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Delays that mean death


I have inadvertently given short shrift to an investigative report I think is one of the most important I’ve seen in quite some time. It appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last November. Last month, it won the Selden Ring, one of the investigative world’s big prizes.

The story detailed how hospitals in every state have been delaying getting blood tests on newborn babies quickly enough journal_sentinel_bannerto state labs for genetic testing that can reveal a wide range of diseases that need immediate treatment.

This idea of testing babies’ blood is not a new one. In fact, it has been in universal use in the U.S. for a half-century. But it seems there continue to be bureaucratic problems that slow it down—labs that close for the weekend to save money, hospitals which “batch” the blood tests and send them to the lab only when they have collected a certain number, or institutions which refuse to use overnight delivery or courier services, even when the state is paying the bill.

It’s the slow down that causes the problems. The blood is supposed to be drawn within 48 hours of birth, and should be tested by the lab within 48 hours. That’s a four-day window. For an astonishing number of hospitals, that’s not long enough. In some cases, it takes weeks to get the samples to the lab. And if it’s a lab that happens to close for the weekend, additional days after that until the sample is analyzed. Some labs have the unfortunate practice of informing physicians of positive tests by surface mail. That adds even more days to the delay.

What makes The Journal Sentinel’s “Deadly Delays” so powerful an investigative report is the way the data is the foundation of the story rather than the story itself. The Milwaukee reporters analyzed more than three million records, many of them obtained under Freedom of Information laws. But the story they produced is decidedly light on the data, at least in what is known as the “mainbar” or primary story, and heavy on the human element—the real stories of real people who have suffered as a result of this oversight. Since I started to get involved in what is sometimes call “computer-assisted reporting” 25 years ago, I have been preaching that the dataset is the beginning of the reporting, not the end of it.

Congratulations to the Journal Sentinel on a well-deserved award. But isn’t it time for someone else in media, or a series of someone elses distributed around the country, to take up the cause of righting a clear wrong and regularly publish, broadcast, or post every single hospital’s record with these blood tests until they’re in compliance with what we’ve known about medicine and public health for the last 50 years?


Steve Nash and the new video candor


I don’t know Steve Nash. I mean, I know who he is. He plays for the Lakers. But I don’t know him beyond his public persona.

When I watched the first webisode of The Finish Line, however, I came to understand Steve Nash and his predicament much more fully, emotionally, and realistically.

The Lakers point guard came to Los Angeles the year before last, presumably to win an NBA championship ring before bringing to a close an incredible basketball career that has led, among other things, to his being knighted in his native Canada. But a funny thing happened on the way to the finals. Actually, two things happened, and neither was particularly funny. One was the collapse of the Lakers as a team, and the other was the collapse of Steve Nash’s body. He missed 32 games last season due to various injuries. This season, he has been sidelined even more than last season.

Earlier this month, Steve Nash turned 40. That’s an age at which many professionals find their stride and make their mark. For a professional athlete, however, it’s the age it ends.

Many have written and spoken of the Nash problem. He’s taking up space and resources that could be used to recruit younger players. And watching this video, which is under 10 minutes long, Nash is all too well aware of that.

What comes out in this masterfully produced, shot, and edited video posted on Grantland.com is something far different than I hear in locker-room interviews or post-game comments. It’s quieter, more candid, more thoughtful. It’s a whole difference in tone from what we ordinarily hear in sports and news coverage. In essence, The Finish Line isn’t about whether another multimillionaire athlete will make it to the championship, but an elegy on aging, on falling just short of the mark.

I can’t wait to see the second episode.


A foul to give for mangling metaphors


basketballI’m enjoying my summer break from basketball, but I’m especially enjoying my summer break from the inanity of basketball announcers who insist on referring to three-point shots as coming from “downtown.”

They mangle the metaphor to nickname these shots, which are by definition long shots. For the uninitiated, the three-point shot was one of those innovations in the NBA almost 35 years ago to liven up the game for the fans’ benefit. There’s an arc painted on the floor 23 feet and 9 inches from the basket (a little closer on the sidelines). Sink a basket from inside that line, it’s worth two points. Sink one from outside, it’s three points.

Somehow, in the patter that passes for basketball announcing, this has come to be “downtown.”

