Brainstorming the Next Generation of Local TV

We get mail. Some is thought-provoking, like the e-mail we got recently from Paul E. Donohue, news director at WETM-TV in Elmira, N.Y.
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We get mail. Some is thought-provoking, like the e-mail we got recently from Paul E. Donohue, news director at WETM-TV in Elmira, N.Y. It was in response to our column "Local TV's Midlife Crisis" (TV Technology, 11/3/99). Paul has given us permission to reprint his note and to use this column to answer.

LETTER TO TVT …

I am the news director at a powerhouse small-market station that does a 50 share in its early evening newscast. Until the industry figures out where it's going, I am pursuing a strategy of extending my brand across a variety of platforms in anticipation of multicasting through digital transmission.

I am currently developing and/or negotiating relationships with another local TV station, cable affiliate, Internet Web site and newspaper to produce local news content.

Do you have any thoughts on the subject of how local stations should position their news products?

Dear Paul:

In my opinion, you are on the right track. Though information technologies and distribution systems will come and go (including today's terrestrial broadcasting system), the demand for local news and information will always be with us. Since town criers shouted public announcements in the earliest days of this country, there has always been an audience for news of the community. No new technology will change that.

Being the best news and information provider in a community will always be a viable business, regardless of the distribution technology used to bring it to the people. Yet, I suspect one of the great remaining unexploited media opportunities in the digital era is the modernization of current local information gathering and distribution systems.

If I were a local television news director (and had the station owner's full backing), I'd focus on building the premier newsgathering operation in my market and - as much as possible - make it independent of any specific delivery technology, including terrestrial TV broadcasting.

Separate, but not equal, newsgathering operations are maintained for local newspapers, television, radio stations and Web sites in communities all over America. Most reporters still file stories for one media outlet. Too many of these news bureaus are shoestring operations that fall far short of journalistic excellence. There's a huge opportunity for larger, more diverse multimedia newsrooms to serve multiple outlets simultaneously and do a far better job of reporting the local news than most single media operations can possibly do today.

BREAKING DOWN THE WALLS

Just as digital technology will eventually break the network/affiliate station relationship in commercial television, it will also break down the walls between video, audio and print distribution of news. Local news at 6 and 11 (only) is already an anachronism. These time-specific newscasts most surely will be replaced by information on-demand - user-selectable by content and delivery method.

As new forms of local news media emerge, so too will the demand for a new breed of information professional: the multimedia news reporter. More advanced storytelling skills will be essential for reporters that simultaneously serve television, radio, print and Internet outlets.

In a multimedia environment, it will no longer be enough to look and sound good on the tube. Stories must be told through video, sound, still images and the written word in an equally compelling way. This demanding multimedia environment, I predict, will leave a lot of existing television news personnel looking for a new line of work.

Television stations that create excellence in multimedia local newsgathering have a better chance of long-term survival as technology changes and new distribution outlets emerge. News and information is a valuable commodity that can be sold simultaneously in various ways, perhaps as a 24-hour local or regional cable/satellite channel, an all-news audio service (radio or Internet) and text/image services such as a newspaper or local information Web site.

NEW FREEDOMS

Creating a dominant local information service can help free local broadcasters from the perils of uncertain technology (broadcasting over local antennas), slippery politics (must-carry, Congress, the NAB) and a rapidly changing program distribution business (loss of audience to cable, satellite, DVD). By creating compelling content that has real value to a community, the local broadcaster can reinvent a business that demands reinvention.

So yes, Paul, I agree with your strategy. Building your brand into a premier information provider across platforms in your market seems like the best strategy in a time of technological turbulence. In the end, however, I'd bet these different media platforms will merge into a single information entity with many tentacles to the news audience.