When Video Is King
For local TV news, a difficulty will come in figuring out how to make watchdog reporting stand out in a digital world.
Appointment TV is dead; video is more vibrant than ever. Over-the-air broadcasting is shrinking; journalism is not. What does all of this add up to for a struggling local TV investigative reporter, whose work is sporadic already? What comes to mind are the words “make it relevant.” Better figure out how to tell great stories and how to sell them hard, inside and outside the newsroom. Otherwise, what is a struggling breed will be headed toward extinction.
Traditional (analog) broadcasting in the United States has less than one year to live. On February 18, 2009 broadcasters will move their signals from the analog spectrum—the channels we’ve traveled through during our lifetimes—to the digital spectrum. It’s not like your favorite department store moving from downtown to the suburban shopping mall. It’s worse. Instead it’s like all the department stores moving away at the same time. I can hear us now: “Please join us in our new location. Pleeeeeease, for the love of God, join us in our new location,” because like these stores that are competing with online entities like Amazon and discount places like Wal-Mart and Costco as they’re also relocating, local TV news will be competing with online sites like washingtonpost.com (and its local equivalent) and with YouTube and Tivo in the midst of changing its location.
At a November 2007 conference called “Future of Television,” one executive put this scenario in stark terms as he looked ahead to early 2009. By then, the presidential election cycle and the Olympics—two big TV events and potentially fat revenue producers for local TV—will be behind us and, with the economy looking a bit iffy, this economic circumstance plus the channel change means local broadcasters will likely confront a 25 percent hit off their bottom line.
All of those situations add up to this: It will be tough for local TV news folks to find the resources or the incentive to serve up meaty investigative pieces and expect viewers to follow to the new digital channels. More likely, when the analog signal goes to snow, the “clicking” sound will be heard not on the remote control but as viewers turn on their laptops, flip on their cell phones, plug in their iPods, or scroll to a video game on their BlackBerries.
Each device plays video, which after all is the broadcaster’s medium, in a different way. For decades, this has been our means—almost an exclusive means—of telling true stories, and sometimes we’ve done it very well. But to thrive as investigative reporters in the digital era, we’ll have to produce great video journalism as we stretch ourselves in two directions at once. We’ll have to stay rooted in basic journalistic values, something our audience deserves and expects, while simultaneously racing forward to find ways to make the best use of video on each emerging platform. It won’t work to transcribe scripts for an online print version of our report. Similarly, the video package that was crystal clear on a hi-definition flat panel TV won’t translate well to a postage-stamp sized screen.
No investigation can work without conceptualizing it, reporting it, and producing it using a multiplatform approach. That means thinking about interactive mapping, timelines in Flash, putting data sets online in a searchable format, and asking ourselves what works best in print. In my job as an investigative reporter at local TV stations in North Carolina, I’ve worked for more than a decade with print colleagues as partners on a wide variety of projects. In the 1990’s, I shared data on medical malpractice in the U.S. military with Russell Carollo and Jeff Nesmith of the Dayton Daily News. Their reporting on this story was awarded the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. And the investigative story we produced at WRAL-TV in Raleigh—disclosing mismanagement in the military health care system—won the Peabody and duPont Columbia awards.
Since then I’ve worked closely at WCNC-TV in Charlotte, North Carolina with our news partners at The Charlotte Observer. Our relationship has evolved so that when editors and reporters there conceived a year-long project on immigration, I was invited to sit at the table with the photojournalist, graphic artist, online editor, investigative reporter, business reporter, immigration reporters and their editors as they discussed their approach to doing this investigation. The result was a multimedia package that made the best use of each medium for various elements of the storytelling. Now, at WCNC, we never think of launching a substantive investigation without brainstorming with all of the various media that might best tell and sell the story to the widest possible audience. These days television networks launch projects simultaneously with broadcast, DVD, downloadable video, graphic novels, online games, and music. Local news broadcasters would be wise to expand their vision way beyond their most commonly heard, and outmoded, refrain—“film at 11.” After all, we don’t shoot film anymore, and an ever-smaller fraction of news airs at 11.
To maintain our audience, however, I’d argue that sticking to our core principles—our essential mission as journalists—means giving them solid investigative reporting. When an issue touches their lives, viewers love this kind of reporting, because it stands out from the clutter. (Viewers can sniff out a fake at a country mile.) And when it’s done smartly, it can be what differentiates a local station from all the rest. These days, the market for stupid TV is pretty crowded, and I know there exists a rich, deep, broad audience in the smart and independent-minded demographic. Like disaffected voters, many have tuned us out. It’s our job to figure out how to get them back by being an independent watchdog of those in our local communities who hold positions of civic and economic power.
In Charlotte, the city council operates its own cable channel. It’s not a cable access channel, but a regular channel dedicated to programming by and about what’s happening in local government. The public schools also pay to program another cable channel. The community college has its own channel, and the county funds yet another over-the-air TV station. The local police department produces several cable TV shows.
It’s conceivable that viewers could feel that they are getting all the “news” they think they need about local government and civic affairs from those who pay for these stations. Yet the programming done by these entities is, by definition, self-serving. It is pretty much certain that no investigative reporting will emerge, since government will not investigate itself (or if it does, it’s unlikely to trumpet its findings). Nor will it even report voluntarily how much all this TV exposure costs the taxpayers. Viewers won’t find out here about a school administrator running a private consulting firm on taxpayer time, nor about independent information concerning a police shooting.
It’s irresponsible of us to cede authority over such information to members of the city council, administrators at the school department, or police department officials. Do citizens really want their elected officials to just send them a notice when the taxes are going up, or when the schools want a bond referendum passed, or when the cops need help in tracking down a suspect?
Even if we concede that most of what is broadcast, including TV “news,” doesn’t qualify as high-quality journalism, and that most high-quality journalism is not broadcast, we recognize that video literacy has become critical to reaching any news audience today, at least as part of a balanced media diet. (A media diet with no video is as imbalanced as a media diet with only TV.) As broadcasters, we appreciate the tremendous power of the moving image. We see how shifty eyes and tearful ones, trembling faces and arched eyebrows (and Richard Nixon’s sweaty upper lip) convey to voters something important about those who seek powerful positions in our democratic republic. When we hear the tremor in the voice or catch the speaker’s inflection, we trust that these sounds add dimensions that the written word can’t fully convey.
To survive and thrive, journalists will have to preserve what we do best, which is to connect the nerve endings to the reflective center and feed it back as a compelling story to the body politic. It also means we’re going to have to join the audience in their new locations.
Stuart Watson, a 2008 Nieman Fellow, is an investigative reporter at WCNC-TV in Charlotte, North Carolina.