In Depth

Column: Can iPhone Save Local TV News?

Last week ABC News started offering text and video reports from the network and its owned stations for free on iPhones, joining CBS News, which lets citizen journalists upload videos of news on the street using their iPhones with the Eyemobile application.

One of the reasons news organizations are targeting the popular mobile phone is because of cord-cutters. Yes, TelevisionWeek readers like to point out that cord-cutters (consumers who no longer subscribe to satellite or cable) are still in the vast minority—and they are—but there are enough of them for news directors to notice.

Case in point: After reading one of my recent columns on life without cable, the news director of the San Francisco ABC-owned KGO-TV, Kevin Keeshan, reached out to me for my take on what happens to news viewing when you ditch cable programming.

I visited the station last week and asked Mr. Keeshan what concerned him most about the future of local news. The answer is obvious but bears repeating: How much more audience can TV stations lose?

“Has the audience deterioration that’s taken place in markets around the country bottomed, or can it get lower?” he asked.

I don’t have the answer, nor does he, nor does anyone. But those in the TV business should sure as hell act as if we’re not even remotely close to the bottom yet.

How? The same way the rest of us are forced to: Market the heck out of your stories on the Web.

During my visit to KGO, the station’s director of Web operations, Jennifer Mitchell, said that in addition to reaching out to heavily trafficked sites like Fark and Drudge Report, her Web team has developed relationships with local fire blogs and sailing sites, as examples, that often link to KGO stories on those topics. “It’s these hyper–specific topics that pick up on stories,” she said.

Other station groups are gunning for the super-targeted approach, too. When NBC revamped the Web sites of its owned stations last fall, the strategy was to treat them not as companion sites to the stations but as unique sources for local content, drawing from print, online, bloggers, individuals and, oh yeah, also the NBC stations.

Then there’s the CBS-owned station group, which offers widgets with its news to local bloggers and Web sites, luring them with a split of the profits from ads in the widgets.

Other unconventional tactics include out-of-left-field Web extensions like the futures market KGO offers online at http://abc7.inklingmarkets.com/, letting visitors vote on who’s going to win the Super Bowl, which automaker (if any) will declare bankruptcy and if President-elect Barack Obama will pass new legislation in his first 100 days in office.

“It’s a long process when you are trying to convert people who aren’t local news viewers,” Mr. Keeshan said, especially the millennials.

If they don’t convert to local TV news—and my money is on no—will they watch online, via widgets and on iPhones? That’s a much better bet. But it’s still a lean one. Even if the iPhone generation becomes local news consumers, don’t expect stations to have so many live trucks, reporters and boots on the ground in the future.

Get ready to shoot and edit stories with your iPhones someday soon.