News Tips, TV Viewers and Computer Links:
A Follow-Up Story
Local television increasingly invites comment from its viewers via
computer links. A study examined follow-through by news executives who, one
year earlier, planned to use such technology to get news tips. Respondents
reported widely varying levels of effort, technical approaches and degrees of
success. The telephone still brings in far more tips. Research into audience
attitudes toward such access is suggested.
News Tips, Viewers and Computer Links:
A Follow-Up Story
Computer-based conversations have been launched during this decade
throughout the U. S. media marketplace. However, computer relationships between
television newsrooms and television audiences remain tentative. This is true in
particular of the paths by which viewers might hope to influence the selection
and reporting of news.
News dominates local programming in most markets. It could become a
prime beneficiary of television's emerging computer connections to audiences.
But up till now--due to management priorities, organizational inertia,
journalistic resistance or other factors--opportunities for viewers to affect
news outcomes have amounted to only a fraction of the computer functions
established by stations.
One of a small but significant class of traditional viewer
contributions to the journalistic process is the "news tip"--a bit of
information which can give rise to stories or help reporters follow up on
continuing stories. Such tips often are solicited by news organizations and
usually are passed along by telephone. However, in a 1995 study of local news
organizations' efforts at outreach to audiences, a majority of respondents
reported that they did or soon would encourage viewers to contribute news ideas
via electronic mail.
This paper presents findings of a 1996 follow-up survey--a view of
how broadly and successfully stations have executed those plans--and considers
their implications for the viewer and the television journalist.
THE NEWS VIEWER'S VOICE
From one perspective, audiences already influence all television
content. They do this through their channel-changers. Viewers spurn one show
and flock to another, encouraging the continuation of the latter and the
extinction of the former (O'Connor, 1995; Mifflin, 1995). But this
watch/no-watch dynamic is only binary, a crude feedback device. Researchers
must dig deep to learn more precisely what viewers want--in entertainment or in
Technology could provide greater access: Full and agile
"interactivity" giving TV audiences more direct and immediate say over content
and program structure is being tested. The programmer Tartikoff promised
viewers that in an approaching interactive future, "You will choose what you
want to watch, when you want to watch" (Thomas, 1994). So far, though, viewers
cannot inject their views and tastes directly into programs under construction;
they cannot, for example, rewrite a Jerry Seinfeld joke just before he delivers
Whether viewer input via computer links becomes desirable just
because it's possible is in question. Television news generally has not
welcomed outsiders' involvement beyond that incorporated in long-established
habits and routines which facilitate news production (Davie, 1993; Hansen, 1994;
Neuwirth, 1988). However, tips from viewers long have been a well-supported
part of those newsroom routines. McManus (1994) portrays tips as an element of
"moderately active discovery" as well as "highly active discovery" of news by
journalistic organizations. (Many stations, of course, now regularly welcome
unsolicited news in the form of video footage from amateurs in the audience
News tips range from breathless eyewitness reports of "spot" news,
such as fresh crimes or fires in progress, to complex proposals for
News managers are free to set limits on who may apply a hand to the
journalistic potter's wheel and to what degree. Knowing this, viewers often
write or call to offer new material. To maximize this influx, newscasts often
solicit tips on-screen, displaying assignment-desk telephone numbers--and,
increasingly, E-mail addresses.
E-mail and other computer connections, although limited by
consumers' access to computers with modems, are becoming multi-purpose tools for
local television. The author's earlier survey (Upshaw, 1995) found news
executives planning to use their existing or planned E-mail viewer links to run
polls, expand news choices and for other purposes.
The most heavily cited purpose--claimed by 69.5 percent of
respondents--was to "get news tips". However, to "promote station image" ran a
close second (62/3%), and higher ratings and improved demographics were next.
Thus were commercial priorities arrayed against journalistic ones (if opposition
is the correct interpretation).
Some might call these indications schizoid or confusing; they were
preliminary at best, like most findings from a rapidly evolving medium.
Arguably, they at least reflected the contradictory forces at work in television
news: It tries to do well by doing good--to make money for the station by
serving community needs
--but the two goals do not always mesh.
