Taking TV news to the next level in an era of disruption

In a media landscape defined by disruption, television news has pulled off a remarkable feat: it’s basically unchanged.

Sure, we’ve gotten more news choppers and better graphics on weather and politics. There are a few interesting TV news apps. But, for the most part, your local TV news broadcast looks much as it did a decade ago. It’s pretty much locked into its time slot of 5 p.m. or 10 p.m. You sit, you watch. The anchors work their way through weather, traffic, sports and the smattering of local stories brought to you from the roving news truck. If you stick around long enough, maybe there is a great story at minute 22.

Sixty years of TV news in two and a half minutes. | Credit: Leila Dougan

But what if you could harness all the emergent technologies to reshape TV news into a brand-new product, one that maximizes audience engagement, personalizes broadcasts to your interests and allows you to dig deep into digitized news archives?

We recently put that question to a group of technology executives and TV news professionals during a day-long workshop at the Annenberg Innovation Lab. The guest list included Cisco, DirecTV and several tech startups, as well as ABC, CBS, Univision, Frontline, the Los Angeles Times and Reuters. The goal was to see if we could come up with ideas for products that would take your TV news to the next level. We did. But first, why hasn’t this happened already?

One of the big problems for TV news, especially local news, is that, well, it still kind of works. Yes, national news broadcasts grab only about half of the 52 million viewers they had at their 1980 peak. But they are still making money by owning a coveted audience of mostly seniors.

Meanwhile, local TV news is, by many measures, thriving. It often accounts for as much as half of a station’s total revenue. Many local TV stations are producing upwards of five hours of live TV news a day. Some are even expanding. Around 74% of Americans either watch or check a local TV news web site at least once a week, more than any other news source. Though news snobs may snicker, Americans also rate local TV news as their most trustworthy source, giving it higher grades than 60 Minutes or NPR.

But success can breed complacency. And in an environment of constant upheaval, there is no clear path toward successful innovation. At the same time, the costs of doing nothing are sky high. Just ask any newspaper executive.

There are a few areas where TV news cleans everyone’s clock. On the local level, it’s weather and traffic. There are plenty of easier and even more accurate ways to get traffic updates, but TV news puts a narrative behind that backup on the freeway (it’s the jackknifed tractor-trailer which slammed into the guardrail) and serves up aerial views of the scene as well.

Also, for a live event, nothing beats TV news. Whether it’s the runaway balloon boy in Colorado (a hoax, it turns out) or coverage of a DC-9 dropping flame retardant on a wildfire in Southern California, TV news produces can’t-look-away coverage.

But it’s also shackled with issues that make it such a poor fit in an access-anywhere, news-on-demand environment. During the eight hours we spent cloistered together in a room, our group of TV news folks and techies pretty much agreed on the shortcomings.

First, there’s a total absence of viewer control when it comes to TV news. They are still producing a one-size-fits-all broadcast, which feels increasingly anachronistic to the viewer.

Also, appointment viewing – with the news stuck in a time slot – clashes with packed schedules and increasing competition for mindshare. I might DVR a sit-com, but news off the DVR gets stale quickly.

Breaking down 30 minutes of news. | Credit: Jake de Grazia

The good news is that there are solutions to both of these problems. And solving them might also help TV news crack another problem: how to directly connect with its audience.

One scenario the group came up with is an app that would allow viewers to build their own broadcasts throughout the day. As soon as the sun comes up, the app pushes out a list of five video stories. Viewers can choose which ones to put in their playlist and which ones to discard. As the day moves forward, viewers are given more choices. Some come from pushed breaking news alerts; others come from the viewers’ own social network or favorite topics. The playlist is dynamic.

Whenever the viewer has a free 20 minutes, he or she can watch the tailored broadcast on the device of choice – phone, tablet, computer or regular TV. The stories that play are the latest on a particular topic, so if you selected a story on the debt ceiling in the morning, then you’re greeted with the most up-to-date version when you decide to watch.

Reinventing the evening news at the Annenberg Innovation Lab. | Credit: Melissa Kaplan

The goal is to create a news package that is both customized and curated. Those two characteristics often appear to be at odds with each other. But it was clear from our day-long exercise that customers want both.

Another prototype that came out of the day was a news interface that allows you to pause the broadcast you’re watching in order to go deeper into a particular topic. After watching a two-minute piece on Syria, the viewer can choose to go back in time and learn more about the rebels, the Assad dynasty or other aspects of the story by instantly accessing a broadcaster’s digital archives from a list that pops up on the screen. When the viewer has had his or her fill, it’s back to the regular broadcast.

Other ideas for innovation emerged from the discussion. As usual, the technologists saw a sea of possibility while the news folks saw a wall of obstacles, such as content rights and a newsroom culture resistant to change. But the takeaway from the day was that TV news, if it chooses, has the potential to radically enrich the way it engages with its audience. Let’s hope they seize the opportunity. So stay tuned.

