LOS ANGELES--Something stalked the halls at the annual Radio and Television News Director's Association four-day conference here this week: fear of the Internet.
The conference traditionally focuses on teaching broadcasters how to attract and keep audiences during newscasts as well as covering breaking stories. But this year, the lead topic on many attendees' agenda was how to attract and keep audiences as the Internet erodes viewership and advertising revenue. Like it or not, the answer for many news teams is to create their own online presence.
"You need to act fast because your competitors are already doing it and your ratings are going to feel it fast," said Mark Gillespe, technology reporter for KTUU-TV in Alaska and moderator at several conference sessions here.
To help them do that, the conference offered Internet courses for everyone, from beginners to experienced users. News industry professionals from small stations in Indiana to large markets in New York City today filled a roomful of PCs to hear topics including "Interactivity and the News Room," "Building a Virtual Newsroom," "Putting Audio Online," and "Building a Newsroom Web Site."
Some newsrooms are keeping up with the Net, but most are far behind. Small and medium-sized stations complain that they don't have the resources to keep up with breaking stories, especially compared to sites that operate with nationwide news teams such as MSNBC or CNN, which has a staff of 130 devoted solely to its Web site.
Chet Burgess, executive producer of CNN Interactive, agrees and advises small stations to devote as much as they can to Web sites. "Let's face it. Eyeballs in front of PCs are drawing people away from TV and you have to act now." Stations should even try recruiting local college students interested in building Web pages to make sure they have an online presence, he added.
"We know that we're losing viewers to the Internet, but we can't devote time updating our Web page during breaking stories," explained a general manager from a medium-sized market. "We didn't cover the TWA crash on our Web site because we devoted all of our time to television. As a result, we lost credibility as a news organization."
Some stations try to maximize resources by turning around TV or radio scripts instead of writing fresh material for their Web sites. "The frustration in TV news is that there is simply no time to deliver a complete story," said Tom Bier, news director of WISC-TV in Madison, Wisconsin. "Once we get the right resources, we hope to expand our Web stories with fresh copy, audio, and video."
But KTUU's Gillespe and others say that waiting or trying to ignore the Net as an independent medium will only exacerbate the problem. "Broadcast TV tried to resist cable and it didn't work," said Gillespe. "Now what do you see? TV is getting into cable. The same thing is happening with the Internet. This time it's happening much faster."