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How TV News Changes Are Impacting PR for Nonprofits

By on Friday, August 5, 2011

To save money and maximize profits, many TV news stations are making radical changes to their staffing plans. Instead of keeping seasoned reporters and anchor people around, they’re opting not to review contracts on middle aged and older staff.

The departure of three well-known news anchor women in Baltimore from local TV news stations and the loss of sports staffers from the Washington market, certainly sparked consternation. Bob Papper, a journalism professor at Hoftstra University and author of a major media industry study, told the Baltimore Sun that finances are a big consideration for stations:

Stations have found they can do just as well in the ratings with one anchor as they have done for decades with two. And dropping an anchor who is making $200,000 to $250,000, as a veteran anchor in Baltimore can do, is an instant and significant savings.

“That’s four to seven positions or more,” Papper says of the $250,000 figure. “And as new media become more and more important — and those are young people being hired in many cases right out of school — that’s a whole bunch of positions you can fund by cutting just one veteran anchor who comes up for renewal.”

Today’s news operations are getting leaner and meaner, they’re hiring younger staff and jettisoning “seasoned” reporters and anchor staff, and they’re shifting their reporting styles to cover what’s popular. So what does this mean for communicators working at nonprofits who are trying to share their story with the media?

Don’t assume that a reporter will spend a lot of time understanding your issue or program. I went on a six hour shoot last year with a reporter who was covering a major story about one of my clients that had broad implications to thousands of people. It was the longest shoot I have EVER done with TV news – covering two locations in different parts of the city. The TV crew included a reporter, a producer and a camera operator. But that’s highly unusual. Typically, you can expect a reporter to stick around maybe 20 minutes to an hour. Sometimes a little longer. And nowdays, the same person might be operating the camera and doing the interviews.

Expect to see more pool footage in big markets, and make friends with the people running the pool footage operation. I held a news conference last week for a client at the National Press Club to announce a major settlement in a class action lawsuit helping veterans with PTSD who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. I got a call an hour before it started from the local DC TV pool group. This organization actually sends a camera person, occasionally with a local producer from one of the participating stations, to events to film b-roll and collect interviews that are utilized by all four TV news stations in the Washington, D.C. market.
They were planning to arrive late (after the news conference) and were hoping that we could linger a bit so they could get some interviews. Of course – we lingered and talked with them. And sure enough, a story ran. I monitored all 4 stations to see which ones picked up the story.

Expect more solo camera people who double as reporters. It used to be you would see a TV news crew pull up in a van, and there would be a reporter in the passenger seat, usually talking on the phone setting up the next story. And there would be a guy driving who was often the camera person too. Increasingly, local tv stations are hiring young reporters who can shoot footage and gather interviews as solo operators, as well as edit the stories back at the station. My stepson was actually hired in this role for his first job out of college with a journalism degree, with a CBS affiliate. While he was sometimes paired with a reporter, he was often on his own to collect footage, voiceover the story and get it on the air.

The studios at WBAL in Baltimore.

Be aware of the time. TV news has always been very driven by the time of the daily newscast. Don’t expect for the reporter or camera person to linger for hours to get a few shots or wait for someone to get out of a meeting.But these changes in the TV industry today mean that the reporter often has even less time to try to understand your story, and is usually in a big rush to get footage on the air in time. The closer it gets to evening air time, the more stressed reporters are for time. If you are planning an event, don’t time it for right before the evening newscast.

It’s imperative that you be organized for a story pitch. Have your statistics, interview sources, and background materials ready before you pitch a story to the media. Be able to explain your issue clearly and succinctly to the reporter, so he or she can clearly understand what you are trying to say. They are more reliant on public relations staff today, than ever before, for the materials and research for a story.

Everyone wants to know what you think.

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