Vocal on Local
By J. Max Robins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/9/2005 8:00:00 PM
More than 100 news directors, station chiefs and TV gear-head wizards are assembled in Dallas for B&C's News Technology Summit, the freewheeling annual powwow we co-host with Broadcast Engineering magazine. This year, the two-day affair is a laser look at the state of local news. The diagnosis: The business is under siege. Too many operations are still playing by old, cookie-cutter rules, where everything from talent formulas to newscast lineups is interchangeable from market to market. New ingredients—digital news and information channels, and an expanded Web and mobile presence—may offer salvation, but only if the station news departments don't give up too much to play in those arenas.
Jay Ireland's keynote sounds the alarm. When Bob Wright brought Ireland to NBC from General Electric's plastics division, where he had been CFO, TV-industry veterans were skeptical about how Ireland's business chops would translate. But since he joined Wright and company in 1999, the president of the NBC Universal Stations has showed savvy: Despite tough times at the NBC mothership, Ireland's station group has stayed strong. Still, Ireland tells our gathering he's concerned his brethren are “too complacent.” A PowerPoint shows the decline in local and network news-viewing patterns, especially among the young over the last decade. Stations aren't moving fast enough to push their news, weather and traffic onto the Web and elsewhere, Ireland says.
He takes the local news to task for too much news that's “homogenized,” with anchor teams that have the same gender and race composition from market to market. When he says this, I have to laugh. I can't count how many times that, seeing a photo of a news-anchor team that we're about to use in B&C's “Market Focus” or “Station to Station” columns, I've started to object that we're running last week's photo—until I realize, no, these folks are from another city. They just look the same.
Later that afternoon, I'm moderating a panel entitled “Making Your News Product More Vital and Profitable.” Forgive me, I didn't name it, but the discussion is incisive and fast-paced. It's a front-line group. Among the participants is Cissy Baker, Tribune Broadcasting's VP of News Operations, whom I've known since her days as CNN's first bureau chief, when the office was just Cissy and Bernie Shaw with a rotary phone on a couple of boxes. WMC Memphis News Director Peggy Phillips, who's been a successful pioneer in early-morning newscasts, is there, too, along with Quincy Newspapers' Director of News Kirk Winkler.
Much discussion centers on transforming newsrooms from a culture that's all about a station's scheduled newscasts into one that's about being a 24-hour news business steadily feeding the Web. A constant refrain: The challenge is making that transformation in a climate of extreme bottom-line pressure, and doing it despite still-fresh memories of all the people who got burned by the online mania of the '90s. Then the discussion turns to the challenges of working in concert with other media holdings—whether it's newspapers or radio—of corporate empires. The takeaway: It's often more effective in theory than in practice.
The next morning, I'm moderating a breakfast panel focusing on mobile and online news distribution. Gratefully, Ron Loewen, the VP of Liberty Corp. strategic development, is on the panel. Like Jay Ireland in his keynote, he's in an evangelical mood. He decries the siege mentality in local news. In his current role, Loewen oversees Liberty Digital, which has been a model of how to expand a local-stations brand to the Internet and actually make money doing it. Loewen says news operations that don't deploy properly across all available platforms—and don't address the audience's demand for news when, where and how they want it—are headed to the land of the dinosaurs. Warns Loewen: “Don't do it, and you will suffer a silent heart attack.”
Thanks, Ron. Heartfelt. And true.
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