Friday, February 24, 2012

What’s Wrong With Local TV News And How To Fix It, PT1

Not so long ago, local TV news programs were the window to what was going on in the community. The port hole we used to witness the very best and worst of society. A reflection of our success and failures, hopes and fears, how we work and play.

Local TV news journalists were defenders of freedom, holding the powerful accountable. They were the megaphones of our community, providing a voice that too often was ignored. They transported us to places we could not be, speak to leaders we would never have an audience with and they (leaders) listened.

We made an appointment to watch a program that was an investment in our education, empowering us in making better, informed decisions and connecting us to one another.

What happened? How did cutting edge newscasts become home and garden serials? How did flame throwing hard ball reporters become under hand softball pitchers?

Well, somewhere along the way someone said – “Hey, we can make money off of this” and so began the downward spiral of the quality, integrity and reputation of local TV news and the birth of bubble gum, soda pop news magazine programs.

You know what I’m talking about. News programs that spend more time on stories about “How to make sure your dog has the most nutritious kibble”, “There’s a balloon festival this weekend” and in case you didn’t know “exercise is good for you” segments.

Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a place for those types of feature stories in a newscast, but come on….you need some meat on that bone.

I’ve been a part of several local TV news teams and I will be the first to admit – I have been guilty of several “What’s wrong with local TV news” moments. Still, let it not be said that I don’t learn from my mistakes.

So, perhaps in an act of contrition and in no particular order of importance – here’s the first five of ten things I believe are wrong with local TV news programs and how to fix them:

1. If the only difference between your newscast and the others are the people presenting the information...then why should the viewers watch your station instead of others?

Without fail, all of the local newscasts have the same stories (same video, same interviews) in the first 7-10 minutes of their programs; sometimes in the same order. Now, a lot of the story selection (understandably) is driven by what’s happening on that day; which adds credence to producing content that distinguishes your newscast in the market.

The best way to do this is to dedicate resources to a unit (usually they are named: Special Projects) that focuses all (not part) of their time researching and producing unique stories.

The pieces are developed specifically by information:
- On the makeup of the market (demographics)
- Who your viewers are (ratings information)
- Your lead-in (viewer makeup and genre/topic)

You can’t just say (for example) health is a segment that touches everyone, so let’s produce stories around that topic. You need to research what are the specific areas of concern (with health) that are relevant to the people who live in the market you serve. Then take it one step further and ask “how does it (health concern) affect my viewer?
(ex. If your viewers are primarily women, ages 35-55…how does the health concern affect them?)

Lastly, (continuing to use the health topic example) is this health story a good fit with the lead-in program and audience makeup before my newscast? Because, for example – if the lead-in is a court show….a health story might not be as effective as say a story about law, people’s rights or conflict resolution.

Producing content that sets you apart, that you can brand as uniquely your own cannot be done “day of” (with few exceptions). It is necessary to continuously nurture short term and long term planning by working with research, programming and community organizations.

Once you have these specialty segments defined; you can market them effectively to your viewers. They know that they can turn on any TV newscast for the weather, but for specific health concerns affecting women – 35 to 55 years old (as an example)….they have to go to you.

2. TV news programs have forgotten the principles of giving voice to voiceless, holding the powerful accountable and empowering its community to lead change.

Journalism is the only industry protected by the constitution. So why do so many reporters act like they’re walking on egg shells when covering a story? What bigger muscle can you flex than the first amendment?

Now, I’m not going to jump on the soap box, but not so long ago journalists participated in one of the greatest movements in this nations’ history; the civil rights movement. Men and women not only wrote about the injustice of segregation, but shared their personal opinion (sometimes marching side by side with the people who were being victimized).

Today, journalists play it safe and stand on the sidelines unwilling to get in the game, throwing words like “objectivity” as an excuse not to get their hands dirty without realizing that their passivity is a stench that will never go away.

So, how do you fix this?

This is an election year!! Launch a “voice of the voter” weekly segment:
- Profile families and share their experiences on the air (they would be the reflection of the community, your viewers).
- Get their questions answered, their concerns pushed forward….be the megaphone they need you to be.
- Don’t take for granted that they understand the electoral process or how they can get involved…show them how.
- Teach them by sponsoring voter registration events and producing segments that explain the electoral process.

Politicians make promises to get elected. Journalists (elevated by viewers) ensure they keep them.

3. Sports.

Some news departments reduce the segment to less than 2 minutes and bury it at the end of the half might as well omit the content altogether.

As News Director, I was given research (from viewers who said they watched our newscast consistently) that included the question: Why do you watch the newscast? The sports segment never made the top 5/10 reasons. Corporate would use that information to support their reasoning to lessen the time and resources for the segment; some even called for the elimination of sports content in newscasts.

