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The Cult Of The News Personality

23/08/2015 6:20 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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You see it every time you switch on the News. You may not even know it's there as it whizzes by in the strapline. Networks publishing the reporter and anchor's Twitter handle on-screen and encouraging you to follow their journalists so you can stay up to date on the stories they're working on, giving you -- the viewer -- direct access. Find out more. Stay connected. Be the first to know.

Welcome to the cult of News personality, where the line between reporting the story and becoming part of it gets very blurry.

We're long-used to seeing the anchors of our news programs promoted part of the reason you "trust" a specific network and why you'd watch their bulletin. Glossy promos, gigantic heads on buses. Shaking hands with the great unwashed at public events and meet-and-greets ("Wow - they are a real person just like us!"). Now the journalists that bring us the story are becoming as well-known as the people at the desks.

"Does trust equal popularity?" muses A Current Affair host Tracy Grimshaw. "I'm not sure. You can think someone's a straight shooter without necessarily wanting to have them over for a barbie."

That trust is long-cultured by the networks. A marvel to master; a bitch to be beheld by. We're constantly reminded by each of them that when it comes to news they're the ones we can trust. Viewers convert that trust into ratings and it can make or break their bulletin.

Just ask the Seven Network.

Seven have been struggling for five years to regain the number 1 news position in Sydney. Many good journalists and news directors lay in the wake of decisions to try and fix it and to no avail -- Chris Bath most recently made the scapegoat when the powers that be swapped her with Mark Ferguson anchoring their five-night-a-week bulletin.

The ratings haven't improved one bit. In Melbourne Nine News, anchored by Peter Hitchener, out-rates Seven by nearly double the nightly ratings figures. Brisbane, a long-time bastion of east-coast hope for Seven, has in the last couple of years followed the downward trend and seen Nine take the number one position for the first time in years.

News ratings are a brutal battleground and it's hard to argue that News Anchor popularity doesn't translate to ratings (and vice versa).

So when it goes bad how do you turn it around?

"Ratings are a strange beast," offers Sandra Sully, Network Ten stalwart and anchor for their Sydney 5 pm bulletin.

"You can only control your patch, which means you focus on making the content consistently strong, compelling and relevant, and the presentation palatable. The rest is up to your network to position and promote the news service well."

Surely social media is the answer to flagging ratings then? Get everyone on your team promoting what's coming up, what they're working on, and so forth?

"You have to be careful with social media," says Peter Overton, who recently clocked up 24 years at the Nine Network and anchors their ratings-winning Sydney 6 pm bulletin as well as reporting for 60 Minutes. "It can bite pretty hard. You have to learn where the line is."

"You have to be careful you're not chasing notoriety versus credibility as a journo."

Twitter has become the weapon of choice for journalists in 2015. Chasing breaking news, sharing information, allowing even junior reporters to be the first to share that critical piece of information with the world -- plus it allows direct contact with the public (which can be both a blessing and a curse).

Social media has revolutionised the way news gatherers connect with their audience. "It has removed the barriers of time and distance, as well as just about all other filters that may have been in place," says Ms Sully. "It allows us to provide updates and promote, plus it gives viewers the perfect platform to give us instant feedback."

Grimshaw, Sully & Overton are lifers in a fickle industry where "feedback" can be everything, whether its from their news director or from a channel-changing audience. The news gathering process has changed significantly during their careers - from telexes to faxes, from e-mails to tweets. Social media is a valid and recognised means of adding content to the news cycle.

In an industry so besotted with personality, Grimshaw has the most sound advice for any journalist with a Twitter account today. "Work hard, don't complain, get it right, and don't think it's all about you."

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Steve Molk runs MolksTVTalk.com because he loves talking about TV with anyone who will stand still long enough to listen. He also talks about it a lot on twitter at @MolksTVTalk.

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