When newsroom consultant Steve Safran visits a television station, one of the first questions he asks news directors and general managers is: If you were to design your business today, would it look the way it does now?
The question is usually followed by a pregnant pause, because most broadcasters would need to do a lot of things differently if they were building their stations from the ground up in today’s always-on, digital media world.
That’s why Mr. Safran will tackle how local broadcasters can retrofit their news operations for the digital world during a session he’ll lead at the Radio-Television News Directors Association conference this week in Las Vegas. The session, titled “Leading Change in a Digital Newsroom,” is slated for Monday and is one of the centerpiece panels at the convention.
“Would you build a giant TV operation with a small Web operation?” he said. “No, you would build something that looked entirely different.”
That means smart broadcasters need to devote more resources to the Web. That doesn’t mean just flipping stories for a station’s Web site. It means building out a social Web site that’s tied into the community more, he said. Stations should look at how to partner with the community, such as offering information-based widgets that individuals, Web sites and blogs can place on their Web pages. “You need to organize the local blogosphere so the local bloggers are sharing your RSS feed and you are creating a vibrant community of discussion,” Mr. Safran said.
He recommends stations also use the Web as a home for both breaking stories and original content. “Stations have to stop thinking of themselves as TV stations with Web sites. They have to see themselves as digital newsrooms. News goes in, news goes out, and when you gather something it immediately goes out.”
Many stations are starting to do this. “We are beyond that age of saving news for 4, 5, 6 p.m. We will absolutely break news on the Web,” said Caroline Bleakley, news online manager with Landmark-owned KLAS-TV in Las Vegas, the market’s CBS affiliate. She’ll be on Mr. Safran’s panel at RTNDA.
KLAS’ site, www.lasvegasnow.com, runs Web extras and extended interviews on the site. To get that additional content involves retraining reporters to call in with Web updates, for a start.
Sometimes, she’ll just take down the pertinent facts and write a short item based on the call, she said. The site also recently added hyper-targeted news and weather information for each neighborhood in Las Vegas.
The Web-centric strategy seems to be working. Unique visitors to LasVegasnow.com hit 777,000 in March, a 220% increase from last year. Ms. Bleakley said about two-thirds of Web site visitors also watch the newscasts, which means viewers are loyal to the stations and also that the station reaches viewers online that it wouldn’t otherwise have reached.
Use of the station’s mobile news product has risen nearly five times over the last year. “We are no longer just TV,” Ms. Bleakley said. “We are digital, multimedia, online all the time. We are way beyond expecting people to get their news at set times.”
New England Cable News in Boston has worked with Mr. Safran to overhaul the Web content for the regional cable news network. “Before we were like a lot of TV stations—our Web site reflected what we put on air. We are working to make NECN.com a very stand-alone product you can differentiate from a TV station,” said Ted McEnroe, director of digital media at NECN.
“Viewers are on the Web 24 hours a day, and the expectation is you are updating your site 24 hours a day.”
The NECN overhaul includes adding blogs and allowing more comments, more feedback on stories and more viewer-submitted content. The main video player on the home page is designed to foster interactivity because it includes buttons to embed, link, email and share videos on the video player.
As stations become platform-agnostic, they should expect changes in workflow, said Adam Symson, VP of interactive at E.W. Scripps Co. television stations group, who will speak on the panel.
“We’ve got to re-engineer every workflow that has us tied to specific times for our news distribution. For the most part, as an industry, that we organize our entire day around a morning meeting that determines what the news is 9 hours later seems archaic in an era when consumers have access to every news source—local, national or global—at all times.”
Stations also need to use research to understand not just what viewers want on-air, but what they want online, what kinds of news and information they are seeking and how they want it delivered, Mr. Symson said.