FEBRUARY 7, 2022

Making the Media S2E05: Local Heroes

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The local news market in the USA is one which is worth billions of dollars and has undergone a period of rapid consolidation of station groups.

In this episode, we discuss what this means for the delivery of local news, how newsrooms must adapt to producing for both on-air and online, the need to look after staff when teams are more distributed than ever, and how the technology they use needs to move forward.

Listen to Hear:

  • Why digital is the place for innovation in local news
  • The need for patience to reap the financial benefits of online and social
  • Ways to work smarter to maximize the value of every story

Our Guest This Episode

Gary Brown

Gary Brown most recently was the Senior Vice President of Content for the Meredith Local Media Group. Overseeing news, marketing, and digital content for the broadcast group. An experienced broadcaster and digital executive with almost three decades of experience, he has launched content initiatives to drive brand recognition, ratings, and revenue growth throughout his career.

Before joining Meredith in 2018, he was Vice President of Talent Development for the Napoli Management Group. Prior to that, Brown was Vice President of News for Newport Television, where he oversaw television stations in 22 markets. Brown began his television news career as an intern at age 16 in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio. He quickly moved through the ranks, holding news director positions across the United States.

Where we are now is a realization that we have to be real time all the time on digital. But we still haven't figured fully all the mechanics yet. The ROI just isn't there yet. It can get there, but again, there's going to be patience and it may never be the ROI like you would get adding in an hour long newscast on TV.-Gary Brown, TV News Executive

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Episode Transcript

Craig Wilson: Welcome to the Making the Media podcast. I’m your host, Craig Wilson. Great to have you join me.

In this episode we are focusing on the local news market and how it is responding to the challenge of digital platforms, remote working, distributed teams, and the potential of the cloud.

The local news market in the United States has gone through significant consolidation in recent years. It’s a business which generates billions of dollars in advertising revenue and is seeing an increase in that revenue coming from digital platforms. Though it’s still dwarfed by the figures from traditional tv channels.

My guest to discuss the state of the industry is Gary Brown. Gary was most recently Senior Vice President of Content for the Meredith Local Media Group. With a long career in television journalism from intern to news director to VP, Gary has an intimate knowledge of the market.

I began by asking him to outline what he saw as the major issues facing newsrooms today, and he started by discussing how they have responded to the COVID pandemic.

Gary Brown: I believe that has given local news relevancy more so than ever that people who may not have been the loyal viewers who would watch at 6:00 and 11:00 or 5:00 and 10:00 or whatever you want to say. I have to watch them. I need to know. I need to know it's safe.

We saw this in research we did, but just this theme of safety net, in some ways, personal safety, in some ways safety from crime. But in a lot of ways, that general feeling of “Let me know it's ok. Let me know it's going to be OK.” So there's a big thing there that we have to continually serve, in my opinion. And then making sure that they view us as trustworthy because let's face it, I don’t want to get into the whole cable news and all that political debate, but you know, the fake news stuff and overcoming that.

And then it's also navigating it, managing people. And the great resignation, which is beyond just TV, but… I call it the care and feeding of the folks who work for you. And in doing all that and doing it in unprecedented times, where some days your things kind of feel back to normal, and other days, you're put in little closets with the TV behind you, and that's where you anchor the news from, right?

I mean, it's crazy. And you know, management in news to me was always part and parcel people management as much as it was managing the content. You really manage the people who manage the content.

So, there's a lot of things. And then the last thing I'd say, which has been an ongoing thing for how many years is the multi-platforms. Where do we need to be? How do we need to be there? Recognizing the return on that investment may not be as immediate as it is if you launch a newscast on linear TV. But you know you need to go into all these different routes.

CW: Yeah, so, lots of things there, so let delve into those different aspects. I want to pick up on the very first thing that you said, which is: do you think now—you talked about relevancy—do you think now it's the case that people see their local stations as providing a sense of community? And because of what's happened, that sense of community is more important now, and as a result, the local news is more important?

