A colleague of mine at the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Val Lauder, recently shared this article with the faculty e-mail list. The piece, written by Johnnie L. Roberts for Newsweek, wonders “Can News Anchors like Katie Couric Survive?”
I don’t know whether anchors like Katie Couric can survive, but there is one kind of news anchor that is thriving. They’re called bloggers.
The Newsweek article is built around this money quote from Don Hewitt:
And Hewitt, 85, the man who coined the term “anchor,” says it may signal the end of an era. Today’s anchors no longer possess the magnetism to draw new viewers, he says. “They’re all good but not great,” says Hewitt. “There are no more Cronkites and Huntleys and Brinkleys. Tom Brokaw’s face was the logo of. Peter Jennings’s was .”
We hear those last two sentences a lot, but what do they mean? I think there are two answers, one economic and one editorial.
The economic answer is that in an era of media proliferation and audience splintering the human personality is the most important factor in brand differentiation. Competitors can replicate news judgment, design and distribution, but they can’t replicate you — the individual, the human face … the anchor. See Jay Hamilton’s excellent book, All the News That’s Fit to Sell, for a more thorough discussion of this.
The editorial answer is that anchors build trust. We know from decades of social science research that Americans have an increasing tendency to distrust institutions — Big Business, The Media, The Government. But they still trust the individuals who make up those institutions. This first struck me in an August 2002 poll by The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Among other things, it said this:
The three major broadcast networks are rated about equally in terms of believability: roughly one-in-four say they believe all or most of what they see on ABC, NBC and CBS.
but it also said this:
Despite modest believability ratings for their network news programs, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings remain the most trusted figures in television news. … More than a third of those able to rate them say they believe all or most of what the broadcast network anchors say, and only about one-in-five give these news figures even modestly negative ratings for credibility.
That survey caught my eye because it was released a month after I wrote a memo for The Washington Post’s Web site titled “Anchored News: Online Newsrooms Have Been Living in the Wrong Dimension,” which argued that “Online news sites should develop anchors who guide users through news and information throughout the business day.”
In this memo, I was trying to get a print organization to see in broadcast the appropriate analogy for incorporating blogging into a legitimate newsroom.
(From it sprang one short-lived, terribly unsuccessful and un-resurrected idea. During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, we videotaped the site’s on-camera star, Jessica Doyle, providing a brief overview of the site’s new content each day. We did this in part to solve a frustrating navigational challenge of getting the audience to actually see the cornucopia of content we were spreading before them every day. But the other was to try to use a human face to make our content more accessible, inviting and trusted. While that effort was pretty lame — through no fault of all the smart people who tried hard to make it work; I just took the broadcast analogy far too literally — it was part of an important evolution in the role of the anchor.)
Here, adapted from that six-year-old memo, is my argument that the idea of an anchor — a trust human who guides an audience through the news of the day by introducing first-hand news reports by other trusted humans — is probably the most important non-technical element to the future of news.
When XM Radio launched in 2002, it promised an unmatched breadth of music choices. But a friend who was working there during the early days told me that the company discovered that the real key to success was the DJs. An all-reggae channel — like you can find on XM — is rare, but it would not be as compelling if it were not hosted by a former guitarist for Bob Marley and the Melody Makers.
The XM experience is a pretty close replica of earlier radio history, when FM expanded musical offerings. But is was DJs, not technology, that made FM so revolutionary.
Online news and information is consumed in an environment similar to radio. Web browsing is a solitary activity. The users are alone, often at work. They are seeking quality information delivered to them at the right time by someone they trust.
Online journalists must become DJs of information, using their professional judgment and unique personalities to guide online users to compelling stories. To use an analogy from broadcasting, online newsrooms must become anchored.
Online news sites should develop anchors who guide users through news and information throughout the business day. A quality anchor must have authoritative knowledge of the subject and a unique voice and perspective on the news. He or she must invite the audience to participate in the community and generate content. News sites must develop their anchorâ€™s familiarity and invest its brand in the anchorâ€™s personality. It must make the anchor familiar to his or her audience.
Journalists in anchored online newsrooms are divided into three primary job functions: Editor, Anchor and Producer. Copyeditors, night and weekend anchors, researchers, programmers, technologists, photographers and designers support those three primary roles.
The Editor is the person who goes to meetings. Responsibilities include long-range planning for the desk and co-ordination with other desks. Management of the deskâ€™s anchor and producer is left to the editor.
The Anchor is the chief person in charge of the deskâ€™s daily blog. The anchor guides users to specific types of information at appointed times during the day. The anchor provides commentary on the news, does original reporting, interacts with users, hosts online discussions and is the primary public face of the desk. They must have strong personalities, deep knowledge of their subjects and a clear voice.
The Producer is responsible for all non-textual content created by the desk. Producers must have the creativity and technical knowledge to tell stories using multimedia and interactive tools.
An anchorâ€™s day looks like this:
8 a.m. â€“ 10 a.m: Post guide to articles from the affiliated traditional news source. Augment with short online discussions with reporters or relevant newsmakers. Take selected submissions from users.
10 a.m. â€“ Noon: Post a roundup of news from other sources. Augment with short online discussions with reporters or relevant newsmakers. Take selected submissions from users.
Noon â€“ 2 p.m.: Host a live online discussion with a newsmaker, and post appropriate user-generated content.
2 p.m. â€“ 4 p.m.: Conduct some original reporting as news warrants, primarily via audio or video. Guide users to news updates and original documents related to the dayâ€™s news.
4 p.m. â€“ 6 p.m.: Post summaries of evening news shows, and preview tomorrowâ€™s stories.
(6 p.m. â€“ 2 a.m.: This shift is covered by a night anchor. Night anchors may cover several desks at once to reduce staffing levels to appropriately match the audience. Overnight anchors post appropriate user-generated content and guide users to breaking news.)
Online news organizations should consider blogging not just as a trendy tool for organizing and presenting content, but the vehicle to better define the rolls of online journalists. Online newsrooms with traditional news counterparts should reorganize the newsroom into an anchored model more commonly found in broadcasting than print newsrooms. It should also simultaneously shift its advertising sales pitches and techniques to those that more closely mirror broadcasting. Successful online advertising will interrupt not just space, but also time. The job of bloggers — anchors — is to drive an audience forward through that time, by engaging the audience, building trust and building a unique brand.