How The Web is Changing TV News
March 08, 2012
MICAH SIFRY: Hi everyone, this is Micah Sifry from Personal Democracy Media and we are back with another in our on-going series of Personal Democracy Plus conferences calls with movers, shakers, thinkers and doers and innovators at the intersection of technology and politics, government and civic life.
And today we’re going to be looking at how the Web is Changing TV News and we have to guide us through the transformation that’s underway we’re really thrilled to be joined by Christina Bellantoni, who is the politics editor for PBS News Hour, who just recently joined there in January but she’s had more than a decade of experience covering national, political and business news in Washington and as well as in California for places like Roll Call and before that, Talking Points Memo and their Washington bureau. She’s also been a Washington correspondent for The Washington Times, and has appeared frequently as a political analyst on all kinds of national television programs, too many to name but I’m sure you’ve seen here and you’re familiar with her work.
And Christina was recently an Institute of Politics Fellow here at the Harvard Kennedy School where I happen to be for the semester and got a chance to step a little bit back from the profession and look at it and how it was changing, but now she is right back in the thick of it.
And to remind people who are listening this call -- there are a couple of ways for you to plug into the conversation: the first and easiest is to use Twitter, we always watch the hash tag PDPlus - P-D-P-L-U-S and our friend Marsha Yurman is live Tweeting the call for us. But if you have a question or a comment you can plug it in there and I’ll take note of it.
If you have a more convoluted question and you want to email it to me, you can email me directly during the call at firstname.lastname@example.org, just don’t put that out on Twitter, please -- though it is freely available.
And lastly at about half way through the call, I will open up the lines as it were and if people have questions or comments you’ll get a chance to do that directly.
So, but let’s dive in. Christina, thank you. If you would, give us the big picture perspective first of where you sit in the News Hour operation that’s a noted national television news program, very well respected. What has the web meant up til now at the New Hour and what are you guys trying to do now in terms of innovating further?
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well, it’s such a great question. And first, thank you very much for having me. I’m prided to be talking to such great minds here and it’s one of my favorite topics and certainly one that I’m really glad to get a chance to talk about for a long time this afternoon. So again, thank you and yes, I do have a lot of general thoughts.
I’ll start with actually making the transition from print journalism, which I did for my entire career until January, into television is really not that different when it comes to the challenges of the internet. Everywhere I’ve ever worked has aced this challenge.
The first print newspaper that I worked at was called The Daily News and it was in California. They were tabloid and the whole point of their coverage was they covered city council meetings and crime and they said, “Absolutely not, we are never giving anything away free on our website.”
So, it was a really stark transition to move to Washington to start working for The Washington Times and I remember very clearly the first day I covered the Virginia Legislature, which has been in the headlines a lot this year, it really hasn’t changed much. These were all the same controversial issues they were debating then.
And there was some big news during the day and the editors made a decision, “Let’s write something for the website,” which sounds so crazy to hear that now because what the website was at the time was just a collection of, “Here’s the headlines from the print edition this morning.” It went live at midnight and that was sort of it.
And I’ve seen that evolution play out as -- Twitter came on to the scene, but just really how newsrooms struggle with this. How do you maintain a vibrant, interesting, dynamic website and then come back and be able to write stories for the next day’s paper that aren’t commodity news because everyone knows what happened yesterday. How do you write that second day story on the first day?
Well the News Hour has very similar challenges. You’ve got the internet here as an afterthought here after a long time. Like many news organizations, the web team was based in a different building, there was no cohesion, no real way for everything to tie together. And even now, we have a lot of discussions about, “Hey, what’s the best way to integrate the web and not call it the world wide web, but really understand this is a dynamic thing and the way to tell the story.” Not just tell it, but to get information, take the reporting element from the broader universe of how we’re all connected on the internet and make sure that gets on air. And that’s the thing we’re addressing all the time.
And one thing I will point to is an example that we do quite a bit is we try to have these conversations off line and then bring them onto the on-air broadcast and say, “Here’s what we did, here’s how you can participate in the next one.” And we’ve seen a growing trend toward people being interested in that, and the News Hour’s audience is a little older.
It trends much older than some of the other TV news networks and their evening news programs, and we’ve seen that that doesn’t matter. These are people who want to be engaged. They might be 65, but they are very plugged in, in wanting to learn about how they can do things that their grandkids are doing.
And so there’s just tremendous opportunity in that. And so for us it’s a matter of asking the right questions, figuring out how you tell the story and how you report the story and then making sure that you’re making a dynamic picture on all platforms. And I will say it carries over into my job as a manager as well because for example now we have an open reporter/producer position and all the candidates I’m looking at -- I’m not even considering candidates that don’t know how to do multi-platform work. They need to understand how to edit video on their laptop, but they also need to write and they also need to be able to tell a story on TV.
