The practical side of creativity: an interview with an Emmy-award winning news producer
A few weeks ago, the wife of a friend of mine won an Emmy (or, as she told me she’s supposed to call it, a Mid-America Chapter Regional Emmy®️ Award). Although I didn’t know exactly what the award was for, I’ve always been interested in finding out more about how high-quality — or, at least, notable — work is created. So, I asked for an interview.
It turned out that Kristen Wilson was a news broadcast producer who had executed a series of breaking news stories so perfectly that other stations had noticed the work and nominated her for an Emmy. I thought this was a sound reason to win an award, and well worth the inquiry. As probably anyone who does creative work of any kind will tell you, good ideas are one thing; good execution is entirely another.
We agreed to an email format: I’d send her four questions, she would answer. Then, based on the responses, I would send another four or five.
From all we talked about, two things stood out to me. The first was that news producers don’t invent material, not in the same way that television or film producers write scripts. Unlike other creative production, the focus in broadcasting is entirely on execution rather than idea generation.The second was that the objective of news is solely to communicate facts. Other production rarely prioritizes meaning, or content, so clearly above aesthetic. This was interesting to me as a media student. To anyone else, these points are obvious.
In my case, the interview did well to point out some of the more practical aspects of creativity. For everybody else, though, I’d imagine it’d help you get some insight into where your information is coming from and how it gets put together.
It was very cool to get to talk with such an attentive news producer, and I hope her approach will be worthwhile to read about.
Tell me anything I should know about your background:
So, I started at KATV in April 2016 as a producer. It was my second job in news — my first being at a TV station in Mississippi as a digital producer handling our website and social media. About 8 months into that, an opening came up in our digital department for a digital producer, which I applied for and got. As KATV was looking to find someone to fill my position as producer, I did both digital and broadcast for a six-month stint.
When I told people I was a producer, many of them didn’t know what that entailed. Basically, I have a 30-minute show that I fill with local and national stories that are important to our audience. I have a say in what I would like my reporters to cover, I write or choose all the remaining news stories for my show and I create all the graphics you would see (this includes mugshots, ‘supers’ that explain what a story is about or names a person, bullet point full-screens that break down a story, etc.). I also dictate the elements I want to use to make the newscast interesting and as creative as possible. Does a story have a good element where I can put a reporter out on a liveshot or would it be better to have them in studio? What transitions do I want to use between stories to break up segments in a newscast so the audience knows we’ve moved on to a different topic? Do I want to have the anchors sitting down at a desk to introduce a story or would I rather they move around the studio with a neat graphic behind them? Those sort of things. I also dictate how much time is given for each segment. There are days where weather is the big story, so the meteorologists get more time to explain what is happening in weather. There are days our reporters need more time to tell a story and I might have to cut time in weather, etc. All in all, I take hours planning an entire show that could completely change once I step into the control booth as it airs.
Very cool. Let’s get started. What are you most focused on when producing a segment?
Facts. It’s a producer’s worst nightmare to get the facts of a story wrong. It will literally keep us up at night. A good journalist will want to make sure the story is factually correct, presented in a manner in which the audience can understand, and is timely to the audience. Producers are generally focused on getting the most immediate information to their audience. The 24-hour news cycle in a lot of ways is true. The first time someone is going to see a story will more than likely be on their Facebook news feed. Producers are focused on making sure by the time their show airs, the viewer wants to tune in because there is NEW information to the story they have been following all day. We want to make sure the story is immediate. Sometimes, that means a story changes altogether 15 minutes before a show because there are new developments in it that occurred last minute. It can be very tricky and hectic, but it’s also exciting when you are in the production booth and are using your skills minute to minute to make sure the viewer has the newest facts.
To what extent do you compromise the truth of a story to tailor to a certain demographic, or to the demands of the news station?
I won’t compromise the truth in my writing for anything. My firm opinion is the viewer should have facts presented in an unbiased manner so that they can make their own decision about what they believe, regardless to what I feel on the subject. I’m not there to make the decision for them.
How do you know you’ve done a good job?
How do I know I’ve done a good job? My boss texts me and tells me so. Ha! But sometimes I just have a gut feeling that I handled a stressful situation well. It might be chaos for me behind the scenes, but it doesn’t have to look that way on air.
What’s the most difficult, non-technical aspect of producing news journalism in particular?
The most difficult part of producing is getting all your components, from reporters, anchors and directors to graphics, writing, and video, to work together seamlessly for a 30-minute segment. This can be extremely difficult in breaking news, which can literally happen at any moment — from 3 hours before your show to 30 minutes before your show to during your show. It keeps you on edge. It’s different everyday, and a new challenge can come with each show. Learning the best decision to make in a breaking news situation comes with time, but it’s how you handle the stress while this show is on air that makes all the difference. It can be the most hellish 30-minutes of the day, but at the end of it, you come out a bit more experienced and a bit stronger in your decisions.
Questions, round two.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
My favorite part of the job is getting to be creative. When it comes to getting a story ready for air, I’m presented with the elements of the story — maybe there is video, a graphic, a really good sound bite. I get to decide the best way to display that information to carry a viewer through the newscast while delivering the facts.
Do you consider yourself an artist?
While there is creativity behind it, I don’t think of myself as an artist when it comes to producing. It more comes down to displaying facts in the most consumable way for the audience.
Any advice for aspiring news-makers and journalists?
Don’t forget your purpose. I got into journalism to help people — to bring understanding, bridge divides and to give the people a voice. I hope to fulfill that on a greater scale one day. Also, know your worth.
Why did you win that Emmy?
We had a lot of breaking news that night and my news team really came together to deliver a powerful show. Ultimately, news professionals from other stations thought it was executed well enough to deserve an award. That means a lot to me. I came into producing with a little experience but made it a point to listen to the advice from my bosses and take their words of ‘be creative’ to heart. It means a lot that other talented professionals would recognize the worth of our hard work.
Final advice for media students?
I’d say, be creative. Try new things once. If it doesn’t work out, you know not to do it in the future. Ask questions — don’t be silent if you’re unsure of something. It can only help you grow in your profession.