"THE 'NET" AND THE SURVEY METHOD
Citizens' power to communicate via computer is increasing, but the
rate and current extent of this growth is unclear. Modem penetration appears to
vary widely from one city to the next and to lean heavily on socioeconomic
factors. The resulting market uncertainties may act as a drag on television's
expansion of on-line interaction with viewers.
A study by a veteran media consulting firm (Nielsen, 1995) showed
high national levels of Internet use. But the findings were disputed by a
participating scholar who said the survey was weighted toward older respondents
Similarly, almost two-thirds of the growth in Internet use during one
recent year was ascribed to businesses or their research labs (Tetzeli, 1994).
Neither of these developments assured television planners a broad and expanding
field of home viewers to be tapped on-line.
Given uncertainty as to the potential, local stations cannot be
expected to spend quickly and heavily on computer links with consumers. Indeed,
few U.S. businesses have made such moves, according to one study ("Not on the
Net?", 1995) which found only 34 percent of companies corresponding on-line with
customers and only 14 percent reaching out on-line to potential customers.
On the other hand, even many people who do not own home computers can
climb aboard the Internet at local public libraries, 21 percent of which were
reported almost two years ago to have attained Internet access (St. Lifer,
1994). Meanwhile, the overall commercial outlook for expanded Internet use is
spawning enterprises set up specifically to monitor, analyze and encourage
on-line traffic. The aforementioned Nielsen Media Research, famous for TV
ratings, has bought into a firm which audits use of the World Wide Web--a sign
that just as TV leans on audience numbers, Web advertisers may begin to do so
soon (Nash, 1995). Another company surveying travelers who use the Internet
reported that three out of four already use it to help plan their trips (Vis,
That latter survey was conducted on-line, an example of the
increasing use of the Internet to study use of the Internet. For example, a
magazine seeking the views of experts on the security of on-line communications
conducted its poll on-line (Anthes, 1994).
A similar research method--an on-line survey asking television news
managers to provide on-line answers about their on-line activities--was selected
for the current study. An advantage was that in light of anecdotal evidence
that some stations vigorously promoted computer links to viewers, a strong
infrastructure for participation seemed possible.
Embedded in this was a disadvantage: Attempts to generalize from the
survey findings to industry-wide E-mail/Internet practices probably would be
compromised by participation bias (Walsh, 1992). This would stem from the
nature of the field: Stations with avowed interest in on-line exchanges with
But the principal purpose here was to monitor follow-through on prior
claims; and at the very least, in this context and this target field, a computer
survey was not likely to go unnoticed.
A short survey was designed. The short format was chosen because
significant methodology experience (Dillman, 1978; Yammarino, 1991) suggests
that longer surveys depress response rates. The respectable (for news
organizations) 45 percent response to the 1995 precursor to this study
supported that thesis.
To news managers who in 1995 had reported E-mail/Internet plans,
this year's survey would pose these major questions:
*Is your station accessible on the World Wide Web? On E-mail?
*How many visits ("hits") does your Web site receive weekly?
*How many E-mail messages do you receive weekly?
*Do you solicit viewers' news tips? How successfully?
*How many tips do you receive monthly via computer links?
*How important are these tips to your news process?
*How often do they pay off in finished news products?
*For comparison: How many tips do you receive by telephone,
how important are they, and how often do they pay off?
Arriving at a final census of stations to be surveyed did not prove
as simple as it first appeared. The 1995 study targeting 650 U.S. television
stations yielded 291 respondents (45%), of which 210 (72.1%) reported current or
planned E-mail/Internet paths to viewers. This latter group could well have
comprised the follow-up field--except that the earlier study granted anonymity,
and some of the 210 stations chose not to volunteer their call letters when
responding (Fig. 1).
A total of 172 did provide call letters, and efforts to find their
Internet "locations" now began. Several weeks of Web searching and phone calls
to stations produced a list of 110 with reported computer addresses.
However, attempts to verify these addresses weeded out 15 stations to
which E-mail messages were sent but were electronically returned undelivered,
and which did not respond to telephone follow-ups. The remaining and final
survey field: 95 stations with verified computer addresses.
