Friday, April 05, 2013

Rough Around The Edges and Proud of It!

It hasn’t been easy for assignment editors charged with planning local television news.  Mostly this is because television news hasn’t been local for nearly 50 years.

Viewership for Durham, NC where I live is measured over an area that is more than 100 miles by 100 miles and more than 100 cities, towns and counties.

It may be great for hauling in advertising revenues, but bad for advertisers and a nightmare for those trying to cover news over such a huge area with any hope of keeping it local and balanced.

Public opinion surveys measuring the image of Durham over the past few decades could often link where it was most negative by overlaying the viewing area of broadcast television stations.

But experts also found that the root cause of negative perceptions about Durham wasn’t so-called local television news as much as it was that others who were negative about Durham often contaminated those covering the news.

Some reporters and even anchors on television often had their judgment clouded and their objectivity contaminated by friends and neighbors centered in Raleigh who held virulently negative opinions about Durham.

Others were influenced when this negativity was then re-circulated around station “water coolers.”

In fact, one of the changes that helped turn Durham’s image around, largely between the years 1993 and 2000, was when news decision-makers at television stations began to pay attention not only  to “corrections” from Durham’s then newly-created community-destination marketing organization but also to the DMO’s data-driven advisories.

They noted that the problem wasn’t news coverage in general but the lack of balance by news type and as well an imbalance of news type between communities which leads to the zoning of troubling news. They also warned about the impact of tone such as condescension.

Some stations also listened to warnings that they needed to guard against news reporters who had been conditioned by negative views about Durham.  Some even began to require that news crews covering a community should also live there.

Ongoing cut backs have made that hard to sustain as you can tell by stories such as one that ran a couple of days ago on WRAL in nearby Raleigh about the kick-off of Durham’s annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, one of many signature events that occur here each year.

The anchors gave a great lead in.  The story begins well enough relating the appropriateness of the festival’s home given Durham’s noted authenticity.

But editors permitted an unrelated but stereotypical piece of stock footage – blue flashing lights - to be gratuitously inserted suggesting a crime scene about 26 seconds into the story with what could be taken as a snarky reference about Durham being known for being “rough around the edges.”

Rick Gall had to cringe.  He’s the long-time, award-winning (including an Emmy) news director at WRAL.  He first came to the Raleigh station in the mid-1990s.

He was running the assignment desk when Durham’s DMO - still using studies – was cautioning news outlets that the issue undermining Durham was not so much whether the news was positive or negative but whether it was balanced with similar coverage in other communities and free of negative “spin.”

Gall helped others at the station and in journalism to understand how trying to cover such a huge geographic area with so few crews could lead to stereotypical coverage, especially at night when the temptation is to give emphasis to crime stories because they the easiest to cover.

He also encouraged reporters such as Erin (Hartness) Medlyn to live in Durham, which she did and still does after leaving the station last fall to work here at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

You can see a bit of Raleigh-centrism at the station coming through as the station’s headline announcing the move notes she is leaving Raleigh for Duke.  Actually she was leaving her position for WRAL to work at Duke in Durham where she also lives.

Errors, oversights or slights such as this and the one leading into Tuesday’s story on Full Frame are much rarer these days but Durham’s DMO is wise to be ever vigilant.  Being guardian of a community’s brand and image is all about content balance and context when it comes to news, not suppressing troubling issues.

Success is more likely when working with people of Rick Gall’s sensitivities, but it is nearly impossible given that viewers are spread over 10,000 square miles.  It is unlikely news crews can truly be locally-based or immune from having their perceptions contaminated.

Hopefully as television is devolves due both to the ineffectiveness of advertising and infinite fragmentation, a new business model can be found that returns truly local stations while still rewarding owners.

And by the way, an integral part of Durham’s brand is being genuine and authentic including, perhaps, remaining a “bit rough around the edges.”  However, we prefer to call it gritty and rarely use police lights to illustrate that.

Luckily, our grittiness has never deterred Durham’s commitment to continuing and never-ending improvement.

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