What CNN has learned from iReport

In the two years since CNN launched iReport, its user-generated content initiative has contributed to and even driven some of network’s coverage, says Tyson Wheatley, news manager for user participation at CNN.  Accepting a Knight-Batten Award for Innovation in Journalism yesterday, Wheatley said CNN learned one lesson early on, when iReport contributions poured in after the death of “crocodile hunter” Steve Irwin.   “Our audience was telling us this was an important news story,” Wheatley said.  “It kept the story on the main page of cnn.com for a few more days.”

Since then, iReport has become a significant newsgathering tool.  When affiliate stations in Hawaii lost power after an earthquake in 2006, CNN aired the only images it could get, which came in from users.  In 2007, Wheatley said, iReport proved itself to the newsroom during the Virginia Tech shootings.

It showed we could get exclusive footage of breaking news, and we could distinguish our coverage by asking people who were directly affected to immediately share stories.  A feature about the victims based almost entirely on user content got 18 million page views.

Earlier this year, CNN gave iReport its own URL–ireport.com–and set up a system that lets users determine what stories are “newsiest now.”  That section “challenges our ideas of what is news,” Wheatley says.

iReport now has a dedicated staff of seven producers who spend much of their time screening and vetting material to incorporate into news coverage.  They’ve also trained much of the news organization to do that, too.  According to the iReport site, more than 1200 user contributions aired on CNN last month in one form or another.  CNN International even has a half hour TV program based on iReport contributions.

iReport is a meaningful part of CNN coverage across all platforms. We ask people to participate but we have to vet it and verify it, and then integrate it into our coverage, not just a special segment where you stick the iReports.

By any measure, iReport has been a success.  CNN says it has received more than 175,000 submissions in the two years since it first solicited photo and video contributions from users.


More ratings info

Sometime this summer, Nielsen will begin providing information about who is watching what when they’re away from home. For a long time, many in the television industry have complained that they don’t get “credit” for people watching their programming in hotels, bars, gyms, etc.  Now, according to Media Post, the “Nielsen Out-of-Home Report” may be about to change all that.

The data that covers viewing of national broadcast and cable networks will be culled from a panel of 4,700. Panelists will carry cell phones from AT&T that run the software that allows tracking of the exposure to programs (participants receive $50 a month).

At the local level, Nielsen plans to begin in six markets by the end of September.  Those markets include New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Houston and Denver.

Nielsen estimates that as much as 8% of TV viewing takes place outside the home.

More than one hat

Want to be a TV news producer or reporter? Be prepared to wear multiple hats. Mary Ellen Hardies, who produces the 6 p.m. newscast at WCMH-TV in Columbus, Ohio, does a lot more than assemble a rundown and write lead-ins. She screens video on her desk top, makes all her own graphics, and now she’s Twittering five times a day about what stories the station is working on.

I don’t even know who they are but there are hundreds of people following my every move. It’s driving our traffic up. We have a lot of young viewers contacting our Web site because they saw something on Twitter.

She’s not the only one whose job has changed. During a panel discussion at the RTNDA convention in Las Vegas this week, Hardies said the station’s reporters are doing more, too. “All our reporters have Blackberries,” she said. “I’m in touch with them every hour, hour and a half, to get them to update what they’ve been doing.”

The reporters send in bullet points that the web producer turns into sentences, Hardies said. Those updates also go to everyone in the newsroom via a listserv, which has dramatically increased communication between producers and reporters in the field.

I know exactly what they have. I write lead ins based on what I know they are going to say. There is more being expected but as you are writing you are the most knowledgeable person on all of these stories. Our communication has improved because we are requiring more.

Dow Smith of Syracuse University questioned what’s being sacrificed in newsrooms where producers wear so many hats. If they’re spending so much time on technical issues, how much attention can they pay to editorial supervision and content?

To tell better stories it takes a lot of interaction with reporters…Producers have to get up from their computer and talk to the reporters one on one. 90 percent of communication is nonverbal. That helps the process of telling better stories. The future of local TV news is going to have to be better storytelling, otherwise, with the Internet, who needs it?

But Victoria Lim, a multiplatform journalist who recently left WFLA-TV in Tampa, said having to do more actually made her a better storyteller. “There’s more than one story to tell,” Lim said.I’m taking advantage of the strengths of each medium” writing for TV, online and print. Hardies said technology also has changed the content of TV stories. While they haven’t gotten any longer, Hardies said, reporters are using their 1:10 differently.

The reporter isn’t telling the whole story. The producer creates a 45 second anchor tell with graphics that gives the meat of the story. The reporter is going to explain the impact, the emotion.

With everything that’s on her plate, does she ever have time to think…or even breathe? Absolutely, she said. As a self-described “control freak,” Hardies loves having more responsibility. “I still have ten minutes here and there to take a breath, step back and look at the big picture,” she said.I don’t feel harried every day.”

Team building for producers

TV newscast producers may not think of themselves as leaders or managers, but the good ones are both. Even in the smallest stations, producers are team leaders. They have to work with anchors, directors, graphics and assignment editors to put together the best possible newscast. They also have to manage their time and resources wisely. It’s never an easy job, and it can seem overwhelming when you’re new at it, especially if many of the others on the team are more experienced.

