A tech-driven spinoff poses new challenges for TV newsrooms

Could the next big threat to local news be from — The Weather Channel?

If you’ve seen one anchor, you’ve seen them all.

That’s not me being snarky. That’s me describing Local Now, a news and information streaming service spun out of The Weather Channel. The one anchor is Sasha Rionda, or just ‘Sasha’ as she sometimes introduces herself, and here’s how she describes her duties on her LinkedIn profile:

“She…delivers the daily news of 25 US Markets as well as national news and fun lifestyle pieces for “Local Now”. A very cool app! If you haven’t already, you should check it out.”

Rionda is right — you should. She anchors a customized local news feed for each of Local Now’s 25 premium markets without ever leaving her home base in Atlanta — just one of the ways the upstart OTT and mobile service is upending conventional notions of how to produce and deliver user-friendly local news. As curation, personalization and production become more automated, tech-savvy challengers like Local Now are putting pressure on traditional TV newsrooms to reassess how best to serve and keep their viewers, not to mention attract new ones.

“Local Now” host Sasha Rionda.

Given its parentage, it’s no surprise that a staple of Local Now’s core value is weather forecasts localized to 220 markets: data screens with pre-packaged voice-overs in most cases, but buttressed with Atlanta-based meteorologists in 40 of them, including the 25 large markets the service labels ‘platinum.’ But Weather Channel President Tom O’Brien, a veteran of NBC and Nexstar, sees the chance to go after a broader audience. “The key is using the strength of what we have with The Weather Channel,” he says. “How do we advance that? How do we use technology to be able to create another opportunity for us to do what we do best, which is impart news, weather and information to people across America?”

So there’s much more than weather to Local Now, which is free and 100% ad-supported: national news, business, technology, traffic, sports, recipes, movie roundups, restaurant reviews, wellness and lifestyle segments reported by contributors and freelancers. Like Sinclair’s Stirr, which we wrote about earlier this year, Local Now relies on content partners to supplement its own team. The user can skip around among the verticals or just let them flow.

Some of the city-specific content — in addition to all that weather of course — is as simple as AP headlines set to a perky music beat, but there are also local restaurant reviews from Yelp cleverly spun up into visually appealing top-five lists. Generic voice-overs like “Here’s a local pick you shouldn’t miss” or “Here’s another local pick in our area that’s looking great” add a human touch. There are more conventional national segments too, like Mom Life with Adrianna Costa or the latest business news from partner service Cheddar. No blood and guts, thank you, although Sasha did gleefully tell me about the arrest of the “subway bandit,” who’d been disrupting mass transit by pulling emergency alarms on New York subway cars.

Local Now may not be keeping news directors up at night — yet. Michael Senzon, who leads the project after years as a digital content creator at CNN and CNBC, says some stations have even asked him about potential partnerships. “I think that there’s an opportunity for all of us to play together nicely in the sandbox,” he says. Many station groups are moving aggressively into the OTT arena themselves. Along with the aforementioned Stirr, we’ve reported on CBSN New York and LA as well as Gray’s InvestigateTV.

But if I were running a local TV newsroom, I’d be thinking about “Local Next.” Startups have a way of sneaking up on incumbents, even if they don’t seem to pose a threat in their early stages. And as Senzon points out, it’s not always easy for stations to change. “We don’t have the same limitations on our business to do what we need to do,” he says. “They have newscasts they need to put on the air every day. There’s an audience that expects a certain thing, regardless of whether or not a younger audience is not coming to watch, right? There are people who love their local news.”

“This is an opportunity to reach another audience,” adds O’Brien. “And by the way, deliver more local news, or more news of local interest to communities around the nation than is currently available.” Weather Channel owner Byron Allen agrees. He’s betting that the OTT streaming wars will favor the service because of its local component. As reported in Broadcasting & Cable, Allen told a panel at NAB this spring that Local Now is “an unstoppable beast.”

I suggest to Senzon that “the beast” is still a work in progress, and he bristles a bit. But he goes on to say that customization and personalization will only get better. The service is also creating more locally-focused content, such as a recent ‘explainer’ on why Arizona doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time. The Local Now format is eminently flexible and scalable — it would be nice to give Sasha Rionda a little help — and O’Brien and Senzon are starting to get meaningful data on what’s resonating with users. “We’ve set up a technology platform that gives us the ability to evolve according to what consumers want,” O’Brien says. “I think we can benefit the local news ecosystem.”

One benefit may be that services like Local Now encourage TV newsrooms to double down on distinctive, original enterprise reporting: farm-to-table journalism that can’t be served up from Atlanta — or by algorithms.

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