I remember when I started in television 21 years ago.  Back then – as in many newsrooms – you dreaded answering the phone in case a ‘viewer’ had a question or wanted to tell you what they thought of the newscast.  Who wanted to hear that?

How wrong we were.

Today, I rarely say we have viewers; we have customers.  And we definitely want to know what stories are on their minds, what they think of our newscasts and more!

I know we have a lot of work left to do – when I respond to someone’s e-mail or join the comments on our website, customers are amazed someone at the station actually cares about what they have to say.

Do we have a lot of work to do!

So, we have set up a lot of ways for people to give us the feedback I argue we don’t just want, we need in order to thrive in the world.  One example is the live chat my station, News10, does on big story days.

One Way of Connecting
One Way of Connecting

We’re building a culture where everyone realizes how important this is.  And hopefully, in a year or two, people aren’t so surprised when we talk back.

Take the poll, comment – give me some feedback.

This is usually the time of year I spend my day seeing new technologies at the National Association of Broadcasters’ convention and attending conferences held by the RTNDA (Radio-Television News Directors’ Association) – and nights losing at the craps tables!

But these are different times and I, like many of my fellow News Directors, are watching RTNDA@NAB through live webcams, Twitter updates (look for hashtag #RTNDA) and CoverItLive weblogs.  And it looks like the convention started rocking with the first big session on the future of our industry.  (Read the whole CoverItLive transcript here.)

It looks like the conversation had two sides, both of whom I think made very valid points.  On the one side were news and industry leaders like Lane Michaelsen – who runs WUSA’s Information Center – and Raycom’s Susana Schuler.  On the other, well-known consultant and author Terry Heaton, who works for Audience Research and Development.  Michaelsen and Schuler argued journalists need to have multiple skill sets and that we need to provide the audience quality content.  Heaton argued back that quality is a red herring and we, as journalists, need to focus our dayside energy on the web and mobile screens.

I think you can, should and need to do ALL of that.  But I think we need to look at the word quality.  Quality to a journalist is an EMMY or Murrow-award winning story with fantastic visuals, great writing and compelling characters.  But quality to one of our customers might be the fact we did a fair job of covering a story critical to her and her family’s life with video shot from a cell phone camera.  Which one’s right/wrong?  I say both are right.

As for Terry’s points, forward-thinking newsrooms are already working to post content on their web and mobile sites during web prime time (which is during the day).  I agree most newsrooms – including my own – could improve that process to make it work more quickly and get more content out earlier in the day.  The trick is balancing that and keeping your current cash cow – TV news – strong enough to support the growing digital platforms.

People always ask me where I think our business will be 5 years from now.  First of all, I still think TV will be in business at the local level.  My newsroom of 2014 – and hopefully much sooner – will be a content-producing and aggregating machine that:

  1. Produces local content with the size of the field crew dictated by the story’s needs: 1, 2, 3 or more.
  2. Works with local freelancers, paying for multi-platform content by the article (this would work, obviously, in a city with a lot of freelancers!)
  3. Partners with any other local content-gathering group in town to at least share links, if not content.
  4. Uses the community to crowdsource and cover those hyper-local stories happening in their neighborhood, church, etc. (like the Neighborhood News Bureaus)

Time to see what else is happening in Vegas tonight – virtually, that is!

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Lots of discussion going on these days about the idea of aggregation news content.  Most of the heat is being directed at the Associated Press and, to a lesser degree, Google.

I was reading Jeff Jarvis blog on the topic tonight.  I agree with his main points.  Let me share just one:

but the latest story in a topical cluster is often the 87th rewrite of the news and it’s usually from the Associated Press, which cuts off links and credit to the original journalism

It is interesting that I can get better AP content for me as a customer with my iPhone App that we can in our local Information Center, despite the fact we pay thousands for that!

I want to discuss the greater issue of aggregation.  I think aggregating quality content is something any local media organization should already be doing (WZZM has been for months).  For years, we let Google and Yahoo! News aggregate all our content, repackage it, sell ads around it and build a sizeable reputation and audience.   It just came to me a few months back – why don’t we do this?

I agree with Terry Heaton, who has dicusssed the concept of ‘Walled Gardens’ for at least a year, probably more.  The concept is this: we can’t expect to create great content and simply expect everyone to come to only our site to experience it.  The web is not built that way.

There are lots of companies working to build better SEO strategies.  I don’t know of anyone building better web walls!

Do you agree with me?  Or, do you think we need to keep everything on the home site to maximize ad revenue?  Let’s discuss.

Last week, I had the honor of speaking at a National Press Club event held at the Ford Museum.  The topic is one I know all too well – how the business and craft of journalism is changing and what are/can we do to position ourselves to not just survive, but thrive.  The Club has been doing this across the country.

Nice For A Thursday Night

Nice For A Thursday Night

I was joined as panelists by Meegan Holland, editor of the Grand Rapids Press’ section of MLive.com, which is a collection of Booth newspaper websites based across Michigan, and Paul Schutt, whose company has founded a number of websites that cover development and growth issues, including our local Rapid Growth Media.

Moderator was Gil Klein from the Press Club.  It was appropriate we had the meeting at the Museum of the President who had one of the best relationships with the press in the modern era.

This, of course, happened in a week where the Ann Arbor News announced it’s becoming AnnArbor.com in July (with a small print presence), other Booth papers had major cutbacks and Gannett (my company) announced more furloughs.  So what are we doing to change?

