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Stations find stories by listening to the communities they serve
by Deborah Potter

On a Saturday in June, the KRON-TV studio in San Francisco was packed with more than 100 local bloggers attending a “meet-up,” an event organized by the station as much for its benefit as for theirs. “These are people who have taken the time to think about something,” says online news manager Brian Shields. By getting to know them, he says, “we think we can connect with things going on in neighborhoods around the Bay Area and get stories other [stations] won’t.”

As the result of a similar meeting in Nashville earlier this year, WKRN-TV launched its own blog, A station employee posts comments and links to what she reads on other local blogs. “This is a conduit to a voice we might not normally hear,” says news director Steve Sabato. Being plugged in to the blogosphere provides a barometer of what people are interested in, he says, and helps the station find intelligent, articulate people to talk to. “It has made us a smarter, more in touch newsroom.”

The person behind both stations’ efforts is consultant and former news director Terry Heaton, who believes that embracing new media is one way for television news to begin rebuilding its shrinking audience. “You’re reaching people you never would have reached before because most of these people have given up on news and TV news in particular,” he says.

What’s happening at the two Young Broadcasting stations is a high tech version of an old fashioned concept that’s now back in vogue—that broadcast news organizations should listen to the people they serve. Years ago, stations were obliged to do just that as a condition for keeping their licenses, but when the industry was deregulated in the 1980s the FCC stopped requiring what it called “community ascertainment.” Since then, consolidation of ownership has led to public complaints that “broadcast stations may be failing to meet the needs of their local communities,” as the FCC put it last year in announcing a formal inquiry. And increased competition in local news has prompted stations to look for ways to distinguish their newscasts from all the others. News managers believe they can address both concerns by listening to their communities in new ways and old.

In Syracuse, NY, WSYR-TV started listening to its audience a few years ago almost out of desperation. During a slow news week in February 2000, then assistant news director Jim Tortora made a suggestion—what if the newsroom set up a phone line and asked viewers to call in with story ideas? After everyone stopped giggling, he says, they decided to try it. A few calls came in, a few decent stories developed, and news managers noticed that every time one of these viewer-suggested stories aired, the station got more calls offering new ideas. Eventually, the station began promoting and showcasing the reports, calling them “Your Stories.” But the idea didn't really take off until the newsroom held a call-in night with reporters manning the phones, and received 650 calls in two hours.

Five years later, the franchise is still going strong, with viewer-generated stories airing in almost every newscast. What makes “Your Stories” different from an ordinary tip line, Tortora says, is that callers always talk to a person not a machine, and they always get an answer, even if it’s just a referral to a source of additional information. The station also gets more than 20 story suggestions by email every day. To wade through it all, WSYR has a fulltime off-air coordinator. Tortora, now the news director, keeps tabs on possible stories, as do the assignment editor and 5 pm anchor, who is the main franchise reporter.

The stories that make air are always memorable, Tortora says. There was the woman who called about an odd $4.53 charge on her phone bill that led to a station investigation, multiple lawsuits against AT&T and settlements in eight states. And there was the couple that couldn’t get electric service at their new home because the telephone and power companies were fighting over who was responsible for the closest pole. “Your Stories” is now part of the station’s image, Tortora says, and it’s paid off not only in stories but in audience. “In an age of people losing viewers, we have stayed a solid number one,” he says.

Other stations have adopted the “Your Stories” tactic, from KFMB in San Diego to WTKR in Norfolk, VA, which recently renamed its franchise “Power of 3” and focuses more on consumer and investigative reporting. “I believe in the concept because viewers have so many choices,” says news director Jeff Parsons. “If we deliver on what they ask for then they’ll watch us.”

In addition to soliciting audience feedback and participation online with regular web chats about local news stories, Parsons has resurrected some traditional approaches to improving community connections, including holding open houses at the station’s three newsrooms, and taking its newscasts on the road. “I want people to know we are part of the community,” he says, “not just those people they see on TV.”

At WXMI in Grand Rapids, MI, news director Tim Dye has launched what he calls a news outreach program with a similar goal—“letting folks in the community know more about us.” Once a week, on average, he invites a local community leader or someone from law enforcement, politics, business or education to visit the station for a couple of hours. They meet with news managers and sit in on the afternoon editorial meeting. “They're encouraged to offer story ideas in their area of expertise and give us feedback on how we can do our jobs more effectively,” Dye says. He knows some might question whether the program compromises journalistic integrity, but he doesn’t see a conflict. “I’m not selling the news or giving away the farm. I’m making contact with people we talk to on a regular basis and trying to do a better job.”

Minnesota Public Radio makes contact with its listeners through a project it calls Public Insight Journalism. Over the past couple of years, MPR has built a database of 10,000 names of people who are willing to be contacted about news stories, and who have volunteered information about their interests and expertise. “We believe that someone in our audience knows more about any particular story than we do,” says Bill Buzenberg, MPR’s vice president for news, and he says the database helps reporters find great sources quickly.

The station solicits listener input on the air and online. Every piece on the MPR website includes a “help us cover this story” link so the audience can add thoughts and insights. Special reports, like an examination of the state’s economy, often start with an audience survey resulting in what Buzenberg describes as “much more sophisticated reporting, with more depth, and lots of real-world examples and voices.”

In Lancaster, PA, WGAL-TV started listening almost ten years ago after viewers hammered the station for not providing more coverage of a snowstorm that hit while it was airing an NFL playoff game. When the complaints were still coming in a month later, general manager Paul Quinn called a town meeting that drew a huge crowd. “Many people came with their fists all balled up,” he says. “We defused a lot of the anger and I felt so good about it we decided to go to other cities in our coverage area.”

Now the station holds town meetings on the road eight times a year, in partnership with a local newspaper, radio station and chamber of commerce. There’s no program. News director Dan O’Donnell, assignment editors and producers show up and listen. What they hear often becomes news, “almost always things I would not have known about otherwise,” O’Donnell says. The stories range from a quick turn about a local traffic problem to an investigation into a loophole in state law that led to new legislation.

Quinn says the meetings cost almost nothing. The venue is donated; the station shells out for chips, pretzels and soda. The meetings do take time and effort to organize, but Quinn says it’s worth it. “It sort of defines us now,” he says. “It helps us cement our relationship with viewers. It lets them know we are approachable and trying to do better.”

One of the longest standing community listening efforts has been underway at WISC-TV in Madison, WI, since 1988. Small groups of citizens meet with station representatives four times a year. The invitation list changes every quarter and there’s no agenda, just a general discussion about their lives and concerns. A separate children’s task force of students and adults meets twice a year to discuss issues facing kids in the community.

“It’s so simple yet so beneficial to just sit there and listen to people talk,” says station manager Tom Bier who spearheads the community breakfasts. “You really get an idea of the issues that matter.” As a result of the conversations, he says, the station has been able to identify and report on trends “at the bubble up stage,” much earlier than they would have otherwise, like the emergence of a new drug problem in town or the impact of the growing Hispanic community on social services.

The station also listens to viewers on the air at least once a month in a segment during the 5 pm newscast called Talkback Thursday. For five or six minutes, a station employee—from the news director to the chief engineer—fields questions and answers them live. “We also answer emails and return phone calls,” Bier says. “People are just stunned when you respond to them.”
Bier admits that all of this outreach takes time and effort, but he believes not doing it would be a greater risk to the station’s long-term future. “The risk is you don’t understand the market, you’re doing things everybody else is doing and the viewers won’t care,” he says. “Then they’ll definitely leave us.”

This article was originally published by RTNDA Communicator, October 2005.



Page Last Updated
January 15, 2009

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