MICAH SIFRY: But let’s stick with the -- you know, you raise a whole set of interesting questions; one is the way a traditional news organization where the web was the afterthought, you know so the organization is built around telling stories on a schedule. And the web doesn’t have a schedule. And so do you let go of the sort of, ‘well, we tell you the news every night at this time,’ kind of thing? Obviously not, right? I mean, you’re not sore of letting go of the TV arm of the News Hour. But you’ve got to sort of -- part of your dilemma is you’re building with this legacy, this traditional way of doing things on a certain schedule and a certain methodology.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yeah, that’s exactly true. And I think there are two sort of parts of challenges; like this is a challenge of journalism, understanding who your audience is and our audience coming to us, if there’s an earthquake somewhere, like I would turn on CNN to learn about that, that’s what our audience does.
I mean for us, we are a set time news program with affiliates all over the country and people sit down to us during dinner. So, if something happens at 9:00 PM, do they expect us to update the show? We actually just had a debate in our morning editorial meeting today about next week there is a set of republican primaries, they may or may not be interesting, we did four hours of broadcasting on Super Tuesday, do we really need to update the 9:00 PM show for that? Is our audience coming to us for that?
So, that’s a journalism question every news outlet addresses. But an example just recently, the BP settlement came out, you know our show is basically live to tape from 6:00 PM to 7:00 PM. The settlement, I think we got news of it I think around 9:30 PM on a Friday night. They do that on purpose obviously that made the news cycle.
So, what did we do? Well we had somebody go and write something very dynamic for the website on Saturday. And it wasn’t the commodity because everybody knew that, they’d seen it on their 11:00 PM news program or they’d read it in the morning papers, so we were able to sort of push it for, ‘what does this mean?’ and add that sort of element of analysis that people expect from the News Hour and they’re getting it on the internet.
And I’ll also use BP as an example because that was something -- this was before my time here -- but the News Hour received many accolades, many awards for having live footage of that oil spewing into the Gulf when the explosion happened, to be able to show in real time how much was just coming out into the water and that was a really dynamic internet project that it took them a long time to realize we should be telling that story in the broadcast, too. You know, a long time in news terms, I think it was a day or two. We had had the idea on the internet and didn’t translate to the (inaudible).
MICAH SIFRY: Yes, if I remember now the News Hour’s website was one of the places -- maybe it was the first, I can’t remember anymore that had that live feed. And it was embeddable, which was brilliant so if I wanted to show the live feed of the oil spill and tell a story around it, I was taking the News Hour’s version of it, which was just good branding for you, but smart, right?
So, in effect a web -- there you’re using uniquely difficult resources to put together, right to get that kind of a feed but then converting it into something that is just natural for the web in a very smart way.
But the -- again, there’s so many interesting aspects to this conversation. You have an older and in many ways more serious audience than the typical cable news demographic, nobody’s asking the News Hour to chase after those viewers. You have the luxury in the way of saying, “Well, our job is to provide context and give people more than just the headline.” And that’s a big piece of the reputation that the News Hour brings, right?
So, what are you finding when you go online and try and engage that same audience? Is it the same audience in fact, or is it a completely younger and you know, people who don’t necessarily watch the show at night over dinner because they don’t watch TV anymore or they time share --
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Right, or they don’t own a TV or --
MICAH SIFRY: Or they don’t even own a TV, yeah, right? So, how are you dealing with that?
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well multiple ways. One aspect that I love about the way that we do the program, they call it ‘producing the program for the web,’ after it airs, they take it and they make it into bite-size pieces, so you don’t have to sit down and watch an hour of TV on your website like many, many other networks do. And it’s not just you’re looking for sound bites, either.
You’re not going to play the two-minute fight that Joe Scarborough had with whoever this morning. We actually break it up into topic segments so people can decide, “Okay, I want to watch the politics part from last night,” or “I really want to have that great conversation (inaudible) had with the Egyptians that were let out,” or “We really want to watch Margaret Warner’s report from Russia.” They have options to do that.
And so it’s a segmented and fractured way of consuming your news, just like everything has become and that’s really dynamic. But the other thing we did -- and this was so much fun -- Super Tuesday, I was on air for four hours providing analysis of the election returns. And basically it was new shows we would update at the top of the show.
MICAH SIFRY: Wait, you were on the web on air, you mean?
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: No, on the show --
MICAH SIFRY: On the television, okay.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: -- yeah. So, we’d open the show with a new open banner, we’d sort of talk about what the returns were, you know (inaudible) Gingrich, what does that mean? And so we did it at the 6:00, 7:00, 9:00 and we had an 11:00 PM special.
Well as soon as the 11:00 PM special wrapped, we didn’t have a call in Ohio and so I went to the news room and we started doing an online broadcast where (sounds like: Harry) Srinivasa and I basically talked for an hour until we got the Ohio results and it was really challenging just to sit there for the entire time and have to talk about politics but not have news.
