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.

How Best Buy can teach you *not* to run your news business

When was the last time you read something that prompted you to shout “Yes! That’s exactly what I’ve seen. I’ve been waiting for someone else to notice that!”?

For me, it was last night, shortly after Rob Curley posted a link to Why Best Buy is Going out of Business…Gradually, by Larry Downes on Forbes.com.

Downes just destroys the big box electronics retailer, and in doing so, lays out some important lessons for anyone who’s running a business today. (Including news publishers.) I hope you’ll take a few moments today to read Downes’ piece, and to think about how what Best Buy is doing might compare with how your publication treats its readers and customers.

Downes’ challenge to readers? “Walk into one of the company’s retail locations or shop online. And try, really try, not to lose your temper.”

More times than not, I can’t do it. Downes details one recent visit to Best Buy, when friend tried to buy a Blu-Ray disc, only to be waylaid by a “customer service” rep who tried instead to sell him on a pay-TV deal.

Me? Dozens of trips to various Best Buys over the years have taught me to never make eye contact with any employees in the store. Keep other customers between myself and the floor staff. If I need a clerk to get something for me, ask only someone who appears to work in the section where the item is stocked, ask for the item using the specific model number and be prepared to walk away if they don’t have it, or the clerk wants to start talking about something else.

Doesn’t this sound like an awful shopping experience?

But it’s worse to have to endure the sort of bait-and-switch that Downes describes – pitches for unrelated subscription services, incompatible additional products and interrogations about my personal life, designed to talk me into buying products Best Buy wants to push. Even if I manage to avoid all those, I’ve yet to find a way to get out of the inevitable pitch at check-out to buy an extended warranty. (Extended warranty pitches are the number one reason why I try to buy all of my electronics, software and accessories online. Two days ago, a Radio Shack employee tried to sell me an extended warranty on an iPod case.)

I don’t believe that the people who run Best Buy are intentionally sadists. Downes describes how Best Buy managers have made apparently rational business decisions that nonetheless have led to their employees creating a nasty, even hostile, shopping environment. That should cause any business managers to pause in fear for a moment.

What kind of “shopping experience” are you creating for your customers? Are you encouraging them to do business with you, and then rewarding them for that? Do your customers look forward to interacting with you, or do they dread it as an obligation they can’t wait to end?

Have you ever spoken or written the phrase “fiduciary obligation to our stockholders” to justify doing something that will frustrate your customers? Do you start using passive voice when justifying your business actions to customers (as Downes shows Best Buy doing)? Are you willing to trade customer goodwill tomorrow for extra revenue today?

In short, do you make things sometimes difficult for yourself so that they’ll always be easy for your customers, or do you place obstacles in front of your customers to make life easier for you?

If you do, you could be on the same path to oblivion as Best Buy.

Keep in mind, as always, that your customers are the people who write you a check. If someone isn’t paying you, that person is not your customer. That can make life a little confusing – if not troubling – for a journalist writing for an advertiser-supported website. Your customers aren’t your readers, after all – your real customers are those people buying the ads.

But don’t forget why those people are buying those ads. For the most part, it’s so that they can reach your readers. So anything you do to make life difficult, unpleasant or frustrating for your readers will someday make attracting and retaining advertisers more difficult for you. Free sports tickets, dinners and “thank you” presents for your biggest ad clients might delay that inevitability a bit, but if your advertisers want to stay in business, too, they can’t afford to keep advertising with a publication that’s not delivering the readers they want to reach.

So in 2012, let’s resolve to make our publications the “anti-Best Buy” – let’s make them aesthetically pleasant places to visit, sites that respond with information that engages, informs, delights and challenges readers. Hunt aggressively for input forms, navigation structures and article narratives that frustrate or confuse readers, then eliminate them from your site.

Work on customer service, as well. How easy do you make ordering and payment? Can customers do that online, over the phone and in person, whatever they prefer? How many steps does a new order or payment take? Have you tried it yourself recently?

Do you thank customers for their business? How often do you listen to your customers’ problems and challenges to get ideas for new products and services, instead of simply looking for hooks to sell them something you already offer? How willing are you to refer customers elsewhere if there’s a better place for them to find as solution they need? When customers do business with you, you should want them to feel like that’s the highlight of their day.

And not like it’s a dreaded trip to Best Buy.

