By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
If technology is the engine that allows Internet Broadcasting to scale upward without a hitch, content is the fuel that keeps the entire enterprise running and relevant. Seventy-nine local Web sites need a lot of stories and images, and Internet Broadcasting is in the business of providing them. Even so, this fact is easy to forget, because the identity of each of Internet Broadcasting’s 79 TV station Web sites is almost invisible.
Expertise in providing content has been the result of trial and error. “One of the things all of us in the business tried first was taking the 6 p.m. newscast and putting that on the Web site,” said Internet Broadcasting founder Reid Johnson. “It was clear that it didn’t meet the audiences’ demands.”
Internet Broadcasting uses its hard-won expertise to bring to its nationwide network of local TV station Web sites a potent brew of words, images and sounds that adds up to a compelling news Web site. Among the ingredients are content from Associated Press, Getty Images and a handful of other content services. But the station Web sites are not rip-and-read sites. Instead, Internet Broadcasting employs 150 Web site editor/journalists, who work at nearly all of the 79 partner TV stations. (A handful of stations do not have full-time on-site editors, instead getting their Web site support from the national office.)
“They sometimes rewrite the content, definitely rewrite the headlines, create subheads, find images and maybe add additional content,” said Nancy Cassutt, Internet Broadcasting’s VP of content. “We’re a Web solution for TV stations. But it’s not done without a lock-step partnership with those stations.”
That means that the local TV stations sign off on the Internet Broadcasting hires. The Web editors sit in the station newsroom, take their leads from the head of the station’s news department, and in all ways remain closely in touch with the local stories that are important for that station.
“They do much more than repurpose news,” Ms. Cassutt said. “They’re living, breathing online journalists, and the stations are getting that content and experimenting with those stories. Even though those journalists report to us, they’re dialed in to the TV newsroom. It’s a market-by-market thing, but at some stations they’re considered a department head.”
`Better Than a Wire Service’
National news for the station Web sites is handled at Internet Broadcasting’s Minneapolis headquarters, where a news team of 25 people produces more than 50 stories a day, including national news and features. When appropriate, a story of national importance that originates at a local station is “nationalized” by the Minneapolis team, to be shared by the other station Web sites in the network.
Ms. Cassutt noted that while she cannot make decisions regarding local stories, she does make constant decisions about how to handle stories on the national level.
“I consider us better than a wire service, and we also create interactive content,” she said. “We churn national news all day, because we know people come to the Web site all day. We take the load off the newsroom’s back, in terms of doing the national news, so the local editors can focus on whatever is going on in their DMA. They don’t have to worry about some big national story breaking that they also have to produce for the Web site.”
Content also comes from Internet Broadcasting’s many partners. Two business development executives work with members of Ms. Cassutt’s national news team to target possible third-party content partners and figure out how to seamlessly integrate them onto the Web pages. Monster.com, for example, provides a tool for job search that can be made a centerpiece of a career “channel” on the sites. “It’s tool-based, not editorial,” said Ms. Cassutt.
Other third parties do provide content, including partners such as iVillage and Smart Money, and an entertainment journalist who provides movie reviews and interviews with movie stars.
“TV stations care about local news, and how we showcase that and interact with our communities is the most important thing that goes on,” she said. “National news and partnerships are important, but secondary. However we can facilitate and help them make their Web sites the best in their market is what we’re set up to do.”
The Minneapolis national news team also produces content such as graphics for the local stories, often when a breaking story requires immediate assistance that the station can’t offer.
“If editors want special graphics or a special section, they rely on us,” Ms. Cassutt said. “Editors sometimes find themselves in situations where the reporters, Chyron operators and editors are all busy on a breaking story, and so we do that for breaking news [for the online editors]. We’re training TV stations to help out with multimedia for the Web site, but that takes time.”
Training the Stations
In fact, training the TV station in “best practices” for the Web is a part of her job, Ms. Cassutt said. “Our role is to tell them what’s possible,” she said. “Our role is to guide them and help them with our best thinking.” At the same time, the rules are still being written as to what works most effectively on the Internet, she said, and changing technology means that achieving the most effective Web site is a task that is always evolving.
“We have a lot of resources here, but this isn’t a 60-year-old business like TV,” she said. “The biggest difference is that TV is a reactive medium, and what happens in a breaking news story on TV just happens. But we’re always proactive and we’re always thinking about what we want the end result to be, and that’s counterintuitive to TV. It’s a very different process.”
One of the biggest changes Ms. Cassutt currently sees taking place involves the use of video on the Web site. “Viewers are sending us video, and there are now a number of companies providing video upload tools,” she said. “Eighteen months ago we weren’t talking about video, and now we’re talking about it every day. It’s changing that quickly.”
Julie Burrows, executive VP of marketing, research and product development, noted that the increasing interest in video has been a key consideration in implementing a new wireless network that Internet Broadcasting launched in December 2005. Users of the wireless network can access the Web sites of 34 local stations in the Internet Broadcasting network, representing 50 percent coverage of the country.
“There’s a tremendous interest in video on the wireless sites,” Ms. Burrows said. “As consumers move to adopting more video-enabled phones, we’ll continue to look at what we deliver, including image-based products like slide shows.”
Ms. Burrows’ department features a TV production group that makes 1,000 TV commercials a month to promote the Web sites on-air, all executive produced and anchored by Marianne Milano.
“This is TV convergence,” Ms. Burrows said. “The advertisers want the message online and on-air. We’re good at sight, sound, motion-and not just for the Web site.”