Adding my own few points to Nexstar’s ‘Digital First’ strategy

The phrase “Digital First” is nothing new. Managers in TV station news departments have been saying it for years, but they really hadn’t practiced what it means.

Years ago, news directors thought viewers getting information sooner would not feel the need to watch TV newscasts, which was where the money was made and so was their job security.

Back then, and I’m sure to this day, there were stations that kept stories off their websites and apps until … maybe five minutes before the newscast (that’s digital first!), and the short article teased watching the newscast for more information. Then, suddenly after the newscast, the article got longer with the detailed material included!

Now, stations will often hold stories until they can be teased on social media. They wouldn’t want two social media posts going up too closely together, but luckily they also don’t want viewers — ones with more than one station’s app, or who like more than one station’s Facebook page, or who follow more than one station’s Twitter feed — see them getting beaten by the competition. (What other people would know?)

Also, during the ratings periods known as sweeps, stations would show how they’ve investigated important issues (and saved them to air during sweeps) as well as showing sexy and scary nonsense to get every viewer possible watching when the numbers really counted. Then, the question was whether to force viewers without DVRs to stay up late, or put those stories on the web and app, and make people who didn’t watch go there the next day (or week) to see or share the story.

Now, fewer young people are watching TV news. They’re the most sought-after demographic for advertisers and they have the most years of news intake ahead, making digital platforms more and more necessary.

On May 24, the Indianapolis Business Journal pointed out in an article called (remember this name) “Young viewers skip local TV news, consume info online” that said,

“In the past, news directors and station executives could wait until the youngsters got a job, bought a house, got married and had children. Eventually, they’d tune in.”

But that’s not happening anymore, and the article blamed

“the growth of the digital world and the explosion of mobile technology”

for breaking tradition.

“I have a lot of employees that have teenage children that have never watched TV news. It’s the same for a lot of college students. Never ever.”

Indianapolis TV station general manager Lana Durban Scott’s admission

It’s especially important for those far-away bean-counters who actually own most stations because local news is so lucrative. You’ve seen it take up more of the schedule (4:00, am or pm?), wherever you live. The station owns the product, including all the ad time, and most if not all of the staff is already at work.

According to the article,

“Advertising sold during local TV newscasts has historically made up 40 percent to 70 percent of a station’s revenue.”

Despite the apparent doom and gloom, I suggested you remember the second part of the headline is “consume info online.” The article referred to a study that showed young people today as interested in and consuming news at the rate previous generations did — but just not on TV.

“The stereotype of millennials not being interested in news doesn’t stand. Data shows the opposite. Millennials are interested in the news and across several measures. Millennials are tuned in.”

Jennifer Benz, principal research scientist
Don’t forget broadcast TV is still the place to be for huge, exclusive events like the Super Bowl. However, last month’s finale of The Big Bang Theory only brought in 18 million viewers. That’s just one-sixth of the 106 million the M*A*S*H finale did back in 1983 — and we know the American population has grown since then.

Some other finale viewer numbers, courtesy of Deadline magazine:
Seinfeld                                      76 million      1998
Friends                                       65.9 million   2004
Everybody Loves Raymond          32.9 million   2005
Two and a Half Men                    13.15 million  2015

Do you notice the downward trend?

Sadly, I learned from that same article ABC canceled my favorite new show of the few I watched last season, The Kids Are Alright.

Back to the story: I’m bringing this up today for two reasons. First, the website FTVLive brought up huge broadcast company Nexstar’s plans, which I’d already known about. The second is, I saw firsthand what to expect while on a recent interview to become Digital Executive Producer at a Nexstar station. (I’ll give you my opinions on that, shortly.)

Nexstar’s edict is for 20 percent of each station’s news staff members to be working on Digital First projects. That makes perfect sense, since the money is clearly shifting from TV to digital. Right now, looking at all media — traditional vs. online — the amounts are pretty close.

The company set up stages for its stations, so some will start before others. Right now, Nexstar’s website says the company has 174 stations in 100 TV markets, 114 local websites and 202 local mobile apps.

(Stations may have different apps for news, weather and sports. And of course, nothing can be said about the stations Nexstar will be buying from Tribune at this time.)

