How To Make Local News Relevant Again
Local television stations are feeling it from every direction. Viewers have more choices, stations face more competitors, and owners demand more returns. None of this is new, only exaggerated.
As someone who loved local news as a viewer and a journalist, I couldn’t wait for six o’clock to strike when my city was explained and my community connection was made, warts and all. Then local news became irrelevant. Maybe it was me, in search of the journalistic values ingrained in me by icons working across my desk. I found the soul of journalism again working in public media where the depth and credibility are high, even if the audience reach doesn’t compare with commercial television.
Big events draw me back to the screen but I wonder about two things: can I return for good and if I struggle with this question, how do ordinary viewers feel?
I’ve been sitting on ideas to make local news relevant again, ideas that are part of passionate conversations I have with fellow journalists. Maybe it’s at their urging or maybe it’s the time in which we live that I feel a pull to put into words my suggestions for local TV newsrooms.
1. Turn Off The Competition
Even when there were just three stations in a market, differentiating was key. Some stations did it with talent, others with content or marketing. In one of my newsrooms, I asked for us to turn off the television sets monitoring the competition at 5 and 6pm for a few weeks- in part to reduce our reliance on following the pack, in part to develop our own editorial decisions. Yes, the silence was bizarre as we watched only our newscast and wondered what the others were doing. But this decision created a new foundation for our content and started to build trust in our mission as a newsroom.
2. Create a Lead Story Team
A sizable portion of viewers, with clickers in hand, decide which station to watch based on the lead story. At my last two commercial stations, we addressed this by creating a Lead Story Team to work a few days out on enterprise stories. We protected the schedules of at least two reporters who were available for breaking news but otherwise were given 1–3 days to break news. The temptation to pull them into the daily mix was great. But our biggest win, and viewer benefit, was designing a calendar where we had an enterprise story off the top.
3. Have Anchors Field Anchor More
Most stations have an unwritten threshold when to send an anchor into the field but that threshold is too high. Field anchoring differentiates especially when anchors add strong storytelling from the scene. To do it well, shift a resource to create an anchor-producer to help generate more enterprise stories and/or sidebars to a big story of the week.
4. Step Up Your Storytelling
Audiences know it when they hear it. Strong writing is a key differentiator that is often overlooked by newsrooms. One time I posted a reporter opening and asked for writing samples and not resume tapes. Talent agents weren’t happy but the flood of applicants was overwhelming with many expressing gratitude that a premium was being put on their skill and not their looks. I’m convinced that hiring that amazing writer as a reporter set a higher bar for the rest of the staff and improved writing across the newsroom, perhaps even the market.
5. So Many Hours, So Much Repetition
We’re our own worst enemy when we repeat stories so often. It signals to the audience that there’s nothing new and that your newscast, after watching a few minutes, is not worth watching at all. Over time, that becomes your brand yet we’re surprised why the audience has abandoned us. It’s just as important to decide what stories you won’t repeat, as it is what stories to cover.
6. Shift Resources To Differentiate
The public thinks we’re all the same and with good reason. Once we go to the “videotape” it is all the same. We need to prioritize resources for the things that set us apart, not the things that make us the same. At one station, we had twice as many people in the sports department as in the investigative unit even though the I-Team was one of our differentiators. Through attrition, new hires, and shifting newsroom staff, we flipped that equation to great results. Now, before you think I’m not a sports fan….
7. Segment Your Sportscast
For decades we’ve been shown research that “viewers don’t watch sports.” Today sports is news and some of the best investigative coverage involves sports topics. Maybe it’s not sports at all but the way it’s presented, all at once and at the end of the newscast. Before I left one station, I was close to dividing the sportscast into nuggets and airing them throughout the newscast. Imagine the popular sportscaster delivering :30-:45 of the top sports story at the end of tease 1, then another appearance with highlights at the end of tease 2, and so on. Differentiation without alienating the audience.
8. Leading With Weather
It’s the television equivalent of online click-bait- leading your newscast with weather. Sometimes we make more of it than it deserves but we know why we do it. Remember, the viewer has every tool to know the wake-up weather and 10-day forecast before watching your news. When you lead with weather, just report what’s “happening right now” and don’t give anything else away. They’re sticking with you for your weather credibility, personality and dynamic with the news team.
9. Create Original Short Form Videos
The digital audience is different than your TV audience. They’re younger, cord cutters, and didn’t grow up watching their parent’s newscasts. So why would we think digital audiences, your new audience, would be captivated by seeing TV stories re-purposed online? Digital videos need to have their own style, short on narration and high on storytelling production. You have creative editors on staff just waiting to be set loose on this. Start with producing explainers of complicated stories, a “who’s who” of newsmakers in your market, and off-beat kickers that could go viral.
10. Start A Podcast
I’m surprised this suggestion has waited until #10 given my history of creating and hosting my own podcasts. Younger viewers aren’t really your viewers, they’re listeners and podcasts are their go-to platform. Boomers are heading there too. Much like creating original short form videos, stations have an advantage they don’t fully realize- you have well-known talent and a megaphone to steer audiences to your podcasts. The focus can be news or culture or anything your talent is passionate about- as a news guy, my latest two podcast series focus on music and civic engagement.
11. Break Stories Online
Yes, the mother ship is your newscast but with digital audiences snacking on content throughout the day set an expectation that, on occasion, you’ll break big stories on your social media platforms and then follow them up a half hour later in your newscast.
12. Be “Differentiator Gatekeepers”
The hard part is just beginning. Once you’ve defined what makes you stand out, daily decisions, logistics and staffing make it all too easy to fall back into sameness. It’s up to everyone, not just News Directors, to hold one another accountable to differentiate as often as possible.
It takes a unique vision and a relentless pursuit to work the plan and maintain support from above. In light of what local newsrooms face today, I should add that I’ve had my share of must-run requests, some of which I won and some I didn’t. I’ve worked for stations owned by major networks, local broadcasting groups, a refrigerator and weapons manufacturer, even one run by members of a not-so-mainstream religious group. The point is we can choose our partners but not always our families. When the dust settles, decide if you can endure and help make our profession better. Stand out, do work in which you’re proud, inform the public, hold elected officials accountable, and grow the civic engagement in your community.
Many of my suggestions require newsrooms to make choices in managing resources, some difficult, others not. I understand not every station has the staffing levels to accomplish all of my ideas. But it’s a start and, frankly, is there really a choice? If it’s tough to stand out and differentiate today, can you imagine where we’ll be in a year or two when audiences take even more control of their content and feel more than ever that we’re all the same?