The learning curve of a journalist is incomplete if it doesn't include television
There’s this HBO series – The Newsroom – about an anchor and how he and his team change the face of television news. The screenplay was incredible, penned by Aaron Sorkin, the man behind iconic movies like ‘The American President’, ‘A Few Good Men’ and ‘The Social Network’. I saw 10 episodes, each an hour long, in two days.
Having worked in a television newsroom briefly, and not too long ago at that, the series hit very close to home. It unlocked some forgotten responses of hyperactivity, pumped adrenaline through dusty capillaries. It was weird that the marathon viewing threw up sharp emotions but few well-defined memories.
My stint in TV was mostly a blur which I have only recently begun to decipher and put in perspective. One conclusion at the end of the experience was that it was of immense importance.
Journalists talk of experience, of learning on the job. The curve isn’t the same for everyone, but in my humble opinion, it is incomplete if you’ve never been in television.
So if you’ll care to join me, I’ll take you through one day in a newsroom. Nothing in-depth, no dwelling; just lots of general excitement and speed. Not unlike your regular news story.
I took the tour through the back door, but you might like the route from the front; easier on the eye. Let’s start with the anchor, that person you see in your screen for much of the bulletin.
Looking dapper, oozing confidence, urging you to “not go away” and “stay with us,” an anchor’s is a tough, tough job, which seems incredibly easy from the other side of the screen. The stresses and variables behind that powdered face, facing the camera, are scary.
There’s this wonderful invention called the teleprompter – a translucent screen on which your lines scroll down slowly. Sounds great, doesn't it? Except when it decides to go crazy. The scrolling controls routinely go haywire, the screen shuts off without warning, or the text jumps to the first line of the bulletin, mid-sentence. Imagine that for a second – you’re making an important political analysis, carefully worded and vetted by the news editor, when the words disappear. Tens of thousands of people are watching you at that very second.
Or breaking news happens. Newbie or veteran, it doesn’t matter. You’re presenting a story about kitten videos going viral, when there’s a sudden breakthrough in a ten-year old case. You have to talk about it, ad lib it all, until the desk can whip you up a script and put it on the screen.
The life-long pursuit of every anchor is independence from the teleprompter, to know enough, to be confident enough to fly solo when the gauges fail. Either that, or have an incredibly talented team in the room with all the controls.
Apart from the anchor, all other designations are sort of murky, to be honest. Executive producers can be rundown editors, shift editors can be copy editors and so on. Their designations aren’t terribly important on this tour. What they do is. So, back to the room with all the controls.
The anchor has an earpiece through which instructions, suggestions, feedback and reassurances are poured in constantly. This is the umbilical cord between the current face of the channel and the rest of the channel’s resources. For the duration of the bulletin, the anchor implicitly trusts the person at the other end of the earpiece.
Over time, the producer and the anchor are so in tune that they can work magic on air. The producer conjures material like graphics or a sound bite at the very second an anchor needs it and the anchor steers discussions with the faintest hint from the producer. There are legends about this relationship.
Once upon a bulletin, the anchor is on air, just out of a commercial. A major piece of news breaks. The teleprompter fails. The show must go on. The only channel of communication is one way, through the earpiece. On air, with lakhs of people watching, the producer reads out a script, which the anchor repeats, without missing a beat. Implicit trust.
That’s the visible part. The tip of the iceberg. The rest of the leviathan is underneath. Come on, lots more to see. Welcome to the sweatshop.
Now, the effort of every newsroom is to be prepared for any eventuality. This is where the assignment desk comes in. They track every developing story, every court date, every scheduled event, every anniversary and birthday of note, every significant event, and depute resources to cover them. And luck favours the prepared. Assignment desk is why you see a TV van at the scene even before the cops arrive. They are all about resources – who to send where, how to get back video, which local channel to tap, which guest expert to call, and so on. They organise panel discussions, they are charged with bringing home the best experts, roping in the hottest celebrities.
Once the information is in, it’s up to the multitude of minions to make of it what they will.
A story evolves from bulletin to bulletin. First it’s just information the anchor reads out to you, perhaps with a few lines of graphics on the screen. In the next bulletin, the there’s more information in the graphics, and the anchor reads it out as we see some footage of the relevant parties on screen. In the next bulletin, the anchors gives you a short intro, and then you see a package, edited, with a voice-over, embedded graphics and maybe some sound effects.
The staple fare of a news channel is the ‘news package’, typically about a minute-and-a-half long. Seldom over two minutes long. Why? Because you have terribly short attention spans, that’s why. You want all your information neatly packaged into a crisp little sandwich, which must also be easy to digest. From the channel's perspective, you, the audience, is a demanding juvenile.
To get a package ready, the following things happen simultaneously – reporters and cameramen send in a stream of information – videos to the assignment desk, points and text to the copyeditors. The copyeditor begins to write the story, clearly defining voice-overs, slotting in sound bites. The desk hands download all the videos, fight tooth and nail for edit bays where the story will be put together.
The script is done, the sound bites are extracted. The first available person with a reasonably good voice is dragged into the edit bay to read out the voice-over. The video editor sits down to edit the story. If done right, a package can take anywhere between one and two hours to edit. All this while, there are more inputs coming in. this could require changing the voice over, tweaking the graphic, scrounging up more footage. This is an agonising wait for the desk hand, tasked with making sure the story makes it to the rundown (list of stories in a bulletin).
And in the nick of time, with seconds to spare, as the anchor reads the intro, the story package is uploaded. A few seconds later, you see it on your screens.
And as this bulletin is on air, the desk is already working on the next, and the next, with an eye on prime-time – 6 p.m. and beyond.
The pressure is relentless – on the anchors, on assignment, on reporters, on producers, on desk hands, on editors. At the end of a nine or 12-hour shift, they don’t as such leave the workplace; they’re spit out of it. Some travel long hours and sink to sleep; some stay up and drink. Some forget the newsroom, even the news – they don’t even remember what they’d worked on for four hours. And some thrive.
It’s not rocket science. The more you know, the more you learn, the better off you are in the newsroom. Just as in any other workplace. I’ve wondered how some of those I admired manage to keep calm under such duress; manage to stay interested in every bit of silliness even after hours of bombardment. They keep calm because they know what comes next. They stay interested because they can see the big picture. They can be cantankerous as bears just out of hibernation, but they don't complain.
The religion of breaking news and escalation needs a serious rethink. That said, if true journalism is to last another generation, the temple that is the television newsroom must be preserved. Some of our best are in there.
An alternative version of this blog was published in The Hindu's Sunday Magazine. You can read it here
(Anand Venkateswaran writes for ‘By The Way’, and is a guest-blogger here. He he writes about people. Even when he's writing about food, film or formaldehyde. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also tweet him @viananda)