I was asked recently on Twitter, “What does a producer do, anyway?” It’s a common question I get, so this week’s blog is devoted to the answer.
If only job descriptions could be printed on a business card; it would mean a lot fewer questions. I work as a producer, and have been in many of Canada’s largest newsrooms. But outside these walls, what I do is a mystery.
Journalism schools teach a lot of things; ethics, writing, editing, and even camera operations. But the one role that is often left out is the one that is, in the end, most key to any TV newsroom; the Producer. Even within journalism schools, the role of producer is vague and intangible. Most student hopefuls hold dreams of being a reporter, anchor, or writer; something that puts your name up in lights. Almost none covet the producer job, yet it is the most common, and most powerful position in TV. And almost no schools that I’m aware of teach you how to be a great producer.
To liken it to more familiar jobs, the producer is not unlike a project manager, wedding planner, or store manager. If you’ve ever seen Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” you’ll know the kind of crucible you end up in when it’s your job to oversee every aspect of a project. And in essence, that is what the producer does; we lay out, guide, organize, adjust, write and chase all stories, video elements, as well as evaluate editorial and content decisions in any TV show or news broadcast. While an anchor or host may be the public face of what goes to air, by and large it is the producer that leads the charge that makes it happen. Every piece of tape that plays back, every map you see, whether there is an interview or ‘clip’ from a subject or not, every line of script that anchor reads…comes down to decisions made by a producer.
Producers need to fill more roles than any other person in a news room. They need to be a writer, legal expert, critic, ethicist, counsellor, shrink, troubleshooter, and cheerleader. They also need to know how each of the jobs that support the broadcast—what it’s like to be in the field reporting, how satellite feeds get from Kandahar to Kelowna, as well as basic video editing skills, and increasingly, web editing software programs and just about every social media platform like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Photoshop… the list goes on.
Producers decide which stories go into their particular newscast. They decide whether a certain story gets a full 2 minute “package” with a reporter to narrate and research it, or if it gets a “vo-clip”; in essence a quick bit of video and an interview clip that lasts about 45 seconds.
Producers are also often people who mine for stories; talking to the public, trawling websites and events for interesting potential stories. We make calls, organize interviews, find statistics, or the ‘real people’ that make lasting impressions in stories. Reporters do this too, but frequently enough it’s a producer who starts the ball rolling. As a producer, you need to be able to make cold calls without thinking twice; calling up a business owner and asking them about their burned-out restaurant, calling the people living around a train derailment to get an early phone interview from someone who saw what happened, even calling the family of someone involved in a tragedy, and offering them the option to tell their story–and being gracious if they don’t want to.
Disclaimer time: each newsroom is different. Some reporters always do all their own research, digging and writing, Others rely on producers to to most of that, and the reporter is just the ‘hair and teeth’ on the story. I’m providing a bit of a laundry list of what various types of producers do. It’s by no means meant to reflect how things are at every news station, for individual producers.
Producers are also often Jacks-of-all-trades; we can anchor, we can report, some of us can even shoot news. It depends on the person, and the kind of professional experience they’ve acquired for themselves.
There’s a definite personality type that is suited to being a producer; the Type-A Go-Getter. You need to be proactive to be good in this job. You need to be fearless, have an eye for details, enjoy deadlines, and never, ever panic, no matter the crisis.
There’s a also component of producing that –even if they DO teach you about this job in J-school–no one will tell you about. It’s being a salesperson. You need to sell subjects on being interviewed. You need to sell reporters on a story and its potential for greatness. You need to sell the news director on the fact that sitting outside someone’s house for two days will yield a lead story. You need to be able to sell a PR flak on giving YOU a story before everyone else. In some extreme cases you might need to be able to sell someone on not suing you, because they didn’t like your story.
So that’s it in a nutshell. If you have questions about what the media –or producers specifically–do, please write. I’d love to tell you more about it.