By MATT LINDNER
For Sun-Times Media
A former Tribune Co. executive has news for the TV industry: Anchors and reporters aren’t necessary.
Which isn’t to say Lee Abrams’ TouchVision doesn’t need broadcast journalists. The new Chicago-based national news network has hired more than 100 workers, about half of whom are producers and editors responsible for putting together stories.
“The opportunity to really pick and choose great people has never been better,” Abrams says, referencing the layoffs and hiring freezes common in media these days.
The radio vet and ex-Tribune CIO hopes TouchVision will capture the coveted millennial audience by making the news more like the movies.
“It’s a reimagination of the news aimed at people in their 20s and 30s, sort of that zone between Miley Cyrus and traditional news,” says Abrams (pictured at left). “We try to balance journalistic integrity with strong creative.”
It’s not Abrams’ first try at anchorless news. He launched a similar format in 2011 at KIAH-TV, the last-place station in Houston, where it remains in effect.
TouchVision produces and distributes news clips for use by partner stations like WCIU in Chicago and CBS affiliate WDJT in Milwaukee. The lack of on-air talent isn’t the only difference viewers will notice.
Each story features a narrator reading over a bed of music. The overall experience can come off as overwhelming and distracting at times, but it’s designed to be more visually engaging. “You’re looking at amazing video and you’re hearing the facts,” says TouchVision managing editor Kathryn Janicek, a local news veteran who most recently was executive producer of NBC5’s morning show. “Nobody’s doing graphics like this.”
The content is available online, through an app and as live video that each station streams 24/7 on a digital subchannel. And all that is part of the appeal to audiences — and advertisers, says co-founder Steve Saslow.
“What we’re following is a television model of selling this rather than a digital model,” he says. “We are a proponent of one buy, four screens. The 30-second ad we sell runs online, on mobile. We’ll take credit for where the viewer actually watches it.”
The benefit on the local level is twofold, he says. Sales staffs get more airtime to sell while producers get more content to fill their newscasts.
“It is not competitive with on-air broadcast television news right now because it serves an entirely different audience,” Saslow says.
But some question whether viewers have really changed with technology.
“Over the years, survey after survey have shown that the audience loves to identify with the person telling them the news,” says Sam Roberts, a former senior producer of “CBS Evening News” when it was anchored by Walter Cronkite. “If the talent is good and stays in a community long enough, the people there begin to identify with that person as a trusted friend and neighbor.”
Abrams and his team argue that their format is just as trustworthy. TouchVision gets raw footage from traditional newsgathering outfits like CNN, Getty and the Associated Press.
“Then it goes through our creative oasis where they add the soundtrack, narration, additional elements to help tell the story,” Abrams says.
Though that way of doing the news may seem impersonal, especially with journalists gathering the facts far from where stories are happening, Janicek says technology has made that side of things easier.
“We can listen to scanners on the Web now,” she says. “During [the Boston Marathon bombing], we were listening to the police and fire there. We can do news all over the country right here in Chicago.”