Mega Millions: The Big Story vs. The Lead
By Mike Brannen
I say it was rigged. There’s a conspiracy preventing me from ever winning a $640 million lottery. Everybody’s in on it. Guess I can’t buy my helicopter, Delorean, jet ski, boat, Segway, and waterfront mansion. Oh well. Back to reality.
Covering the big lottery required a bit of discussion in my TV newsroom. It was a story everyone was talking about. It’s the epitome of a water cooler story. It was like weather; everybody could relate to it. But the problem was that it wasn’t hard news.
Some days, there’s no doubt what your lead story is. The Mega Millions was a complicated one because it was the top story, but it was hard to lead a newscast with. What I learned from this past week is how to balance the big story versus the lead story.
Last Monday, when the jackpot was a puny $363 million, the story only needed 10 seconds:
“The Mega Millions jackpot is up to 363-million dollars. The numbers are picked at 8 tomorrow night.”
What else did you need to know? You couldn’t make that your first story in a show. Still, it was pretty easy to decide it’s a story worthy of being at the end of your first block, before your first commercial break.
When nobody won Tuesday, suddenly it was a big story. The next morning, I was pushing for one of our three morning reporters to cover the record-high jackpot of $476 million. We had one reporter go live at 5:15 and 6:15. It was a compromise between me and the other morning producers. We were in agreement it couldn’t be a lead story, but it was big enough to have a reporter front it.
Our reporter went to a local convenience store, and as he put it, pun intended, “hit the jackpot.” He got great sound from an employee who noticed more people getting lottery tickets than usual. I thought our reporter got a good angle. It’s tough to get a great angle at 4:30 a.m.
The next day I talked with one of our dayside managers and asked if we made the right move putting a reporter on the story. He said: “as soon as you told me what the new jackpot was, I was already done watching your story.”
He made a good point. A lot of people just wanted to know how high it went up because nobody won. Man on the street sound was basically time filler for the reporter. It is difficult as a producer when the top story of the day can be told in two sentences, even though you want to put a reporter on it to give it the feel of a “big story.”
Our station’s news mission is to cover breaking news and hard news. We hardly do features, and “kicker” is basically a dirty word. Mega Millions didn’t quite fit into our mission, making us take extra time to consider the best way to cover the story.
Until the big drawing, the story remained brief in our newscasts, staying under 20 seconds. On Friday night, the numbers were drawn at 8 at night, and our newscast was at 11. By showtime, the lottery numbers were old news. Anyone who had a ticket who cared about winning probably went online to check as soon as possible.
So, on Saturday morning, I switched it up. We learned overnight there were three winners, so we mentioned that as the first thing in our show, right out of our anchor “hello.” In that same script, it teased ahead later in the block to what we knew about the winners. Our morning reporter was covering another big story of the day.
Ultimately, what I learned from this past week is that the biggest story and your lead story can be two different things. A producer’s challenge is to decide what the most creative and engaging way to inform your audience is, give them what they want, and keep them watching. I feel like my Saturday show executed that challenge better than my Wednesday show. I’m hopeful to use this experience to make better decisions down the road for our news coverage.
Mike Brannen is a morning newscast producer for KIRO7, the CBS affiliate in Seattle. He finished his thesis Motivational Use of Twitter in 2010, and received an MA from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He received his Bachelor of Journalism degree the year before. Previous to Seattle, he worked multiple positions at KOMU-TV in Columbia, Missouri for four years. He shares more about his life at mikebrannen.com and on Twitter: @MikeBrannen.
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