The group owner in the Northwest is positioning itself for the future by establishing a series of neighborhood blogs to grow the stations’ brands and extend the reach of their journalism. For advertisers, it can target geographically, attracting sponsors, many of which never advertised on TV. Reporters all have iPhones to shoot and send back pictures as their stories develop.
Years ago, cartoonist Al Capp created a fictional place called Dogpatch and peopled it with an assortment of colorful characters. Unfortunately, Capp is long gone. But I’m convinced he’s the guy behind some of the new local Web sites.
Can’t you imagine characters like Li’l Abner and Evil-Eye Fleegle popping up in Patch, TheLocal, Maplewoodian, Outside.in, Everyblock and Placeblogger?
While some of these sites might have cartoon-like sounding names, they’re no joke and very real. These sites are part of a new news paradigm — think global, act hyperlocal — in distributing news and information.
A couple weeks ago, a friend and former colleague, Kent Krizik at NewsProNet, told me about the efforts of one media company that’s on the leading edge of this paradigm shift. It’s the Seattle-based Fisher Communications, which has a rich history of innovation.
The company started in 1910 as a family-owned flour mill and later bought a radio station as a way to market its products. Flash forward almost 100 years. Fisher now owns and operates a couple dozen TV and radio stations. In August, it used its Seattle TV station, KOMO, as a springboard for a hyperlocal platform of 44 neighborhood blogs in and around the city.
KOMO Communities links together neighborhood content, local bloggers and user-generated material from viewers/users. Working with partner DataSphere Technologies, KOMO can geographically target advertising to those neighborhoods.
Troy McGuire, vice president of news and general manager of Fisher’s Interactive Network, explained the KOMO Communities strategy to me this way: “From a broadcast perspective, this superserves the market, and the blogs — I would really call them community pages — are a way to take your existing television content and put it in a place we know they care about — and that’s their neighborhood.”
McGuire says it’s all about growing the station’s brand and extending the reach of its journalism. “As an industry, we struggle to reach our viewers and our users; this is about being relevant where they live. We’re really trying to establish that hyperlocal community voice.”
This hyperlocal approach has some real benefits in the daily news flow, especially for those of us who have worked on the assignment desk and have tried to figure out — more likely thrown out — the constant flood of press releases, handouts and the seemingly insignificant community announcements.
“My mantra now is, don’t throw anything away anymore. Save every single press release, every announcement about a community event,” McGuire says. “Funnel it all to the neighborhood site, because it’s relevant to that neighborhood even though it may not be relevant to our entire DMA.”
There was another initiative that may have also helped to sell the hyperlocal concept to the KOMO newsroom staff. The station bought iPhones for every photographer and reporter. They can shoot and send back pictures to the station along with four or five sentences about what’s going on as their stories develop.
These work-in-progress elements flow right into the neighborhood sites. If the story is big enough, it’s published in a larger way on the KOMONews.com Web site and on the station’s newscasts.
“We did a lot of explaining, a lot of coaching on the rollout,” McGuire says. “The iPhones went a long way because you don’t need a computer, a laptop for this. The easier you make it on the technology front for people to create this content and still do the jobs they’re used to doing, that’s kind of the secret.”
The newsroom is being asked to “start the conversation” at 9 a.m. and not wait for the next — or evening — newscasts, he says. “We like them to build their story throughout the day — writing about it — and then people get to see the finished product at 4 or 5 p.m.
“If I’m at work, I’m never going to know a news crew is in my neighborhood. But if they send back five lines and a picture about a story they’re working on, and post it on the neighborhood site, you have a better shot of them watching you at 5 or 6 o’clock. When they get home they’re going to want to watch the finished product.”
The concept has some potential drawbacks, particularly when it comes to user-generated content and maintaining newsroom standards.
McGuire tells me that was a big concern for the staff. But “J-school 101 rules still apply,” he says. “Anything contributed from a UGC perspective gets vetted. Nothing gets posted automatically from a user-generated content submission.”
An interesting content slice of the “KOMO Communities” content strategy includes user-generated content from a partnership the station has with a local company, Windermere Real Estate and its agents.
McGuire says he got the idea to include the realtors at a block party when he was speaking to several agents. “It occurred to me that they drive around all day. They all have cameras. And they’re obviously the most knowledgeable about the neighborhoods and what’s going on.”
So McGuire went to Windemere and formalized the relationship with one caveat: the agents can’t write about real estate so their contributions are not in advertising. While the participation level varies, he says, it has been a positive part of the neighborhood setup.
Now what about the money? What about advertisers?
Fisher, working with DataSphere, developed a technology platform to help KOMO geo-target advertising. It’s paid off, says McGuire.
“It’s safe to say in Seattle that we’ve added hundreds of new clients, small businesses that would have never advertised on television…. A lot of small businesses can’t afford TV and broadcasters have never really had product that caters to those small businesses. “
The effort has been so successful for that the company has replicated the hyperlocal approach at its stations in Oregon. KATU Portland launched 28 sites and KVAL Eugene added 10.
Fisher and its hyperlocal approach come at a time when many stations are trying to figure out their new media and Web strategy. According to the the latest RTNDA/Hofstra study, of the news directors surveyed, only 38 percent are comfortable that their stations are really on top of new technology and interested in producing news across multiple platforms.
“Clearly stations have a long way to go in figuring this out,” says the survey’s author Bob Papper, chairman of journalism department.
The survey found that just under 14 percent of the news director say they are just winging it, he says. “If we were more honest, 90 percent would say we’re just winging it because we are.”
But what’s reassuring from the survey is people are now working hard to understand the Web and put it to good use, Papper says. “We’re making our Web sites bigger, more complex. We’re putting more stuff in it. We’re updating it. We’re doing mobile and we’re doing it in the midst of the biggest staff reduction we’ve ever had in the industry.
“I can remember when I did research and people were saying ‘this is just a nuisance and an aggravation and it’s interfering with what I need to be doing.’ That attitude is long gone.”
Indeed, talking to the folks at Fisher, you get the sense they’re on the road to figuring it out.
You also get a sense of clarity and vision with their hyperlocal neighborhood approach and its importance to the company’s digital strategy.
The hyperlocal kickoff at KOMO Seattle and its move into the Oregon markets are just opening acts of a strategy to replicate it elsewhere and syndicate it to other broadcast groups. In fact, McGuire says, Fisher is in talks with several other large broadcast groups, although he wouldn’t say which ones.
“We still believe we’re a television station and that’s the brand that we’ve created and supported for 50 years,” McGuire says.
“But, as broadcasters, what our brand is now and what our brand is five years from now could be vastly different. We have an advantage right now. It’s our duty to convince our users, our viewers, that we’re relevant, and you can’t get more relevant than going to their neighborhood level.
“We have to experiment and we have to try new stuff. That’s the only way we’re going to grow audience.”
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].