FOR THE LOVE OF WORDS (and video and sound)
I’ve always loved writing. Even when I was little, I would write stories and even crafted my own musical to perform in front of the neighborhood. I was amazed at Annie (the movie) and would sing and dance the songs and write what I could remember from the screenplay.
In all those silly tests they make you take through school, and when testing for advanced classes, I always nailed the written part. It was just something that came easy to me. I remember wondering why it was part of a test when it was clearly so easy to do. Stupid adults and their dumb tests.
I remember once standing in a General Manager’s office complaining about staff writing, and he said “Do you realize you have a gift? For God’s sake, even your emails are great writing!”. I had to stop and think about that because I saw it as something everyone can do. I didn’t realize until I was nearly 40 years old it was a natural gift. I just thought it was something so easy anyone could do it, just some people got lazy with their writing or figured out copy and paste way too early into their writing adventure.
In 5th Grade, I wrote a paper about my niece Amanda.
She was born with Spina Bifida and at 10-years-old I learned about things like catheters, the spinal column, shunts, and being paralyzed. I remember before that I thought paralyzed meant you were stiff as a board. I quickly learned the reality of it and put my 10-year-old stress and confusion onto paper. I won first prize for my explanation of how it works. Bonus points for showing God’s influence in her life (hey, it was a Lutheran School!).
On the day of her birth, they said she wouldn’t live to see her second birthday. She lived to be 33. She died three years ago, and tomorrow would have been her birthday. I would have sung to her my rendition of “Born to Be My Baby” by Bon Jovi, where I sang “Cause you were born to be my ‘Manda, and ‘Manda I was made to be your aunt! We’ve got something to believe in because with God we stand. Only God would know the reason, but I bet he must have had a plan, ’cause you were born to be my ‘Manda, and ‘Manda I was made to be your aunt!”
I won first prize for my work to understand the incomprehensible as a child.
It was always hard for me to pay attention in class. My mind was always in 10 different places and staying focused through a school day was always so damn challenging. I got done with everything first and was forced to just sit there and “check my work”. I remember once saying to a teacher “But I’ve already checked it twice. Can I go outside while they all finish?” I didn’t go outside, but it did earn me a trip to the principal’s office. All of my report cards said “Jenny is a great student, but she daydreams a lot. It’s hard to keep her focused on what we are talking about at times.” I also got a couple of “She talks too much”. Surprised?
When I got to college I was happier with life as I could choose my own boring classes. I had a few favorites. The sociology class where I successfully argued we should end class early to go watch the OJ Verdict (the murder verdict) because what is more defining of human society than a world-class hero being charged with something heinous and “Wouldn’t you rather we remember this day for that instead of whatever you were going to teach and we’d forget?”. 10 minutes later we all stood in the food court watching the TV’s. I can never be totally sure, but I swear I saw that professor in the back of the room watching as well.
Senior year I was so over college. I was done with my young life and ready to be an adult. I hated all the remaining options for classes, but then realized I could take graduate-level courses. I took two of them. One was Rhetoric. Nailed it – even tutored a few graduate students. Another was Scriptwriting. We had to write a short film. Those who continued on with the graduate program would bring that script to life. I had my own life to script and wouldn’t ever see if on the big screen and Graduate School was not in the cards for me. I remember with epic clarity the look on my professor’s face when I turned in a full screenplay 2 days early. I asked if she could review it for any errors before I turned it in for real “And I understand if that’s not allowed, but just thought I would ask.” I will always regret not saving that screenplay. In the days of word processors and printing taking F O R E V E R, I happily threw it away with the rest of college in my final days. I wrote that damn thing overnight at Waffle House where it was “All You Can Eat” until 5 am.
The first TV script I ever wrote was historic. I had been itching to write scripts, but as the video editor, I had to learn that craft before I could take my fingers off the “insert edit” button. So finally, a producer said to me “Will you write the kicker?”.
I walked with the pride of a newly named Miss America to the computer and sat down. The story was about John Wayne Bobbitt being released from his job at the Bunny Ranch Brothel. (Hey, it was Nevada, Brothels made news there.) I couldn’t stop my fingers from writing the story and reviewed it a few times. I was SO nervous to say, “it’s ready”, so I just finished and went back to my edit bay. About 20 minutes later I hear the anchor bellow “WHO WROTE THE KICKER??”. I slid down in my chair at least 32 feet below the earth. I was so scared my writing was about to be crucified. My producing career was over before it began and I was destined for a fate of a dark edit bay with wires that cut my fingers with every “TAKE”.
The producer yelled back “The editor wrote it. What’s wrong?”. Silence filled the air so much I just walked out to take my stoning.
“Genius. Just genius.”, he said to everyone, and then looked at me. “Brilliant”.
The producer was suddenly very curious about how a damn kicker could be so praiseworthy. She read it and laughed “CAN WE SAY THAT ON TV?”. The anchor said, “I can sell it.”.