Except “downtown” in most North American cities means the historic core where commerce, industry, and often living space overlap in an area of acute density. It’s the most crowded area of most cities, at least during business hours.

Three-point shots in basketball come from the least crowded place on the court, the place where there are the fewest defenders but the chances of making a basket are lowest because of the distance. The greatest density in basketball is under the basket, where the distance from hand to hoop is the shortest for the offense and the tallest defenders congregate to most effectively stop a scoring play. This dense area on the court, which is really the downtown, is instead called “the paint.”

So how did it get to be this way? It’s hard to get a straight answer.

One version lays it all on a guy named Freddie Brown, whose nickname was “Downtown” because he’d attended a downtown Milwaukee high school. Brown led the NBA in three-point shots in 1978-79, which helped propel his Seattle SuperSonics to the NBA championship that year. The three-point shot, in this telling, came to be named after him.

I’m not sure I’m buying it. In what sport does a particular play become named for one player? Is there any other sport where that’s happened? Is a home run in baseball ever referred to as a “Babe” in deference to all the ones Babe Ruth hit? Is a touchdown pass in football ever called a “Unitas” because of the Baltimore Colts star of the 60s who threw so many of them? Is an ace in tennis ever called a “Laver” after the Australian great who still holds more titles than anyone who ever played the game?

That seems to be a pretty weak explanation. As great as he may have been in that 1978-79 season, Downtown Freddie Brown isn’t even on the list of the NBA’s Top 10 Three-Point Shooters of all time. And if announcers wanted to be accurate about those shots from behind the three-point line, wouldn’t they say the shots are from “uptown,” or maybe “the ‘burbs”?

I’m certainly not the first to notice this ubiquitous phrase is basketball makes no sense. Hunter S. Thompson made the case far better than I ever will in a 2001 essay called “The Curse of Musburger.” He blames the former CBS announcer Brent Musburger for beating the phrase to death.

At least I’m in pretty good company in finding it inane.


The algorithm isn’t working for me


booksI’m a big reader, but every digital mechanism the book world has come up with doesn’t do much to make me want to buy books.

This makes no sense at all to me.

I’m in the game, but the bookstores don’t seem to be using the considerable information about me stored in their databases to do an effective job of selling me more books.

Why do I say this?

Because when I go back over the last 10 or 20 or 50 books I’ve purchased, not a single one was suggested by an email blast from the online bookstores, or by a suggestion when I visit their websites.

So where do I find out about books I might want to read?

Astonishingly, there is nothing digital at all about my discoveries. Instead, the suggestion chain is purely analog—some suggested by my wife, some by reviews in print publications, some recommended by friends, and a good many purchases after hearing authors discuss their books on—of all places—the radio! I don’t think social media has ever directed me to a single tome. Maybe it’s hard to distill the nut of a novel into 140 characters, and blogs don’t seem to do too good a job in this regard, either.

I don’t understand why the algorithm isn’t doing what it’s supposed to, why it’s not my primary source of suggestions. Certainly, it’s not because the companies aren’t trying. Is it that my reading tastes are too eclectic? I would think not. I read current events non-fiction, some history and biography, the occasional bestseller, and a fair amount of fiction, especially in the mystery and literary categories. Could my romps through the fields of written words be too wide-ranging for the algorithm?

It would be nice if the digital suggestions contained fewer books per email blast, and the online suggestions had more information on each book. The experience needs to more closely approximate what happened when I walked into a bookstore—back when there were bookstores—with books arrayed on tables and aisle endcaps competing for my attention. I can’t remember a trip to a bricks-and-mortar bookstore when I didn’t leave with far more books than I intended to buy when I walked in.

In the meantime, I’d like to see the retailers—who have so much of my money to gain—work on new ways to let me know what they think I might like.


It’s hard to get more than 60 seconds into a sports broadcast these days without hearing the announcer praise a player’s “athleticism.” Sometimes it’s a whole team that gets the praise. But I’m not sure exactly what it is that’s being praised.

It is, after all, a game—a competition between professional athletes. And these athletes are major-leaguers, many of them multimillionaires because of their physical prowess, individuals whose skills have been honed for at least years, in many cases for decades, and increasingly, for their entire lives. And the announcers are praising them for their athleticism?