MICAH SIFRY: And unscripted also, I assume?
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Totally unscripted. And you can watch this on our website actually. There’s a whole collection of it and it’s totally -- it’s a little goofy, you know? I made a couple of mistakes at the end, my mic was still on, and I said, “Oh, that was so hard,” and everyone laughed and that’s still on there and that’s sort of part of the experiment, right?
MICAH SIFRY: I’ll let you in on a little secret, Christina. Those of us who are true news junkies know that after a long day when returns are coming in, if you keep watching into the early morning the -- a lot of the anchors start getting punchy and it can be subtly entertaining.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Absolutely, that’s definitely the idea. But what we found with that audience was we had -- you know, it was steady throughout the night, I think we had about 1,000 people live streaming us at midnight. Those are people who were not watching the show, those are people that we connected with through GooglePlus, through Twitter, through Facebook; a lot of people on the West Coast that weren’t necessarily wanting to watch cable news for their returns. They wanted to try something different and we kept hearing that. “Wow, what an innovative idea, I like that you thought of this, keep it up!”
And I’m not trying to toot our own horn because it was really sort of an experiment, we weren’t sure that it worked and we may not even do it again, but people liked the idea of having a conversation in a different way. And we were taking questions live on Twitter, we had a whole social stream where people could comment on Facebook and we were really you know, trying to engage as much as possible.
And that’s the sort of thing, it’s so much different than a television network deciding to put Twitter handles on the chyron of the names of the guests. That’s what you see you know, the dynamics happen on cable news, that’s how people are integrating social media, that’s not the way to do it. You need to have the conversation on social media.
And the other part of that too, is all these graphics on the network shows on election nights, you have John (sounds like: Camp) out there with the fancy map, it’s a very closed-off process. You don’t have ways for people to be able to participate along with him. Those things are not on the CNN website.
So, what the News Hour does we only use tools online that people can use as well. So, for example on air, on the broadcast, I’m using the iPad that shows our election returns and we’re telling people, “You can go do this, too,” “You can play along with these electoral college scenarios at NewsHour.org,” “You can start participating in the conversation in a way that it’s not just us in the Ivory Tower showing you all these cool tools we have.”
MICAH SIFRY: Now, let me just be devil’s advocate for a second because I encounter sort of professional news organizations all the time whose general attitude towards participation by the audience or two-way interactive, it ranges somewhere from horror to amusement but certainly not respect.
Either we never let those people have a voice because we’re the professionals and we don’t want to pander to them to when we do include them it tends to be the sort of silly things that people sitting in their pajamas -- the image of your viewer has.
And what you’re describing is much more respectful attitude, so how do you get there? Was this a culture shift that had to take place inside the organization? I mean it is a big change for mainstream media to be that inclusive of the people who used to be called the audience.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: That’s very true. And it’s an ongoing change, it’s not complete here and I will say and one reason it’s me doing the conversation and not one of the correspondents that’s maybe a little skeptical of this is because you have to be a little willing to have some human error, and that’s not what television -- certainly not what our television is about.
And so another example I use during the State of Union. We have the question of, “Okay, let’s open it up to real people and get them commenting on what the President is saying and sort of their own analysis.” We’ll just open it up to the world in a GooglePlus hangout, right?
And there was concern here of, “But wait a minute, what if you have 100 Ron Paul supporters that want to beat up on you for not covering Ron Paul enough?”, or “What if you have someone moon the camera?”, right? All of these -- we came up with a million horror scenarios. And what ended up happening was the people that were comfortable taking the risk tried it. And it was sort of like, “Well if it fails, it fails and we won’t necessarily promote it.” And it ended up being wildly successful and for me I think, “What’s the worst that can happen?”
We have mute functions, we have ways to (inaudible) someone’s camera, there are things we can do to sort of make sure that the worst doesn’t happen. And if 100 people want to -- are that engaged to ask me why we don’t cover Ron Paul, I’d love to address them because I those emails from them all the time. I’d love to say to them all at once, “Here’s my scenario for a why I think this person cannot be President and here’s the coverage we have done and here’s sort of the coverage we should be doing.” “Let’s have an honest debate about that.”
So, it is a real culture shift and you have to be willing to take the risk, and I think people are increasingly getting more drawn to that here at the News Hour. They’re getting more comfortable with it, and what we ended up doing with the GooglePlus State of the Union handout was a little bit of a compromise. We farmed out -- we have a group called the Public Insight Network that’s sort of in this universe of public media -- and they helped us identify people.
And so what we ended up having is like a couple college students in Iowa, a voter in New Hampshire, those people had been pre-identified, but they were still real people, but we didn’t screen them, we didn’t ask their views but we sort of found them first. And I think the next step is opening it up to the world.
