Extended Interview: Shepard Smith
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TERENCE SMITH: Your style of delivery has caught some attention. How did you develop it? What’s going on in your head when you do it?
SHEPARD SMITH: Usually, it’s about how would I tell this story if I were telling it to a friend on street corner while waiting for the subway or waiting for a plane. We don’t tell stories the way we write stories. We don’t. We speak in thoughts. We don’t speak in sentences with periods, and dashes, and colons, and commas. That’s not how we talk. So I try to talk like I speak when I’m yacking with my buddies.
TERENCE SMITH: Make it conversational.
SHEPARD SMITH: Sure. Why not make it conversational? The brain works in two different ways. When you’re reading a newspaper, you can go back, you can relook, you can reprocess. I only get one shot at it, and I need to deliver it in the tightest, most concise, must understandable, conversational way possible. That’s my job.
TERENCE SMITH: How did you develop this? Did you come up with this yourself? Did you model it on others? Is it a sort of composite of other things?
SHEPARD SMITH: I think it’s a composite. You know, I’m standing on the corner this morning, this bus is coming by, and this woman runs right out of the street, and the bus is about to hit her, and she just keeps running. The bus is plowing at her, and there are these people standing across the street, and they’re going, “Oh, my God. Did you see that? What is this woman doing?” That’s how we tell stories. We tell them in present perfect tense, and it’s just a matter of listening to how people talk, figuring out that’s the way they take in information, and then deciding on a way to give them information in that style.
It seems to me the most honest way to do it, to boil everything down to sentences as you might read them in The New York Times or The Washington Times, doesn’t serve our audience well, I don’t think.
TERENCE SMITH: Why not?
SHEPARD SMITH: That’s not how we take in information when we’re listening to people. That’s not how we’re accustomed to listening to people. We tell stories in groups. We talk over each other. We can take in a number of different things.
Someone walking by who’s pleasant looking or says something that you hear from the other side, you’ll go over, you’ll have a conversation going on over here, there’s a camera over here. You’re taking in a lot of things. We multitask at our computers. We’re throwing words up on the screen, we’re putting sound effects in there. We’re selling news.
I’m very excited about our product. Our product is the day’s news, something for your water cooler in the morning, and something maybe to get a giggle about while you’re at the office the next day. All of those things can come together in a package that doesn’t have to be boring. Why take something that we find so interesting and artificially make it boring? That seems like it would be a real disservice.
TERENCE SMITH: This idea of reflecting what you think is the real way people talk and tell each other stories — is it part of the sort of abbreviation of the language that we see in e-mails, and on the Internet? Do you think it’s part of a larger phenomenon?
SHEPARD SMITH: I think it is. Technology has taught us that we can do more things at one time, that we can take in more information and process it more quickly than we could 15 years ago. I know I can. When this computer thing first started, I couldn’t deal with the computer, and the e-mail, and the phone, and the TV, and all of that at one time. Well, I can now, and everybody I know can. We don’t have the patience.
News has been cut back and cut back, and our 3-minute packages became 2, became 1:15. Well, we’ve taken it to another level. I don’t think we’re cheating the facts in any case. Because when it’s necessary, we’ll slow down and take the time, but there are some items that don’t need a bunch of me babbling on. Some items need a sound effect and a move to the next story.
TERENCE SMITH: When you were starting this out, and even now, when you edit the copy that you’re going to read on the air, what do you find you’re taking out?
SHEPARD SMITH: I find I’m checking facts because you can’t do a newscast with sound effects, and loud music, and whooshes across the nation and make factual errors. I think that our bar is as high or higher than anyone else’s because when you’re doing all of those things that are so stimulating to the senses, you can automatically be branded as something you’re not. So, if you make a fact error in that show, you’re in trouble. So my main thing is to keep the facts right.
TERENCE SMITH: But beyond the facts, the style, what, what do you look for in a piece of copy in front of you, what do you look for either positively or negatively?
SHEPARD SMITH: I look for those moments that are “gee whiz” moments. There’s some “gee whiz” stories in our show, and they can’t be written like A-1 in the [New York] Times. They have to be written more like Page 6 in the [New York] Post.
And though they may be written in that way, I read it and find out the facts and think, “Oh, this would be a funny drop-in.” And then when you see the video come to the screen — because I haven’t seen the video until the viewers see the video — when you see the video, then you can ad lib around it.
We don’t have rules about sticking to the copy and what’s been copy edited. We have to stick to the facts and keep it fair and balanced, but aside from that, we can do whatever we want. That’s the beauty of what this channel has allowed us to do.
TERENCE SMITH: You’re creating — not a different language, but a different kind of speech. Is that a conscious effort?
SHEPARD SMITH: I guess I am. You know, I thought that we were reflecting, not creating. It’s my thought that we already sort of talk like that after church or at the pub. I think we do, a lot of us, especially those of us who are working within an environment and living within an environment that runs at a pretty frenetic pace.
You sort of eliminate the things that get in your way in this era of multitasking, and sometimes the verbs just aren’t necessary. It’s, “President Bush in Washington today.” I don’t need to say, “He is in Washington today.” “President Bush in Washington today, talking with Colin Powell, getting ready for a trip overseas. Telling others yesterday about what happened when, dah, dah, dah, dah.” You don’t need all of those verbs.
I need to keep my story count high. I’m trying to get as many stories in my hour as is humanly possible. We’re telling more stories in our hour than any national newscast has in the history of this business, I think. We’re darn close to it if we’re not, and sometimes verbs just get in the way. I don’t use them all the time when I’m talking, so I don’t use them all the time on TV.
TERENCE SMITH: Why is the quantity important, the high story count? Is it to inject sort of an energy level?
SHEPARD SMITH: We want an energy level. We’re selling news. We have a product for sale called news, and I’m a salesman. I find news unbelievably interesting and exciting. I spend hours on the Web every morning, international and national Web sites, trying to take all of that stuff in. And then we boil the day down to the most interesting things of the day, and there are a lot of them.
We want an energy, we want a pace, but we also don’t want to waste people’s time. We want to try and give them as much as we can without a lot of extra words, without any editorializing, and just get it out there, and then let them decide. We can do that quickly. Some stories can be done in 15 seconds. Sometimes that’s all you need to know.
Some stories are important, but don’t have a volume of information. Some stories can be told in 10 or 15 seconds. They don’t all have to be 2 minutes. They don’t all need to be 2 minutes.
TERENCE SMITH: Is anything lost, in your opinion, in a more conversational, more relaxed style of communication? Is anything lost?
SHEPARD SMITH: I think things are gained. There are some traditionalists who will say, “Well, you lose your credibility when you begin to talk like your neighbors.” Well, I get e-mails like that, but we’re not trying to become a copy of “The NewsHour” or of one of the big three. Those turfs are very well staked out.
We’re just trying to tell the news of the day, give you some interesting facts, give you the important politics and the items that are going to affect your life, something to yack about at the water cooler in the morning, and something to give you a chuckle. That’s all we’re trying to do. We’re right in between our golden hour of Brit Hume and our sensation of Bill O’Reilly. We’re just sort of the gap in between. We’re just trying to hold our own, and keep the train from coming off the tracks then.
Things are working here. We feel like an energetic, exciting hour of news and information has found a slot. It’s, it’s found an audience. So I think, until the viewers say, “We don’t like you any more,” we’re going to keep trying new things.