I’m at a Shorenstein Center brownbag talk. Robin Sproul is talking about journalism in the changing media landscape. She’s been Washington Bureau Chief of ABC News for 20 years, and now is VP of Public Affairs for that network. (Her last name rhymes with “owl,” by the way.)
NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.
This is an “incredibly exciting time,” Robin begins. The pace has been fast and is only getting faster. E.g., David Plouffe says that Obama’s digital infrastructure from 2008 didn’t apply in 2012, and the 2012 infrastructure won’t apply in 2016.
A few years ago, news media were worried about how to reach you wherever you are. Now it’s how to reach you in a way that makes you want to pay attention. “How do we get inside your brain, through the firehose, in a way that will break through everything you’re exposed to?” We’re all adapting to getting more and smaller bites. “Digital natives swerve differently than the older generation, from one topic to another.”
In this social media world, “each of us is a news reporter.” Half of people on social networks repost news videos, and one in ten post news videos they’ve recorded themselves.
David Carr: “If the Vietnam War brought war into our living rooms,” now “it’s at our fingertips.” But we see the world through narrow straws. We’re not going back from that, but we need to get better at curating them and making sure they’re accurate and contextualized.
On the positive side: “I was so moved by a Ferguson coverage: how a community of color, in this case, could tell their own story” and connect with people around the country, in real-time. “The people of that community were ahead of the cables.” Sure, some of the info was wrong, but we could watch people bearing witness to history. Also, the Ray Rice video has stimulated conversations on domestic violence around the country. How do you tap into these discussions? Sort them? Curate them? “A lot of it comes down to curation.”
People are not coming into ABCnews.com directly. “They’re coming in through side doors.” “And the big stories we do compete with the animal stories, the recipes,” etc. “We see a place like Buzzfeed” that now has 200 employees. They’ve hired someone from The Guardian, they’ve been reporting from the ground in Liberia. Yahoo’s hired Katie Couric. Vice. Michael Isikoff. Reddit’s AMAs. Fusion has just hired Tim Pool from Vice Media. “All of these things are competing in a rapidly shifting universe.”
ABC is creating partnerships, e.g., with Facebook for identifying what’s trending which is then discussed on their Sunday morning show. [See Ethan Zuckerman's recent post on why Twitter is a better news source than Facebook. Also, John McDermott's Why Facebook is for ice buckets, Twitter is for Ferguson. Both suggest that ABC maybe should rethink its source for what's trending.] ABC uses various software platforms to evaluate video coming in of breaking news. “We need help, so we’re partnering.” ABC now has a social desk. “During a big story, we activate a team…and they are in a deep deep dive of social media,” vetting it for accuracy and providing context. “Six in ten of Americans watch videos on line and half of those watch news videos. This is a big growth area.” But, she adds ruefully, it’s “not a big revenue growth area.”
So, ABC is tapping into social media, but is wary of those who have their own aims. E.g., Whitehouse.gov does reports that look like news reports but are not. The photos the White House hands out never show a yawning, exhausted, or weeping president. “I joke with the press secretary that we’re one step away from North Korea.” We’re heading toward each candidate having their own network, in effect, a closed circle.
Q: You’ve describe the fragmentation in the supply of news. But how about the demand? “Are you getting a sense of your audience?” What circulates? What sticks? What sets the agenda? etc.
A: We do a lot of audience research. Our mainstream TV shows attract an aging audience. No matter what we do, they’re not bringing in a new audience. Pretty much the older the audience, the more they like hard news. We’ve changed the pace of the Sunday shows. We think people want a broader lens from us. “We’re not as focused on horse race politics, or what John McCain thinks of every single issue. We’re open to new voices.”
Q: The future of health reporting? I’m disappointed with what I see. E.g., there’s little regard to the optics of how we’re treating Ebola, particular with regard to the physicians getting treated back in the US.
A: Dr. Richard Besser, who ran the CDC, is at ABC and has reported from Africa. But it’s hit or miss. We did cover the white doctors getting the serum, but it’s hard to find in the firehose.
Q: How do you balance quality news with short attention spans?
A: For the Sunday shows we’ve tried to maintain a balance.