MICAH SIFRY: Well what you just did Super Tuesday night with the live stream and then discovering that even late into the night you have a couple thousand people who are picking -- deliberately choosing to come watch and hang out and be able to interact.
I mean, this is uncharted territory. I think there are some programs -- there’s one I know of in Australia called Q&A, which is a weekly public affairs show. I don’t know if you know this show. They will have several guests who range from political figures to prominent journalists, sometimes prominent bloggers.
And the host and the guests discuss the news of the day before a live audience, people in the audience can ask questions, but they also are at the same time really stressing the hash tag “Q&A,” Q-A-N-D-A. And they’ve got online editors who are watching the Tweets around that hash tag and picking out interesting ones to show on screen and to the live audience during the discussion.
And from what I understand from -- we have the producer of the show actually speaking at PDF last year on a breakout session, and what he says is that the audience affinity has really grown; that people -- and you can see by the number of Tweets with that hash tag, which have risen, their rating have risen.
And so to me, that’s like wow, there’s a very good example of how a live news program cannot just cherry pick the audience feedback the way -- you know, if you turn on CNN today, you’ll see a few -- they’ll read you Tweets, which has always led to the joke, you know I turn on CNN to see what’s happening on Twitter.
But you can really create a kind of hybrid and so I’m really -- it’s interesting to hear you describe your experience with Super Tuesday night. The flip side of that of here’s a live news event that normally you wouldn’t cover eight hours on Super Tuesday just because one state hasn’t been called on air version of the News Hour, but for part of your audience they really want to stay with you.
I bet you can grow that. I mean, I bet if you continue to experiment a few more times so that people begin to realize there’s an extension of the News Hour that I can participate with online, it may very well grow into something.
And I don’t want to make you give away trade secrets but I’m assuming that you know, the nightly PD audience is of some substantial size and you’re daily web traffic is also -- we’re probably talking what -- 100s of thousands into millions -- whatever that is, there’s certainly enough there that if even just a small portion, 5 percent, said, “We’re going to participate and also participate through open platforms like Twitter where everybody else can see they’re participating.” You may actually find yourself drawing more audience to you.
I mean, obviously you still have to provide intelligent content and there’s some risk that if it isn’t, if it’s somehow a cheaper version of the brand, people would see right through that so you can’t fake it. But that’s very, very interesting.
Are there other ways that you are watching what other people are doing in TV news with, in relation to the web, that either you think, “That’s really smart, we should copy it,” or “Oooph, let’s learn from what they just did but don’t do it.” Like lessons learned -- you know, how are you thinking about and learning about what else to try.
And then I’m going to ask you to talk a little bit about how much this sort of participatory element, what does that mean from the point of view of a news consumer who actually wants to feed you something good because you get pitched I’m sure in all the old fashioned ways, but does this open up a new possibility for people who want to engage news producers and get you to pay attention to their stories.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well one example I’ll use and maybe your audience is familiar with the program called the Rachel Maddow Show. She is very engaging with the real world not only from Twitter, but like she’ll email people and when people email her, she’ll respond to them. But also her team -- she has a -- I don’t know if it’s her executive producer or her assignment producer, whatever he is, I think his name is Jamal Smith -- and he’s on Twitter and he is really, really engaging with the world. Stories he’s interested in, re-Tweeting journalists, getting a sense, asking questions from people and that you really see that translate into that program.
That informs their journalism on that show in a way that for all the other people and George Stephanopolous Tweets or Jay Capra responds to people, I mean those things are all really good, too. I think it’s much better to be interacting than just send out a Tweet, “Here’s my story today, click on it.” And plenty of people do that.
But the Maddow Show, that entire team, really builds its reporting from that and from Facebook and that’s something I really like to watch. But I think the really important (inaudible) it’s also the journalism question; choosing stories that interest people. We’re all losing audiences, right? People change the channel, that’s one of the reasons why cable networks become increasingly shrill because they feel like if your yelling you can’t turn away or whatever it is, right? They’re trying to dazzle you with their shiny objects.
But if you cover things that are of interest to people, they will (inaudible), and I think that the News Hour does have that really great reputation of having that now, is having that different take, being able to really engage viewers in a different way than just the back and forth. People turn to us when they’re sick of the back and forth.
And so how do we approach that? It’s not just the types of stories we choose to do and the types of stories frankly we choose to ignore, but it’s also about the guests. And that’s one thing that I’m really trying to change here of people don’t want to see old white dudes on TV every single night. And so how do you bring on whether it’s younger guests, or diverse guests or female guests -- whatever those are. How do you engage a new type of viewer because when they turn on the TV it’s someone they want to look at?
And we had these conversations all the time and so that’s the way that we do look to other networks to be able to see, “Oh, okay, I saw this person, he’s a really interesting talker or somebody that really had something to offer in terms of his original journalism or unique story.” How do we do that?
