Sunday, June 14, 2009

News Director's playbook: Anatomy of a budget, part three

Okay, the final post on this subject will talk about the future. Since the most asked question I get is, "Where is this business going?" I'm going to pretend I'm working at a station and planning for the next few years. My objective is to actually increase my news gathering capabilities without going the one-man-band route, and without firing anyone. This is part budget, part news strategy.

Personally, I don't think stations can cut much more than they already have. What I see happening is a re-shifting of resources. I think we're going to come full circle to the days when I got into the business, when most of the personnel was out gathering news. The business has become too top heavy with producers and behind the scenes people to the point that there aren't enough reporters and photogs out in the field. (Incredibly, we now actually have News Directors who have never, ever been out on a story.)

There are more technology changes coming. The Internet has been driving a dagger into the heart of the business. When the Internet was taking off, many corporate types were glowing about how it was going to really bring a ton of money into the business. "Embrace the Internet!" Those of us in newsrooms wondered why we were telling people to turn off the TV and go to their computers with Internet references every two minutes. Well, it worked. People went to their computers and stayed there, and it's killing the business. Nice going, beancounters.

But the Internet is about to provide something that will save local stations some serious money...maybe some money they can put into salaries?

So let's take a look at some things which might affect the budget in the near future. The object is to get more bang for the buck without cutting quality... and hopefully improving it.

-Technology: Some markets have been experimenting with Skype, which let's you transmit a live shot by hooking your camera into a laptop and sending the signal over the Internet. The sample shot I saw looked good.

So if I'm a ND with an old microwave or satellite truck on its last legs, I'm not going to replace it. Why spend more than six figures of a piece of equipment when I can buy a laptop? And imagine the savings on gas, maintenance, and operating costs of a live truck.

-Consultants: A no-brainer. Outta here. I think more broadcast groups will do what many have already done; taken their consultants in-house. If you've got a dozen News Directors working for the company, use their expertise to critique one another's newscasts. Or designate one of them as VP of News and make that person your consultant. But wasting money on stuff you can do yourself like research just doesn't make sense any more.

-A return to reporter driven newscasts. As producers leave, I'm going to replace them with reporters or photogs. I need people in the field gathering news, not people with no experience ordering them around. The remaining producers can produce more than one show, and the anchors need to pitch in a lot more in this area. When I got in the business we had no producers at our first station; the anchors produced the shows. Without computers. They looked fine.

-Get the anchors out into the field. Many work hard, but the two hour dinner breaks taken by some anchors must end. This will add substance to the product.

-No more co-anchors. As co-anchors leave, I'm replacing them with reporters and photogs. A return to the single anchor newscast will be a necessity. The salary saved can be used for more people in the field. I just don't think viewers care anymore unless you have a longtime well-established anchor team. Content is king.

-Hybrid news cars. Another no-brainer. Maybe a few electric ones for stories that are within range. (I can see it now. "Hi, I'm from EyeMissedIt News and my car ran out of juice. Can I plug in to your garage for awhile?")

-Trade out what you can. Cars, hair care, makeup, travel, whatever. When in doubt, trade it out.

-Weathercasters have to report on occasion. With the environment becoming more and more important, it's imperative for stations to have someone who can do science pieces. And let's be honest here... it doesn't take all day to put together a forecast. More substance to the newscast. So as weather people leave I'm going to hire weather people who can knock out a package. Or reporters who have an interest in weather.

I'm sure there will be more things we can't even imagine yet, but those are some ideas for the horizon. There are ways to get through these tough economic times; we just need managers with enough vision to see them.

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