Executive producer Holly Edgell of KOMU-TV in Columbia, Missouri, says producers get the best out of others by giving their best. She developed this advice for her producers, who are also her students at the University of Missouri School of Journalism:

Stay cool! Most of your colleagues want to do a good job. Few people are trying to make your life miserable, so be as professional as you can.

Educate! The best way for people to learn and NOT make the same mistakes is to take the time to teach them the right way to do things. If you can’t do it before the newscast, take a moment or two afterwards.

Constructive criticism. Give lots of it! And give positive feedback as well. This will let your peers know you want to see them succeed and foster loyalty.

More of Holly’s tips on “positive producing” (and a suggestion for an easy way to remember them) are available here.

Ratings data more sophisticated…and scary?

It’s a reality that some TV newsrooms live and die by the numbers. Now, according to the Wall Street Journal, Nielsen will soon be offering “second-by-second” ratings information to some clients, and the cable companies’ set-top boxes have made this all possible.

Under the deal with Charter Communications, Nielsen receives information from 320,000 households in Los Angeles and then develops second-by-second data that it can sell to clients like media agencies and advertisers.

The article focuses primarily on the fact that this data will provide more accurate information to marketers, but this development surely has ramifications for news organizations, too.

For example, what if the data were used to try to help determine the optimal length of a news story? Could the data help us evaluate the point at which a particular story lost viewers, and with more study might we begin to understand why? In combination with demographic information, could the data be used to refine content targeting? Hmmm, now I’m getting nervous.

Though I do think this type of information could be of great value, if used judiciously, I can’t help but worry that some newsrooms might use it to become even more formulaic and tied to ratings gimmicks than they already are.

What about you?

Tapeless in Savannah

While TV news hasn’t had “Film at 11” for decades, many stations still “go to the videotape.” But the days of using that phrase are numbered, too. In Savannah, Ga., [market #97], the WTOC-TV newsroom went tapeless this summer. Reporter Charles Gray wrote in the station’s newsletter that the advantages are obvious: speed and sharing. Their Panasonic cameras use memory cards, so video doesn’t have to be digitized. Thirty minutes of video can be uploaded in 10 minutes to a server that anyone in the newsroom can access.  Stories are saved as MPEG-2 files.

We air six hours of live, local programming each weekday, and it all features a lot of recorded material. All those stories are kept on our high-speed computer network, where the producers who put our shows together can access them from their desks. The system allows them to preview the video, read the scripts, and make decisions about when they want to air which stories.

The finished product plays from the server to the transmitter with the click of a mouse.  So what’s the new catchphrase going to be?  “Let’s click the mouse” just doesn’t measure up, does it?

Behind the scenes on Live at 5

mcginty.jpgWhat goes on off camera during a local newscast can be perfectly hilarious. Unfortunately, most stations don’t let us in on the fun. But anchor Derek McGinty at WUSA-TV in Washington, D.C., lifted the curtain recently on his blog “What the heck was that?

Sometimes the dearth of good material sparks creativity, and the newscast surpasses all expectations. Unfortunately, Wednesday July 25, the day before I was to go on vacation, was not one of those days. [Read on!]

McGinty says his blog is “just for fun” and his personality shines through in every entry. Unlike some blogger-anchors, he generally confines his comments to some aspect of his work, but he doesn’t take his job or himself too seriously. Know of any other blogs by local anchors or reporters that make for great reading? Help us compile a list.

The new “News at Seven”

In our textbook, “Advancing the Story: Broadcast Journalism in a Multimedia World,” we describe a virtual newscast being developed by Northwestern University’s InfoLab (www.newsatseven.com). Now, a new customizable version of News at Seven is live on the site, albeit in a Beta launch.

Previously, the site displayed a virtual newscast in which the stories were pre-selected by folks working on News at Seven. In the beta version, you now get to pick what you want to see from a list of content areas, such as U.S. news, entertainment, gadgets, etc.

They’re still working the bugs out, though. For example, I wanted to see a little bit of everything so I selected 7 or 8 categories at once. After 15 minutes of waiting, I gave up on the show ever loading.

Continue reading

Webcast producing

Anyone who produces Webcasts or streams newscasts online might want to take a look at what ABC News is doing with its afternoon Webcast, called “World News.”  According to an article in the New York Times:

“It is intended in part for people who view Web pages on iPods and cellphones and ABC executives say they are deliberately aiming to please the 25-to-54-year-olds whom every news organization covets.

Every night there is a good dose of technology and pop culture coverage.  For instance, Google puts out a daily list of what it calls “rising searches” – search terms that are suddenly more popular among Web users.  And ABC producers select three to mention on the Webcast, usually in a one-minute segment.”

Jason Samuels is senior producer for digital content.  His advice to reporters?

Continue reading

Becoming a “director’s producer”

The best television news producers will tell you that they always try to build an excellent relationship with their directors.  Producers who realize that directors are more than “button punchers and camera callers” find their shows looking better and communicating content more effectively.

But what do directors want from their producers?  Jeffrey Blount is a veteran director for NBC News.  He’s directed everything from Nightly News to Meet the Press to the Gerald Ford funeral coverage.  He spoke to a group of students and faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University on October 10 about what makes a good producer from a director’s perpective.

“Someone who’s prepared and knows where he or she wants to go,” says Blount.  He says good producers “convey their plan to the director;”  they don’t just hand over a rundown and expect the director to know what they’re thinking.

Continue reading