Imagine a world in which local TV news doesn't suck. I know, I know. It's not easy. But try. Imagine an end to pointless news-chopper one-upmanship, to "breaking" reports on trumped-up consumer scams, to the same-show-different-anchors feeling that viewers get nightly from West Palm Beach to Walla Walla.
"We all get the same research" that viewers find the TV news format tedious and irrelevant, says Michael Sechrist, president of Nashville's ABC () affiliate, WKRN. "And we shake our heads, say, 'Yeah, yeah,' and we don't do anything."
Except Sechrist is. WKRN is retraining its staff in shooting and producing digital video in a bid to radically transform its on-air product. If what WKRN does works, it will be Exhibit A in proving that local TV news can retool itself to regain its audience in a fragmenting media landscape.
Guiding WKRN is Michael Rosenblum, the veteran TV producer-cum-consultant behind a video-production model that's often abbreviated to "VJ," for video journalist. In a VJ operation, your entire staff -- not just reporters -- can shoot stories. Your entire staff -- not just the editors -- can edit news segments, even on laptops while out in the field. You break the old dependence on an operation's (few) camera crews. In theory, you get more naturalistic programming -- think "documentary film," not "reporter stands stiltedly in front of building" -- since you don't have to pose and light everyone just so before filming with obtrusive gear. More people producing stories, ideally, equals a wider array of subjects. Rosenblum says the VJ model also can slash costs up to 60%. (He concedes that layoffs and union issues could result.) One recent VJ convert: the BBC. An exec says going VJ increased the BBC's cameras in the field from 84 to over 1,000. On deck: San Francisco's KRON (owned, like WKRN, by Young Broadcasting) (). WKRN's staff is to be fully retrained by mid-September.
THE HOPE IS THAT MORE VIEWERS, especially younger ones, will watch. WKRN's news ratings trail others in Nashville, so it has freedom to experiment. But all stations should feel so free. Like a Sunday paper, local news contributes disproportionately to station revenues; like broadcast TV, it's in a decline. Terry Heaton, another WKRN consultant, studied late-news ratings over 10 years in six midsize and metro markets. Total drop: 30%.
The VJ model hits TV news at a particularly plangent cultural moment. Al Gore's Current network -- for which Rosenblum consulted -- is presenting news in a manner that's heavily influenced by new media. A small coterie of media hotshots-turned-bloggers -- among them Jeff Jarvis, ex-president of Newhouse Newspapers' online unit and ex-San Jose Mercury News columnist Dan Gillmor -- is talking up sundry "citizen journalism" initiatives. Such efforts are now sprinkled across the globe, from Southern California (northwestvoice.com) and southern Vermont (ibrattleboro.com) to South Korea (ohmynews.com).
In the broadest possible terms, these seek to put the tools of reporting and storytelling into the hands of an entire community, rather than concentrate them within newsrooms. (That bloggers' accounts of Katrina's devastation became part of the media diet marked another seminal citizen-journalist moment.) These are exciting developments, unless you work in traditional media. If your business is democratized, are you democratized out of business?
What happens with WKRN will provide early insight into how well this democratization -- with all its delicious tinges of empowerment -- can work in a mass-market business model. WKRN also trained local bloggers in video production, so they too may contribute news segments. Plenty of big-name players are tinkering around the edges with citizen-journalism. It's harder to find a major-market network affiliate making such a far-reaching effort. Says Sechrist: "We are not going to go back." No pressure, Michael, but the media world is watching. If it works, we might start tuning in at 11 again.
By Jon Fine