Why TV sites lag newspaper sites

By Cory Bergman 

“Better reporting and writing. Simple as that,” writes Harry Jessell in TVNewsday, who points out the obvious that nearly all local TV sites lack the depth and breadth of newspaper sites. But what about video? “That’s fine. But unless the news clips contain some really compelling video, I just as soon read about it on the newspaper website. A still photo of a fire or accident is sometimes just as good as video—sometimes better,” he writes.

He’s right. A vast majority of a local TV site’s visitors are still reading text and looking at slide shows, not watching video — 80% or more, in my own experience. Strategically, video is still critically important, but TV sites will never compete with newspapers (on average) unless the quality and quantity of text coverage and photos improve.

There are two root problems, as we’ve written about many times before. The first is the fact that broadcast scripts are not appropriate to read online. They must be rewritten, usually by a web producer because the reporter A) “doesn’t have time” or B) can’t write. From a financial perspective, the time rewriting this script is a wasted cost. Reporters should write their own web stories — multiple updates throughout the day if needed — following AP style. (The only exception is breaking news against deadline, but they should be communicating new developments.)

The second is the misguided notion that a TV station’s web staff is there just to repurpose TV stories with a few extras here and there. As a result, TV sites are oppressively heavy on crime/fires/accidents and feature thin TV versions of newspaper and AP stories. Weekly franchise segments are just clutter — they’re not produced frequently enough to sustain their respective content sections online. And many TV-designed sweeps stories look silly when rewritten for the web. Oh, but there’s video!

Web staffs should be producing their own original content — not long features or investigative pieces (for now), but topical, wire-style stories (and slide shows, snappy blog posts and data-driven content) that fill the gaps left by TV coverage. What gaps, you say? On a daily basis, TV ignores stories that 1) have boring video 2) are too far away 3) don’t fit the story mix of a newscast 4) can’t be covered because of a lack of resources… etc. But an enterprising web producer can pick up the phone and turn a one-page story in an hour or two.

To get there, stations must shift more human resources to the web. “If stations intend to stay in that game and challenge the newspapers for local dominance, they had better start beefing up their stable of local editors, reporters and columnists—and showcasing them,” writes Jessell. “Perhaps it’s time to raid the newspaper for talent rather than another station.”

Good advice. Because TV sites can’t depend on breaking news, video and weather coverage to stay competitive in the months and years to come. Newspapers are getting faster at breaking news, and they’re starting to shoot video. Weather is gradually slipping away to portals and other pure plays. And online advertisers are hungry for categories like health, travel and sports. If local TV sites want to excel in the years to come, they have to take it to the next level. And expanded coverage is one place to start.

(The other place is aggressively innovating and expanding into local niches, as I wrote here over a year ago).