JESSELL AT LARGE

Is Your News Tired? Check Out Vice, Newsy

For the most part, local newscasts were developed a half-century ago. It’s time for a renaissance. The typical newscast no longer resonates with many Americans, especially younger ones. That's why I’m intrigued by Scripps’ Newsy and am deeply curious about the nightly newscast that Vice is cooking up for HBO. All news directors should be, too.

Mel Kampmann died in July at the age of 85. That name might not mean much to most broadcasters, but he was a TV news innovator. As a news director at WPVI Philadelphia (then WFIL) in the mid-1960s, he introduced the Action News format characterized by a tightly scheduled rundown and strict time limits on packaged stories.

The “action” was in the fast pace and relatively large number of stories packed into a half hour. He also went with young talent led by Larry Kane.

Like most innovation, it was spurred by competition. Another hot shot by the name of Al Primo had gotten to Philadelphia before him where he rolled out his Eyewitness News format at KYW, allowing reporters to tell their own stories from the field or the newsroom and anchors show their personalities through a little comment and banter.

As they slugged it out in the market, Kampmann and Primo reinvented local TV news. Over the years, the formats have melded and many stations not only adopted the ideas of Kampmann and Primo, but also the Action News or Eyewitness News brands themselves.

News formats have evolved, mostly to take advantage of new technologies that have made news gathering and airing it live from the field increasingly easy and inexpensive. But they are much the same as in the days of Kampmann and Primo — 50 years ago.

And that is a problem.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

I and others have argued that it is time for a renaissance in local TV news. The standard newscast no longer resonates with many Americans, especially younger ones who stay current by checking the mini-computers in their pockets.

We don’t need a sweeping revolution. It seems that with 24 hours in a day, a TV station could devote just half of one to a newscast that is more youthful, more authentic, more engaged with the subjects of its stories.

That’s why I am deeply curious about the nightly newscast that Vice is cooking up for HBO. It will air live, each weekday, starting Oct. 10. (The debut had been set for Sept. 26, but Vice announced a two-week delay earlier this week.)

Vice has been teasing us. A couple of weeks ago, it posted a promo on Twitter and elsewhere that promised that Vice News Tonight would not be confused with the evening news of the Big Three. “NO ANCHORS. NO SPONSORS. NO CENSORS,” the graphics declared, while a movie-trailer voiceover promised “Journalism without the makeup” and “Truth without the talking heads” as video clips flew by.

This week, Josh Tyrangiel, the former Bloomberg TV exec who is overseeing the project, met with select reporters to announce the postponement and dole out a few more details on what Vice is up to.

Rather than provide a summary of the day’s news as the Big Three do, Tyrangiel said, Vice will choose stories that go beyond the news, that might complement what the Big Three air.

For instance, for a test program on Sept. 12, rather than doing another story on Clinton revealing she had pneumonia, Vice reported on how Paul Tsongas’s health became an issue when he ran in 1992.

But it seems that the difference-maker will be in the presentation, which will feature lots of graphics and background music. Tyrangiel said Saturday Night Live and Sesame Street are good examples of how you can relay information in non-verbal ways.

“If there’s a failure of news over the last couple of decades,” he said, “it’s that the presentation of news hasn’t changed much, and people’s expectations have been raised.”

Vice’s nightly newscast will spring from a well-established news organizations that boasts of hundreds of reporters spread across 34 bureaus around the world. To date, its most ambitious effort has been 60 Minutes knock-off that airs weekly on HBO.

The best way to get a feel for Vice News is simply to visit its website and start clicking around. You’ll quickly see what Vice does. I saw it described as “immersive journalism,” in which the reporters try to get as close as they can to their subjects and, in some cases, to the danger of their situation.

Some of it is rather conventional, too. Check out this interview with former CIA Director Michael Hayden.

The Vice newscast will comprise national news, but every local TV news director should tune in to see what it’s doing and try to surmise how it does it. At the very least, Vice should get them thinking about what’s possible.

Vice doesn’t have the lock on news innovation, by the way. I think Scripps’ Newsy is onto something. It breaks down the news into tightly produced segments of around a minute. Each is produced by a single reporter who generally appears at the beginning and end.

Not incidentally, the reporters all look like they are in their twenties. But in contrast to the Brooklyn hipsters of Vice, the Newsy reporters are invariably well dressed and groomed. They have a wholesome Midwestern look.

The beauty of Newsy is that you can watch it in two different ways. You can click on the Newsy icon on your Roku home page and just let the news segments wash over you — one after another — until you have exhausted all those produced yesterday. Just like regular TV.

Or, you can scroll through all of the segments and choose the ones you wish to see. What’s nice about them is that they will play well on a smartphone as well as on a smart TV.

This morning, I chose the passive approach, which was like watching a newscast with no anchors, with one exception. When I first clicked in, a fellow came on to offer quick takes on three stories not included in the day’s batch of segments.

I almost didn’t mind the single 30-second spots that popped up after every two news segments. Some of them were less than 30 seconds and seemed to go by fast. If there had been a variety of spots (I have no interest in a Toyota RAV4 despite that cute dog), I might not have minded at all.

Like Vice, Newsy is a national service, but I don’t see why the concept could not be repurpose for local news. However, I don’t suppose a station could afford both a regular and a Newsy-type staff working in parallel.

Now accounting for half a station’s revenue, news is becoming ever more important to the health and well-being of broadcasting.

It’s not enough anymore to look only for ways to do it more efficiently, sometimes you have to look for ways to do it differently as Kampmann and Primo did.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.


Comments (1)

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Fred E Walker says:

September 26, 2016 at 4:57 pm

Well said Harry. In a 24/7 news cycle it’s really tough to compete but I agree with you that most Local News formats and branding desperately need to be overhauled. I’ve visited a few hundred stations by now all over the U.S. when distributing my syndicated show and I can tell you the “On Your Side”, “News You Can Trust’, bla, bla is not only tired, it comes across as glib and doesn’t resonate with young viewers (no surprise there). But after having billions thrown at them as the so called “pied pipers” of Millennials, Vice has stumbled of late with the “Vice Land” channel offering and HBO Vice seems to have grown tired itself. I once was an avid viewer and fan of their HBO Show but now can’t bring myself to watch. Their coverage strikes me as pessimistic and leaves me feeling depressed or angered. There seems to be little balance in the coverage, the world is just one big problem after another and Vice is telling us about it. Their “hipper than thou” presenters can be annoying as well. That said, I think there is a real opportunity for local news. Studies have shown that viewers of 1/2 hour daily digests of news (i.e. Nightly Network News) are actually MORE informed than viewers of 24/7 cable news channels. And we all know cord cutting is having an impact and provides an opportunity for broadcasters if they will embrace it. Alas, I think like you that the answer is not MORE news but BETTER news presentation. I hope local stations will finally rise to the challenge.


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