The president of news consultant AR&D talks abou his firm’s new book on local TV news and offers strategies for how TV stations can claim their spot as the top local news source on the Web and extend their dominance to mobile. Key is finding — and listening to — visionaries, who aren’t shackled with the old processes and the old business models.
One of the attributes that propelled TV news past newspapers is immediacy. TV stations can report the news as it happens, while newspapers must wait for presses and trucks to roll.
But as both media have moved onto the Web, newspapers have usurped TV stations’ traditional role. Their sites tend to be more timely and up to date.
And, according to new book, Live. Local. Broken News: The Re-Engineering of Local TV, it’s why more people now name newspaper sites as their No. 1 source of local online news. “On the Web, newspapers are beating television at its own game,” the book says.
Live. Local., authored by the troop of news consultants at Dallas-based AR&D, is a call to action for broadcasters and a 263-page strategy for how they can claim their spot as the top local news source on the Web and extend their dominance to mobile.
The book also offers tips on how stations can reinvigorate their on-air weather and sports offerings in the face of increasing new media competition.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell, AR&D President Jerry Gumbert discusses reengineering local TV news so that it becomes more than just a producer of half-hour newscasts three or four times a day, so that it becomes an around-the-clock source of news for the Web and whatever mobile opportunities arise, so that it again becomes first with the news.
An edited transcript:
What’s the No. 1 lesson or takeaway from this book?
That the industry needs leadership. It needs a much higher caliber of thinkers, of visionaries, who aren’t shackled with the old process and the old business model and can see a much brighter future for broadcasters. In a lot of ways, this industry has become complacent because of 55-plus years of unbelievable success.
Do you think there are some stations or station groups out there that do get it?
You’ll find very few broadcast groups that have done a significant amount of work on the creation and distribution of content that is more than just an evolutionary or transitional move. However, when you look at what Gannett is doing, what Scripps is doing and what Media General is doing, I think that they really get it. They understand it, but it’s real early in the game.
What’s holding the majority of broadcasters back?
Right now they still see themselves as broadcasters. What they must do to change their stars is make the transition not just mentally, but physically, to local media companies. And they have to think about themselves serving very specific consumer groups based on what they want to watch, where they want to see it, when they want to see it and how they want to see it.
That’s going to dictate not just innovation of the products and services themselves, but an entire new operational model that is multiple-platform oriented and that isn’t stuck on what we call a finished product news model — that is, on a broadcast program that is scheduled and that dictates someone watch from home in a passive way.
The book advises stations to get into the continuous news business instead of focusing on creating three or four newcasts each day. If you do that, if you shift the focus away from those newscasts, aren’t you inviting terrible consequences in terms of ratings and revenue? After all, that’s where the money is.
Absolutely, it’s where the money is. It’s where almost all of the money is right now and we don’t believe that you shift your focus off the newscast or the finished news product. We believe that you’ve got to go from a single-path strategy to what we call a simulpath strategy.
Let’s continue the scheduled appointment newscasts that are passively viewed in the home as we historically have done. Do they have to be better? Yes. Do they have to be more interesting? Yes. But at the same time, let’s march forward on a parallel path on the Web. We call it a continuous news path and it serves a distinctively new consumer group in a unique way.
This group comprises those who are at work between 8 and 5 o’clock and who have an insatiable appetite to be continually informed on what’s happening in their local communities. We believe you can monetize this 8-to-5 group, given that in some markets during daytime the Web traffic of local news and information sites is higher than television viewing.
When you look at Web-based businesses, the low hanging fruit clearly is continuous news. A lot of people will tell you that they’re doing continuous news, but most are not doing it at the level that satisfies the news and information appetite of the online consumer. For instance, each day, the average television station posts yesterday’s news and then four or five items between 8 and 5 o’clock. Well, our vision of a continuous stream of news is a commitment to posting between 60 and 90 stories online every day between 8 and 5.
Yes. You can have your cake and eat it too. You can repurpose some of your broadcast content from the day before or from overnight in a top story menu. In addition to that, you can use a blog to provide a very transparent view of what’s happening as it happens throughout the entire day.
If TV stations adopt this continuous news model, producing news all the time, can all-news TV stations be that far behind?
Are you talking about television stations going to an all-news format? From a business model standpoint, we would have to take a good hard look at what our viewership models would be and what our revenue models would be to go to something that drastic or that revolutionary.
When you take a look at television viewing levels throughout the day, the overwhelming majority of the people aren’t available to watch television in most dayparts. So, just from the revenue and audience standpoints, I think that would be a very difficult problem.
A better play from our standpoint is to follow the consumer. If the consumer wants news online, we have to satisfy that appetite or somebody else will. If the consumer wants it on a broadcast signal, we have to satisfy that. If the consumer wants it on a mobile device in a certain format at a certain time, we have to satisfy that. This is an industry like most industries. We follow the consumer.
The book advises TV stations to get rid of read-only news anchors and look for what you call chief journalists who are involved in every aspect of the news operation. Is that really practical? Aren’t those nice-looking anchors, those great personalities, what a lot of people tune in for?
