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Simple ways to improve your assignment desk

Jun 24, 2002  •  Post A Comment

While many TV stations are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in purchasing the latest cutting-edge technology, one of the simplest and least expensive ways to make a newsroom more efficient is to make changes at the assignment desk.
Jim Lichtenstein, who spent more than 25 years in TV news primarily as an assignment editor, recently started an assignment desk consulting business. He is the founder and CEO of AssignmentEditor.com.
“The problem with the assignment desk is most people in management don’t have much desk experience. The desk is the core of the newsroom, but no one really knows how to fix it or make it better,” said Mr. Lichtenstein, who launched Assignment Editor.com in 1999. The Web site has become a popular portal for journalists. “Most stations give their assignment desk a new scanner every 10 years and think that’s all they need,” he said.
There’s a lot more that can be done.
First and foremost, the assignment desk needs to know where everyone is at all times, said Mr. Lichtenstein. “Overtime is the single biggest expense for newsrooms, but so much of that can be trimmed by keeping good track of crew times. The favorite pastime of many camera crews is hiding from the assignment desk. You have some that come back quickly, and others watch movies all day.”
He offers low-tech and high-tech methods to track crews. Desks can develop a simple crew sheet in Microsoft Excel to keep track of each crew every step of the way. Having a crew sheet prompts the assignment editor to call each crew and find out where it is, he said. Desks should also develop a reporting sheet to stay on top of overtime every day, rather than be surprised at the end of the quarter.
The first client for Mr. Lichtenstein’s consulting service was WFTS-TV in Tampa, Fla. Bill Berra, the news director of the station, plans to implement the crew-sheet idea. “It’s a better system to make sure you know where your crews are. [Mr. Lichtenstein] basically questions every aspect of what you do,” he said.
A high-tech solution is GPS tracking of camera units, which will also ensure a fast response to breaking news, said Mr. Lichtenstein. Once the device is installed in the car, the desk can track the crew at any moment on a computer screen. Knowing where all crews are all the time helps a desk when trying to locate the nearest crew to send to a breaking news event. The GPS devices costs about $1,000 each, he said.
Mr. Lichtenstein recommended that desks seek out retired police or firefighters to monitor law enforcement and fire activity in far-away areas via scanner.
“If you make them feel part of your team, they may be apt to do it. You probably don’t need to pay anyone,” he said.
Since newsroom fax machines spit out documents round the clock, he suggested that everyone in the newsroom sign up for a free fax number from efax.com for receiving faxes. Faxes are sent to your e-mail, so you don’t need to baby-sit the machine all day. Efax’s free page is located at www.efax.com/signup/free/page1.asp.
Almost every story assignment should be accompanied by a map and directions. Assignment editors can print maps from Yahoo Maps or MapQuest to eliminate the time crews spend looking up routes in their map books, he said.
Another low-tech implementation is a visible assignment board that is updated with the status of stories. “The best low-tech thing I would suggest is an assignment board with different colored markers,” he said.
Finally, Mr. Lichtenstein advised assignment editors to fill the bellies of sources now and then. At least once a year, each assignment editor should bring treats to sources they regularly call for beat checks. “I did that at WBBM [a Chicago station where he worked] and there was an immediate return. The desk would get calls and be told things right away,” he said.
Mr. Lichtenstein practiced what he preaches during his days on the desk, said Phyllis Schwartz, who worked with him in Chicago and is now president and general manager of KNSD-TV in San Diego.
“He knew at any given time where every single person was, what they were doing,” she said. “He kept everything in his head like an air traffic controller at O’Hare.”
Mr. Lichtenstein began his career in the newsroom of ABC’s WLS-TV in Chicago. For most of his 18 years at ABC, he was the assignment editor, winning a number of awards, including two Emmys. In 1993, he left news to produce the “Bertice Berry” talk show for Twentieth Television. In 1996, he created and executive produced the ABC Sunday Night Movie “Talk to Me,” which was based on his experiences as a talk show producer.
The next year he returned to news at CBS’s WBBM-TV as managing editor. In October of 2000, he left CBS to become the full-time CEO of AssignmentEditor.com. He charges approximately $4,000 per client for his services.