It is not worthy of comment that a professional athlete displays athleticism. It would be worthy of comment if an athlete did not display at least some components of the skill—fleetness of foot, agility, endurance, or an extreme form of coordinated movement that allowed him or her to compete and often to succeed.

I don’t mean this to dump on sports announcers, who have the difficult task of filling the often lengthy gaps between the individual sports events that make up a game. But I do think they’ve seized upon a particular word in this case that is a given and not an astute observation. I’m more than a little surprised that the use of athleticism seems to be increasing.

from Dictionary.com.

The word itself is a mouthful—five highly Latinate syllables—that is the noun form of an almost academic term. Athletics is used to describe an endeavor when the user is trying to pump up the importance or meaning of the much simpler monosyllabic sports.

But athleticism is a more economical term than the best-known usage that preceded it: athletic ability. That cluster has seven syllables. It’s slightly less haughty. But in the trade-off between comfort and compression, athleticism has been winning.

I tend to come down on the side of the component parts of the concept as the best description of an athletic ability. Is it agility that being praised, a particular ability to move gracefully and effectively? Is it strength, the sheer power of the play? Or is it endurance, the ability to go on doing something long after the competitors have become exhausted? Each of those is a more precise and more compact description of the skill being praised.

It’s no secret to me why the Olympics chose as its slogan the Latin phrase for “faster, higher, stronger.” They’re words so sharp, so strong, so powerful that you can almost feel what they describe.  Notice that athleticism isn’t among them.


How Sweeps turns fact into TV fiction


An actual ratings page with ratings data by quarter-hour. (The page was intentionally blurred to protect the data.)

I fell for it.

It’s hard to believe, given my decades in TV news, that I’d leave the set on when the basketball game was over and the local news came on. They’d promoted a story that sounded halfway interesting. And the reason for the promo, and the reason this was a set-up, is because this was the second day of Sweeps.

For the uninitiated—and nobody with a remote control in America is in that category any more—Sweeps is a 28-day period when TV ratings are measured. It’s when there’s a little less advertising, a little more promotion, and a lot of things coming up that sound like they’ll be really good. Of course, they’re often not any good at all. And that’s being polite!

Sweeps are not random periods. They’re defined by Nielsen, the market-research firm that pretty much has a monopoly on TV ratings. Sweeps always start on a Thursday and end on a Wednesday. The big ones happen three times a year—February, May, and November.

And truthfully, there’s no need for Sweeps. The need went away when Nielsen switched in the last decade to something known as Local People Meters, known in the trade as LPMs. They’re used in at least the top 60 TV markets in the country, and they get data on who’s watching what 365 days a year. One of Nielsen’s goals in rolling out LPMs, much as they had at least a decade earlier with National People Meters, was to reduce the amount of Sweeps stunting.

But of course, that hasn’t happened.

If I were a national advertiser and the TV salesperson called with a great rate on primetime availabilities, I’d be very suspicious. Is this a rate that includes the Super Bowl in averaging the audience? Because if it is, count me out. The Super Bowl is a once-a-year event that draws the biggest audience of the year to TV sets. Why would I be paying for Super Bowl numbers in March? The Super Bowl isn’t played in March.

Nor are the Academy Awards held in March. Nor the Grammys. Do I detect a stunting pattern here? All of this good stuff is carefully arranged to take place in the 28-day period known as Sweeps! It’s not a coincidence. (Truth be told, TV networks often pay historic sums to get the rights to these gigantic events not because they’re trying to use them to bump up their monthly averages directly so much as trying to capitalize on the huge audience to promote their own shows. A promo for a primetime episode in the Super Bowl may get to more views than the same promo aired 10 or 20 times in the network’s prime-time rotation.

But the ratings are available for TV viewing in the top 60 markets day in and day out, invariably by the morning of the next day, as I said. Haven’t the advertisers figured out that the numbers in March and April are way down from what they were in February?

Now when it comes to putting its best foot forward for Sweeps, TV news has a different approach than you might expect. It doesn’t start with the story. It starts with the promo. Yup, they come up with what they think is a promo that will grab, and then someone who to put something together that remotely resembles what they already told viewers they’d have on.

