Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy explains his vision for transforming local TV news. That vision includes more engaged anchors, non-traditional formats, more reliance on multimedia journalists and investigative reporters, sharing of news resources and deeper integration of social media. Read Part One of this two-part Q&A here.
Chasing The Next Big Thing In Local TV News
Yesterday, in Part I of a two-part interview, Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy talked about business, mobile TV and syndication.
Today, he shares his vision for transforming local TV news in ways that he hopes will make it more competitive with cable and the Web. That vision includes more engaged anchors, non-traditional formats, more reliance on multimedia journalists and investigative reporters, sharing of news resources and deeper integration of social media.
An edited transcript:
For the past few months, you have been going around saying that local TV news needs a top-to-bottom makeover. Make your case.
The days of Ron Burgundy are over — the days of looking into the teleprompter to know what to say. The problem is, we have consultants in this industry who watched that movie and didn’t get the joke.
I always say to people, in what other medium do you have people doing the same thing at the same time using the same format in every single market.
It’s a male-female anchor team — can’t be two males, can’t be one, can’t be two female anchors — then five, six stories; same format.
In any market you go to, the No. 3 guy wants to be like the No. 1 guy, the No. 2 guy wants to be the No. 1 guy and the No. 1 guy is like why should we change. So you have this sameness based on economics and consultants and a fear of change.
The problem is that technology changes things and so, suddenly, people are used to depth, they’re used to diversity, they’re used to timeliness, they’re used to context and they can get all that on cable and on the Web. So, this industry is kind of moving further and further behind.
So, what’s your answer?
What we’re trying to do in news is based on the idea that virtually every media that I can think of over the last seven or eight years has evolved and it has evolved largely because of the complexity and competition from the Web.
The most obvious example I suppose of what you are trying to do is Chasing New Jersey, the non-traditional 10 o’clock newscast on WWOR New York. Do you think it’s working and do you think it could work elsewhere?
Absolutely. I think it’s doing really well. We’re breaking stories and we’re giving you some perspective. It’s kind of like when you see a story on the web and then you see some really interesting comments. There’s a lot more depth and context. We’re real happy with it.
But it’s an evolution. “The Wrap” part of it we’re still working on. We created it because if something breaks in the last two or three hours before the show, we wanted to make sure we had it. A local show for the iPad news junkie — that’s what I hoped to do. Are we there yet? No, but a lot about it I like.
The critics says that you’re simply trying to save money by outsourcing the news.
I’m not outsourcing it.
Well, didn’t you outsource it to a production company [Dennis Bianchi’s Fairfax Productions]?
Yeah, but I know them. I would say there’s nothing wrong with saving money, but that’s not why I’m doing it.
Is the Chasing format it or are you going to be doing other things to reinvent the news?
We’re doing a lot. Chasing New Jersey is an obvious example because we really started from scratch. They shoot stories on their smartphones, they do lock shots on their smartphones, they Skype into the show. So, it’s a combination of a lot of innovative technologies and structures in which to do news. However, we are also doing that kind of thing at almost all of our stations in different ways.
You are critical of the traditional anchor. What would you like to see the anchor doing?
We have got much more interaction with the anchors reporting, talking, questioning versus just pure reading. That’s why in that speech [at the 21st Century Fox investors conference in August] I said we’re retiring the anchorman. I got calls from people who were freaking out.
What I meant was we’re retiring the person whose sole skill is reading and chatting with the weatherman about the weekend. We now need people who can interview, who can stop and question.
We haven’t got into one person anchors so much yet, but you can actually do that. Jon Stewart’s doing it. Shepherd Smith’s doing it. It can be done.
We’ve also been cutting down on packages and doing more live. Here in New York, we’re more likely to do an anchor setting up a story in a short video and then Q&A or just using sound bites for witnesses. So we’re trying to reinvent that sort of mag-driven format that hasn’t changed in 30 years.
I also like the idea of reporters researching, shooting and editing their own stories. That way, you get a kind of depth and authenticity. You break the mold when one person controls the story from beginning to end and is accountable. You get that on the Web.
What about more personality or opinion in the news?
Absolutely. If you’re writing a column, you’re putting your personality in it, it’s distinct. If I went online and I read all the articles, I could tell yours. In our business, the anchors — I mean you should see the tapes — they look the same, they sound the same and they’re reading someone else’s words.
Should we expect a more informal style as we see in Chasing?
I don’t know whether you would call it more informal, but it’s more free flowing.
Can you give me some other examples of some of the things you are doing today to revamp your newscasts?
In Chicago [WFLD], we have got sort of three people really. We’ve got two anchors and then Robin Robinson comes in with her special reports.
In Houston [KRIV] we’re doing something that’s gotten a lot of attention. Two people come on and they argue [Fox Faceoff]. Yeah, they do that on cable, but it’s sometimes an effective way of communicating.
In Detroit [WJBK], we’ve hired [former New York Times reporter] Charlie LeDuff. He has broken every major story. So what I want to do is hire — and we have got some that we are about to announce soon — some investigative reporters from major newspapers because I think it’s easier to teach someone to do TV than it is to teach someone to be a good writer, a good storyteller, a good reporter. So, as newspapers thin out, it will give us an opportunity to pick up some really talented reporters.
There’s a way of bringing in people who are not necessarily Magid-style reporters with blow-dried hair, but who have sources, who get the stories and possess the kind of passion that Charlie has.
The last time I did one of these interview with you it was in 2008 with John Wallace who was running the NBC O&Os at the time. You were talking about your plan to combine local news resources for coverage of routine events. Since then, NBC has backed out of that arrangement as it tries to rejuvenate its newscasts. Are you still committed to such arrangements?
Oh absolutely. I mean when NBC dropped out, CBS jumped right in in most of their markets. They see the value of it. I could never understand why someone would want to spend resources getting the same picture that someone else was getting.
To me, the idea that you need to send four people to cover a press conference where the only difference between one station’s view and the other is about two feet is crazy. It’s allowed us to go out and do more independent reporting.
Has it? How do we know that this isn’t just another way to save money. Are you doing more enterprise reporting?
It’s allowed us to do that, and it changes the focus of the newsroom. It just like AP that allows a print publication to not run around and cover the same thing that everybody else does. We have got some good partners in CBS and Gannett.
Some groups like Hearst have refused to get involved in such arrangements, suggesting that they strengthen the competition and take away some of their autonomy.
By sharing the basic generic pictures, you at least have the opportunity to do something different. That’s why we did it. Whether you do something with it or not is a whole separate thing.
We talked before about the importance of social media. You see them as part of local news transformation.
In our society everybody takes pictures now. Everybody is conditioned now to record things they’re seeing.
If you’re plugged into those people through social media, if they like you, if you’re conversing with them, they send that information back to you. It sounds simple, but it’s transforming the better newsrooms.
Twitter is almost like a separate news channel in breaking news situations. So what do I mean by that? During the Washington [Navy Yard] siege, our station [WTTG] became engaged in producing that story on Twitter almost immediately.
So you could follow that story on Fox DC with the tweets coming in from our reporters and retweets from everywhere else. So back to my original thing about local news not being timely, this allowed us to be [and] to have depth [in covering] the story.
We’re putting stuff out, we’re getting stuff in. This isn’t unique to Fox, but we have made a huge commitment to it.
Read Part One of this Q&A here.