With 13 TV stations in small and medium markets, Quincy Newspapers Inc. is not sitting still as new economic and media realities charge forward. Dennis Kendall, director of broadcast news, is overseeing the group’s broadcast news departments to find solutions for the various challenges new media and social networking bring to the daily news mix.
Despite its name, Quincy Newspapers Inc. is more of a broadcaster than a newspaper publisher. While it publishes two newspapers, it operates 13 TV stations and two radio stations in small- and medium-size markets in six states.
Like other station groups, it has been reorganizing itself to meet the challenges of the economy and relentless competition from cable and the Internet. On the news side of that effort is Dennis Kendall, director of broadcast news.
Kendall joined Quincy in mid-2008 from the Coaching Co., a Dallas-based news and promotion firm. Kendall started out as a broadcast journalist in the Navy, and landed a job as a reporter and then anchor in Flint, Mich. He went on to become a news director in several markets including Des Moines, Iowa; Tucson, Ariz.; Green Bay, Wis.; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck Contributing Editor Tom Petner, Kendall talks about QNI’s reorganization of its broadcast news departments, and the challenges new media and social networking bring to the daily news mix.
An edited transcript:
You’ve been a news director in a few markets. Have newsrooms changed a lot over the time since you became a news director, over the last 10 or 15 years?
There are so many ways in which they are the same and so many ways in which they are just so massively different. It’s still a newsroom and it’s still people who live and breathe that kind of a lifestyle, so that’s still the same. You still hear the scanners. You still hear the same very similar kinds of conversations. The deadlines are still there, the clock is still ticking. Those things are all the same.
But there are a lot of differences in how you conduct business and there are huge differences in how the newsrooms are organized. At QNI [Quincy] we began reengineering our news departments back in July. It’s been pretty profound and we’re in the middle of it as we speak, literally companywide. We’re certainly not alone in the industry in making this change.
Television newsrooms were designed and organized to generate product only at key times of the day — 5, 6, 10 and 11 o’clock — and the staff was designed with specialty positions in order to accommodate that. When you have a three- or a four-screen world — I would say four screens only because you really have to add social networking media in there as well as Web and mobile with your broadcasts –once you add that into the mix, you discover newsrooms really weren’t set up for that and never have been. It became obvious to us that we had to be able to generate content all the time. Your staff has to be 24/7, 365 days a year. The lights never go off in a newsroom.
With that change, that sense of every minute is a deadline, has it shifted what you’re looking for in the way of today’s managers to run your newsrooms?
We have realigned the top end of our departments with respect to having, in most cases, an assistant news director, someone I would call the content manager. It’s a key manager whose job is to widen and deepen the focus of the content that’s being generated from the street and from our various content sources. It’s someone who can turn around and make immediate decisions. Do we pop a Tweet on that right story now? Does it go into Facebook right now or do we put it onto a Web site right now?
It’s a shift away from a deadline mentality that was driven by those evening newscasts. It’s a shift from being newscast-centric to being story-centric. So instead of the focus of the organization being about the next newscast, the focus of the organization is about each of the stories that we’re working on right now, how we develop them and in what venue.
That approach reminds me of the AR&D book, Live. Local. Broken News. The Re-Engineering of Local TV. Do you subscribe to their approach?
Yes, I do. They’ve done some very good thinking along this line. We are shifting to MJs in all of our markets. At least that’s what we’re calling them, MJs or multimedia, multiplatform journalists. We are shifting how we communicate information from the field, so that it’s coming into the newsroom on a much more aggressive basis, so that it can be distributed as it becomes available.
We’re having interesting success and interesting challenges with it. We’ve gone from Web sites that were a year ago generating 200 stories per month to several that are now generating over a 1,000 stories a month. We are updating content on our Web sites so rapidly in a couple of our test markets that information that was news this morning is being pushed off to the bottom of the pile by late this afternoon. That’s actually too fast sometimes. I have to rethink how the Web sites shift material off the bottom, what falls off the plate and when.
