How do news organizations find their footing when the ground starts shifting? We’re providing a hands-on view into the process that’s unfolding as newsrooms at the Missouri School of Journalism begin exploring and launching over-the-top (OTT) products and projects.
“Just do it,” was the answer to a final question when I checked in with Joe Terrell, news director at KLTV in Tyler, Texas. The question was to identify one thing his team learned since the 2017 launch of the 24/7 digital product East Texas Now. And, he was not pitching for a well-known sports apparel company.
General Manager Pat Stacey says the east Texas station, which is in DMA 114, is profitable and absolutely a marketing success for the Gray Television ABC affiliate. “East Texas Now gives us a 24/7 presence accessible across all of our digital platforms including Roku and Amazon Fire,” says Stacey.
Watch East Texas Now and you will see something that feels a bit like talk radio — before the genre became obsessed with political feuding. Until news breaks — anywhere in the world!
“This is every news director’s dream,” says Terrell, as he points out the newsroom is now always ready for spot news. And, the KLTV newsroom doesn’t fret about interrupting a soap opera or syndicated television show. “Of course, we still interrupt programming on the main channel for weather bulletins and major breaking news,” says Terrell.
The one frustration, however, is the struggle to be interactive. Terrell, a self-described techno-geek and fearless when it comes to technology, says Facebook Live is the only way to easily interact with the audience. The struggle is primarily an issue of the technology — specifically the latency (that is the technical word for time-lag) — on the OTT platforms and the lack of an easy chat feature on the station’s mobile platforms. “We finish an interview and some viewers are just seeing it depending upon the platform,” says Terrell.
The station came to their current OTT model when their corporate bosses (then Raycom Media) challenged stations to rethink Digital First with ideas that fundamentally change newsroom workflows. KLTV’s longtime News Director Kenny Boles looked at the station’s newscasts and observed precious little was actually “happening now.” Stories were completed well before the newscast with reporters (mostly multi-media journalists or MMJ’s) pushing deadlines “because they could.”
Terrell says the station tried a VJ-model several years ago loosely patterned after MTV’s so-called video-jockeys. Streaming technology at the time made for a bad user experience. “OTT pushed streaming technology to where we could do East Texas Now,” says Terrell.
Today, the only time you see KLTV newscast replays is overnight. From 4:30 a.m. through 10:30 p.m., you see traditional live newscasts or you see one of the station’s two host-driven shows. The hosts are NOT news anchors because they routinely read sponsorship messages. “We are not doing advertorial content because we haven’t found a way that feels right,” says Stacey. “We are constantly looking at different ideas.” He says advertising clients quickly support new sponsorship opportunities.
One sponsorship that continues to be a success is Project Tornado. Chief Meteorologist Mark Scirto began visiting schools 31 years ago. The First Alert Team could only visit a limited number of schools each year in a state that records twice as many tornadoes as any other state. And, logistics did not help in a region where schools can be more than 100 miles apart. The solution, schools gather students around the TV for what is now a major live event supported with valuable digital assets and other teaching tools.
The East Texas Now project required a significant capital investment, mostly focused on automating control room production. Stacey says the project is ahead of the financial commitments made to the corporate bosses. Terrell says the workflow is not exactly what News Director Kenny Boles imagined, but views the project as a success because the team understands the importance of constant evaluation and iteration.
Boles unexpectedly passed away just as the project was launching. “Kenny gave us all such a clear vision that we think today’s product is just what he would have wanted,” says Stacey. “He was clear we should just do it, and that is what we did,” says Terrell.