Local television journalists used to have a single goal: putting on the best newscast possible. Packages were designed solely for viewing on TV. Posting stories on the web only happened after the newscast aired, so as not to cannibalize TV ratings.
Today, however, some TV stations proudly proclaim they’re “digital first.” That’s a term newspaper websites started using several years ago. It refers to putting news on the web and social media as it happens, instead of holding it until the next print run, or in the case of TV, the next newscast. That’s a huge change in philosophy, because it means some TV newsrooms now see digital platforms as equal to, or perhaps even more important, than the station’s traditional broadcasts.
It’s a move showing up at stations around the country. The 2019 RTDNA/Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University Newsroom Survey, for instance, found that more than 200 TV news directors report “trying new things online,” and 60% are planning to build new “digital first” strategies “including staff reorganization to integrate digital at the center of the news team.”
So what does this look like in practice? Nexstar Media Group, the soon-to-be owner of more than 200 stations, has started using the “digital first” phrase in a new round of job ads. These new positions are also noteworthy because they sound more like newspaper jobs than TV positions.
The group’s Connecticut affiliate, WTNH, for instance, is looking for a data reporter to “identify, research, and investigate stories through data to craft new and innovative ways of storytelling through analysis and visualizations,” and a social media producer tasked with leading “the transition from broadcast focused newsrooms to multi-platform newsrooms.” Both jobs are unambiguously described as a way to support a “#DigitalFirst operation with a focus on delivering local content on a 24/7 basis across all platforms.”
Nexstar isn’t alone. Hearst’s WMUR in New Hampshire is looking for a digital editor to produce “digital original content” for “mobile, tablet, desktop and social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.” The one platform not mentioned? Television.
They’re both following in the footsteps of KNTV, the NBC Universal station in San Jose, California, which created a five-person “digital innovation team” in 2018 and charged them with “experimenting with new ways of telling stories utilizing different digital formats” like data journalism, visualizations and web page coding. They even hired a “V.P. of Digital” to work alongside the existing “V.P. of News.”
The experiment obviously paid off, as KNTV recently won a national Edward R. Murrow award for excellence in multimedia and two regional Murrow awards for excellence in social media and innovation. The station’s management told RTDNA that “the key to success is understanding that we are one newsroom with no divide between digital and TV. Every meeting, every hire, every newsroom decision must include the digital perspective.”
So why are many TV newsrooms starting to put TV news on the back burner? They’re worried what happened to newspapers two decades ago will soon happen to them. Newspapers were slow to realize the threat on-demand online news posed to their business model of making people wait until the next morning to read the news. Plus, money quickly dried up as people balked at paying for content online, the classified ad market disappeared, and cheap banner ads replaced expensive full-page ads. The result is that since 2004, more than 1,800 newspapers have closed, according to a study by the University of North Carolina, and many papers have cut print circulation down to just two or three days a week.
While TV viewership hasn’t cratered yet, the prognosis isn’t good. Younger viewers who grew up with streaming video, on-demand video libraries and social media can’t imagine sitting down in front of the television to watch a linear 6 p.m. newscast, with stories chosen and ordered by someone else. Instead, they want information that matters to them, via the collective wisdom of their social media friends’ “shares,” delivered to them on mobile devices, when and where they want to view it.
This trend is starting to show up in annual surveys of TV viewers. A recent study by the Pew Research Institute, for instance, found that, while local TV is still Americans’ “preferred method” of getting news, daily viewership dropped as much as 19 percent between 2017 and 2019.
With no sign that this trend will reverse itself, TV stations are right to experiment with converged “digital first” operations. But even without going all-in on digital, a good start is to consider things like:
- Meeting younger viewers where they are in the digital world. That means less emphasis on Facebook and Twitter, and more stories posted on Instagram and Snapchat, where studies show younger people prefer to post.
- Encouraging talent to post more “personality” posts on social media. Since people like sharing news from friends, they’re more likely to re-post things from reporters they think they “know.”
- Recognizing that a TV story doesn’t become a web or social story, just because it’s posted online. Web and social stories need to be more viral – and include things like vertically-shot video, subtitles instead of narration, quicker cuts, and a faster pace, in order to get more clicks.
- Including more evergreen stories in the daily news mix, since they have more shelf life than day-of stories when posted online.
- Experimenting with longer-form storytelling, like podcasts or online-only documentaries. They can give deeper perspectives into current events or look back at how issues have developed over time. That’s something traditional local TV news can’t do well, because of its time constraints.
- Developing streaming apps and content for OTT devices like Roku, Apple TV and Smart TVs. As the number of “cord cutters” grow, these devices can help in distribution, and provide a place for subscription “extras” like high school sports highlights, hyper-local information, and the longer-form documentaries mentioned above.
Are you thinking digital first?