And that’s where I got caught after the basketball game. The promo said there was going to be a story about the LAPD in the air and the video showed a high-speed pursuit. (This is a classic error of promo-people: past pursuits aren’t very interesting, but live pursuits—particularly ones that go on for at least 45 minutes, because it seems to take that long for the texts and phone calls to pump up the viewing audience—can triple or quadruple ratings.) I was primarily interested in new trends in aerial policing, which the LAPD spends a lot of money developing. But that’s not what I got.

I got reheated pursuit video, which I knew had to be in the story. And then I got two glaring errors of fact that astonished me for their stupidity.

COUNT 1: The reporter’s assertion that in one case, quick action by the air unit had “kept a chase from becoming a pursuit.” Really? A chase is a pursuit. They’re the same thing. They’re synonyms. If you use the language for a living and you don’t know that, you shouldn’t get a paycheck.

COUNT 2: The LAPD’s Air Support Division has been fatality free since 1956. Really? What was that I covered in the 80s when a whirlwind took down an LAPD chopper? A guy in a uniform who was no longer alive? I had to do a little research—two clicks—to confirm it. Yup, March 1, 1983. Reserve Officer Stuart Taira killed by the rotor blades while trying to rescue two officers from a downed LAPD chopper. And then there was June 13, 1991, when two LAPD officers were killed when their helicopter crashed into a parking lot.

Wow! Two egregious errors of fact in two minutes of TV news. I won’t fall for it again. I’m sticking to fiction, where at least there’s some creativity in what people make up!


Isn’t it time for ‘went missing’ to go missing?


I thought I’d been waging a lonely war on the phrase “went missing” for most of the last decade, but now I find myself with a new comrade in arms, my old colleague and friend, network news cameraman Armando “Arnie” Cantu of Chicago. Arnie posted that he didn’t like the new ABC-TV show “The River” because “they used the dreaded expression ‘went missing.’”

I first remember hearing this phrase from British and Australian friends, and in their accent, it sounded quaint. But what do you expect? These are people who refer without blushing to pencil erasers as “rubbers.”

Increasingly, the phrase has crept into the American idiom. At first it was occasional, then common, and now ubiquitous. I hear it on TV, on radio, and in personal conversations. I see it on websites. “The three-month-old went missing” is the common construction.

This, of course, is an absurdity. A three-month-old didn’t go anywhere under its own power. A three-month-old can’t walk. So why would the phrase be used that way? Because it is a phrase meant to intentionally fog meaning, to defy precision. We can’t say for certain that someone took the three-month-old because we have no witnesses, so we try to gloss over the obvious.

“Went missing” implies that whatever it is that isn’t where it’s supposed to be somehow got to its new location under its own power. If we’re talking about a child who walked away, that could make sense. But if we’re talking about someone who against his or her will went from one place to another, it makes no sense. We have another term to describe that. It’s kidnapping. For an inanimate object, it’s just plain impossible. The butter may not be where you thought you left it, but it certainly didn’t transport itself to wherever it is.

Of course, we had a perfectly workable phrase in American English to describe this state of affairs before the British-Australian invasion of “went missing.” We used to say “the three-month-old disappeared” and everyone knew exactly what we were talking about.

But there’s a whole other dimension to the “went missing” attack. It’s just awkward. It doesn’t sound right to our ears. What was quaint coming from a Brit or an Aussie—much like their insistence that someone is “in hospital” rather than the normal American construction of “in the hospital”—just doesn’t work for us.

My wife, who has a keen ear for these things, says the phrase makes it seem the disappeared have carried themselves to a geographical place called Missing, and that if we were to go there, we could retrieve them. Would that it were so! If I could set the GPS for Missing, I could gather up a whole lot of socks I’ve lost over the years.

I want to welcome Arnie to this struggle. Our strength is in numbers. Yesterday, we were one. Today, we’re two. Tomorrow, who knows how many we’ll be. All we can say is that we won’t have gone missing.


Being Brutal with the Red Pen


Last week I said there are Three Simple Rules for Better Broadcast Writing. And yes, they are simple. No rule has more than ten words. Each rule is straightforward. Each is easy to understand.

I also said the simplicity was deceptive.

The deception comes not in learning the rules, but rather in sticking to them. Unlike novelists, who answer only to the demands of the marketplace, journalists have strict deadlines. Miss a deadline and you quickly become a former journalist. Given the pressure, it’s a wonder many stories even come out in prose! So how can you be expected to crank out literature under that kind of time constraint?