GB: Absolutely, I would say, you know, there used to be the mantra: “You gotta win breaking news, win weather, and that's how you become a number one station long term. Now you also have to be seen as involved in your community. And that sense of community is big, and it's beyond just covering different towns. That sense that you're giving back, that sense you're helping out. That feeling you're involved and your people are involved. Those are… I don't think you can win without that. And I think some stations have been really good about that. Those that have had that long legacy and community service. Some stations don't. It's interesting and I don't know if this is just a gut feeling when you look at the difference between #1 and #3 or #4 stations… I've never seen a number #3 or #4 station that was really involved in the community be #3 or #4 in the ratings. But it wasn't something you heard about a lot in research that you had to do this. But I think part of this is that feeling a safety. But they also want to know you’re out to not just show the wrongs or hold people accountable but give me solutions. Help me fix this. Help us fix this, be in it together.

CW: You also talked about, you know, multi-platform and the challenge that comes from streaming for example. Let leave cable aside at the moment and talk just about the general challenge which TV faces from the streaming services like Amazon and Hulu and others. Because one element that we've explored in another couple of podcasts is that actually the benefit that local news can provide is that almost like an antidote. It's because it can provide that local service that’s something that's relevant to your community and it's actually a strength to be capitalized on.

GB: But I think the issue and the challenge—and this is one person's opinion—is, when I go to stream or go on OTT or an app, I want it when I want it. And if you're not there with it…. You know? I'm going to try to find it elsewhere. And that's I think the hardest thing to deal with. Is, you have an MMJ, you want them live at 5:00 o'clock, but you also want that story as soon as humanly possible to post. And a lot of states—I mean, I was guilty of this 'cause this is how the infrastructure used to be. We didn't upload video to the website before there were even apps until the newscast ran. And then it would take an hour or so later before you would see the pieces from the 5:00 O'clock news show up on the website.

Right? And there was a big debate—do we post this before we go on TV? Right? And part of it was technology. You know, there are all sorts of things—closed captioning, how do we get this, we don't have graphics… So, you know, all those different things. And I think where we are now is a realization that we have to be real time all the time on digital. But we still haven't figured fully all the mechanics yet because how many people are going to resource just for that? And what does that take away from your linear product? Because, let's face it, there aren't many people that are saying here's 10 more bodies for the news department, go make them a digital team that's just generating content, and that's where I go back to the ROI just isn't there yet. It can get there, but again, there's going to be patience, and it may never be the ROI like you would get adding in an hour long newscast on TV. But it's also your mindset of do you believe you need to be there? And I think most if not all broadcasters believe it to what level? Is what you see that varies group to group.

And you probably see it with the customers you work with. I mean to me, this was probably back in 2009 or something like that. I was asked once about… “This system, that system, and how do we, you know” And I'm like “I just wish when you edited the story in the video you could hit a button and it goes to all these different places simultaneously without any user intervention.

I think we're kind of there in some ways, but I don't think it's the natural way it happens. I think it's still… Those who are really digital centric probably want that type of situation and those who aren't probably still do the old school way. Quote unquote, yeah,

CW: I think we're absolutely right in terms of discussions with customers that we have about how they, how they kind of want to work, and there is a huge focus now on what’s classed as story-centric working, which is that whole thing of the story being at the center and then it's distributed to all the different points. But I think we still see in various different organizations, certain things have primacy.

So, for example, the 6:00 o'clock show is still seen as the big thing, but there is a recognition, exactly as you said, that you need to provide content throughout the day. And one interesting concept around that I've heard is that you're perhaps the producer of the 6:00 o'clock show, but in reality, you're actually responsible for a day part. Because you have to continue to produce content throughout the course of that day to go on all the other platforms. And as you say, you're not getting more people to do that in an efficient way.

