By VINCE PATTON
In Miami, NBC-6 reporter Jeff Burnside thought he had a great story about the restoration of bountiful seagrass beds. But managers weren't interested.
"Later," Burnside says, "I pitched a story about steep fines for boaters running aground." That story they liked.
Little did the managers know that the fines for running aground are used to restore those very same seagrass beds. "A victory!" exclaimed Burnside.
In TV news, the art of story telling begins with the story selling to your managers.
There are three times a year this becomes critical: during the much ballyhooed TV "sweeps" periods. Those three months, February, May and November, are when the TV-ratings services measure viewership levels. They're the closest thing television has to firm circulation numbers.
During those months TV news managers obsess over which stories will attract an audience.
Heavily hyped special reports vie for attention. Stories must be more than important. They must be "promotable.
How do you succeed in doing the stories you want and not the generic ones off a consultant's list that landed on the news director's desk?
It sounds crass, but you may need to think more like a promotions writer than a journalist. Consider whom the story appeals to most. During these three months, managers cast a keen eye toward key demographics. If your story appeals to women and children, you may increase your odds of selling the story.
Burnside concedes he hates this trend, but has learned the art of selling stories by avoiding the word "important." Instead he uses "compelling." And he often tries to find a consumer angle rather than bill it as an "environmental" story.
Avoid pitching stories about "an issue." Instead, pitch your story about people and then slide in the meaty issue in the context of the piece. We know humanizing stories is important in (Continued on page 23) ent elements). If budget allows, do the same test weeks later to have more than a snapshot. While you're at it, have several bottled waters tested to see how they compare to local tap water. We found bottled water was 4,266 times more expensive than tap water. (Be prepared to run a story that finds that tap water is perfectly fine. Don't nuke the story if you don't find "bad" results. It can be just as illuminating when you find the opposite.) Water Testing in Miami/NBC-6: www.nbc6.net/news/2618635/detail.html
Quick Tip: Contract with a local food analysis laboratory.
ZOO ANIMALS: Which animals from your local zoo are taken from the wild? Is there a depletion issue for that species? Is there a moral distinction between a captive-bred zoo animal and a zoo animal taken from the wild.
Quick Tip: Consult conservation experts in local universities.
WHAT DOES YOUR FIRE DEPARTMENT KNOW? Does it know enough to fight a chemical fire at the big factory? The chemical industry clamored for years to roll back disclosure laws, and after 9/11, they've largely gotten their wish. Oh, and then there's the evacuation thing.
Quick Tip: Consult state and local departments of emergency management. Look for private security consultants based in your area. Plus, look for retired FBI agents with security expertise; these sources can become a gold mine for the long term.
SALT WATER INTRUSION: Coastal communities are seeing rapid growth, and stress on water supplies. Many places, particularly in the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, run the risk of sucking salt water into the aquifers they depend on .
Quick Tip: Consult local water bureaus and state departments who regulate aquifers or water quality. This may be the state health department in addition to environmental quality commissions .
HOUSEHOLD POLLUTION: Spread some fertilizer on the lawn and water immediately. Wash a car in the driveway. Take samples of the runoff hitting the gutter and have it analyzed for phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment. Odds are you'll get spikes and it'll illustrate what we do daily at home that then runs directly into storm drains and into rivers, often untreated. Pollution at home: www.kgw.com/homegarden/stories/kgw_092105_env_environmental_lawns_.7e650f97.html.
Quick Tip: Consult your states environmental quality commission; they might even offer you a lab to do the testing. Or hire a water analysis lab locally.
RECYCLING: Where do the plastic grocery bags, the newspapers, and the other stuff that's hauled off for recycling really go? When the market sags for newsprint or plastics, there's a chance it goes straight back to the landfill.
Quick Tip: Consult city recycling programs and regional or state environmental quality commissions. Track down the companies that receive your local recyclables to learn about their supply cycles. Examine contracts between cities and waste haulers. Do they allow them to dump recyclables when market rates dip?
SEPTIC TANKS: EPA estimates that 25 percent of all residential septic fields leak. Many find their way into drinking water supplies, but in most jurisdictions, there's little ability for monitoring or enforcement.
Quick Tip: Consult EPA in your region. Find local inspection results through state DEQ or health departments.
SPRAWL FROM SPACE: Google Earth is everywhere. And the ill-kept secret of the satellite/high altitude photography business is that its biggest clientele is the real estate industry, which uses the photos to help select the next location for a Wal- Mart, a Wendy's or a subdivision. As a result, a lot of cities have a 30-year set of data, via satellite shots, of how the cities have sprawled. Use the before-and-after pics to see the trees disappear, the houses expand, and more. www.yubanet.com/artman/publish/ article_34978.shtml
Quick Tip: Consult local planning and zoning officials and major developers. Also track down your local arbor society or "Friends of Trees" advocates.
Vince Patton is an SEJ board member who works as an environmental reporter for KGW-TV in Portland, Oregon.
**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer, 2006 issue.