Reinventing Local TV News 1Where do you look for information about what’s happening in your community and your region?

Your choices are vast, so it seems.  But what about the TV?

One of the toughest challenges broadcasters face in 2012 is now to monetize local newscasts, and how to create compelling and unique digital content. The demographics are soaring; the average age of a local TV news broadcast is 50. The total number of eyeballs continues to dwindle, and the answers on how to stem the leakage are elusive.

A scan of my local station’s websites this morning was downright depressing. It’s not what consumers want on the desktop. Don’t even get me started on their mobile initiatives.

Traditional media companies are scrambling to find a formula that works, but the stations’ owners seem intent on prioritizing contracting and digging in, rather than innovating. This is a common reaction to competition from disruptive technologies and business models. It’s easier to cut costs and fight for the status quo rather than reinvent.

Here’s a classic example. The film clip below was distributed in American movie theaters in the 1970s, as a nascent cable television industry was starting to gather steam. The “free” TV industry did not understand that a better option was about to be offered – one that gave viewers more choice and control over the content in their living rooms. The old-schoolers chose to fight, rather than join the confluence of the future.

One can’t expect 20-25 year olds to make an appointment in front of a television to consume a local newscast. It’s not realistic. But how to engage a broader swath of always connected consumers with content they care about has to be the next Manhattan Project for television news. I offered one possible solution in this post earlier this year.

Here’s another answer.

The Neiman Journalism Lab at Harvard recently partnered with a group of NPR (National Public Radio) stations across the country. Their formula: The Neiman folks cherry-picked stories generated by the stations, then placed those stories on the stations’ Facebooks. They measured Likes and shares of the content, and compiled the top 9 “engagers”, several of which I have listed below. I’ve linked you to the complete story as well.

Place Explainers

Every city has traits, quirks, and habits that are begging to be dissected. These characteristics are well known to locals, but no one ever stops to explain why they even exist in the first place. Place Explainers investigate, answer, and explain these questions. In our project, KPLU tipped us off to this content type with its I Wonder Why…? series, which explores the “endearing, odd, even irritating” attributes of the Pacific Northwest. For example, why does Seattle have so few kids and so many dogs? A story by KQED pointed out the 26 signs you’re in Silicon Valley and a KUT piece listed what draws people to Austin and what drives them away.

Crowd Pleasers

We all love to brag every once in awhile about the area we call home. Crowd Pleasers zero in on that feeling of pride. These stories provide an opportunity to celebrate everything from beautiful weather in the Pacific Northwest to the athletic prowess of California athletes who won 93 Olympic gold medals. When Austin was ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek as the eighth-best city in the country,Austinites cheered on Facebook with comments such as “Yaaay!! GO Austin!” and “Whether Austin ranks 1st or 100th, I still love living here :)” That’s exactly the type of reaction you’ll get from Crowd Pleasers.

Curiosity Stimulators

You know those stories you come across that you can’t turn down? The ones that have you hooked at the headline? Curiosity Stimulators get that a lot. It’s the type of story that captures a geeky and quirky side of a city. And after people click through and read a Curiosity Stimulator, they often feel compelled to share it because they get the sensation of stumbling upon a local gem. The Curiosity Stimulator is a 4,000-pound spider-robot named Stompy. It’s a woman whomarried a corporation. It’s the discovery of a hidden video game city.

News Explainers

Event-based stories chronicle the news of a city. This bill was passed. This person was hired. That person was fired. News Explainers make sense of the news. Rather than just telling you what happened, News Explainers dissect why or how it happened. For example, here’s what people in Washington should consider before possessing legal marijuana. Now that Austin has declared support for same-sex marriage, here’s what happens next. Here’s why it’s been unusually chilly in San Francisco. Leading up to the 2012 election, ballot question guides such as this one by KQED were perfect examples of News Explainers. They took complex local topics and made sense of them for people.

Major Breaking News

Cities are saturated with everyday news stories such as traffic jams and fires. But Major Breaking News has a much bigger impact on a city or a region. Massive storms are an easy example of this because they tend to make life difficult for entire regions. But Major Breaking News doesn’t happen often — a few examples from this project include the coffeeshop shooting in Seattle, Hurricane Sandy, and the approval of legal recreational marijuana and same-sex marriage in Washington.

Source: Neiman Journalism Lab, see more here.

Here’s what’s not on the list of stories that engage viewers/listeners: rape, robbery, murder, house fires, car accidents and thug-on-thug violence – the continuing staple of local TV news coverage. I still see too many simple, cheap stories that dilate the pupils for a nanosecond, but leave a viewer hungry for something different, something more relevant, more robust.

I have many good friends who work in TV news. This is not about them. This is not a  blanket condemnation of the many brilliant, award-winning stories they have produced over their careers.  Not every story is a crime story. Not every story is dumbed-down, obviously. On the whole, however, these reporters and anchors are forced to do exactly what ownership tells them to do. I can relate – I’ve been in their shoes. My beef is solely with the corporate suits, not the boots on the ground. Unless there is a manifesto for change from the executive offices, local TV is looking at a rough battle for relevance ahead. How much longer can they afford to stay on the sidelines?

The disrupters have circled the castles, their flaming arrows are already starting to hit their targets.

Reinventing Local TV News 2

John Scott

John Scott is the career services manager and a media instructor at the School of Multimedia Communications, Academy of Art University San Francisco.

His second book, "You. Employed."is available in the Amazon book store.

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John Scott

John Scott is the career services manager and a media instructor at the School of Multimedia Communications, Academy of Art University San Francisco.

His second book, "You. Employed."is available in the Amazon book store.

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