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Veejays to the Rescue

Nov 14, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The news teams at two Young Broadcasting stations, ABC affiliate WKRN-TV in Nashville and independent KRON-TV in San Francisco, have turned to one-man “video journalists” in an attempt to expand news coverage and compete in a world where the business of local TV stations is threatened from every direction by new technologies.

Audiences have been shrinking as viewers turn to the Internet for news. Now stations’ network partners are bypassing them entirely in many cases by delivering content directly to consumers through video downloads to iPods, digital video recorders and cable operators’ on-demand services. Whether stations can stay relevant remains to be seen, but they need to fight their way into the future if they are to have a meaningful role there.

Young Broadcasting is looking to the video journalist concept to do just that. The company said in its earnings report last week that the use of VJs, or one-man bands, being tested at the two stations could “improve future results.” WKRN has already implemented the strategy; KRON is launching it this month. WKRN has also reached out to local bloggers to train them as stringers.

Earlier this summer WKRN trained its reporters, photographers and editors as video journalists, outfitting them with 3-pound Sony HD cameras, effectively allowing the station to triple its “field staff” in one fell swoop. The station has been able to re-establish a beat structure and increase its daily story output by 50 percent.

The ABC affiliate held an eight-week training course that helped the journalists learn each other’s jobs. After the class the station was able to go from about 13 camera crews to having 30 cameras in use, including a number of single-person crews.

The reasoning behind the change is simple. Viewer feedback has often focused on the paucity of local news stories and their lack of breadth, said Mike Sechrist, president and general manager of WKRN. “Now we can give people time to do better stories. They can take a day or two to do better stories,” he said.

However, some stories still require two people, Mr. Sechrist said. “It may be a difficult shoot, or where safety is an issue,” he said. “Or if there is breaking news, we will keep people back to act as traditional crews.”

A smaller crew can also allow for more intimate, frank interviews, he said.

Some reporters initially balked at going to the small-market “one-man-band” technique, Mr. Sechrist acknowledged. But he said it’s a necessity in the contracting news business.

“There is a big disconnect in newsrooms in what’s happening in our business,” he said. “News guys [often] think everything is going like it always has and stations are making tons of money and sales guys are driving nice cars. But revenue is getting harder to achieve with audience levels going down, and there are a lot of other places for people to advertise.”

The benefits of the strategy became clear quickly. WKRN now averages 12 to 13 fresh stories each day during the two hours of news spread between 4-5:30 p.m. and 6-6:30 p.m. That’s up from about eight stories previously.

The station has also assigned beats again, including hiring a full-time religion reporter, establishing geographic beats, instituting business and real estate beats and allowing its political and education reporters to be dedicated solely to those beats.

Breaking the habit of the two-person crew can help a station move into a future where media is increasingly becoming “unbundled,” said Terry Heaton, a new-media consultant in Nashville who advised WKRN. Whether the video journalist and stringer strategies can ultimately return viewers to a shrinking medium is unknown, but stations have to try something, he said. “Anything that breaks the mold is healthy for a TV station,” he added.

WKRN hosted two classes this fall to train about 20 local-area bloggers as stringers. The station hasn’t used any of their submissions yet, but will pay a fee when it does. “It’s another resource and another way for us to reach out to the people we are really trying to communicate with,” Mr. Sechrist said.

While training viewers to shoot news is a new approach, local TV stations have solicited user videos for years for their news products. The concern with such content is ensuring it’s journalistically sound, said Shannon High-Bassalik, news director at Viacom-owned CBS station WFOR-TV in Miami. “Anybody can say anything, so you have to be careful,” she said.

Finally, WKRN hired local blogger Brittney Gilbert, a former waitress and journalism student, whose new full-time job is overseeing the WKRN-sponsored blog site nashvilleistalking.com. The site links to Nashville-area bloggers; it does not specifically promote WKRN. Ms. Gilbert said she has even linked to stories the station’s competitors have done.

The purpose of the blog is to reach out to younger people who primarily consume news online. “We’re trying to start a conversation with people who don’t watch us,” Mr. Sechrist said. The blog readership is about 800 to 1,000 unique visitors per day.