Local TV Stations: The Sleeping Beasts in Hyperlocal News

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When we look at the hyperlocal news landscape, we tend to mostly talk about independent online publishers, local experiments by legacy newspapers, hyperlocal networks from large media companies, and smaller upstart networks working with new models.

But we talk a whole lot less about the online outlets of local television stations. The reason is pretty simple: Most of them aren’t doing anything particularly interesting in hyperlocal.

The key reason why TV stations aren’t moving aggressively into this space isn’t because they can’t be successful. From a scale and marketing perspective, they probably have the best opportunity to quickly own any individual hyperlocal market in the country. But the managers of the vast majority feel they simply don’t need to own online hyperlocal because their legacy businesses remain strong.

Right now, most local television stations around the country are still pretty profitable. But for quite some time now analysts have predicted that local stations will ultimately play a less important role as viewers watch television online, on demand, or through set-top streaming boxes. The transfer hasn’t really happened yet en masse. Regular television still tops the list of where people get their local news. And despite the increasing use of DVRs to watch shows later and skip commercials, television ads still command top dollar.

But resting on the laurels of legacy profits only takes you so far. Just ask newspaper publishers. When you really examine the local television business, it’s clear this is an industry waiting to be disrupted — and when that happens, outlets that haven’t invested sufficiently in digital won’t have much to hold onto.

“The original magic of broadcasting was that it covered a large geographic area,” said Kent Collins, chairman of the radio-television journalism faculty at the Missouri School of Journalism. But these days the opportunity is in hyperlocal, and the moment demands that TV stations do something to that end.

“The magic may be the curse,” he said. In this case, the curse is that current success inhibits innovation. “Still with profit margins running from 25% to almost 50%… despite the slow recovery from the recession, there is little financial reason to think differently,” added Collins, who, like me, is a fellow at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute.

The majority of stations aren’t staffed to cover their hyperlocal communities — and doing so would require investment. But the staffing problem isn’t just about content. Collins rightly pointed out that most TV station sales reps couldn’t imagine living off the commission garnered from selling to hyperlocal advertisers.

That’s where companies like Datasphere, which provides hyperlocal technology and sales solutions to local TV stations, have found success. TV stations have been at a disadvantage when it comes to selling at the hyperlocal level — especially when compared to their newspaper counterparts, according to Gary Cowan, SVP of product and marketing at Datasphere.

“[Newspapers] have a history that includes classifieds and going deeper into the community in terms of the advertiser they sell,” he said. “For TV stations, their focus is on medium to large regional companies.”

That shift from large regional advertisers to smaller retail outlets can be a difficult one, said Cowan: “To go in the direction that is more hyperlocal means smaller accounts and more operations and overhead. That may not be the right call for them to do individually.”

Another disadvantage is the amount of content, Cowan said: “If I compare TV stations to newspapers… one of the differences is the level of news gathering resources in terms of reporting. The volume of content tends to be greater. In many cases they have a bigger starting point.”

The TV stations that have successfully deployed Datasphere have tended to hire a couple of people to staff their hyperlocal section and churn out a couple of stories a day for each neighborhood.

Cowan said the crucial part is to provide another layer of content on top of their existing TV content: “As a local news organization, the more you can develop your distinguishing traits, build on your core strengths, which should be about local news… That will serve you well over the long term.”

What I find interesting is that DataSphere isn’t looking to help TV stations to provide the in-depth types of content offered by independent hyperlocals but instead to “provide a broader set of experiences.”

This is a problem for me. Cowan is arguing that it’s fine for a TV stations to have small amounts of content in every neighborhood, rather than to own a couple of neighborhoods or even all their neighborhoods. It’s hard for me to make the leap that somehow not being No. 1 in your area for hyperlocal coverage is okay. I don’t think that people in one neighborhood care that the TV station also covers a different neighborhood. They want their neighborhood news. If a TV station can’t provide that, then why even try?

Cowan had a different take: “The market is more complex than such a black-and-white analysis would suggest. In particular we don’t believe that there is a one size fits all for all types of neighborhoods.”

For example he said it’s acceptable that WestSeattleBlog might do a better job covering west Seattle than the local TV station site: “It is inherently difficult for a TV station to compete in specific neighborhoods where you have a player like that, to be able to deliver a depth of coverage in a particular neighborhood to that extent.”

Rather, he said, in those neighborhoods “we see some of our strongest site performance.”

In the less-established neighborhoods with little or no competition, he said, “there is a baseline of content that is necessary to make a site useful and a destination for neighborhood news, but often real value and utility can be created at [a] threshold [that] is significantly lower than [what] might be justified in a more active neighborhood scenario.”

If TV stations are going to get into the hyperlocal space, they should get in it to own it. Residents of a neighborhood can easily be turned off by a TV station’s brand if it’s marketed as a neighborhood destination but doesn’t have a sufficient amount of online content.

And I do enjoy the world that Collins lays out as a possible future — a future where the broadcast focuses on the regional news but pushes hyperlocal content to the website.

“I’ll get my hometown and town news from the website, and I’ll get my state and regional news from the nightly broadcast,” Collins said.

These places will be lucky to have a good broadcast or a good hyperlocal site five to 10 years from now. Both estimates may be a stretch.

Matt Sokoloff is a 2012-2013 Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow working on a project to help local independent websites and bloggers gain additional revenue opportunities. His background is in building digital products for media organizations. Read more about his current work here and respond in the comments or at [email protected] or @MattSokoloff on Twitter.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Andre5.