How to “go big” on national breaking news

A producer recently emailed asking about ways to handle big, breaking national stories.  Do you sacrifice local and fill the a-block?  How without offending the viewer who might want a lot of local?  What a great topic, since it is so easy to go online and on cable news and get that national story.  So let’s delve in to ways to do this, without offending local viewers.  Also, I would love to hear your feedback on whether you think going big on a national story, locally, is effective since social media and online news are so relevant now.  Please go to our FB page and talk about it.  This debate will continue to grow as TV redefines its role.  When you discuss it, consider these key points.  They can help you decide how much to do on large scale national stories during your local newscast.

  • Viewers are used to getting news at this time of day, from you
  • Viewers feel a connection to your anchors


Both of the points listed above come down to one important point, when deciding how to cover a big national story:  Trust.  Viewers trust their familiar, local, anchors and like checking in that time of the day with those anchors.  They are prepared to see your anchors giving them the most important news at that time.  That’s why so many newsrooms go big, even when the story is not local.

The producer that emailed me specifically mentioned the Newtown school shootings.  This is a different scenario than the fiscal cliff, which is easy to localize.  The day of the shootings, you are still figuring out what the basic facts are, so localizing can be a little more difficult.  Blowing out an assumption, to turn local angles can backfire.  So localize as much as you can but, do not feel you must have a lot of local tie-ins in order to go big.  Large market producers will tell you this is an opportunity to let your anchors own the big story, just like a local breaker.  That means avoiding a national package.  If you are allowed to get a live shot from the affiliate feed, go for a custom and let your anchors debrief the anchors with questions you think your viewers would want answered.  Make sure you have a set up spelling out the basic facts and setting the scene, so the viewer understands the scope.  This can be done with vo/sots, a package you write for your anchors, or a combination of nat sound, vo’s, vo/sots and graphics.  Do what you need to really spell the story out in an effective way for your viewers.  The point is owning the story, instead of seeming to hand it off to a network reporter and moving on.  Handing it off can encourage a viewer to switch channels.  Remember, the viewer has a trust connection with your anchors.  They can tell the story well, and should.

When you can add tidbits of local reaction, do it.  Let your anchors help you find this information out.  It really is an effective technique to have your anchor say something like, “I just called so and so, and that agency would handle a situation like this, the same way.”  Again, your anchor is acting as an advocate for the viewer, let them ask the questions the viewers would love to ask themselves.  Let the anchor “own the story.”  The viewer trusts the anchor and wants to see him/her in that role.

Another solid technique is letting the viewer know about local stories coming up, and when they will see them during this national coverage.  Some mention it as an umbrella lead and some do it with teases off the top of the newscast.  Some just have the anchors mention there is a lot of local news coming up in 5 minutes.  That way, viewers know you are also on top of the “big” local news of the day as well.

The key when determining how much coverage to give a big national story is the potential impact it will have on your viewers.  For example, the Newtown school shootings were so shocking, viewers would crave information.  By not covering it much, you would actually encourage viewers, used to watching news at that time, to switch channels.  The viewer’s gut feeling would be “This is a huge story, I need to know about.”  They want to learn the information from journalists they trust.  You can encourage them to further believe that it is your anchors and reporters they need to trust.  Do not just shove a national pkg off a feed into the a-block and let it go.  Let your anchors ask the questions the viewers want answered.  Continue to build the trust. That way when a big story happens, your viewers will turn to your newscast first, no matter where the story came from.