It’s very practical and it’s going to be one of the biggest changes that you see in television stations. Here’s why: The value equation of what an anchor person brought to a television station 10 or 15 years ago is very different than what it is today.
The notion of news anchors as the primary driver of an audience choosing one station over another doesn’t exist at the same level today as it did in the past. For instance, it is true, very true, that a lot of television talent has a value and an on-air relationship with viewers, but their driver index, the amount of people who say “I watch one station over another exclusively because of the anchor,” is down about 33 percent over the last five years. Anchors have lost a lot of the leverage that they’ve had in dictating that “I’m only going to do this and I’m not going to do that.”
As a result, you are going to see two things happen. No. 1 is you’re going to find a lowering of the cost of anchor persons because they don’t have the value that they once had. But because they’re still the highest paid person inside of a newsroom, you are going to see additional responsibilities placed upon them.
It really comes down to this. The person who has a great relationship with viewers and who leads a broadcast based almost exclusively on his or her high journalistic ethics should be the chief journalist of the television station. History shows that’s what they used to be. It’s how they became anchors.
However, over the past 30 years, we’ve really got into the look, the appearance and the performance of an anchor as the most important thing to viewers when in fact history shows that journalism used to be the driving force. We’re really taking several steps back and putting journalism on the same level as on-air performance.
As you’ve seen over the last six months, the amount of long tenured anchors retiring or not having their contracts renewed is very long and very distinguished. That is a television station saying that as much as we value you, we no longer get the ROI from you that we once did. As much as we love you, we have to part company.
Let’s talk a little bit about the weather. The book spends 20 pages telling stations that they have to improve the way they do the weather reports. I thought that was the one thing that stations did right.
Well, they do severe weather coverage right. Over the last 20 years we have all come to understand the audience loyalty that we can gain if we show up in times of chaotic, severe or potentially threatening weather situations. We’ve got that right.
Unfortunately, that’s about 30 or 35 days of the year and so our focus is on increasing the value the other 325 or 330 days of the year. The point we make in the book is that that weather data is a commodity now. I can get that on my iPhone. I can get a seven-day forecast for any city in the world in a minute or two. Yet, we have folks that focus exclusively on data as the only important thing. That’s a very dated strategy and we think it will be the undoing of a television station.
So, broadcasters need to develop a weather strategy that goes beyond the commodity forecasts. One way is to get meteorologists more involved in newsgathering. They can become environmental experts and cover environmental issues. They can do stories on emergency preparedness. Let’s dig deep on those. Let’s not superficially report them.
Is the local sportscast worth saving and if so how do you do it?
That’s the most polarizing issue we find in almost every station we have worked with over the last 30 years. The reason is 22-26 percent of people have an unbelievable passion for sports. Unfortunately, three-quarters of the people do not and therein lies the rub.
Some stations have experimented with taking sports out of the early news. If you recall, 15 years ago sports used to be at 5, 6 and late at 10 and 11. I don’t think I know of a local newscast that has sports at 5 o’clock anymore.
Our recommendation is very clear. We believe you ought to invest in sports and a sports segment and in sports personnel, but the primary focus is to tell great stories and to do great journalism about the sports community inside a given market. We also believe that sportscasts must be personality driven because very few people take sports seriously so you ought to be able to have a little fun with it. Unfortunately, what we still have day to day are 6 and 11 o’clock sportscasts that are fundamentally focused on the outcome of a game or the preparation for a game. That’s a poor overall strategy for sports.
You spend a lot of time with mobile in the book. There’s a blizzard of options for mobile. What’s your recommendation there?
In mobile we must mobilize. Broadcasters can’t afford to miss mobile as they missed online. Back when online first appeared, it was the newspapers that jumped on it and that’s why all the terminology on the Web is newspaper terminology like “display ads,” “above the fold” and “banners.”
So we can’t afford to not seize the mobile moment and we have to have a clear eye on the opportunity and to innovate without being overly concerned about the ROI because we know long-term there will be an unbelievable ROI in mobile.
Broadcasters don’t want to repeat what they did on the Web: Let’s just hold steady and let somebody else come up with the business model and then we’ll copy that because we know it works. That is the story of broadcasting for 55 years.
You advocate replacing the conventional newsroom with a content management center that has the mindset and workflow to produce for the new media at the same time it is producing for broadcast. Do you think it’s a good idea for the station to look outside the broadcasting industry to run such a news operation?
The answer is no. We don’t have to look outside of our own industry for local news management. It’s already there. We have unbelievable talent inside most of the television stations that has a great passion for journalism, that has a great passion for the process and that has all kinds of experience and capabilities. They’ve proven that for a long, long time.
The issue inside of a newsroom is what about all the other responsibilities that a news director has right now. Almost every news director in the country was not trained from the management side. They were trained from the journalism side and so they only learn management, marketing skills and business skills based on experience, based on exposure to them.
So, in a lot of ways, we have that leadership in place from an editorial standpoint, but not necessarily from a leadership standpoint, from an operational standpoint and from a business model standpoint.
So we should put the smartest editorial decision makers that we have in the content management center and let them focus exclusively on why they got into this business to begin with — that is, on doing great journalism. Let’s strip away the administrative responsibilities and reassign those to others.