Day 22: Against the Clock

Islamabad, April 13, 1:01 am

I wrote a package today on Islamic schools — the madrasas. A package is a taped, edited report that lasts about two minutes. It will most likely run on "Special Report with Brit Hume," the show on FNC that runs a lot of packages.

Watch Steve's report

Packages are all I used to do when I started reporting. You'd take two or three days setting up shoots, going out, gathering video and doing interviews. The writing and the editing was another full day. You'd go home and just wait for your package to come on. Sometimes a good one would run five or six times.

Now it is all different. The pace of news shows has changed and now the demand is mostly for live shots. You can do ten or 15 live shots in one day — sometimes every half hour. There is less writing and more talking. A lot of old timers bemoan this. They are very different skills and very often people who do one well don't do the other well.

There was a reporter at a place I used to work whom people said was a great writer. He wrote one package about Swiss watches from some village in Switzerland where he wrote the snow was falling with a steady "tick tick tick." Years later, the editor could still quote the line. Videotape editors cutting packages often hear the same line of track dozens of times while they are trying to lay down the proper video, so a line can stick in their head. But this editor remembered this one because he thought it was poetry.

I also remember a line from him. I gave him my first tape when I was trying to become a reporter. He wrote of my delivery: "You sound like a tour guide from Colonial Williamsburg reading your dissertation that even you are bored with."

The great thing, though, about writing packages, is that you get to look at the video first, then write to it. There are few things more satisfying, more fun, then putting a tape in a machine, watching the pictures, and deciding what to write.  And if you have a good shooter, the package almost writes itself.

During the first war in Chechnya, we drove by an old man riding a white horse through the snow. He had on a huge wool hat and the straight-across wool shoulderboard, a bourka. So we drove by him, filmed him, then got back to our base, looked at it, and started the report with "In the 19th century, Death in the Caucasus came on a horse."

Some reporters did not bother to look at the video. They just wrote from what they read, or from what they were told, and the report was "wallpapered" — just generic video patched over the words, sometimes shot by a news agency. It is possible to do a news report without ever leaving the office.

One reporter in Moscow spent most days walking back and forth between the office and her apartment a few hundred yards away. She never went anywhere; never saw anything. I remember it was real important to her to get special double-paneled windows. They were very expensive, but they kept all the sounds out of the kids playing outside. I remember once we found a man in Russia who was crawling across the country on his knees to make up for a mysterious sin. It took a day to find him, another day to follow him. We came back to Moscow full of excitement, and turned the material over to the bureau chief, who sat at her computer and banged out a script in less than ten minutes, based on what we told her, recorded her voice track then went home. Zero investment, full credit. Television can be very deceptive. You often don't see who does the work.

If you looked at a script for a news report you might be surprised at how short it is — usually eight paragraphs, each paragraph just a couple of sentences. The easiest way to build a package is to start with the ingredients you know will be in the report, your stand-up, where the reporter speaks on camera, and any sound bites. If you have the stand-up and two bites you just have to write five paragraphs. You start with the best video. It can take anywhere from ten minutes to two days. It also usually has to go through script approval, which can either be helpful or a tedious power struggle.

For the madrasa story I had a bite from a mullah in English saying Usama bin Laden was a hero to his students. I had another bite from an analyst who said the real threat of terrorism came from Arabs with a Western education.

He said the madrasa students were unable to understand the internet or travel abroad easily. This really interested me. I remembered the man who killed Daniel Pearl had studied at the London School of Economics. It seemed to me that a Western education should make someone less likely to become a terrorist, but this guy was saying the reverse was true — that it gave Arabs the understanding to object to foreign policy that they felt was biased against them, the technical capability to organize large scale acts of terror and the ability to deceive Westerners.

The computer gave an estimated time of the script at around two minutes ten seconds. The way I read it would time out to more than two and a half minutes. Something had to go. I cut the analyst's sound bite. Even after this it timed out at 2:30. Mal edited the piece on a Mac computer using the Final Cut Pro® program, converted it to a numeric MPEG file, then we fed it from the hotel room over a satellite phone, sticking the antennae out the window.

Read another entry on the madrasa

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