Build Systems That Produce Consistent Newscasts

Read Tom Dolan's tips on building systems that produce consistent newscasts, originally published in TVRundown newsletter.

For insights on how to achieve newscast success this year, we turn to veteran news executive Tom Dolan. His Dolan Media Management is a consulting firm designed to build and train management teams to fit the strategic needs of television stations, broadcast groups and programming networks.

Here are his views on how to upgrade your product:

  • You need systems and structure more than ever. Create and use checklists to tightly focus the product for your staff.
  • Improve your morning meeting as the key vehicle that sets the tone and goals of the day. The News Director must be there to know what’s going on.
  • Produce your content to show viewers that your anchors are knowledgeable. They are a key differentiator, and in some markets, the main driver.
  • Ensure fairness and accuracy. The “Fair and Balanced” slogan is resonating with some viewers. Time-pressed staffers cannot be just grabbing the first useable bite they hear at the head of a tape and going with that.
  • Avoid brand and slogan overkill. You can hurt yourself if viewers begin to perceive repetition and excess.

When competing in today’s lower share world, you must do many things right to win.

It requires refined systems to keep the staff focused and the product consistent. “With lower numbers, it is harder to prove you are on the right track,” says Tom Dolan, President of Dolan Media Management. His firm recruits and helps build management teams. He points to Chicago as a dramatic example of the problem. “It is a 10 o’clock market for late news, and a market where viewers like the news and watch with frequency. The ratings erosion there is down over 17 points in 10 years — that is over 500,000 households in just 10 years. It is very telling, and you must operate very differently,” he says. It is more important than ever to define your localism and work aggressively with the promotion people to develop a position of who you are in the market, he says.

Produce “active anchors”

Begin a review of your operation by looking at your anchors.

They are the point of entry to your newscast, and they are one of the best and most useful ways to define your localism. They are a key differentiator,” says Dolan. Make sure viewers have strong reasons to watch your anchors. In many markets, personality still is the driver. If your station is the market leader, you need to get your anchors involved to keep that number. If you are not the top station, Dolan says one of the best ways to grow a number is by getting the viewer to notice your anchors do a lot more, and make them a reason to watch. “It sounds basic, but we look at tapes from 20 to 30 newsrooms a week, and we don’t see much evidence of this. It must go beyond standing in front of a keywall doing bullet points,” he says.

Include your anchors when producing your lead story.

In most stories like breaking news or severe weather you need a ‘what happened’ story. The anchors should deliver the who, what, where. The reporters should be packaging the why,” says Dolan.

Have the anchor frame up stories.

Instead of quickly tossing the story to the reporter in the field, the anchor should prepare the viewer for the reporter angle coming up,” he explains. The anchor can also frame up a story geographically with a map or animation explaining where the story happened. “A scene setter is something an anchor can easily do. You won’t lose a viewer when you come on with a well-written top that gets the viewer focused on where the story is,” he says.

Depending on the urgency to go live to the field, the anchor may do a short explainer piece.

It may go before or after the live report, and can be with video or animated graphics. It will help make the news understandable for viewers who have busy lives.

We’re advocating stations make their anchors into ‘experts.’ It helps traditional anchors grow in the viewers’ eyes. It makes new anchors more credible, and it may make the newscast visually more engaging.

– Tom Dolan

Fairness is still an issue

Tone and point of view can have an enormous impact on your audience in creating impression and image.

You must be vigilant on bias and understand what has to be done,” he says. He uses the example of the police beating in Cincinnati at the end of last year. The tape was shown over and over again. “Many stations and the networks all seemed guilty of rolling the tape in the middle, where the police began beating the man. Why not start with the first video in sequence, which is the fair way to do it,” says Dolan. The earlier section of the tape showed the man throwing the first punch, which apparently was not in dispute, and was a fact widely known. Yet the video made it look like the incident began with the police beating. “This is a very subtle thing, but it is something that really bothers viewers,” says Dolan.

The Fox “Fair and Balanced” tag has gone a long way toward repositioning the industry.

Some people feel Fox is biased, but Fox has created a new niche for news that a lot of people are watching. They have made a whole point out of the fairness issue, and it is something that is not being dealt with in local newsrooms around the country,” he says. Like many people, Dolan has cable news monitors on during the day. “I often watch raw news conferences during the day, and then watch the edited pieces during the network and local newscasts at night. I find that sometimes I had a whole different impression as to what the story was about,” he says.

Be aware that time pressures may be distorting your product.

I don’t believe that is intentional. But in their hurried pace to get the news on the air, people aren’t really editing the story. They are just taking a feed re-cued, or they are taking soundbites early in the news conference. They are not looking at all the content and making a news judgment as to what is newsworthy,” he explains. “A lot of this unintentional bias or quick editing of stories for soundbites feeds into the erosion,” says Dolan.

Success starts with the morning meeting

The importance of the morning editorial meeting cannot be underestimated.

It all starts in the morning meeting. The point of view of the meeting should be how to manage the ideas all day long,” says Dolan. “It sounds basic, but this is what some stations execute, and other ones don’t. You should agree on what the story line is and the viewer benefit before you leave the meeting,” he says. This relevance of content is an issue that must be addressed immediately, he adds.

