I hate that question. If I go into a long explanation about what I do, the questioner becomes obviously confused. The expression gets the blank “why are you being so detailed?” expression.
There’s a YouTube clip out there where someone tries to explain the Desk and the news outsider keeps accusing them of being an intern. (I tried to find a link to it, but it has disappeared into the depths of the interwebs. I’ll update with the link if I manage to track it down.) That’s what I feel like when I give a more detailed explanation than “Newsroom Dispatch.”
When people ask, incredulously, WHY I work the Assignment Desk, I always answer “I hate myself.” Within the news business, the “hate myself” answer gets a smile, a nod, maybe a chuckle and wink.
Everyone else looks at me like I might have a mental deficiency. (Debatable, I was dropped on my head as a child)
For those outside the business, I need to give a brief (painfully so. I might get yelled at for dumbing these down) rundown of what the typical jobs in a newsroom are responsible for.
Let’s start with the obvious people, the ones you see in every newscast, and then move on to the ones that are less obvious.
The anchors are the face of the newscast. They stay in the newsroom, on the set, and help keep a common thread from one story to the next.
Reporters are the faces in the field. They’re the ones walking the street, talking to people and seeing “the scene of the crime” so they can better describe it to viewers. They write their own stories.
Meteorologists tell us the weather forecast. (Hey, I’m going through them all… don’t hurt me)
Photographers are the ones carrying the cameras. They’re the one getting everything on film. They are also usually in charge of editing the story they shoot their reporter writes. Some reporters shoot and edit their own stories.
The Sports department is usually a little separated from the news department. Most sports anchors also serve as sports reporters, sports photographers, sports editors, and sports producers.
Now to those of us trapped in the newsroom:
Editors put together all those pieces that don’t have reporters in them. All that video the anchors read over before they toss to another reporter. If we’re doing an update on an older story, they sometimes have to dig through archives to track down footage to go with it.
Producers write everything in the newscast that the anchors say. Reporters are in charge of, what, 2 to 3 stories in a newscast? The producers write the rest of the show.
Directors: these are the guys in charge of the technical aspect of the newscast. The pretty graphic that comes swooshing in when the reporter talks about the subject? The way the screen automatically shifts from video of a water-skiing squirrel to a man talking excitedly about never seeing anything like that before with the man interrupting the anchor? The timing of that comes down to the director making sure he cues everyone else on the production side at the correct time.
Speaking of production…
There are numerous aspects to the production side of a newscast. The person that controls the teleprompter, making graphics, switching from one piece of video to the next. Listing all of them would be exhausting. Like all ‘behind the scenes’ jobs, these people are often overlooked when it comes to a good newscast. We’re a team, without them the anchors and reporters would look ridiculous on air.
Engineering is a catchall term that changes from newsroom to newsroom. They can do anything from fixing broken equipment, running live trucks, juggling any and all live signals being sent from the field to the newsroom. Too many details to count.
There are also various managers. We are a business after all.
After all of this, there is the Assignment Desk/Editors. We don’t leave the newsroom. Ever. (There is one exception to this, but it is rare and I’ve only run across it twice. Desk people usually aren’t trained to run a camera in the helicopter. That’s a whole different post…)
Looking at all of the things that have already been named, what could possibly be left?
“Newsroom Dispatch,” as I like to call it, refers to listening to all the police, fire, medical, and sundry scanner traffic for potential breaking news. If something happens, we dispatch a news crew to the scene just like the emergency dispatchers we’re listening to are. With technology, we’re constantly monitoring twitter, Facebook, email, websites of competing stations, as well as the usual answering phone calls, making phone calls, and trying to yell at producers over the racket being made by the scanners.
We supposedly know where all crews are at all times and have some knowledge of every story being covered.
If things are needed from other stations, from CNN, Satellite time needs to be booked, it’s up to the desk to coordinate it.
On a good day in a good newsroom, the Assignment Desk is the nerve center. On a bad day, we’re the stop gap and try to keep things from spinning out of control.
Doesn’t always work.
Oh, I’m also an expert at running the fax machine (they do still exist) and unjamming the copier. Especially unjamming the copier. Some days I feel like I spend more time doing that than answering phones.