MICAH SIFRY: But you’re -- what I’m not hearing for example is let’s put somebody on the live air version of the show and for example, let’s break the form and let them be interactive during that.
I mean, we’re still talking the classic, you know, we have guests, they talk, we ask them questions. You’re not even suggesting that the public generate questions for the guests. I mean, these are all things that hypothetically you could do with the web and a live TV show, but for the most part that’s not part of what’s going on for the TV show. This is more about how the News Hour is a multi-media entity can use the web to extend the stuff that the core TV show already does. Is that fair?
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yeah, it’s totally fair and I think that these are definitely things we’re looking at. You know, how do you do it? Is it -- do you have a lap top going and you read Tweets from people? You know, I don’t think that’s terrible if they’re questions, you know? If it’s something like, “Oh, somebody Tweeted this snarky thing, let’s read it, ha ha.” That’s totally not it, but if there are legitimate questions you can do. I mean, I hate to keep on using MSNBC as my example, but I do appreciate Chuck Todd at the show at 9:00 every morning where does a trivia question and he gives a shout out to the person who got it right on Twitter on the air. And that’s cool. When you go to Huffington Post and it tells you all the Tweets -- people in your network are Tweeting, I mean that’s just silly.
So, it’s finding that balance between like the hokey and what is actually useful. And I love -- you guys have ideas of ways that we can do this on the show. I mean one thing that I want to do a lot of this election year, we’re plotting a lot of ways to do this is hear from real people. A project -- this is actually a great example -- we’re doing this project called “Listen to Me,” and everyone listening on this call can do this.
And -- in fact, let me just pull this up so I can read it to you verbatim and what it is is we’re taking the exact same questions and we are asking them over everyone; everyone that we meet, everywhere we can find, just to be able to say, “What is your take?”
So, three questions that we ask every single person we encounter on camera is:
-What’s the most important issue to you?
-Are you hopeful about the future? Why or why not?
-Do you think the political system is broken? If so, how would you fix it?
And what ends up happening -- first of all, these will all eventually be seen on our broadcast through different -- you know, we’re telling a tapestry in a way of the nation. And by asking the people the exact same questions you start to develop themes.
So, what we want to be able to do is have these all interactive and searchable so you can say, “Okay, who’s concerned about health care?” You might click on ‘Healthcare’ on our site and you’re going to pull up 150 videos from all across the country of people talking about their concerns about health care and then you might able to filter those between like pro-Obama health care and anti-Obama health care, or whatever.
MICAH SIFRY: (Overlapping remarks) videos that you’re producers are making? Or that everybody could send you?
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Our partners, we’re asking people to send them to us; our reporters are going out and taking them. We just had a reporter in Ohio, he was helping field produce a segment that Judy Woodruff did and he asked the people these questions outside the polling places. And I asked people the questions when I went to Florida to cover that primary.
So, eventually we will have this really rich network to pull from. It’ hasn’t (overlapping remarks) --
MICAH SIFRY: So, let me extend the idea a little bit; what if for one week on the News Hour during the on-air version of the show, the anchor said, “We’re doing this and we invite viewers to send us the responses, post them on our website and include your zip code and we’ll actually put them all on a map and …” if you keep promoting it you may end up with hundreds or more submissions from people rather than just the submissions you can collect yourself. That’s one thought.
The second thought, which is that video is hard, actually. That a lot of people still don’t feel that comfortable making video statements compared --
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Or showing their face, yeah, exactly.
MICAH SIFRY: Well, you know if you look at 99 percent Tumbler blog, which was people sort of telling their stories of how they identified with that theme, some of them show their face, others hold this piece of paper up sort of hiding their face but telling their story on the piece of paper. And it’s a very affecting site.
What is doesn’t have is an ease of search. You can’t go look on the site and see are there people near me who are sharing their stories or are there people like me who are sharing their stories? Or can I even rate my favorite story -- the way we might bubble up the most interesting content. It doesn’t have any of those features.
So, it’s like one piece of interactivity but just a very basic one. And when you watch news sites that are solely dedicated to sort of sharing and bubbling up interesting content like Reddit, which is an amazing community, it’s more than just a news site -- you realize there’s something already going on out there that’s attracting literally a million unique users a day. Obviously people want more interactivity, not less.
But video is hard. I think that’s the vernacular that not everybody feels comfortable with.
Let me take a pause here just because we’re at the half-way point and say I’m enjoying talking with Christina Bellantoni and you can, too if you would like to ask her a question or make a comment, we’re discussing how the web is transforming TV news. The truth is we’re also talking a bit about how TV news and the web are kind of hybridizing and influencing each other.
But you’re welcome to jump in if you would like, just hit *6 on your phone and I will see you in the call queue. I’m also just going to check my email to see if anybody has actually emailed me a question it does not -- it’s pretty unusual when that happens. But just taking a pause.
