‘Breaking’ News

Why we’re examining many of the things we’ve spent the last 18 months building in our newsroom. Follow along as we chronicle lessons from a small-market station group transitioning to a contemporary media organization.

When the project that became the Innovation News Center at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications launched five years ago, the mission was to ‘converge’ the three separate radio and television newsrooms. It was the latest iteration in a 87-year history of immersive, media-based learning opportunities at UF.

Since that initial conceptualization, our newsrooms have undergone a number of transitions. We’ve moved in to a beautiful 14,000-foot, 100-seat, tw0-story space. We’ve integrated journalism majors into our news operations, which were previously the sole domain of the telecommunications news sequence. We’ve overcome the typical territorial disputes — we often heard folks referenced by platform, as in “those TV people” or “that radio story.” Soon those comments were replaced with the living embodiment of what we call the ROPE model — report once, publish everywhere — where assets are gathered and remixed for radio, TV and online.

And for the last 18 months, we’ve seen great success. Our digital traffic, measured by unique visitors, has increased 400 percent since 2011. We’ve won dozens of awards, both professional and student. We produced two nightly newscasts on our 1 million-watt PBS station, broadcast live drive-time news updates on the market-leading NPR affiliate, feed a 24/7 news channel, power sports updates and local coverage on the ESPN affiliate, and provide real-world multi-media reporting opportunities for our students in news, weather and sports.

Why mess with a good thing?

We need to adapt before the market — and the audience — gets ahead of us. And that’s why the Innovation News Center has launched Project Allotrope.

We started in February with teams of our news managers, students, faculty and staff periodically gathering together and in subgroups to examine all operations of the INC, determine what’s working and what we need to fix, and also where we can grow. You can read more about the components of that project here.

The Heritage Brands

It is certainly not unique to our organization or market that the heritage brands and platforms are the foremost important part of our operations — at least when it comes to revenue.

The numbers do not lie. For a commercial and public media group in a small market like ours, the traditional on-air commercials and underwriting messages, compounded with CPB grants, state and member support are currently the only sources of revenue we have coming in. From a narrow business case, this should be a no-brainer. Maintain and grow the status quo — invest in the terrestrial first and extract as much value as possible out of those platforms.

We’ve seen that reaction on many levels.

PBS continues to program and provide member stations the same quality and targeted programing it has for years — excellence in the youth and aging markets. They’ve seen some success with cross-over series like Downton Abbey, but largely ignore the 18–49 audience demo. Instead the network seems to be committed to ‘nostalgia’ programming.

NPR has made early strides in digital, launching a number of initiatives in digital and mobile. But following a rocky period with a number of CEOs, financial troubles, and a board answering to a large number of stakeholders, the organization has re-centered on the heritage products under its latest leadership move.

Member stations and local affiliates have been mixed in responding to the digital tide. Generally, the major market stations have had more success finding the resources, audience and appetite for more exploration of digital platforms, while small- to mid-sized markets slowly follow their lead.

The irony for a network like PBS is that what is widely considered its current greatest hit is all about an institutional norm coping with sweeping changes. (image credit: tumblr)

Digital is something that these organizations know they need to embrace, but right now the thought is too difficult — or too painful — for many.

But a singular focus on what has always worked isn’t the right answer either.

There have been multiple examinations of what media organizations and newsrooms should do to respond to the storm of disruption — a litany too expansive to list here.

The hesitation to fully embrace the digital tools and techniques because of lack of training, expertise, time or perceived business value is an understandable response. Misguided, but understandable.

And that’s where our College, and others in higher education, can help.

The Perfect Storm

The students that are in our classrooms and working in our newsroom today represent the next generation of media consumers, and media leaders.

A screenshot from the College’s survey of 18–24 year-olds’ media usage patterns.

I am constantly surprised that although many of our students are so focused to enter careers in traditional media, when pressed we learn they (let alone their peers) rarely use it as a go-to news source. Earlier this year, the College completed a survey in partnership with Elite Daily of 18–24 years olds’ media habits. It found that 80.2 percent of respondents use some form of digital news as their primary news source. That may include the 21.8 percent using websites of “traditional news media” but still they are primarily using that brand’s digital offerings. Not the platforms that these students spend so much time and energy chasing opportunities to be on.

According to Pew, the Millennial generation will surpass Boomers as America’s largest population group this year. Compound that with the coming tide of the 61 million-strong post-Millennial generation, media usage patterns will quickly change.

When talking about the future of news, we tend to emphasize print. It’s clear that the glory days are over. The digital disruption has overtaken that industry.

What we don’t always recognize is the coming tide that is about to breach the worlds of broadcast news and entertainment.

Yes, we can hold up data points like the latest Pew State of the Media report that shows a 2 percent uptick in local news. Or a 7 percent increase in ad revenue for local TV (much of it election-related). Or a drive to activate legacy one-to-many delivery modals (aka FM chips) in our mobile devices.

Things were looking great for newspapers —and then it wasn’t.

We sometimes hold these factoids up as justification for maintaining the status quo, or for not being as urgent in exploring how digital plays in our broadcast newsrooms.

