Spotlight: How How To Build Your Digital-Age Newsroom

Article by Ron Stitt, Executive-in-Residence at Progress Partners

Ron Stitt lays out a modern vision for the local TV newsroom staffed by multi-tasking, highly productive staffers serving up much more relevant, engaging content (and a lot more of it). Getting there, however, involves completely refiguring budgets and personnel, plus the willingness to do so. 

June 2, 2016 ? If local broadcast TV didn?t exist and you were setting out to build a newsroom (staff, systems, workflows, etc.) from scratch, what would it look like?  Answer:  Nothing like what your current newsroom looks like, or what it?s likely to look like anytime soon with the glacial, incremental approach to disruption the vast majority of local TV operators are taking.

No, if you were our hypothetical newcomer and really serious about this, you would build a platform using new technologies to generate rich, engaging local content including news and a broader set of relevant community information. You would hire a staff expert at finding, writing and producing multimedia content, engaging with audiences via social media and driving distribution and audience acquisition.

This new operation would output an order of magnitude more content per dollar spent than a retrofitted, circa 1980 TV newsroom.  Most of your multi-tasking employees ? writers, beat reporter/producers and yes, talent ? would source, produce and present several stories per day each (without even getting into crowd-sourcing).  

Your content would be carefully catalogued with rich meta-data designed to drive personalized experiences for your viewers as well as help each piece of content find the audience segments it?s most relevant for via multiple distribution channels and platforms you?d set up to syndicate your content. That, in turn, would drive huge reach, views and ad impressions.

Your audience? You would know exactly who many of them are via the rich, first-party CRM database you?d be strategically building as you go. This audience would span all demographics, even as one output from your new newsroom operation would still be linear news streams (?programs?) designed to provide the lean-back experience desired by older people (and the disruptive advertising still highly-valued by marketers). Those programs you offer would probably be better and more interesting than the formulaic ones you are producing now.

Cost? A lot less than the heavy enterprise-tech and plodding organization structures in place today. Perhaps more aptly, you?d be getting a lot more bang for roughly the same buck.

This is not really a fevered vision of a possible alternative reality. Outside the insular world of local broadcasting, there are entities doing everything I?ve just described already, including high quality linear news ?broadcasts? without the whole tower/FCC license thing. I?ve recently seen multiple examples of outfits doing pieces of it, and a few pretty much doing the whole package. To this end, it might be worth broadcasters? time to take a second look at how regional cable news operations are putting together their products or how some digital pure plays like Zazoom Media operate their newsrooms.

Indeed, some organizations are managing to make the economics work without the advantages local TV stations still have. They?re under the radar, but only for now.

Broadcasters, if you don?t figure out what they already have, you risk irrelevancy soon.

To be fair, TV broadcasters have been trying to evolve and have adopted new tools for spotting, sourcing, acquiring, producing, distributing and promoting their news, building the digital newsroom ?tech stack.?  But these efforts are mostly on the margins, working with loose change while managers struggle to hold on to the helicopters, microwave and satellite vans, expensive enterprise ENG cameras and the lot, still clinging to legacy organization charts and job descriptions as far as the vast majority of employees are concerned.

This is just not going to cut it much longer. Consider the scenario I posited at the outset, and embrace it. Don?t start with last year?s budget and play around the fringes: Start with a blank sheet and rationalize every single line item. Use zero-base budgeting. Have a three-year plan to wind down what cannot be justified and get those leases and capital expenses depreciated off the books.  

If you have 50 staffers you could practically outfit them all with everything needed to generate 100-plus pieces of compelling content each and every day, all for the cost of operating one news van. Of course, that implies using different people as well as new tools, so at the same time you?re completely reconfiguring your news budget you?ll be completely re-thinking who you hire, where you find them, what they do and what your organization structure and workflows should look like.

When we talk about the public policy need to preserve local TV, it?s not really the packager/distributor of entertainment (network and syndicated) and sports that matters. Although that has commercial value to you, what really needs to be preserved is local content, i.e. news.

Local broadcasters have huge advantages in terms of resources and an unparalleled ability to promote and sell. Those assets are diminishing, though, and must be leveraged before the disruption curve really takes on the classic hockey-stick profile. When that happens, things are going to start unraveling fast.

Don?t believe me? Just ask your newspaper colleagues down the street.

Ron Stitt is a strategic adviser to companies large and small in the media, digital media and ad tech sectors. He was recently the head of digital media for the Fox Television Stations division of 21st Century Fox, and previously was VP of digital media for Disney?s ABC Owned TV Stations.

Originally published on