The customized newspaper is right around the corner, if you're willing to go there

Mary Lou Fulton is Vice President of Audience Development at The Bakersfield Californian and a member of the advisory board of the Knight Digital Media Center.

Newspapers are “one size fits all” publications fighting to survive in a world gravitating toward personalized and niche media. But what if you could have the best of both worlds – the serendipity of browsing a newspaper combined with content and advertising that was tailored just for you?

This idea has been kicking around for years, but in Europe, the Swiss Post (that’s the postal service, not a newspaper) and the German tech startup Syntops are making it happen with their Personal News project. This is a small experiment, but a fascinating one that offers a mashup of section fronts from select newspapers in Europe and the U.S. An overview of Personal News, a three-month pilot project that launched in December, was presented by Syntops CEO Gregor Dorsch at this month’s conference on Individuated News.

Here’s how it works:

You register online and select up to seven newspaper sections by checking a box. Participating newspapers include The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Austria’s Der Standard, Switzerland’s Tages-Anzeiger and others. You can change your selections daily as long as you do so before the nightly 7 pm cutoff:

The participating newspapers deliver their product in PDF format to the Swiss Post, which then sends them to Syntops where the company’s custom software, Syntops GmbH, assembles individualized PDFs. The PDFs are printed and dropped off to Swiss Post by 7 a.m. for delivery to the home by 11 a.m. There also is a digital version of Personal News available online.

The front page of Personal News includes a personal greeting (Good Morning, Mary Lou!) and lists your newspaper choices in an index. The interior pages consist of full pages from the selected newspapers, exactly as they appeared in print.

Personal News is offered in limited geographic areas of Zurich. The experiment was marketed to potential subscribers in this area, who agreed to pay 40 Swiss francs, or about $35 USD, to take part in the project. About 250 people are participating so far, and have agreed to provide feedback as part of the study. Results will be announced after the pilot wraps up at the end of February.

This project is a relatively simple example of “mass customization” in that it involves the generation of individualized PDFs that are assembled and then printed one-by-one on a conventional press. This is a much slower process than what is needed for the printing volume of daily newspapers.

The possibilities are more exciting when you considered the capabilities of the newest digital presses, such as those manufactured by the digital press manufacturer Oce, that enable variable printing on the fly. This means that the each newspaper that comes off the press can be uniquely assembled based on the reader’s content and advertising preferences.

Let’s think about what we could do with that.

At a very basic level, readers could exclude sections they don’t want. For example, I go online for classifieds, so don’t bother giving me the print classified sections. While you’re at it, you can keep the sports section. Or maybe just give me the sports section on the weekends.

Whenever newspapers change anything, like taking away a comic strip or the TV listings to save money on newsprint, a certain segment of readers howl and even cancel their subscriptions. With this type of personalization, we’d never have to field a complaint like this again.

We also could give readers a way to opt-in for more coverage on subjects they care about. Or better yet, we could transcend the broad and increasingly useless section categories of newspapers to deliver information focused on important life stages and events. If you’re faced with taking care of an aging parent, information about elder care would be invaluable. If you’re traveling to Africa this summer, wouldn’t it be great to see more news coverage about the region you intend to visit? If you’re trying to lose weight, how about content that helps you achieve that goal?

Many newspaper readers also get news online. What if your online preferences, based on what you read and the habits of like-minded readers, could help to shape what flows into your customized print edition? What if this content also could include the perspectives of your favorite bloggers?

By the way, I’m not suggesting that we create newspapers solely driven by the personal choices of readers, I just want a mix that’s more relevant to me than what any general interest publication can offer.

Now let’s talk about revenue. In addition to the potential for more subscription dollars, consider the possibilities for personalized advertising. Suddenly the newspaper becomes like direct mail, with advertisements customized at the household level and only delivered to readers for whom they are relevant. Readers could even opt-in for the types of advertising content they want, such as vacation deals or sales on back-to-school clothes for kids. When my grandmother was very ill, I would have been so grateful to receive ads for Spanish-speaking home health care providers because it took me forever to track them down through calls to individual agencies. Advertising can become a more valuable and relevant service when imagined in this way.

This year, we’ll see more experiments with mass customization at the Los Angeles Daily News and Investor’s Business Daily. There’s a good roundup of forthcoming initiatives in a recent Seybold Online report. And if you’re looking for inspiration, read Vin Crosbie’s powerful case for mass customization and make plans to attend the Global Conference on Individuated Publishing in Washington DC this June.

Vin summed up the opportunity well in saying, “Give me the consumer the bulletins and urgents plus all the stories about which editors truly think everyone should be informed. But let the consumer pick which sports, teams, and topics fill the rest of the paper. Better that the childless bachelor gets stories about a car he desires than school lunch menus. Better a fashionable young woman gets the stories about the latest couture from Paris and Milan than sports or that AP story on page 7 about record wheat harvests in the Sudan.

“Customization makes the daily newspaper more relevant to each person’s interest and needs. It will make the daily newspaper much, much more valuable.”