The last year has been a journey for me, transitioning from a digital producer role at The Boston Globe’s Boston.com to editing a TV news website as the manager of web content.
Over the course of this year, I’ve had the great privilege to see and contribute to the inner workings of a very different brand of journalism and contemplate how different the broadcast ilk of my trade approach their digital properties vs. the print folks. Without factoring in the size of my station’s operation as it relates to other TV markets, there are some striking differences that deserve mentioning.
1. Dependent on Facebook — Not just Facebook, but really all social media. Unlike newspapers, which are often the bedrocks of the communities they reside in for news, the finicky nature of television viewers does not engender the type of repeat visitors and brand loyalty online that I’ve previously experienced. There is always a FOX, CBS, ABC and NBC to turn to when watching TV. In Boston, you can add in a regional news network (NECN) as well. Those options are always available to viewers. And when it comes time to seek out the news online, either to catch up on reading or for just a breakdown of any particular news event, TV audiences continue their perfidious behavior, playing around until they find their fill. So instead of a sort of dependence on the other guy to screw up, or for the local newspaper to possibly fail to fill the needs of its online readers, there is a heightened focus on audience development through social media. If one TV station can align itself with a concentrated brand awareness campaign and pay vigorous attention to best practices on key social media platforms (read: Facebook), that station’s site is more likely attract new and repeat readers, and in turn more viewers of its broadcast. (And make no mistake about it, Facebook is where this war is being waged.) I’ve come to see more clearly how all TV news sites have developed these come-from-behind strategies based on leveraging Facebook for readers. Obviously some stations have better strategies than others. But what’s been interesting for me is comparing how much more important Facebook is to TV than newspapers, especially considering all of the other aspects that go into a complete content strategy. Gone are the conversations about tremendous story angles to pursue and how to produce them online, replaced by the boilerplate, “this will do well on Facebook.” Unfortunately, that is the end of the conversation for some.
2. Whose byline is this? — As a digital editor, my job is to maintain the integrity and freshness of the site and our station’s mobile apps, then market our content aggressively on social media. That also means being first on breaking news and weather (a core tenet of our station). That’s the simple part. But what initially vexed me when I took on this job was the station’s reporting process. There is a dependence on the assignment desk for details, sources and contacts with public safety agencies that is unlike anything I’ve seen before. (Producers, to my surprise, spend a considerable amount of their time sketching out each show.) This is nothing like what you may experience at a newspaper or magazine and nor is it like the experiences others face at smaller stations from what I’m told. But it’s indicative of a vastly different process. For the digital producers on our site, the responsibility to write, self-edit, edit, and evangelize content is paramount. However, all of the details that make up their stories — the ones you see online at any given moment — are passed along from our assignment desk. Our digital team is fashioned more like the old re-write desk of newspaper lore. It’s also very similar to when our TV reporters file their stories. Their scripts are written for the broadcast, oftentimes in broadcast speak. Our digital producers edit those stories to align them with a more conventional online writing style (a custom mix of AP and our own). In contrast, in previous posts at newspapers I edited fully formed stories for online publication while working on my own stories on the side. So who’s doing the reporting? The station, of course. Pay no attention to the byline.
3. Mobile app wars — Again, the name of the game is audience development. If you don’t know where your audience is, you’re not paying attention. ComScore, one of the leading marketing and analytics companies in the country, pegged app use at 52 percent in December 2014. That’s not just consuming news. That’s 52 percent of all time users spend online. Strategically speaking, TV stations pay a good portion of their time considering their mobile apps with good reason, tweaking and toying with their mobile offerings in order to better serve their readers. That’s just not the case for print publishers, who have what I would consider a lackadaisical approach to their mobile apps. Pay attention to any ABC owned station and you’ll see very quickly how central the app is to the entire news organization, with push alerts coming at all times of the day. In Boston, you’re beginning to see every TV outlet move in this direction with tremendous benefits in page views and repeat visitors. The push/text alert is more important than ever. Digital staffers for newspapers sites are still catching up to this aggressive momentum.
Of course, there are many other obvious differences that speak to the online editing process in going from a newspaper to TV station. But in my journey, these few are considerably more important because of the success or failure they represent for any digital news operation. They are, what I would consider, translatable. A keen eye on audience development and editing will always be important and I’m glad it is a heightened focus in my current medium.