WSLS, Media General’s NBC affiliate in Roanoke, Va. (DMA 67), and WRDW, Gray Television’s CBS affiliate in Augusta, Ga. (DMA 114), are both integrating online social networking into newscasts in hopes of better engaging viewers and getting a better handle on what’s going on in their communities. I give these two stations points for innovation, but others are skeptical about the push to mix social networking tools into the newscast.
Try this experiment.
Use the word “innovation” in a conversation with your friends working in local TV newsrooms.
Ask them: Who’s innovating in local television news? But, when you ask, be prepared to duck.You might just get poked.
For some, innovation is a dirty word, a euphemism for consolidation and cuts.
If you ask around, who’s innovating in local news, as I did, here’s what you’ll get.
“Sad to say, I can’t think of a single station that’s doing anything innovative with regard to on air product,” says a consultant who wants to remain anonymous so he can “still put bread on the table and pay off his kids’ college loans.”
“Stations are moving to content centers and changing the way they operate technically, e.g., one-man bands, hubbing and using the Internet for live reporting. The creative part of local television news has turned into finding creative ways to eliminate expense.”
You can hear the same cynicism in this e-mailed response from another unnamed media executive: “Innovation? It’s about consolidation; single stations running multiple stations. Live shots with one-man bands are the next ‘innovation.’ “
OK, a lot of what is passed off as innovation is really just hard-pressed owners trying to make do with less. But some of it isn’t.
There are GMs and NDs out there who at least are trying. They’re taking risks, experimenting with new approaches in how they present the news and gather larger audiences.
Here are two: WSLS, Media General’s NBC affiliate in Roanoke, Va. (DMA 67), and WRDW, Gray Television’s CBS affiliate in Augusta, Ga. (DMA 114).
Both are integrating online social networking into newscasts in hopes of better engaging viewers and getting a better handle on what’s going on in their communities.
Last week, WSLS launched a new 7 p.m. newscast that mixes in feedback from e-mails, text messages and comments posted on the station’s Twitter and Facebook pages.
“We want this to be a two-way conversation,” News Director Melissa Prease told me right before the launch. “We get tons of phone calls and e-mails [from] people who have something to say about what’s going on in their local communities. This is just going to give them a platform to say it.
“We’re not going to just spout the news at folks,” she continued. “We’re going to give them a chance to say, ‘here’s something we want to know, can you help us out?’ And we’ll find out the answers for them in a very interactive way. We’ll be live chatting throughout the entire newscast. We’ll take calls. We’ll update Facebook and Twitter, all at the same time. It’s live.”
WRDW is putting social networking to work throughout its broadcast day. “I’m not sure how innovative or original this is, but we’re taking advantage of the different platforms out there,” said Estelle Parsley, director of news and production.
“We use some social media interaction, Facebook, in our morning news and in our 6 and 11 o’clock newscasts,” she said. “Surprisingly, some of the most loyal following is what we get at 11 o’clock at night.”
Parsley said that the introduction of the social networking elements was not part of a calculated strategy. “Without any fanfare, I asked the anchors to mention during the 6 o’clock newscast that we were up and running on Facebook and [to] ‘friend’ us. They mentioned it once, and by the end of the week a couple hundred people had ‘friended’ our anchors and were talking back and forth, commenting about the newscasts.”
Viewers are accustomed to having stations saying “we’re so great, watch us,” according to Parsley. With Facebook, she said, WRDW is trying to develop a more personal relationship. “We can be interactive where they [viewers] feel free to talk to us and make our newsroom folks more approachable to the community.”
During one 11 o’clock newscast, Facebook attracted 165 comments, Parsley noted.
“I had a general manager at another station say, ‘Don’t you think this is going to cannibalize your traditional station Web site?’ Maybe, but I can’t remember any story getting 165 comments for the time it was up there [on the site], let alone 165 people commenting on something during the newscast at 11 o’clock,” Parsley said.
I give these two stations points for innovation, but others are skeptical about the push to mix social networking tools into the newscast.
“The surge to innovate in local news has fallen mostly to adapting current content to multiple platforms,” said Steve Cohen, news director at KUSI San Diego.
“Innovation is not in the platform, but in the generation of stories that strike at the themes that compel consideration by the community. Putting unique information and stories on platforms enhances your branded identity, but the same stories done the same way by all news outlets in a market provides no benefit.”
To Cohen, innovation comes when stations broaden their purview. “I had hoped for an expansion of content, say, into science, arts or education. But most features are decades old.”
Cohen is certainly right. It’s hard to argue with the goal — breadth of content. But isn’t one way of doing that by opening a dialogue with viewers?
WSLS’s Prease thinks so. “Viewers want to have a say. Sometimes we don’t know best, they do. Having a two-way conversation with our audience will help us get to a more common goal, rather than us assuming everyday when we meet at 9 o’clock in our editorial meeting that this is what everyone needs to know about today.”
Tom Petner is an award-winning journalist and former local TV news and Internet executive. Most recently, he was editor of the broadcast industry newsletter, ShopTalk, and director of the Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab at Temple University. His column, Air Check, is all about local TV news and appears every other Monday in TVNewsCheck. He invites comment and ideas. He can be reached at [email protected]