Listen to viewers and they’ll tell you flat out: Local television news is boring. One in five of the people we surveyed about local TV news said that’s a major reason they don’t watch. As one viewer put it, “It’s a rehash of the same stories over and over.” And it’s the same thing on every station in town. Same stories, often for the same amount of time, and in the same order.
Why is it that television news is so predictable? It’s because most of us in newsrooms do our jobs in exactly the same way: inside out.
We prepare for each day by reading the same papers, watching the same morning news programs. We gather with the same people, day after day, trying to come up with a newscast that will tell compelling stories and relate to viewers’ lives. Perhaps it’s no wonder we so often come up short.
But what if the process became a little more outside in? At a recent NewsLab conference, journalists worked with storytellers from other media to reinvent the local newscast. Their suggestions ranged from including a non-news person in the morning meeting to putting cameras in the community so people can tell their own stories. (We also worked with a station on reinventing their late newscast. See the results of this Lab Days workshop here.)
Some stations already invite outsiders to news meetings, but they tend to come from established organizations. The NewsLab group suggested spreading the net wider, to include just regular folks, from kids to moms, preachers to teachers. As Dateline NBC’s John Larson put it, “Somebody ought to be in the room as a [b-s] detector,” when stories are being discussed. “Just having a different person there and being conscious of them would change the dynamic of the conversation,” said KPIX-TV news director Dan Rosenheim.
A bolder step would be to include an “outside person” in the newscast, not just as a sound bite but as a featured character and storyteller. The NewsLab group offered several possible approaches:
- Choose a person from the community almost at random each day and “wash the day’s events” over that character, including their concerns and views about how the news affects them in a personal way. “You would take your best effort at choosing somebody who would have something to offer,” Larson said, “but the key would be that they wouldn’t be us.”
- Connect a person from the community to local newsmakers, so they could ask about things that matter to them, and not just during election season. “It could be someone who said, ‘I want to talk to the Governor about this issue,’ or it could be something totally different,” said Kimberly Mercado of Oxygen Media.
- Have a person tell his or her own story, a most-important-thing-in-my-life story. Or enlist several people to report on their lives over a period of months. “Say there were people in town who would be involved in trying to prepare a team or fix something,” said ABC’s Robert Krulwich, “and they became sort of a subgroup that people could tune in to see.” Tracking their stories over time also could add suspense and drama—qualities lacking in most television newscasts. “To really tell a story, I think you have to follow some things so that there are the ups and the downs in it,” said documentary filmmaker Ricki Green.
To make these pieces even more unusual, the individuals themselves could produce the stories without much help from professional journalists. Or they could be developed through “co-creation,” an approach Mercado has used at Oxygen, where a producer works with an individual’s story idea, solicits audio and video from that person, and puts together a finished piece for the Web. Green suggested that a station might solicit input from viewers on a specific topic each month, and air the best of what comes in. The goal, as she put it, is for a newscast “to have room for things that are new and fresh, from totally ordinary people done in totally untraditional ways.”
These more personal stories would not replace the news of the day. They would probably come toward the end of the newscast, but the featured character could appear in the show open as well. Yet the stories would help to connect the news of the day to the concerns of people living in the community. And they could raise issues that might not be considered “newsworthy” otherwise.
One of the non-journalists at the conference, The Rev. Carlyle Gill of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, said she’d watch a newscast that included more people’s personal stories. “I just think there is something in all of us that wants to be connected to other people and to know about people’s lives to make sure that we’re not crazy,” she said. Her advice to journalists comes from her experience as a parish priest. “Sometimes our sense of importance is in our way,” she said. “Trust the lay-people.”