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May 16, 2018, 11 a.m.
Reporting & Production

What is innovation in local TV news? Andrew Heyward’s new mission is to find out

“It’s a great question because I don’t think we’re suddenly going to come up with some great gimmick and Millennials are going to flock to their TV to watch traditional newscasts.”

News flash: A lot of people still watch — and trust — the local TV news. TV is still the No. 1 source of news for Americans, ahead of the entire Internet. And of those TV watchers, nearly 3 in 4 are regular local TV news watchers.

But the trendlines are moving in the wrong direction. In 2016, TV had a 19 percentage point lead over online as a frequent source of news for Americans (57 percent to 38 percent). A year later, that lead had been cut to 7 percentage points (50 percent to 43 percent). Cord-cutters and cord-nevers have moved from edge cases to mainstream; young people ages 18 to 24 have cut their TV viewing by about eight hours a week just in the past six years. It’s time for an update.

Resources for innovation have, generally speaking, flowed more to local newspapers and digital-native publishers than to local TV, which has retained a mostly intact business model. Those stand-in-the-hurricane meteorologists, high school sports analysts, cheery morning broadcasters, and more are still truckin’ along — but they’re at a crossroads. FCC’s repeal of the main studio rule means a station no longer has to maintain a presence in the local geographic area of broadcasting; there’s a new wave of consolidation led by the controversial Sinclair; and an increasing share of non-retirees are checking out of TV altogether.

Announced earlier this year, a $2.6 million initiative from the Knight Foundation will aims to give a jolt to the local TV news world, which has to figure out how to reinvent the newscast for digital. The ambition is divided into three parts: research on best practices for local TV news, a leadership program for diversity and collaboration, and a hub to test out these ideas and guidance for broadcast formats and digital storytelling.

Andrew Heyward, the former president of CBS News — who started out in local TV in New York and now a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab — is tasked with the research component at Arizona State’s Cronkite School of Journalism. So what does innovation in local TV news mean in 2018? When do we stop calling it “local TV news”? I spoke with Heyward about these questions and more; our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Christine Schmidt: How are you planning to approach your work? How will you find and identify innovation in local TV news?

Andrew Heyward: None of this is written in stone, or even sand, but I do have a plan. The idea is to define innovation broadly, from what’s happening actually in that wonderful old-fashioned medium called TV to all the digital platforms that every station in America is experimenting with and trying to figure out. I don’t say that in a patronizing way, but we’re trying to figure out if there’s a usable business model that works for digital platforms too.

There are some things people are playing with: narrative, the role of anchor, how reporters interact with the community, story generation. Defining innovation will be step one. I’ve thought about that, the people at ASU have, and the most thoughtful leaders in TV news have. I was talking to a CEO of a news station, trying to be polite, and said ‘I’m not saying local TV news has to reinvent itself.’ He interrupted me and said ‘Andrew, local tv news has to reinvent itself.’ There’s a widespread realization that the existing formats, while appealing to a plurality of the American public, are not translating to a new generation of consumers.

One question I had is: Why would people tell us their competitive secrets? I think that’s an issue, but not for what we’ll be looking for. I’m hoping we’ll get guidance from the station groups. You know there’s been enormous consolidation. What’s working in terms of the business, in terms of strict consolidation aspects of it?

But there’s plenty to find and look at. There are over 800 stations doing local TV news in a couple hundred markets. There is a group at Northeastern doing a similar research study. You start with the groups and existing works, and take it from there.

Schmidt: How does this relate to the kind of work you’ve been doing at MIT — or does it even?

Heyward: They dovetail — they’re different but related. I’m a visiting scholar at the Lab for Social Machines, which is part of the various groups in the MIT Media Lab. One of the projects there is a unique social-media-based interface to help journalists map the public sphere and find stories relevant to their communities. [He said he couldn’t share more.] There are two TV stations working with us as alpha partners in different parts of the country. If that works, that’s certainly the kind of thing that might actually be relevant in the Arizona State University project, in that it would be a new tool in what newsrooms could use.

What we haven’t figured out on the ASU side of the project is a line between prescriptive and descriptive. Prescriptive is really ambitious and will take a lot of work. I’m only leading the research piece [of the Knight-funded initiative] but will be working closely with the other two [collaboration and experimentation]. The MIT project might fit into the ‘is this something worth trying?’ group. In terms of my activities and interests, I do think figuring out what’s important to the people in a given market is a key part of sustainable news.

On the MIT side, it’s a lab, and we are experimenting with new ways of listening and gauging what’s important to citizens as a way to promote civic engagement and as not just a byproduct but as an encourager of local journalism. There’s really been a shift in the focus in the past year of back to local news, and we could get into that if you want.

Schmidt: Sure, let’s. What stands out to you about local news in this moment?

Heyward: The national scene is toxic right now. The media is demonized by the president and large parts of the country. They don’t trust it.

