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The Rise and Future of Social Storytelling for Broadcast

April 13, 2022

Not all that long ago, broadcast news production focused exclusively on the on-air news program. But as audiences' eyes started flicking to their phones for news instead, reporters and newsrooms have shifted their attention to social storytelling.

This move toward social storytelling continues to change news production in drastic ways that go beyond social itself. While it introduces new pain points, it also opens up opportunities for innovation.

Tailoring Storytelling to the Platform

Not all social media platforms are the right fit for every story. "I think early on, we saw a lot of news outlets say, 'Take the product and just put it everywhere,'" says Matt Goldberg, vice president of content strategy for NBC-owned TV stations, on another episode of Making the Media. "And it's a terrible experience."

Now, however, newsrooms are tailoring different versions of stories for different social media platforms. Goldberg explains that broadcasters are now comfortable enough with social media to say that, for example, a story won't work on Twitter if it can't be told well in the character limit.

NBC-owned stations encourage a "big focus" on social media—especially Instagram, according to Goldberg. But that push underscores a unique challenge broadcast production faces when pursuing social stories: not all social media platforms are alike.

"Instagram is a vertical experience," says Goldberg. "Sure, if you go to Instagram TV, you can turn and watch it horizontally." But that's not typically how consumers use it. He adds that NBC-owned stations typically drive consumers to station websites. YouTube is best used for "deeper, more cinematic-looking" versions of stories.

Anyone involved with news broadcast production will immediately recognize the pain points associated with versioning news for social media. Lower-thirds and news graphics that work on air likely won't on a smartphone, making it necessary to version these story elements as well.

"If you're doing a story for online or social media, you might have to think about, 'Well, do we need to have subtitles? What aspect ratio are we putting it in?'" Philip Bromwell, digital native content editor at RTÉ, Ireland's national public service broadcaster, told Avid's podcast.

In practical terms, this means RTÉ journalists may be required to create four or five versions of the same story, which is "a bit laborious" but reflects "the reality of the industry today, [because] the audience is really fragmented," Bromwell says.

Embracing the Smartphone as the Camera

One of the biggest technological splashes in current news production has been the rise of smartphone-generated content. Speaking on Avid's Making the Media podcast, Dr. Marie Elisabeth Mueller, director of content and innovation at Bruce E. | b.Rex and coauthor of Social Storytelling, emphasizes the profound effect smartphones have had on the distribution and production of news. The smartphone today is "a creation and editing and shooting platform," she says.

"If you go to someone with only your smartphone, you always create a much more intimate situation. We have, actually, data [showing] people open up much more," says Mueller. Achieving a similar closeness with all of the kit involved in a traditional broadcast is a far more difficult task.

Unencumbered by typical ENG accoutrements, journalists can get closer to people and their truths, evolving their roles as storytellers to move beyond what they are today and become storytelling guides, Mueller notes.

"Stories are about other people," she adds, explaining that people often identify with the subject of a story and learn from them. "That is why, for example, TikTok learning is so powerful and so successful—because all ages like this pattern of stories, learning in an entertaining way."

Gaining a Broader Reach

There's much more to social storytelling than smartphones and TikTok, however. Local broadcasters are making great strides in leveraging other social media sites, including YouTube and Instagram as well as their own websites, to reach viewers with breaking news when it happens.

Adam Wiener, former executive vice president and general manager of CBS Local Digital Media, points out on Making the Media that the deadline of TV journalists is now the daypart, not a specific news program. "We have to be everywhere," he says. "So much of that is digital, the direct-to-consumer piece, [which] is really rooted in the steaming world."

Not only does social media put newsrooms in touch with viewers at a moment's notice, wherever they happen to be, but it also helps broadcasters reach new audiences and track their evolving platform preferences. "Next year there is going to be a different play," says Wiener, "and the next year, another."

Harnessing Instant Analytics

Creating multiple versions of the same story is a small price to pay for the benefits, especially when it comes to guiding news managers in their editorial decision-making about the next stage in coverage of a given story.

"Social platforms are real-life market research happening before your eyes, because you can really start to see which stories are resonating and how they are resonating and what people are saying about them," says Bromwell.

RTÉ also relies on a couple of analytics tools to gain further insight about viewers—what stories people watch on their devices and how long they spend with them—something that could only be an educated guess in the days before social storytelling.

Reaching Communities Where They Are

The rise of storytelling via social media platforms means different things to the various players involved with telling stories. For journalists in the field and the subjects they interview, their conversations can become more intimate as smartphone cameras take the place of ENG cameras, lights, and mics.

For the news director and other news managers, having instant feedback on what viewers gravitate toward offers unmatched editorial insights for future planning. It also offers a way to stay relevant to viewers throughout the day when they're away from their sets and can encourage them to tune in later.

For stations, reaching viewers on their phones with meaningful and important news content 24/7 helps storytellers deepen their relationships with local communities and compete with other media that have no set news time slots.

"How can we serve communities? How can we reach out [to] people where they are?" Muller asks. "We have to go to them and be found."

She takes an even broader view of the importance of social storytelling to television newsrooms: "For journalism to survive as this fourth estate, journalists need to live up to and have a better understanding of how can they serve."

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