Use Topical Investigations To Increase Sampling

Differentiate your newscast with an Investigative strategy. Today's busy viewer/user is topically driven. Win daily coverage on the air and online by digging into the top stories of the day. Learn how in Tom's article published in The Rundown newsletter.

Local TV news is still a very good business, but as the audience patterns shift, you must adjust your plan to succeed on all platforms. With electronic measurement on the horizon for many more markets, TV news managers must focus on winning every show every day. Here is a plan of action from veteran news director and consultant Tom Dolan.

Take control of your future

To succeed in today’s fragmented environment, news managers must adapt — and they must do it quickly.

“The focus of RTNDA’s digital sessions this year was the news director as content director of the portal,” says management consultant Tom Dolan. He believes you should view your TV news operation as a portal — not as a TV newscast, plus the web. “It is the aggregation model that is key, and feeding all platforms,” he says.

The content of local news must evolve beyond the current push for breaking news and weather.

With so much news available on demand, people are already getting the hits, runs and errors by the time they get home at 5 or 6 o’clock,” Dolan says. “It can’t be a ‘newscast of record’ approach anymore,” he warns.

If you want them to watch when they get home, you must offer something unique and new that they haven’t heard already.
You need to give them a reason to watch more than you have in the past,” says Dolan.

Now is the time for news directors and general managers to take control of the newsrooms to position themselves in a more aggressive way. We are recommending they take a topical investigative approach on all platforms.

Look at key stories that you already know viewers hear through all their different choices and devices during the day. These are stories you know they are interested in,” he stresses. Develop more information, better angling and more enterprise on those stories. “Weave your resources into those stories, so that by 5, 6 or 10 o’clock at night, people will have a reason to watch,” he explains.

Build your strategy now for year-round measuring in the future

According to Nielsen, markets 57-125 will have year-round mailable electronic measuring by 2011. The top 56 markets are scheduled to have LPMs in place by 2012. “The networks use LPMs now, which is why they are shifting their programming. They are not just loading up programming in three months. They are spreading it around now,” he explains.

If ratings count year-round, product will have to count year-round, too. But most news departments are producing product for big, breaking news days and three or four months a year when rating books are scored,” he says. Dolan says too much of the focus is on how to beat your competitors during those times. “With all the choices for news, and all the fragmentation, that focus needs to change,” he says.

Number one stations are winning with 12 and 14 shares. Is that really winning? And, where is the floor ultimately going to go with today’s ratings?” he asks. He believes the focus should be more on how to recruit viewers and solidify your image and brand, and try to grow back some of that audience. “A good place to start is to stop waiting for breaking news, and break some news on your own,” he says.

Newscasts have too much Who, What, Where, and too little Why.

People already know the basics of many stories from the morning news, using the Internet at work, or listening to the radio while driving home. “What they are not getting from those other sources is why something happened, the value it may have to their life, and a variety of other aspects, including making someone accountable,” says Dolan. “Given the infrastructure most investigative reporters have, they should be able to do some research and use their sources on behalf of the viewer. They should be able to quickly pull together a story on what their investigation turned up so far,” says Dolan. They should continue to work the story and supply documentation on the website as they gather it. “The next day they might be able to provide another point of view on the story,” he says.

Dolan points to the accountability story on tornado sirens, which was done by WTHR-TV, Indianapolis. It is a classic example of a topical investigation. Twenty-nine people died in three states during a tornado outbreak. “In Indiana, some sirens worked, some didn’t work, and many areas near schools didn’t even have tornado sirens,” says Dolan. “It’s a matter of asking questions and digging for answers on behalf of the viewer. If it is a really complex story, sometimes the explanation is the first step in investigation. We know from research that viewers love that,” he says.

Operating in a smaller universe requires new approaches

Dolan believes that far too many TV managers are in denial about the five-year trend in ratings. “We tend to operate book-to-book or year-to-year. But if you look back over time, the five-year trends are very disturbing,” he says. “In one study we did for an IRE workshop, we showed in six markets — that are considered good news towns — 60 to 78 percent of the available audience is not watching the 6 p.m. news,” he says. “You must get on a year-round footing and build product,” he stresses.

One-third of the audience may respond to this

According to research by Smith Geiger, more frequent investigations will drive more sampling. However, the Smith Geiger researchers warn that a question like, “Will you view a station more if there are more frequent investigations?” gets too many false positives. A more realistic answer would be that people may check out the station more if they do investigations, and then they’d watch the investigative stories that are of interest to them.

Consulting firms use different words for these viewers, including ‘switchables, gettables, seekers or targeted viewers.’ But they all seem to have a strong interest in investigative,” says Dolan. “Much like the swing voter, they are open to this — and they represent 25 to 35 percent of your base,” he says. Smith Geiger’s research found that “while the marketplace places weather and general news coverage attributes above investigation, the seeker group will place investigative just below or equal to weather and breaking news.

More sampling, more viewers

Increasing the frequency of sampling can increase the number of days of news that people watch.

