By Wayne Freedman, KGO-TV, San Francisco
News people can be a jealous, petty lot. Out of frustration or insecurity they often belittle their competition and sometimes, even, their colleagues.
“How did he get that job?”
“How did she get that story?”
“How did he get that shot?”
“Can you believe the luck of that guy?”
Fortune that follows from luck, however, is not accidental. If the mythical ‘news genie’ were to pop from a bottle and ask, “Would you rather be lucky or good?” choose the latter. Luck makes a difference only when you’ve prepared to take advantage of it.
It reminds me of a time my father took me fishing. Like a typical kid, I spent most of my energy baiting the hook and casting the line. Meanwhile, Dad caught all the fish. How could that be? I was working harder.
“Nobody ever caught a fish without his hook in the water,” Dad said. “Fisherman’s luck has a lot to do with knowing where the fish might be, and then keeping your hook wet.” You might remember that the fisherman, Santiago, had a similar attitude in Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. He kept his gear ready for “the big one.”
This metaphor also applies to life and television news.
Clinton In The Woods
On November 12, 2002, Iraq’s parliament rejected a United Nations weapons inspections resolution, pushing our nation closer to a possible war. The next day, KGO-TV’s assignment desk received a tip that former president Bill Clinton was playing a round of golf at San Francisco’s Olympic Club. Management broke us off another assignment to track him down. We were hoping Clinton would comment on the situation.
The Olympic Club is an exclusive establishment. When we telephoned, the head professional politely referred us to the general manager, who was “unavailable,” according to his office. So, instead of trying to get information from the highest levels, I went in below the radar and called the pro shop, where assistants answer the phone. That’s an old trick. You can get plenty of tips on stories by speaking with lower level secretaries, bellmen, waiters, and parking attendants, among others. They love to show off what they know. Often, people with the least amount of power turn out to be your best sources.
“So, Clinton already teed off?” I prompted the kid who picked up.
“Sure did,” he volunteered. “Nine forty-five on the Lake course.”
This meant Clinton had been golfing for almost three hours. I calculated he would be approaching the tenth or eleventh hole by then. Having played Olympic, I also knew the thirteenth runs along the course’s edge next to a chain link fence, a creek, and woods on city land, some fifty feet next to a road.
Photographer Doug Laughlin and I drove to the spot, parked our truck, slashed through the bushes, and waited. A few minutes later, two Secret Service men appeared, followed by the former president’s foursome. Mr. Clinton looked surprised to see us. He waved. We waved back.
Clinton finished the hole and we asked for him to come over. “Sir, how about a word with a couple of bushwhackers?”
He laughed at the pun, walked twenty-five feet out of his way down a bank, and answered a question about Iraq. “We knew President Hussein was homicidal, but not suicidal, “ said the ex-president. “I hope there won’t be a conflict, but if he doesn’t let the inspectors in, there will be.”
Clinton gave that interview over a fence and across a creek from fifteen feet away, but Doug and I didn’t care. While our sound and lighting were not perfect, that interview made the day, the week, and the month. We scored an exclusive one-on-one with a former president who then moved to the next tee, hit a bad shot, and took a mulligan. Yes, we saw that through the clearing, too. Here is a link to the segment.
There is a lesson in how we caught our scoop with Clinton. We applied local knowledge and common sense. As a reporter or photographer, try to do the same every day. Do you know the radio frequencies of your fire department, police, and airport? Do you have good working relationships with the people who run them? Do you have a reliable reputation overall? This is a business of relationships. People speak to, and take chances with, reporters and photographers they trust.
At the scene of a murder, do you know the detectives by sight and name? Are you familiar with the routines and protocols of an investigation? If so, you’ll be able to anticipate events before they happen. If you’ve worked with the coroner before, he might tell you his exit route in advance. With such information, you can place your camera to get just the right angle.
After finishing a piece, do you file information in a computer? Do you cross-reference names, telephone numbers, job descriptions, and areas of expertise? That kind of data pays off quickly. There is more to this job than shooting and writing. It begins with contacts.
When checking documents in the local courthouse, talk up the clerks. Get to know their names. Leave business cards with them. Ask them to call when they see or hear something interesting. Clerks don’t miss much, you know.
How often do you call sources or people from previous stories, just to chat? If you made one extra call a day, they would total five in a week. With that many hooks in the water, you have a good chance of catching something.
‘Luck’ In Getting A Job: You Never Know Who Will Be Watching
Even if you don’t like an assignment, always give it your best effort. You never know who will be watching. Remember, your worst stories reveal as much about you as your best ones. Maybe more.
Commit to high standards in every phase of your job, from making the phone calls, to prepping for interviews, to getting the sound, lighting and video right if you’re shooting, to logging your video, to writing the script, to voicing the copy, to scrutinizing the edits. One or two frames, pictures, facts, words, or phrases can, with a little bit of luck, allow you to shine and advance your career by leaps and bounds.
In short, commit to the process. It’s my personal philosophy. Fishermen, too, follow a process when they cast their lines. Why else would they call it fishing instead of catching?
Do you still think it’s better to be lucky than good?
Wayne Freedman is a 51-time Emmy Award-winning reporter/MMJ at KGO-TV in San Francisco. The second edition of his book, IT TAKES MORE THAN GOOD LOOKS TO SUCCEED AT TELEVISION NEWS REPORTING, is available at www.awealthofwisdom.com He can be reached at: Wayne.Freedman@abc.com