WLWT-TV in Cincinnati hasn't fought its way to the top of the ratings for its on-air newscasts just yet, but its Web site has made its way to the top of the heap.
According to Nielsen//NetRatings data for 2007, the NBC station's WLWT.com was Cincinnati's No. 1 broadcast-TV-station Web site, with an audience that by some measures averages about 60% larger than the Web site of the local ABC station and market leader WKRC and about 10 times larger than those of other major competitors. And that was true even though its actual newscast can only claim to be a “strong No. 2” in the 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. time slots.
“I think one of the reasons for our success online is that we understand that these are really two distinct and often different audiences,” said news director Brennan Donnellan. “Just because uses someone uses the TV-news product doesn't mean he uses the Web site, and vice versa. So you have to approach it so that you're not just repurposing your television brand and content for the Internet.”
Making some of the Web content an extension of the on-air programming can work, however. For example, when his station secured an exclusive interview with a convicted killer, it ran an extended version of the report online. “We took the entire, roughly 60-minute interview and posted all on the Web site. We presented this as an 'inside the mind of a convicted killer' story, and there was part of our audience that was intensely interested and wanted to see that unedited version,” Donnellan said.
WLWT has also won Web-site visitors with its online weather coverage by setting up the Web site to be transformed with a very weather-centric home page whenever a major storm hits so that the news that people are most interested in is right up front.
“The No. 1 thing we've had to change is the culture in the newsroom, and it's difficult. You're talking about changing the culture of a 50-year-old enterprise. And we had to get people to realize we're creating content for multiple media now, not just for TV,” Donnellan said. While newsroom personnel probably still devote 80% or more of their time to producing reports for TV, they're encouraged to always think of the byproducts of their work that can feed the Web site.
“So if I send a reporter out do a story on a local Congressional primary, while they're out shooting interviews, I also ask them to shoot what we refer to internally as 'whips,' short little reports that can be fed back and posted on the Web site. These are just something about what they're working on and how their stories are developing. It doesn't necessarily have to take time away from their day. It can be stuff done in the car as driving from one interview to another,” Donnellan said.
The station is owned by the Hearst-Argyle Television chain, which partners with Internet Broadcasting Systems of St. Paul, Minn., for Web-site operations. Two IBS employees work on-site at WLWT as part of the newsroom team, but the station also devotes other staff time to producing digital content, Donnellan said. Since joining the station about four-and-a-half years ago, he has also devoted an increasing part of his attention to making the station shine on the Web.
“All major broadcast companies are pushing digital channels as a part of their day-to-day workflow,” Donnellan said. “Newsrooms are changing and staffs are being asked to reconsider how we gather the news.” Even though new media, like the Web, remain a “tiny portion of overall revenue, we're working now to make sure we can maintain the brand equity we have whether on TV, the Internet, another digital-television channel, or wherever comes along next,” he added.