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Stations' Story Meetings Offer 'Public Option'

While the typical station story meeting has six or eight people present to pitch ideas, WITI Milwaukee might have 60 or 80 at its daily 1:45 confab. That's because WITI opens up the editorial meeting to the public through live blogging and a live video stream, along with a Web program that allows users to toss in story ideas while commenting on others.

Launching “Community Eye” earlier this year, WITI implores users to take part in the meeting on the homepage, and uses its Twitter account to do the same for its almost 5,400 followers. “Viewers like to be part of the process,” says WITI VP/General Manager Chuck Steinmetz. “We're all part of the community, and we're trying to find stories that are important to the community.”

Steinmetz says several user-generated pitches have made it to air. Community Eye's popularity comes at a time when the media are increasingly tapping consumers to be part of the newsgathering process. Stations harvest user-generated content (UGC) through initiatives such as Hearst's “u local,” Broadcast Interactive Media's “YouNews,” and the “See It, Snap It, Send It” function at several Raycom stations. Last year, KATV Little Rock trained a Webcam on general-assignment reporter Kristin Fisher and asked viewers for their input on story ideas with “Choose Your News.”

Last week, YouTube announced the launch of a “virtual assignment desk” called “YouTube Direct” that's designed to help media outlets get user video on-air.

WGAL Lancaster, Pa., began opening up its daily 9:15 a.m. meeting to the public via the Web in February; unlike WITI, the Hearst station does not offer video of the meeting. Anywhere from 30 to 130 users might jump into the chat, and News Director Dan O'Donnell says a tip on recession-focused job training at a local college on the live chat's first day turned out to be the lead story on the 5 p.m. news that day.

According to O'Donnell, the “morning chat” was launched as an extension of the town hall forums that WGAL conducts around the marketplace. “The idea was to let viewers join in on the meeting and comment on the ideas we're working on,” he says.

At WITI, Senior Online Producer Cary Docter moderates the live chat from the daily meeting. WITI News Director Jim Lemon says the Local TV station averages 50 to 60 participants on a given day, and averages one or two ideas that make it to the whiteboard—sometimes as many as 10. Stories to get on-air include a local student's suicide, a report on a restaurant where guests pay what they think is a fair price, and a heart-warmer about a father surprising his son at school upon his return from Iraq; Lemon says the boy's teacher tipped off Community Eye on the father's arrival.

Besides unearthing scoops, Lemon says users can suggest offbeat angles to major local news happenings. “We get more texture, more substance and more context because we have more eyes and ears [with Community Eye],” he says.

Some days, the public input is weak; Nov. 16's meeting saw Docter wrap up the session by typing, “I think we'll have to get a bigger crowd out for Tuesday's Community Eye.” But Lemon says the initiative has more productive days than not. “[Usable] stories are not an everyday occurrence,” he says. “But it happens enough to make us say it's really worthwhile.”

Keeping the best close to the vest

With their meetings essentially open to the competition, stations aren't likely to reveal their splashiest enterprise reporting during the conferences; WITI keeps its assignment board out of sight from Web participants, and will hold off publishing hot tips and comments that may make it on-air. WITI does not offer audio of the meetings; Lemon says doing so would hinder brainstorming. WGAL has avoided video of the meetings for the same reason. “I don't want to reduce the candor I get from staffers,” O'Donnell says.

Furthermore, he says story ideas have diminished over time at the WGAL meetings, with chat about various local issues trumping tips. But WGAL remains committed to the concept, and may seek to draw in new participants by putting the live chat function in place during an occasional newscast.

WITI will also stick with its open-access approach to brainstorming sessions. “At the end of the day, when I get more content, I'm a happy news director,” Lemon says. “And when I get content no one else has, then I'm a really happy news director.”

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