Okay, one second, I’m unmuting. Go ahead, just introduce yourself and ask your question.
PARTICIPANT 1: Hi, this is Jed Schwartz, I’m in Sommerville, Massachusetts. Seems to me that one of the major problems that we face as a country or as a society is sort of this variations of this attention deficit and attention diffusion disorder kind of phenomenon.
And in that regard, I personally experience the News Hour music as being a kind of a -- I mean, it’s nice music, but I don’t think you’ve changed it 25 or 30 years (laughter). I mean, I can’t remember it ever being different and I’ve been watching it for a long time, intermittently.
And I experience it as a kind of a passive aggression, psychologically speaking. That is to say, we don’t -- the message is, “We don’t care enough to change the music because we don’t really care that much about your sensibilities.” And because it’s repeated over and over again and although it’s not bad, in a sense it’s reassuring because it identifies who you’re listening to. When you hear that music, you know it’s the Lehrer Report.
On the other hand, it does seem to be passive / aggressive and people I know tend to nod off when watching the News Hour even though some of us are older -- I mean, all the people who nod off are well older than you are.
So, I would suggest possibly keeping -- developing like three or four or five musical themes and maybe keeping one of them -- the traditional News Hour theme to just keep continuity and identification but using different music to keep people awake, more interested.
MICAH SIFRY: That’s an interesting -- not a question I would have expected but Christina, I think there’s a broader point here too, which is about reputation and branding and what do you -- as you’re bringing the web in, what do you need to keep the same and what do you actually want to be able to mix up, and what are the pluses and minuses of mixing things up.
Thank you, Jed.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yeah, thank you. First of all, that’s just a really good point that I’ll make sure to pass along to the people here. I never really thought much about that, particularly because I’m new here. I mean I’ve been watching the News Hour for years, but you know, it’s something to keep in mind. Maybe it’s time to update some things.
But I do think it goes back to knowing your audience. What do they like about the show? What do they want? And that’s not always easy to find out. Sometimes it costs a lot of money to poll your audience. I mean, we’re lucky we have ratings in television so they can sort of tell us things, and we do find people are watching the program not for the full hour or maybe they don’t watch it regularly, they’ll watch one show a week but not every week. So, we look at the data and sort of that informs a lot of our decisions.
But we also -- I read every single viewer email that comes in. And a lot of cases we’ll respond to them, the executive producer will respond to them, the ombudsman for PBS on the whole will respond. And I think that’s really important.
You know, I’ll use the Ron Paul example, you know we get a lot of people emailing us saying, “Why don’t you cover more about Ron Paul?” And it does help me -- it comes into our editorial process. I want to remind every correspondent we do need to ask about him even if that’s just missing his candidacy, we need to explain why, we need to really give people a sense so they don’t just think we’re -- that we forgot about him somehow or that we have some sort of (inaudible), it’s not bad.
You know, one reason we do daily wraps of campaign activity almost every day and Paul doesn’t campaign every day. So, sometimes we’ll have a wrap and I’ll have Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul won’t have had any public events. So, we tend to need to say that -- Ron Paul didn’t have any public events today and that’s why you didn’t see his face.
But the other part of it is getting a sense from those viewers of do they want to keep having conversations about this or do they want something totally different? You know, what do they like and not like?
And so that’s the area where we learn that, we can make adjustments as we go and certainly soliciting as much feedback from the world as possible is great.
Another example is accountability. I mean, we have Twitter is the best thing out there to tell you if you screw up, Twitter will tell you immediately and we had a thing where somebody made an error, something somebody said on the broadcast we found out after the broadcast on Twitter and we made sure the next night to come back and say, “Actually last night, we made an error, here is the error, we’re sorry, this is the truth.” And that’s very, very important. And I think it takes down those gatekeepers, really allows people to be included in process.
MICAH SIFRY: There’s a smart comment / question coming up from Twitter from someone who’s handle is javashri and he says, “So, you’re network is still US centric, there’s no interaction with international audience,” and if I can kind of revise and extend that a little bit.
I think what he seems to be saying is that on the web you do must have an international audience. In fact, for a lot of news organizations one of the glories of the web is that you know, you extend your reach and whether it’s The New York Times having a huge readership in India or The Guardian and the BBC both discovering that they both have lot of readers and viewers in the United States.
So, do you see that in terms of your web metrics and is there any chance that that’s something that you need -- sort of an audience that you need to attend to? Especially in this age where we don’t certainly get enough -- as much international news in our domestic broadcasts as we might have.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: That’s a great question and first let me say “hi” to my Twitter friends. I believe you were one of my first followers --
MICAH SIFRY: I hope you recognize this person.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Oh, yes, from way back when. I actually haven’t even been on Twitter -- I mean I guess it’s long but not as long as like some people. But definitely have been engaging with him for a long time. So, “hi.”