In January and early February 1996, surveys directed to the attention
of news executives were E-mailed to these 95 stations. By the Feb. 29 reply
deadline, 29 had responded via E-mail. For the record, and owing perhaps as
much to news organizations' attitudes toward surveys as to the form of delivery,
that amounted to a 30.5 percent on-line response to an on-line survey.
During March, another 35 newsrooms answered the questionnaire when
the author and a graduate assistant telephoned them to pose the questions
personally. The final total: 64 respondents, a rate of 67.3 percent.
These responses spanned all time zones and included three stations in
the top ten markets; four in market sizes 11-20; two in markets 21-30; three
in markets 31-40, and four in markets 41-50. Fifteen stations were in markets
51-100; the remaining 33 were distributed through markets 101-172.
Of the 64 respondents , 63 (98.4%)--the lone exception being a New
York station which replied only to portions of the questionnaire--acknowledged
being accessible by E-mail. The number of messages received weekly by E-mail
(Table 1) vary widely: Eight stations (12.6%) reported receiving more than 100
apiece every week; 35 stations ranged from 11 to 100 in messages received, and
ten stations (15.8%) said they receive 10 messages or fewer each week.
In short, the distribution of E-mail receipt rates was fairly uniform
across the field, but with a few stations reporting very heavy message volume
and a few barely active.
The pattern of World Wide Web returns was far different, possibly
reflecting the relative complexity of Web-site construction by stations many of
which were not hiring expert help. First, only 42 of the 64 responding stations
(65.6%) reported having established such Internet sites. Of these, 18 (42.8%)
reported receiving more than 100 weekly "hits," or registered visits by 'net
But almost as many--17 (40.4%)--answered that they "don't know" how
many people check in weekly on the station sites. Web traffic to the remaining
seven stations ranged from a handful of hits weekly to as many as 100.
Besides Web and E-mail involvement, eight of the 64 stations (12.5%)
reported using other computer-based connections to viewers, principally the
so-called BBS, or bulletin board, accessible via the Internet.
Not all messages through these computer routes come from viewers;
government agencies and public-relations practitioners increasingly place
announcements on-line. However, attempting to broaden this "information
subsidy" (Berkowitz, 1990), some stations invite viewers to give them feedback
including tips, posting on-screen their phone or address information. Asked
whether they solicit news tips from the public through such on-air promotions or
by other means, 49 of the 64 responding stations (76.5%) replied that they do
The success of such promotion campaigns has been spotty: Six of the
49 promoting stations (12.1%) reported "extremely" successful news-tip
solicitation; 10 stations (20.4%) said they had been "quite" successful; but 29
(59.1%) said their on-air appeals for news ideas had paid off only "somewhat".
Still, irrespective of promotion, all of the 64 respondents reported
receiving news tips from viewers--at least by phone. Fewer--57 stations
(89%)--said computer links are delivering tips.
A wide disparity appeared between the numbers of tips received via
phone versus computer routes (Table 2). Only six (10.5%) of the 57 stations
reporting computer-delivered tips said they get more than 20 tips a month.
By contrast, 46 (71.8%) of the 64 stations receiving telephone tips
take in more than 20 a month.
At the low end of the scale, 25 (43.8%) of the stations receiving
news tips via computer said they get five or fewer per month. Another 17
(29.8%) get only six to 10 monthly. Telephone tips come in at a much higher
rate, with only four stations reporting five or fewer per month.
Stations' evaluation of the news leads they receive via computer
links or telephone (Table 3) follow a fairly comparable pattern. First, as to
how important they perceive the tips to be, only seven (12.1%) of stations
receiving them from modem-equipped viewers call those messages "extremely"
important, and a sizable fraction, 17 (29.8%) places computer tips at the bottom
of the scale as "unimportant." The larger total field of 64 respondents seems
much more enthusiastic about telephone tips: 35 stations (54.6%) said phone
tips are extremely important, and only four (6.2%) find them unimportant.
When the survey asks how often each type of message pays off in news,
telephone traffic retains its wide lead over computer-delivered
messages. Six stations (10.5%) among those receiving computer tips said they
lead or contribute to finished news "very often," while 27 stations (42.1% of
respondents) found the phone tips very often productive.
