The challenge of TV news

It's no secret that television newsrooms are facing a variety of budget, personnel and technological challenges these days. Permeating all of these, however, is the single most important test facing TV newsrooms: how to enhance their brand in a time when Americans by the millions, particularly younger Americans, are seeking out news and information elsewhere.

Survey results released by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in August revealed 37 percent of the general public regularly gets its news online, up 24 percentage points from a decade ago. More to the point, the Pew research identified 13 percent of news consumers it dubbed as “Net-Newsers,” who are affluent, well-educated, relatively young and more regular readers of political blogs than viewers of network news. While not close to being the majority of news consumers, Net-Newsers do reflect the tendency of relatively younger people to seek out news from non-traditional sources.

Taken with the 23 percent that Pew identified as Integrators, those who select TV as their top news source but also turn to the Internet daily for news, the two segments represent a sizeable piece of the total news audience that is regularly turning to competitive new media for news and information.

For television stations, the shifting news consumption patterns of such a large portion of the audience raises the challenge of how best to allocate limited financial and journalistic resources in a way that attracts viewers and regular Internet visitors to their brand — not simply their on-air channel assignments or Web sites.

“There's no question that the traditional notion of television stations and TV news is in a profound state of transition,” says Jeff Kiernan, news director of WBZ/WBSK in Boston.

Kiernan was among several panelists exploring the challenges facing TV news operations at the Broadcast Engineering and Broadcasting & Cable News Technology Summit in Dallas Sept. 24-25.

“I'm bullish on television,” he says. “I'm bullish on television because it is about being local and generating local content. How the public receives the content will continue to develop, and to a degree that's the unknown.”

As Kiernan sees things, access to news from other platforms requires television station newsrooms to begin transitioning from simply being TV news sources into becoming “local media outlets” that serve up “interesting local stories and good local video and sound” regardless of the distribution platform.

Brian Bracco, vice president news at Hearst-Argyle Television, shares a similar philosophy and takes it a step further, suggesting stations making this transition adopt what he describes as “a 24/7 mentality.”

“Rather than your traditional 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. newscast and morning newscast, I think the demands of the news cycle are such that we have to be on the Web, on mobile and on TV, and we have to be on all the time,” says Bracco, also a News Technology Summit panelist.

At KLTV in Tyler, TX, the Web presence of the station is so important to news director and News Technology Summit panelist Kenny Boles that he has taken to calling it “our other TV station.”

“That's how we've described it, trying to educate everyone in the newsroom to make them understand just how important this platform is,” he explains.

The importance of the Web and other emerging distribution platforms to the brand identity of a station in its local market cannot be understated when today's typical news consumption patterns are considered, Bracco says.

“Most people go to work, turn on their computers, and they have your brand sitting in their tray or they are listening to things going on, such as a political speech of a candidate visiting locally that we don't cover on-air but might stream live on the Web site,” Bracco says. “They're seeing things online, so by 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., our news can't be stale. It can't be old. We cannot hold stories for our newscasts. We have to publish them online. We don't have to publish all the details of the stories, but we have to publish some of them because we know there is a huge audience between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on the Web.

“How else are we going to get the word out? On our own air when we have an exclusive story? Or, we can use our own air, the Web and a mobile device to say, ‘Come watch. We have more on this exclusive.’”

Financing the future

While expanding the reach of the station's news operations onto the Web, mobile phones and other platforms that may be the shape of things to come, it's necessary to keep the importance of these new distribution alternatives in perspective, says Mike Devlin, president and general manager of WFAA in Dallas and News Technology Summit panelist.

“I'm glad we have the Web because it is showing some growth, but it is a very small percentage of the revenue we get from spot television. It is dwarfed by spot television,” he says. “I know it is a relatively new medium, and it has some nice growth on small numbers, but there is no way you could support a large television newsroom based on revenue from the Web site. You are not supporting helicopters, satellite trucks and live trucks by your Web site.”

Particularly in this economy, when some automakers are struggling to stay afloat and cutting back on their television advertising, expanding local TV news onto the Web and beyond on a 24/7 basis is a tall order.

“I've been in the news business for three decades now, and I don't think we have ever faced greater challenges than we do today,” Boles says. “We've seen a significant downturn in national sales numbers, and that's had a dramatic impact on local stations — large and small markets alike.”

Despite the downturn, stations don't have the luxury of ignoring the changing news consumption habits of their viewers.

“I think whether small or large market, a lot of us ask the question: How many will be left standing at the end of the day?” Kiernan says. “I think the ones that will be standing at the end of the day are the ones that are constantly making themselves relevant to consumers.”

For KLTV, making the station relevant to viewers takes many forms during this general business downturn. On air, it has meant relying on audience research to identify areas where savings can be made without diminishing the news product. The station's morning news show is a case in point.