One thing -- I don’t deal that much with the website which is sort of funny given my career and what I did particularly at Roll Call where I was setting the Google analytics every day and I was doing a lot of the SEO optimization and I ran the Twitter feed and those things. So, here we have a whole team, but I interact with everybody a lot and so I don’t know all the metrics as well as I know them in other places.
But we definitely have a strong international audience when it comes to our foreign policy news, particularly because we are one of the news (inaudible) that still will send somebody to Russia for a week to cover elections there. We will cover the French elections coming up in April with guests and those sorts of things. So, that helps.
But one thing that we do see is there’s so much interest in science news and that’s something that we are trying to increase as much as we can to be able to reach that international audience and that’s what we see -- heard people talk about that when they’re looking at the metrics and so that’s something to just keep in mind.
Another thing, we’re working on this -- this probably isn’t ready to just (inaudible) publicly yet, but we are doing -- we’ve hired someone to work on a Mozilla Project that’s really cool and interactive. And as of right now, it’s just on the web but we’re already talking about, “Okay, how do we get this into the broadcast, this is the way to do it,” and it definitely has some international reach.
So, stay tuned on that one.
MICAH SIFRY: But you do -- just to stay on this a second longer -- so you will cover international stories more than say the other American networks that goes with the News Hour’s brand and reputation as being a place that will serve a very intelligent, discriminating audience. But I think the point being made here is that you also have an audience outside the U.S., real or potential, that the web immediately makes possible.
And I once had a conversation with Tom Friedman where he told me he was not happy when The Times put his column and all the other op ed columns behind the pay wall because it meant that this huge audience that he had in India -- you know, there was one day where he wrote a column about how India should be included in the Security Council. And he remembers checking his -- the most emailed list on The Times website and it was a Saturday night and for some reason his piece, which was going to be in the Sunday op ed, was already the most emailed story.
And he couldn’t figure out why until he realized that it was already Sunday in India and lots of readers in India were sharing this thing because they all thought, “Oh, what a great idea,” and that’s why -- and then when The Times put him behind the pay wall that was that means I’m going to lose a lot of readers.
Now true The Times is a bit more of an international paper I suppose than maybe the News Hour, but I do think that’s -- the fact that the web is inherently -- doesn’t know borders and that there might be the same sort of people who read The Economist worldwide might actually tune into the News Hour for all you know. But you’re not necessarily looking for that. Is that what I’m hearing? Maybe there’s a growth area here for you.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yeah, there definitely is and I’d like to sort of mention that actually to our foreign editors, but one thing that we do -- and I should have mentioned and I don’t deal with this, I very rarely deal with this because it’s politics. You know, we are producing all of our own stuff but we have all these partnerships and we run pieces from ITN almost every night on, “Tonight, our lead story’s going to be on (inaudible),” so we’ll have an ITN piece. And those are things where we really draw on our vast network abroad to be able to cover those stories in the right way.
But it’s also a matter of again, finding what interests people, what do they want to know. You know, for me learning that science had such a huge draw, I thought, “Wow, that’s great. Let’s keep that up.” And to be able for -- you know, for us, U.S., politics, people abroad tend to tune in at the very end, you know? They’ll be interested, they’ll be excited and that’s when I think we really do need to think, “Well okay, what can we offer them to sort of give them a nice primer on what’s happening.”
MICAH SIFRY: I’m going to pause again just to see if there are any other people who want to jump into the queue, but if not I’ve got plenty more questions to ask. Just hit *6 if you do want ask a question of Christina Bellantoni.
The next question I was going to ask you in terms of how you think about politics in the web, are -- you know, there are things that happen on the web now like really fast; the backlash against Kony, Kony Foundation and Planned Parenthood, that was a huge happening online a day before it was being covered in The New York Times.
I mean, right now there’s this video about the invisible children of Uganda and this alleged war criminal that this group is trying to bring to justice. And that video is -- I don’t know about you -- but you know, I think it’s had more than 30 million views in three days.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yeah, were you sitting in on our editorial meeting this morning? (Laughter)
MICAH SIFRY: No, I wasn’t so that’s -- how do you think about -- you know, do we cover the web as news? I mean, can a web video like that be a news story? Talk to us about how you think about that.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: That’s exactly -- we had an almost half-hour editorial meeting (inaudible) devoted to this today. And it was so fascinating to see -- you know, everyone in that meeting, even people that aren’t on Twitter knew about the StopKony hash tag and what that meant. And we had this session of, “Is it a web story?” “Is it a media story?” “How do you tell it?” “What do you do?”
And it’s actually still being farmed out as we speak, I have a meeting starting in about five minutes where we talk about this and we’re basically going to say, “Okay, what’s the cast of characters we use to tell this story and how does it become …” you know, because the internet is news.