My lead was “JOHN WAYNE BOBBITT’S CAREER AT THE BUNNY RANCH BROTHEL HAS BEEN CUT SHORT”. (If you don’t get it, I’m not going to explain it, but Google it.)
I was incorrigible, so my writing art took the form of “WHAT THE HAIL?” whenever there was a hail story and I laughed every time. I was angry at the anchor who said the name of the country wrong when I wrote “THE UNITED STATES IS BETWEEN IRAQ AND A HARD PLACE RIGHT NOW”. He said “IRAAAAAYYYK” instead of “ihr-ROCK”. I loved putting “Devil Inside” music over the stories of Timothy McVeigh. I spent hours copying over songs to put on teases, like “Champagne Supernova in the Sky” over the Champagne Balloon at the Great Reno Balloon Race. It was my first step into marrying video and sound with words.
As I grew in producing, I loved to find the natural sound in stories. I still love a good NATVO. The sights and words just NEED the sound when it’s applicable.
The times I went to an edit bay to log a VOSOT and came out with an anchor PKG became more and more common. Some stories just needed “more” telling.
My favorite was an apartment fire on Thanksgiving Day circa 2004. Some people just saw an apartment fire and a man blabbing about his shoes. When I saw the raw video, I saw a story about a man who was damn thankful he had shoes when he lost everything else, the world of “excess” in Las Vegas on such a gluttonous day needed to see some people just appreciate not stepping barefoot on charred remains and were just as happy. I’ll never forget his voice saying, “At least I got my shoes” through the remaining 4 teeth he had in his mouth, face still smattered with smoke stains. He humbled me that day.
Whether you have a natural gift or have to work hard at it, respect the art of writing and marrying video to it. Use words that lead you through the story but don’t point out the obvious. I think Steve Hartman is brilliant at this. The way he guides you through a story is like a magic carpet ride and you don’t want it to end.
Here is my favorite story of his:
I once saw a seminar where he talked about this story. He said he was pressed for time and didn’t think he’d have time to get the gravesite shot. As he wrote his masterpiece, he realized he needed it. That 5-second piece of video, devoid of sound, helps bridge a story in an amazing way and was the first tear that fell from my eye watching it.
Go out of your way to get the video that will bring your story to life. Make sure you’re shooting to tell as much of a visual orchestra as your words can keep up with. Don’t write a long story if you don’t have video and graphics to tell it. Use a standup as a way to walk through video-poor parts of the story. If you are already back at the station logging before you decide what video goes with what words, you’ve fallen way behind in the process. Shoot for writing. Shoot for impact.
Don’t give it all away at the beginning. Al Tompkins of Poynter Fame calls these “Gold Coin” moments. As you watch the story, you are picking up gold coins along the way. Rewards for your precious time being given to this story. You don’t have to give it all away upfront. Leave some suspense. Make them want more and then give the payoff. Keep it interesting down the last word of the anchor tag in the story.
We have a great responsibility to tell stories in our communities, to go places other people can’t or won’t go, to see the forest through the trees of a boring city council meeting.
Whether your gift is in writing, shooting, editing, or presenting, own it and hone it, and practice all the others. My one weakness is I could never be on camera. I don’t like the way I look or sound and I don’t want to be any part of the story. I want to be a vessel to tell a better story through words and pictures and video and graphics and presentation leading in and out of it. If I liked being on camera I know my career would have taken a much different turn. I think it’s why I love digital so much – I can write my heart out and dress it up – without having to say, “And here’s my awful face and voice on it”. My True North is a rundown or a CMS.
I’ve had anchors try to insist I put a “Written By: Jennifer Hardy” on a super in the package they tracked that I wrote, wanting to give credit where they felt it was due. I have never allowed this because I just don’t need that.
What I need to do is tell stories in my community, from the most hyper of hyper-local to making a big story like Hurricane Ida locally relevant. To bring context to Afghanistan a world away but really right there in our bedrooms as we attempt to sleep at night wondering if this war will ever really be “over”. To remember the goosebumps of “And the people who knocked these buildings down will HEAR ALL OF US SOON!” and to see it end 20 years later in such a shocking way.
I am driven by an insatiable desire to tell stories and put them on paper, video, social, digital, anywhere I can put them. Any time of day. Anywhere I am. I can’t just STOP being a journalist day or night. I can’t see a thunderstorm and not shoot video of it. I can’t watch a breaking news event happen and “wait for the log” to come down later. I need to be at the sideline of ground zero taking notes and providing information. Bonus points if I can make it sparkle.
When I am long gone from this world it will be the fingerprint I leave on the world. I will never win a Pulitzer and I keep threatening to write a book, but my moments of shining a light into areas of our community and the world of news are my legacy. It’s the only one I have left to give, and I take the responsibility so seriously. Of all the things you can say about me, “She never cared” won’t be one of them. You’ll never hear people say, “She refused to get her hands dirty in the rundown, scripts, control room, on-site.” You will certainly never have someone quip that I “mailed it in”. I work hard to bring news to life, events to effects and words to action. I also find it pretty easy, so that’s a nice bonus.