How local TV sites can take advantage of papers

By Cory Bergman 

For years, Lost Remote has written about digital opportunities for local TV stations, especially online. Back in 2000, for example, I urged local TV sites to copy the Craigslist idea before it rolled out across the country. This opportunity is no less significant.

Newspapers across the country are failing. One by one, they’ll be forced to reinvent themselves on the web, either with current owners or new ones, with less original content. And this reinvention process will be painful, presenting a short window of opportunity for TV sites to make a push to surpass newspaper sites to become your market’s top local news site in audience. It doesn’t require a Google-sized team, but it will call for a small additional investment in very difficult economic times.

Here are some ideas:

1. Ramp up original local online text, photo and video content. This is the price of entry. If you want to become the top news site, you can’t just repurpose your TV stories and call it a day. This requires a more online-focused editorial operation — one that beefs up the best TV stories of the day and adds online-only stories that resonate with a web audience. This can be accomplished by 1) empowering your online leadership to make decisions, even if they disagree with common TV tenets 2) adding a small number of online journalists who focus exclusively on turning original text/photo stories quickly 3) tasking others in the newsroom to write quality original content 4) exploring video-sharing arrangements with other TV stations in town and 5) converting a subsection of the TV newsroom’s coverage staff to one-person-band videojournalists who split their coverage between TV and the web. Now, I’m not a fan of switching entirely to VJs, but I think a measured approach — 25% or so of reporter/photographers — is a great way to ramp up original content under tight budget constraints while not giving up ground on quality and breaking news capabilities.

2. Aggressively form partnerships with local publishers, from blogs to alt weeklies, especially when it bolsters key content verticals popular with advertisers (health, sports, etc). Host a subsection of their content, say 3 stories a week, in return for prominent in-story links back to them. This beefs up and diversifies your content offerings while giving your partner traffic and exposure. These content-for-links partnerships are almost nonexistent in the local space but are par for the course on a national level. I suspect this is a function of 1) local TV sites unaccustomed/terrified to link someone who may loosely be considered a competitor and 2) local partners who are unaccustomed/terrified to giving up a subsection of their content for traffic and 3) local TV sites that are either too small, too reluctant or just too poorly designed to make these partnerships work because they end up sending too little traffic to offset the value of the content.Â

3. Redesign to look more like a newspaper site, but still showcasing video. Yes, this may be heresy among the ranks of local TV execs, who still call the shots on the web. But let’s face it, the average local newspaper site is better designed than the average local TV site: cleaner, more news-forward, more utility, less promotion and fewer ads.  (Don’t believe me? Ask your users.)  So now that the economy is hurting and you’re experiencing poor sell-through, instead of keeping all those ad units with remnant ads, cut back to your core display ads, cleaning up your presentation and giving your remaining advertisers some bang for their buck. Cut all that TV promotion (which has very little value online) and use that space to better showcase your additional story coverage. SCREAM that you’re different, that you have the chops content-wise to beat the paper by looking a little more like the paper, but with video. Beefed up text and photos, partner content diversity, all that video, and…

4. Aggregate when you can’t host. Rise above the fray and provide your users with the most comprehensive local news experience in the market, combining your content, partner content and links to the best outside stories and blog posts (even your competitor’s stories!) Over time, your users will come to you first. NBC Local Media is the first local TV group to significantly embrace aggregation.

5. Energize your community. Provide meaningful and focused ways for your users to interact with your content and submit their own. If you’re encouraging users to comment on your stories, don’t bury the comments — showcase them, which serves to encourage more contributions and overall engagement. Link it all to Facebook Connect.

6. Get opinionated. By and large, TV stations are very averse to any opinion content on the air that isn’t immediately balanced with an opposing opinion. But it certainly makes sense on the web — columnists are among a newspaper site’s most popular content. I’m not talking about mixing opinions inside news coverage, but pulling in contributors to volunteer to write opinion columns. Think of it as letters to the editor but limiting the authors to qualified and/or well-known people. Huffington Post defined the model, and they’re doing it locally on their Chicago beta site.

7. Have a call letters/channel number brand? Seriously consider rebranding with the name of your city/region, both on the web and TV. A call letters URL doesn’t deserve to be the top online news site because it’s nonsensical, not to mention it will become increasingly irrelevant in the years to come.  Heresy again? Consider this: in 3-5 years, if you become the top news site in your market, potentially more people will get their news from your web+mobile site than from your TV station.Â

8. And of course, it goes without saying that you still have to own meaningful breaking news and weather. But without the artificial urgency, as that has a reverse effect on the web.

These are a few core ideas that will allow you to quickly ramp up and showcase local coverage with a minimal resource investment. Have no resources to invest? You’ll miss the opportunity and don’t deserve the rewards. Afraid to break out of the TV site design mold? Again, all your effort will be for not, because you’ll just look the same. This is the time for bold, online-focused leadership. Opportunities like these rarely present themselves. Many newspaper folks don’t believe local TV can step up and become a real competitor, let alone fill their shoes. The next 18 months will define the new leaders in local news, which will pay dividends when the economy rebounds. Will it be you?