Well, of course faithful viewers said they don’t watch the local newscast to get their sports information…the segment is non-existent. Why would the viewers say they tune in for sports when producers don’t give them a reason to?

Sports is the universal language. Regardless of gender, ethnicity and household income – everyone can wrap their arms around their favorite sport/team. Instead of burying your sport segment and cutting it to shreds because of poor time management….how about using it as a strategic mechanism to drive viewers from your first quarter to the second?

Don’t just focus on the stories on the field of play…scores and highlights. Try to incorporate what is going on outside the lines, the business and human interest stories of a sport, team and player. Sports is filled with dramatic stories of overcoming the odds (from the kid born with an extraordinary gift who took his family out of poverty….to the veteran warrior who battled injury after injury for a last chance to play one more time).

If you’ve thrown in the towel on professional sports – then how about flexing some of that local news muscle? How about making the decision to just cover local collegiate and high school sports? That’s something local news programs seldom if at all tap into and it resonates with local communities.

Again – allow the program to be a reflection of the community you serve. Sports is the most popular and successful specialty content; just look at how many specific sports networks have popped up in the last 5 years.

4. Crime.

Despite the fact that research (over and over again) finds that people complain about the number of crime stories in a newscast; it is still a staple of news content.

News Directors ignore that information and blanket their newscasts with crime stories – arguing that it is “breaking news”. The video is often poor (wide shots of a building, police yellow tape barricades and a lot of flashing lights). The interviews are predictable because they are often with people who are not directly involved in the crime or witness to it:
“Oh my god, there was shooting….yes, that scares me”. “Yes, I am concerned, there are children around”. “No, I don’t know them….I would see them go to work and come home – they seemed like nice, quiet people”.

Many of these answers are coerced by the reporter’s question. And the questions go like this:
“Hi, did you know there was a fatal shooting next door? Aren’t you scared?”
I gather that most people would say “yes, I am scared of a fatal shooting”.

Here’s another example: a reporter, seeing that the person they are about to ambush is walking with a child:
“Are you fearful of your child’s safety after this shooting?”
Again….why would the reporter ask a question with a probability of 99.9% of knowing the answer?

But that’s not the worst of it….and that’s pretty bad. A crime story, most crime stories affect approximately a 6-8 block radius.

So, for example: If I live in Brooklyn, why would I care about a fatal shooting in the Bronx? Those boroughs are at least in the same city….how about the viewers in New Jersey?
Newscasts waste valuable time on a story that too often is only of interest to a small portion of their viewing audience. And I would say, 7-10 times…the story that was so big (in the minds of that news team) that merited so much time and resources (that day)– is seldom “followed” up the next day, week, etc.

Now, I do believe crime stories have a place in local news, but you need to commit to doing them properly.

Using the example of the shooting in the Bronx….it’s about finding what’s universal in that story that will resonate with a larger portion of your viewing audience.

Who is the victim? If it was a woman…is she a mother? A student? Was she getting home or was she home? Was it a break-in or domestic violence? All of us have a mother, sister or friend (who is a student) and if not – we certainly can identify with them.

If the crime is domestic violence (for example), than you have an opportunity to use it as a learning tool for the rest of the community. You can speak to organizations who help victims of domestic violence and provide that information to your viewers. The bulk of your viewers might not be interested in that specific crime (because of where it happened), but they would be interested in preventing it (because it could happen to them or their loved one).

Now, information is very limited in the beginning of such stories….which means – you must make a commitment to see them through in order for your viewers to fully understand the impact of such a story and the reason why you chose it as part of the newscast.

In the end – just put it into context like any other story. If you only limit the crime story to the specific location (and I can see the typical video of the street sign as I am writing this), then you’re losing viewers and an opportunity to tell a better story.

5. Protests are a staged event, one stop shopping stories for lazy journalists.

When I was a News Director, one of the most heated debates I would have with the Assignments team is the decision to cover protests. The news department would get an email or fax about a planned protest outside City Hall explaining the “who, what, where and when”. While many of those answers would fit the bill in regards to newsworthiness; my concern would be in these organizations using our platform to push their agendas.

The scenario played out like this:
- A group of 12-15 people outside City Hall with their homemade billboards at hand
- The politician(s) (most often of the opposing party of the Mayor or one with future aspiration to succeed the Mayor)
- The victim (one to three people who would explain how the injustice of the proposal/decision (by the Mayor) would negatively impact their lives

Now nothing would happen until the reporters arrived --- and as soon as they got there it was “lights, camera, action!” The protestors would begin chanting. The politician would begin preaching. The victim would begin sobbing.