GB: When I was a producer in Pittsburgh, which is decent size market still to this day (this was a long time ago) I mean, we had writers. As producer, you were writing some, but you also had writers to help with the writing load. And you might produce… at one point, I think we had a producer for each half hour of the 90 minute newscast. And is it fair to say: Is there downtime as a producer when you're producing 1/2 hour show? And you come in at 9 and you're doing the 6:00 o'clock news. Well, absolutely there is. You would have time to do stuff to what you just said about dayparts. But what you're also seeing now is I think partly, do we need a separate producer for 5, 5:30, by 6? We can't find producer, all those things come into play that you have someone producing an hour, but you don't necessarily have that writing help anymore. So then it becomes, I think a little more onerous to try to do the day part.

CW: The other interesting thing that you said as well, Gary, is about caring and looking after your staff, and I think that's something which you know I've spoken to a lot of news directors and lots of heads of news who, you know, this is something that's become even more significant and important for them. Because, fundamentally, you know, news is a people business. There's no doubt about it. And I'm interested in how you feel that that's achievable in a time when a lot of people are not spending much time in the office because of A. the circumstances and B. being in there more desire that the team is out in the field and is working in the field and is reporting from there.

GB: I think it's what you make as a priority. Years ago when I was in news director in one Market. As I was assessing the situation, one night after the news, I just found where one of the crews were out in the field doing live shots, so I went over to the truck on my own. It was probably like 9:00 o'clock at night. And I just wanted to see what they had to deal with in the field, right? You don't know until you see it. And that type of… you know, yeah, it's an inconvenience, you’re giving up a little bit of your night, but to do that meant a lot to those folks. Because I'll never forget I was in the truck, [inaudible] wasn't there, the reporter went to get a drink or something. Didn't know I was there and opens up the door. “Whoa, what are you doing here? Am I in trouble?” “No.”

But to get a sense of what they have, you know 'cause I'm all about: you can't ask people to perform at high levels unless you give them all the tools, and you think you give them the tools, and a lot of times they have to Jerry rig the tools out in the field to make it actually happen. So I wanted to get a sense of that, and also the different shifts. What do they experience? The morning folks always feel you know… don't get a lot of attention. So you can work a morning shift and all this to assess the situation and see what you're dealing with.

And so I think you have to take that type of course and amplify it just to do checking calls with folks. Make sure they're doing OK. And look, I wasn't always the best news director when I did it, and you

know, about just walking the room. I mean, granted, you walk the room and there's not as many people there, but I think you have to be even more cognizant of that, that those who are there, are they doing too much? ‘Cause that was a big thing with COVID, we saw producers producing from home, and that's great. What we've been able to do as far as remote work that I never thought we could do. But there's always still someone back in the building and making sure that person doesn't take too much, and have to take the brunt of everything because they're there and the other two aren't. You know. And that's a real issue, and it's been a real issue, you know. Especially on the producing side of things.

CW: So from a technology perspective, Gary, where do you think things are missing? What do you think would be the big benefit? You talked a little bit earlier on of, you know, that one button to press and you know things get distributed to elsewhere. Is it working in that way? Is it helping teams collaborate better together? What do you think is kind of needed to really help in a modern newsroom?

GB: You know, I have always said TV used to dictate like technology in some ways. You know we wanted to go live, someone figured out how to do microwave trucks. We wanted to go live further, and we figured out how to do sat trucks. Then at some point we lost control and the vendors all were like, “Well, we're going to think 2 steps ahead for them of what's the technology is really driving.” We're reacting to the technology now more so than driving, proactively driving the attack.

If I had to think as a producer, and I always try to think that way, I’d probably have to have too many windows open on my computer. I think there are opportunities to do, you know, as there's been consolidation in the industry, there's also been consolidation in the attack. Let's face it. You know, I think communication like… Some stations use Outlook, Slack... Their newsroom computer system. In other messaging systems to communicate daily to the crew in the field. And I think streamlining that process would be key to me because if you had me open six different windows during the course of the day and expect me to not miss something, you're asking a lot. So I think there's that.