Conversely, 25 (43.8%) of the stations receiving computer tips found
them "not often" paying off in news, but only five (7.8%) of the field of 64
telephone-rich newsrooms characterized phone tips as not often productive.
This high approval of telephone paths from viewers over computer
links proved statistically significant. The rated importance of phone tips over
computer tips is significant at a level of p=<.000 (x2=31.52). The degree to
which phone tips pay off in news over and above computer tips is significant at
a level of p=<.000 (x2=34.76).
One survey question struck an emotional tone in an effort to
ascertain degrees of executive commitment: How much would you miss your new
computer links if they suddenly were abolished (i.e., if your company cut off
support)? Responses indicated strong attachment by many news managers but
lukewarm sentiment among many others. More than half, 34 (53.1%), said they
would miss these services "a lot." But 19 (29.6%) said they would miss the
links only "somewhat," while 10 (15.6%) said "not at all."
The primary objective of this study was to assess "follow-through" by
news departments in implementing computer links to viewers, based on the stated
intentions of 210 TV stations in the 1995 study. In that respect, the quest for
a final survey field was a suggestive finding in itself.
To recap: After anonymous 1995 responses were discarded, 172 known
stations were left; after a network search and telephone probes for Internet
addresses, 110 stations remained on the list; and finally, apparent technical
inability to receive messages removed another 15, leaving 95 accessible to
Even allowing for imperfect search procedures and fleeting technical
anomalies which might have blocked our inquiries, this sharp falloff--to fewer
than half of the original computer-inclined respondents--is noteworthy. It
indicates that many stations with "plan to" computer-link intentions in 1995 may
not have advanced beyond that status in the year since.
Of the final 64 newsrooms, virtually all are on E-mail,
three-fourths report promoting their interest in viewer news tips, and half said
they now take in more than five tips a month over computer lines. This is a low
number, given the promotion, and may reflect low modem penetration into
households. On this point, however, the words of news managers help provide
*An assistant news director in a top-forty Midwestern market said the
trend is upward: "More and more individuals are (talking to us) through the
computer." *From a top-thirty Western city: "E-mail has (affected stories)
some; we get a few more stories each month than we would have had."
*A top-twenty news director says his number of E-mail messages is
between 26 and 50 a week "and increasing" and that many are useful ideas he
passes to his consumer-reporting unit.
*From a small Southern station: "We get far more story suggestions
on E-mail than by 'snail mail' (regular mail)."
To some news managers, quantity is less important than quality--and
the quality of computer-delivered news tips can be high:
* "We get a higher payoff from E-mailed tips, at least as good as
phone tips," said a Texas news director.
* "The messages are pretty detailed and from pretty educated people,
and in that way they're pretty good," said a Florida news director.
That same executive complained, however, that some E-mailed tips are
"too detailed, or wacky"--the latter word a comment about contributors which may
bear investigation--and that they thus are time-consuming to process and check
A Southeastern manager said his station's computer input comes from
"mostly idle college students" and does not often contribute to the day's news.
A station low in the top 100 markets has found computer links to be "basically a
feedback tool," said the employee assigned to supervise them. An Alabama news
executive said his station was "thinking of dumping" its Web page.
A news director just back from a session with audience consultants
said it had focused on viewer feedback, but that he was skeptical: "I have to
balance out having a job to do--getting news on the air each day--with being
'customer-oriented.' If people write in and send us messages, who has time to
go through it? Who has time to read it? I just don't have the resources. I
have to find out and determine what the benefit is for me."
Respondents frequently voiced caution based on such a mixed reading
of potential benefits. For many, the most obvious return on Web sites and
E-mail for viewers is promotional--not in the ability to solicit computerized
news tips but in showcasing information on anchors and special features while
appearing technologically up-to-date. This echoed earlier results (Upshaw,
1996, Table 2) in which "promote station image" ranked just behind "get news
tips" as a purpose of establishing E-mail outreach.
The promotion emphasis shows through the new survey findings in two
ways: First, a number of stations report having assigned computer-link
responsibilities not to news departments but to program directors, operations
managers or others for whom news may be secondary to broader station goals.
