How many different ways is this wrong?
In an apparent effort to motivate her Spartanburg, South Carolina newsroom staff and kick up the numbers for the February book, WSPA News Director Karen Kelly has recruited….. a cardboard cutout. According to FTVLive the cutout depicts a young woman with two children, presumably hers, but who knows? In an internal memo the staff is told the woman’s name is “Michelle” and her role is spelled out this way:
Michelle is who you want watching your newscasts, your stories.
She will be in every editorial meeting with us and in the newsroom during the day. She will likely make occasional trips to Greenville and Anderson.
When you pitch, pitch to her. When you write, write to her.
This is who we need watching in February.
Women 25-54 is her demo.
She has children and she cares about:
Recalls that have impact on her family
Even if you think a story doesn’t directly impact Michelle find a way to write it to her.
Give her additional information that is relevant to her.
Post stories and send alerts on stories she cares about.”
Let me start by at least trying to give Ms. Kelly the benefit of the doubt:
She’s no novice. According to her official bio, Ms. Kelly has logged some 20 years in the news business, most of it in the Greenville/Spartanburg market. She joined WSPA in 1998 and has risen steadily in the ranks, from producer to EP to Managing Editor, getting the ND job a little over 2 years ago.
Also, she has a point, or rather a slightly distorted kernel of a point. When crafting news scripts, it’s important to know who your audience is, and very helpful from a stylistic standpoint to focus on one specific person. I’ve done this for years. I call it the “Best Friend Test.” Write as if you’re telling a great story to your best buddy, and your copy will be strong and conversational instead of stuffy, jargony and print-like.
But that’s as far as I go, because frankly, everything else about this episode stinks.
Using a silly prop in the newsroom insults the hardworking professionals who bust a gut every day to get the news on the air. They know how to do their jobs. They should be motivated by managers who desire excellence, not treated like children.
Deliberately targeting one specific segment of the audience is a tired old technical tactic thought up by consultants who care only about ratings, not standards. Talking only to young women to the exclusion of everybody else, and re-crafting stories to appeal to that narrow segment is poor journalism and disrespectful of the people watching the news… including those very women. Just ask them!
Then there’s the phoniness factor. Is “Michelle” even a real person from the community or just an actress posing in a stock photo? How exactly should newswriters approach her? Should they say, “Okay, how do I re-write my story about that double-murder suspect, or that accused arsonist (actual stories, by the way, on the station’s website) so that blond supermodels will tune in?”
Finally, dare I mention it…. the socioeconomic and race issues. WSPA serves the 35th market which is roughly two-thirds white, but Spartanburg, the station’s home city and headquarters is 49.55% African-American. Spartanburg’s median household income is $28,375. Look at the cardboard cutout again. I don’t want to say what I’m thinking.
I’ve reached out to Ms. Kelly just to ask if the memo is authentic, not a hoax, and to confirm that a cardboard cutout does indeed now reside in the WSPA newsroom. Others have contacted her as well. No reply so far, but a newsroom employee told my colleague Jim Romenesko they were not allowed to discuss the matter.
I may be old school and willfully oblivious to Sweeps strategies, but I still believe the news business is too noble a profession to be handled in such a disdainful way.