April 7, 2020

The Opportunity In Every Challenge…

COVID-19 and The Opportunity for Local News

America is now undergoing an unprecedented news cycle, facing as difficult a set of circumstances as it has ever seen in peace time. People are losing their lives to this virus; every day seems to bring more unsettling news. Perhaps most challenging is the fact that we have nothing which to compare this, offering us little insight into what comes next. As a result, Americans of all ages are starved for the news content they now have abundant free time to pursue.

This environment presents opportunity for a very few industries, local news among them. Local broadcasters have a rare chance to re-capture relevance among an audience that long ago replaced the medium with online options.

A few thoughts…

1. The Recent History of Local News and Its Challenges
It was not long ago that local news was exclusively appointment viewing; the established domain of highly-compensated, long-tenured anchors reporting the news with their “on-air” voices and very professional delivery styles. The events of September 11, 2001 further fueled news viewership. More people found local morning newscasts the perfect safeguard against leaving for work, school, or their daily routine without knowing the latest news and potential threats, be they local, national, or international.

This momentum was first blunted by the smartphone. In the late 2000s, viewers became less drawn to the personalities of local anchors and attracted, instead, to higher-quality coverage – not to mention the 24/7-anytime-anywhere reporting that mobile devices uniquely provided. Even as local news broadcasters began to build online properties, viewers found that, while they were getting the latest news more quickly, they were left asking why they should care. The local news experience remained largely unfulfilling and was easily replaced by internet-based news “pushed” by one’s topical preferences.

Local news viewership continued to decline until the middle of the last decade when stations were thrown a lifeline: the 2016 Presidential Election. In those stormy political times, viewers found themselves sorting through a barrage of often-dubious stories on not only digital and social platforms, but national cable programs as well. They yearned for a trusted local news source, delivered by people they knew and trusted, to provide accurate information without slant or opinion.

Since 2017, the importance of on-air talent has grown, with many viewers saying it is the top reason they watch a local news station. When pressed, viewers say that they are drawn to specific talent because they instill a sense of trust, provide the best coverage, are easy to watch, and are authentic. (Authenticity is what separates talking heads from compassionate, empathetic newscasters, and viewers can tell the difference.)

Unfortunately, this re-engagement with local news was often found only on social and digital platforms, with daily television news remaining a largely antiquated format.

2. Political Silos & On-Air Challenges Have Impacted COVID-19 Coverage
COVID-19 may not be the biggest story of all time, but it is the single most significant story that local news stations have covered in a while. COVID-19 is having a deep impact on communities across the country and local news operations must capitalize on that fact. This is easier said than done, of course, as quarantines have required that stations be more resourceful than ever just to get their news on the air.

Political alignments have also greatly impacted viewer behavior during the virus coverage. Notably, liberal viewers are more likely to watch local news. While concern about the spread and impact of COVID-19 has understandably increased with time, more liberal viewers are more likely than their conservative counterparts to be “very concerned” about the pandemic. This is undoubtedly due to the Trump administration underplaying the significance of the virus from the beginning, with a handful of Republican governors mirroring this disposition and delaying stay-at-home orders for far longer than they should have.

Research also indicates that the most significant increases in local news viewing have come in the evenings versus morning or late night.

3. The Challenges May be Endless, But Opportunity is Manifest
Local stations face significant tactical and personnel challenges in an extraordinarily polarizing political climate. Even so, COVID-19 presents a critical opportunity for local TV news sources to re-solidify their position with consumers across all platforms. This may, in fact, be the last chance local broadcasters have to accomplish this.

A number of trends have coalesced to bring about this opportunity including:

  • Impact – No story in recent memory has had as direct an impact on the local news consumer as COVID-19. It touches on every key sentiment that viewers stress in terms of impact—personal health and safety; the safety and security of family and loved ones; personal finances; and the health of the local economy. This on-air component is essential for viewers and is a purposeful gateway to the digital platforms that allow consumers to get the depth they may need.
  • Trust and Talent – In the current milieu, news viewers are increasingly drawn to trustworthy, authentic talent. Local anchors and reporters live in the same environment as their viewers, and face the same challenges they do each day. In addition to providing both comfort and information during these difficult times, anchors have an opening to forge (and re-forge) relationships with viewers in their communities in a way that no singular event has yet provided. Historically, major events have cemented local anchors into their community, and COVID-19 coverage gives local talent that opportunity.
  • Urgency – COVID-19 continues to be a constantly urgent story, as there are fresh developments by the minute. The news cycle (to the extent a consistent ebb and flow of news is relevant in these crazy times) is each day filled by new directives, new cases, new counts, new orders, and new projections. Viewer complaints of “old news” are virtually lifeless in this coverage.
  • Digital and Social – This constantly evolving story engages viewers 24 hours a day. They frequently check the digital space for breaking news and updates, as well as to get the deeper dive that linear newscasts cannot provide. Social pages provide breaking news, a way to showcase what’s happening in the community, and the levity that viewers so desperately need in times of crisis. The good things happening in communities often dominate social spaces, and this abundance of digital activity gives stations the chance to drive viewers to their newscasts.
  • Promotion and Messaging – This unusual opportunity to create or enhance relationships with viewers can be showcased with great effectiveness. Right now, stations have plenty of promotional ammunition, such as a clear message for viewers, ample proof of performance, and plenty of emotional hooks that drive any effective promotion. They also have the benefit of a wider audience to consume these messages in their newscasts. Promotions must rise up to meet this moment—that is, promotions simply cannot look like they always have, lest stations will miss out on this unique opportunity. This is a one-of-a-kind moment in news that requires a message unlike stations have provided previously.

Conclusion
While it may sound hyperbolic, this is indeed a seminal moment for local news. But operators must seize the moment in spite of the logistical challenges. Stations that fail to recognize that this is likely to be the most significant story of our lifetime will also miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime.
 

       

Tony Calfo brings his extensive experience in research, programming, marketing, sales and production to Screen Engine/ASI. In his role as Senior Vice President, TV News Group, Tony provides research-based insights to local and national TV news divisions to help them effectively reach and retain viewers.

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