Philly's Top Broadcasters Weigh In: What Makes the Evening News?
A rare opportunity to see Philadelphia’s top TV news decision-makers together in one room, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS) Mid-Atlantic panel discussion “Meet the News Directors,” held on Jan. 8 at Drexel University, was all about community focus, keeping up with digital and staying true to what the people want — even if what the people want is 24/7 coverage of the polar vortex.
Newsroom leadership is as ever-evolving as the industry itself, so this was the first time the panel featured 6ABC’s Tom Davis, FOX29’s Jim Driscoll and NBC10’s Anzio Williams, in addition to past panelists including WHYY’s Chris Satullo and CBS3’s Susan Schiller. Here’s what they had to say about the future of the field (check out @EmmyMidAtlantic’s Twitter feed for the full run-down).
On Deciding What to Cover
In explaining how his station determines what it will cover every day, FOX29’s Driscoll said, “It’s about the news. Our job is to figure out what the viewers want. It isn’t just about research, it’s about being out in the community and listening to them.”
Williams of NBC10 echoed that drive for community focus, pointing out that his station is locally owned and therefore part of the community, with a stake in local success.
When it comes to listening to the audience, Driscoll said that digital capabilities allow a direct connection that was never possible before. “I think it’s the biggest difference in the business in the last five years,” he said.
“When I first got into the business, you didn’t have a connection with the audience. You performed on stage, but you didn’t get to hear the applause. Now you hear the applause — and the boos — every single day. It’s a great thing for us, and it makes our job a little easier.”
On Accommodating For Digital
Davis of 6ABC defined his station’s focus as growing in the digital arena while maintaining trust and brand identity. Meanwhile, Driscoll called FOX a “multi-platform news operation” instead of a TV newsroom.
“People get news in a fragmented way,” he said. “Your next newscast is right now, on whatever platform your audience is on.”
Satullo of WHYY said that it’s about keeping pace with disruptive innovations. “You have to be on the devices where the audiences are,” he said.
For Davis, that means following the mobile trend. “You stay on top by building in the areas you anticipate growth,” he said in reference to maintaining 6ABC’s ranking as the most watched local news source in the Philadelphia television market. “Right now, it’s mobile. In the last two years, it’s been exploding. With everything moving so fast, the most important thing to remember is you have to keep doing good journalism.”
On Accuracy vs. First Reporting
With the pressure to keep up with digital trends, discussion turned to the balance between the accuracy of good journalism and being first with reporting the news. Schiller, vice president of news for CBS3, said the audience in Philadelphia has a lot of choices among a lineup of heavyweight, serious network-owned channels with lots of award-winning reporters. That competition means that accuracy can never be sacrificed.
“I had somebody tell me, ‘Why not get it right out there on social media? We don’t expect it to be right, and you can correct it later,’” said Schiller. “My head was about to implode. We don’t do that; it’s not the right thing to do. It’s important to us that our audience knows it can rely on our information.”
Williams agreed. “Anything we won’t say on TV, we won’t say in a tweet,” he said.
Unlike the other outlets represented on the panel, Satullo said WHYY doesn’t face the issue of sacrificing accuracy for speed because it is not directed to a mass audience and doesn’t cover breaking news. “Instead, we try to be first with why it happened,” he said. “We’re putting the dots together, digging into how it happened. It used to be called a second-day story — now it’s the second-minute story.” Satullo quoted a former mentor, who said,
“We don’t want reporters who cover breaking news. We want reporters who cover news that oozes and trickles. We want reporters who zig while everybody else is zagging.”
On Why It’s Always About The Weather
Schiller addressed why weather always seems to be the top story on television newscasts. “Weather is what brings an entire community together,” she said. “I try to be an advocate for weather.”
“It’s what people want, and they want it all the time. It’s explosive for pageviews and ratings,” Davis explained.
The panelists discussed ways that they’ve tried to cover those weather stories their audience clamors for with innovative angles. “All our numbers spiked this week because of the weather,” said Driscoll, referring to the cold snap that media outlets have dubbed the “polar vortex.” “I challenged the team to come up with something new. We reported on how the cold affects human skin — every one of our viewers has human skin.”
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