A long long time ago, when the world was shown in the 4:3 aspect ratio, I worked in local TV. While there, I began calling the culture in local newsrooms Planet News.
The name Planet News described the often closed circuit eco system that drives how stories are chosen, how the story is told and even how the anchors and reporters tell the viewers at 5, 6 and 11.
For years, I took it for granted that everyone knew how the news comes together, that everyone had learned the language of Planet News. Recently, I have changed my mind.
I have noticed social media comments about Fox News that will pop up in discussions about Fox owned stations and affiliates, which are all less related to one another than one might think. I have seen references to elites that will attach themselves to stories about local anchors and reporters in small and medium markets. Really? I don’t think elites struggle to pay their bills. One friend of mine thought the network or a large corporate entity told local stations what stories to run and how. While this may be kinda sorta true in rare instances: Disney stations running Disney movie promos, CBS stations doing in-depth football analysis, Sinclair stations running super charged political content across the group, for the most part, local stations chart their own course.
So in the spirit of my usual bad analogies about fishing and teaching and learning to eat, I figured who better to teach people about planet news than someone with a platform about local news? In this new series we’ll ask the actual experts, the people who do the work day-to-day with low budgets and long hours, about the industry: why it is set up the way it is, what people do and how they decide what to talk about.
This first installment is a quick email exchange with news director Kristine Strain (pictured) from CBS owned Denver station KCNC who was patient enough to answer my questions.
TVSPY: What does a news director do?
Strain: The biggest role for the news director is to set the news philosophy, paint what success looks like and then clear the hurdles out of the way so that the great team you have assembled can run the race to serve our community and win. Our job is to make sure our team feels valued and to ensure the product we create is valuable to our community.
Who decides what stories go in to the newscast? Why?
This is mostly an Executive Producer and specific newscast producer function. The News Director should set the news philosophy for the organization and for each show and then entrust producers to make the right decisions.
Why are the stories told in the order they are? What makes the first story first?
At CBS News Colorado we think newscasts should be reflective of the community in which we live and represent the totality of the day. Everything is not all bad, so the newscasts should not be full of all bad news. We know people in Colorado are optimistic and want to keep this a great place to live so our newscasts should represent that. We try to make the shows have a natural flow as you would if you were having a conversation. We tend to put the story that has the most impact or is relevant to the widest audience first and then from there we evaluate what is important, what connects to the community and what will keep our viewers’ attention across the program.
How is a show laid out? (A block, B block, etc.) Why do most, if not all, local stations present their newscasts this way?
Newscast formats are mostly a function of commercial break structure and the concept of trying to maintain the most number of viewers across the entire program. We all know weather is a big draw for audiences to local news so if we keep weather further into the show we have the best chance of maintaining an audience. Our focus and mantra is to let the content dictate the format and allow our producers to be creative with the news of the day. We talk daily about ways to break format and smash the mold when the content supports an innovative approach.
When I watch local TV, I notice many of the stations telling the same stories. Why is that?
I think that was the old way of producing newscasts but now most stations are looking at ways to differentiate from one another with a specific news brand. We value enterprise storytelling, being deep into our communities and prioritize covering Colorado. If we are doing this, we should not have the same stories told the same way as the other stations in our market.
What is the difference between local affiliates, local owned stations and the networks?
I have worked at affiliated stations and owned stations over my 30 years in the business and I can say I take great pride in working at a local station that is owned by Paramount and run by CBS News. For me the difference is in leadership and tight alignment with a company that is committed to news.
Do sponsors, the government or secret cabals tell local stations what to report? And how do I know you’re telling the truth?
Funny question but see if you can set aside some fears with this answer: We have no sponsor, or entity telling us what stories to report. We are guided by our passion to help keep Colorado a great place to live by using our Community Journalism to represent our neighbors and seek solutions to our communities’ problems. Our desire to serve our community and tell great stories is what dictates what we cover. Our viewers hold us accountable, no secret cabal.