What hill can we absolutely not give up?

September 25, 2013 01:30

6 CUSTOMER QUESTIONS THAT COULD SAVE LOCAL NEWS
STARTING WITH ‘WHY DID YOU HIRE THAT MILKSHAKE?’
A multi-part special series on serving our news “customers” and growing our business

PREVIOUS ARTICLE
:  QUESTION 1: WHAT JOB DO VIEWERS HIRE OUR CONTENT TO DO?
and QUESTION 2: WHAT CONTENT DO CUSTOMERS WANT?

PREVIOUS ARTICLE: QUESTION 3: IS OUR NEWS PRODUCT PALATABLE TO CUSTOMERS?
PREVIOUS ARTICLE: QUESTION 4: HOW SHOULD WE DELIVER OUR PRODUCT TO THE CUSTOMER?

 
By Brandon Mercer, RTDNA Region 2 Director

There is no Sputnik to compel local news to evolve.

On October 4th, 1957 exactly 56 years ago next week the USSR launched a 183-pound metal beach ball into orbit. Sputnik emitted a radio pulse that sounded a lot like “we beat you, we beat you, we beat you” to the scientific community. To the public, it sounded more like “warning, warning, warning.”  (If you’re curious, here’s the actual sound.

The Soviets’ surprise achievement marked the first time mankind had ever put anything into orbit, creating a “man-made moon.”  It also marked the Soviets’ technical and scientific superiority over the western world.  If they could launch a satellite, they would soon also be able to launch a thermonuclear weapon through space on an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile or ICBM.  As Machiavelli said, fear is a most powerful motivator.

Hastened by this single event, the U.S.. began a national paradigm shift, focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.  Congress created NASA, and vowed to catch up.  And as true Americans, we rallied and prevailed, beating the Reds to the moon, and fulfilling Kennedy’s clarion call.

How do we get newsrooms to evolve when there is no fear of ICBMs raining down on our staff?  In the information age where shades of grey replace the simple black and white decisions, I suggest asking questions, and really taking time to think about the answers.

In this week’s penultimate installment of the series, 6 CUSTOMER QUESTIONS THAT COULD SAVE LOCAL NEWS, we look at what hill can we absolutely not give up.

QUESTION 5: WHAT HILL CAN WE ABSOLUTELY NOT GIVE UP?

McDonald’s doesn’t make tacos.

Chinese war strategist Sun Tzu might never have imagined his Art of War principles applying to clowns selling hamburgers, but it makes sense.  A key component of that military philosophy is that you can’t win a war by waging every battle. Choose what hill you will stake everything to defend.  

We can’t be everything to all our customers, or we’ll sacrifice what we’re good at to be jacks of all trades.  What will you cede to your competitors, and what is yours to defend to the death?

  • If you’re the breaking news station, you better be on first and off last.
  • If you’re the investigation station, every newscast needs to demonstrate that.
  • If you’re the friendly, good news station, you need to own every big community event.
  • If you’re the sports leader, you need to travel with the team and field anchor the big games.

To modify the metaphor, your hill is your brand.  

Imagine a giant billboard at the top of the hill you claim, announcing your brand. That’s the hill you own, and make sure you glance at that big sign and make sure you reflect it (or better update the sign!). And forgetting the metaphor entirely, you’ve probably actually HAD a billboard at the top of a hill announcing your brand.  Did you deliver what it promised?

REPORTERS ARE PROMOTIONS PRODUCERS

The creative services director has a role in the newsroom.  The news director has a role in creative services.  Most importantly, both staffs need to be in lockstep.  Reporters are promotions producers.  Not literally, of course, but every package they turn needs to be proof of performance of the brand.

If your brand is “Working for You,” are you?  Do you even use the second person when you toss to the story, living out the brand phrase in copy?  If your brand is only in your promos and not in your news, you’re telling viewers two different things, and they don’t know who you are, because you don’t know who you are.  Worse, you’re breaking promises or flat-out lying to your customers.

Everyone from the assignment editor who brings a menu of stories each morning, to the producers who decide how to stack them, to the anchors who choose what questions to ask or ad libs to make, to the writers who capture the nuance of the brand, to the reporters and yes, photographers in the field… they all need to know and live your brand.

·         If your reporter pitches nothing but features, but you’re the hard news station, you have a problem.

·         If your assignment editor chases nothing but breaking news, and you’re NOT the breaking news station, you have a problem.

·         If you’re the community/caring station, but your producers stack a bunch of crime stories in the a-block, and leave the tear-jerker cancer fundraiser for the kicker, you have a problem.

·         If your brand is “Live, Local, Late-Breaking” and your writers aren’t adding fresh toppers like “MOMENTS AGO WE CONFIRMED WITH POLICE THAT…” to stories, you have a problem.

Every brand is different, and these if/then statements need to be tailored to what your station’s goal is.

One of the most powerful examples of living out your brand (and winning over the market through it) was demonstrated in Carole Kneeland’s newsroom, Austin’s KVUE. Her vision lives on in the Kneeland Project and its fellows (full disclosure, I am also a Kneeland fellow). Read more about Kneeland Fellowships here. Her staff laid out a station position on crime, with a litmus test.  

They would NOT cover the crime, even a breaking story, unless it met one or more of these five criteria:

  • Is there an immediate threat to public safety?
  • Is the crime a threat to children?
  • Is there a significant community impact?
  • Do viewers need to take some kind of action?
  • Does the story lend itself to a crime-fighting or prevention effort?

In so many newsrooms, we don’t produce news for the viewer.  We focus on the news director, or our competitors.  How you ever heard this:  “Crap! Channel 6 is live at the scene, and we’re not even on it yet!  (Insert name of news director) is going to go ballistic when she sees we’re not there!!” 

Do you really need to be there or are you just motivated out of fear of a myopic news director forgetting that our mission is to serve our viewers, not play catch-up with our competitors’ brand?  Is it a truly relevant story?  Most importantly, is it your brand to be on that sort of story?

When you dispatch the crews to a questionable story and blow out your lead and entire a-block for something, there is often a reporter, fuming inside because he’s worked for two months on an investigation that could affect public policy, and he’s got the goods.  And now he’s in the b-block.  What’s the most relevant and important thing for viewers?  

If the breaker is good TV, do it.  Flashing lights, people running with guns drawn, and flames devouring a building ALWAYS work.  But, how long do you stay with it? Do you use it like a seasoning, to add life to your newscast, going back to it throughout the hour? Or, do you binge on it, serving up nothing but the breaking news? Sometimes it’s appropriate to do that.  Other times, giving viewers a heaping serving of breaking news is a bit like drinking a cup of ketchup. Better to dip into it instead.

What matters is WHY you’re doing the coverage.  Make sure you’re fighting for the right hill.

The only “right way” to do news is to always think about the viewer and their needs.

How you deliver that should be unique, and a point of differentiation for each station.

FINAL SECTION NEXT WEEK:

QUESTION 6: IF WE WERE TO BUILD A COMPANY STRUCTURE TODAY TO EFFICIENTLY MAKE AND MARKET OUR PRODUCT, WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?

Brandon Mercer is a content innovator, former news director, and social media consultant, who also serves on the board of RTDNA. Email Brandon.