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Local TV Newsers: Meet Denise. She May Be the Future. She May Eat Your Lunch.

702.tv's Denise Spidle

702.tv's Denise Spidle

Reading the story in the Las Vegas Sun, you could forgive a veteran local television reporter for an instinctive chuckle.  Oh, aren’t they precious!  The newspaper people are trying to do TV! They’ve even gone and bought themselves a red couch and a curtain for a backdrop!

Yeah, you definitely want to laugh it off. But here’s the weird thing about 702.tv:  it’s interesting, it’s different, and it’s the supposedly-dead medium of print, encroaching–yet again–on TV’s turf.  It’s almost like (am I crazy here?) the print people think they can win the battle for local video online.  Nah.  That’s crazy. We own that!

From the Washington Post, and it’s excellent series of video documentaries posted online, to The New York Times’ creative and compelling commitment to multi-media storytelling, it’s becoming clear the print folk don’t want to stay on their side of the fence in what’s obviously a deathmatch.  There will be local news, of course, and it’ll probably be predominantly online at some point, but thinking that we’re the experts on video and so obviously it’s the papers that have to give up and go home… well, that’s a huge mistake.

Think about your TV newsroom.  What print tricks have you adopted?  Certainly you haven’t got bodies in police precincts running through the overnight arrests, and nobody’s hanging out in the courthouse checking on interesting lawsuits.  That’s what newspapers are for, right?

Ah, but you’ve learned to write in print form for the web!  Right?  You doctor up your 6 o’clock script into a mock-print style and file it–sorry, feed it–to the website.  And what a brilliant website it is, if I know anything about local TV, I’m sure yours is creative, ground-breaking, and chock full of unique uses of video. Right?

Right?

702_tilt_logo_newEverybody in town isn’t coming out of this alive, folks.  And assuming the print people will roll over and play dead just because, you know, the printing press is dead, well, that doesn’t seem to be working.  Sure, the paper won’t be hitting doorsteps like it used to, but those print folk seem so aggressive about getting into our game.  And far moreso than we seem to be about getting into theirs.  Or even, about getting more creative about what we do.  And that’s how companies go out of business.

Doing a “webcast” that’s a lousy and dated version of your noon newscast?  That’s not creative.  That’s not going to grab someone and say, hey, that’s different. But I wouldn’t put it past the kids in Vegas from getting that reaction.  Yeah, sure, their motto is “News Never Looked So Good.”  There’s that part of the equation. I get that.  But there’s something else.  There’s a creativity here that I haven’t seen coming from TV stations.

Take a look at the winners of the Knight Foundation’s 2009 News Challenge.  No call letters among the bunch.  But a LOT of creative, multi-platform, forward-thinking ideas about taking information and getting it in front of people, instead of sitting back on our broadcast bottoms and continuing to think the audience will just keep coming to us.

The Knight Foundation Voters Decide in Miami:  Local TV?  Not on the Table.

The Knight Foundation Voters Decide in Miami: Local TV? Not on the Table.

Eric Umansky and Scott Klein of ProPublica, and Aaron Pilhofer and Ben Koski of The New York Times won $719,500 to bankroll a project aimed at enriching investigative news reports by creating an easily searchable, free, public online database of public records.  (As Jeff Jarvis would say, that’s asking “What Would Google Do?)

Gail Robinson at the Gotham Gazette won $250,000 to create an online wiki devoted to local legislators’ voting records and campaign contributions, so voters in New York can go someplace–free–and find usable information.

And in Phoenix, Aleksandra Chojnacka and Adam Klawonn of the Daily Phoenix won $95,000 to fund their idea of using news, games and social networking to help commuters on the city’s light rail system informed about their city.

Where’s the proof broadcasters get it?  Where’s the creativity that shows we will endure, succeed and prosper five years from now?  Skype liveshots?  Anchor blogs?  Weather widgets?

Folks.  The Buick dealer isn’t coming back on a white horse to save you.  What are you doing to change?

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The Rocky’s “Final Edition” and What it Means to the Future of Local News

Telling Their Own Sad Story with Style: "Final Edition"

Maybe you won’t ever take my advice and try Twitter, and that’s cool. I can keep making great connections and digging up unique stories there without you. I won’t force you to cross that social media bridge if you’re not ready. But I will insist that you watch the short film, “Final Edition,” a moving account of the final days of the proud and storied Rocky Mountain News.

The Rocky's Matthew Roberts

The Rocky's Matthew Roberts

The film is the work of Matthew Roberts and a gifted team of video storytellers who were, until Friday, working at the very cutting edge of local news. The irony that this short film now serves as an epitaph for a once-mighty newspaper is sad to the point of nausea. But it captures perfectly where we are right now: some historically print-based local newsrooms are moving fast and furious into imaginative, different video storytelling, and threaten to beat local tv newsers at their own game. Watch the film and decide for yourself if you’ve seen anything like that on your nearest “Action News” lately. It’s a lot closer to documentary than to 1:15 local news packages. And it’s a lot more powerful.

Sure, it wasn’t banged out in an afternoon. But then again, local tv newsers don’t produce that kind of stuff when given the time either. It’s usually something more along the lines of dirty motel room sheet investigations. “Final Edition” has no flashy graphics (just some damn creative ones, like softly floating photographs of the many Rocky headquarters buildings over the years, and the memorable history captured on the tab’s front pages), and no short bites. It combines on the street interviews that breathe… with true documentary camera work that makes every second of the film visually arresting as its content rips your heart out.