After the dog and pony show, the reporters would be able to interview all of the three main characters involved. Then it’s off to writing the script. The slightly better ones would get an interview with the Mayor (as always you want to get the other side), but it would usually be a spokesperson or a statement (because the Mayor like the protestors want to control the message) used for maybe 7 seconds at the end of the story over a graphic or as part of the Reporter’s closing statement before “signing off”.

One stop shopping….everything you need in one location.

I worked in New York City. There are at least a dozen protests scheduled outside of City Hall each day. Those types of stories could be done any day of the week (and not necessarily the day of the organized protest).

My argument was, why are we doing the story today? The answer too often was “because today is the day of the protest”. Well, that “problem” didn’t just happen now, it’s ongoing. That organization wasn’t created today….it’s been around for many years. That politician didn’t just get into office.

We (the members of that news department) could have easily done the story earlier if we had relationships (or contacts) with the organization and the champion politician. We could have setup all of those interviews without having to attend a cattle call that was setup weeks in advance.

In the end, a protest like the one I just described is a staged event to orchestrate the telling of a story, a message. And journalists fall for it, time and time again.

What do you think happened once the cameras were turned off? The theater was over and everyone went home.

I am not saying that the topics of protests are not newsworthy. I am arguing that the way these stories are often covered is lazy.

It is much more powerful to take viewers to the home of a member of the community who feels they’ve been wronged (because someone’s home is a familiar place to all of us – it is a natural environment) and learn their story versus outside City Hall (that while it is symbolic – it is not a natural environment because we don’t go to City Hall every day (if at all)).

It is more effective to interview the politician (victim’s champion) at their place of work (because again – we are familiar with such places) and learn how we (the viewers) can contact him/her with our own problems. The same can be said for the organization which setup the protest…show me where you work so that I (the viewer) who am in need of your help - can go seek it.

Lastly – if the Mayor won’t speak to you about the said issue….then you go find him/her. The Mayor has a daily schedule. So, what if he/she’s at a ribbon cutting for a new park…after the Mayor is done making speeches on that photo op – you nail them with the questions about the issue that is ailing the victim and possibly the community.

But everything I just outlined requires time, travel and tenacity. It’s easier to just go to the protest.

I believe in local TV news.
I recognize that there are some excellent programs and journalists working very hard for us (the community) each day.

The problem is that there are too many more news teams who are operating on automatic and their work drowns out the best.

Local TV news can and must do better.
It’s never a matter of resources when you have an infinite amount of intellectual and creative wealth between your ears.


  1. Renee Standera-SextonFebruary 25, 2012 at 2:35 PM

    I hope your part 2 addresses the dumbing down of news staff by hiring less experienced people to fill roles that once required years of experiene because younger people will accept smaller salaries. I've worked with news producers and reporters who have associate's degrees and no experience, producers and reporters hired in top-100 markets within weeks after graduating from journalism schools, and some whose grammar and spelling wouldn't even pass high school.
    Imagine having 17 years of broadcast news experience, and getting a form letter rejection for an entry-level mmj position in a 100+ market because I "was not experienced enough for the position." What it really meant was, you're too old, we can't afford to pay you, we're going to hire a recently-graduated beauty queen who we'll train.

    1. Renee, thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. All hires are a reflection of the, "the dumbing down of news staff" is a direct result of the short sightedness of "leadership". I share your frustration.

  2. Hugo, This is excellent! I'm audience, not newsroom. I watch the local news with investigative consumer reports. In Atlanta, that's CBS and sometimes NBC. ABC...don't want to get depressed every day (but they win the sweeps every time).

    1. Thank you, Peggy. Demand more from your local news teams. in the end you (the viewer) are the Boss. Viewers yield more power than they realize...tell them: "don't tell me what you think I should know...tell me what I want to know."

  3. Hugo, of course you should be ashamed for finally airing the absolute truth. It's the elephant in the room that conveniently slips past the promo department in every station. "We have the best news in town..." they continue to say while turning their heads the other way and hoping nobody like you mentions anything different.
    Add to the news factor the truth (as mentioned)that they will take any reporter who'll work for cheap and you've got the magic formula.
    And just think, how ironic they are hiring younger and younger reporters while the younger audience doesn't watch newscasts and the older audience still left is dwindling. more factor. While reporters used to be able to devote more time to more complex issues, the average reporter today (unless they are union) must also shoot, write, and edit the story plus post it on the internet and social media as well, all while not missing slot.
    You almost have to be a one-person band to even get hired, even in the 10-20 position markets. Still the battle cry is that there is no compromise to the news quality.
    With the cost-cutting and the erosion of audience (revenue), I'm not sure there is a fix, though I applaud you for proposing one. Still, unfortunately, most of your thoughts will remain as theory, not practice.
    Shame on you Hugo. You have single-handedly destroyed our great illusion. We might just have to start seeing "news" as it really is.

