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|The Eye of the Hurricane at MTV News
By REBECCA CASTILLO
|A good leader always knows the needs of his or her flock, providing them quickly whether it’s support, trust or even when it’s as simple as candy.
That leader at MTV News is Ocean Lee MacAdams, 33, vice president of the department. He knows the pulse of his staff, his audience and his network.
At the start of a brainstorming meeting, a staffer asked MacAdams: “Where’s the candy?”
“What candy?” MacAdams replied.
“Don’t we work best when there’s candy here?” The young staffer with mussed hair held out his palms up, as if asking for a donation.
MacAdams rose and left the room, then returned with a large plastic container. The candy to stimulate the staff was Smarties. As soon as the rainbow sour sweet treats hit the table, half of the staff stood up and tackled the jar.
The room, thunderous with chatter a few seconds earlier, fell silent except for sounds of wrappers crackling. And so, the meeting began.
MTV News is not the first thought that enters viewers’ minds when they think about this twenty-three year-old channel known for music videos and reality programming. Still, the network houses about 30 staff employees on the 29th floor of the Viacom building in Times Square, who work night and day on news that affects its audience.
MacAdams, a five foot eight, blond, fit man walks in wearing Puma sneakers, jeans, a tan shirt and a beige Levis jacket. As he strolls toward his office, he passes some of the other staff offices and intern stations. Each space offers clues to the individual personalities of the staff. There are action figures from Lord of the Ring, and election cartoons and posters of Justin Timberlake pinned up on the walls. One staff member has devoted a wall to 8 x10 photos of the entire Boston Red Sox team.
MacAdams’s office not quite the corner office, but close has a lone poster of rapper Jadakiss up on the wall. Behind the door, resting on the floor, is a large shadow box frame with an Eminem poster and small flags from around the world, and numeral designations of how many albums were sold in each country. His office is extremely neat with everything files, books and MTV memorabilia in its place. He has the luxury of a floor-to-ceiling window but is robbed of a glorious Times Square view as his office is on the 45th street side and looks onto the ventilation system of the building across the way.
Not what was expected for a person who has been with this media outlet for nine years.
“My entire career has been at MTV News,” MacAdams said. He began working as an assignment editor, moved up to managing editor for news, and was promoted to vice president six months ago.
This is the room where he spends the most time when he is not at staff meetings. He regularly works twelve-hour days, stays in for lunch, and often comes in on the weekends.
“I feel like he’s the nucleus of the department because there are all of these particles flowing around him,” said Deanna Caligiuri, 25, MacAdams’s executive assistant. “You have the music, programming, ratings, artists’ relations and the politics of it all, and there he is in the center, holding it together.”
MacAdams averages about five meetings a day, usually beginning at 9 a.m. He leaves late after approving scripts to be filmed. When he is not in meetings he is constantly on the phone or on the computer often both at the same time. On his bookshelf he has several books about music, media and pop culture. One in particular is Birth of Cool, Beats, Bebop and the American Avant Garde by Lewis MacAdams. When asked about it, he beams and says it’s by his father.
“Growing up, my father was a pop culture maverick. I learned a lot about music from him,” MacAdams said. “He was interested in hip hop in the beginning. He was one of the few people his age with rap records.” MacAdams also has a talent for spotting trends before they become merged into the mainstream. He moved into a loft with his wife Susanna, in Brooklyn’s trendy DUMBO area, several years before it became an artist’s haven.
MTV News, an affiliate of CBS News, provides news coverage to the four divisions of the MTV network: MTV, the original; MTV2, a spin-off created in 1996 targeting an older audience; MTVU, the college division launched earlier this year; and MTV.com.
“I think of it as four screens of MTV,” MacAdams said. MTV News provides news coverage for the four divisions as well as to international outlets and service for Virgin mobile cellar phones.
MacAdams feels that the integrity of MTV News equals that of network news departments. “Our coverage is just as sound as that of other media outlets. Seventy percent is about music and the rest is about other events that affect our audience. Given our beats, oftentimes, I think we cover the material better.”
The relationship with CBS has made it easier to report the news. “We have access to its archives and affiliates across the country,” he said. “They are our ‘Big Brother.’ CBS is the most respected news outlet and it’s nice to have those resources and people there to help us.”
Still MacAdams says that MTV boasts a mission statement that sets it apart from other networks. “What makes us different from other news outlets is that in our statement, we try to advocate for young people, our primary audience.”
One project that shows MTV’s commitment to promoting young people’s issues is the Choose or Lose campaign. The goal for this year is to encourage 20 million young people to get out and vote.
Every election is important, MacAdams thinks, but this one will have a large turnout of young people. “MTV has been part of that surge but I don’t overestimate the effect of our advocacy,” MacAdams said.
