When newsrooms withhold news

April 10, 2013 01:30

By Brandon Mercer, RTDNA Region 2 Director / News Director KTXL-TV
 
An exclusive tip comes into the newsroom, and you KNOW it’s solid. Two reporters and photographers head out the door.  The producers re-stack their rundowns.  Promotions comes in and re-shoots the primetime topical. 
 
And there’s your web producer in the corner saying, “Um….  Guys? Did I hear something about a breaker? Do we really want to sit on this for three hours, or do you want to own this story worldwide, in 10 minutes?”
 
How do we balance our innate journalistic instincts to share information, with our companies’ instincts to protect the competitive advantage, and hold the story for the late news?
 
Sam Cohen, digital executive producer at KTXL-TV, says online is about branding.  “We have to get people to associate our brand with breaking news,  and know that we’re going to have it online, on TV, on social media, and on every platform,” Cohen said.  “It’s a whole package, and we have to show viewers the consistency of our reporting across all our tools and mediums.”
 
Producers and managers are adept at juggling conflicting concepts and choosing the best compromise, but this one always seems to catch newsrooms in a journalistic catch-22.  It’s a question of revenue, credibility, journalistic integrity, bragging rights and, dare we say, egos.
 
“Because TV still pays the bills, it’s beneficial to use the online tools to promote the on-air product,” Cohen said.  She points out there are a broad spectrum of ways to break the story: “I can tease ahead to the exclusive or amazing tidbit and promote our shows, using social media and the website to write a short article that gets the audience interested enough to actually turn on their TV, when maybe they wouldn’t normally turn it on.”
 
When debating do you break it first online or break it on TV, here are some factors to consider:
 
Is it a "TV win" or a "web win?" 
If it’s an obvious breaker like a warehouse fire or a news release that’s interesting, you’re not going to debate it.  The news needs to get out, and the sooner you break it online, the more clicks you get.  Your competitors already have it too, so there's no harm. 
 
Consider the exclusive interview with a crime victim.  You’d probably want to hold this for the late news because:
 
a)   It’s probably only relevant to a local audience, versus the global audience online.
b)   If you Tweet it or post something online, your competition will probably know she’s talking, and go bird dog your reporter and get the same interview.
c)   It’s not likely to go viral.
d)   It might be the emotional content that differentiates your news from your competition.
e)   You can promote it cleverly without disclosing exactly what you got:  “Exclusive new details only revealed to WXYZ reveal why the hit-and-run victim may have been targeted."
 
Is it likely to go viral? 
Maybe your market is different, but feature stories don’t usually work well to hold viewers, and we never promote them. But they do quite well online.
 
Consider the case of the 30 pound cat mistaken for a cougar. You’d want to get this video online as soon as possible.
 
a)   The other stations probably won’t break their lead reporter to try to find your cat and do a “copycat” report.
b)   It’s practically guaranteed to do well online. Cat videos now rank among the genres most-viewed shared with the new 6-second video app Vine.  The web loves animals, and online you have no worries about late night viewers turning you off because you’ve run out of important news. 
c)    Will you actually make money with the story if you post it online? I know up in the ivory towers of journalism we don’t like to talk money, but every web producer knows if their story gets picked up, it means literal money in the bank every time an ad is served with it, or even better, when a pre-rolled video ad accompanies it.
 
What if it falls in the middle?  
At my station, it’s a Venn diagram, and it’s heavily stacked in favor of breaking a story online.  We consider the newsworthiness of the item (including public safety), the viral potential of the story, and the ratings potential of the story.  If it’s newsworthy, you have to post it.  If it’s got viral potential, you want to post it.  If it has ratings potential only, you don’t post it.
 
The light green lobes that intersect are when we have discussions, and that’s where managers earn their salary.  We welcome a robust newsroom debate about the pros and cons, and after about two minutes of give and take, we’ll have the Executive Producer(s) make the call.  If the online EP and TV EPs disagree, I’ll often plan to post it online, but not until about 8 p.m., when I know the other stations can’t catch up.
 
 

Where do we break it online? 
We generally post big stories to every genre of site, but here’s our basic plan:
 
Twitter, then website:  Breaking news
We put breaking news on Twitter immediately, while writing the longer web story to link to.
 
Website, then Twitter: Complex stories of huge community interest

Break big stories here that require a more lengthy explanation and “bigger journalism.” Then, Tweet a tease for it.  Examples would be a new wrinkle in a big city project, or some legal wrangling in a big court case that doesn’t fit well into 140 characters.
 
Facebook, then website: Photos
Pictures are gold for our Facebook page, and it’s a great genre for enjoying them. When our anchor got hit in the face by seagull droppings on live TV, the first place we put the story was Facebook.  Next, we followed with the video going into our site video player. Finally, we wrote a web story to capitalize on the fact that several networks were talking about our video.
 
Video player: Raw video 
It’s all about embeds now. We often get great raw up here as soon as possible, because it gets linked and grabbed so quickly. If we’re first to get it into the video player, we become the “primary source” and the major newspapers, networks, and affiliates will begin embedding our video player.  If we’re late on video?  Even our newspaper partners will embed our competitors’ video.
 
Google Plus hangouts: Discussions, MOS & newsmakers
We use G+ to host hangouts with newsmakers.  We also go there to get man on the street, or maybe “woman on the computer.”  It’s a great way to involve viewers in something, and then let them see a cut version at 10 p.m.

How does your station handle breaking news? What are your criteria for choosing to break a story online versus on-air? Tell us about it in the comments below.