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.

Broadcast journalists also should learn to report what they do best and 'link' to the rest

The news coverage of the ongoing crisis in Japan reminds me of one of the better items of advice I’ve heard given to online journalists:

“Report what you do best, and link to the rest.”

I’ve found some insightful, thoughtful coverage of the disasters online, from stunning photo graphics to an engaging first-person account of trying to land a plane immediately after the quake.

Unfortunately, on TV, I’ve watched a lot of garbage, too.

Tim Goodman last week, in that previous link, tore apart the U.S. cable channels for their simplistic questioning and sensationalistic reporting in covering the Japan disasters, noting that they’ve fallen short of their international competition:

“Covering this trilogy of terror in Japan really underscores how much better prepared reporters and anchors need to be. The incessantly simplistic and embarrassing questions need to stop. Someone needs to tamp down runaway speculation. Also, the attention on the Middle East in past years has dulled producers’ sense of keeping experts from Asia on the source list.

“It’s a shame that going online to watch videos from NHK, BBC and Al Jazeera English was far and away the best option for Americans.”

While I agree with Goodman’s harsh assessment of the U.S. cable channels, I disagree that “it’s a shame” that Americans have to turn to other nations’ reporters for better international coverage.

I’m just glad that those options are out there, and thanks to the Internet, American audiences now can access them. If there’s a shame here, it’s that we have to go online to find this coverage, and that our cable channels are not bringing it to us, instead. I wish that American journalists, facing limitations in logistics, training and background, would recognize that other reporters on the scene are doing a better job and instead refer us to their work, rather than wasting scarce newsroom resources trying to duplicate something that they cannot.

This isn’t to say that U.S. news organizations can’t cover foreign news. As Goodman even pointed out, CNN’s Tokyo reporter, Kyung Lah, has done an admirable job bringing perspective to her network’s coverage. But that’s because she’s based in Japan, knows the culture, understands the ongoing narratives and has sources in the region.

If U.S. news organizations are willing to make those commitments by maintaining well-staffed foreign bureaus, then they should expect to meet or exceed coverage from others. I’d love to see the U.S.-based cable and broadcast news channels staffing more bureaus around the world. But I’m not so naive as to believe that CNN, MSNBC and especially Fox are about to drop more money on international coverage, unless it involves temporary spending to cover a fresh new war. And the days are over when news organizations could expect to parachute reporters into a situation and have them deliver better coverage than their readers can find elsewhere.

It’s past time for broadcast journalists to end the days to of parachute journalism and instead learn a lesson from online news: Report what you do best and start linking more to the rest.

Of course, a hyperlink – in the literal sense – as of this point is not yet possible on traditional cable and broadcast television. But as video on demand becomes more popular, I anticipate the rise of video hyperlinking. All one would need would be a network address upon which a particular piece of video resides, and to employ existing technology for on-screen linking.

Perhaps this will happen first on a service such as Netflix’s. Imagine watching an old TV sitcom, then clicking or tapping an onscreen prompt to jump to the movie that sitcom was parodying. Video hyperlinking might make it possible for future generations to understand why we thought ‘The Simpsons’ was funny.

And it could allow TV journalists the power of sourcing and referencing documentation and additional reporting that their online colleagues now enjoy.

But what about lost traffic? What about advertising eyeballs? I can hear the complaints now. But we heard these same complaints from print journalists transitioning to online a decade ago, and they learned the value of becoming a curator as well as a reporter of the news. There’s money in being the initial source to which people turn in a crisis. Broadcast journalists, given time and technology, will learn those lessons, too.

Until that technology arrives, broadcast journalists would better serve their viewers by choosing not to deploy their own reporters to every far-flung story, but instead to identify and run on their channels superior coverage from local sources, whether they be from native news organizations or other organizations’ local bureaus. This already happens in the initial moments of breaking news stories; I’m suggesting that the relationship should continue for the story’s duration.

To keep down the costs of acquiring this additional video, news networks should more fully develop video-sharing alliances with other national and global news broadcasters. Such alliances might also create a need for some of our domestic broadcast newsrooms to raise their game, to begin providing coverage of domestic news that meets the standard of international journalists, so that they will agree to video swaps in the future. (Don’t forget the first half of the advice: “Report what you do best.”)

Ultimately, as with many lessons about journalism in the Internet era, it all comes down to building community. By building a stronger global community of broadcast journalists, we can bring the best possible coverage to the individual communities that each network serves.

Painting with the palette of the Web: a pointillistic approach to storytelling

Backpack journalist and multimedia storyteller Kevin Sites stopped by USC Annenberg this week to talk about his new book and documentary, In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars and how solo journalists can innovate within new media.

One-man band

The increasingly popular one-man news bureau – a solo journalist who gathers news using multimedia tools – should leverage each medium to further engage the reader, said Sites.

In September 2005, Sites became Yahoo News’s first original content correspondent, pioneering the “one-man band.” Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone showcased an ambitious undertaking: a one-year trip to all the major conflicts zones around the world reported by Sites, with video, text, and still photography.

