Q&A with Stephanie Beck, producer at WRAL

Stephanie Beck is the 6 p.m. news producer at TV station WRAL in Raleigh, N.C. Beck, who once aspired to be a features writer for a newspaper or magazine, started at the station in the mid 1990s as videotape editor. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Beck discusses her job as producer (which includes story editing) and WRAL’s online presence.

Q. What does the 6 p.m. news producer do on a typical day?

My day starts before I even get to work. I wake up with my alarm set to WUNC and peruse the online newspapers and my e-mail over my morning coffee.

When I get to work, it all starts with a morning editorial meeting at 9 a.m. There, producers for each show (5:00, 5:30, and 6:00 p.m.) and management put their heads together to assess what’s breaking, what’s news, what needs to be covered, what can be done another day and what everyone is talking about. We talk with the reporters about their pitches and discuss the stories until crews are assigned. Then we parcel out the stories to the shows across the 90 minutes of news so that viewers don’t feel they’re watching the same thing over and over again.

After the meeting, I jump into the day. I represent our station on a conference call of CBS affiliates in the state, trading stories and story ideas. I help write last-minute stories for the noon newscast.

I start working with reporters to design graphics to go with the stories reporters are working on for my 6 p.m. newscast. For example, maps to show viewers where smaller towns are in the area; interactive graphics to go in and around the stories on state government and economics and government spending; any way I can think of to make stories visually interesting to give them a slight boost and keep viewers’ attention. Then I sit down with graphic artists to make these ideas come alive on the screen.

This is also the time frame where I start looking for statistics, tidbits, previous stories and other items to put these stories in context and let viewers know why the stories we have chosen today will impact them and their daily lives. Oh, and did I mention that I try to start writing the show at this point?

At 1:45, there’s an afternoon editorial meeting. At this point, I have to justify every story in my rundown, from the 15-second copy story to the reporter’s package. I inform the same group of managers and producers what each crew has in terms of sound and video to make sure the packages fit the mold we were looking for.

After this meeting, it’s crunch time. Writing, re-writing and looking for stories through the afternoon until it’s complete, along with creating my own basic graphics. Usually, I try to finish the first write by 5 p.m.  That gives editors time to work on the video and me time to go back through and re-write and re-read my work.

At 5:55 p.m., I’m in the control room – after all that work, I’m not about to turn the reins over to anyone else if I can help it. Sitting in the producer’s chair means timing the show, communicating with live shots, and all around keeping the wheels on the train.

If breaking news strikes, it’s my job to get the director and the anchors on the same page to execute it as cleanly as possible. If things go as planned, it’s a slow day, and a rare day!

At 6:27:55 we dip to black and have a post-show meeting to talk about what went right and what went wrong that day.  Conversations ensue, and I’m done with my day between 6:45 and 7:00pm.

Q. How big of a role do writing and editing play in your job?

A. Writing is my job. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact in all that description that as a producer, it’s my job to choose stories and to write them in an easily understood fashion.

I am the person who condenses a Supreme Court ruling to a 30-second story or who sums up a murder case in 20 seconds. Doing so takes practice, distance from the story, and more practice.

Being concise is indeed an art form, and if you don’t believe it, just try this: Grab your local newspaper and pick a story. Try summarizing it in three to four simple sentences that are factually correct and don’t leave the reader forced to make assumptions. It becomes hard to decide what needs to be left out and what needs to stay.

Newspapers have the luxury of space. Broadcast does not, but we still have the duty to tell the story correctly and the need to tell it in an interesting fashion so that our audience stays with us.

That is where editing comes into my job. Rather than typical copy editing, I edit the story when I make decisions regarding what details go in and what details stay out. I do need to be familiar with AP style, especially for on-screen graphics, but the writing of the story itself is more conversational in style so that it fits the anchor’s delivery and personal style.

Q. You’re active on Twitter and other social media. What is WRAL’s strategy

A. WRAL’s strategy across the board is to be the news outlet people seek out when they’re in search of information. Weather, news, breaking news, traffic — you name it, we want to build the trust and name recognition with the public that we are where they go. Period.

Be first, be accurate, be informative, be investigative, be useful. It’s what we do in television news, our strategy for online presence at WRAL.com, and now they are the leading values we are taking with us into social media.

Q. WRAL’s history can be traced to the days of radio. It’s best known now as a TV news station and as a pioneer in HD broadcasting. With all of the changes in the media, is there a time ahead when WRAL will be online first and TV second?

A. One could say we’re nearly there. A few years ago, the phrase entered our vernacular that WRAL isn’t a television station with a Web site; we are an online news organization that includes a television station.

That’s not to say that TV news comes second, but to say that we are aware that television isn’t the only place that people get their news anymore, and we’re willing to meet them where they search.

If you read the Web site for your news, we’re there, with a number of features we do that are “web only.” There are plenty of content opportunities that stream live on the Web, sidebars that are placed on the Web to provide more context and interactive opportunities that television won’t allow. We stream our newscasts live on the Web for people who prefer to watch on their computers. We offer news updates for your mobile phone, in case you can’t make an appointment with a newscast.

A staff of online producers work hand in hand with reporters and producers to create a useful and informative Web presence. Our programmers wrote a WRAL app for the iPhone to keep you up to date on local news and weather.

If a conversation is happening on Twitter, we’re there. If it’s on Facebook, we’re there. As we proved with HD and the evolution of WRAL.com, we are very comfortable with the advances in technology, and I think we will continue to stay ahead of that curve.