  • Schutt said his websites adopted the funding model used by National Public Radio and focus on a specific niche – development and growth news.
  • While the Grand Rapids Press has committed to publishing 7 days a week, they are also committing more resources toward building their website, including a recent redesign and soon, better tools to track what’s working.
  • I discussed how my station, WZZM 13, has been creating new mobile, web platforms as well as actively going after new friends and customers using Twitter and Facebook.  This is all part of our effort to put content where people already are, on their terms, working to make them current and future customers.

The audience asked us a variety of questions about where we thought the business was going. We had people from 14 to 74 in the crowd. Some are worried what will happen to getting the community word out without a newspaper.  Paul Schutt brought up something I had not thought of before: when you read a newspaper, you often stumble on another story you knew nothing about.  While there are websites and tools designed to replicate that, the web is best at a focused, targeted search for exactly what you want.

We answered several crowd questions the same way: the web is creating new opportunities to present content and many more ways to find it, as opposed to the traditional few sources for news.  Part of the challenge we all face is understanding what’s where and making sure our customers know the opportunity to find what they’re looking for will continue to expand.

Journalists try not to get involved in their stories, working to stay objective and cover whatever issue it is fairly and without bias.  That’s the idea.

Then our economy took a nosedive as our media industry was undergoing its own revolution.  And now, we’re covering our collective furloughs, layoffs and closings.

Jill Geisler, who works for a journalistic think tank called the Poynter Institute, recently published a letter to non-journalistic employers with 10 Great Reasons why to hire a journalist.   Even if you think you are totally secure, the article will make you feel better about everything we do.

This afternoon, I joined Jill and other current, former and future journalists at an online chat on Poynter’s website (read the log here).  It was a great mix of people at various points in their career, giving and getting advice as well as listening and learning how others are working to make the best of a time most of us have not lived through before.  They asked a question that I would like to ask you to answer below.  Thanks.

   In case, you missed all the ‘great’ media news today:

  • Gannett, the company I work for, announced another round of furloughs.
  • Booth Newspapers said the Ann Arbor paper will go online only later this year, while 3 other papers will follow the 3-day a week delivery model of the Detroit Free Press.
  • And Freedom Communications announced its own furloughs!

OK, enough said about that!  We have to remember people are not running away from our content and information.  They are moving from newspapers and, in many time periods, TV, to the web.

So what’s a journalist with 3 teenage daughters about to hit college (that’s me!) doing?  Everything possible to find out how we can stay relevant to our customers and keep them customers:

  1. That means really listening to them!  Use their comments on TV, follow up on their good ideas and thank them when we do their story – publicly.
  2. Keep looking for new ways to find, create and distribute all of our content.  But we can’t just do it because the technology is cool or new.  That’s part of it, but it also has to help us bring our customers to a scene better, faster or both.  Skype is one new way, so are Mogulus and Qik.
  3. We need to include them in our daily coverage beyond asking them to comment or pitch an idea.  Many of our customers can and probably want to help us better cover their communities.  The Grand Rapids Neighborhood News Bureaus are one way we can start.  We need to take an entrepreneurial approach to this: there are no bad ideas; no ideas are what’s bad!
  4. We can’t let furloughs, pay cuts or other challenges keep us from doing 1-3!  If we do, the bullet points at the top of the story will only get longer and more frequent.

   This is some of what I plan to say Thursday night at the Ford Museum.  That’s where the National Press Club is doing its local stop on a national tour, focusing on the future of journalism.  It starts at 7:30.  Hope you can make it.

What a week to be on furlough from the TV business!  There’s enough happening to fill pages, but I’m going to discuss one issue at a time – it’s easier for me to make sure I don’t forget anything!

I’m still digesting the Pew Project’s latest State of the Media report.  I think it should be required reading for anyone doing citizen or professional journalism.  You may not agree with all the findings, but it’s still worth your time.

Here are a few of the keys I found in my first glance at the report:

  1. Our revenue model is broken and is not coming back.  For decades, TV stations were one of the few gatekeepers of information in a community.  Now, we seem like one of the anchor stores in a giant news mall, hoping customers still value what we have to offer.  The report offers some interesting suggestions, including this one:

Adopt the cable model, in which a fee to news producers is built into monthly Internet access fees consumers already pay. News industry executives have not seriously tested this enough to know if it could work, but these fees provide half the revenue in cable…

I’m not in a position to go to the providers and push this, but I hope someone does.

2.   Citizen journalists are everywhere (we’re working on a great project here in Grand   Rapids), but legacy media are pushing innovation just as hard and, in many cases, harder than many citizen journalism sites.  I think a lot of that has to do with scale and revenue.  But I wish the study’s authors would have spent more time talking about the opportunities for legacy and citizen journalists to work together to create more content for their communities and more ways to access this information.

3.    Our future is going to be helped by technology.  If you have not heard much about the Open Mobile Video Coalition, click here.   If you cannot afford – or choose not to buy one of these:

A Must-Have Device?

A Must-Have Device?

find someone who does and see for yourself how reading and watching information is so different from cell phones – or earlier generation PDA’s.  You could replace a newspaper with one of these, if you didn’t miss holding the actual paper (which I do sometimes!)

I’m going to keep reading the report.  I’m sure there are conclusions you have come up that I did not mention.  Please add your thoughts below.