Balancing Spots and Features

Issue: News departments (always striving with limited resources) continually face a choice between pursuing news in spot form or feature form. How are these choices best reconciled?

PRNDG Perspective: In an ideal world, your newsroom would provide both short stories (the spots) and long stories (the features) — just as NPR does everyday. The short stories fit narrow newscast slots and take advantage of radio’s immediacy. The long stories allow us to put issues in greater context, tell deeper stories and use our medium more fully.

The preponderance of evidence shows us that public radio audiences value the feature form more than the spot form. It is easy to understand why. Public radio audiences are largely defined by their above-average education, which predisposes them to reporting that goes deeper and wider.

This doesn’t mean public radio should forgo newscasts and spot reports. Remember, one historical sign that NPR had shed its “alternative” image in favor of becoming a “primary news provider” was its expansion to a 24-hour newscast service. Local stations aspire to follow suit.

Frankly, on must-cover stories, both spot and feature forms tend to complement one another. Here’s an example:

Your town’s mayor dies unexpectedly. Your first story will come in the form of spot reports. Your next-day story will be a feature that provides perspective on the mayor’s political career, her greatest accomplishments and what impact the death will have. Over another day or so, you follow with spot reports on other reactions, funeral plans, and added detail about the death. Finally, when the time is right, you bring another feature that looks ahead to the municipal challenges facing the next mayor.

Often, then, it is a question of how to use limited resources wisely so that the audience is best served by spot news when spots are necessary, and by feature news when features are necessary.

News directors are wise to see their reporter’s time as a limited, precious resource. This requires a discerning approach to story assigning so that

  • Limited resources are spent only on the most meaningful stories — whether spot or feature;
  • Those stories are clearly defined in terms of their focus, depth and timing.

Other solutions to help balance the seeming competition between spot and feature:

  1. Use the “super spot” — which is a hybrid that provides modest depth on quick-turnaround reports;
  2. Plan the features first — since they require protected time and demand more work, try to lock-in their airdates and clear the path for the reporter;
  3. Avoid open-ended assignments — instead insist on a reasonable deadline using past averages and in consideration of any special challenges involved. A typical spot can take between 2-6 hours. A typical super-spot may take between 4-8 hours. And a typical feature can take between 8-24 hours;
  4. Look at what creates your demand for spots and features — if you are driven to fill a huge daily newscast schedule you are going to assign a lot of spots (and probably rely on wire copy and low-tier stories). You may need to adjust your demands to put quality of news over your quantity of news.
  5. Use features in newscast slots — as long as they are timely and tackle “hard news,” your depth reports won’t sound out-of-place and may be of greater service than hourly summaries.
  6. Avoid dogmatic statements like “we don’t cover fires” — you would certainly cover a conflagration that sweeps through a suburb. The point is to examine each story on its merits and cover it as best serves your audience. Sometimes that is fast without great depth. Sometimes it is reasonably fast with reasonable depth. And sometimes it is slower but thorough.

This “balanced” approach reframes the issue so it is not a question of “spots versus features” but a continuum of best choices per story. Still, the bottom line for local newsrooms is that all on-air work must attain high standards of quality.

Also see How-To’s → Use The Four Tiers of News