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A Syracuse station listens to its audience
by Deborah Potter

Fresh out of story ideas? Slow news week? That's how it was at WIXT-TV in Syracuse, NY, (now WSYR-TV) during February sweeps in 2000 when then assistant news director Jim Tortora* made a suggestion. Let's set up a phone line, he said, and ask people to call us. Everyone snickered. But since nothing else was working, they tried it. The result: "Your Stories," stories developed in response to viewers' calls and e-mails, that are now featured on every newscast the station produces.

The project started small--a few calls came in, a few decent stories developed. News managers noticed that every time one of these viewer-suggested stories aired, the station got 6 to 8 calls offering other ideas. Eventually, they started promoting and showcasing the reports under the "Your Stories" banner. But the idea didn't really take off until the newsroom held a call-in night, with reporters manning the phones, and received 650 calls in two hours.

Now, news director Ron Lombard says, "'Your Stories' is starting to become what we are, what we are known for." The stories presented under the "Your Stories" banner cover a wide range of topics and are presented in a variety of styles. But all of them have this in common: they are of immediate local interest.

Lombard says that's one reason the project has been a success. While he hasn't seen any measurable ratings growth, his station hasn't suffered the erosion in viewership that has plagued other stations. "We're trying to build consistency and frequency of viewership," Lombard says. "The more you can tell stories that are relevant to [viewers], the more you can hook them."

WIXT-TV has a dedicated telephone line for "Your Stories" suggestions that does not send callers to voice mail. To make sure callers always speak to a person, staffers have shifts when they're responsible for answering the line and getting basic information. The station also holds call-in nights at least once a month, and solicits viewer ideas on its Web site. The result: At last check, they had a "dynamic database" of 1400 story ideas to work from. To manage all that information, the station's former planning editor has been named "Your Stories" coordinator, responsible for researching stories and determining whether and how to cover them.

"We guarantee that we'll listen, not that we'll do all the stories," Lombard says. But he says that at least half of the station's enterprise stories now develop from viewers' calls. Two anchors and the station's investigative reporter are regularly assigned to cover "Your Stories," but other reporters follow suggestions that come up in their area of interest. And not every story becomes a package. Some are covered in what Lombard calls a "triple"--in which a reporter or anchor tells three stories (or answers three viewer questions) in about 20 seconds each.

Other stations are making similar efforts to include viewers' suggestions in their newscasts. WPBF-TV in West Palm Beach, FL, calls its franchise "Talk to 25;" WJET-TV in Erie, PA, has its own "Your Stories" line and Web link. KMOL-TV in San Antonio promotes "You Choose the News," a project that urges viewers to vote on stories they'd like to see covered, and which has been picked up by WCNC-TV in Charlotte, NC.

Imitation, it's been said, is the sincerest form of television, and there's certainly been plenty of it over the years. We're all too familiar with sweeps pieces that spread like a virus from market to market. But what's being copied here is strategy, not content. The stations reaching out to their viewers are finding stories that matter to the communities they serve. As Ron Lombard puts it, "It's a total home run."

Original post date: 2001. Tortora was named news director in 2003. Lombard moved on to become general manager of News 10 Now, the local cable news outlet in Syracuse.

Page Last Updated
January 15, 2009

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