You have talked about Facebook and Twitter. Is social networking a way to deal with audience fragmentation?
It’s too early to tell, but we would hope so. We are conscious of getting out as much content through every venue as we can and we are measuring interests in every way that we can. The good news here is that there is specificity with how you can measure usage on your Web sites, on mobile, on Facebook, on Twitter and so on. It is much greater than what we have in television. We can watch it grow. But they certainly are not the numbers that remotely compete with the massive audience that watches our traditional broadcasts over the air.
You have NBC, Fox and ABC affiliates. That puts you in a unique position when dealing with the Leno factor. It must be odd developing a certain strategy for the NBC stations and then going to your Fox stations looking for a counter-strategy to what NBC is doing. What are your expectations on Leno?
I don’t know that any of us out had any real and clear expectations of what Leno would and wouldn’t do. Leno is just an experiment on the part of the network. It is a short destination while people are surfing away from their other shows. NBC’s position here was certainly a gamble for us. So far what’s occurred is what was expected. What has occurred is that primetime lead-in numbers to our newscasts have dropped dramatically from what they were in the past. NBC’s position has been that we’re going to give you a more news savvy, news interested audience. We’ll see.
Now take off your NBC hat and put on your Fox hat. What strategy have you taken to deal with Leno from a Fox affiliate point-of-view?
That part is really pretty easy. The Leno show is very formatically-driven. It’s breaking at predictable times. It has content in predictable places. To say we’re counter programming is obvious. We were very interested in when NBC was going to go to that first break because we’re sure not going to be in a break at that time.
I spoke to Bob Papper from Hofstra, who does research for the RTDNA and Bob told me that he was surprised at the high level of negativism in the newsrooms among the managers. What’s your take on it? How do you feel about where the business is right now?
There’s certainly a ton of it out there and I can’t speak for the industry and wouldn’t pretend to. But inside of QNI we’ve had a very aggressive meeting on this topic with a whole bunch of managers this summer. I told them, look, we can die the death of a thousand cuts if we stay as traditional broadcasters or we can get savvy about something that we do really well, which is generating and presenting and distributing content. We just need to be savvy about making sure we’re pushing it out in whatever venue — whatever pipe — the audience is most interested in. Then we’re going to be just fine.
Is it fair to say what Bob Papper found is accurate? Have you found the negativity in your own newsrooms?
I would put it this way. The news directors in our group are terrific and I am delighted with them all. Had we not been able to come to terms with where we were going, then I would expect them to be deeply concerned, and who wouldn’t. But we like the plan that we have and we stand strongly behind it and we are moving as rapidly as we can to embrace it group-wide.
That has certainly created quite a contrary environment to what you’re asking about. I’m not getting a lot of negativity. I’m getting almost no push back. What I’m getting instead — and I was in every one of the stations within the last six weeks — is excitement. I’m getting a very aggressive embracing of where we’re going and how powerful that can be. We’ve been able to circumvent a lot of negativity by having a clear plan about where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.
You are one of perhaps a dozen or so news executives at the group level. What’s your approach? Are you heavily involved in the local newsrooms and decision making or do you have a hands-off attitude?
It depends on the circumstance, but I’m pretty involved. I tend to be more involved in the organizational restructuring and the people that can best make that work. The reorganization or reengineering of our newsrooms we’re currently going through is not something that you could just rubber stamp across a group.
If you have a small market, or a medium market, the staff sizes are different, the levels of proficiency of the staffs are different, existing organizations are different and so you really have to be involved. In a role like mine, you have to have a larger view of where we’re going and how we need to function in respect to the final product.
Do you find your news directors reaching out to you when they’re stuck on an issue? How do they relate and talk to you?
