Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

How Twitter and Rod Blagojevich Helped Converge Our Broadcast Newsroom

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How Twitter and Rod Blagojevich Helped Converge Our Broadcast Newsroom
Jack Higgins

There were no consultants, no powerpoint, no personnel retreats that helped converge our broadcast and online operations at WMAQ. Rather, it was Rod Blagojevich and Twitter, in that order, that brought our newsroom together. [1]

About a year ago, I was hired to, among other duties, help manage the web/broadcast convergence process for this blog's parent site and station, nbcchicago.com and WMAQ Channel 5 in Chicago. After a year, we've had some success with a few different initiatives. But I can safely say nothing has helped that convergence process more than how we used twitter to cover the corruption trial of Rod Blagojevich.

Earlier in the year we had launched the station's first blog, Ward Room, which is dedicated to covering nine of Chicago's political influencers. As Ward Room grew in popularity, we gave the blog its own twitter account. The idea, originally, was to tweet quotes from political events during the day, and to RT the biggest news to our main account, @NBCChicago.

The blog, as with all of our online initiatives, had our news director's full support. We regularly uploaded raw broadcast video to the site, and the station's political reporters provided the lion's share of reporting. But the site and blog (and of course the twitter feed), despite truly impressive traffic growth, remained little more than curiosities to most of the newsroom.

Then the Blagojevich trial began. WMAQ's political reporter, Phil Rogers, covered the trial from Dirksen Federal Court. He was assisted by a content producer, Courtney Copenhagen. Since there were no laptops allowed in the courtroom, Phil would file blog posts from his iPhone and, when a signal allowed, from his iPad. Courtney, meanwhile, used her Blackberry to tweet the proceedings via text message. @Ward_Room rapidly became one of the must-follow accounts for Blagojevich newshounds.

When the jury, at the 11-day mark, told Zagel they had reached unanimity on just two counts, Courtney was the first to tweet -- like all breaking news, that tweet launched a torrent of RTs and follow-up mini-missives. The newsroom, accustomed to getting breakers from the wires or phone calls from reporters, began following @Ward_Room. When there were questions about a specific topic, someone in the newsroom would forward the link to a @Ward_Room tweet. At one point, NBC's national news desk called to ask who @Ward_Room was -- because that's where they'd been getting the latest news on the trial.

While this was going down, news managers were meeting to decide how to break the Blagojevich verdict.[2] Dirksen presented its own unique challenges. The wi-fi signal inside the courtroom was notoriously fickle (Phil Rogers rushed in every morning to get the 3rd seat in the 2nd row, solely for its dependable signal). At verdict time, the courtroom doors would be closed, so no one could call the station. You couldn't rely on e-mail, either. But our signal would already be live, and the anchors would be on-air -- how would they get the news?

To ensure we got the news first, the news managers devised a plan whereby Courtney would tweet the verdict counts via text message as the jury read them off: #blagojevich count 1 G (count 1 guilty), #blagojevich count 2 NG (count 2 not guilty), etc. The anchors (or their on-set crew) would receive the tweets on their own Blackberries, and we'd go live with the news. When the verdict came down, abbreviated as it was, that plan went into action.

For online natives, or for pure online newsrooms, this process may sound obvious. But for a TV news station, with a half-century+ of procedural tradition under its belt, being flexible enough to accommodate twitter -- and being savvy enough to recognize twitter's news gathering benefits -- represents a marked achievement. Most importantly, it led everyone in the newsroom, from the assignment desk to the content producers, to embrace our online assets.

Before the Blagojevich trial, WMAQ's news managers were enthusiastic about social media. After the trial, the entire newsroom shares that enthusiasm. Ward Room, supported by TV reporters Phil Rogers, Mary Ann Ahern, and Carol Marin (without whom the blog would offer little more than analysis) has become an integral part of our station's political coverage. @Ward_Room is the tip of that news spear.

We're a TV station. TV news is our primary mover. But our web presence is growing -- not just online, but within the newsroom as well. For that success, we tip our hat to twitter.

And you too, Rod Blagojevich.

_____________________________

[1] Television stations, historically, haven't been the quickest to adopt online distribution. Strange that, considering the confluence of a broadcast's unique asset (i.e., video) with the web's most popular content (i.e., video).

There are a lot of reasons for this lag, and years ago many said the biggest obstacle was the lack of financial incentive-- TV advertising is still wildly profitable, while banner display CPMs are cratering -- combined with the technological hurdles (it costs a little bit to manage all that video). There are several companies that specialize in TV station web sites, and those sites traditionally have simply placed the TV content online, as if there were no difference in audience expectation.

The other big obstacle has been cultural. TV stations are built on two basic ideas: high production values (high barrier to entry) and well-known personalities. You watch us, the reasoning goes, because we show you what nobody else can, and because our faces are familiar. And it's true. Newspapers frame front pages along their hallways. Magazines frame their covers. TV stations hang photos of their reporters and anchors.

The web has been anathema to that local TV culture. The web represents the opposite: almost no barrier to entry, and almost guaranteed anonymity. Not to mention there are few decency standards online, whereas local TV is predicated on family style journalism. Small wonder, then, that O&Os and affiliated stations have traditionally outsourced the management of their sites. To its credit, NBC was one of the first broadcast networks to recognize the upside (i.e., national advertising scale). Recently, CBS has followed a similar strategy with its O&Os, while ABC has partnered (at least in DC) with TBD.com. National TV, obviously, has been much quicker to adopt a cohesive web strategy that doesn't involve simply plopping their on-air video onto a web site.

[2] The organization required for a TV station to cover an event is impressive: the scheduling of satellite trucks, on-set time, camera crews, reporters, the jiggering of on-air schedules, the guarantee of cable feeds to run the cameras live, etc. This is not a single reporter with a pad and pen. This is not blogging.

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