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Crossing Mediums: Part II

Like most newsrooms across the country, the Plain Dealer has undergone cuts. As many newspapers slim down on staff, some journalists have been transitioning from a life of print to broadcast. A former Plain Dealer health and medicine reporter, Evelyn Theiss, explains why she made the switch and the differences between print and broadcast.

Q: How did you end up leaving the Plain Dealer and joining the station?

Evelyn Theiss (ET): Those of us at the Plain Dealer knew last winter that there would be lay-offs coming in the summer. So I, like many other reporters there, was gearing up for a job search. It just made sense to prepare. In late winter, I got a call from the news director at Channel 3, and we had an informal conversation. He mentioned there would be a job opening for an investigative producer in the summer, as the current person holding the post had just graduated from law school and was being hired by a law firm. He asked if that was something I might be interested in. I really hadn’t thought of TV as a possibility—certainly, I didn’t want to be an on-air reporter, and I knew little about producing. But the more I heard about the investigative producer position, the more interested I was.

I was called in for one interview, and then another, and another, and in those interviews, I really focused on my experience as an investigative reporter (even when it wasn’t my title, I tried to bring that kind of reporting to all my beats), and my passion for digging for stories.

It has always been one of my favorite things to keep pursuing a story, even when I keep hearing “no” from those I would need to interview, or whose help I needed. “No” is what energizes me as a reporter.  That’s when it starts to be even more fun. The harder you have to work for it, the more you value what you get—and you get tougher and more efficient the longer you do it.

Q: What was it like transitioning from one medium to another? Did you have an adjustment period?

ET: There’s definitely a huge adjustment—far beyond just learning new systems, for editing, writing a script and so on. Being a newspaper reporter means you rely on yourself. It’s up to you to get the story, to do the reporting and the writing. There’s great satisfaction in that—and independence. While you have an editor at a newspaper, it’s really the reporter’s initiative from start to finish that creates a strong story.

In TV, video is the crucial element. Unless you can tell the story visually, you don’t have a story. That means relying on others—such as the videographer—and fortunately I work with a very experienced videographer. It also means getting people to agree to be on camera. It was never hard for me as a newspaper reporter to interview even a reluctant source. You create a conversation and go from there. But getting people on camera is way more difficult—it’s pretty obvious when you’ve got a mike in their face, and it really makes some of them nervous, even when they aren’t the target of the story. “Oh, I don’t want to be on TV,” is a common refrain and that creates a challenge. (That said, I do think reality TV is making some people want to be on TV, too, depending on the story).

But for a newspaper reporter-turned-TV producer, there’s also a shift in thinking, to “How do I tell the story visually?” And it’s not always obvious. For example, during my second month here, I was working on a story about a woman who was listed as dead by Social Security—despite fighting to prove she was “living” for 17 years. The investigative reporter I work with, who is my boss—Tom Meyer, a veteran and winner of scores of Emmys—suggested that after the interview with her, the videographer I and find a cemetery at which to get footage of gravestones. The package also began and ended with Tom doing a stand-up in a cemetery.

It seems obvious now to do that, but it wasn’t to me, then. In TV, you don’t only think literally, as in “Oh, we’ll do an on-camera interview” and then just pan around for some atmosphere. You also need B-roll that enhances the storytelling, and that might well mean thinking symbolically. We also used a graphic element—a red rubber stamp that said “DEAD” that would hit a pile of documents.

Q: What are the major differences between the two mediums in terms of your responsibilities, or pace?

ET: You have to be so much more concise, as well as punchy, vivid and conversational in writing the script. That means learning a completely new style of writing—yet avoiding clichés. That’s been fun for me. I think the pace in TV is more intense. Not that I didn’t have a lot of extreme deadlines in newspapers, but again, it’s up to the reporter to pull it off. And I was a fast reporter and writer who thrived on deadline pressure.

In TV, you are often waiting—pushing, but waiting—for someone to do an on-camera interview. If a public official doesn’t agree to one, you have to track them down, perhaps get them after an appearance or news conference. If it’s not a public official, that’s even harder. Yes, sometimes there are ambush interviews—which might require a long period of surveillance. So there are many more elements that are harder to control when you need video and I think that creates extra stress/intensity. Even on deadline at a paper, you might get an extra five or 10 minutes. In TV, the news is on at 6. Period.

In terms of my responsibilities, they are broader in TV and there’s been a technological learning curve too. It’s not just finding the story, or the story idea—it’s doing the research to determine if it’s really a story. You might invest hours, or even a day, only to find it didn’t pan out, or just wasn’t there. In newspapers, there are two steps—reporting and writing. And even if the story isn’t quite what you thought it was, you can often write around the holes.

In TV, it’s research, reporting, lining up on-camera interviews, getting supportive documents, some of which might be visual, creating graphic elements for video, writing the script and noting which elements of video and audio go where, then, when it’s completed, writing the online story. However, there is another difference—a producer doesn’t get a byline credit, even for the online story (at least, that is my experience).

So you are working largely in obscurity, as opposed to having a byline, or a column sig. The satisfaction comes from seeing the completed package on the news, and that can be powerful. Visual storytelling is a different medium and it takes time to learn it, much less master it. But it’s gratifying to use reporting skills in a different medium—and to be learning so much at this stage in my career, taking my reporting skills and using them in new ways.

Q: Do you ever miss print? Why or why not?

ET: I do miss writing stories, which I think is natural since I was writing for more than 20 years. I also miss the simplicity of the process—reporting, then crafting a story. However, print reporting has changed a great deal in recent years, and there is more of an emphasis in getting stories online quickly, rather than taking a little longer to research and craft piece. That isn’t always quite as gratifying as what I recall from say, 10 years ago. Also, editing has been cut way back, at least at some papers, and you can see a difference in the finished product.

Q: How do you think working across mediums is reflective of the current media landscape?

ET: Well, given the volatility of the current media landscape, it’s important to have flexibility and as many varied skills as you can—for example, video skills…even if you are a print reporter, as more and more video is being used to supplement stories online. That means more than just using a flip cam—but knowing how to compose a shot and edit too. As I said, I am fortunate to work with a great videographer, but not everyone has that luxury. The level of a pro’s skills can’t be replicated by someone who hasn’t been doing it for years, but you can get better at even the basics. Most print reporters who have moved to TV—and I don’t know that many—have a renewed appreciation for what it takes to do TV news as a reporter or producer. Your video package might be only two minutes long, but it is created from many, many hours of work. That means a lot of things can, and will, go wrong as you are getting there. That is part of the frustration and then, joy, of doing this—the best you can with the time you have and thinking creatively about how to get around inevitable obstacles.

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