Have you ever watched your local TV news broadcast and railed against the stream of homicides, car crashes and fires? What if you could have a say in what the station was reporting each day? John Schiumo has made that dream a reality for New Yorkers who watch the local 24-hour cable news station, NY1.
Last July, Schiumo helped launch what he believes is the first half-hour TV news show where the viewers vote online for the five stories that are highlighted on the air each weeknight. The show is aptly named “The Call,” and airs at 9 pm Eastern time, with viewers literally at the helm — with online voting for stories before the show airs, live phone call-ins and emails read on air, and even polls in which people can vote with their TV remote controls.
“The Call” is probably the most advanced case of news as a conversation — and not a lecture — with the audience becoming active participants in the editorial process. But other media outlets are experimenting with it as well. “CBS Evening News” lets viewers vote on one of three stories to air each week on Assignment America. WCBS news radio in New York has The 411, where it lets listeners vote on one of five stories to air at 4:11 pm each day. And the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper lets readers vote online for one story to run on its front page the following day. (I previously wrote a little about the CBS and Wisconsin State Journal experiments here.)
The question remains whether these online voting schemes represent gimmicks or true interactivity that will lead to meaningful use of the audience as citizen journalists and editors. Schiumo, who hosts “The Call” on NY1, believes his show’s format is viable for local news and works in practice a lot better than some traditional-media naysayers believed.
“The news media, I sense, always focus on what they think people think is important, but nobody ever took the time to actually ask the people what they cared about until now,” Schiumo told me. “A fire affects the person whose house burned down and maybe their neighbors, and that’s it. Yet a fire will lead a newscast nine out of ten nights, even if it affects six people, maybe. Whereas a flooded subway tunnel affects a million in New York, and that’s what sells [on our show].”
Schiumo dreamed up the idea of a show where people choose the top stories out of his frustration at the blanket media coverage of the Martha Stewart trial. He had a tough time pitching the show idea to the brass at NY1, but says the results have surprised most of the skeptics. Instead of choosing tabloid stories, viewers have stuck to news that affects them most— “the two T’s: terror and transit,” according to Schiumo. He believes that “The Call”‘s system of having people go online and rank 15 potential stories makes them think a bit harder about their judgment calls.
“Give editorial control to the viewers, and editorial people will cringe, assuming the viewers will care about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie — that was the assumption,” Schiumo said. “Until we realized, as a happy accident, that the people who are going to a news website and choosing to rank news stories and reading about them and commenting on them are not the same people who spend two hours watching ‘American Idol.’…If we went outside to Times Square and asked people to rank the news stories, we might be spending the rest of our days talking about Tom Cruise. But fortunately that’s not what happened.”
Each day, there’s a little revelation at “The Call,” like when NY1 provided blanket coverage on the story of William Weld dropping out of the Republican primary for New York governor, but the story came in ranked 11th out of 15 stories. “It’s the viewers speaking, it’s the voice of the people, and they’re saying that politics five months before the election — local politics, Republican politics — is not interesting,” Schiumo said.
And the new formula is working at NY1 so far, as Schiumo says the time slot’s ratings have quadrupled and the show recently scored a sponsorship. When I watched a recent episode of the show, I was amazed at the amount of viewer input, with all the ways they could correspond live along with old school “man on the street” interviews that were taped earlier in the day.
It’s the Stories, Stupid
Meanwhile, CBS News launched its “Assignment America” segment not long after Rome Hartman began his job as executive producer on “CBS Evening News” last January. Viewers vote on one of three possible stories, and then correspondent Steve Hartman (no relation to Rome) reports that story. The stories are generally soft features so few feathers are ruffled up the chain of command at CBS.
Rome Hartman, pictured here, told me the votes for the segment usually stream in when the choice is initially posted online, and run in the “many thousands” each week. He says the initial internal skepticism for the idea was beaten back because of the quality of Hartman’s reports.
“The response has been quite positive overall, from inside and outside [CBS],” Hartman told me via email. “There were some folks who thought it was too much of a gimmick at the outset, but I think they’ve been won over because the stories themselves have been so good. That’s really the key…if the stories and the characters weren’t good, and the storytelling wasn’t strong, it wouldn’t matter HOW we selected the pieces. Steve Hartman is really good at this.”
Rome Hartman wouldn’t elaborate on future plans to boost interactivity at “CBS Evening News,” but he had nothing but positive things to say about broadcasters including their audiences in the editorial process.
“I think people realize that it’s important to begin to build a feedback loop with our audience,” he said. “And the web offers a multitude of ways to do that. We’re only experimenting so far, but it’s exciting.”
If “CBS Evening News” is dipping its toe into the interactive waters, the Wisconsin State Journal has taken the plunge into real transparency and accountability. The newspaper is letting people vote online for one story to include on the front page of the print edition — and it’s doing much more than that.
If you look at the actual print front page of the paper (here’s a recent one in a PDF file), you’ll see that reporters include their email address and phone number right next to their byline, not at the end of the story. And at the bottom of the paper’s website is the name and email address for the interactive editor, Anju Ali. Now that’s stepping up to take responsibility.
State Journal managing editor Tim Kelley summed up his newspaper’s situation very nicely in an editorial announcing the front page voting scheme back in January. His words bear repeating here.
“We recognize the coming transformation in the way people get their news,” Kelley wrote. “It isn’t only that the Internet is growing as a source for local news, particularly among younger adults. Rapidly advancing technology also lets readers personalize their news reports using a myriad of sources. And nowadays nobody needs to buy ink by the barrel to publish news and comment: You just start a blog. Letting our readers actively participate in setting the news agenda is one step into a new world built around interactivity and conversations more than traditional one-way delivery of news.”
Let’s hope more of these experiments flourish, and the cross-pollination of web interactivity and one-way broadcasts and publications continue to expand to many other news outlets. And as they progress, we’ll start to see meaningful ways that average folks can have their voices heard without the media outlet surrendering its editorial standards.
What do you think? Are these real steps toward more editorial input and control from the former audience, or simply window dressing? Do you know of other experiments going on in your local media? Share your thoughts in the comments below.