There are currently newspapers shooting video in cities all over the country. Some are trying to copy the local tv model, others are taking the Rocky’s route, including the Washington Post, which calls its stories “documentary videos.” And they’re good, too. Scary good, in this tv newser’s opinion. I watched a Post story on iTunes and tried to track down the filmmaker without luck. Today, after watching “Final Edition,” I looked up Matthew on Twitter, sent him a note and heard right back. He’s a talented guy, and somebody’s going to snatch him up. (Oh, sorry, did I mention Twitter again?)

The Rockys Video Team at Work on Election Night

The Rocky's Video Team at Work on Election Night

Here’s my point: I feel like I could learn a lot about visual storytelling from this “newspaper” guy. And that gives me a hint as to where we could take the concept of local news past the old models into something new, different, creative, and sucessful. As you watch the film, you feel Denver. You feel the paper. You feel the people. It takes you there. And just as someone says in the film, it takes a local journalist to do that kind of work. Local news is essential and people will always crave it. It’s up to us to take a page out of the book of a print guy who just lost his job to find our way.

Maybe Matthew Roberts will show us, because let me tell you, wherever he ends up, whether it’s a print newsroom, a television newsroom, or something else entirely, that’s where I want to be, too, doing something fresh, creative, and important.

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Local TV Stations: The Money Printing Press is Broken. Can Stations Build a New One?

Will News on the iPhone Save Us?

Will News on the iPhone Save Us?


It’s an accepted truism in TV that local stations, as long as there have been local stations, have been money-making machines.  At least, until recently, when the gears jammed, the networks stopped being station groups’ BFFs, audiences started sampling other sources for news, and even the uber-dependable local advertisers took their Buick dealer dollars and shoved ’em under the mattress.

Scary times.  Local newsers are out of work, wondering if stations will ever field the local news benches that we all grew up expecting.  The financial model that kept local news afloat-and profitable-seems to have fallen apart.  Is that a temporary reaction to the recession, or a sign that things are evolving, as they have been for years in the newspaper biz?

Slate makes a compelling argument that debating the financial model misses the point:  “unlike most businesses, serious journalism has seldom been about the straightforward pursuit of profit. Nearly all of the most important journalistic institutions in the free world are hybrids of one form or another—for-profit but underwritten by generous owners or other profitable businesses; not-for-profit yet entrepreneurial; co-operative; or government-subsidized,” writes Jacob Weisberg.

But hold on there, JW.  What about the reassuring words we’ve been hearing from our news directors, GMs, and station group suits:  “the web will save us!  serve the web!”  (You know, just like weekend morning news did).  Well, Weisberg points to the past:  “In times of yore, the best American newspapers worked like this: Public-spirited families with names like Sulzberger, Bancroft, Chandler, and Graham (the owners of Newsweek, Slate, and the Washington Post) built highly profitable businesses by becoming dominant information sources in major local markets.”

Graham and Bradlee:  Money, Talent and History-Making Journalism

Graham and Bradlee: Money, Talent and History-Making Journalism

Weisberg argues that it was the media barons whose bankrolls made things work, not a successful financial model, and that, for papers at least–and perhaps local tv newsers as well, the magic formula that saves us all may not be there either:  “With the decline of their traditional revenue sources, capitalists in the news business are having to become even more creative. But they won’t find the grail of a new economic model for journalism—because there wasn’t an old one.”

What’s your take, local newsers?  Is the web and all its multi-platform potential a path to profitability?  Was giving news away for free a mistake?  Would anyone pay for the waterskiing squirrels we’ve been feeding them for years anyway?  Will we all end up working for web-based, advertiser supported and charitably-endowed hybrids that let us do worthwhile reporting at moderate, but not princely pay?

Do tell.

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Andrea McCarren: Not “Angry or Bitter,” Just “Sad for Our Industry.”

Andrea McCarren

Andrea McCarren

Former WJLA/DC reporter Andrea McCarren says her recent layoff really sunk in at the gym, the day after she was called at home by station managers and told not to come in to work:  “The morning after I was fired, I went to the gym. The moment I walked through the door, I spotted some employees from a local radio station doing a promotion. “Hey, it’s Andrea McCarren!” one of them yelled. “From Channel 7!” My heart sank. I offered a weak, “Hey, how ya doin’?” and headed to the exercise machines. I hadn’t anticipated how it would feel, after so many years, not to be “from Channel 7″ anymore.”

Writing in the Sunday Washington Post, McCarren says she has no grudges;  in fact, she wrote her bosses thank you notes the day after her layoff, thanking them for the chance to cover stories around the world and have a “front seat to history.”  And she says she understands the economic rationale for the cutbacks costing so many local newsers their jobs:  “I’ve covered plenty of stories about our faltering economy. So the call I received that Friday morning wasn’t completely out of the blue. I know that my employers held on as long as they possibly could. I’m not angry or bitter. Mostly I’m sad for our industry and our viewers.”

Read McCarren’s entire story here.

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WJLA’s “Massive” Talent Layoffs: “It’s Like Losing Everything at Once”

Some were called at home with the news, like 26 year veteran journalist Andrea McCarren.  “They said I didn’t need to come in today, McCarren told the Washington Post.

Andrea McCarren/WJLA Photo
Andrea McCarren/WJLA Photo

“I’m not bitter, but I am sad.”  

Reporter Sarah Lee was in the field, working the early morning shift.  She got a call telling her to come directly back to the newsroom.  “I don’t take it personally,” she told the Post.  “My contract was up, and I was legally eligible to be let go.”  Lee is pregnant, and will be out of a job when her contract expires at the end of February.

WJLA/DC’s 26-employee layoff was described by some as a “bloodbath,” and spread to other Allbritton-owned newsrooms across the country.  WJLA reporter Alisa Parenti told the Post’s Neely Tucker, “it’s just amazing to think how things were 20 years ago in this business and how they are now.  I loved my job, the people I worked with.  It’s like losing everything at once.”

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