TV stations must fully integrate Web sites and other digital services into their news operations if they want to be their market’s go-to source of local news and information like the great stations of old.
Local television stations have made great strides adapting to the digital era. It’s easy to check out Web sites that are chock full of video and repurposed content from newscasts. While there is much to be admired out there—the CBS owned and operated Web sites and the stations affiliated with Internet Broadcasting immediately come to mind—I fear that many local news operations are just not structured to be market leaders in the new world.
For television stations to thrive in an era where the television screen—no matter how flat and how large—is only one of many devices offering up content, news operations must completely restructure themselves from the bottom up if they want to be the preeminent provider of local news and information in their markets.
Perhaps surprisingly, I take as my vision for the future a vision from the past: those great legacy television stations. You know the ones I mean: the ones whose call letters meant something, whose anchors were revered, whose news broadcasts were must-watch, whose community involvements were many and were embedded into all aspects of the market’s consciousness. Those attributes are the same ones that should guide television news operations today.
I’d start with the name: You should have one brand: on the air, on the Internet, on digital channels, on cell phones, on PDAs. That’s what you’re selling: your integrated identity. To have the station called one thing on the Web and another on air confuses consumers who already are bombarded with too many brand names and concepts to keep straight.
Next, look at all staff functions: anchors, reporters, producers, videographers, assignment editors, even dedicated Web producers. Ask yourself: Have you set up your department to best leverage what you do—providing branded, unique content to a number of different appliances—or are you following an obsolete model where the sum of efforts was on-air newscasts at various times during the day?
If the answer is the second one, then create a master wish list of what each person should do: One of the main anchors—in addition to anchoring newscasts on the air and podcasts and webcasts—might be responsible for a daily blog with insights and reporting (not opinions!) on local politics, or some other area of expertise. The “6 p.m. producer” could also become responsible for setting up relations with various community groups and neighborhood block watches to host areas on the station’s Web site.
(There’s an interesting site called outside.in that allows members to track news and information by ZIP code. That could be an interesting part of a station’s effort to connect more deeply with the many communities that make up a television market.)
A reporter who now sees her responsibilities as primarily covering news for an on-air newscast would know—going in—that she needed to provide on-the-scene reports for the Web site, in addition to contributing to a newsmaker series of deep interviews with local newsmakers that would be cross-indexed by topic.
While some of these things happen some of the time at some television stations, the changes must be institutionalized so that every member of the team not only sees the vision, but understands his or her responsibilities to implement that vision.
Fred Young, senior VP for news for Hearst-Argyle Television, says he’s definitely seen acceleration over the last couple of years of a digital sensibility at his group of stations, whose Web sites are affiliated with Internet Broadcasting.
“If you walk into one of our newsrooms without a roster, it’s impossible to tell who is working for Internet Broadcasting and who is working for Hearst-Argyle. Every story meeting, every plan for coverage of big events in our markets prominently includes Web coverage and Web integration into what we do on air. We’re moving very quickly.”
Larry Rickel, president and CEO of The Broadcast Image Group, says more and more of his time is spent preparing his client stations for the digital world and to change mindsets about what the task of a news department is. He calls it “a reeducation process.”
“Whatever your brand is on the station—say, breaking news or aggressive weather coverage—that needs to be your brand on all of your other platforms as well,” Rickel says. “One station we work with shoots every Friday night high school game in the market. Only 10 seconds of each game ends up on the station, but it all ends up on the Web site. That’s playing to your brand’s strength.”
Don’t give your video away. Don’t do collaborative deals with newspapers, unless there’s a vital reason, like co-ownership. Protect those assets that are distinctive, and look for ways through existing staff to make your offerings deeper, more local and special. Explore becoming an aggregator of material.
In this way, the TV station becomes more than the repository for the latest video—as important as that is. It becomes a resource for people in the market to find out more about issues, connect with their neighbors and learn more about public figures. It becomes the 21st century version of the legacy station: cherished, often-visited and a reliable and trusted source for all things local.
Mark Effron is a veteran broadcast news executive, having spent many years at Post-Newsweek Stations. Most recently, he was vice president of daytime programming for MSNBC. He’s currently finishing up the first in a series of mystery novels with a broadcast news background. He can be reached at [email protected]