A word-processing “compare document” showing the changes made between the first and second drafts of this post.

I wrestled with this when I was trying to improve my own writing, and I developed a technique I still revert to. Prose gets its polish from being reworked. But in the hot pursuit of a story, was I ever really going to get the time to rework it?

The broadcast correspondent Charles Jaco, a friend of mine for decades, wrote a few novels in the 1990s. I asked him if he enjoyed writing, and he said, he did, very much. He told me I hadn’t asked him the right question, which was how he liked rewriting, and he hated that.

We all hate rewriting, but it’s what puts the meat on the story’s bones. It’s what makes simple sentences sing. It’s what makes mundane script shine. Still, there was no way in the rough and tumble of a broadcast day that I was going to find the time to go over a story a second or third time. And there just wasn’t anyone else who could edit my stuff for me—not that there wasn’t anyone good enough, just that there was no one who wasn’t already working at capacity.

In the spirit of self-improvement, I decided to devise my own system for improving my writing. I started rewriting my own copy, sometimes in the newsroom and sometimes at home. It took me no more than an hour a week, much of it time squeezed from other things and some of it shoe-horned into odd lulls in my work day. Some people do the crossword puzzle over coffee. I often did copy-editing with my caffeine.

My process was pretty regimented.

  • First, I’d work on stories that were several days old. The reason is that I wanted to get enough distance from them so that I wasn’t wrestling with me, just with some mangled words.
  • Second, it wasn’t enough to re-read a script and mentally work through a rewrite. I forced myself to use a pencil or, even better, a red pen to strike through words, rearrange phrases, and reorder sentences.
  • Third, I was ruthless. It was old news, so it really didn’t matter what it looked like when I got finished with it.

From my first pass through my past prose, my writing improved. Phrases that were close but not quite there, got there easily. I had a field day substituting the right word for what Mark Twain called “its second-cousin.” Structure that seemed like a good bet at first could almost always be improved.

I saw myself polishing my writing. But I really wasn’t improving it. I was rewriting old news. My marked-up scripts weren’t even good for wrapping fish!

But I noticed something was starting to change in the way I wrote my deadline stuff. Chronic errors I had been making started to get less chronic. I was cutting words before I put phrases on paper, picking more precise nouns and verbs and using fewer modifiers, and getting cleaner, shorter sentences.

It took me awhile to figure out what was happening. The effort I put into crossing things out, moving them to different places, and reworking my words had made me more aware of what was going into my stories before it went in. The time I spent wrestling with past scripts trained me for what to do in future scripts.

Was the hour a week I invested in my writing the most onerous thing I’ve had to do in 35 years in news? Not by a long shot! (The weekend overnight assignment desk will probably bear that torch for the rest of my life.)

After seeing my writing improve over six months, I figured if I wasn’t already at the Altar of Prose, I was pretty close. I slacked off the rewriting exercises. Soon, my writing slacked off. So I went back to sporadic rewrite sessions, and I’ve maintained them ever since. Some years ago, when I was asked to come up with rules for good writing, Solitary Script Rewriting became number four on my list.

It’s such an important exercise that I even put this through the rewrite wringer. Have a look here at how it improved.


Three Simple Steps to Better Writing


A friend asked me the other day what makes good broadcast writing. I told him there are only three rules:

  • No sentence should have more than 20 words
  • Write in the active rather than the passive voice
  • Write to the picture

I was happy I could reduce a skill it took me an adult lifetime to become proficient at to three phrases (each under ten words).

The 20-Word Limit

Broadcast writing, as better practitioners of it than I have pointed out repeatedly, is for the ear, not the eye. The audience never gets to see the words as they would if the medium were text, so there’s no tracking back, no quick reviews. In broadcast, the words are there, and then they’re not.

To make sure it’s understood means stripping a sentence to its basics. Commas—tell-tale signs of clauses and appended phrases—are warning signals. They’re telling you there’s more than a single idea at work. If you see commas, it’s time to rework the sentence to get rid of them. Ted Feurey, a news legend I was lucky enough to have as a teacher and mentor, told his students that if they couldn’t express a single thought in under 20 words, they needed to think about selling shoes for a living. (Ted was nothing if not brutally honest!)