Local news has its own problems. But its nature has a lot going to it: there is a lot of common ground, there’s some things we both care about. We can’t really be demonized as fake news, because first of all the stories and the reporters are right there for all the world to see. Especially with the reporters on camera — you can see them in line at the supermarket. In smaller markets, people in TV news are local celebrities — they are known and involved in local affairs.

Whether you’re railing against MSNBC or Fox News, you’re dismissing huge chunks of cable news and the people who watch it. Local TV news is still profitable. Newspapers are profitable too, but they’ve had enormous cuts. It’s less so in TV — there’s been cutbacks, but not as much for TV news. There’s still money for innovation on the TV side; for newspapers, it’s been more of a problem. But that’s another reason to focus on local TV.

In some places, local is the most important place for people to get news and information — and not just about their own region, but to connect to national issues. That’s another key factor a lot of people ignore. The media focuses on cable news, but if you look at the numbers, they’re not that huge compared to national population. But local TV news is huge in the aggregate. You’ll hear people say Channel 2, that will be CBS News. Local TV news is the number one source of news in the country. It’s hugely trusted at a time when trust in journalism is at risk. Local TV news does really well and it’s still profitable. And starting with the common ground is a huge advantage compared to national media.

Schmidt: What do you think about local TV’s relationship with social media platforms? Facebook has said they will be promoting more local news in people’s News Feeds, which can include local TV news. In my colleague Shan’s analysis earlier this year, she found that the material local TV news pages are posting isn’t particularly local.

Heyward: Social media is a major priority. My sense is that up to now, social media has been more of a promotional platform, a way to link back to TV, a way to link back to video segments that are kind of posted over to social. They’re using social media creatively for three things: story generation or finding stories, covering stories, and also for presenting stories for distribution. There’s a lot of room there for growth.

It’s a mixed bag — I don’t think there are super successful models. There are criteria for serving the public in interesting and different ways to attract new users, and also to generate sustainable revenue. We’ll look for those — I’m sure there’s some. But we don’t have a tried-and-true formula for social media the way we have a formula for local TV.

Schmidt: But what comes after local TV news?

Heyward: Alongside what I’ll call traditional linear TV — the 5, 6, and 11 p.m. newscasts we have now — there’s going to be some sort of social- and mobile-based video journalism generated by these same stations. That is all still emerging. It’s a great question, because I don’t think we’re suddenly going to come up with some great gimmick and millennials are going to flock to their TV to watch traditional newscasts.

Schmidt: At Nieman Lab, we’ve reported on the FCC’s main studio rule change, consolidation, pressure from Sinclair, and other issues facing local TV news. But a lot of people in the industry still seem to be surprised that local TV news is doing relatively well. What else are we missing in these conversation about local TV news?

Heyward: TV news has been dismissed by the people who cover journalism, and by the academy, and by the foundation world up to now. One of the great things about this project is we are shining a light on a source of news that’s really important. It has great potential to be a very important part of journalism in the future. I give the Knight Foundation credit for seeing the potential there. [Disclosure: Knight has also funded Nieman Lab in the past.]

I think what we have been missing is that local TV news is such a familiar part of our lives, but it’s so easy to ignore because it’s sort of always there and it’s fairly similar around the country. It’s not the next bright shiny object. It’s really important and it’s going to have to make itself a bright shiny object. But what we’re missing is how important it is to regular people and how influential it can be.

Schmidt: What do you see as the greatest opportunity in some of these challenges?

Heyward: The fundamental challenge is how to attract new generations of consumers who value the news. I think innovation is not an opportunity, it’s a necessity. The implications of consolidation is probably another topic for another day. In a nutshell, what I would say is if consolidation contributes to more homogenization and standardization, that’s another problem that local TV news already has. The people who run these stations know that. I’d love to do more of a discussion about consolidation after we dig into this project.

Schmidt: What’s the timeline going forward for your role in the project?

Heyward: We’ll start making progress very quickly. Over the summer, we’ll start finding examples and the other parts of the projects will start taking place. The grant runs through the next couple of years [through 2020]. I would certainly think that we have a very good idea of the shape of the project very quickly over the summer, for sure.

By the time we define innovation broadly and have a sense of which of those areas is the richest, we’ll start getting some interesting findings right away. Now we have a comprehensive picture of the entire innovation landscape. That’s where I’m hoping the consolidation will be a boon to us: We’ll have the station groups to help steer us to the most innovative stories rather than piecing through the haystack and trying to find the needles ourselves. We’re not just going to start randomly — it’s a journalism job, we’re going to have to follow a lead, develop sources. As you know, a dauntingly blank canvas starts filling up pretty quickly. There’s been a lot of focus in the newspaper world and hyperlocal and digital native, so it’s really exciting to focus on local TV too.

Image by Alex Antropov used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 16, 2018, 11 a.m.
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