TV News in a Postmodern World

The Changing Face(s) of Local News

by Terry Heaton
In the early days of television news, the people who worked in the industry came out of radio or newspapers. I cut my teeth in the business at WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee, a combination radio-TV operation owned by the Milwaukee Journal. That original newsroom was a cast of characters, many of whom definitely had faces for radio. The emphasis back then was on covering the news, not how it was presented.

There was no college degree to teach attractive young people how to be on TV. That came later as the emphasis shifted to presentation and promotion. One of the constant complaints about local TV news these days is that it's a mile wide and an inch deep, and the complainers point to this emphasis on surface cosmetics over substance. People like to watch good-looking people, and so it goes.

But they're not watching them like they used to. Average local news viewing is down almost a third over the last ten years, and while most people point to the fragmenting marketplace, others are exploring the possibility that other factors are involved — the obvious being that people are turning away from local news, because there's something wrong with the product. Is there? That's a pretty big question for an industry that works its tail off day-in-and-day-out to serve the information needs of America's communities.

A visit to Dunedin, Florida, where Nielsen stores its paper diaries from markets, is an eye-opening experience and one that broadcast executives might find revealing as our audience universe continues to shrink. For in those diaries are handwritten comments from viewers — and more importantly, non-viewers — that offer insight. Based on my experience there, several themes occur when people explain why they don't watch:

  • I get my news elsewhere (often the internet).
  • It's not relevant to my life.
  • It's all the same.
  • I can't stand the teases.
It would be presumptuous to declare that these concepts color the local news business "wrong," but let's keep an open mind for a moment. Perhaps people ARE turning away from the whole idea of commoditized news, with its predictable emphasis on breaking — usually crime related — stories, live reports, slick production and marketing that approaches "watch this or die" status. In many ways, local news seems to have become a caricature of itself, something to be mocked by Comedy Central and in films. Are we what they say we are? Perhaps more than we'd care to admit. Regardless, the popularity of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart suggests it might be more than just food for thought.

At WKRN-TV in Nashville, president and general manager Mike Sechrist and news director Steve Sabato think there's more here than meets the eye, and so they've embarked on a multi-faceted strategy to inject substance into local news through new media projects and a controversial concept called Video Journalists or VJs. The plan was implemented in 2005, and what they're learning has substantial ramifications for the whole industry. In many ways, they've gone back to the type of news that was done in the early days. While the station still cares deeply about presentation, the seesaw has definitely tilted towards the content. Steak over sizzle, as old timers would understand.

What's new is the VJ concept. Most people in the news department write, shoot, edit and host their own stories. This doubled the number of feet on the street and dramatically changed the way they go about gathering the news. There is no "talent/shooter" caste system; everybody's equal. Each has their own car and gear — and perhaps more importantly — their own beat to cover.

The newsroom comes closer to a meritocracy than the disciplined dictatorship that exists in many contemporary shops.

The VJ concept has its detractors, usually photographers who feel two people will always produce better stories than one. The truth of this belief, however, isn't the issue in a world of increased expectations and declining resources, and the VJs bring so much else to the table that it's hard to argue with the formula. Good storytelling will always require work, and that's no different with one person than it is with two. The VJs like the idea of controlling their own pieces, and some of the best come from the ranks of the shooters.

When Sechrist and Sabato discovered that the system had virtually eliminated overtime — they begin each day with ten completed stories — they rolled that money into salaries and put everybody in the shop on the same pay scale.

But the biggest change that is occurring is with the types of people the station is bringing into the newsroom as a result of the VJ concept. With the newsroom looking for expertise first, the age of the glamorous "general assignment" reporter has come to an abrupt close.

"The VJ concept opens up all sorts of avenues in hiring," says Sechrist. "You're not bound by the traditional constraints of only looking at current reporters in other markets. Our Real Estate and Lifestyles VJ was once a photographer and real estate agent. We're looking for people with an expertise in certain areas. Smart, motivated self starters. We can teach them how to write, shoot and edit."

The station recently lifted the top investigative reporter in the state from The Nashville Tennessean, in part, because he wanted to be a VJ. He was the second top-line reporter the station has recruited from the newspaper in a matter of weeks, because the emphasis on substance outweighs the farm-system approach of contemporary television news. Sechrist explains:

A majority of times you do not see the reporter in the story. This has an advantage of attracting people who are more interested in storytelling than seeing themselves on the air. To be sure it's advantageous if they have good "pipes," but it certainly takes the "appearance" prerequisite out of the equation. Local newspaper and radio reporters who have a wealth of local knowledge are now finding their way to the top of our candidates list.

Our aforementioned real estate reporter has worked as a real estate agent. When she does stories she brings a wealth of knowledge that a GA reporter doesn't have. The morning meetings have changed from the typical four our five news managers in a room determining the day's coverage to a raucous free-for-all in the newsroom with all the VJ's pitching their story ideas. To be sure, we still have desk people who keep track of breaking and developing stories, and some VJ's are better with story generation than others, but it is a much better method which invites participation from everyone.

We look for smart and motivated people in all sorts of disciplines. We are functioning more like a newspaper now with stories bubbling from the bottom up rather than the top down.

The proof of the concept, of course, will come in the form of ratings, but there's more to the VJ concept than a new way to produce TV news. By placing the tools of the personal media revolution in the hands of professionals, the station is opening the door to uses of the material that go far beyond what's seen on-the-air. Many of the VJs also have blogs, and those will evolve to include their video. The idea is to turn each beat into an on-line franchise, and the options after that are pretty significant, especially as the audience/readers get involved.

Nashville has a remarkably cohesive and growing blogosphere, and Sechrist has announced plans to work towards a citizens-media-generated daily news program through them, and again, the flexibility offered by the VJ concept — and the eye-opening revelation that local amateur journalists can be very good and knowledgeable storytellers — make this a real possibility moving forward. What will this do for the people who don't watch local news anymore? Stay tuned.

The core competency of any newsroom is the news it creates, and WKRN-TV is pioneering a vision for tomorrow. "Pioneers always take a few arrows," Sechrist is quick to point out, and he's had many of his own — from the industry, his company and his own staff. Still, he says he'd never go back.

I can't imagine not doing it this way. Our daily content has probably more than doubled what it was under the old system. There is an air of experimentation and innovation that was not possible under the old system where every crew had to produce one or two stories everyday no matter what. VJ's can now pitch stories that may take two days or more to put together. Beat reporters are usually producing three stories per week giving them time to work their sources. It is a better way than the old. We are still learning as we go along but this newsroom is much better than it was a year ago.

In Nashville, WKRN-TV is changing the face of local news, and while the ratings have just begun to strengthen, it's still too early to call it a ratings and revenue success. The newest hires — the top entertainment reporter from the newspaper (HINT: Nashville is an entertainment town) and the investigative reporter (HINT: Nashville is the seat of state government) — simply would not have happened had the station not deliberately placed a premium on local knowledge over style, and the VJ model is what brought that about. These people will need time to learn and produce, but the point is that the station has made considerable strides down a path that both Sechrist and Sabato see as inevitable for local news.

This has profound ramifications for people working in the industry and for journalism education as well. For if the farm system isn't as important as finding quality people with local knowledge, then young people who "want to be on TV" will have to take a different path. They may not need the skills they're being taught, because the tools of the trade are now easily acquired, and news "people" are growing up all around us — not just in the schools that form the front end of the farm system. Basic liberal arts may again become the foundation for people who report the news, and that may be just what the doctor ordered to stop the leak and bring people back to local news.

DISCLOSURE: WKRN-TV is my client.