The Digital Journalist
TV News in a Postmodern World: Local TV's New Deadlines
November 2004

by Terry Heaton

In the mid-70s, a developer in Milwaukee made plans for a downtown hotel and shopping center that would forever alter the skyline and the energy of the city. It was the cornerstone of a massive public/private sector project to revitalize the downtown area, and I found out about it many months before anybody else. I went to Indianapolis with the developer and shot film of a similar project there. Everything was embargoed until the developer was ready. Meanwhile, I did other research and prepared an in-depth package for our news (in those days, we didn't do "team" coverage).

In the news business, there's nothing quite like the rush of waiting for publication/broadcast. When the day arrived, nobody else knew about it, not even the two newspapers in town. We'd made the decision to break the story at 6 o'clock without any promotion, because we didn't want to tip the competition. I did a very brief teaser during our 5 o'clock show, and that was enough for one of the other stations in town to write a short report to lead their 6 o'clock program. It broke my heart, even though my report buried everybody. It was an enormous scoop and one that even prompted letters of praise from the newspaper business reporters, who were completely caught with their pants down.

But it was only a partial victory to me, because that other station was able to scoop my scoop.

When TV news shifted from a business of covering the news to one of managing audience flow, this fear of tipping competitors became the source of internal arguments between the news and promotion people. Sometimes we won. Usually, they won. Nevertheless, in every TV newsroom in America, news people still gather around a bank of monitors to compare their content with that of their competitors in a ritual that often determines how well the news director sleeps.

As deeply rooted as this practice may be, the truth is it is increasingly irrelevant in today's media environment. Worse, it is actually self-destructive, because it shields news people from the overriding reality of the post-mass market era - that people no longer want to wait until 6 o'clock to get the news. It's an "I want what I want when I want it" world, and technology is its servant. The news broadcasts may still be your bread and butter, but that simply cannot last, and those who aren't moving in another direction RIGHT NOW are risking everything. As marketing guru Seth Godin recently noted:

Whenever you are faced with a situation where your competition is afraid to change but you can see the reality of the situation, you have a huge opportunity. This is the biggest growth and market share opportunity in at least a decade.

The "situation" is that the marketplace is ripe for a local station to have the courage to break stories online - when they have them - and not wait until their alloted broadcast time. If not, the local paper will do it, and if not them, then somebody else will. If yours is the "live, local, latebreaking" brand, you'd certainly better be adopting that same slogan online. Otherwise, you're simply shooting yourself in the foot every time you wait until 6 o'clock to present the efforts of the day, because you're not telling the truth.

Until we begin respecting the power of the immediacy offered by the Web - and especially RSS - we'll be hopelessly left behind in the race to see who wins the local online news prize. Money follows eyeballs, and the eyeballs are abandoning broadcast in favor of the Internet at a speed that frightens every corporate broadcast executive on the planet. And yet, there isn't a single station that will put the full weight of its news operation into feeding this explosive growth market. Why not? Because we think it would be self-destructive to spill our goodies online and that people wouldn't watch our programs if we did. But is that really so?

  • People already aren't watching our programs.
  • There is zero evidence to support this belief.
  • It is actually self-destructive to NOT adopt such a strategy.

Moreover, and regardless of what's going on around us, we seem to be the last to figure out that news is an ongoing conversation, not a program that appears when we say so. Old habits not only die hard; they can be dangerously deceptive.

The resistance in newsrooms to the immediacy offered by the Web is mystifying, especially because the industry itself pioneered and refined the concept of immediacy in big stories. If, in our judgment, a story justified it, we could turn out the resources and produce compelling content that made us all proud. Many of the most memorable moments from my career involved this type of coverage. The problem is that every story is a big story to somebody, and the Web presents a different form of deadline for all of us.

In the mid-80s, Steve Friedman brought NBC's Today back to prominence in the morning news race after nearly a decade of losing to ABC's Good Morning America. A brilliant television guy, Friedman told Electronic Media in 1986 that he used the concept of immediacy to do it.

Aside from building familiarity with the viewers, the show itself has changed, he says, to a more active, "less reactive" program, with a "shift in emphasis from a review of the day before to what's happening now."

"People are brought in as spectators to history, he says, explaining, in part, why the show is doing more and more live material.

This "spectator to history" concept is the real core competency of the TV news industry, and it's why live coverage is as important as it is. Isn't it amazing, then, that the industry can't see the value of applying the same concept to its Internet strategy, especially since that's where its former audience is heading?

And that audience wants its news when THEY are able to receive it, not when news entities say it's ready, and increasingly, they want their news during the day and at the office. This was evident in the groundbreaking "State of the News Media 2004" report by The Project for Excellence in Journalism:

What attracts people to online news? One appeal is convenience. Part of the rise in news consumption online is occurring at work, a place where in the past people generally did not have the time or means, or found it unacceptable to get news. A May 2003 study by the Online Publishers Association found that 62 percent of at-work Internet users visited a news site in a typical week.

This, as online journalists are quick to point out, is essentially a new group of news consumers. Previously, most news consumption occurred largely at home, at morning and night. Sitting around the office reading the newspaper was frowned upon. Sitting in the office reading news on the computer apparently is not, or in any case is not forbidden.

When people go online for news, they break down into three distinct groups, according to studies of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. About half go online to see what the latest headlines are. Indeed, many online news operations say their "prime time" is the period from 1 to 3 p.m., when people are returning to their jobs after lunch or a mid-day activity. About 30 percent pursue news online after they have encountered it while doing something else online (for instance, checking out information on a portal and seeing the news displayed on the home page), and the rest are pursuing information about a story they have already heard about from another media source.

According to surveys, anywhere from half to 70 percent of those online get news there. That figure was much higher in a research project I helped develop for a broadcast group. And in that study, more than half said they planned to get more news online in the future.

The Internet brings with it new deadlines and new challenges for news people, and they are all driven around the reality that the user (formerly known as consumer) is in charge. Building an Internet strategy around this isn't as difficult as it might seem, but it begins with fundamental changes in our attitudes and approaches to the Internet. The attitude adjustment is this: We meet the news and information needs of our community wherever they are, and meeting those needs is far more important than beating the competition. Changes in our approach to the news include - but certainly aren't limited to - the following:

1. Challenge our newsrooms to view our Internet delivery systems as vital to our overall strategy and as important as any broadcast.

2. Make sure every member of the staff understands that they are as responsible for Web content as they are for broadcast content.

3. Provide training to encourage staffers to explore the many variations of multi-media storytelling.

4. Regularly break stories online and let the community know we're doing it.

5. Pay attention to our online competition. Create a bonus program that rewards news staffers for breaking stories online.

6. Promote the value of RSS as a delivery means for Internet news hounds in our community, including offering links to downloads of free RSS readers, like FeedReader. RSS, whether inside a browser or in stand-alone news aggregators, is the news dissemination vehicle of the future.

7. Involve our audience in what we're doing by encouraging story and blog comments, newsmaker chats, and discussion boards.

But the biggest change is one that has to occur internally with all TV (and other) news people. Our deadline clocks must be reset. An ongoing story may have multiple deadlines throughout the day, and our obligation to online news consumers is to advance the story regularly. Perhaps one day broadcast news will evolve into something beyond the who, what, when, and where of the day - into something compelling and creative that can be referenced in online coverage throughout the day - a program that assumes (at least some) audience knowledge of the day's events before it begins.

Broadcast journalism's salvation lies beyond the box of the 6 o'clock news, and we need to get past our deeply-rooted beliefs and traditions in order to find it.

© Terry Heaton