Local TV news has long played an essential role in keeping communities informed. But in an age of low budgets, and decreasing viewership, local TV news outlets have been struggling to innovate. In the era of social media and smartphones, conventional wisdom has been that traditional journalism needs to be reshaped to fit the digital age. Stories need to be short and easily digestible, and complex topics must be simplified.
In their recent study, “Reinventing Local TV News,” Northeastern School of Journalism professors Mike Beaudet and John Wihbey put conventional thinking to the test in an effort to uncover how local outlets can improve their stories and foster increased engagement among younger audiences.
The study, which took place over the course of two years, was a result of partnerships with six news stations from around the country: WLS in Chicago, KNXV in Phoenix, WBTV in Charlotte, WTVD in Raleigh/Durham, WJAR in Providence, and WAFB in Baton Rouge. The stations offered necessary variety in terms of market size, and geographic location.
For the experiment at the heart of the study, the local stations supplied researchers with recent segments they believed were engaging and visually interesting. The research team would then produce their own remixed segments. These remixes were designed based on styles and storytelling techniques used and made popular by online news outlets Vice News and platforms like Snapchat. Once the remixed videos were finished, they were digitally distributed to 613 subjects who took part in the study.
One of the stories used in the study, which came out of WLS in Chicago, was about data breaches at Facebook. Take a look at the original and remixed segment below:
Subjects found the remixed videos more informational and engaging than the more traditional segments. Responses to the videos indicated that the updated visuals were not only more aesthetically appealing, but also more effective in conveying and explaining information, allowing for more in-depth and thorough reporting. Subjects of the study also took part in surveys to gauge what factors they felt were most important in a news source, as well as determine what aspects of local news were most valuable. The results of these surveys counter many of the conventional beliefs about what engages younger audiences.
While media outlets are attempting to shorten or simplify content as a way of maintaining an audience, survey results showed this is not what younger audiences are looking for. They are searching for objective journalism and stories investigated and reported comprehensively with depth and proper context.
With this information, how can local TV news stations improve their engagement with younger audiences?
Professors Beaudet and Wihbey suggest these solutions:
- Take real risks. In other words, try something that’s truly new. The industry is risk-averse and changes that newsrooms do make are often recycled “tricks” from years ago.
- Break the production mold. Consider using graphics, animation, and sound elements in hard news stories in unique, different ways.
- Hire an animator. Yes, newsrooms have graphic designers, but animators can bring a different skillset to the production.
- Infuse historical video to convey the whole story. Identify stories that have a contextual history and utilize that information and video in the storytelling whenever possible. Newsrooms are sitting on years of historical video that can lend itself to stronger, more compelling stories.
- Hire Millennial and Gen Z journalists and involve them in all aspects of your newsroom. This is the audience of the future and they understand the sensibilities of digitally native news video and the issues their generations care about.
- Tell relevant, innovative stories. Quality journalism about meaningful topics is key, and so is creative storytelling that highlights the emotional impact.
- Present your story in an authentic way. 78 percent of news viewers we surveyed said authenticity in local TV news is important to them.
- Achieve newsroom “buy-in” at all levels. Local TV news is collaborative and truly innovative storytelling requires participation from people in all aspects of the production.
The complete study can be found at: https://shorensteincenter.org/reinventing-local-tv-news/
The study has been published in a partnership between the Northeastern School of Journalism and the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. The research was also supported by the Stanton Foundation.