Q: Does ABC try to maintain its own pace, or go with the new pace? If the latter, how do you maintain quality?
A: We used to make a ton of money producing the news and could afford to go anywhere. Now we have the same number of hours of news on TV, but the audiences are shrinking and we’re trying to grow. It’s not as deep. It’s broader. We will want to find you…but you have to be willing to be found.
Q: How do you think about the segmentation of your news audience? And what are the differences in what you provide them?
A: We know which of our shows skew older (Sunday shows), or more female (Good Morning America), etc. We don’t want to leave any segment behind. We want our White House reporter to go into depth, but he also has to tweet all day, does a Yahoo show, does radio, accompanies Nancy Pelosi on a fast-walk, etc.
Q: Some of your audiences matter from a business point of view. But historically ABC has tried to supply news to policy makers etc. The 11 year old kids may give you large numbers, but…
A: When we sit in our morning editorial mornings we never say that we will do a story because the 18-24 year olds are interested. The need to know, what we think is important, drives decisions. We used to be programming for “people like us” who want the news. Then we started getting thousands of “nutjob” emails. [I'm doing a bad job paraphrasing here. Sorry] Sam Donaldson was shocked. “This digital age has made us much more aware of all those different audiences.” We’re in more contact with our audience now. E.g., when the media were accused of pulling their punches in the run-up to the Iraq War, we’d get pushback saying we’re anti-American. Before, we didn’t get these waves.
Q: A fast-walk with Nancy Pelosi, really?
A: [laughs] It got a lot of hits.
Q: Can you elaborate on your audience polling? And do people not watch negative stories?
A: A Harvard prof told me last night that s/he doesn’t like watching the news any more because it’s just so depressing. But that’s a fact of life. Anyway, it used to be that the posted comments were very negative, and sometimes from really crazy people. We learned to put that into perspective. Now Twitter provides instant feedback. We’re slammed whatever we do. So we try to come up with a mix. For World News Tonight, people with different backgrounds talk about the stories, how they play off the story before it, etc. Recenty we’ve been criticized for doing too much “news you can use”, how to live your life, etc. We want to give people news that isn’t always just terrible. There’s a lot of negative stuff that we’re exposed to now. [Again, sorry for the choppiness. My fault.]
Q: TV has always had the challenge of the limited time for news. With digital, how are you linking the on-screen reporting with the in-depth online stories, given the cutbacks? How do you avoid answering every tweet? [Not sure I got that right.]
A: We have a mix of products.
Q: What is the number one barrier to investigative journalism? How have new media changed that balance?
A: There are investigative reporting non-profits springing up all the time. There’s an appetite from the user for it. All of the major news orgs still have units doing it. But what is the business model? How much money do you apportion to each vertical in your news division? It’s driven by the appetite for it, how much money you have, what you’re taking it away from. Investigative is a growth industry.
Q: I was a spokesperson for Healthcare.gov and was interested in your comments about this Administration being more closed to the media.
A: They are more closed than prior admins. There’s always a message. When the President went out the other day to talk, no other admin members were allowed to talk with the media. I think it’s a response to how many inquiries are coming and how out of control info is, and how hard it is to respond to inaccuracies that pop up. The Obama administration has clamped down a little more because of that.
Q: You can think of Vice in Liberia as an example of boutique reporting: they do that one story. But ABC News has to cover everything. Do you see a viable future for us?
A: As we go further down this path and it becomes more overwhelming, there are some brands that stand for something. Curation is what we do well. Cyclically, people will go back to these brands.
Q: In the last couple of years, there’s a trend away from narrative to Gestalt. They were called news stories because they had a plot. Recent news events like Ferguson or Gaza were more like just random things. Very little story.
A: Twitter is a tool, a platform. It’s not really driving stories. Maybe it’s the nature of the stories. It’ll be interesting to see how social media are used by the candidates in the 2016 campaign.
Q: Why splitting the nightly news anchor from …
A: Traditionally the evening news anchor has been the chief anchor for the network. George Stephanopoulos anchors GMA, which makes most of the money. So no one wanted to move him to the evening news. And the evening news has become a little less relevant to our network. There’s been a diminishment in the stature of the evening news anchor. And it plays to GS’s strengths.