‘The Currency is an Engaged Viewer’

A distinctive formula for local news finds a new platform

This just in: Spectrum News has launched an app to complement the local cable news networks it runs in nine states.

That headline probably won’t scare a lot of news directors. But maybe it should.

Station apps that allow you to take local news wherever you go are nothing new, of course. Aunt Sue at her condo in Florida can easily keep tabs on what’s happening back in Chicago. But Spectrum News, which is owned by Charter Communications, is trying to re-invent local journalism not just by creating a product for cord-cutters, but by flouting conventional formulas. That means a service that’s sharply differentiated from local TV news — one that tries to build loyalty rather than ratings in order to become essential to its customers.

“We always knew that we had a different model because we’re more of a subscription model than we are an advertising sales model,” says Mike Bair, EVP of Spectrum Networks. “[Local stations] have a very low threshold for what breaking news is and chasing crime because they’re worried about last night’s ratings and about generating ad sales. And in this time of a secular decline in ad sales, there’s an even stronger desire to create and steal share from anyone by creating more sensationalism around the telecasts. What we care about is engagement over time. We want the habitual viewer to tune in, day in and day out, so that at the end of the month, when they’re subscribing to Spectrum, they know that we’ve added value because we’re part of their life every single day.”

The Spectrum News App is designed as a “value add” that enhances the value of the company’s broadband service: it’s the first content product to be created for all 28 million Spectrum residential customers, whether they subscribe to its video offerings or not. “We think that news will be an important distinguishing part of what makes being a Spectrum customer different from someone else,” says Bair. “So, in the end, the currency is an engaged viewer.”

 

The new app builds on the innovations Spectrum has introduced at its local TV news channels around the country, whose linear feeds are available to more than 10 million subscribers. In previous reports, we’ve told you how the Southern California operation ignores car chases in favor of hyper-local expertise and community-based journalists; how Spectrum networks in Ohio and Wisconsin are creating a new model for regional coverage based on specialized beat reporters scattered through the states; and how Spectrum News Buffalo became the first TV news operation to hire a journalist from Report for America, the nonprofit organization that trains and subsidizes young reporters in so-called “news deserts.” (Spectrum has since added four more RFA journalists in Southern California, Columbus OH, Milwaukee WI, and Orlando FL.)

But beyond the ability to stream any of these local networks, the app offers a trove of new reporting. The company says the goal is for 50% of the content to be original rather than re-purposed from the TV news side. Sam Singal, a 20-year-plus veteran of NBC News, joined the company in February to oversee the digital expansion. “Managing directors” work alongside news directors in Spectrum newsrooms, overseeing dozens of newly hired digital journalists — many of them subject-area specialists — while also curating stories from the TV operation, from the company’s Washington bureau, and from a central news hub in Florida. More podcasts are on the way too. “For the last three years, we’ve been trying to build these nimble multi-platform newsrooms,” says Bair. “You could call them ‘content engines.’”

Mike Bair

Perhaps most relevant for local TV competitors, the “content engines” now include contributions from nearly three dozen news partners, ranging from major newspapers to hyperlocal digital outfits to nonprofit news organizations. In my home base of New York, the Spectrum News App features reporting from nonprofits like Chalkbeat (specializing in education) and The City (local investigations and enterprise stories), along with the Queens Daily Eagle (a hyperlocal newspaper covering — you guessed it!). Other examples from around the country: dot.LA (the L.A. tech community); Soapbox Cincinnati (innovation and economic development)); WisPolitics.com (just what it sounds like); and WMFE-FM, the NPR flagship in Orlando.

Instead of Nielsen ratings, Spectrum’s local newsrooms get weekly and monthly reports on whether content is resonating, collected by a New York-based “data and insights” unit, which will now add app data to information culled from set-top boxes. “One of the beauties of these apps is it really allows you to see what people are consuming and how much time they’re spending on it,” says Bair. “And we can just ratchet up and down. I don’t want to call it a factory, but in effect, we’re creating so much content on all sides, we can easily ladder up one or the other.”

Bair says Spectrum’s two most important verticals are weather (no surprise) and politics (maybe a surprise): the new app features a dedicated section for local and state political coverage. After that, it’s up to the executives around the country and even the journalists themselves to decide which subjects are most important to their customers, with the emphasis on expertise and ongoing stories that create lasting value. “The big difference for us in attracting journalists now is instead of being told what story you’re going to cover, we’re saying you get to own your own beat. You get to own your own neighborhood, and you get to control your own story,” Bair says.

So is a deep-pocketed broadband provider using news as a “value add” a competitive threat to local stations? And if so, how might stations respond? Spectrum News wants to create a “one-stop shop” for news consumers featuring lots of weather, in-depth local and state politics, continuing coverage of civic issues, specialized beats, text-based original reporting, empowered “boots on the ground” journalists embedded in their communities, and an eclectic mix of local partner content. We’ve reported on station groups experimenting with some or all of these features, but in the meantime: there’s an app for that.

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