As a participant in, and observer of, the media for the last two decades, I see an awful lot of parallels between the justification of heritage models (e.g. “they need us,” “it’s working now,” “our numbers are going up,” etc.) as what was being said about print before the crash came.

Winter Is Coming

Whatever side of the argument you reside on the cord-cutting debate, the fact is that we can now consume content that used to be only available via broadcast or cable subscription at any time we want. There can be no argument that the effect of the on demand and OTT (over-the-top) content economy has had on our viewing: a probable end to linear TV.

HBO is now available without a cable subscription, direct to consumer. Netflix now has a higher market capitalization than CBS — the highest rated broadcast TV network in the U.S. We’ve coined an entirely new way to consume content, where “binging” is a hobby and entire seasons are released all at once. Cable companies are strengthening their positions in the utility of the Internet versus as a video delivery service. And entrenched content companies are fighting to preserve the status quo.

The change is not limited to just TV. Radio is ripe for even more disruption. We’ve seen the effect of services like Spotify and Pandora on radio. And one of the last vestiges of captive audience for terrestrial radio, the car, is about to be disrupted as well. Soon the need for hundreds of transmitters sprinkled across the country, all sending out the same thing, will be moot. One genre station, focused on a carefully curated audience, can serve the entire world.

So what does this coming reality mean for local media organizations and those who are generating news? What does a newscast look like when there is no prime-time lead-in? What does local news look like when format constraints go out the window? Do we really need yet another radio station playing ‘Blurred Lines’ for the millionth time that day?

Those are the questions we should be asking.

Yes, so far these alternate ways of viewing and listening have largely been supplemental. Cable subscriptions have declined only slightly. More than half of Americans older than 12 have listened to a radio in the past month. However, we should remember the early days of the Internet not immediately overtaking the print. Change is inevitable. And for those who do not see that coming, I have only this:

— Yet

There is a corps of us at the College of Journalism and Communications who have adopted the word “yet” as punctuation of choice.

It represents a determination not to let a incomplete idea or lack of knowledge interfere with what needs to be done. It’s an admission that we may not know the road ahead, but that’s not going to stop us.

And in this case, it’s apropos because by all measures the traditions of one-to-many broadcast are strong. Our students are still getting jobs. Our industries are still bringing in revenue. They are demanding the skills we are teaching now and have been for decades. The digital disruption hasn’t really affected how we do business, and we’re certainly not making as much money from the digital platforms as our others.

Yet.

There is nothing wrong with corporate media deciding to focus on value extraction rather than value creation as business strategy. However it may not be in our society’s benefit in the long run. And our subscription to that model doesn’t benefit our students.

In my time at the College, the argument of the current state of the industry is always brought up as justification of continuing along the same path. It is both reassuring, and not, that we are not alone in that conundrum.

Take the perspective of another young journalist, Will Federman from USC-Annenberg. He recently caused stir with his post following the announcement that the New York Times could host some of its content on Facebook’s platform.

It pains me to see proud journalism schools and other fine institutions sending its students off a cliff, hurtling toward the ground with style books in hand. Kids absorb thousands of dollars of debt to learn antiquated skills for employers who probably won’t be around in 10 years. And it’s not because of the decay of society or a lack of appreciation for quality journalism, but quite the contrary — there is an abundance of journalism!
My favorite piece of art hanging in my office.

It has been my goal since joining the UF faculty nearly four years ago that I would prepare my students not singularly for their first job, or their second. I committed to give them the skills and curiosity to be ready for their fifth or tenth, and how the industries may look at that time. They are still invested in the traditions and norms of seeking and sharing information, but taught the journalistic dogma is not sacred. They are charged with the understanding that media is their’s to shape and guide. And that experimentation is key.

And that’s what we want to make critical to our mission in the Innovation News Center moving forward.

I am not one to call for the burning of traditions and heritage platforms. There is immense monetary and historical value in maintaining what we are doing now. But we must not be afraid of what’s coming next. It’s not a reflection on, or the discounting of, the hard work of those in our organizations and industries who have brought us to this point in history. But we must evaluate our time and energy to make sure that we are pushing forward and recognizing opportunities to build communities and voice on all platforms.

That is what Project Allotrope is designed to do: to evaluate and recommend paths forward that not only benefit our media properties, but also our students and the industries that they will serve and invent. We have the luxury of a longer ROI runway and don’t face all the same pressures that for-profit media organizations do. We have the freedom that others do not.

Throughout we commit to share and expand knowledge. We’ll instill the ethos and mission of our research university headquarters in all we do. We will admit our mistakes and probably make some more. And all this wrapped in an admission we don’t have all the answers.

Yet.


Matt Sheehan is director of the Innovation News Center at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communication. He is on the journalism department faculty and serves as the news director for six terrestrial broadcast stations that serve North Central Florida, including the NPR, PBS and ESPN affiliates. He listens a great deal at @mattsheehan, but speaks infrequently. And hates the word ‘convergence.’


We’ll continue to chronicle the process of our evolutions in the INC on the
Medium publication,
Innovation News.