Someone has made a tragic mistake and handed me the keys to a major TV station group. I’ve been told I can take it for a spin, provided my buddies and I don’t trash the leather seats. I have to make sure it’s got plenty of gas when I bring it back — dent-free, or it’s my ass.
This scenario is playing out only in the multiplex of my mind and is only slightly less plausible than the plot and dialogue in the new “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” movie. However, recently it seems like every third journalist, ex-journalist, journalism critic, journalist wannabe and he/she-who-is-not-a-journalist-but-plays-one-on-TV is offering up manifestos and revenue models for saving the business and sketching out its future — including those who testified on such topics before a Senate committee this week. So here I go.
My motives are selfish. I want to design my custom TV news position, one that has the Internet in its job description. To continue pummeling the movie metaphor (in an admittedly lame attempt to show pop culture cred), my dream news job would involve a reinvention of the format, a la J.J. Abrams’ new imagining of the “Star Trek” series. I’m boldly going where no station has gone before: toward a true mind-meld of TV, Internet and social media — a final frontier that puts the emphasis on neighborhoods, lets reporters get back to beat coverage, gives the viewers a real voice and proclaims the new media equation of depth over flash.
Okay, I’m fresh out of “Star Trek” cliches; please set your phasers back to “snark.”
I’m focusing on TV because that’s where I’ve spent the better (and worse) part of my 30-year journalism career. The print industry is getting enough attention these days from both media-observing big brains and circling, media-hating vultures. Besides, that newfangled Kindle DX electronic reader is supposed to solve every newspaper’s problems, right?
One more thing: I need to stage a coup with the broadcast news station executives themselves and not just their burgeoning digital media divisions, because everything I want to do on TV and the Web is contingent upon delivering a different kind of news in the first place. No more crime and car chases — they’re scaring away the audience. Let me chase relevance instead.
My Personal (Web-Centric) Newscast
If I’m anchoring, then I want to fly solo. Sorry, there’s just not enough room on my set for me, a coanchor, and our hairdos.
I kid (kind of), but it’s already happening, according to Mike James, author of the Newsblues blog. His sources told him this week that CBS executives are pressuring their owned-and-operated stations to trim the traditional anchor teams beginning with the Chicago affiliate. The network’s motivations are no doubt fiscal; mine are editorial. Single anchors can write more of their own copy (I’m sorry, did you say anchors writing?) and can own their half-hour or hour by being more personal and less sterile — without crossing the opinion/editorial line. Dual-anchor newscasts are products of consultants, as is the “happy talk” that would also mercifully vanish.
Chicago and Philadelphia are sparking another recent TV news trend: shared resources for things like press conferences and helicopter footage. Nothing wrong with that in my book. Three or four different pieces of video on three or four stations, showing slightly different angles of a microphone forest on a podium — now that’s compelling footage.
When not on the air anchoring, I’d be on the Web — anchoring. And interviewing. And writing. Too many TV stations are using their Web sites to essentially port over their packaged newscast stories. If you had more exclusive content — Web-only interviews, blog posts, solicitation of future interview questions/comments on daily stories — you might give your viewers a reason to visit your Web site and stick around long enough to make new advertisers happy.
The Web beast needs constant feeding, but your station carries soap operas during the day. Why not have reporters phone in Web debriefs on the stories they’re working on for the later newscasts? Don’t make them race in front of a camera every half-hour; they’re busy working on their stories. A very brief update on what they’ve learned since their noon live shot, or an early glimpse at a new story a reporter is working on for 6 o’clock or 11 o’clock, would be sufficient. Make it informal and lively, in the spirit of the Internet, and stick a :10 pre-roll ad on it, also in the spirit of the Internet.
Let viewers peek behind the news curtain; put all your raw photographer video, including interviews, on the Web. A photog who knows the raw video is heading to the Web can also provide narration; it’s called “photojournalism,” right? Some of the best local journalists in the country are rarely seen photographers doing their own interviews and editing them into award-winning stories.
Breaking news should obviously be a TV priority. However, that doesn’t mean an anchor/reporter neglects the power of the Internet to provide updates, take (verifiable) news tips and information from viewers using social media on smartphones, or jump on a laptop in the live van to write a quick blog post that provides more color and behind-the-scenes flavor than what can be presented in a broadcast.
If that reporter has a Flip camcorder or similar device to shoot video for immediate upload to the station Web site, all the better.
See? I feel more productive already. Where’s my contract — and my hair gel?
News on a Neighborhood Level
The late Tip O’Neill’s maxim, “All politics is local,” needs to be updated for a Web news context: All news is neighborhoods.
A few TV-station Web sites are linking to neighborhood blogs, which are popping up like dandelions in cities like Seattle. However, if there aren’t enough in your TV market, start your own. Make some calls to PTAs, churches, neighborhood associations. Find out from your own staffers who the active citizens are in their neighborhoods, and see if they’ll contribute. Set up Twitter/Facebook accounts for all the major neighborhoods in your market and get the conversation with your viewers there started.
Social media sets up a link-feed for you from neighborhood residents cluing you in to newsletters, smaller media outlets or private blogs. Your station, in turn, can send them information they might need regarding public services, faith-based initiatives, etc.
All this isn’t really breaking news. Blogs like Lost Remote have been talking about refocusing media on neighborhood for a while. So what’s taking so long? In a down economy, is there anything really to lose? You gain an engaged customer and maybe ad revenue from neighborhood businesses. Focus your coverage back to the atomic level; make the viewer a partner, not a lecture hall attendee. TV stations love their community affairs/consumer advocacy slogans like “On Your Side” or “Working for You.” Here’s a station’s chance to prove it.
More Web Work for Weary Reporters?
Reporters are already grumbling in TV newsrooms across the country. They now have to file Web versions of their stories in addition to all their other deadlines and duties. Forcing them to do something certainly guarantees motivated, happy employees, doesn’t it?
The management response might be, “They should be happy to be employed in the first place.” They should be, and probably are, but if they’re noticing a lot of empty chairs around them lately thanks to layoffs — and more work is being asked of those who remain — then they’re liable to check out that PR option sooner rather than later.
Instead, find out what they want to write about on a blog, and let them have at it. Maybe they’d like to cover a certain beat they think is being neglected. Maybe a city hall reporter who’s tiring of boring meetings would like a chance to write about the environment on the station Web site. If they dig up something new, let them break it on your Web site, then feed it back to the TV side for a packaged story.
Me? I’d write about technology and the media, of course, and also set up recorded phone conversations with guests for audio podcasts on the Web. If I had access to the set and a satellite link, I’d do video interviews. I’d find a motivated, happy account executive in sales who could try to find me a sponsor.
Stop me if you’ve heard this in this space before: Reporters who still resist the tide of digital journalism should realize it’s the future, and embrace the change as a chance to keep storytelling. Blogging, social networking and digital media offer more paint on the news-gathering palette; different colors for providing a more compelling picture to your viewers.
Despite declining ad revenue and audience erosion caused by other media, including the Web, polls still show that most people get their news from TV. Audiences are trained to watch during breaking news like bad weather or disasters. Consultant-driven sweeps stories, endless crime coverage, and heat-seeking sensation send those audiences away.
Let me do smart news that’s Web-enabled, that has a better chance of starting a conversation with viewers, and I’ll sign up faster than the Enterprise can hit warp speed.
TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.