Overcoming Fear: Calling a Newsroom’s Assignment Desk

As I’ve laid out some of the inner workings of the newsroom the past few months, many of my new PR colleagues have expressed to me the same fear: calling the assignment desk. Many have run into the same issues, connecting with an assignment editor who doesn’t have the time to talk, being told flat out “we’re not covering that” or worse – getting hung up on all together.

Before I became a news producer, I worked on the assignment desk, first at WRAL then at News 14, known today as Spectrum News. I loved the position and it gave me some great insight into the good and the not so great of “the desk”.

Here are three things you should know before you pick up the phone to check on your pitch, but first, a little background:

The Shoulders of the Newsroom
The assignment desk is the center of the newsroom – it pretty much carries the weight of EVERYONE on its shoulders. Assignment editors are the ones responsible for finding and organizing the news and crews of the day – while also being ready to pounce on anything that breaks.

I’m not going to lie, it’s kind of a thankless gig. It’s often the assignment desk putting out all the fires and dealing with the attitudes of well, everyone. Take for instance, sending a crew to breaking news. This usually means “creating a crew out of thin air” – because very rarely is there a photographer sitting around with nothing to do. In reality it means taking a reporter and photographer off a story, interrupting an important interview, making a crew stay late or WORSE, getting them out of bed. You can imagine how fun it is to be the bearer of that fun news.

Aside from that usual chaos, assignment editors are listening to police scanners for the next breaking news situation, calling to confirm a million (literally!) stories for the 5pm show, talking to viewers ticked the station interrupted the Bachelor the night before (I promise this happens on an hourly basis) and getting about 500 emails a day (not exaggerating).

So, what can you do to improve your connection with an assignment editor?

Know who is on the assignment desk. On a weekend, carve out an hour of your time to call your local news stations and get to know the desk. The weekends (usually) are a pretty slow time for the newsroom, so the editor on the desk may welcome a friendly conversation.

Find out the names and schedules of these key assignment editors: dayside, nightside, weekend and the assignment manager. By doing this, you can personally address your pitches to these people, and when you call to make sure they received your release, you can ask for them specifically.

Know what’s going on in their world. Is there a hurricane on the horizon? A major local or even national story that’s dominating headlines? Is it the first day of school?

Knowing the current events of the day will help prepare you for who you may encounter on the other end of the phone. If all hell has broken loose in your community, be prepared for someone who is not packing patience that day – especially if it means taking them away from something that they’re in the middle of. If your event is still a few days or a week away, consider making the call on another day closer to the event.

Before you pick up the phone, check the clock. There are some pretty key times in an assignment editor’s life that you want to steer clear.

8:45-9AM: Most newsrooms have a morning editorial meeting at 9am. Calling right before isn’t the best idea, because the assignment editor is pulling together all the pieces he or she needs to have to lead the meeting.

30 minutes before any news show: This is often crunch time for assignment editors who are trying to make sure producers and crews have everything they need before show time.

During the news shows: During this time, assignment editors are busy watching the competition to ensure they haven’t missed any stories. For many assignment editors, the show signals the end of their day, so they’re preparing follow ups and coverage for the next work day.
Understanding the newsroom’s world can really help you cultivate relationships with the people who decide if your pitch gets air time. I’m not saying this advice will win you a place in EVERY assignment editor’s heart, but it can definitely be a start.

“Confessions of a Former TV Producer” is a blog series written by Katie Parker, McKeeman Communications’ newest maven. She was an Emmy-nominated news producer who spent the last 12 years working in top television newsrooms in Raleigh, NC, Charleston, SC, and most recently WSOC-TV in Charlotte, NC.

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