New wave of visual experiments challenges conventional TV wisdom

November 20, 2019 01:30

It’s no secret that news organizations constantly face a variety of very immediate existential threats. Yet hidden behind the gloomy headlines is an overlooked but crucial nuance: While print newspapers are struggling, even folding, local news broadcasting is still largely profitable.
Despite all of the technological disruption, television remains the primary pathway for news consumption for many Americans. Yet there is no denying that viewership has steadily declined; if trends hold, broadcast could see a newspaper industry-like crisis. Given that, newsrooms are having to decide whether doing more of the same will suffice for now, or whether they must pivot toward new strategies to both hold their existing  but increasingly content-saturated audience and to attract new, younger viewers.
Around the country, there are some important experiments now underway that are testing such new strategies.
This fall, Northeastern University School of Journalism’s Reinventing Local TV News Project is exploring new ways to ensure broadcast television will be viable for years to come, demonstrating both why and how every local station should embrace innovation. In the first project phase, completed last year, researchers conducted controlled experiments to see how they might “remix” stories using various elements that often characterize web-native video, from more animation and different sound elements to greater explanatory context and background depth in segments. The results showed great promise.
In the new phase, the Northeastern research project is leveraging its prior findings and new knowledge to field “clinical trials” in partnership with WLS in Chicago and WCVB in Boston. Researchers want to know precisely how animation, graphics and data visualization can be used to make stories more engaging. Northeastern has embedded research fellows at WLS and WCVB, where the new hires serve as visual content producers whose job it is to supplement reporters in their storytelling process by using different techniques that were not otherwise being used in the stations.
Grassroots Experiments
As the Northeastern research project gets off the ground with WLS and WCVB, the “green shoots” of similar innovative efforts are sprouting in other stations, putting cutting-edge storytelling techniques to the test through reporting that has won national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards.
Chris Vanderveen at KUSA in Denver is doing an entire series boiling down complex, data-heavy subjects using animation. “I wanted to see really what we could do with a totally new concept as far as television news is concerned,” he said in a recent interview.
KUSA is one of the nation’s more innovative local TV news stations, in part due to its willingness to modify elements of newscasts. Vanderveen says that being “different” is difficult for stations, and he admits that animation and graphics have traditionally been seen as “gimmicky and goofy.” But for the veteran reporter, animation has proven a vital and creative tool for addressing an increasingly complicated world. He says animation allows him to “boil down somewhat complex” topics for viewers.
Lein on me
Vanderveen believes that efforts to expand the storytelling vocabulary have been missing from local TV news for years: “Forever … and ever local television news has been defined by just dumbing down news and feeding the audience really easy-to-digest kinds of stories.” And with that, Vanderveen believes, the TV industry has alienated entire generations of people, who may have different expectations for video in terms of content and style.
Historically, when newsrooms have tried to find ways to attract younger audiences, producers and reporters have turned to what might be called “what’s trending” stories, celebrity gossip or just surface-level news. Yet TV journalists are realizing that it’s not enough.
“I think we still have a ways to go in terms of understanding a newer audience,” says KUSA News Director Megan Jurgemeyer. She says she lets her viewers decide how they want their stories to be told  and doesn’t assume she knows what people want to see. “I think that what's important is to be open to feedback from viewers who aren't like us to understand how we connect with them, and being flexible and open to adjusting so that we can connect with them.”
Vanderveen believes most stations don’t adopt this more open philosophy. “Typically, big decisions are being made by people way-outside of the demographic of that audience,” says Vanderveen. He notes that news stations falsely believe a younger audience can’t digest complex subjects, and complexity will turn them off and lead them not to watch.
“If these people don't start watching us, we don't have a future. It's that simple,” he says. “I don't believe and I never will believe  that you get a younger audience by talking down to them.” Vanderveen says one way to stop this perpetual “patronizing” is to directly challenge the audience — and the conventional wisdom — and to tackle stories that are often seen as too difficult to tell in the current broadcast news model.
Similarly, Brendan Keefe at WXIA in Atlanta believes that using experimental techniques to tell complex stories is a direction all newsrooms should be pursuing.
“I just went to YouTube videos, and sometimes I get my best inspiration from an 11-year-old who knows the editing system better than the adults do,” Keefe says. Having the capacity to find inspiration quickly and learn techniques anywhere, at any time, has empowered Keefe to be able to create stronger pieces. He conceptualizes, shoots and edits all of his pieces. He says it limits station bureaucracy and the challenge of having to convince a team to go accept new ideas.
Both Vanderveen and Keefe said they believe that segment or package length should not be the limiting factor in telling a good story. Indeed, KUSA and WXIA tell stories that push the five-minute mark; and Keefe’s station, WXIA, has even created a weekly half-hour news show airing at 6 p.m. made specifically for investigative pieces. Oftentimes they cover only one story in the entire show.