I think… Now there's integration that happens between the video and the newsroom computer system, but I think making that a little tighter in the assignment function—that part, I think has really kind of not… in my opinion, I think there's work to do there to make that—and I know everyone is Avid with community, in AP with playbook have created stuff to do to address some of those things.

There's also a heck of a lot more sharing as the consolidation of the groups has happened. You know there's a lot more trying to figure out, how do we get material station a station? And you know, just the communication newsroom to newsroom, as well.

CW: You talked about sharing their Gary. So is cloud something that is kind of realistic from an economics perspective, you think for people to use it?

GB: Well, it's going to be interesting to see the cloud right? Because, you know, you're used to an operating budget in a CapEx budget. Well, we always know the CapEx budget was never as much as we wanted every year. Every company had, you know… a lot of companies view CapEx differently. So do they want as much CapEx? Or want it more operating, or vice versa? I think it's kind of like you're almost leasing the gear versus purchasing, right? If you go to the cloud, essentially. I mean, I think that's probably where it goes. It's going. I think you'll see more of that if it makes sense financially. But there's also going to be a threshold where I can't handle this annual increase on my OPS cost because I'm doing the, you know I got the CG system, and this newsroom system, and the editing system… I don't know where the break point is, if that makes sense. But I think that's where it goes.

But then there's also a lot of concern, like a couple weeks ago the AWS went down. Then what? So I think it also has to have... I think there almost has to have some redundancy. I mean, will everyone go fully cloud? Maybe? But I think there's also going to be a desire to have a little bit of back up for those cases. Or, hey, the fiberline guy cut to the building. I mean how those things have happened and continued to happen, right? It's not… I would hate to put… I love the idea of being able to remotely access and do everything from a computer anywhere because it's all in the cloud, but then I hate the fact that what happens if you can't get to the cloud?

CW: The way that we see it, mostly speaking with lots of customers, now, that hybrid environment that you kind of described where yet perhaps your primary system is the cloud, but you've also got something on-prem and connecting those things together, because you're absolutely right, I think the AWS outage has prompted a lot of people to think about. “OK, well, what does this actually mean for us?”

Because it's not like, ok, maybe I'm working in post production and I can take a delay in files being uploaded, for example. But you know the news at 6 is still going to be the news at 6. So you have to have somewhere else to go.

GB: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there's an expectation. You’ve got to be there. And if you can't be there, you can get away with that once in a while, but if it becomes too much then you're not reliable.

CW: Yeah, but I think the benefits of the cloud could potentially come from that sharing aspect. We've talked a little bit about the consolidation that we talk more about that, but you know, if you are a news organization that has got many stations in lots of different markets and you want to have a way of sharing content, then perhaps the cloud is the enabler of that kind of way of working.

GB: Well, I think it should. I guess the question is, is that another infrastructure piece you have to get? Like, do you have to get another service for that? Or does that come with your NRCS system and your editing? You know, those are the type of things. I'm all for streamlining the process. Don't make me open a bunch of stuff every day to do my job. And I'm still a big believer that the newsroom computer system really drives everything, so that has to be the heart of it. And then the tentacles that go out can go out to all these other places.

CW: So we've touched on that a little bit Gary, but there is a lot of consolidation that's happening in the market. What do you think is A. driving that, and B. what do you think the implications are for the markets that are being served by the fact that fewer players in the market?

GB: So I think from a consolidation standpoint, you know, you have a lot of good groups out there who are very committed to the journalism they do and the communities they serve, andd I think you see that. I think they realize they have to do all those things. So I think it's good.