Our news directors are smart folks and they reach out in a lot of different directions. They certainly reach out to me aggressively. But one of the things they do when they’ve got a question about something in real time, they shoot out an e-mail to all their brethren, all the other news directors in our group. Here’s the circumstance, here’s my question. What do you think? The responses come hard and fast and it is a wonderful way to get a lot of smart thinking into that one newsroom really fast. If you stop and think about it, conversation is how humans think together and this is what we’re doing.
When they do need me, they’re in contact, whether it’s an e-mail or by cell phone or whatever. I am in all the stations on a very regular basis. We get together as a group on a fairly regular basis. We do conference calls, webinars and that kind of thing on an as-needed basis. We communicate a lot.
We’re living in some tough times. We’re in the middle of a horrible recession. Have you had to cut budgets? Have you had to reduce news personnel?
At Quincy, we’ve been as much as possible pro-active instead of reactive. We saw it coming. That’s a big, big part of it. When you see a storm cloud coming, you need to close the windows before it gets to you. We were lean going in. We did some layoffs, but they were minimal. We did furloughs after that because we didn’t want to cut any deeper into any organizations that may have already been affected and we really watched our pennies. We’ve just been watching everything very, very closely.
[The recession] also happens to coincide with the very point in time when broadcasters need to change how we invent, how we are organized, what we produce and when we produce it. So part of being proactive is not just being fiscally responsible, it’s also about being organizationally proactive.
A real hot button is the subject of VJs and multimedia journalism. What is Quincy doing in that area?
Multitasking is a must. VJs in our minds are a given. We have already done it. We had already been through it in our smaller markets and in our medium markets. We’re calling them MJs, multiplatform or multimedia journalists, but it’s the same thing. The only difference I would say is that an MJ, by our definition, is somebody who is capable of posting in any venue. Our MJs, even in our larger markets, are very active during the course of their gathering day. When they’re out there on the street, they’re posting information that’s going right to our site. They’re sending back pictures on their cell phones. They’re doing all kinds of stuff that goes out immediately through our various venues
So, to us, it’s a given. It’s where we’ve been; it’s where we’re going. I was in a staff meeting in one of our smaller markets and I had the whole newsroom get together with me and I said, hey, out of my own curiosity: How many of you think that one-man bands or MJs are only for smaller markets? I did not get a single hand. They know. They know this is where our industry is going and the truth is they really don’t have any trouble with that. They’re fine with it. They get what’s happening and that’s a good part of the reason that in the reorganization the push back has been almost nonexistent.
The pace of broadcasting and newsrooms has really picked up. You’re effectively chasing a deadline every hour because you have so many components. Has it created problems in terms of the ethical structure of your newsrooms?
That’s why we’ve taken such inordinate care in how we fill our management positions because there’s never been a time where we have to be more careful, more prudent, more conservative about the content itself. Whether we broadcast something in six hours or publish it on our site in the next five seconds, we have to know it’s right and so we’re putting heightened pressure on managers via these kind of issues.
We’re putting heightened pressure on our journalistic standards. The things that we had learned early on in our professional lives about how to be good journalists are not less true today. We have to pay more attention to them, not less. Is the information we have truly correct and are we certain of it? Is the material that we’re putting out in whatever venue properly attributed and are we being properly transparent about who those sources are?
Are we expecting too much of news managers today? Can they be all things to all people? Among everything else, they’ve got to be the ethics gods, if you will, and the mavens of the budget.
If you leave the organization the way it still is in most television stations in the United States today, then the news director is in a very dangerous, certainly in a very precarious, circumstance. In the environment that we’re creating at QNI, the news director is not alone. That news director has got a very strong No. 2 whose sole task is to properly develop the concept and distribute it as it should be.
We’re redefining all of our senior positions and we don’t think anchors should be anchors anymore. They are our senior journalists and we need to employ them that way. They’re not just readers. They are people that need to be deeply involved in the big stories. So, if we’re mustering our assets properly, we are putting a lot of experienced people touching each and every one of our stories.