Local TV news is, perhaps even more than other in the media business, a ratings game.
That’s a distinct takeaway I had, leaving NBC Philadelphia headquarters on City Line Avenue after the latest local ONA meetup featured the affiliate’s web strategy and news direction. More than 50 journalists, NBC 10 representatives, bloggers, freelancers and other media representatives had Yuengling and pretzels before seating in the 10! Show studios. The event was well-planned, well-run and well-received — though this writer is one of the local group’s organizers, outside of promotion, this event was entirely organized by NBC 10 social media editor Lou DuBois.
The event featured video clips from the WCAU station’s long history, presentations on the affiliate’s web and mobile strategies and then a panel Q&A session featuring the station’s tech trends reporter Vince Lattanzio, its consumer reporter Tracey Davidson and its weatherman Hurricane Swartz, moderated by social media editor and event organizer DuBois, who did a smashing job. It was a distinctly different (and so thoroughly compelling) event than our group’s other two programmed events like this, one with the Philadelphia Media Network and the other with public media outfit WHYY.
While the latter is a nonprofit and NBC 10 partner, the former also has to operate as a business with investors in mind. So, it was interesting to hear the suits talk so differently about the work they do.
It’s no surprise that TV and newspaper-based news business is different. But what was interesting to me was how from its web team to its business development team to, yes, even its ‘talent,’ local TV news speaks in a manner of audience acquisition: engagement, text tools, story teases and, as the weatherman said, what happened to Demi Moore?
Let’s be clear, one of the most important topics of the night was the NBC 10 mobile strategist talking about revenue plans — sustainability is key — but it was so stark to me that in an event that also featured people whose business cards have ‘reporter’ on them, there was none of the high-minded chatter of journalism — of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, of informing and engaging in civic discourse.
When the publisher of the Philadelphia Media Network addressed the ONA group last November, peppered throughout his pet project pining were the kind of Fourth Estate extolling that a man in his role is compelled to do but sometimes actually means.
There was none of that from NBC 10.
Understand: this is less criticism than recognition, and it certainly is no crime committed by only one local station. On the contrary, I’m trying to better understand why more substantive content isn’t generated by local TV news, and I’m getting closer to some answer. I rather like the NBC 10 crew, but maybe, as a friend said, the 10 o’clock news should be categorized more as entertainment than journalism.
Indeed, in the shallow pool of local TV news, NBC 10 does some genuinely compelling work — its Mayor Town Hall last year deserves an award and its FCC-mandated public affairs programming outlet ‘At Issue with Steve Highsmith‘ is consistently strong — but their competitive, inch-by-inch, Nielsen-obsessed business world is more different than I often realize.
Wednesday night after the event, I walked out into the mild, cool air through the dark station parking lot that straddles the border between Philadelphia and suburban Bala Cynwyd pleased with an interesting event. Still, in the pursuit of a smarter citizenry, the intractable issues at play may make it as likely to have NBC 10 cross City Line Avenue and move into higher-profile, more costly Center City offices as it would be to have that station, or any of its local competitors, ever offer much in the way of consistent public affairs journalism.
The trouble is that those residents that high-minded elites seem to suggest we most need to better educate, engage and empower are, for now at least, more likely watching local 6 o’clock news than reading an investigative story from the Inquirer. Or so we think.
Is that because they don’t care? Maybe, or even likely. But we have a few years yet before the solution leaves the local TV news studio, so it’s a good place to look.