Another example that is on my beat is this Limbaugh controversy. And okay, we’re the News Hour, we’re not going to every night say, “Rush Limbaugh said something and people reacted to it,” right? I mean that’s for the cable networks.
But it is something that is really permeated and become a big issue and how do you do it? So, one suggestion, I think we may end up doing this is to wait a couple days and to step back and let’s see what the impact social media had on pressuring these advertisers and pressuring Clear Channel. How did people reach out to those groups to pressure them? What affect did it have? Are we over-blowing it? Is that possible? Is it still a traditional letter-writing campaign? My sense is that the internet has completely changed it, but let’s find out. Let’s take the time to report it and be able to see instead of the (inaudible) okay, somebody said this and somebody said that --
MICAH SIFRY: Well most people don’t expect you to do the breath list on a daily basis but it is interesting that you -- you know, obviously it’s a media story with where sort of a larger-than-usual element or who knows, maybe going forward it’s going to continue to be -- you know, I’ve heard people say that they’re beginning to think that social media -- well, let’s put it this way, that there’s conservative talk radio and liberal social media.
If you look at the pattern of these last few episodes, you know each time it’s sort of a liberal cause that seems to be gaining traction and surprising amounts of attention and involvement. So --
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Tell that to the Tea (sounds like: cot) people out there. I don’t know --
MICAH SIFRY: (Overlapping remarks) No, they would say two years ago that they were absolute and they were in fact, two years ago the rising and more influential force and so my view is that -- in fact, none of these media have a political label you shouldn’t attach. Social media is just a tool. It may just happen to be at this particular moment the liberals are using it more effectively because certain things are breaking their way, I don’t know.
But that’s -- so you will cover the internet (inaudible) is a place where news can happen even without a real -- I mean, this Kony thing doesn’t have -- I mean, it’s been going on for a long time but the only thing that’s new here is probably every child in America has seen this video now because they’re all sharing it with each other on Facebook and that’s amazing.
And I know a lot of online political professionals who are watching this going, “Holy cow, how did they do that?”
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Or another example of the dad in that video where he shoots the laptop, right?
MICAH SIFRY: Oh gosh, yeah.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: I mean, that was a huge story that didn’t make it on our air and afterwards we (inaudible) should it have? And we didn’t actually come to a firm conclusion on that.
I think that there’s a place for it and maybe it’s just something you drop of (inaudible) or you take it and you go in a different direction with the conversation, but we have to keep in mind as news gatherers and news truth tellers when people are talking about something this enormous you have to address it in some way.
And even if it’s nonsense --
MICAH SIFRY: But isn’t that where your website though is sort of, okay, not everything makes it onto the News Hour program on air, but you’ve got a lot more space online.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Sure, and that definitely is one place where we do address it with certainly political things like this. You know, an example, the Obama Harvard speech thing that (inaudible) buzzed yesterday. We didn’t address that on the show but we made sure to put it in -- and I’ll give a little plug here -- I get up very early every day to write the Morning Line, which is our morning political newsletter and so we included it in that. Just a short mention and a little bit of context that we were able to provide and there is that.
But there’s also I don’t ever want it to be the feeling that you relegate the stuff that doesn’t rise to the level of the show, that you relegate that to the web. This is a partnership, this is a dual -- you know, our multi-platform news organization tells stories in different ways.
So, it shouldn’t feel like if it didn’t rise then we just throw it out there.
MICAH SIFRY: How long has the News Hour website included blogs?
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: I don’t know, not that long, in the last three or four years.
MICAH SIFRY: But it doesn’t seem like you have many people commenting and responding to -- people don’t think of the News Hour as, “Oh, that’s a place where I’m going go and (inaudible).”
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: (Overlapping remark) interact, yeah, exactly. And that’s one of the reasons why the State of the Union (inaudible) and the Super Tuesday thing we did was so cool because we had this social stream going and what we do -- we live stream the show and that goes along with the social stream where people can use Twitter and then also just comment on it but it’s not like archived anywhere.
And people do engage. You know, we sort of have a regular crop of people and I do have to jump off in just a second.
MICAH SIFRY: We’re going to let you go, no problem. I appreciate your time and folks, this program will be archived and put up as a podcast and made available to members of PDPlus to be able to continue to chew on these questions.
And Christina, thank you, maybe we’ll have you back in a year or so and pick up the thread and see what else you’ve been able to do.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: I appreciate it. It’s been a lot of fun and it’s given me a lot of things to think about and bring up here, I think.
MICAH SIFRY: Terrific, well we’ll keep watching and you keep me apprised of new experiments and we will rather than talk about them after the fact, I’d love to be able to tell our readers check out what the News Hour is planning to do tonight.
(END OF AUDIO)
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