I mean there are a lot of questions—the what ifs, right? Which is all speculation. What happens if the affiliate network relationship goes away? What happens if the cable retrans. You know? There's a lot of those questions, but I think that's why you see groups doing things to be thinking that way, that if this happens, I have this. It may not generate the same revenue I generate today, but it's at least going to be something to, you know, to help stem that tide? And do you think there's going to be more investment on that on that digital site on taking that longer term view? I think from a digital standpoint, you're seeing more and more groups talk about it and do different things.

I think there's an appetite for content, and I think you've seen that with like hers doing their own production. In Meredith, when we were doing it, we saw we were doing a lot more collaboration

with the magazine titles and doing video and creating shows. And I think that will continue. I think there's a need for content, and I think, what that is, is it a linear newscast? Probably not, it's probably other things. But I think you're going to continue to see people invest in it and you see operators who want that. The aggregators, the different services like the local mouse that, you know, that want your content and will pay. Now back to the level you get from the cable companies, but it's still something that can be pretty significant.

CW: Yeah, I mean, I still think that you know journalism is a great industry to be in. I think it’s an exciting sighting in this to be in. It's very different, as you mentioned earlier on, from when you and I started, you know, many years ago. But there's huge opportunities, there's more distribution points, there's more platforms to actually produce content on it, and I still think it's an exciting industry to be in.

GB: Well, I think digital is where you can experiment. With podcast we were doing…. We were pushing everyone on podcast but also pushing them to do video podcast and creating these venues where you know you can have that one touch button, turn on a room and record it, and you had content for your app. I was all about with digital: Let's not ask you to do additional things. Let's ask you all the great things you do. How can you strip the audio for audio services or how can you, if you were doing audio only, how can you add video to then give that a place on the app and things like that?

CW: Yeah, it's about maximizing the value of the assets that you have and what you create—

GB: Because the biggest complaint you hear, and rightly so, you want me to do this for the ODT app? Right? I have 4 reporters today and I gotta do news starting at four. I don't have time. You know, so it's like… how do you find… Take a step back look at all you do and say “Do we have a video component?”

Like, we were doing Alexa news briefs and I said, “Well, if we're doing that for Alexa audio, why don't we just do it as video and then strip the audio for Alexa and then the whole finished piece with video can go to YouTube and to the website? And that's just one example. But I think it's a good example where some people were doing multiple things. Let's try to get it all down to a manageable workflow.

CW: So Gary there is one final question that I ask, and it's a question I ask everyone in the podcast, which is: What is it, if anything, that keeps you awake at night?

GB: I could answer that in so many ways!

CW: Lots of people have answered in lots of different ways!

GB: Well, you know, I would say when I was working the people management. That's the biggest challenge right now. Finding them, retaining them, and making sure that when you are hiring, you're still hiring the best and brightest. It's harder and harder, because the best and brightest get snatched up quick, you know, so. I would say that… and I mean I think managing, you know, I kind of grew up in this system where it was a little more rough and tumble in news, right? Like, bosses weren't necessarily worried about how everyone was feeling that day. Just being honest. I myself was probably guilty of that at times, too, as a news director. But I feel now it's so, so, so important you can't do anything without those folks, and you got to make them feel valued, respected, and that you care for them.

It doesn't mean that there's not going to be folks who, you know, who are problem children, 'cause that happens too, but it's really… you gotta give that sense that—and it has to be sincere—that as a leader, you care about your people, you care about your team, and you try to do everything you can to help them and make them successful. 'Cause their success is your success.

CW: There is no doubt that that is true. I want to thank Gary for sharing his thoughts with me and would encourage you to do the same. Get in touch, email us at [email protected], or on Twitter or Instagram, I’m @CraigAW1969.

Check out the show notes for information about how Avid is enabling innovative story-centric workflows with MediaCentral | Collaborate, and making digital publishing an integral part of any newsroom with MediaCentral | Publisher. There are links to lots of great information and videos there.

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Thanks for taking the time to listen, thanks to our producer Matt Diggs. Join me, Craig Wilson, next time, for more in-depth discussion on the issues behind Making the Media.

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