Ozymandias 2.0

I hadn’t been out of the water long when the push notification buzzed my phone at 8:25 a.m. It read: “At 8:30: Only KXXX-TV obtains surveillance video of a gunman robbing a donut shop in…” The moment I saw it, my heart sank as I immediately realized: everything my digital team at KXXX and I have been fighting for over the past two-and-a-half years has been for nothing.

It was a push alert that only two people — the current news director and station manager (who’s also the former news director) — would love. It did one thing and one thing only: it promoted a television newscast.

The problem is that the message was delivered by a digital messenger. And there was no digital payoff. A user who received that message had but one option if they were interested in the story: turn on the TV. Never mind that they might be at the supermarket or Starbucks, asleep in their bed or behind the wheel of their car. There was one way and one way only to engage with the information we had sent out — and that way was not via the device that had alerted them.

There was no link to a story. There was no video on the website. It was 100 percent cross-platform promotion. As such, it was just another spasm in the funky-chicken dance the television networks are doing right now.

Because while there was just one way to engage with the story, there was another, easier way NOT to engage: close the notification and continue on with your day. That was the much easier option, and one that even someone interested in the story would be forced to take if turning on their TV wasn’t possible at that particular moment.

All of this is lost on the management at my station and my corporation (for just three more business days, thankfully, not that I’m counting). It’s a station where the news director says, “I don’t know why we’re even building a digital business; TV makes the money.” And it’s a corporation where the national news director says, “TV makes dollars; digital makes dimes.”

For now, that’s true, Ms. and Mr. News Director. But you two see the ratings every single day. You know that you’re skimming a slice of an ever-shrinking pool. Where once you drew fives and tens for ratings, now you’re drawing ones and twos — and that’s for successful shows in big cities. Do the math. Digital already draws a bigger audience than your newscasts. What it doesn’t do is monetize that audience well. For now.

In a very short time, KXXX-TV and its parent corporation are going to look around and realize that it’s too late. That someone more agile, more focused on the no-longer-emerging-because-it’s-already-here digital world, has aced them out on the local-news front. This new lemming is running around delivering still-ripe digital content to that digital world, while the dinosaur is tossing its regurgitated stuff to its pet lemming, allowing that old, nutrient-poor stuff to be used only after it’s been sent out to the few people still watching TV: blue-haired folks even older than me. And the hundred-year-old-plus company will continue its slow fade to black having squandered its chance to make the next evolutionary step, a step identical to the one its founder made when he went from newspapers to radio, and from radio to TV. It’s an age-old maxim for a reason: adapt or perish.

I’ve detached from situation. I did that two weeks ago when I gave notice. (In truth: I detached months ago when it became clear that the news director and station manager could not be swayed by data or by best practices, but had already made up their own minds on what purpose digital served. So much for “we’re a data-driven company” and “Challenge the Process.”)

But I’m disappointed because I believed this company and station were perfectly set up to take that next evolutionary step. It’s the second time in my career that professional bean counters with old-world myopia have cut short what I thought was going to be a wonderful opportunity to build something digital that lasts. The first attempt, Citysearch, is now a poor man’s Yelp. Oh, what might have been. And the digital properties at my current station (and its sister stations across the country) are a poor man’s Google search result for news with prettier layout. Oh, what might have been. Hell, even the last print product I worked for, Alaska magazine, is but a shadow of its former self, each issue a fraction in size of what it once was.

That was the sad realization as I stripped off my wetsuit this morning: that my resume is a worn-down statue, half-buried in encroaching desert sands, crying out, “Look on my works!” Some of my individual writing is okay and I like to believe I’ve cultivated some great talents as a manager, but the properties I had hoped to help build that might have lasted have instead faded away, leaving little more than historical footnotes (if even that). Sobering indeed.

Here’s to the next phase in the lifelong journey. Maybe the statue can still be dusted off and cleaned up a bit.

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