A new sense of relevancy and responsibility inspires Hearst-Argyle’s NBC affiliate as the city rebuilds.
We don’t watch the news like we used to in New Orleans these days.
Since Hurricane Katrina, there’s not a soul in this city who doesn’t pick up the morning paper or flip on the local news without a heightened sense of gravitas and an understanding that news is no longer an abstraction in our lives. Most stories now draw a bold, clear line of direct relevance into big decisions that all of the city’s residents must make: Stay or go. Rebuild or demolish. Wait for the federal lifeline and stronger levees or cut our losses.
Local media outlets know that their consumers now have an entirely different relationship to their news, and many have been changing both their content and their method of delivery accordingly. For instance, New Orleans City Business, a weekly business journal, now sends out twice daily e-mail news alerts to stay on top of developing stories and reach a diasporic readership. Belo’s WWL-TV, long the market’s ratings leader, has added an extensive number of Internet-exclusive iNews video feeds to amplify its regular on-air news coverage.
But on the airwaves, perhaps the most demonstrable post-storm changes have come from WDSU, a Hearst-Argyle-owned NBC affiliate. More than seven months after the catastrophic hurricane, WDSU is in the midst of a rapid and uncertain evolution as uncertain as the city’s.
Faced with a constricted advertising base, an unknown population and an endless font of life-or-death stories to report, WDSU is emerging as a case study of how to do news in the face of a protracted catastrophe.
“These are probably the most important times in the history of this area, and people are yearning for information,” said Anzio Williams, news director at WDSU. “People in this city are all going through the same things at the same time.”
That dynamic has spurred demonstrable changes to the station’s news product. When WDSU rolled back its 24-hour post-storm coverage to regular newscasts in mid-September, it kept its 10 p.m. broadcast in an expanded, one-hour format. Even more significant, stories expanded beyond their average pre-Katrina length of less than a minute and a half.
“People needed to hear good, clear information,” Williams said. “Complete sentences.”
This has meant more longer form, in-studio interviews with experts, news packages often running longer than three minutes and the return of a long-retired feature to the station’s airwaves: The editorial.
Mason Granger, general manager of WDSU and the on-air face for its editorials, said their return was prompted by a newly invigorated sense of advocacy among the staff. “Our role as a leader in the community is taken much more seriously by the people of this community than it was on Aug. 28,” Granger said. “They’re looking to us in a more demanding, more expectant way.”
Another part of fulfilling those expectations has been the addition of a new, half-hour show, 6 On Your Side Live, that airs immediately after the 10 p.m. newscast (which has since been scaled back to a half-hour to accommodate the new show).
Hosted by veteran WDSU anchor Norman Robinson, the show is a mix of in-studio panel discussions, one-on-one “hot seat” interviews and viewer interaction, including nightly polls and e-mailed questions for studio guests. Williams said that each night’s content tends to drive the show’s form, with different segments being rotated in and out depending on the subjects.
Undergirding the show is WDSU’s new and particular brand of advocacy journalism, Granger said: “Getting information for people to make decisions in what is a critical moment in determining the rest of their lives.”
The show’s results so far have been mixed (full disclosure: this writer has appeared in the past as a panelist). Graphics and sweeping camera movements have a tendency to be too frenetic, segments too brief. Panels tend to be high on participants (an early show featured six education experts in a discussion that lasted less than 10 minutes) and low on fully developed thoughts or detailed information. But for now, it remains the only example of an entirely new on-air program directly addressing viewers’ post-Katrina concerns.
6 On Your Side Livecalls for a nightly pre-emption of The Tonight Show, which is pushed back to 11 p.m., but Granger said that NBC has been accommodating. “The network has given us no pushback because they understand the uniqueness of the situation,” he said. (It also doesn’t hurt that WDSU has given over a substantial amount of its studio space to NBC’s newly formed New Orleans bureau.)
In addition to the on-air changes, WDSU has expanded its Web-based features, streaming its newscasts on its site, WDSU.com, and offering key stories individually. Williams said that for many displaced viewers, the Web is now the only place where they can follow local news.
All of these steps are being monitored by parent company Hearst-Argyle, said Granger.
“I think the entire experience is being used by the company as an example of reacting to a crisis,” he said. “Not only using the resources of one television station that’s at the center of this crisis, but how to use the entire company’s resources to help that station and the people in it.”
And even though Nielsen ratings in the New Orleans market have been suspended until next February, news director Williams said he’s certain that the station has picked up more viewers with its post-storm reinvention.
If Katrina shook the city’s media out of a pre-storm stupor, then Williams said WDSU is reinvigorated by a new sense of purpose. “I don’t think we were really doing our jobs right before Katrina,” he said. “But we are much more relevant now than ever before.”