Home > Uncategorized > The Discomfort of Change

The Discomfort of Change

-first posted at RTDNA.org on February 16, 2010

My station changed its weather web page last week.  We had, up until then, a weather page that was terrific…in 2005.  We made some changes over the years, but it just had not kept up with the needs people had for weather sites online.  I even found myself, while managing our site on a daily basis, needing to look at Accuweather.com for my online weather info.  We knew we needed a change, so station managers went out to look for a software solution that would allow us plenty of customization, but would still give users the chance to find fresh data all the time.

We put the new site up live last Thursday to work out the bugs and then started crowing about it on air Friday.  Our meteorologist did her entire weathercast at five, six, and ten standing in front of the site on the weather wall, running it through its paces for all to see.  Going into the weekend, I was excited we had debuted something this useful to our viewers and site visitors—until I opened my e-mail Saturday morning.

“Your new on line weather is not only more diffecult to navigate it is just as wrong as the old format. Once again if I want the current weather I must go to the Weather Underground to get a real forcast! DO YOU NOT MONITOR THIS SITE AT ALL? Please try to do Better.”

“I am not a meteorologist, I like the old way of looking up the weather better, I will go elsewhere to look up my weather I wish you would change it back to the old method.”

“Just some feedback on the new layout for the weather page. It’s not very good; it looks cluttered and it’s difficult to get to what I want to see. The popups are not as good as having the picture on the page change.”

“I had bookmarked your weather but with the new presentation I am doing away with that bookmark.  You had a great weather site but this new one is terrible.”

I, of course, answer all the e-mails I get—no matter how bad the spelling and punctuation.  In each case here, I asked the writer to be specific in what it was on the old site that was no longer present on the new site—knowing full well that the new site has EVERYTHING the old site had and much more.  That last fellow above wrote back with the most honest reply of the bunch.  He typed—sheepishly, if it’s possible to type sheepishly—these words:

“I guess I just liked the old site.”

There you have it.  Those eight words sum up the biggest problem you’ll have with your viewers.  They don’t like change.  Even if the change delivers more for them, they won’t like it.  Among these complainers above, not one could name anything they used on the old site that they did not also have on the new site.  So it wasn’t the function that upset them, it was the form.

Now here’s the biggest headache from all of this.  There was a time not so long ago that TV stations could find a look, find an anchor team, find an approach, and just stick with it.  How many of us grew up watching a station in our hometowns that stayed pretty much the same for years?  There was strength then in staying the same.  Imagine being that news director.  Your reporters know their beats.  Your anchors know their communities.  The approach that’s worked to tell the stories keeps working over and over again.  And the viewers are satisfied—maybe not stimulated, but satisfied.  So why change?

Here’s why.  Those viewers with an eye on the way things used to be are still out there.  I could tell that at least half of the people who wrote me to complain where older folks, retirees and the like.  They’re still a big part of our audience.  Their steadfastness in viewing habits props up our numbers because they’re there every night.  We hate to anger them for fear of losing them.  But lose them we will. Because of their age, these most loyal—and change-resistant—viewers will not last forever.  So we go looking for the younger set, hoping to lure them with three-screen availability, stories on social media and other young topics, and most of all, change.

We can’t have it all.  Change to bring in new viewers will push away your old reliable folks as fast as our new weather page did.  But sticking with the tried and true is a sure fire ticket to the news graveyard.  For my two cents worth, I’m going to keep changing.  Riding a dying demographic to extinction won’t do anything to serve the future.  We’ve entered an era of micro-audiences and personal news experiences.  We might as well get used to the fact that the massive audiences of the past are exactly that—a thing of the past.  Embracing change—something that’s often as hard to do for journalists as it is for viewers—is the way to survive.

Perhaps we do what some of the people we cover do to make sure things don’t last too long.  How about taking a page from your state legislature and putting a sunset provision on newsroom policy?  Any idea you put into effect today automatically expires in three years.  No matter how great it’s working, it has to go on its appointed schedule.  It sounds crazy, but keeping a good idea too long is what got us to the dwindling audiences of today.  I say sunsetting even our best ideas will mean a new dawn for journalism down the road.  And shouldn’t that culture of reinvention be the habit we want don’t want to change?

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