Viva Transparency

In Las Vegas yesterday, I took part in a panel at the NAB-RTNDA convention delightfully titled, "I'll Show You Mine … Giving Our Audience A Peek Under The Hood (The Cutting Edge)." This is the annual convention for TV insiders and joining me on the panel were Kevin Keeshan, news director for KGO-TV in San Francisco and Vicki Zimmerman, news director for WAFB-TV in Baton Rouge. And moderating the panel was the always-able Stephen Warley of 602 Communications and Lost Remote fame. The purpose of the discussion was to talk about the ways in which news organizations are letting their audience inside the process.

I, of course, talked about Public Eye and some of the things we're doing to try and provide a level of transparency at CBS News and help facilitate a discussion about it with the audience. But we aren't the only ones trying to let the audience in to some degree.

Kevin and Vicki, both being in the local TV News business, go about reaching out to their audiences in different ways than PE does. Their attempts come off sort of gimmicky to me, but the intentions are honest. Kevin talked a lot about community involvement. For example, the news managers at KGO hold regular town-hall style meetings where they listen to what's important to their audience and then the station covers those stories.

The station's Web site has an impressive list of polls and viewer reaction. And Kevin occasionally blogs, answering questions and explaining how and why editorial decisions are made. While many of the examples Kevin provided had a real promotional "7-on-your-side" feel to them, his station understands the value of letting the audience in and paying attention to them once they're there. He said every e-mail, every letter and every phone call are answered.

From what I could tell, WAFB isn't quite there yet. Vicki talked mostly about some of the blogs her station has done – a mixed bag in my opinion. First, she told about the story of Jeanne Burns, a morning anchor who had gained a tremendous amount of weight during a pregnancy. So she began a blog to keep viewers up to date on her efforts to walk it off. I won't go into all the details, but according to Vicki, the blog received an overwhelming response. OK, I get it, audiences connect with on-air talent, have opinions on their appearance and so forth. But I'm not at all sure what it has to do with news and don't think it qualifies as an effort at transparency.

More interesting is a blog by WAFB's chief engineer where he talks about the technical side of the business and gives some tips and explanations – like why the volume on commercials is louder than the programming. It may be a little dry for some, but I think it comes much closer to what transparency is all about.

What came across loud and clear to me is something that should be self-evident – different news organizations serve different audiences, have different needs and will go about this business of openness in very different ways. Local TV news has always been campy and the ways in which they seek to provide a glimpse inside will take on their characteristics – the same is true for newspapers and national news organizations. The most important point is more organizations of all stripes are increasingly trying.