I am reading more and more articles these days about what the depressed state of newspapers will or won’t do for television.  This article, from Broadcasting and Cable, shows what a few TV stations are doing to try to take some of the money newspapers are losing.

Then there is this article from Variety.  It focuses on the Los Angeles TV market to show how stations have had to make some drastic cuts to deal with our new budget realities.  The writer also tied into his article what the end of newspapers will do to TV stations.  Here’s one of the lines:

“‘Rip and read’ has long been employed to fill out newscasts, using local papers as tip sheets and unpaid newswriters.”

I have worked at 6 different TV stations.  It’s been true that newspapers often have stories TV newsrooms do not, largely because newsroom reporting staffs used to dwarf TV newsrooms.  BUT, it is also true, that TV newsrooms also break a lot of big stories that, frankly, most newspapers ignore for some reason.  Newspapers do not always set the news agenda in a community.  And I’m not sure what he means by unpaid newswriters; we confirm our own information and write our own stories.  I’ll be the first to admit we do not have every story first in West Michigan.  If someone else breaks it and it’s important to our customers, we’ll either get it confirmed or, if we can’t, quote the news source it came from.

I needed to set Variety’s report straight.  And I quoted them.

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We had the discussion in our newsroom this afternoon, and I wanted to talk about it tonight and perhaps, hear some other thoughts.

The Swine Flu, now to be known hereafter as the N1H1 flu, is spreading around the world and has sadly killed dozens in Mexico and at least one child in the U.S.  It has been the lead story on most local – and national – newscasts since the weekend.  It is the top story on my station’s website, wzzm13.com, for the past 3 days.  And it was the first question asked of President Obama at tonight’s news conference.

But, it has only killed one American and just around 100 people in the U.S. have it.  Just one Michigan resident has a confirmed case (although we are waiting for test results from Ottawa and now Kent Counties.)  So, here’s my question:  Is it the big story, or are we in the media making more of this than we should?

I asked my wife Mary this question.  She says everywhere she goes,  people are talking about – some concerned, some mocking all the coverage they are seeing.  I will give you my personal thought: I think it is a big story.  It is not a topic we should scare people with, but instead inform our customers so they know what is happening around them.

BusinessWeek has a big special report on how network television needs to reinvent itself.  There are a series of articles which are worth a read.

I have written quite a few blog entries about the idea that local television needs to reinvent itself.  I think many stations and groups have made a lot of progress – engaging social networkers, getting everyone involved in shooting video, feeding more and more screens with content.  And people are noticing and consuming more of that content every month.

It Starts With This

It Starts With This

But I don’t think we have gone anywhere near as far as we can, should or need to.  I have a few random thoughts and could use yours.  For example,

  1. We aggregate local headlines on our site from other media; Google News is king at this.  Do we adopt the same idea for television – running each other’s actual stories?  How would that work?
  2. TV and newspaper newsrooms worked on building partnerships for years, which would include joint reporting.  Could two local TV stations ever jointly break a story?  It might happen if we all finally realize we’re not each other’s main competitors.  Those, to me, are the web, our cell phones and ever-busier lifestyles.
  3. Could a TV brand survive if the station didn’t actually produce the news?  What I mean is this: a station, WXXX, goes out of the news business in terms of producing newscasts.  But a few reporters are kept and produce stories that are sold and run by competitor WYYY with WXXX’s name still on them.

OK, I admit those ideas may not fly in spring 2009.  But how many of us in 2007 thought FOX and NBC stations in major markets like Philadelphia would be sharing video daily?

What ideas do you have?

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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Hearst-Argyle Television, which owns stations in two dozen cities, recently asked Frank M. Magid Associates to do a survey of those communities to gauge how effective TV newscasts still are.

You can read the results here, but suffice it to say, more local people are turning to TV news now in the midst of these very uncertain times.

Now, I know what you may be thinking – why all the worry?  Why the huge push toward all this new media?

Because, in my opinion, we in the electronic media still have to.  I will give you just a few of my reasons why:

  • As I wrote in an earlier post, the next generation’s choice for information is still unknown.
  • Web traffic, in general, is still exploding.  While this is good news, in general, local TV newscast viewing is going in the opposite direction.
  • All this social networking is given journalists an immediate connection to our customers we never could have had with even just e-mail, let alone faxes and phone calls.

What I see from this study is that local TV news is not imploding to the level many newspapers are, and that gives us some time to get our digital priorities straight and be fully prepared for what’s to come.  Do you agree?  Take this poll and let me know.

I just got back from the Community Media Center.  Tonight was the last of the information-gathering meetings.  As Laurie Cirivello from the CMC told the group, tomorrow they start putting a framework together.

If you have not attended any of the meetings, here is Laurie’s drawing that shows what the Neighborhood News Bureau model could look like.

NNB Model

Don’t spend all night trying to figure it out!  Here’s the basic idea: the community is involved every step of the way, helping to shape the content, hopefully get involved in creating it and learning about all the great ways to access it – including ways for the non-connected residents.  My company, WZZM, is bottom left: we are one of the recipients of the content, a potential distributor and, in some ways, a partner in areas like training.

Now, the hard questions need to be answered!

  • Who will sign up to be a community journalist?  How will that relationship be nurtured over the long term?
  • What will the process be for training?  Who will do it?  What training do you do?  How much is needed?
  • How much editorial control will be desired/needed?

You get the idea.  To me, this is an exciting time for Grand Rapids and, frankly, West Michigan.  Communities could get even more hyper-local coverage, area residents will be able to learn more about other parts of town and everyone becomes better informed.

If you want to learn more about this project, check earlier blog entries of mine; I have written quite a few about it.   You can also read a summary on the Grand Rapids Community Foundation’s website.  You can also follow the project’s progess on the group’s Facebook page.

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.