While attending a planning meeting for election coverage, the first of three this day, MacAdams is keenly aware of the importance and effect the coverage will have on viewers. He works with Jim Frankle, executive producer of MTV and Betsy Forhan, supervising producer for the Choose or Lose campaign. They discuss possible scenarios for the day. As they begin to pair the on-air talent with production crews, the amount of work and coordination proves to be cumbersome, given the number of locations planned for the day. MacAdams gets through the process by being completely familiar with his staff’s personalities, work strengths, weaknesses and schedules and availability.
To achieve the best work, he believes that his staff must be prepared to get the maximum effect into its reporting. As MacAdams learns about his staff, he becomes protective of them. Since he has developed a bond with them, he will work hard to defend them.
That is evident this day when one of his staff members alerts him that a source in a story she wrote and published on MTV.com may contact him about a possible discrepancy. The story is about a male music entertainer who is in the middle of a trial. She first mentions the problem during the morning staff meeting. Afterwards, she gives MacAdams specifics and asks for his support. She insists that her reporting is sound.
MacAdams goes to his office and reads the story on the Web site. He makes phone calls, and asks the reporter to gather clips from other media outlets. He reassures her, “Don’t worry, I have your back.”
After studying the articles, he makes more calls. During one of them, he defends the article, quoting papers that ran with the same facts. Calmly, he responds to the person on the phone, “I resent your comparing us to the Enquirer.” He explains that the reporting is based on a couple of minutes of videotape and begins to negotiate acquiring a copy of the complete videotape for MTV to review.
MacAdams finally offers a choice, “Look you can have us review the complete tape and we can post another story. That will keep the story alive longer, or you can let it stand.” He goes on to explain that the article will be bumped down as new ones are posted. “It’s already story nine and below the fold.”
Next, he telephones his reporter. He recounts the earlier conversation and tells her how she needs to speak to all sources directly. Although all facts are correct, the reporter used a quote from a press statement. The source was upset that the information was taken from a press release rather than a direct call.
MacAdams told his reporter, “I’m not criticizing you. I understand that you are being attacked and I am defending you. I’m just giving you a strategy for the future so your source won’t be able to say, ‘She didn’t talk to me.’”
Hanging up the phone, he sighs, “Always protect them, no matter what.”
It’s this mantra that has earned him the most respect among his staff.
“I’m hard core about protecting my people and their credibility,” MacAdams said. “But at the same time I will ‘take them to the woodshed,’ as they say, to get things straight.”
His philosophy is to allow the staff to make its own decisions because then it will produce work that it's proud of.
“I try to be very involved with my staff,” MacAdams said. “I don’t try to meddle but I do hold people accountable.”
He is realistic about his role as a manager. “In the end, the buck stops with me. I have to make hard strategic decisions about our coverage,” MacAdams said. “It’s not a science rather an art. I have to go with my gut.” Most in the department are aware of this.
“I think he does a great job keeping us on point, on what we need to do,” said Rob Mancini, managing editor of MTV.com. “He’s also great at articulating the network’s goals. That’s important because news is often not a money-maker. The networks think of news as a the grain of sand in their trunks.”
His staff believes that his attitude has changed the spirit of the news department.
“Morale skyrocketed when Ocean took this position,” said Caligiuri. “People respect him because he is there in the trenches with us. He goes to all the meetings. The staff feels he doesn’t place himself above everyone else and that they can approach him and know he will listen.”
As the final meeting of the day begins, MacAdams poses the agenda. He needs suggestions for programming possibilities for a new channel that the Comcast cable system has created for MTV within its InDemand section. MTV has asked News to come up with programming options using its archival footage.
As staffers begin to propose ideas, MacAdams opens a spiral notebook with a large black MTV logo on its cover and on all of its pages. He sits twirling a Bic pen. The pen moves in a constant rhythm. His fingers move as though he were playing the piano. He stops only to scribble a few words.
As staffers shout out ideas, others quickly dismiss them. MacAdams keeps the flow moving with interjections of “Now let’s play it out,” or “Throw it against the wall and see what sticks.”
He allows the meeting to run itself. His staff moves the agenda along. He is as calm as the eye of a hurricane. There is action all around him: people writing notes on the erase board; checking a Blackberry; laughing and arguing about some of the ideas presented. He is a man of few words, quiet, as he observes the people around him. But when he speaks, he carries a presence that holds weight and influence.
As the unit’s leader, MacAdams understands the mission of MTV News: to report events that affect young people. But to be effective he believes the baton must be passed within the next ten years.
“This organization shouldn’t be run by sixteen-year-olds but I don’t think it should be people in their forties,” MacAdams said. “At some point you lose the connection with the audience,” MacAdams thinks there should be no age limitation but the decision will be made when interests change.
“There will come a point when you are not going to get excited about covering Britney Spears."