Going Back To The Well To Boost TV News Audiences

Newsletters, documentaries, citizen journalism and better-quality UGC are driving better-engaged viewers in higher numbers to stations, leaders from Tegna, Graham Media and Sinclair said at a TVNewsCheck webinar last Friday, where they made clear that quality trumped novelty.

As broadcasters seek to grow linear and digital audiences, they’re finding that citizen journalists, user-generated content, long-form video and curated newsletters all help drive up numbers.

Creating unique content is a key part of bringing in viewers, but broadcasters want to connect and engage with those viewers. As such, they see social media platforms as critical for promotions and capable of generating revenue, but the ways in which broadcasters use social media have evolved, panelists said during TVNewsCheck’s Boosting Audience on Linear and Digital Working Lunch Webinar last Friday (Feb. 11).

Broadcasters are also using tools that bring viewers to broadcaster-owned destinations, such as streaming apps and station websites. And while broadcasters want viewer numbers to climb, the real prize is a growth in engaged viewer numbers.

Tegna’s NBC affiliate WXIA Atlanta’s Drawing Conclusions seeks out a skeptical person with strong opinions to serve as the citizen journalist asking questions about charged issues, such as vaccines, critical race theory and the 2022 election results.

Jennifer Rigby, WXIA news director, said transparency is critical to ensure the citizen journalist can trust the process.

“We want you to go through the process. We’re interested in your conclusion, whatever it is. We’re not trying to drive you one way or the other, we’re curious about where you wind up,” she said.


The process is aimed at expanding the conversation around a charged topic to help seek understanding, she said.

“It’s one thing to tell people you should get the vaccine,” Rigby said. “But when you take someone who was really concerned about it and really was skeptical and allow them to ask the questions and allow them to say, ‘I reached this conclusion because,’ it just has a much greater impact.”

The content has a long tail and has been aired multiple times and reached different audiences, she said. There is no shortage of topics, she added, but the packages are labor intensive because each involves 20 to 30 minute interviews with three or four experts.

A less labor-intensive way to involve viewers in the news gathering process is through user-generated content (UGC).

The Near Me UGC tool helps Tegna connect with loyalists who consume more content, said Joanie Vasiliadis, VP of digital content at Tegna.

“It’s not a quantity play,” she said. “This is a quality play … we’re looking for gems that can turn into great stories.”

The Near Me UGC tool allows viewers to send photos and videos from their phones to the Tegna app, where it can be moderated, tagged and sent to the content management system where it becomes available for use. The tool takes care of rights management.

UGC is helping “grow our loyal audience with unique content,” she said. “It makes them feel like they’re part of the news team.”

Sinclair is finding audience growth opportunities in documentary production. An anchor at the company’s ABC affiliate KOMO Seattle created a documentary called Seattle is Dying from existing content covering the city’s homelessness issue.

“It turned into an outstanding piece of journalism,” said Manny Fantis, senior director of digital news and publishing at Sinclair Broadcast Group. “It got tens of millions of views.”

The viewers ran the gamut of demographics on multiple platforms, he said.

“This was not about the platform. It’s about the content and the way we packaged it,” Fantis said. “No matter where we put it, it worked.”

Seattle isn’t the only Sinclair station to do well with a documentary. Sinclair’s WSYX Columbus, Ohio (ABC) , created The Core regarding the opioid epidemic. Fantis said it wasn’t the “bonanza” that the Seattle documentary was, but “it was still a smashing success.”

Graham Media’s WDIV Detroit (NBC) has been on a mission to grow its loyal audience and used curated newsletters to do so. Ken Haddad, special projects manager at WDIV, said the station sent out 70 million individual emails in 2021.

“What we found was the more newsletters we launched, the better relationships we were building with readers, and the better relationships we build, the better feedback we get, the better user-generated content we get and overall the better overall traffic we get from loyal users on a daily basis. The baseline on that has increased year after year,” he said.

The newsletters are no side project for busy journalists, he said. They are built into the workflow and require a team effort with everyone in the newsroom engaged in the effort rather than being a task for one or two people.

“Before, newsletters used to be a side project, which is why they never really grew. We never get to our side project, as everyone knows,” Haddad said.

WDIV has three dozen curated newsletters on topics ranging from sports to fact checking to the climate to parenting and other “existing interests we knew our audience cared about,” he said.

Most of the people who find out about WDIV’s Insider membership program are newsletter readers rather than television watchers, he noted.

Apryl Pilloli, head of product and innovation at Social News Desk, said tools like Dynamic News Ads (DNA) can help stations find audiences through content that resonates with them and sending those users to the station’s owned properties. For example, she said, users could be directed to sign up for one of WDIV’s newsletters to access more content.

It’s possible to “drive down costs by a third using this technology to get people to engage,” Pilloli said.

And because it takes readers to a station’s owned properties, they get the engagement there, rather than on un-owned social media platforms.

“It helps you control that relationship,” Pilloli said.

When it comes to social media platforms, Tegna has “released ourselves from feeling frustrated about Facebook and the changing algorithms,” Vasiliadis said.

Instead of worrying about how to find audiences through Facebook, she said, the concern is “how can I protect our organization, our journalists, our audience, from a security standpoint, a harassment standpoint, a misinformation standpoint?”

YouTube, for instance, is higher on Tegna’s social media value chain than Facebook is, she said.

YouTube “teaches us workflows that set us up for success on other important platforms,” Vasiliadis said.

For instance, she said, it helps them think about things like optimizing video and doing longer-form content, which is a “great way to be set up for streaming success.”

Fantis said Sinclair focuses on remembering tools are just that – tools – and that the goal is to bring audiences back to the Sinclair platforms.

It’s important to “use every tool for the strength it has. Don’t put it all on one place. Don’t go all in, especially on a third party,” he said.

While Google and YouTube are important, he said, they are “still just a tool. Our platform comes first.”

Streaming is a major priority for many broadcasters.

Haddad said WDIV has launched a 10 p.m. streaming-only newscast.

Tegna plans to launch 24-7 streaming soon, Vasiliadis said.

“We’ve done a lot of work to set us up for success, and some things we had to undo,” she said.

The focus, she added, is on what the audience wants to experience from Tegna’s stations when they stream content. As such, the broadcaster won’t “just put our website content on streaming” but will seek to include long-form content.

Fantis said Sinclair has a lot of content for which streaming is a “natural place for those to go.”

Another tool broadcasters are using relies on the power of artificial intelligence.

Futuri’s Topic Pulse helps broadcasters understand their local audience through data from social media.

“The only way to harness that data and make it useful is through AI,” said Tim Wolff, VP of TV and digital publishing innovation at Futuri.

He said research the company did with hundreds of broadcast leaders revealed that the No. 1 place newsrooms got their story ideas from was social media.

Topic Pulse formats and filters data, making it easier for newsrooms to see “what everyone in the community cares about,” Wolff said.

As broadcasters use these various tools to grow their audiences, they are keeping certain things in mind.

Fantis said, audience growth numbers broke records at the outset of the pandemic, and that kind of growth isn’t necessarily sustainable.

“It’s the value of the growth” that really matters, he said.

And the industry is in a “very experimental time” when it comes to audience metrics, Wolff said.

Part of that is that the industry is no longer just relying on Nielson ratings to track audience numbers, he said.

The growth in digital and the roll out of ATSC 3.0, will make it possible to better track audiences, which will help broadcasters do a better job of selling products in a way that is better for advertisers, he said.

“We can finally get to a point where we’re not estimating who’s watching,” Wolff said.

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