Media General Newscasts Mix Online with On-Air

Columbus, Ohio’s WCMH NBC 4 began airing its @5:30 on 4 newscast that incorporates Internet interaction with viewers last month – one of several experiments the Media General station group is undertaking to incorporate “social media” such as Twitter and Facebook into television programming.

At WSPA in Spartanburg, South Carolina, anchor Amy Wood has been making social media feedback part of the show she anchors on the CW affiliate for the past year.

Media General Vice President of News Dan Bradley said he sees these as the first steps in a necessary and important transformation of the local TV newscast experience. “Local news, to some extent, has to become more of a conversation with the community,” Bradley said. That means instead of talking to (or, worse, talking down to) viewers, newscasts have to start talking with the audience about what that audience is most interested in, he said.

Lots of newscasts incorporate input received through their websites to some extent, but these broadcasts seek to make it an integral element of the program. Wood says CNN’s Rick Sanchez is the national newscaster “who does what I do” to the greatest extent, although she thinks Sanchez does it with more behind-the-scenes support from his producers.

She actually tries to interact with the online audience live during the course of the newscast, taking advantage of commercial breaks and other off-air windows of opportunity to catch up on Twitter tweets and live chat sessions.
WCMH is using some of the same online tools but came up with its approach independently (although Bradley encouraged both initiatives). General Manager Rick Rogala and Content Brand Manager Ike Walker said they wanted to make it very obvious that this was a different sort of newscast, so they decided to move it out of the studio and have a cameraman shoot the program off the shoulder rather than from a tripod. Instead of sitting behind a desk, anchors Cabot Rea and Ellie Merritt roam the cluttered newsroom talking with reporters and stopping at their computers to check on the input from the web.

The local alternative weekly, The Other Paper, was quick to mock the broadcast as too gimmicky. But Walker said the program needs to break a few rules. “If we’re going to integrate content across all the different platforms, we can’t stick to the traditional paradigms,” he said.

Making the program interactive was “really a response to what our customers have told us, which is that they want to be more involved in our process and more involved in our show,” Rogala said. By customers, in this context, he means viewers and website users. “For the longest time, traditional media has operated as a one-way continuum – we gathered the news, we produced the news, and we delivered it to you. What the web has afforded us is the opportunity to create dialog and focus on the issues that are very relevant and important to people.”

Although @5:30 on 4 will be planned like any other newscast, part of the plan is to be willing to change the plan, based on what viewers prove to be most interested in, Rogala said. In other words, if a story on the state budget or on a local tragedy produces a storm of Twitter tweets or other strong reaction, the program will devote more time to that topic. “We’re going to need a crew with special skills to be able to navigate that,” he said.

Of course, that plan could also change, as the show just aired for the first time Feb. 16. “We’re not just going into this saying, this is the absolute format, and we'll stick to it come hell or high water,” said Rogala. “Our customers are ultimately going to tell us exactly what they want.”

In a way, the format will be something like that of a topical call-in talk show, and in fact WCMH plans to eventually also take some calls as a way to involve viewers who aren’t necessarily online or close to their computers during the show, or who would simply prefer to pick up the phone. Bradley said one thing he wants to avoid, however, is letting the program skew toward partisan extremes in the mode of talk radio.

On the other hand, TV newscasts have to start doing something new to distinguish themselves from the competition, Bradley said. “I see an incredible amount of sameness between newscasts, and that’s quickly becoming a handicap. Television stations need to find different ways to cover and connect to their communities. Who says local television news has to be a daily diatribe of the latest overnight shootings, traffic and fires?”

Wood believes taking advantage of social media is a way of countering the increasing fractionalization of the media world, which has watered down the traditional connection local TV stations had with their communities. With so many TV, cable, online and mobile choices for getting news, “everything gets lost in the clutter,” she said. “Social media for me is a way to get locally connected on that level with people again.”

Aside from requiring her to multitask intensively during the newscast, this mode of interaction keeps her busy blogging and Twittering even on many days when she is officially not working. “The thing I’ve found is you can't do it with the goal of gaining viewers. You have to do it with the goal of creating a relationship,” Wood said.