The metric is the message: How to get your news director to say ‘yes’

May 16, 2019 11:00

We’ve all asked questions like:
  • Can I have a raise?
  • Should we go all-out on the big breaker, even if it’s out of our market?
  • Why can’t my package be more than 90 seconds?
  • Why are we doing layoffs, again?
  • How come I have to turn a quick story after the morning show?
Understanding the factors news managers consider in answering those questions can help you state your case to get that raise, go after that big story, or spend more time on digital products.
You’ve heard Marshall McLuhan’s phrase, “the medium is the message” – what you are communicating is dictated by the medium in which you’re communicating it. If you look at the business of journalism, the metric is the message.
First, I need to make something very clear, as those who’ve edited this piece with me have suggested. While metrics, costs, and revenue are critical, nothing is more critical than a good story. Pitch a good story and your bosses should approve it. The #1 factor in SEO is a good story. The #1 factor in retaining television viewers is a good story. The #1 way to break all the rules, and just do great journalism is to first start with a great story. Okay, enough said.
Here’s how metrics can help you make the case for a good story:
You’re a reporter making $80,000 a year in a top ten market (someday!). There’s breaking news in the next DMA, 250 miles away, so you make the pitch to go cover it.
“We have to be there. It’s about owning the big story!” you explain.
“No, it doesn’t make sense for us,” your assignment manager answers, while talking with an irate viewer who missed her soap operas during the cut-ins, sending directions to an MMJ, listening to 9 scanners, and simultaneously eating the cold ramen she microwaved 2 hours ago.
A tenacious reporter, you of course try again.
“I’ll do 11p.m. live shots and then be live at 5a.m. for the morning shows!” 
Slam dunk, right?
“We’re already getting an 11 p.m. looklive from the affiliate and custom tags for the morning show. Plus, we have live pictures from CNN for bumps, and the web stream,” she says, stony-faced. “We have to watch overtime.”
As you consider getting your news director’s thoughts, you wonder, where does our desire to win the story and cover an important topic intersect with ratings and the cost of coverage? 
What are news directors and GMs worried about as they balance the budget with the duty to serve our audience?
Doing the math can help you make the case.
  • 4-hour drive, both ways at 10 MPG in a satellite truck: $200 gas
  • Last minute hotel room and taxes (x2): $300
  • Food: $50
  • 4 hours Overtime (x2 employees): $462
That trip to cover that big breaker costs $1,012. And that’s before booking satellite time and wear-and-tear on the truck.
So what’s the ROI on this amazing coverage? If you don’t hear the term ROI very often, your news director probably isn’t discussing the costs of coverage with you. The “return on investment” is how most decisions about the newsroom budget are made.
Believe it or not, “serving the community” alone isn’t sufficient justification for blowing your budget. You need more than that to make our case at most stations!
First, take a simple example. Let’s examine digital only. To earn $1,012 online, your web story would have to get some 100,000 visits which generate 500,000 ad impressions, monetizing at about a $2.00 CPM (cost per thousand impressions). More importantly, since your newsroom already has AP, you’d have to get that many visits more than what a wire store alone would deliver. Not likely unless you get a Drudge link because of your exclusive angle.
Now, to recoup that cost for television, it’s a bit more complex, but basically you’d need to be confident that sort of coverage would raise your newscast’s average A25-54 rating by a full tenth of a ratings point for a month to justify it. 
Hmmmm…. Breaking news usually leads to higher ratings though, right? And it positions you as the market leader, right? (You see how the business is starting to intersect with the mission, right?)
Let’s do the math again:
  • Let’s say your assignment manager is aggressive and sends you on 8-10 similar breaking news events over a few months. This builds viewership and raises the May adult 25-54 ratings for your newscast by 1/10 of point.
  • That increased breaking news coverage cost your department $8,086-$10,120 in added expenses over the quarter.
  • Let’s say sales is getting $2,000 for a 30-second spot in your 11p newscast.
  • Your newscast grew from a 2.0 to a 2.1 rating in the demo (adding another 0.1%, or 2,600 people 25-54, in a market with 2.6 million viewers that age).
  • You now have some 55,000 viewers aged 25-54 (equivalent to the increased rating of 2.1), so your sales team might increase their rate to $2,077 (Rate / additional viewers = increase in rate, or $2000/2600=$77). 
  • You have 18 commercials in your M-F 11p newscast. 
The answer? That additional $77 per spot would mean an additional $1,386 per newscast, or $27,720 for the month.
Profit margin on the sustained breaking news @ 11p initiative? At least $17,600.
That’s the tangible, bottom line value of what you just did in serving the community, provided you can prove it was your breaking news coverage, and not the new sports set that cost $100,000, or the update to the weather computer, or the new hotshot investigative reporter they hired.
There are dozens of other factors that impact ratings and rate, so it’s not that cut and dried, but this lets you at least have an idea how spending money can make money, and grow the business that pays our salaries. 
The way you’re measured will determine what and how you produce content. You produce a 90-second package instead of going 2:30 because of minute-by-minute ratings that tell you the audience tunes out and needs faster pacing to keep them watching another minute here, another minute there, and getting the full credit for the quarter hour with Nielsen.
The way we craft our stories has evolved to serve the metrics that pay our salaries, but journalists and even managers rarely understand the ROI of our work. Knowing the language of visits, share, users, pageviews, ratings, CPM, CTR, TSV, lead gen, impressions, and other KPIs and being able to compare that to the costs of production will help you get a raise, get your new reporter hired, get approval for a new type of show, and make the business of journalism work long term.
Brandon Mercer is on the RTDNA Board of Directors and is the senior director of product development for Hearst Bay Area, SFGATE, the SeattlePI, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Previously, he ran digital for CBS San Francisco and was news director at KTXL.


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