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.

National party conventions, graphic photos, social media's bull$#!t, open data, and a world stream

Here’s a quick roundup of stories and conversations that caught our attention in the past week, the first in what will gradually become a regular series.

Convention City: For the next two weeks, we’ll be barraged with reportage from the Republican and Democratic national conventions. As MediaShift points out, a lot of attention among media observers will be paid to how a variety of digital tools are deployed, much like it was during the Summer Olympics. The media industry blog has already put together a helpful list of resources for following the conventions. Meanwhile, the Washington Post has launched a new feature it’s calling The Grid, which is an interesting way to scan through all their various social media and reporting channels and get the latest on the RNC (and next week the DNC).

Instagraphic: In case you missed it (which seems impossible), Instagram moved to the center of a century-old debate this weekend following the shootings at the Empire State Building. When user @ryanstryin posted a graphic photo showing one of the victims lying in the street, it prompted a lot of reflection from both the mainstream media and the public over whether it’s appropriate to publish or share such images. We’ve had these arguments since the advent of photography – in times of war, in times of peace – on whether to publish photos of the dead and wounded or withhold them out of respect for the victims and their families. But this was a special kind of wake-up call. The media no longer makes these decisions, now that witnesses have a publishing platform in their pocket. New media commentator and J-school prof Jeff Jarvis got a little hot under the collar defending his own decision to share the photo on his Twitter stream and offers a compelling argument on the side of keeping the news unfiltered. The point is, if you click this hyperlink showing a victim with blood streaming down the sidewalk (republished here by Slate), you’ve already been forewarned by the linked words. Since mainstream media still have the broadest reach, they will continue to find themselves at the center of this debate, but the audience is going to find it increasingly difficult to avoid such material. The decision will be not one for the “broadcaster” on whether to share, but a personal one on whether to click.

Streaming the world 60 seconds at a time. The Wall Street Journal is now asking its reporters to file microvideo reports using the social media video platform Tout. They’re calling it WorldStream. From Tampa to Syria, you can see snippets of life, the news, and everything else a reporter can capture with a mobile phone camera. A first dive leaves me with the impression that much, much work has yet to be done before WSJ’s WorldStream can be called a mature product. Rebels relaxing in a mosque in Syria might have been portrayed better with a photo, for instance. Thirty seconds watching a pan of the empty delegate center in Tampa would have been better spent reading an actual story about the convention. And I can’t help but wonder what you can expect to get out of a 60-second interview with a pol – the format seems more suited to TMZ celeb shots and gotcha journalism. It will be interesting to see how the service evolves. For now, my main impression is that we’re looking at the news equivalent of Romantic fragment poems – Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn” or Keats’ “Hyperion.” They may work artistically, but are story fragments really the best approach for an industry devoted to informing and enlightening its audience?

Social media is bull$#!t. Or so says B.J. Mendelson in the title of his new book. The former social media marketer and contributor to Mashable boosts his own contrarian view after serving the industry for years. Among some of the more common precepts of online journalism Mendelson disputes: the all-importance of pageviews, that Facebook really has 800 million users, and that we’ve learned much new about Internet marketing since Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” He tells journalist Ernie Smith that the biggest BS thing about social media is “the concept that what’s happening on these very different platforms, with their comparatively small and different audiences, has resonance with what’s happening with the rest of us. This false hope we’re giving people, which not coincidentally popped up around the same time the economy cratered. People needed something to believe in, and selfish and greedy marketers were ready to give that to them in the package of the myth of social media.” Incidentally, the interview is a nice display of what you can do with Jux, yet another platform for quick blogging.

The problem with open data. Is there one? Some interesting conversations on the topic this week. One started when the White House announced the selection of its “Innovation Fellows,” members of the private and nonprofit sectors and academia whose job it will be to help develop five government programs, including one on open data. That announcement sparked some backlash from conservative commentators, including Michelle Malkin, who wondered whether this isn’t really just a waste of taxpayer money. Open government reporter Alex Howard captured some of that debate, which unfolded in the social media sphere. Meanwhile, techPresident’s David Eaves reported on how a government spending scandal uncovered in the U.K. with the help of an open data project raises as many questions about how government collects and reports its data as it does about the suspect spending. So, what do you do if the government’s databases are poorly coded or managed – how do we get the government to change? And even if you discover these remarkable stories with the aid of open data sources, does it make it any easier to act? More questions like these are sure to present themselves as data journalism flowers into a discipline in its own right.

Another decade of the Internet. I leave you with a fun look back at how much the Internet has changed in the past 10 years, courtesy of this Mashable infographic. Enjoy.

Two new features from Google, neither of which are named 'Plus'

The big news from Google over the past week or so has been the launch of Google Plus… which I won’t be writing about today, for reasons I’ll mention at the end of this post. But I wanted to bring your attention to two other Google initiatives of interest to news publishers, which deserve not to be lost in the hype over Google Plus.