Change often leads to growing pains. The TV product could take a hit unless the headcount goes up, but reporters and MMJs who don’t appear on TV can still shoot a few short packages daily. Consider them tracked vo/sots (in TV talk) for the web but written out for the TV anchors, with the soundbite included. The best will have something extra in the web version for the anchor to tease at the end of the TV version. That’ll get the website more clicks and them, personally, more exposure.

The reporters and MMJs still have contracts, and should be collecting the same salaries. Then, when there’s a job opening and there always seems to be, “promote” those people back to TV and hire someone less expensive but capable to replace them.

Another part of change is making the best use of the web staff. The station where I interviewed had a structure in place and was finishing the process of training. That was great, but between the news director and the Digital Executive Producer who wanted to leave once her replacement was found, I didn’t think the important work was getting done.

For a project so early on, she spent too long after arriving everyday — more than an hour — analyzing the previous day’s numbers instead of teaching necessary writing, teasing, style, and the other little things that’ll cause the audience to lose confidence in you if you keep them up. (And great story-telling reporters on the air probably need a few lessons on writing for the web.)

I also suggested having some great stories — the unique video — come up in their entirety on social media as a trial to introduce viewers to the new product. Then, when it’s time, announce it’ll go away and they’ll have to find it on the website (or click the link on social media).

I’d want everything looking great — providing information differently, using SEO correctly, and receiving some positive feedback — before starting the heavy promotion. If you do a good job, the numbers should come, and I’ll bet nobody will lose their job strictly for bad numbers so soon. For now, she should be analyzing numbers weekly, unless there was a big story.

This is the thank you email I sent. I prefer a handwritten card, but storm coverage cut my time short, a ratings period had just ended, the news director was going to take some time off and a holiday was coming up. I wanted to make sure he’d remember my suggestions and what I’d do, and you’ll read why I left with a bad feeling.

This part in the middle contained just three bullet points, for a total of four lines. I suggested and gave examples of cutting the large number of brands, and simplifying the names of the confusing brands with what’s in each section, since there’s only so much a viewer can take or remember.

In part, I suggested replacing Originals with Web Exclusives, replacing Plus with Stream or LiveStream and have video sections there, and replacing Your (wonderful station) with the name of the area since Your is so generic. Plus, the name of the URL itself was way too long, with more than one word, which leads to confusion and misspellings.

Can you believe what’s in the red box? And no, I never heard back.

Scott Jones also mentions bad website templates in his FTVLive article, and that problem should’ve been solved years ago. Just above, in my thank you note, I mentioned Nexstar stations using the Lakana CMS are leaving it for WordPress. For years, the thinking was websites that look like newspaper sites, like this one from Nexstar that already got changed, do better. Notice it has a lot of headlines, pictures, franchise promotions and also ads.

It’s no surprise my thoughts on the issues of broadcasting and journalism are pretty strong. I started working in the industry back in 1994. Since then, despite so much need for good newscast producers, I’ve tilted to the digital side for a variety of reasons:

  • I like being able to make decisions without a boss or committee looking over my shoulder, at least until the TV news ends.
  • I like taking total responsibility for the content, look and social media promotion.
  • I like being able to have a hand in all sorts of stories, rather than producing a newscast that airs right before the network’s news, that tends to avoid anything national or international. (We live in pretty interesting times, to say the least!)
  • And I like beating the competition on my own terms, rather than the clock’s. It’s not as prestigious as looking at three or four TV sets at once, like many managers but not a single viewer, instantly comparing which station is showing the most interesting video of the big story at every second, and barking out orders to pan the camera out.
  • Also, I love the rush of listening to our reporter give the audience, myself included, new details and quickly typing away, attributing facts (not just from our reporter), while recording and stopping all the different video clips, and titling them with the newest information (rather than Plane Crash #1, #2; or Plane Crash 5:00, 5:15, etc.).

I thought about a plane crash example while remembering a Friday night in Oct., 2015, at home. The news director called. A plane had gone down on a rural mountain in northeastern Tennessee, and I was the only person able to cover the story online.

Luckily, I was able to excuse myself and go upstairs, where I had access to everything I needed. We aired news from 10 to 11:35pm. I started recording our reporter’s TV hits, typing every fact she learned in sentence form. Then I stopped recording and started processing, since that would take a few minutes. I’d use that time to check my storytelling and typing. Then, I’d take a screengrab, add the video to the text, made sure it was labeled as breaking news, and publish. And then I repeated about every 15 minutes until the end of the broadcast.

