A new study suggests the right track may be closer than you think

How do I “re-engineer” my hard-news packages to appeal to younger viewers?

Screenshot from Northeastern University “remix” of Facebook story

If TV news broadcasts around the world have a universal ingredient, it’s the 1:30 package. The formula, give or take a few seconds, is decades old, numbingly predictable, and arguably far past its sell-date, but also so prevalent and so familiar that it’s hard to picture any other way of telling a hard-news story on TV. That’s the challenge researchers at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism take on in a study released this month in collaboration with Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. And it turns some of the answers are sitting right in your newsroom.

“Everyone’s afraid to try something different because they’re trying to hold on to the audience that they have,” says Northeastern faculty member Mike Beaudet, who doubles as an investigative reporter for Hearst’s Boston station WCVB. “It’s a matter of changing your mindset and telling stories in a different way.”

Beaudet and his Northeastern colleague John Wihbey began their study with a simple but disturbing premise:

The style and substance of traditional local television news stand at odds with the emerging practices and sensibilities of digitally native video news, the kind that is often preferred by younger audiences on mobile and web platforms.

So the researchers came up with a set of elements common to what they call “digitally native video news” — services such as Vox, Vice, Snapchat, and NowThis — and wondered whether traditional TV news stories could be “remixed” to make them more appealing to younger viewers. Here are the attributes identified and appropriated by the Northeastern team:

  • Animation
  • Sound elements
  • More conversational style
  • Higher emotional impact
  • More context: additional reporting
  • New video and sound: historical footage or additional video/interviews

To their credit, six stations of varying market sizes — ABC’s WLS in Chicago and WTVD in Raleigh-Durham, Scripps’s KNXV in Phoenix, Gray’s WBTV in Charlotte and WAFB in Baton Rouge, and Sinclair’s WJAR in Providence — agreed to serve as guinea pigs, submitting a mix of features and hard-news stories for the researchers to dissect and re-assemble. The Northeastern crew, which included faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, and “an incredible animator,” drew on a toolkit of techniques including sound effects, music, historical footage, animations, and more and longer interviews. It took all of last summer, but ultimately twelve stories got the “before and after” treatment. You can watch an explanatory video from the researchers here and see a full example, a WLS story about a Facebook breach, right here:

ORIGINAL

REMIX

The original stories and the remixes were shown to a representative sample of viewers in each market, all in the 18-49 demographic, and tested by the research firm SmithGeiger. Interestingly, the remixed feature stories fared no better than the originals. But the hard-news packages? That was a different story:

The results suggest that the most substantive news stories can be imbued with innovative qualities that make them more visually compelling and interesting while also giving the stories more depth and context. Further, audiences may be then more likely to trust and recommend the station from which the story comes, as well as more likely to engage with the news content, taking actions such as sharing the story on social media or recommending the source to a friend.

Wow, Mike and John, really? What on earth did you do to these stories to make all that happen? The good news is: nothing radical or unrealistic. You can check out more before-and-after examples for yourselves below. In my view, the changes are significant but not seismic: the stories are just, well, more satisfying — not so much a “re-invention” as a “re-engineering” of the typical hard-news report.

ORIGINAL

REMIX

ORIGINAL

REMIX

ORIGINAL

REMIX

Wihbey says the study challenges the conventional wisdom that younger viewers want their news dumbed down. “No — they want more depth and context, but they don’t want a sensibility that feels dated or cheesy,” he says. The remixes try to show that you can accomplish both goals —“walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Jennifer Graves, VP/News Director at Chicago’s WLS, says she is “very intrigued by the results” and finds them “heartening.” “Local information is still at the center of everything,” she says. “That’s what we do. The report offers great insight into different ways we can tell those stories and reach new audiences.”

So if the study is right, the answers to “re-engineering” the basic building block of the local newscast are close at hand and well within reach. Remember: the original feature stories in the study tested as well as the remixed versions. Not only can you do this — you already do.

As for the hard-news packages, the researchers say a good place to start is with the young people already working for you. “News directors would be surprised if they gave their own employees more creative license and saw what they come up with,” says Beaudet. “You have these people in your newsrooms. Don’t let them be window dressing. What stories resonate with them? What techniques resonate with them?”

The researchers don’t expect stations to see the study as a copy-and-paste playbook — again, the remixes took all summer to make, with lots of false starts along the way — but as an inspiration to take some chances. Maybe just one chance at first. “It’s unrealistic that someone is going to invent a new story form overnight,” says Wihbey. “If one of the takeaways is start with just one thing, and try something different — that’s great.”

Fixing the 1:30 package is not a panacea, especially given the change in younger consumers’ viewing habits that could make the whole notion of a linear broadcast obsolete one day. But with consumption moving to streaming platforms and mobile devices, the video story itself becomes more important than ever. Why not start making it better right now, right in your own newsroom?

Do you have storytelling experiments and innovations to share with us? Let us know at cronkitenewslab@asu.edu.

[NOTE: Andrew wrote the introduction to the Northeastern study but was not involved in the research.]

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