In Raleigh, N.C., MyNC.com is one year old and going strong. But is this hyperlocal news service a flashy experiment or a smart model for the future of local TV news? Media General’s NBC affiliate WNCN is betting it’s both after hearing from viewers that what they wanted most was a definitive source of specific community news and information.
Hyperlocal news is one of those new media concepts that immediately sounds appealing and even plausible until you try to achieve it. But in Raleigh, N.C. (DMA 27), Media General’s WNCN has been covering stories down to the sub-neighborhood level for over a year now — and making it work.
According to General Manager Barry Leffler, going hyperlocal wasn’t just a marketing scheme, but a direct response to his audience, which the station interrogates during monthly community listening tours throughout the market. “They’re less formal but in greater depth than old-school ascertainments,” Leffler says. “People told us how they’re consuming their information — or not.”
In short, viewers reported lots of sources for national and regional news, “but no definitive sources for specific community news,” Leffler says. “And local advertisers [complained about] the same thing.”
Thus was born myNC.com — WNCN’s online brand identity, which eclipses even its longstanding on-air moniker, NBC17. That’s no accident, according to Director of Content Nanette Wilson. “We aren’t a powerhouse station in this market,” Wilson concedes. “But myNC.com really stands out because it’s driven by the community’s own conversations rather than just what we’re doing on air.”
That emphasis is apparent from the layout of the home page, which fairly hits you in the face with two enormous menus organized by community and topic. The NBC17 logo is relegated to a tiny corner.
“It’s all about myNC now and the content it’s generating,” Wilson says, “whether that content comes from our reporters or from community contributors.”
While many of those contributions are the predictable snapshots and hobby blogs, there are plenty of examples of serious amateur efforts to inform and engage with video reports. Often those viewer stories merely co-exist with the news packages produced by the pros in the NBC17 newsroom. But increasingly, those two camps are combining their resources. In fact, they’re even teaming up.
Recently, Raleigh parents grew concerned when they noticed Enlo High School busses speeding and even running stop signs in residential neighborhoods. MyNC.com staff helped those viewers to capture the unsafe drivers on video and to post the story online. (See the result by clicking here.) The station’s education beat reporter, Julie Henry, thereupon raised the journalistic stakes and confronted school officials with the incriminating video, prompting quick corrective action.
“A lot of this user-generated video appears in our on-air platform, and that’s given us a hyperlocal image,” Leffler says. “When viewers see themselves on air it drives them back to the Web site.”
User-generated content has had a similar effect on advertisers who, like news-seekers, are able to search myNC.com by community and topic to match their marketing needs.
“This is all brand-new revenue for our station. We’re able to provide such highly-targeted demographics that we can charge a slight premium,” Leffler says. “It’s not a CPM environment. It’s about the quality of the eyeballs, not the quantity.”
While declining to share sales figures, Leffler insists the quantity of those eyeballs is bountiful. Of the estimated 50,000 businesses in the DMA, fewer than 2,500 advertise on TV at any one time. “That leaves 47,000 businesses we can go after,” Leffler says. “Now we can compete with direct mail and Valpak coupons for whole new market shares.”
A new market couldn’t come at a more welcome time at Media General, which just last Friday announced it was closing its Washington bureau — coming just a year after the bureau’s own Web-centric reorganization with emphasis on local news in the states where Media General operates. And just last December, WNCN was itself forced to cut six staff positions.
Businesswise, the appeal of user-generated content is obvious: it comes virtually free. But at what cost to journalistic credibility? Not much, according to Leffler. “We’re careful to attribute where all the information is coming from. It’s up to the user to determine how credible each source is.”
Leffler believes that common experience with search engines has helped make news seekers skeptical. “When you search a topic on Google, you’ll click on the links that interest you. But you quickly learn to determine how much you trust the source,” says Leffler, who points out that in a year of operation, myNC.com has only had to remove two postings — but for profanity, not inaccuracy.
What’s more, adds Wilson, “the editorial process still exists at NBC17. We’re still a professional news organization employing professional journalists who exercise editorial judgment. But myNC.com allows us to make that just the beginning of the conversation.”
Loeffler attrributes the rapid acceptance of myNC.com to the sophisticated viewers in his market. “We’ve got a highly-educated DMA with a lot of universities and smaller colleges, plus medical and pharmaceutical research centers. It’s kind of a Silicone Valley of the East.”
Loeffler also credits the trailblazing work by the market’s high tech leader, Capitol Broadcasting’s WRAL, which is famous for its early adoption and innovation of broadband and mobile technologies and related distribution and marketing.
“These days we’ve got no choice but to keep up with what’s going on with mobile, Twitter, the iPhone and all the other devices we’ve got today,” Leffler says. “Not to mention whatever it is some 16-year-old is thinking up for the future.”
Market Share by Arthur Greenwald is your weekly stimulus package. Every Monday we showcase what TV stations are doing to improve the news, attract new viewership, embrace new media or promote sales. What’s going on at your station that others need to know about? Write to Arthur at [email protected].