Old guard media seek to refashion itself in market decentralization

Callie Starnes and Antwan Harris, journalists for WRCB TV-3, tell bloggers and social media activists how the station is shifting operations to the Internet. Behind them is Derrall Stalvey, the station’s news director.

As a latecomer to independent local media, I have much to learn from people to whom use of Internet networks is old hat. In the work to catch up, I attended an event Thursday in which staffers at WRCB TV-3 talked about the station’s expanding online presence and how it uses apps and tweets to “connect” with viewers and website visitors.The Internet has had a flattening effect on the idea of the newsroom, tending to make it more of a co-op or collaborative than a pyramid. The Web expects journalists to draw from their reservoirs holistically, not just professionally. It expands their personae as it draws more amply from their skills and ways.

Derrall Stalvey, news director, realizes that a top-down, command-economy approach to getting TV news stars before Web audiences won’t work, that an independent spirit and sense of adventure are needed.

“I didn’t want to send out a memo that said, ‘Starting next week, everybody needs a Twitter account, and I want five tweets per day,’ Mr. Stalvey said to an audience at the Camp House. “You guys who run your businesses and work for people — you know how that would have gone over. I had slowly get by to the early adopters. I even created an account for somebody that I thought would be an early adopter. She didn’t want an account at first, but she luckily let me create one in her name.” But now all members of the staff “get it and buy it,” he said.

PRINTED NEWSPAPES AREN’T aren’t the only form of old media suffering loss of ad revenue and readers. Though newscasts are held as the old reliable to generate revenues, TV viewing is in decline. A heavy TV news viewer tunes in twice a week, Mr. Stalvey said. Two big stories helped the station herald its arrival on the Web.

Paul Barys drew huge followings amid tornado coverage in 2010. Callie Starnes and Melydia Clewell multiplied public interest in their coverage of the Tanya Craft child abuse trial in Ringgold, Ga., by tweeting incessantly. The April 2011 tornadoes jacked the number of followers with Twitter accounts past 9,000, and more than 57,000 on Facebook.

Social media “has increased our brand awareness,” Mr. Stalvey said. Anchor Antwan Harris has posted 20,000 tweets, telling “everything in his life.” Miss Starnes, more restrained and businesslike on her news stories, has done 9,000. Each follows a personal sense of propriety.

The company hasn’t been able to monetize social media, Mr. Stalvey said, but is studying ways to make it a tool to engage with viewers and create followers. Amid uncertainty, he said, it is important to “just do something, and evaluate, evaluate.”

The station is wondering how Pinterest might be a platform to explore.

The monthly gathering Thursday of the Social Media Club filled the main room at the Camp House with eager listeners as well as others, no doubt, who just happened to be there for a coffee. I counted about 85 people in the room, with at least five representing TV3 and an affiliate, according to comments made from the stage.

Several points of interest about how social media alters newsgathering and media public relations:

➤ Social media tends to break down walls of centralized newsrooms and make competition tougher in brief spans of time. Mr. Stalvey told how Miss Starnes delayed making a Twitter post about a spot news crime story to avoid tipping off competitors. “But because we had a 15 minute head start, we were live at the top of our newscast, and they were not. *** So there’s a little gamesmanship *** a chess match every single day.” Since everyone uses social media, delaying its use on any given story might give the edge to TV-9 or TV-12. Still, audiences are teased with headlines and Twitter instant drama to excite them about the story.

➤ News staff, though still mere employees, are given leeway in pronouncements to the public, their work unmediated by supervisor Mr. Stalvey. Occasionally he exercises his power to delete. Initially, the station had all tweets come from one account.

But a unified approach was a mistake, and anchors now have their own accounts and own PR agendas and personalities. Miss Starnes said she tries to avoid giving personal opinions on the air or the wire. TV3 has no internal regulations about social media, but will develop one, Mr. Stalvey said. “Just use common sense,” is his advice to staffers. “I can’t come up with a list of 10 things not to tweet. You just have to use your best judgment.”

➤ Public comment strings have yet to wear out their welcome among website owners. They are kept open, under the sense of protecting the First Amendment, though sometimes they cause offense. Mr. Stalvey kills two public comments a week. I perceive that comment strings add little to a reader’s or website visitor’s stock of ideas; comments often are hastily composed, with too little thought and slight care for grammar and cohesion.

➤ Social media PR is not just for media outlets. Businesses, groups, causes should spread their claims across the Internet, Mr. Stalvey advises. “If we’re not where you are — where the viewer is, we risk becoming irrelevant.”

MY OWN EXPERIMENT in entrepreneurial journalism is helped by finding like- and open-minded people via a Facebook page. I also contribute teasers and links to Facebook groups serving people who might care about my work, among them fans of Ron Paul, tea party activists and critics of big business. I also submit texts to other local websites such as Chattanoogan.com, whose operators are gracious enough to share my spirit of collaboration and mutual benefit. Since my work is not worldwide, but Noogacentric, I am developing local connections by a faithful writing and interviewing labor.

I haven’t thought about using Twitter, but am open to learning more.

Please encourage your friend to read Nooganomics. It’s possible they might benefit from my work.

Callie Starnes reports the story of a wind-collapsed house in March. She fires tweets to her followers while chasing down stories. (Photo by John P. Creel III on Miss Starnes’ Facebook page)