Making it up as we go along

WKRN-TV’s news department begins a transformation next week that will open a new era in local video news. Notice I use the term “video news” and not “television news.” That’s because the video news niche in any community is now up for grabs, as broadband connectivity grows and the technology gets more and more affordable. WKRN-TV will become the first local network affiliate in the U.S. to adopt the Video Journalist (VJ) model for its newsroom, and you can bet a lot of people in the industry will be watching. The station is a client of mine, and this concept is something I strongly support.

The VJ model goes beyond the technology, because newsroom systems and workflow are turned upside down as well. This is the main point that is missed by those to react to the idea with anger and fear. M.D. Smith IV had the right idea ten years ago when he tried this at WAAY-TV in Huntsville, Alabama, but the technology for editing wasn’t available yet, and the only thing management knew to do with all the extra material was cram it into the newscasts. M.D.‘s VJs were given monetary incentives to produce more, more, more, but the strategy on what to do with it hadn’t been developed yet.

In the contemporary model, the idea isn’t necessarily to just get more; it’s to produce better programs by reducing the deadline pressures inherent in the old method of newsgathering. And where volume is increased, stations today have other vehicles for presenting that content.

So while most people look at this and talk about how it works in the field, the biggest change actually takes place in the newsroom and the day-to-day production. This is where observers should be paying the most attention, because the concept succeeds or fails based on what and how it’s used on-the-air.

Another wrong assumption that’s made about this is that it’s an all or nothing transformation. Not true. There will always be stories and situations that demand a 2‑person crew, and live reporting (for now) will still require more than one person.

To be sure, there are winners and losers in the process of morphing a newsroom into the VJ model. Here are a couple:

The biggest loser is the industry process of cranking out community celebrities. This means the system of agents and “talent” (what on earth that word has to do with our business, I will never understand). The VJ model demands more of every newsroom employee, and it shines an enormous spotlight on those who’ve had a free ride based on cosmetics. It’s actually about news, folks. The “one potato, two potato, three potato, four” method of climbing the success ladder will evolve, and I think this will be a good thing. And as I wrote a couple of years ago, the sun is setting on the necessity of anchors anyway. Who needs them in a “build your own newscast,” video-on-demand world?

The biggest winners are the group of people who’ve carried local news since the beginning — the photographers. Shooters and editors make the easiest transition in the VJ model, and they finally get the recognition they’ve deserved for so long.

Another thing that I think is important for observers to realize is that — in many ways — the folks at WKRN will be making this up as they go along. The creative process tends to work that way, and that’s one of the things I love the most about the new media challenge. Our rules and systems have gotten us where we are today in the TV news business — a model that is broken and unresponsive to a dramatically changing marketplace. Clearly, our old ways won’t save us, so we need to be looking beyond that which is known and proven. WKRN understands this, and that, more than anything else, is driving this change.

Comments

  1. Tom Tucker says

    Generally speaking Terry I agree with most of what you write, and I enjoy checking your blog on a daily basis. However, as one who works as a morning anchor for a network affiliate news station, I think this comment from you: “talent” (what on earth that word has to do with our business, I will never understand) is unfair and suprising coming from you, since I perceive you to be someone who knows what he is taking about. Are you saying in all your years in the news business, you did not find “talent” when it came to reporters and anchors? There are many on-air types in the business who are VERY talented, and yes, there are many who are not.

  2. Tom, thanks for the comment. I know I’m broad-brushing to make a point, but the word is no longer used to describe real talent. Agents, consultants and managers all refer to on-air people — whether anchor or reporter — as “talent.” It’s a meaningless bastardization of a word that used to mean something.

    This usage comes from Hollywood, and I think the news business needs a whole new lexicon, because we now base our industry on the show business model.

    So, guilty as charged on the broad-brushing. Not guilty on the use of the term or the meaning of the post.

  3. Kevin Newman says

    My objection with the industry usage of the word “talent” is that it implies that the off-air people are *not* talented. Building “the brand” around the on-air personalities so much requires a pay scale enforces this implication.

  4. Terry, thanks much for the follow up thought posted above, and keep up the good work.

  5. You released the Genie and now it’s going to be fun to see how it all turns out.

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