(One Midwestern marketing director did concede that 90 percent of his station's
burgeoning E-mail traffic relates to news.)
Second, even some newsworkers frame the value of computer links to
viewers in terms of stations' broad community image. The
videographer-cum-computer specialist at a large California station said of his
on-line system: "It presents the public with the idea that they can help us out
and we in turn are listening to the community instead of just doing what we want
Said a news director in the Northwest: "I think (computer contact
with viewers) has more sales possibilities, so I'm trying to get our sales
people involved." He and others are searching for strategies by which
advertisers can be attracted to the new computer contact points with audiences.
The study indicates that local TV efforts to engage viewers in
conversations and solicit their news input continue on many levels and across
technologies old and new. A local BBS in a Southern town brings one station 25
messages a day. One station fosters computer-based "chat room" dialogue on
local issues nightly. Others solicit news tips from commuters who have cellular
Cultivation of tips from viewers via computer link is only part of
this patchwork of experiments. For the 64 surveyed stations, progress on such
links in the past year has been mostly slow and uneven. Clearly, enthusiasm for
the links is mostly tepid; the telephone remains the dominant conduit of tips.
Few managers have been able to justify investing much time or money
in an Internet presence. Some may have weighed their priorities and chosen--as
did subjects of a psychological study (Wicker, 1994)--to avoid negative
possibilities (weakening news coverage, wasting precious funds) by postponing
positive possibilities (the fruits of computer links).
Exceptional is the Texas TV sales manager who reports that from his
station's Web page--established primarily for sales purposes--"the I-team gets a
ton of stories." He said many people even read the page, which includes news
scripts, "as a substitute for watching the news." This same manager agrees that
evaluations of computer contact with the local TV audience vary widely, but
noted: "The ones who think it's important think it's absolutely vital--part of
the next generation."
That comment underscores why research should continue to monitor the
adoption--or rejection--of computer links to viewers by television stations:
The future of such change has not yet been determined. In addition, research
now should move past newsrooms to study directly the local television audience's
interest and participation in computer-borne input to the news process.
To the extent modem-equipped viewers can be identified--and many Web
sites can do this, as eager market researchers will attest--their news values
and demographic characteristics should be mapped. Viewers now contribute to
news routinely, but mainly by telephone and other conventional means; newer
technologies may engage a very different pool of potential "tipsters" with so
far unpredictable effects on reporting.
Also worthwhile would be further attitudinal research among
television newsworkers. They face demands to make their products ever more
user-friendly and cost-effective (and some would argue, less meaningful and
significant as journalism). These demands already bring amateur video into
newscasts, opinion polls onto the air live, and viewer hot-lines onto assignment
desks. News tips have become a factor of production for some stations.
Computer links and their potential effects only complicate an already
roiling industry picture. With professional preservation at stake, it has been
a journalistic creed to resist most lay efforts to influence news. But under
pressure from hypercommercial trends documented by McManus (1994), Underwood
(1993) and critics in the daily press, strains on traditional processes are
The result could be further redefinition of TV news. If so,
researchers would do well to anticipate its nature and impact.
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Pursuing TV Stations on the Internet (and via Telephone)
Stations using/planning computer links to viewers (1995) 210
Volunteering call letters (1995) 172
Identified as having Web/E-mail addresses (1996) 110
Indicating receipt of survey via E-mail (1996) 95
Responding to survey via E-mail (1996) 29
Responding to telephone follow-up (1996) 35
Stations' Weekly Tally of Viewer "Hits" or Messages
Number per week
World Wide Web "hits"
More than 100
Stations' Monthly Total of News Tips Received
Tips per month
Via computer links
More than 20
Five or fewer
Stations' Evaluation of News Tips Received
How important are the tips?
How often do they pay off in news?
 The 1995 questionnaire was confined to one page--sent by
regular mail--and was headed "Minute-Thirty Survey". This time reference, used
daily in TV newsrooms in referring to the length of the typical news "package",
was intended to emphasize to busy executives the user-friendly brevity of the
 Based on listings in Broadcasting & Cable Yearbook 1995, vol.
1. New Providence, N.J.: R.R. Bowker. C135-218.