walkie-talkies to stay in touch. It’s expensive, but the station believes the system has paid for itself many times over during a crush of breaking news from 9/11 to the sniper shootings and last winter’s snowstorms. “If you continue to communicate all day long,” she says, “you’re going to come out looking great on the air.”

Low-tech systems also work well, says KCRA’s Wolff. He uses a large, white dry-erase board to keep track of who’s doing what. Story suggestions that don’t make the cut for that day get written down in a spiral notebook. “On Friday when it’s slow, we flip through it and get something for the weekend or next week.”

4. Make the desk accessible

The physical layout of the newsroom can help or hinder communication. At KCRA, a recent redesign removed a glass wall that separated the desk from the show producers and reporters. “They hated it because they have to hear the scanners,” Wolff says. “But I think the three little factions feel more as one.”

Bill Carey, news director at WXYZ-TV in Detroit, likes having the desk in the center of the newsroom so everyone can see and hear what’s going on. “I like it when they stand up and shout,” he says. KHWB’s Nolan also favors an elevated desk in an open newsroom. “If reporters don’t like to listen to scanners, buy some earplugs.”

One key to a smooth-working desk is planning ahead. “When we didn’t have a planning editor, 9 a.m. press conferences were breaking news,” jokes Wolff. KCRA now has a full time person who does nothing but look ahead, but most stations can’t afford one. Wolff’s advice: “If you’re a one person desk, get off the desk for an hour [to look at tomorrow], put an intern there to listen to scanners and answer phones. You get a lot out of that.”


5. Think ahead
A well-prepared desk assigns stories at least a day ahead, and tells crews to roll from home first thing in the morning. “You don’t come in completely bare,” says Donovan. “It really does take the pressure off.”

Bigger assignment desks have different issues. “The desk disaster, where you have really unhappy people, I’ve found, is when nobody knows what they’re doing,” says Wolff, “or they’re trying to outdo each other and you end up duplicating all your work.” A larger staff needs clearly defined roles so when news breaks, everyone knows exactly what to do and no effort is wasted. When it works, Wolff says, “It’s almost like a football team running a play.”

Experience counts on the desk. At WTOL-TV in Toledo, OH, Frank Seely has been assignment editor for 16 years. “He knows the city, the politics, who to call for what information,” says news director C.J. Beutien. “He knows who the publicity seekers are and who are the ones with good information.” You can’t always hire that kind of experience, but news managers can help desk editors develop it by giving them time to meet with newsmakers and citizen groups.

6. Don't micromanage.

A successful desk doesn’t do all the work for the newsroom, however. “If the desk is there to make all the calls, set up all the stories, think for the reporters,” says Nolan, “you’re doomed.” KFSN’s Lopez agrees. “News is a group effort. It’s not all on my shoulders.”

“Our newsroom isn’t healthy because the desk feeds reporters stories,” says Andy Still, news director at WYFF-TV in Greenville, SC. It’s healthy, he says, because assignment editor Kim Deal “has all food groups handy for a healthy meal,” and can help a reporter quickly turn an idea into a story for that day. Deal has been on the desk 13 years. “Any normal human would have burned out years ago,” says Still. “She seems to thrive on more pressure.”

Desk editors also thrive on recognition, says WXYZ’s Carey, himself a former assignment editor. “In memos and in real time, I make sure I praise and single out the assignment editors that steer the ship,” he says. He routinely submits assignment editors’ names for awards, and rewards outstanding work with a day off.

“The better assignment editors out there have the aggressiveness of Vince Lombardi, the planning and decision-making abilities of Norman Schwartzkopf, and the cheerleading abilities of Rudy Giuliani,” says anchor Tim Blotz of KOAT-TV in Tucson, AZ. “If you can also find one with the compassion of Mother Teresa, clone him or her and you’d make a fortune.”



This article was originally published in RTNDA Communicator, October 2003

 

 




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