FLIPPED: Secrets Inside a Corrupt Police Department from Brendan Keefe on Vimeo.

At KUSA, Vanderveen has been able to cover a complex, running series on medical bill-related subjects for more than four years. But only certain topics benefit from such in-depth coverage. He says that “complex subjects that could be boiled down to a few lines to help them better understand it” are often best told with experimental elements such as animation.
“I will admit they do take extra time to create,” says Jurgemeyer. But if a story warrants more time, she’ll give it that. “I think we used to be in this place in the TV news business of trying to cram as many stories as we could into a newscast,” she says. “Sometimes we miss the point of being able to give a broader explanation to the background of a story or to the bigger impact of a story.”
 Virtues of Animation
KUSA and WXIA operate on the belief that data-heavy stories content long seen by the broadcast industry as too complex for television news can also be aided by animation. Animation as a field has grown, too, as the software has gotten more sophisticated and more efficient to use. The online community of practitioners and learners also makes it easier to pick up techniques and rapidly innovate and prototype.
Vanderveen says that animation provides greater narrative flexibility, and he never has to worry about which visuals he has to pair with his scripts. “With animation, I can write the lines that I want to,” he notes, “and then the animator just simply comes in and augments it with a visual or visual theme. Therefore I'm not limited by what video I have. I'm not limited by anything -- I can do a story on anything I want to.”
Of course, a chief concern for stations is cost and return-on-investment when drawing on precious resources. But Vanderveen and Keefe say that their projects have cost their stations little to no extra money. Instead, it’s about creatively leveraging the resources they already have and rethinking the boundaries between different newsroom jobs and roles.
“For me, it's whatever tool you need to enhance understanding, so I don't really use names or [job] titles or anything like that to sort of limit creativity,” Keefe says. “I think a lot of people are still saying, 'Are you a reporter, are you a photographer, are you an editor?’ Well no, I'm a storyteller.” Keefe says that as he has shed the limitations associated with traditional job roles, he has been able to tell more multifaceted stories. “If you’re storytelling, then you're not bound by your title, and you can do whatever it takes to tell a good story,” he says.
KUSA’s Vanderveen says he was able to create his animation through the already-existing graphics department in his station’s ownership group, TEGNA. The only drawback is that the team cannot spend the time necessary to pump out the animation quickly enough to feature them in every newscast. “They're not working on this full time,” he says. “They have multiple other projects they're working on any given time, for the day to day content.”
No one can be sure how important new visual elements and animation will ultimately be to the long-term future of broadcast. But the research shows that hard news stories that utilized creative storytelling techniques resonated with viewers of all ages. They found them more interesting and visually appealing. Despite the promise, there remains significant resistance. In an industry that has seen little change in storytelling formats in recent decades, it can be hard to embrace change and to see why evolution is necessary.
“We're caught in this dynamic tension between innovation pulling us toward something new, and legacy revenue streams and habits, and viewer habits ... pulling us in another direction,” Keefe says.
Keefe and Vanderveen’s efforts are making an impact. Keefe recently won two national Edward R. Murrow Awards. One for Excellence in Innovation, for his series on WXIA. And a second for Investigative Reporting, for a piece called “FLIPPED: Secrets Inside a Corrupt Police Department.”  Vanderveen won two regional awards, including one for the Lien on Me series.
The year ahead will see more industry-based testing of the proposition that creative storytelling can pay off, both through formal research like Northeastern’s Reinventing Local TV News Project and through grassroots experiments by a new wave of innovative TV journalists. What they find may have big implications for the country’s roughly 700 other stations and for the future of news more generally. 
Danae Bucci is a journalism student at Northeastern University and a research assistant on the Reinventing Local TV News Project which is being led by Northeastern professors Mike Beaudet and John Wihbey. Do you want to get involved? Email or