Here are 10 specific suggestions to improve the morning meeting:

  1. The News Director should be there. “We always say that if you don’t know what’s on your ‘front page’, you don’t know what’s going on in your news department,” he says. The G.M. must buy into this, too. “Never let anyone at your station schedule a meeting at 9 in the morning or 2 in the afternoon. That editorial time is sacred time for the news department and promotion people,” he stresses.
  2. The morning meeting should be run by whomever the coverage strategy person is. Whether the title is managing editor or assignment editor — it should be a content manager. The executive producer should run the afternoon meeting, because it is more of a newscast format meeting, he says. “The executive producer and the producers should contribute in the morning in an aggressive way by talking about not just what you are covering, but how the stories will appear on the air,” says Dolan.
  3. Every work group should be represented if possible. Reporters, producers, photographers, graphic artists, and promotion people.
  4. People should arrive prepared and organized. What you do in advance of the meeting is as important as what you do in the meeting. Let the news people visit a Sales meeting and see how they are run. No one would dare show up without a report or a planned contribution,” he says.
  5. Produce the meeting like a newscast. Don’t start with the daybook. Lead with the key stories, the key followups, and the defining stories,” he says.
  6. Use a big board so everyone can see the assignments and story treatments. The first column should list the potential lead stories and all the other important news,” he says. List the lead-in program, too.
  7. You should decide what are the unique promotable stories and your unique angles to the news of the day.
  8. Talk about how you are going to produce the live shots.Obviously, you need to own the live image. To do that, you need to start thinking about it early,” he says.
  9. The last 15 minutes should be dedicated to planning and late news. You should be talking about how you are going to drive the news through the dayparts to the 11 p.m. and the next morning.
  10. Review an excellent piece from the day before and discuss why it was well done. Show the promotion for it as well. “Did we deliver?” he asks.

The time to focus on avoiding the predictable and targeting interesting, unique elements is before the reporters and photographers head out.

Dolan points to the coverage of Hurricane Isabel, which left millions without power for days. Two days after the storm hit, Dolan was driving north on I-95 in Maryland and passed nearly 100 utility company trucks from out of state that were heading south to help restore power.

Instead of doing so many windblown remotes on the beach, wouldn’t it have been better if news departments had looked at whether the power companies were ready for this inland hurricane? The trucks from the other states should have been here in anticipation of the hurricane, not two or three days afterwards. That’s what localism should be,” he says. “It was one of the best forecast hurricanes ever, in terms of where it was going to hit coming inland. It was one of the largest ever land mass hurricanes. The weather departments predicted very accurately that it was going to be a storm surge and tidal flooding type of hurricane — yet thousands of people left their cars in the bullseye of the hurricane. They lost their car by leaving it in front of their house,” he says. “At one point, there were 2,000 to 3,000 new cars underwater on a loading dock on the Chesapeake — even with all that notice!” he adds.

Ironically, around the same time, Dolan was watching a tape from a station in Seattle that did a story about getting your car out of the way of a flood, even if it meant driving it 45 minutes away to a friend’s house and leaving it there. “These people could have saved themselves $20,000! Those are the kind of stories I am talking about, versus doing the predictable windblown beach remote, which has become a cliche and almost a caricature of news coverage of storms,” he adds.

Keep growing your morning news

  • Owning a story and dominating the day starts with the morning news. “How well you cover an ongoing story or a breaking news story in the morning may change long term viewing patterns. Make sure you staff accordingly and respond aggressively,” says Dolan.
  • Your morning reporters should always be in the A block. Don’t scatter them throughout the newscast doing features, he says. “Reporters should always be in the A block of each half-hour, because it creates a feeling of urgency and immediacy of reporting. It also gives viewers the feeling you have something that is worth watching,” he adds.
  • You need new news in the morning. You should avoid giving viewers the feeling the morning news is just a re-hash of the overnight crime blotter,” he says.
  • Look at your research. Is it really important to people in the morning? “We would argue that this matter may not be as important to people who are trying to get out the door,” he says.
  • Format multiple, but short weather segments that are formatted differently through the hour, but that are all forecast-driven. Some could be the 24-hour forecast, some could be regionally, some the five-day forecast and some could talk about the next storm we’re getting,” he says.
  • Mornings are a good place to define your localism. Get around town and do stories where people are up and doing things. That’s where you should do your live remotes,” he says.

Don’t burn out your brand

Dolan says you shouldn’t try to shoehorn all content into your marketing position. “You don’t need to tell viewers you are ‘making them safer’ in every other story. I counted an anchorman telling me, as the viewer, nine times in a newscast that he was going to make me safer. It is just not a believable position,” he stresses. Cover the news. If you are doing your job, certain stories are going to fit into that brand, he adds. “To obsess over it, and tie it to every story in the newscast, is causing some confusion among producers and managers in some newsrooms,” he warns. He feels slapping a label on every story, whether it is appropriate or not, can undermine a good marketing position.

Develop a checklist of values

“Decide what the key elements are that make a good newscast. Those elements become your points of difference, and are special reasons to watch. Therefore, they almost immediately deliver to your promotion department content to tease and promote,” Dolan says.
Ask yourself at the end of the morning meeting whether your battle plan for the day addresses all the points on your checklist.

Newscast Checklist

  • Discuss the lead story treatment and how to make it special. It is the point of entry for the viewer.
  • Find a strong B lead story. Typically, it can be a promotable story that will get viewers from the A, through the first commercial and flowing through 12 or 13 minutes of newscast.
  • An enterprise story or key explainer could be the lead story for the B block.
  • Brainstorm an angle on the key news of the day, topically-driven stories, answering the “why.”
  • Give the anchors a role in the newscast. They are a major reason to watch and help define their localism.
  • Tease and promote to these points of difference — not the events themselves.
  • Review the newscast in the post-meeting and check off how effective a job you did on these things.

Don’t overlook the role of recruiting

Even when you are on the right track, you must continually recruit to keep the structure going. Unfortunately, many managers just ask questions like “Are you a good ‘people person’?” when conducting job interviews. “The key to recruiting is testing your candidates on whether they are doing these things or are capable of doing these things when they come to your newsroom,” he says.