Ask, and you shall … receive?

Screen shot 2015-01-29 at 5.06.38 PMIn my first week on the job, I had to type up my bio for the station web site. You’ve likely seen them before – the reporter’s smiling headshot greets readers to an over-exaggerated list of “accomplishments.”

John Smith is a PROUD graduate of the Wassamatta University School of Broadcast Journalism, where he won awards for his coverage of presidential campaigns and international hot dog eating competitions.

Really, it’s all BS, and most likely these reporters were simply former interns trying to seem like they actually did work before their current job. No one ever actually reads them. So when I built mine, I went through the motions – listing my alma mater, trying to find some accomplishments and awards – and at the very end, I included my email address.

“Steven welcomes any story ideas you may have.”

I figured I was in for plenty of interaction with viewers. I pictured myself balancing a phone on one ear while replying to an email and texting back a source. After all, people are always watching, and always looking for publicity, or help, or answers from their local news.

Not so much.

It was never the steady stream of phone calls and emails I was expecting. It was barely a trickle. People weren’t sending stories in. I would even tweet out a message – “what’s happening in Medford today?” – and be met with nothing but silence. The first few weeks on the job I would sit down at my desk, open my email, and stare at the vast wasteland of press releases and spam, but no tips from viewers. It left me scrambling to find a couple story ideas in the half hour before my morning meeting. “Uh … it’s a couple weeks ’til Christmas … maybe a story on toy sales?”

I quickly learned that most people were not going to hand you stories on a silver platter. It would take hard work and research on my own and with my co-workers to mine sources and find stories.

That’s not to say it was completely empty. Some of my favorite stories came as the result of a viewer’s Facebook comment, or an email, or a phone call. During the Arab Spring in 2011, I found out a local man was in Egypt watching the revolution and capturing it on video, all thanks to a phone call from the man’s family that morning. Thanks to the call, it led to two of my most memorable stories, and several other follow-ups in the years after.

Still, moments like that were the exception, not the rule. Ask reporters in local TV and they’ll say the majority of their best stories came from hard work, asking questions, mining sources, and bouncing ideas off co-workers.

Which makes an experiment conducted by a Portland TV station very interesting.

On Thursday, KATU rolled out a campaign called “Connected 2 You.” During its 3-hour news block from 4 to 7 p.m. they asked viewers to call in with their news tips. “Our anchors are standing by!” they said. Anchors and reporters sat at a desk, answering your grandmother’s old touch-tone phones, with large easels of paper behind them. An animated graphic crawled across the bottom of the screen, instructing viewers to call and email with story ideas.

It looked like a PBS telethon; anchors would get up from the desk and walk in front of the phone bank, asking for support while 30-year-old telephones rang in the background.

“So-and-so reporter said one of their proudest stories came from viewers like you!” the anchor would say. “Now we want to tell YOUR stories. Call in, our anchors and reporters are waiting for you call!”

It was an exercise I had never seen done before. It even extended online; the station’s web site was plastered with banners asking for phone calls, and every reporter tweeted about a story they reported thanks to a viewer tip.

Screen shot 2015-01-29 at 5.06.30 PMRight now I’m not sure I feel about the entire thing.

Part of me applauds KATU for trying something different and encouraging viewers to directly engage with the newscast. Reader tips always help, so promoting how to get involved could improve the news operation afterward. Plus, newscasts are filled with so much fluff, this type of segment actually provides something potentially useful.

On the other hand, there’s something about it that irks me as an old-school and new-school journalist.

I feel like viewers already know how to get a hold of a TV station. The tip line is posted online and is often shown during newscasts. And it seems like no matter how technologically-impaired people may seem, they always seemed to find ways to call the station about the strangest things. I can still remember a prodigious amount of callers, including: the woman who wanted to speak to Diane Sawyer, the man who thought we were pronouncing a tribe’s name wrong, the people who wanted to know where the old meteorologist went, the many old people who complained about Jeopardy being pre-empted, the people who faxed complaints about weather cut-in’s during “Lost,” the woman who said our anchor couldn’t speak, the man who didn’t like our anchor’s wardrobe, the man who didn’t like our reporter’s wardrobe, the mountain-dwellers who didn’t understand how to operate their cable, and last but not least, the woman who wanted to know how to spell the word “through.”

Clearly people know how to find the phone number.

It also struck me as odd that KATU would go to such great lengths to say “give us some news.” Isn’t that the journalist’s job? In the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, the very first item is “Seek truth and report it.”

Seek. Get out of the office, go talk to people and gather the news. The average MMJ in a small TV market is on the road 90 percent of the day, gathering stories while they work, not waiting by the phone. I’m sure many of them would love to take that worth ethic to Portland, and I’m sure the KATU anchors manning those phones had some work to do, stories to research, and interviews to conduct.

So the entire campaign leaves me feeling unsure about its results. If it resulted in a plethora of viewer tips and story ideas, good for them! But how long is that plan sustainable?

Today, news stations have a better ability than ever to connect with viewers on the air and online, and we are seeing news outlets take advantage of them more and more. Twitter lets reporters interact directly with viewers. YouTube, Instagram, and even Snapchat gives stations more avenues to receive viewer-created content and share their own work (Instagram photos graced a cover of the New York Times this week, and a new service from Snapchat gives users access to news). The strongest news outlets are branching out into new territories, and understanding that viewers and journalists interact with news differently than they did five years ago.

So with so many amazing new ways to deliver and share content, what kind of message does it send when a station’s strategy involves touch-tone phones and paper maps?

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