There wasn’t much to show on a rural mountain at night, as if our crew could get close enough — and I didn’t think a generic “breaking news” or “plane crash” graphic would be good enough or accurate enough — so I made a map. I put updates on Facebook and Twitter, and sent push alerts to the app. The boss and I talked and texted pretty much throughout, but through good communication, he knew better than to interrupt what I was doing and what I had planned.

All that, and our reporter beating her competition in every way, gave our station’s viewers and digital audience everything they needed to know about the all-night search that was starting before they went to bed. Reporting the story on every platform was as successful as possible, and nobody matched our work.

I’ve mentioned before that we upgraded to a different version of the Lakana CMS before I left for Philadelphia and after that, Sinclair bought the station and made the website look like the rest of theirs, so what you see above is all that’s left. It looks like the picture was added the next day, but the text hadn’t changed.

Doing the Google search “buffalo mountain” plane crash three-and-a-half years later, our story was second on Google’s second page. I blame all the changes made to it. Otherwise, it would’ve been listed higher.

My version, which I showed you just above, was second on Google’s third page. I think that’s great, considering the only text was the headline and two sentences, consisting of two-and-a-half lines underneath the story, which was one big graphic. WordPress pages, as opposed to posts, don’t allow for categories or tags that help with searching.

I mentioned all that as an unusual example of how it took only one extra news person to cover the story on all digital platforms until the end. The newscast went off the air on time, less than 30 minutes before midnight, since we knew the plane was small, there was nothing to see and we wouldn’t be getting new information. Later, we learned both people on board were killed.

As for newspapers, don’t think money can’t be made similarly. Their websites are competing with TV websites more and more, even with video. They might not have a chopper to cover local breaking news live, but that’s not needed every day. Go find an ad for a newspaper reporter at a company that knows what it’s doing (at least in business). They want people who can shoot video and tease why their story is important online.

On Feb. 6, The New York Times announced a strong fourth quarter of 2018

“capped a strong year. … We added 265,000 net new digital subscriptions in Q4, the biggest gain since the months immediately following the 2016 election. Digital subscription growth accelerated in the second half of 2018 and we ended the year with 3.4 million digital subscriptions and 4.3 million total subscriptions. We achieved digital advertising revenue growth of 23 percent year-over-year in Q4, or 32 percent on a like-for-like basis, our best result for many years.

“We ended 2018 with $709 million in total digital revenue. This means that after just three years, we are already three quarters of the way to achieving our five-year goal of doubling digital revenue to $800 million by 2020. As a result we are setting ourselves a new goal – to grow our subscription business to more than 10 million subscriptions by 2025.

“Our appeal to subscribers – and to the world’s leading advertisers – depends more than anything on the quality of our journalism. That is why we have increased, rather than cut back, our investment in our newsroom and opinion departments. We want to accelerate our digital growth further, so in 2019, we will direct fresh investment into journalism, product and marketing.

“We believe that a conservative approach to our balance sheet makes sense as we navigate our digital transition. Nonetheless, in the light of the progress we have made, our Board of Directors has approved a dividend increase of $.01 per share to $.05 per share. The Board will of course continue to keep the balance sheet and the best use of capital under close review.”

Mark Thompson, president and chief executive officer

Oh yeah, and its stock priced jumped 10.33 percent that very day!

And there’s more good news for a newspaper on the other coast.

On March 23, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies held a webinar with the writer and editor The Seattle Times’ newsletter, Morning Brief. Your local paper and TV stations probably have something similar. In Seattle, Morning Brief started in 2015. Poynter says something amazing happened in three years.

“Last year, it converted 2,000 readers of that newsletter into paid digital subscribers. That amounted to 8 percent of all new subscriptions in 2018 and generated more than $400,000 in profit.”

Of course, the paper had to let somebody with experience spend time paying attention to content planning, click-worthy writing and how to measure success.

Bottom line for TV news managers who oversee digital news and more: Get the right people, pay them properly for work that’s becoming more and more important, and give them a long leash.

If those “dying” newspapers can turn things around, then why can’t you?

If you appreciate what you read here, please subscribe with either your email address or WordPress account, and get a notice whenever I publish. Don’t rely on social media with its hacking issues and censoring like thisthis, this  and this.

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