Carrying over 60 pounds of equipment, Sites leveraged each medium’s unique strengths to tell his stories. Video was for the “inherent drama,” the “motion” of the world – capturing verbs like dancing, singing, talking, exploding. Text was for “nuance,” the “details that bring a story to life.” Still photography was reserved for portraits to create a powerful “connection to someone’s face,” explained Sites.

Reporting simultaneously in three dimensions is “not a replacement for mainstream media… but an amplification of it,” said Sites. By putting a human face on the global conflicts and “stringing those stories together so that when you see them online, perhaps collectively, cumulatively, they provide a greater idea of what’s happening in that conflict zone.”

Sites views news in new media as not the “last word… but the first word” to pull the reader into the story. “The computer that delivers news is also a tool for you to respond to the information.” Under the intimate portraits and videos of ordinary people caught in war, Sites provided links to the chronology of the conflict (BBC country profiles) and to possible solutions (NGOs and political organizations).

The site drew two million viewers a week. Sites’ workload was heavy: Spending about ten days in each war zone, he transmitted a 600-1,200-word story, five to 15 photographs, and two to three videos every day.

“In some ways I felt that doing this project was a bit of penitence for my journalistic sins of past,” said Sites.

He was referring to November 2004. While covering the battle of Falluja as a pool correspondent, Sites shot a highly controversial video of a U.S. Marine shooting and killing a wounded, unarmed Iraqi insurgent stretched out on the ground of a mosque. Most international networks ran the full tape. All the American networks blacked out the shooting.

“It was absolutely the wrong decision,” recounted Sites, who supported censoring at the time. He explained, “That videotape to me had the potential of creating more bloodshed,” and that conflicted with the journalistic ethic of minimizing harm.

“We failed the public,” Sites admitted. “It wasn’t the government. It wasn’t the military… We censored ourselves.” Subsequently, Sites wrote a 2,500-word open letter to the Marines involved in the shooting on his blog, retelling the story of the shooting and putting it in context. That piece was picked up by newspapers and TV stations around the world.

“What that demonstrated to me was the power of online media in telling a more complete – and sometimes more accurate story than traditional media,” said Sites.

Focus on characters

After Sites’ return from the Hot Zone (and a year off scuba diving to decompress), he and Yahoo continued their foray into original reporting in May 2007, albeit with a dramatic change of subject. “People of the Web” is a series of articles and four to four-and-a-half-minute videos featuring people who use the Internet to “bypass the traditional world.”

He profiles people who circumvent traditional approaches to acting (lonelygirl15), music (bands on MySpace), and art (Phil Hansen).

“What I wanted to do was reach into the computer, and pull out that human being,” said Sites. He looks for stories that contain a strong Web component, a colorful central character, a compelling visual, and an element of social relevance.

For example, Hansen, an X-ray-technician-cum-artist became famous not through galleries, but by broadcasting his art-making process via YouTube. His art is interactive. One particularly impressive project – on a ten-foot, circular canvas-wheel canvas – was created with the words of his viewers. Hansen asked people to write him a moment that changed their lives. Each letter appears as a tiny dot on the canvas, but the blended result was that of a picture of the artist’s own face, cradled by four hands.

Sites said that he’s beaten the mainstream media on most of these stories. Fox News, for example, reported on an online dating service for farmers after Sites covered it.

Reporting in color

The media of video, print and photography contain finer shades that journalists could explore, Sites said.

Within solo journalist broadcast reporting, for example, are at least four techniques that “don’t compete with each other,” demonstrated Sites. Each technique offers a subtly varied angle ranging from micro-view to macro-view.

First, in a traditional first person stand up, the reporter holds the camera at arm’s length and films himself speaking over events in the background. A variation of this technique is one in which the reporter does not himself appear on camera. In both cases, the solo journalist can pan the scene using himself as the center, turning in place, and drawing a circle with his arm and camera.

A third technique uses POV plus nat sound. Sites showed an example of a video of a Sudanese woman singing a rebel fight song to lull her malaria-stricken baby to sleep.

Using a fourth technique that Sites calls “post-impressionistic narration,” the reporter provides a sort of director’s-cut commentary. He watches a video with the viewer, talking over the footage. The time lapse and informal narration offers a macro-view of the events on screen.

“Everyone talks about the Internet as the death knell for newspapers,” Sites said, “No, it’s TV that’s really bad online.” Whereas newspaper websites have become great sources of info, Sites said – they just need to learn how to monetize the Web – Sites criticized local TV websites for simply parking their aired stories on the Internet.

When asked if offering so many retellings of the same event would over-saturate the viewer, Sites replied, “It’s a matter of palette… It makes the journalist work harder.” And in the end, it benefits the viewers and the sources.

“The mediums are not displacing but enhancing each other, playing off each other in ways that are relevant,” Sites said. “TV didn’t kill radio. It transformed it.”