    1. Neal, it's time people saw what goes on behind the curtain. Thank you for taking the time to share your feedback.

  4. wow, #5 really brings back memories of my days as a tv news guy. I used to chuckle about it with my photographer, how nothing was happening until we got there and then how the left a few minutes after we started to pack up.

    Great insights!

  5. Thank you, Bill. I still scratch my can newsrooms be so accepting of these events? The answer I usually get is, "this is just the way we things have been done". So, it's a poor practice - years on the making.

  6. Hugo I think the worst aspect of television news is the bias-especially at the national level. I been on location for ABC news NY, CBS News NY and a number of local news stations as a cameraman/producer. The bias and cluelessness of the producers assigned to our crews is numbing.

    I've shot stories over the years and dropped off, Fed Ex'd or sent footage via uplink to networks-watched the story air some time later and thought, "That isn't at all what the story was about!" Bias.

    Viewers are leaving the networks in droves. I only watch local news now. Poorly shot/edited but not so biased-and I learn about local issues important to me.

    If you want to make things better in the industry get to the "journalism" teachers in colleges and advise them to teach Objectivity first. If students want to become "journalists" so that they can make a difference in the world, they should change their majors to political science and get on the staff of a representative or senator they admire and leave news coverage to those who exercise more objectivity.

    Like your passion my friend, but if the bias issue isn't solved a lot of television folks will go the way of newspaper "journalists" and be out looking for jobs! All of your very well written tips won't mean a thing to them then.

  7. Thanks for sharing your experience, Mike. I agree with you on education and young journalists (aspiring journalists). I invest a lot of my time in coaching young people personally and with journalism associations. I encourage more veterans to do so. Most classroom curriculums are designed for theoretical discussions and little practice. For that reason I strongly applaud the many internship programs available to students by media organizations. While the responsibilities given to students are sometimes hit or miss... The one thing it provides them is a first hand look at the working environment in newsrooms. The first step in objectivity is understanding one's prejudices. I am a 42 year old, Hispanic man who grew up in Peru and the U.S. I am married to a Colombian and we have two young children. We live in the northeast...etc. You better believe those factors and more shape my decision making. Part of what I do in preparing to pitch/cover a story is to surround myself with people who are different than I that we can discuss/debate stories and get to the heart (focus) of that topic, before making an assignment.

  8. Hugo, as someone who spent a fair amount of time reporting in local newsrooms, I think your analysis is on target. What is in local newscasts (and online, in Tweets, on subway station screens, etc.) primarily results from three factors: 1. Newsroom leadership. How creative is the news director and senior managers? Why does every breaking crime story have to be on TV? Too often it's the "great video" that controls, rather than sound judgment. 2. Experience. As Renee and Neal highlight, reporters are no different from plumbers when it comes to doing their jobs. Good ones do it better. 3. Time. As you appreciate in idea #1, the greatest luxury management can give a reporting team (photographers', producers' and assignment managers' contributions cannot be overstated) is the time to get the story. If you give a reporter three hours to research, go out and shoot, write and edit a piece, it's not going to be very unique or special. That's regardless of whether it's a one person operation in the 60th market or a group project in New York City.

    Local news remains exciting, both for the way it can reward communities and deliver a business payoff to media companies. Newsrooms that recognize the value of your top 5 (10?) list have a huge competitive advantage in a world where the customers (viewers) are demanding something special and different in exchange for switching off their iPhones, Hulu screens and Twitter feeds to pay attention.

  9. Thank you, very much Tim. Reporters are the most visible members of a news team....having direct contact with newsmakers and the community. I firmly believe that if given the time...they more than any other member of the newsroom (because of reporters going out with photographers) can return with original stories based on the department's mission and commitment to the public. But, so many news departments have been stripped of their ability to produce original content because of cutbacks. Cutting is a short term solution to profitability and ultimately costly (because of the loss of content, followed by viewers/ratings and finally what is charged for those poor ratings).
    It has been my experience what little a news department saved in cutbacks they ultimately had to spend at least twice as much to rebuild the value lost).

  10. Excellent post. I am so glad to read about people who care about the content they create and put out. It's very encouraging.

    1. Thank you....our work is a reflection of who we are. It is important to nurture, protect and share it.