“This is such a tremendous opportunity for us to put a stake in the ground and say, ‘We do hear you, we do see you,’” says Vickie Burns, “‘and we want to super serve you: your needs, your interests, your curiosity.”
Burns, a veteran leader in local newsrooms in Chicago, Los Angeles, and most recently New York, where she was the news VP at WPIX, is talking about the new job she starts on Monday: SVP and head of content for Black News Channel (BNC), a fast-growing 24-hour network serving African American viewers.
“It really all comes back to storytelling,” says BNC CEO Princell Hair, “and that is telling those stories in your communities that are most relevant and matter to your audience.” Hair, whose resumé bristles with senior roles that include the CBS owned stations, CNN, and Comcast/NBC regional sports networks, took over a year ago and has wasted no time.
Hair has made distribution deals with cable, satellite and OTT providers to increase the potential audience from about 2 million to 52 million viewers, with more to come. In a relaunch in March, BNC, whose principal backer is Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan, added nine hours of live news/talk programming a day, for a total of 17 — from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. every weekday. And Hair has increased the staff from 55 to more than 300, including high-profile hires like New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who hosts a new prime time hour at 10 p.m. Hair’s goal is to have at least one correspondent in all 25 top African American markets — he has 12 more cities to go.
We generally write about local TV news here at the Knight-Cronkite News Lab, so why focus on BNC? As I learned in an interview with Hair and Burns, these two seasoned veterans, with decades of local experience behind them, have plenty to say that’s relevant to station newsrooms, especially as new generations of viewers seek out news that speaks directly to them rather than trying to speak to everyone.
Here are my seven takeaways from our conversation.
1. Identify the unique communities in your market — especially ones that feel underserved by what you’re doing now.
“We have learned over the years that the Black and Brown community does not feel that the traditional core media hears and sees and understands that community,” Burns says. “We’ve heard the research over the years that says we amplify the negative and we underreport or ignore the positive.”
This lesson doesn’t just apply to communities of color. Who else in your market has specific journalistic needs that you’re not addressing? And when you identify those groups, don’t ignore stories that report on solutions to problems and offer examples of achievement and hope.
2. Think of those communities as beats, and insist that your reporters generate original stories from the ground up.
BNC has 16 reporters in 13 cities with large Black populations, and when they’re not covering breaking news, they’re expected to come up with unique stories sourced from the street. We’ve written about similar approaches by the ABC owned stations community journalists and by the Spectrum News regional networks.
“With the people in the communities really being the ones driving the stories, we’re hearing things that we hadn’t heard before,” Hair says. “Ideally, on our best day, if we’re doing our jobs, our correspondents are coming up with stories that you’re not going to see anywhere else, enterprise stories that are going to really drive the conversation, whatever the conversation is on that particular day.”
3. Even your breaking news coverage should reflect those communities’ unique interests and needs.
“We have to cover breaking news. It’s the price of admission into our audience’s homes, whether you’re doing it nationally or locally,” Hair says. “We’re selective about the breaking news that we cover. We don’t cover every tree that falls. But whenever we do cover breaking news, we do try to cover it from the Black and Brown perspective.”
If you applied this filter to your breaking news stories — the ways in which they actually affect the various constituencies in your audience — how might your daily coverage change?
4. Apply the lessons of the pandemic to make better use of time and resources.
No explanation needed here: every newsroom we know is figuring out which pandemic-driven workflows (and workarounds) are worth keeping even as the crisis starts to ebb. “We have really leveraged the circumstances around the pandemic — that we could not gather in offices — to build a workforce that operates pretty well remotely,” Hair says.
Hair estimates that of BNC’s 300+ employees, about 100 work at the channel’s Tallahassee headquarters; 20 or so are in the Washington bureau; and the rest are scattered around the country, with no brick-and-mortar base. Nayyera Haq and Kelly Wright, co-anchors of The World Tonight, a signature BNC newscast that runs from 5 to 7 p.m. daily, appear from their home studios in two different states, with the senior editorial and production team in Florida.
“The pandemic really taught us to maximize these tools, these communications protocols,” says Burns, who’s bringing her local chops to the challenge. “We’re not local, we’re a national network,” she says. “But we are borrowing some structural things and some sensibility about how you make the most of your resources from local.”
5. Build mentoring into your newsroom culture.
Mentoring happens informally in most newsrooms and formally in some. At BNC, it’s considered part of the mission. “We’re training the next generation of Black journalists,” Hair says, “and that’s an important part of what we do here as well: how these people grow, and how we impact them, as journalists, over their career.”
While this may sound too touchy-feely for some newsroom managers, I would argue that a reputation for active mentoring is good for recruitment and retention, not to mention the ongoing vitality of local news (and your particular ownership group).
6. Build in community impact as a measure of your success.
We heard this recently from Stacy Owen, GM of NBC Bay Area: she uses impact as a key performance indicator, along with more conventional metrics like ratings. Ditto for BNC, which emphasizes reporting not just on problems affecting African Americans but also their achievements. Here’s how Princell Hair puts it: “We’re trying to bring attention to a community that has been underserved and largely ignored forever. And I think that when we start to see some of these more obvious outward results of our reporting, our storytelling, that to me will be success.”
The pandemic brought out the best in local newsrooms, which rose to serve their audiences with life-saving information. Assuming that enhanced emphasis on community service survives COVID, now might be a good time to figure out how to measure the results — and bake those expectations into your ongoing work.
7. Express your unique value in everything you do.
This takeaway runs somewhat counter to the notion of local broadcasting — something for everyone, or all things to all people. But as the media marketplace fragments and users take sole control of their news, information and entertainment menus, I predict newsrooms will start targeting specific audience segments with more distinct value propositions. Maybe not quite narrowcasting: let’s call it smartcasting.
That’s easier for BNC, whose content is aimed squarely at Black news consumers. The channel even has a manifesto that proclaims its principles (see above). But what is the opportunity in your market to “smartcast” for the individual communities within it? And how might you define yourselves around a unique value that your newsroom can provide?
“You have to have a direction that defines your brand that isn’t a slogan, that can be lived in every part of what you program, from your news, to your marketing, to your whatever,” Vickie Burns says. “And I think that that is the opportunity for BNC: to define ourselves and our mission to super serve this community, and then refine and define that so that we live it in every part of the day, and in every stratum of the content that we’re going to create.”
What’s the vision that defines your newsroom?
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