Memorandum To: Bill LordFrom: Channel SurfingRe: Free advice
Congratulations on your appointment last week as news director of the newly merged WJLA-TV (Channel 7) and NewsChannel 8. Clearly, you are a man who enjoys a good challenge. Why else would you sign up for this gig?
We don’t have to tell you WJLA’s news isn’t exactly a ratings monster. The station is essentially this town’s third choice for local news. It’s been that way for decades.
To its credit, your new employer, Allbritton Communications Co., has dropped a lot of dough to change this.
Since 1999, Allbritton has hired marquee names like Maureen Bunyan and Doug Hill to goose WJLA’s news numbers. Last fall, the company even shelled out $20 million to merge WJLA with NewsChannel 8, creating the largest local television newsroom in the Washington area.
Now Allbritton has brought you aboard to take WJLA and NewsChannel 8 to the top.
Good luck. As you are about to discover, Washingtonians are notoriously reluctant to change their news-viewing habits.
Still, your task isn’t impossible. So we spent the last few days chatting with journalists, business people, government and nonprofit leaders and just-plain-folks to get some ideas on how you turn WJLA and NewsChannel 8 around.
Here are our findings. You can thank us later.
Find your niche. Much of the local news in Washington is the same from station to station, but there are some distinctions.
NBC affiliate WRC-TV (Channel 4) does the best job covering the D.C. government, thanks to ace City Hall reporter Tom Sherwood. CBS affiliate WUSA-TV (Channel 9) focuses on covering “official” Washington. The local Fox affiliate, WTTG-TV (Channel 5), does its share of silly sweeps stunts, but some of its investigative reports are quite good.
What void can WJLA and NewsChannel 8 fill? Take your pick.
No station provides consistent coverage of the Maryland and Virginia legislatures. Too bad, because there are plenty of good stories to be found in the statehouses.
Maybe your niche could be health care stories, something viewers like. WJLA has a smart reporter in medical correspondent Kathy Fowler, but instead of having her rehash the latest diet research every night, why not turn her loose on the region’s shaky health care system, which doesn’t get much coverage?
Give viewers a reason to watch by giving them news they can’t get elsewhere.
Stop competing with yourself. Does it really make sense to produce two separate newscasts for two stations at the same time? For example, when Ms. Bunyan and Doug McKelway are anchoring the late news on WJLA, Nathan Roberts is presiding over the news on NewsChannel 8.
Which one are we supposed to watch? Maybe it would be a better idea to put a local talk show or newsmagazine on NewsChannel 8 when WJLA’s news is on.
And please, give poor weekend anchor Susan Roberts a break. On some nights, you can watch her reading the headlines on the WJLA set, and then flip the channel to see her doing the same thing on the NewsChannel 8 set. Is one of the newscasts on tape, or is she supernatural?
Be different. Want to really make an impression on viewers? Quit the silly live shots. Why have a reporter stand outside a courthouse to talk about a trial, hours after all the lawyers and judges have gone home? While you’re at it, take it easy with the stories about crime and house fires. Viewers will be grateful.
Questions? Comments? Tips? Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.