“Using research as a basis, we found when our viewers get up in the morning, they don't want repeats from the night before,” Boles says. “They really want to know what's going on now that is important, significant and newsworthy. That lets us draw more on our national resources — ABC and CNN — for live shots from around the country and around the world. Even though we've had to cut our budget a little bit when it comes to personnel, we've increased it a little in the satellite area in order to reach out and draw on the resources that are available to us.”

More generally, the weakening economy has required stations to rethink who gets hired and what's expected of existing personnel.

“I think we are expecting more from people, which is a culture shift for many of them,” Devlin says. “If you were an anchor and your job was to anchor a five p.m. newscast, that was about it. We're now going to ask you to do some reporting and to cut an insert for the digital channel.”

He adds, “From their perspective, it's: ‘You're not paying me anymore.’ From our perspective, it's: ‘We are in a mature medium,’ and particularly this year when we are not making any more than we made last year, we need some new streams of revenue.”

The compensation question is only one aspect of the equation of asking staff to learn more and take on added responsibility, Bracco says. Many people simply resist change. An anchor who previously worked with Bracco when years ago newsroom computers first appeared is a classic example, he says.

“There was an anchor who put her electric typewriter under her desk because she said, ‘I know this computer is going to break down sometime,’” Bracco recalls. “It just gathered dust for about a year. Then one day we took a power hit and lost all of the power to our station for a period of time. I looked down at the electric typewriter and said, ‘That typewriter isn't going to do you any good. We still don't have electricity.’ The next day she threw it in the garbage. There are always going to be people who resist change. It's our job to move them into the digital era.”

Unlike long-time staff and journalists with established job expectations, new personnel being considered for positions in the newsroom must come prepared to be versatile and ready to take on a variety of responsibilities, Boles says.

“You can't just hire a producer now who doesn't know how to edit, who doesn't know how to grab a camera, and run out and shoot a story if needed,” he explains. “We're having to hire smarter, and the people we hire need to bring more to the table than they did before. They need to bring a cross-training in different jobs and responsibilities throughout the newsroom. You can't have any one person who only knows how to do one thing anymore.”

Technology to the rescue?

The transition from linear tape news production to file-based workflows could not have come at a better time for stations. As pressure mounts to write, produce and edit content for multiple platforms, the efficiencies produced by working with files helps news managers meet growing editorial demands by keeping new hires to a minimum.

“We've seen significant personnel savings resulting from our file-based workflow,” Boles says. “Not only has it enabled us to do more and do it more quickly than before, but yes, there were a couple of tape editors whom we didn't need any- more simply because their primary job was simple tape playback on air. Those positions were phased out. It also has allowed us to take our tape editors and use them more for Internet maintenance because it simply doesn't take as long as it did before to do the work.”

While maximizing efficiency is important, it shouldn't cloud the bigger picture, namely producing relevant, interesting content, Devlin says.

“I am just a content guy,” he says. “I think the technology is great, and it helps us do what we do, but people don't watch technology. At the end of the day, if you have content that is interesting, you'll get an audience. Otherwise, it's moving tapioca pudding around efficiently. Tapioca is not very interesting to watch.”

Content, not technology, must be in the driver's seat in order to thrive in these challenging times, he advises.

“We can digitize all we want,” Devlin says. “We can slice it and dice it. We can go from 10 people to one person editing. But is what they are editing interesting? The audience is pretty indifferent to our process.”

One way technology can assist in keeping content relevant and interesting is directly related to the Web, Boles says. Specifically, KLTV's Web site gives the news director a daily glimpse of what's important to viewers and helps him in his editorial planning and decision-making process.

“It certainly helps shape your editorial decisions,” Boles says. “You are able to see a specific breakdown of how many page views you got for specific stories.”

In effect, the Web is a feedback loop from viewers that has given the news director new insight into his audience.

“One of the things it has taught us is there are stories that transcend any regional appeal,” Boles says. “We can have our local stories mixed in with the top state headlines, and if there's a dramatic story out of Houston, Dallas or San Antonio, on any given hour of the day, it can get more page views than our local content.”

WBZ is taking this sort of viewer feedback to another level.

“One of our goals in our morning newscast is to literally start a dialog with viewers at the beginning part of the day,” Kiernan says. “It starts with our reporting on interesting and important stories during the newscast, and having that dialog literally takes place during the newscast and after via new media in real-time via text messaging, blogging and Internet chats about those stories being aired.”

Fade to black

Regardless of the challenges facing TV newsrooms, reporters, editors and producers shouldn't lose sight of the fact that today is an extraordinary time to be a journalis.

“I think this is probably the most exciting time in journalism,” Bracco says. “I guess all times are exciting, but these are really exciting. There are so many opportunities for so many different types of journalists to be contributing to all of these different platforms. I think the journalists coming out now who embrace all of these new technologies are going to be the leaders down the road, and they will make the change easier.”

Phil Kurz

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.