The 20-word limit doesn’t apply to text, where a dependent clause or a prepositional phrase can make for a nice flourish. Because of that, much of the writing we all started learning with wide-ruled paper and thick pencils has to be unlearned. At the very least, it needs to be sent to the corner. Broadcast writing doesn’t read very well in the text world. It appears choppy and incomplete. But again, it’s not meant for the eye. It’s meant for the ear, and it works very well in that medium.

Passive Voice and the Backwards Sentence

The Passive Voice forces sentences to move in the wrong direction. Our ears are attuned to a consistent flow in English that moves forward. It goes from Actor to Action to Acted Upon. In an Active Voice sentence, those things are called Subject, Verb, and Object. Let me give you an example:

The boy hit the ball.

“The boy” is the actor. “Hit” is the action. “The ball” is the acted upon.

If we change the sentence to the passive voice, we can see how it gets turned around:

The ball was hit by the boy.

In this sentence, “ball” is the subject, “was hit” the verb, and “boy” a prepositional phrase that modifies the verb and also is the object. Subject-verb-object remain in the right order, but Actor-Action-Acted Upon is turned around. It has become Acted Upon-Action-Actor.

That combination is awkward, because it forces us to pick the parts of the sentence, commit them to memory, and then reorder them after we hear the whole thing to the simple pattern we were expecting. It’s also awkward because the passive voice takes more words—the verb requires an auxiliary verb (some form of “to be” and the subject requires a preposition (“by,” in this case) to explain the relationship of the Actor to the Action.

That makes the sentence a lot of work. When a listener is asked to do a lot of work, he or she quickly becomes a non-listener. Talk about backwards motion!

There are some ancient grammar lessons rolling around inside all of us that can cloud this rule. Think back to what in my day was called junior high school and is now known as middle school. Whatever the name, we all know it as the time we were forced to diagram sentences.

Voice is not the same thing as tense. Tense tells us when something happened—past, present, or future. Watch how it changes all within the active voice:

  • The boy hit the ball. (past)
  • The boy hits the ball. (present)
  • The boy will hit the ball. (future)

Voice is a grammatical indication of transformation—the active voice tells us who made the transformation, the passive voice only that a transformation has happened.

In our active-voice example, “The boy hit the ball,” we know from the start who turned the ball from an un-hit state to a hit one. It was “the boy.” In a truncated version of our passive-voice example, “The ball was hit,” we have no idea who made the transformation, just that it somehow happened.

Writing to the Picture

This is how the rule is often stated, but I think it’s a very bad way of doing it. It’s hard to understand. What it means is that you need to explain what the viewer is looking at before you explain why the viewer is looking at it. The writing coach Mackie Morris, who spent years making the rounds of TV newsrooms, stated the rule as “Touch and Go.” Fewer words, to be sure, but it still doesn’t make the point for someone who doesn’t already get the point.

Here’s an example of how it works. Decades ago, in a documentary for affiliates about how CBS News works, Correspondent Charles Kuralt—a wordsmith of the first order—opened with a close-up shot of a watch. His opening words were, “It’s a gold Tiffany watch. They give you one of these when you’ve been at CBS for 20 years. I got mine last year.”

What Kuralt needed to say was that he’d been there for two decades. But first he needed to explain the shot. He needed to let viewers know what they were looking at. He did it in five words. Then he needed to explain why it was significant. He “wrote to the picture,” first saying what was on the screen and then explaining why. He “touched” the picture, and then “went” on. Touch and go!

This, again, is an easy rule to remember, but a hard one to put into practice. We had drilled into us in that same lifetime of writing that started with one-inch lines that we needed to start with a topic sentence and then bolster it with facts. Well, in text, that’s still a good way to do it. But it doesn’t work as well when we’re writing for the ear instead of the eye. This is established principle in logic, where it’s known as “inference from the lesser to the greater.”

The reason this is essential in broadcast writing is that seeing a watch on the screen and hearing Kuralt say he’s been at CBS News for 20 years is a sensory disconnect. The image doesn’t match the words. When the two collide, the viewer’s mind tries to process it and, not being able to, stops trying. The result is a viewer on his or her way to something else.

