In Depth

Sign Off: Directing News Across the Platforms

By Tom Petner

Paddy Chayefsky, the novelist/screenwriter who wrote the 1976 film classic “Network,” has a quote that speaks to the love-hate relationship some people have with TV in today’s multiplatform world: “It's the menace that everyone loves to hate but can't seem to live without.”

Some say television — especially local TV news — is in a death spiral and nearly kaput. It’s something we can do without, displaced by the Internet and mobile as the new content platforms of choice.

You might think lead lines like “Almost all the indicators for local TV are pointing down,” from the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s recently released study “The State of the News Media,” would be just enough to send TV news directors in search of the nearest and highest ledge.

You’d better think again.

Call it basic survival instinct, or whatever you want, but the latest RTDNA/Hofstra study has found a remarkably large percentage of news directors challenged with the demands of multiple platforms are not just sitting on their hands. Rather, they’re embracing the concept of feeding content to broadcast, Internet and mobile media on a 24/7 basis, many having re-engineered their news departments to take an aggressive three-screen approach with considerably reduced staff.

“A lot of people may be surprised to learn how many news directors have a three-screen approach already in place,” said Bob Papper, Hofstra University’s Journalism chair and the person responsible for directing the RTDNA’s research. “It’s much higher than I expected and more widespread, and it’s not just a big-station, big-market phenomenon.” Papper won’t spill the exact number until his presentation at the RTDNA@NAB Convention.

But Papper’s finding begs the question, are we social networking ourselves to death, and making broadcast news take a backseat to the deliver-it-now approach of the Web and mobile media? Where’s the line between a savvy three-screen approach and putting a knife in the back of the broadcast news business?

“That conversation is over. Forward thinkers are using this time to position themselves,” said Bill Carey, news director at WPIX-TV, the Tribune-owned station in New York. “The notion of three screens and treating them separately is yesterday. Homes already have merged screens. If you have FIOS from Verizon, you can switch from ‘Gossip Girl’ to Facebook on your flat-screen TV.”
For Carey and news managers at other media companies — like the Quincy Broadcast Group — the re-engineering process of newsrooms is way behind them. They’re already servicing customers with an aggressive three-screen approach.

There is no choice but to take a three-screen approach, according to Perry Boxx, news director at WKOW-TV, the Quincy-owned station in Madison, Wis. “If you’re going to be in the game and a serious news organization, you’ve got to be the first place everybody turns to when something is happening,” he said.

Boxx contends, however, that the Web and mobile screens can’t compare to TV in terms of sensory experience. “Television is such a powerful medium, and you can’t replace it with Tweets and Facebook,” he said. “You can’t give the emotion of a sound bite in a Tweet. You can’t give all the color and feel of a story on Facebook. It’s a different sensation and experience on the Web. But you do commit suicide if you’re not engaged in it.”

News directors like Boxx have come to realize that the three screens demand a different approach and have organized their newsrooms to accommodate the differences. Boxx’s newsroom, for example, is a mix of backpack-equipped multimedia journalists, “classic” reporters, and an assortment of new technology and online tools like CoverItLive, which Boxx uses to stream live TV coverage and generate live chats where people can voice opinions, ask questions, take part in polls and get real-time response from inside the newsroom.

One of the challenges Quincy news directors and other news managers now face is a question of balance. How much do you publish on what platform, and with what level of detail? Do you save anything for air?

Brian Bracco, vice president of News for the Hearst Group, points to the differences and values of each screen in striking that balance. “It’s still more interesting to watch video on a high-definition, 52-inch screen television versus the screen you get on a desktop or mobile phone,” he said. “But we’re now looking at stories on two and three screens and we have to devise ways of telling different stories for each one of them.”

Menace or not, you have to wonder what would happen if television went away.

“If we went away, what would be the tie that binds the local community,” said Bracco. “How would they know what’s happening in their community? How would they know about a fire or how to contribute to the fund for flood victims? People still value the local newscast. Is it the gathering place that it once was? Probably not. But will it go away anytime soon? Absolutely not.”