Raycom Media’s news VP says that her company’s plan to survive the staff cutbacks made necessary by the economic tough times is to help staff add to their skills. With more flexibility, she says, the stations will be able to achieve their goal of becoming the local information provider over the air, on the Internet and on mobile devices.
Raycom Media is one of broadcasting’s most prodigious producers of local TV news, now operating 31 full-power stations that originate news each and every day. And most of their newscasts are ratings leaders.
Overseeing the newsrooms, from Cleveland (DMA 17) to Jonesboro, Ark. (DMA 181), is VP of News Susana Schuler. She joined Raycom in February 2006 after distinguishing herself as the group news executive for the Nexstar Broadcasting Group, which has nearly as many news operations as Raycom.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell, Schuler talks about how Raycom is transforming its newsrooms so that they maintain their dominance in broadcast news and excel in the 24-hour-a-day environment of the Web and mobile despite deep budget cuts.
An edited transcript:
Local TV newsrooms have it tough right now. They are supposed to cut costs while exploiting the new media. What’s the Raycom strategy?
Our goal has been to try to put more energy, effort and resources into 24-hour content dissemination on all our platforms. To do that, we need to have more people in every station that are able to do more things than perhaps they had been encouraged or trained to do in the past.
It’s been almost two years now since we started down this road. We always have had a good understanding that this was an important place to be, but we weren’t structured in a way that allowed us to gather news and information 24 hours a day and pick the platform for dissemination depending on the particular time of day.
We call it our three-screen strategy. We want to be the local information provider over the air, on the Internet and on the mobile device.
And retraining your people to do more things is a big part of it?
Yes. We’re not approaching everybody the same way, saying that everyone in our content/news departments will be shooting video. We’ve worked with our stations just to say we all need more skill sets.
So our goal is to train them, to give them more skills. Then, the local managers set the expectation level. If you now have three skill sets, you are probably going to need six and you’re going to be utilizing those skill sets with some regularity to do your job every day. We’re probably asking everybody to double the number of skills that they have.
Do I think every reporter needs to shoot? Absolutely. Do they need to do that every day? That’s not up to me. It’s up to the local managers. Do I think every anchor needs to report? Absolutely. Do most of our managers? I suspect they do, but that’s not my call.
Does that mean that somebody who has been a studio camera operator is going to go out and report a story for us tomorrow? Probably not, because more than likely they weren’t hired with a journalistic skill set. They were hired with a technical skill set, but can that person edit, can that person shoot with a field camera, can that person encode video to a Web site, can that person aggregate on sites? Absolutely.
Part of what’s driving this is that there are fewer of us. We can’t change that. We’ve had to make financial decisions to reduce staff size. It was the most difficult thing our company has gone through. It’s a testament to our managers and the relationships they have with their staffs that we have been able to manage through a very difficult process.
I know the Raycom stations experienced a lot of layoffs last December. Can you tell me how deep the staff cuts were and whether we are past the downsizing now?
I can’t speak specifically to how deep our layoffs went or are we past those. That question is up to [Raycom CEO] Paul McTear to answer on behalf of the company. I can tell you that it’s the toughest thing we’ve ever done, I’ve ever done. But I think we all see things improving in the not too distant future.
Last week, we posted an interview here with AR&D’s Jerry Gumbert that discusses his firm’s new book on reengineering local news. Among its recommendations is that TV stations move away from newspaper-like Web pages with headlines and links to blogs that lend themselves to continuous updating. Do you like that idea?
We are looking to evolve our sites to where they are more functional, where they are more user friendly and where they are less cluttered. I probably am not comfortable telling you what we’re considering, but we all agree that the format of our sites needs to evolve beyond what was created by a newspaper. So, you will see our sites evolve. Will we go to a blog format on our television station branded sites? I don’t know yet.
Blogs are also a way to personalize your sites a little bit as TV stations have traditionally personalized their newscasts.
Well, yes, and we do believe in the value of that. Again, we ought to be better at that than everybody else because our employees have that personal connection. They’re not used to it being two-way, but who else connects to people in their bedroom, in their kitchen, in their living room? They already have that relationship. That’s what ought to be transferred to a blog approach, a Twitter approach, a Facebook approach.
What we found, though, is that if you force somebody to do blog or some of these other things — if it’s not something that they enjoy, that they understand — it’s not going to work or it’s going take a lot longer to get the community to embrace it. Saying every anchor will have a blog is … well, it’s not going to do well if you do it that way. That’s a wrong strategy.
Another point the AR&D books makes is that the day of the read-only anchor is over. Would you agree?
I would say that, but so is the description of every other job title in the newsroom. Anchors need to be leaders in our newsrooms — what Jerry calls chief journalists. As I said earlier, every anchor should be reporting. It keeps them connected to their communities. It gets them engaged in what their audience is interested in. Being a reporter was the most fun I ever had. It was being out in the field connecting with the audience.
