Many factors contribute to success at local news operations. Each of my positions over the years afforded me the opportunity to look at content and presentation and distribution through a changing series of lenses. This period also coincided with the tsunami disruptions to mainstream media, especially the birth and growth of social. Here’s a baker’s dozen of suggestions gleaned from life lessons over the years.
Until my most recent stint as VP-news director at Tribune’s flagship New York station, WPIX, the last time I ran a local news operation was in the late 1990s.
In the period since, I’ve had the great fortune to work in leadership positions across different media: VP of news for the then-Post-Newsweek (now Graham Media) station group, VP of daytime programming and breaking news at MSNBC, president and COO of a digital media company, and executive producer of public radio’s The Takeaway.
Each of those positions afforded me the opportunity to look at content and presentation and distribution through a changing series of lenses. This period also coincided with the tsunami disruptions to mainstream media, especially the birth and growth of social.
Returning to a local newsroom early last year was like returning to a childhood home after many decades and many owners: It kind of looked the same, but everything about it was different.
Yet, through a series of changes in focus, content, talent and presentation, we were able to move the meter (literally) in the largest U.S media market. From August 2013 to August 2014, we lifted the news from the bottom of the New York ratings barrel to a competitive position.
We also boosted our digital readership and became competitive in awards, winning our first regional Murrow Award in over a decade, and racking accolades for our investigative reporting and our anchoring.
When I say “we” I mean teams of professionals across the station working collaboratively. This is no longer a business for go-it-alone cowboys.
Many factors contribute to success, of course, but I started to think about the overarching themes that emerged from this most recent experience. I offer a baker’s dozen of life lessons:
1. As ever, know your audience. The days of one-size-fits-all journalism are over. Targeting journalism for a public radio audience, as I did for The Takeaway is no different in concept than targeting journalism for a local news audience.
2. Spend good money on good research. Don’t go cheap. Micro-targeted research is much better than off-the-rack research.
3. Know when to ignore said research. As helpful and insightful as good research can be, providing a potential road map of how to get to your destination, don’t ever let research replace your experience and your gut. If you think local investigative reporting will benefit your audience, don’t look to research to validate that belief.
4. Sometimes, simple things can make a big difference. We had a brilliant digital leader, but his team wasn’t where the action was — the assignment desk. Once we rectified that, we instantly saw movement on digital numbers.
5. Go after your weakest competition. When I worked for Post-Newsweek in Detroit back in the ’80s, that meant going after the No. 2 station in essentially a three-station news market. But New York in 2014 was different and way more complex. WABC still ruled the roost, but there was a muddled middle beneath WABC. Fox was dominant in the mornings, but less so in the evenings. By making improvements in journalism, presentation and talent; by being aggressive on breaking news; and by super-serving our core audience, we were able to move ourselves into the middle tier faster than we anticipated.
6. Don’t be afraid of failing. Not everything you do will work, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take chances. In our case, some of the well-intentioned talent moves with terrific people didn’t work, but others did. If you believe in something, stick with it, even if you don’t see immediate results, and even when there are naysayers, internal and external.
7. Ignore the naysayers. With social media and the blogosphere, everybody has an opinion, and it can get nasty. It doesn’t matter as long as you have management support.
8. Treasure the really good people. It’s always easy to come in and clean house. That often buys new news execs time. But, over the years I’ve discovered it is infinitely more satisfying and more fruitful to find those people already in your organization who may have been overlooked, or considered over- the-hill and help reenergize them by creating new franchises and new beats. Show veterans some love. It makes a difference.
9. Don’t obsess over your failures, but quickly correct them and move on.
10. Don’t think of digital and broadcast as separate entities. It’s journalism playing on different platforms offering unique ways to tell stories. As we started to pay much closer attention to Facebook as the product improved, we discovered increased engagement.
11. Personalities still matter. While we are past the era of mega broadcast anchors who can command huge audience shares every time they show up on a newscast, incisive, smart, personable anchors who connect with their audiences and each other, who understand equally how to communicate on TV and how to connect authentically over social channels, can still make a difference.
12. Chemistry on TV — as in a laboratory — is hit-and-miss. Despite all of the testing and research, you can’t anticipate if a new team will have “it.” And, you won’t know right away if you have a team capable of success. Show patience, which is counter intuitive to the insta-world we operate in. Those mega personalities of yesterday only became that by daily reach and frequency. Both are harder to achieve today. Give things time to marinate.
13. In this age of giant companies owning dozens and dozens of stations, there’s a thin line between seeking consensus among a large group of internal stakeholders, and having to contend with too many cooks with veto power.
Mark Effron is a veteran media executive, strategist and consultant. He can be reached at [email protected]