I don’t often get to write about my clients, but occasionally milestones are reached that I can’t keep quiet about. The subject matter here is Continuous News, something I’ve been working with clients on for the past several years. WLEX-TV in Lexington isn’t the first TV station to go this route in presenting news online, but they’ve reached such a level of success with it that I think it’s time you heard all about it.
Continuous News is just the first step in a sophisticated business transformation and re-engineering project underway at the station led by AR&D principal and senior strategist, Jim Willi. The idea is a complete overhaul, top to bottom, of how the station functions over the next several years that will lead to dramatic changes in not only content creation and distribution but also how the company makes money. It is exciting to be a part of it.
Here’s the story that I published today in our newsletter:
“It’s just another way to beat somebody,” says Assistant News Director Kathy Stone, of LEX18.com’s remarkable Continuous News website. Kathy smiles as she says that, because they’re writing the science on how to beat competitors online, blazing a trail for those who will follow. Since the station bought into the real time blog format for its home page last September, everything has gone through the roof, including the news department’s ability to knock the socks off competitors. “In the last five months,” says news director Bruce Carter, “we have NEVER been beaten online by our television news competition. Not one time!”
“95% of the time,” he adds, “we beat kentucky.com, the Herald-Leader newspaper website.”
“Continuous News” presents the news of the day as an ongoing stream, not as a finished product. In breaking away entirely from the long trend of television stations trying to be newspapers on the Web, the LEX18.com site is published in blog format, with the latest story, or “item,” appearing at the top. Many traditional news people complain that this format doesn’t present any “top story” or “big headline” at the top of the page, but this is turning out to be an empty argument, for the audience in Lexington is flocking to the website in record numbers. “People know what the top stories are, because they’re following us throughout the day,” says Carter. “We don’t need to hold their hands. We have too much respect for them to do that.”
They hit 9,000,000 page views for 2010 at the end of February, already over one-third of the site’s total in all of 2009. The growth has been absolutely explosive over the past two months as users have caught on to the model. The bounce rate is under 50%, unique visitors total 726,000 for the year — the vast majority from the DMA — and the most fascinating statistic of all is that those users spend an average of almost 6 minutes on each visit. The graph below shows that this number — “Time On Site” — jumped the moment the station switched from a conventional news portal model to the Continuous News format.
And where eyeballs visit, money follows. While not giving exact numbers, the station is within mid five-figures of topping its entire 2009 revenue number and all in just a little over two months. The secret? In addition to a lot of hard work, Continuous News is sold by daypart, with advertisers paying a premium for ads during three traffic peaks throughout the day, roughly 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Fast food advertisers love the idea of serving ads in the morning and at the beginning of the lunch hour. The station has also innovated what it calls “bubble banners,” custom size and shaped ads which exist between items in the blog side of the site. The ads are very effective, and advertisers love the reach. The station also sells roadblock ads across the page by daypart and for a real premium.
“TV sales people understand daypart selling,” says General Manager Pat Dalbey, “so it’s made it a lot easier for them to participate in our success.”
To help drive the site and its real-time gathering of news, the news department pulled a page from the AR&D playbook and rearranged its central assignment desk by adding a couple of key people to what is now called its “content center.” Shaped a bit like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, Stone and Carter join assignment editor Mike Taylor and daytime Web content producer, Jim Wilkeson and work together to filter everything that’s coming in and pushing it out to staff, producers and, of course, the Web. By joining together the most experienced editorial minds of the news department, it’s making a difference not only in its Web work, but equally with its newscasts. “We’re all together here,” says Stone, “No yelling across the room. It’s just a logical way to run in real time.”
To the jokes of his teammates, Carter sits in the “captain’s chair” and monitors everything, while constantly (and I mean constantly) interacting with enthusiastic people on the news department’s rapidly growing Facebook fan page.
A news director on Facebook?
Bruce Carter does it, because he thinks it’s important.
I used to think ‘Facebook? Why would I want to do Facebook?’ but this is where its at. These are our viewers, the first people to turn on their TV sets when they get home. They badly want to interact with us and to become a part of the fabric that is LEX18 News.
The only time Carter goes into the news director’s office these days is to hang up his coat at the beginning of the day and put it back on at the end. He’s living the news, right there at the very hub of everything, the content center, and he believes strongly that this is a news director’s role in the new world.
“I was mortified at first,” says assistant news director Stone of Continuous News. “I didn’t understand it. There was no model to copy.” But now she’s completely sold, mostly because of the way the audience has responded. “They love it,” she adds with a sense of pride. “They’re telling us they like it, because they keep coming back and bringing more people with them.”
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” assignment editor Mike Taylor says, “and the news has always been evolving, but this is a pretty huge change. You have to be aware of everything NOW. You’ve got to get it on the Web NOW, get it on Facebook NOW, get it on the air, and in the midst of all this mayhem, you still have to prepare newscasts.” Physically bringing the top professionals together in the content center is a big part of what makes it all doable, according to Taylor.
While many people work to create the items in the Continuous News stream, the main chore falls to the department’s two web content producers. Jim Wilkeson has been on-the-job for seven years, and this was a big change.
I was a straight, old school guy. I come from a newspaper background, and that top story’s got to be that top story. But I’ve become convinced, because of the numbers. The content management system we have gives me instant gratification, because I can put a story up and see an hour later that it’s had 1,000 views and say ‘maybe that’s a story we should follow more closely.’
But for Wilkeson, like everybody else in the content center, it’s all about winning. “It feels good,” he says, “because I look at our site and I look at our competition’s site, and we’re killing them.”
Continuous News in blog format imitates the communications method created by Web denizens for Web denizens, which is why it seems so intuitively natural for users. The idea that we, as media gatekeepers, need to filter news for mass consumption online by “stacking” content in some hierarchical order of importance is a quaint relic of the past, and no where is that more evident than at WLEX-TV.