So, the anchor role is evolving. Their connection to a community, to the audience, remains critical, but their role in the future has to go way beyond their performance in a newscast. I would hope that the journalists and news anchors that work for us understand that. I feel they do. I feel they have embraced what we have been asking them to do, some better than others. Why wouldn’t you want to be more connected, more relevant, more engaged, more valuable moving forward?
What are the technologies and tools that are facilitating your move to a 24-hour-a-day, multiplatform news producer?
Cell phones alone are big. They give you the ability to go to a story with a video-enabled phone, take a picture, send it back with a quick text and get that immediately on the Web site.
Our industry has been all up in arms about this video journalist route as well you know. I’ve been in the business 20-plus years and I was a VJ with a big three-quarter-inch deck and a huge camera and cables that connected the two. The new field gathering technology enables you to be more adept. I think of the small camcorders, the small laptops, the portable satellite systems that are the size of a laptop. It’s been exciting. It amounts to a tremendous opportunity to take the audience somewhere where they haven’t been able to go before.
Raycom is in a news-sharing relationship with Gannett in Cleveland. Are we going to see more of that in other markets?
Potentially, yes. We’re engaged in discussions in many markets.
What are you trying to achieve through them?
We have all had to reduce staff. We all realize that to maintain a connection to our local audiences we’re going to have to be unique and relevant and impactful, but that requires energy and effort and people. When you have a smaller staff, you have fewer people to go in and cover news that needs to be covered, but is not going to be a differentiator for your product.
So we’ve looked at it and we’ve challenged our managers and said, talk about these things locally if you think there’s an opportunity. The idea is that there are a lot of stories that need to be covered that we all cover, that the audience doesn’t give any of us credit for having or not having covered.
Why shouldn’t we pool resources to gather that type of news so that we can then allocate the resources to go and cover differentiated news, to continue to be investigative, to continue to dig into issues and tell the stories that will definitely differentiate us?
That kind of news we’re not going to share, but what about the press conference at city hall, the school board meeting, the politician that comes to town — the kinds of stories where we will all be there and we will all have exactly the same thing.
Well, some believe that news sharing will simply lead to more reporters and producers being cut and that stations will never get around to producing those distinguishing enterprise stories.
Some might do that, but that’s not Raycom’s approach. Obviously, these discussions will evolve.
Are you aware of the Bitcentral proposal to facilitate sharing among stations in a market by putting all their raw video and stories into a Oasis central storage site?
Yes. Are you aware that our company — our [chief technology officer] Dave Folsom — was very involved in developing Oasis? They’re a terrific company, but they have grown, I believe, thanks in great part to partnerships like the one they’ve had with us. We use Oasis across our group. We share video every single day. We have three million pieces of video on Oasis. It is how we connect ourselves regionally and it’s a point of difference for Raycom.
But what about using Oasis not for exchanging video among stations in a group, but among competing stations in a market?
It would make great sense. It would be cheaper, it would be easier. The technology today allows us to manage the rights where you couldn’t see anything, except what others want you to see, what they want to share. Now we’re not doing it within a market that way, but we could we do it that way in Cleveland if everybody had access to Oasis. We would love it.
By sharing news, aren’t you tampering with the great motivators for producers and reporters — to get the story or angle that nobody else has and to get first. A routine city council meeting or press conference can sometimes turn into big news.
Sure. The pool agreement is that everybody has access to it. If it becomes a bigger story, it’s my responsibility to go and add the resources to it to make it a bigger story and make it different. So I don’t think competition has to be compromised. The goal is that you’re competing on the stories that really matter, the stories that will differentiate you from the competitor.
I’m one of the ones that has had the hardest time with this because I’m supercompetitive. I have a very hard time agreeing to assist a competitor. That never dies even where we have partnerships, even where another broadcaster is producing news for us.
I want to crush the competition. I want to be the last strong local news entity standing, but I also think competition makes me better. So if this is a way to keep all of us competitive and going after those stories, then there’s an appetite to do that.
Let me follow up on that. Is the broadcast news business going to come down to just one or two stations per market? Can three or four survive anymore?
These are defining times for our industry and there will be tremendous change in who is left operating. In the next couple, or few, years you will see that and maybe not always just in the smaller markets. That’s a shame. Competition is healthy and I think good, strong, local broadcasters are very healthy for our business to be relevant, to be innovative. So it is a sad time, but I do think it will be very different in the not-so-distant future.
That said, I think we’ll survive. We have a great legacy, but we also have great innovators and creative minds and managers that will not accept anything but the best. That’s the fun part. There is tremendous opportunity and we feel optimism for the future.
People are still watching a lot of television. People are still looking desperately to connect locally. People are still relying on local broadcasters to give them relevant and important information that they can’t get from anybody else. There’s opportunity there. We just have to figure out how to reconfigure ourselves to respond to that need and to maximize local content on the three screens 24 hours a day.