Social media and television news: never the twain shall meet
After seven months on air, CTV's Kevin Newman Live gave up trying to bridge the gap between online interaction and traditional broadcast journalism
By: Erica Lenti
It started with a shaky, selfie-angled smartphone shot. Kevin Newman, then 54, held his device up for the opening monologue of his new TV show the same way a teenager would at the club—arm raised, head slightly tilted. He then began the broadcast straight from his smartphone. The night’s top story, Newman announced enthusiastically, hand still shaking, the shot dizzying, was Rob Ford’s loss of mayoral power, the introduction triggering a barrage of viral clips. By the time the title card appeared—“Personal! Immediate! Now: Kevin Newman Live”—the show had already distanced itself from the typical Canadian newscast.
Kevin Newman Live launched on November 18, 2013 to broadcast the day’s news as dictated by social media. But the premise never stuck and after just seven months, CTV cut KNL from its lineup. At first, producers considered the show the answer to broadcasting’s loss of young viewers to the digital world; but the team, like so many others in television news, quickly found the solution wasn’t that simple. While TV newscasts primarily attract an older demographic, younger Canadians dominate engagement on the internet—and a single show can’t attract both groups. Rather, the younger, active audiences of social media and the older, passive viewers of broadcast, like oil and water, are inevitably bound to separate. These two vastly different worlds of news consumption are best off avoiding the merger and the failure of KNL proves why.
While KNL was the first full-length show its kind in the country, many news organizations have attempted social media coverage, including Canada AM’s “Things I Learned on the Internet Today” segment to City News Toronto’s viral video of the day. Like KNL, these segments attempt to bridge the gap between digital and broadcast. Often, they fail to engage because the ability to share content is non-existent. There are also concerns of accuracy: viewers aren’t getting firsthand, original reporting from traditional journalists. But most important, much of the content runs the risk of being pegged as old news, already devoured online by the same audience producers are desperately trying to reel in: the younger crowd.
The primary viewers of television news are in their 40s and 50s, consumers Statistics Canada has found are not as plugged in as their younger counterparts. In fact, a study by the Canadian Media Research Consortium found precious few Canadians over 55 consume news via social media.
Regardless, CTV proceeded with the digital-TV crossbreed. In April 2013, looking to pioneer an innovative newscast for the channel, the network’s president Wendy Freeman set her sights on Newman. By June, he and Jack Fleischmann, the vice-president of CTV news channel at the time, were working on the bare bones of the show. It opted to present viral memes and “click-y” news stories that fare so well online in a broadcast format for one hour every weeknight, using little to no original reporting and a reliance on social media for editorial direction. But it was like watching a seasoned journalist reciting BuzzFeed articles on air—show taglines took cues from clickbait headlines. Hashtags loomed in the corner of the screen for the 50-minute duration of the program. Aggregators who found stories on Reddit and Twitter replaced all but one original reporter, and Facebook comments and tweets often took on the role of streeter interviews. But watching journalists read social media commentary on air is awkward at best.
Without an interactive demographic, engagement flops. Despite touting the benefits of a “two-screen approach”—interacting with the KNL’s crew online using a tablet, smartphone or laptop—the show found little traction using live-blogging tool ScribbleLive, which let viewers converse with the show’s producers on social media. The blog picked up little steam from the start, with few viewers joining in on the conversation. By June, the blog was cut. Colin Horgan, a writer and producer for KNL, admits, “We never generated that online conversation we had hoped for.”
The sentiment reveals a core, contradictory issue with traditional media’s attempts to cover digital content: broadcast news conditions viewers to be passive, while online content is often active and dependent on crowdsourcing. Whether because of their age or preferred form of news consumption, Newman says: “People watching TV don’t really want to be interactive.”
That’s Rena Bivens’s take, too. The author of Digital Currents, which examines the digitization of broadcast journalism, agrees that it makes sense to tap into the world of news through social media. Yet the translation to broadcast can become stunted. “While so many of us are interested in what’s happening on our social media feeds,” she says, “it doesn’t mean we necessarily want take the culture of what’s going on there and see it in a different context.”
Research in her book also shows that journalists receive little feedback from their audience and yet social media allows those same viewers to discuss the journalism online with other viewers. So far, no one has figured out how a television newscast can handle this convergence despite attempts such as KNL. The news organizations that have been most successful in crossbreeding digital and broadcast journalism are native to online. The Toronto Star’s senior editor of social media Jennifer Wilson points to Mashable, which produces minute-long videos of viral stories with catchy, witty scripts that provide a snippet into a newsworthy event and are easy to share. Still, they too rely on aggregation in place of original reporting and a jump to television sets is unlikely.
KNL responded to its shortcomings with traditional broadcast news tactics. Newman stopped emphasizing interactivity and instead opted to read tweets on air and reference Google Maps and Instagram photos. He went as far as explaining the meaning of #TOpoli, the Twitter hashtag for discussion about Toronto politics. By KNL’s last episode in June 2014, stand-up shots of Newman, a tried-and-true staple of broadcast news, had replaced the shaky smartphone shots.
Despite the show’s cancellation, many former KNL journalists, including Newman himself, insist shows with a similar format will continue to crop up. The prospects for such shows remain bleak. And networks would be wise to stop trying.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the KNL live blog was cut in its first month, and aggregators replaced all original reporters. The live blog ended after six months, and the team had a single original reporter. The Review regrets the errors.
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by Erica Lenti
Erica Lenti was the Spring 2015 editor of the RRJ.