The Remote Decides
Do consultants using research choose the news? In response to my post “Where in the World is the News?” I asked why local TV producers for late evening newscasts don’t choose a compelling international story over some weak , “hyper-local”, time-filling nobody-cares story? Of course, as I expected, the voices of all-knowing “Anonymous” answered. (These are from anonymous people who have commented towww.newsmcnabb.blogspot.com.)
The first Anonymous declared: “To answer your question of why? Research. Research shows when people turn to local news, they want local stories.” I know about research. The second “Anonymous” dismissed my assertion as “baseless”. Or, perhaps “Anonymous #2 is so driven by research that nothing else matters.
To both, I say if you had read the post closely, you would know that my premise flies in the face of current trends. As you’ll see later, I really don’t care what others say. So, let’s talk about research leading to these prevailing and, to my mind, wrong-headed trends in local news. Do I understand “hyper-local”? Hell, yes. What you’re reading is “hyper-local”, except according to Google Analytics, this post may be read worldwide! My primary audience, however, is Central Texas, but what I write may have application elsewhere. Anyhow, back to research.
The research starts with station management and news management meeting with well-paid consultants to decide what questions will be posed to a sample audience. Are they asking the right questions? Are they asking questions that are often asked in other cookie-cutter markets that produce predictable results? The Austin market is an anomaly—all experienced media consultants know that. Austin is more educated, more read, more Internet savvy, more wired, and younger than most. The questions must be well-crafted.
Now, let’s talk about the research in the field. They research is usually conducted by telephone calling from another city. Telephone random research is becoming more and more difficult because so many people don’t have a land line. They are cell phone-only users. Austin is #39 in a ranking of cell phone-only markets. Who has land lines? Who has only cell phones? Media research operations are beginning to use multi-platform media to gather data. Does that skew the findings? Perhaps. Probably.
When the pollster calls, the first chore is to determine whether the person answering the phone is a news consumer—do they watch, for instance, the 10 O’clock news. If they don’t, “Thank you and goodnight.” There is a problem here. In these days of decreasing HUTS (Households Using Television), we need to ask a few more questions trying to find out if they ever watched the late news. If they did watch the late news, why are they not watching the late news now? I’d love to see the verbatim answers to those questions. The actual notes are often more useful than the choices the respondent makes to “yes” and “no” questions.
Having identified news viewers, the pollster gets to the questions decided by management and the consultant. The glib answer that “When people turn to local news, they want local stories” isn’t enough. There is much more to research than that. It may be a consultant’s interpretation that concludes that “hyper-local” is the way to increase audience. It is interesting to me that “hyper-local” seems to be the mantra repeated in many markets. One size does not fit all.
Finally, it is part of the job of a journalist to tell the people/users/consumers/viewers/readers what they need, beyond what they want. The audience may not even know that they need information.
There used to be a sign above my desk for well more than a decade. “This is not Burger King. You can’t have it your way.” In jest the message then was meant for reporters. It can be applied to the audience as well. The audience should not choose the news either. That might be good for Google News, but not local TV or any journalist for that matter. For a news manager research results are useful in order to know what kind of stories the audience wants more of, but it shouldn’t be the deciding factor. The ultimate polling or research is the polling and research that is done every day—The Nielsen over-night ratings.
I’ve said it before, and I’m sure that I’ll say it again: Content is king—local and otherwise. Give the audience compelling content—local, state, national, or international—people will watch in any market. If you show me a rewritten two-day-old local story with a banner still saying “Developing News” (as was the case during my recent content analysis), I’m grabbing the remote. I have agency. I may surf to another station, or I may turn the TV off. Gone.
© Jim McNabb, 2009