First, Google’s launched a new program to identify authors and attribute their webpages to them. The program uses authors’ personal Google Profile pages as the focal point for listing and linking all their current work around the Web.

The program provides some additional visibility to participating authors’ work in exchange for their linking more visibly to their Google Profile pages. (Here’s mine, so you can see how this works from that end.)

It’s a relatively easy four-step process to participate. But you’ll need access to the content management system your publication runs.

First, you’ll need to add a rel=”author” attribute to the anchor tags around the bylines of your articles. That anchor tag should hyperlink your author profile page on the same Web domain.

Second, that author profile page will need to include a link back to your Google Profile. And the anchor tag linking the Google Profile should include a rel=”me” attribute.

Third, in the links section of your Google Profile, you should include a link back to the author profile page on your website, checking the box that “this page is specifically about me.”

Fourth, make sure that the “+1” tab on your Google Profile is set to public. If you want to make sure you did everything correctly, you can ask for Google to review your work by filling out this form.

What happens then?

Google will begin adding all of your bylined articles to the +1 tab of your Google Profile. It will also automatically assign a “+1” from you to those articles, so you don’t have to manually hype your own stuff to the search engine anymore. Google also will add a thumbnail of your profile photo next to the links to each of your articles in its search engine results pages [SERPs].

What’s the value of those steps? I don’t know yet. It’s too early for me to tell if those steps are driving more traffic from Google to the articles that I write. Or if the additional +1s are moving my articles up in the SERPs, relative to where they would have been without them.

But, having been in situations where people have tried to copy my work online and pass it off as their own, I’m encouraged that this system exists by which Google is associating my work with my profile as soon as it’s published. It’s also just fun me to make code change on my website and see an immediate change in the Google SERPs. I don’t know if I’m moving up any spots, but I think having my picture there next to my work is kinda neat.

Google’s second initiative is over on YouTube.

For videos that appear on a website with an RSS feed, an “As seen on (Website name)” link now appears just below those videos on YouTube. That link sends readers to a new YouTube page for your website (not your website’s YouTube channel) that lists the most-recently linked YouTube videos on your site, and links back to the articles that embedded or referenced them. (Here’s an example from one of my websites.)

YouTube is building these pages from RSS feeds, looking for YouTube links and embed codes. Do note that YouTube appears to be referencing only the first link or embed code it finds in a post, ignoring additional videos in that post. And it ignores entirely posts without video links or embeds.

Again, I haven’t yet seen any increase in site or video traffic from this new feature. But I’m intrigued by the “Play All” option that appears on the top of YouTube’s generated pages for the videos on my sites.

The “Play All” option effectively creates a playlist of all those referenced videos, on the fly. With one click, I can watch videos from all of my recent blog posts, back to back, in a single stream.

That’s bringing us one step closer to the day when video-using websites adopt the functionality of a traditional television channel. While I enjoy the interactivity of online media, we won’t reach our largest possible audience until we offer an alternative for more passive consumers. We need to get to the moment when someone can switch on the television, click to an online channel, then watch video after video from that channel without having to navigate, much like I can sit in front of my TV and watch a traditional channel such as ABC or Comedy Central for as long as I want. When that happens, that’s the day that online blows up the television industry the way that it’s already blown up print media.

Finally, I wanted to mention why I’m not writing about Google Plus. It’s not that I haven’t gotten an invitation (and thank you to all who sent one). It’s that Google won’t let me use it. Whenever I go to plus.google.com, I get this message:

This feature is not available for your account
You must be over a certain age to use this feature.”

Seeing as I’m 43, and that I find it hard to believe that Google developed a feature that’s only for use by Baby Boomers and older, I looked on my Google Dashboard to see just how old Google thinks I am.

Turns out, Google thinks I’m 16. The only place on the Google Dashboard that mentions age is under the YouTube settings, which lists my age as 16. Why? I don’t know, but I’m going to take a guess. I acquired a YouTube account name from another user, who was 16, so it appears that when Google transferred that account to my profile, it didn’t reassign my age to the YouTube account, but assigned the old YouTube account owner’s age to my profile. That’s the only explanation I can devise.

That seems like a pretty questionable data-management practice to me. (What happens if a 25-year-old transfers a YouTube account to a 16-year-old? Will that minor now get access to age-restricted videos on YouTube, as well as to Google Plus?) And why would Google launch a social media effort that excludes teenagers anyway?

Rather than create another Google Account just to get access to Plus, I’ve asked Google’s engineers to take a look at my case and to see if Google can list my age correctly. I suppose I could just create another Google account, but I’m hoping Google can correct its error with my current account. (I don’t want to have to put my friends and colleagues on Google Plus through the hassle of including me in their circles via one account now if I’m going to change back to my correct account at some point in the future.)

So I hope all you old folks are enjoying your time with Google Plus before we “teen-agers” crash your party. ;^)