The power behind the changes at Facebook, and what it means for news publishers

The new version of Facebook is:

a) a powerful upgrade that gives users the ability to fine-tune their news feed, seeing only the updates they care about, and finally muting the noise from friends with whom they really aren’t that close.

b) a classic example of developers over-thinking their product, creating an incomprehensible jumble of updates in no apparent order, instead of the simple stream of posts we were used to seeing on the Facebook home page.

The correct answer (IMHO) is, c) both.

Facebook’s changes to its users’ front pages illustrates a classic developers’ dilemma: How do you balance power with simplicity in an application? Facebook’s added plenty of new features in this update, empowering users to take more control of the way news from friends and followed pages is displayed. But in doing so, Facebook’s created default settings that are leaving too many of its users confused, frustrated and angry. (Thursday night Facebook addressed some of those criticisms by adding a link to jump down to the most recent stories, bypassing Facebook’s selection of the “top stories.”)

All this is before the public launch of its new Timeline feature for users’ profile pages, now available to developers and select few other Facebook users.

Count me among the Facebook users initially ticked off by the changes. After confronting the unholy mess of my Facebook feed, I tweeted: “I like Twitter because, unlike FB and G+, it shows me all the updates from those I follow, in simple chronological order. Is that so hard?”

But curiosity (or masochism) kicked in and I decided to poke around the “new” Facebook. I soon discovered that I could alter the “weight” that Facebook gave to posts from each of my friends, choosing to get “All Updates,” “Most Updates” or “Only Important” updates from each friend. I also can opt out of getting various types of updates from those friends, including their comments and likes on other posts.

Unfortunately, the user interface to make these changes stinks. It’s a pain in the rear to have to set your preferences for each friend individually, rather than being able to drag and drop friends into one of the three priority categories. It’d be nice to be able to opt out of certain types of updates for everyone once, too, instead of having to declare you don’t want friends’ game updates individually. (Maybe Facebook allows this, but I couldn’t find where or how to do it, and I spent hours working with this new interface yesterday.)

Of course, when I and millions of other users get around to telling Facebook all this, we’ll have given Facebook an amazing amount of power to refine its social map of world. That makes me feel funny about sharing this even more detailed information about my friendships and relationships. Heaven knows I wouldn’t want Facebook to share with my friends how I’ve – in essence – ranked them. But giving Facebook this information does get me the feed I want, so I did it anyway.

What does this mean for journalists and other publishers online? I should note that Facebook now has given you the ability to allow people to “subscribe” to your updates without you having to befriend them in return. This enables Facebook to become a direct competitor with Twitter, where following never had to be mutual. (You have to opt into allowing subscriptions for this to happen, in case you are one who doesn’t want non-friends seeing your updates.)

Personally, I’m not opting in. I like having one social network that’s just limited to my offline friends and acquaintances, where I can share personal notes about me and my family. If you want to read what I have to say about the industry and other news, follow me on Twitter or Google+.

Currently, subscriptions are available only on personal accounts, and not on publishers’ pages. That’s because pages never required reciprocity. Any Facebook user has had the ability to follow (aka “like”) a page without needing the page to reciprocate. It would be nice, though, to see Facebook achieve some consistency by using the “subscribe” vocabulary when referencing pages, too. And to allow users to opt in or out of specific types of updates from pages, as they now can from personal accounts.

Here’s a warning for publishers, though. With people now able to opt out of “comments and likes” from their friends, that has the potential to dramatically weaken the power of the “Like” button so many of us have installed on our sites, if this option is widely exercised. I also feel worry for those publishers who’ve invested time and effort in building massive Facebook followings, only to have their posts lost on Facebook’s confusing new homepage.

Yet I look hopefully at the changes, too. If you’re not yet using Facebook’s Recommendations Box, give it a glance today. That feature automatically builds links to the most popular stories on your website among Facebook users. I’ve installed it at the bottom of pages on one of my websites in the hopes that it will improve time spent on site by directing readers to an automatically updated list of the most popular (not just most read) stories on the site.

I’m also hopeful that if Facebook cleans up the user interface for its new subscription preferences, it might help the visibility of publishers’ pages on the site. Once I went through the arduous task, Facebook cleared away posts from casual friends, giving more links on my news feed to the people and pages I most want to follow.

I love that, from a user’s perspective. And I love it from a publisher’s perspective, too. Sure, Facebook’s a mess now, but there’s great new power within it. If Facebook can find a way to clean up its current UI mess, it could end up helping publishers by better connecting them with their most interested readers.