People typically watch 2 to 3 days a week. If you can recruit these viewers, you may get them 3 or 4 days a week. In the lower share universe we are in, it may be enough to push you into first place or from third place to second,” he explains. “If you do this every day with at least one or two stories, then you will improve your image and get the kind of sampling you want,” he says. “It may restore some of your base, and help you build a brand that will get people to tune in on a more regular basis,” he adds.

Topical investigative is key to differentiation.

It gives people a sense that they are getting a story they can’t find anywhere else, and one that they didn’t already see online or on cable news.

Build the image — the expectation — that you will have fresh items worth checking out.

You must do this daily and year-round. It’s a question of managing expectations,” he stresses.

The top of the show is a good place to start.

The lead story is the point of entry into the newscast,” Dolan says. “If you also develop the lead story with good enterprise and good investigative angling, it will be a double hit. It will have even higher interest for the viewer,” he says.

Re-define “investigative”

Viewers make daily viewing decisions. That means the investigative unit must be more visible and more opportunistic.

You must have an investigative reporter or reporters and an investigative producer, even if you have to offset that by dropping other staff. They need to be much more visible in the newsroom and on the air — not off in a room where they generate stories once a month,” he says. “Your investigative team should also be highly visible and very active in the editorial meetings, both early and late. They can help you shape coverage — even if it is a story they aren’t working on,” Dolan says.

Because the investigative reporters usually have so many sources in the community and they are good at researching databases, they’ll hear things and suggest angles you may not have thought of. Dolan adds there are vast computer assisted reporting resources available online and through different organizations, such as IRE to help train your staff.

If audience ratings for TV spike when a major story happens, why not take advantage of that when the appetite is high? That’s exactly when you showcase your depth,” he says. “It’s a way to satisfy the appetite and slow down the zapper,” he adds.

The Action Plan

Identify the top three or four most interesting and important stories in the morning meeting.

The goal each day is to have great editorial meetings. What separates stations is the treatment and presentation of the three or four top stories. We’re recommending stations assign resources beyond general assignment reporters — journalists capable of digging, asking tough questions and holding people accountable,” says Dolan.

He believes your content driver research, combined with the knowledge of your staff about the market, will guide you to select the right stories for this special treatment. “This is a safer way to travel than taking risks with wild stunts that viewers feel have trivialized news or diminished the importance of what you do,” he adds. “Where have stories about Killer High Heels gotten us? Show me any station that continues to operate with sweeps mentality that is still successful today, or are their ratings and share down?” he asks. On the other hand, Dolan says he can point to stations that are doing topical investigative and are growing.

Build a team

You need to hire bright, aggressive, and resourceful people to do it. You build it a day and a story at a time,” he says.

Deputize one assignment editor who is a good digger and who knows how to source stories.

If that’s not possible, recruit a top web savvy journalism grad or assign an associate producer to the job. “The person must have knowledge of the region and be good at finding things,” Dolan says. “You need a point person in the shop who is available to network with all the producers and managers all day long,” he says.

Assign one full-time producer to manage the topical investigative treatment each day.

You need someone who can drive the coverage approach, and be accountable and creative,” he says. “This should be a person who is a good package and piece producer with the skills to make these stories interesting and engaging, but also someone who can drive the coverage approach and tie into the newscast’s overall presentation,” he says.

Choose a reporter who has some identity as a good digger.

Dolan suggests it could be an investigative reporter already in your shop, or one of your anchors. However, he says the person must be an active participant who can hold their ground when questioning officials.

Build a rolodex of specialists in fields which are in the news every day, such as law, medicine and technology.

When a story breaks, like a bridge collapse or a so-called ‘medical breakthrough’, you’ll have instant access to experts you can rely on quickly,” he says. You might want to add a financial source who can give perspective on the economic issues in the news today.

Find a promotion producer who is adept at telling this type of story.

You should also build lots of “proof” spots into the campaign, he adds. “Ultimately, it does lead to a whole campaign so you become known as the station that does this,” he says.

Use all of your platforms for topical investigative

The web is an important part of this. You should not give up on driving viewers to your web site to get unique elements of the story,” he urges. Dolan points to the example of ABC’s Brian Ross. Ross appears routinely on GMA, 20/20, World News and “He appears during the week on all of their platforms, breaking stories on some and following up on the others,” says Dolan. “It is an effective way for ABC News to deliver this image for themselves,” he adds.

If you are committed to this, your news staff will start to look at the organization as more of an overall portal. They will use the aggregation model, and become the market source for all the angles on the big stories,” he says.

Managing expectations builds brand, and changes the behavior

Increasingly our clients are asking us to identify managers who can execute this way,” says Dolan. “Don’t wait until year-round measuring is on you. Build the systems and the infrastructure now so you are ready,” he urges. “This is where the viewer/user is heading, and this is where the newsroom should be heading,” he says.

We have to migrate from breeding a generation of breaking news producers to building a more distinctive coverage position that has real value for the viewers and users,” he adds. “If you don’t begin to execute this, some third party or a newspaper will do it on the web,” he warns.