So those are the three rules. They may look simple, but that’s really an illusion. It’s hard work to make writing look easy. In future posts, I’ll provide some ideas on things you can do to start improving how you say what you say.

Originally published on August 7, 2011 at HalEisner.com.


Putting the SOCIAL in Social Media


It usually starts about 10:30 at night, a stream of tweets about what’s on the news at 11, sent by the people who will be doing the news. In the trade, we call these kinds of promotional announcements “topicals,” because they highlight the topics of stories.

And, I’m sorry to say, there’s not a single bundle of 140 characters that works.

They don’t make me want to turn on the TV. They don’t make me want to see the stories. They don’t make me like the people who are tweeting them any more than I already do. And I must say, these messages are being sent by people who, because of the 35 years or so that I spent in TV, are friends, gifted colleagues, and damn good journalists. But I have to conclude these folks just don’t get it.

The reason these topicals don’t work on Twitter or Facebook or Google+ is because they’re the wrong message in the wrong medium. Social media isn’t a promotional platform; it’s a conversational one. So someone—in this case, a whole lot of someones I happen to follow or friend or “like” in the Facebook sense—got the idea social media was like doing a tease. It’s not. It’s much more like making a personal appearance.

There’s a particular drill to a personal appearance on behalf of a TV station. Any of us who have been called upon to speak at a service club or chamber of commerce luncheon—which by now has to include everyone who has worked at a television station for more than a month—know exactly what that drill is. It’s involves listening, interacting, and engaging with real people.

These are the very things lacking in the tweets I get at 10:30 at night, or the status updates a friend posts six hours ahead of time to let me know what’s going to be on the news at 5 on the East Coast. Think about it: these “topicals” don’t even work on getting your mother to watch anymore.

They were devised by marketers as a way to hold an audience from a drama into the newscast that follows. And after deluging these kind viewers for three or four decades now with topicals, proofs of performance, interstitials, and every other form of promotional announcement, the promos pretty much lost their punch. Can you imagine phoning a friend at 10:30 at night and saying, “Tonight, we’ll have the story of a child lost for hours, pet adoptions, and all the sports and weather”? If it worked, television marketers would have resorted to robo-calls decades ago!

And yet, social media remains the fastest, best, and most economical way to build a television audience. Ask Conan O’Brien, who sustained an audience on Twitter for seven months, from the cancellation of his NBC show to the start of his TBS show. Or Alabama meteorologist James Spann, who amassed more than 80,000 followers and friends on social media to tell them about the tornadoes moving through the area in May. Or NBC News cameraman Jim Long, based in Washington, DC, whose 40,000 followers get many behind-the-scenes looks at our nation’s leaders.

The rules are pretty simple: give me something I can’t get elsewhere, and I’ll stick with you. I can get the topicals elsewhere, but I can’t get you. I can’t get your phrasing, I can’t get your wit, and I can’t get your insights. It’s not about shouting, “Me, Me, Me.” It never was. It’s about engaging.

Last week, Facebook + Journalists released the first round of results from a study of the most effective uses of the site for news. Twitter’s guide on the same topic came out two weeks earlier. Both are worth reading—and following—to keep up with how people are using the platforms. Some simple changes to what you’re posting—like asking questions of those who follow you in your posts, or engaging with them in comments, about linking to your stories already posted on the station’s website. Maybe it’s changing the times you post.

Economists explain the choices people make in the marketplace with the “value proposition.” It basically means a consumer is always weighing what’s being provided against the price being asked to determine whether to enter the transaction. Is a ticket to a ball game with $1,000? Not to most people, but possibly to some. Should I buy a BMW? It costs more than most other cars, but some (especially the guy in the BMW commercials) might say it confers a certain status on those driving it. This is the value proposition in action. Some have made it less ominous by reducing it to an abbreviation—WIIFM—“what’s in it for me?” Everyone asks it all the time of every transaction, whether it’s buying a bottle of wine or deciding to read your Facebook status.

As broadcasters who are learning a new communications landscape, we have to be conscious of it as well. It’s how our followers judge us, how they decide whether to keep following us, and—here’s the commercial part of the proposition—whether they should watch us.

If you can’t explain the benefit to your followers of every single social media message you send, it’s best not to send it at all.


Originally published on July 16, 2011 at HalEisner.com.