Gone are the Edward R. Murrow days of newsrooms packed with TV crews ready to chase the next big, hard news story. Instead, with the rise of the digital age, cell phones and online video, newsrooms are consolidating with employees wearing multiple hats – producer turned reporter turned web editor. This has also caused a shift in the type of news stories chosen to fill the programs.
rbb Communications sat down with Max Weiskopf, veteran TV producer and writer in New York City, to discuss how the local TV landscape has changed, and what type of stories catch his attention these days.
rbb: How has the local TV news business changed over the past two decades?
Max: The biggest change is obviously the growth of the internet and various social media platforms. When I first got into the business back in the late ’90s, the internet was in its infancy stage. There were still only two main ways to get your news, either by television or print. As we got into the 2000s, technology evolved and more stations began focusing on their websites for stories, because they learned that you could reach your viewers at any time online – as opposed to waiting for your traditional newscasts to air at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 11 p.m. and so on.
By 2004, I was producing shows that were being simulcast on the web and, in some cases, we would produce special shows for our website in breaking news situations. As a result, the first web departments began popping up at stations across the country, usually with 4 to 6 employees whose sole purpose was to generate news to the station’s respective site. As those websites began to grow, so did the emergence of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Now you could get your news out with a simple click of a button – as long as you kept it within 140 characters. That was a game changer.
Fast forward to the present – where our first news is always online, whether it be Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, or Instagram. We can even do a live report from a scene simply with a cell phone, using applications like Facebook Live or Periscope, in HD quality!
Now, as a producer, I have the creative freedom to think outside of the box to advance my story. If we have a good story that deserves more than two minutes on a traditional newscast, I can tease to the viewer that they can get a behind the scenes look or check out a special interview by turning to one of our many social media platforms or website.
And along with the creative freedom technology brings, these platforms also generate a lot of advertising revenue because instead of having six 2-3 minute blocks of commercial breaks to sell, you now have an unlimited amount of content you can feature online.
The possibilities are endless and the future just gets brighter and brighter.
rbb: How have these changes affected the way you choose the stories for your program?
Max: If you asked me this question five years ago, I probably would have told you not that much. If anything, it allowed us to focus more on the stories we did choose, and present them to a much larger audience.
But, as I mentioned previously, the internet and social media have taken things to a whole new level. Practically every story we report can be accessed online or through some type of app at the touch of a button.
What that means is that we need to step up our game. We need to find interesting stories that actually affect people. That means stories that you will not find on the front page of every local TV news site.
Anyone can report the latest on the presidential race, or a police involved shooting, or a massive fire. I call those as lazy stories. And I don’t mean to take away from their severity or importance. What I mean is that those are stories that fall into your lap, the same way they fall into the lap of every other station, news website or app. We need to focus on what they don’t have. Local issues that directly affect viewers!
We also tend to shift away from doom and gloom. Nothing is more depressing than hearing about murder, assaults and fires in every single newscast. In the past, you needed to report them because that was the only method of alerting your viewers. But, now, you can find those stories anywhere. And thanks to those ever increasing online and social media apps, we can now focus our attention on human interest stories and, most importantly, stories that leave you with a good taste in your mouth and wanting more.
rbb: TV news producers are hit with dozens of story ideas and pitches every day – what catches your attention?
Max: I look for pitches that invoke thinking outside the box. What makes your story interesting? Why should I care?
In television news writing, one of the most important aspects is making sure that lead sentence is an attention grabber. If it’s boring or cliché, chances are the viewer is changing the channel or zoning out.
The same can be said for story pitches. Everything, including the subject line in your email, should make me want to know more about what you are talking about. I don’t care if you are promoting a seminar on milk consumption. Make me think that is the most important event taking place in the country that day and if I miss it, I will regret it for a long time.
There should be excitement in every pitch, otherwise why bother?
rbb: Let’s look ahead another 10 years. What is next for local TV news?
Max: Ten years ago, I could not have even imagined how far television news has come. I think as technology continues to evolve, so will our newscasts. We’re already streaming newscasts on smartphones. Reporters are doing live shots over social media platforms.
What’s next? I wish I had the vision of a Steve Jobs to see what lies ahead. As a TV news producer, one thing I do know is that whatever the next big thing is, we will find a way to incorporate it to the masses, and it will be exciting.