Fowler on life after TV news: ‘I can’t imagine going back’
For the better part of 20 years, Carol Fowler was one of the most powerful women in Chicago television. As news director of three major stations — WGN, CBS 2 and Fox Chicago — she was a key agenda-setter in local media and the final arbiter of what thousands of viewers saw each day and night.
All that ended last January with her dismissal from Fox Chicago — and her realization that television news is losing its way. You’re free to argue whether Fowler left the business or the business left her, but one thing is certain: That phase of her life is over, and a brand new one has begun.
Fowler, 54, this week was named vice president of editorial at Viewpoints, a Chicago-based consumer review site launched in 2007 by digital entrepreneur Matt Moog and recently revamped to emphasize social media and mobile technology. In her newly created position, Fowler will oversee the company’s editorial strategy as well as its content online, on Facebook and on Twitter.
“I feel tremendously blessed at the opportunity I’ve been given,” Fowler told me in an interview. “When I left television, the one thing I was certain of was that I wanted my next career step to be in the digital space. Now I’m able to take what I’ve learned from TV news and apply it to an exciting new frontier.”
Her new job is an expansion of a role she held since April when Moog brought her on as a contractor with the title of editor. “In TV, all you think about is who’s watching and how you’re going to appeal to your audience. So I took that same approach here and came up with the topics we wanted to write about, including expert reviews, more straightforward information about products, and enterprise articles.”
In addition to focusing on the ways people use media, Fowler has spent the last six months thinking about the business she left behind and reorienting herself to the digital world. I asked her to reflect on the transformation.
“Knowing what I do about changing news habits and now having experienced the purely digital environment, I can't imagine going back,” she said. “What I've discovered is a positive, vibrant, supportive digital community here in Chicago that carries no baggage of what was done before. It's all about the idea that makes the most sense and execution.
“It reminds me of how things used to be when I got my first TV reporting job at WCIA-TV in Champaign in the mid-’80s — collegial and transparent. For me it's been a breath of fresh air. Only now, Google Analytics rule my world instead of Nielsen overnights. Although I saw yesterday that Nielsen is starting to measure YouTube, so maybe that's not far behind.”
What does Fowler see for the future of her old business?
“I fear sometimes that television news is losing its window, much like newspapers have, to adapt to the fact that appointment viewing is gone forever. I don't know anyone under the age of 30 who watches news on television, just as young people certainly don't pay for a newspaper. Audience habits are changing at warp speed, and it's like the industry is moving in slow motion. We've navigated so far by managing costs. There's still a keen eye on protecting profitability in the short term that regularly gets in the way of risk-taking and innovation.
“No one in charge wants to fail, of course. But the hesitation to boldly address this emergency is a failure of leadership. Maybe some are waiting for the economy to turn around. The economy isn't helping matters, but that's not the problem anymore. Much more fundamental. It's been called a culture of inertia in the print world. I would argue the same is true for television. Everyone is excited about the smartphone, but how much energy is devoted to creating news apps? Are you aware of any experiments out there with a digital video paywall? Targeted online advertising? How much of an average TV newsroom staff is dedicated primarily to the website? In Chicago, maybe four or five people out of 100. At a time when we know young people don't watch TV news, it just makes no sense.
“Intellectually, we all understand it. I believe too few people know what to do, and the ones who do aren't being given the money and authority, along with the time needed, to create the disruptive change. Then you need to tell the audience what you are doing and why. And the sales people need to learn more about the online audience and adapt. Simply swapping out talent won't cut it.
“The bottom line is television news needs to figure out how to remain relevant. People still want news put in context. They love compelling video. That's the great part. In the short term, I believe it will take local stations starting to treat their online and mobile news platforms like they are the main business because that's where the new customers are. Right now, in most stations, much of the staff is only vaguely aware of what content is posted on the station website, let alone on Twitter and Facebook. From staffing to resources to the sales model. Just do it.
“I would bet there are news directors out there who would jump at the chance to act like a startup and reinvent instead of fighting every day for a share of a shrinking broadcast pie. The competitive universe is much bigger now than the other stations in your Nielsen market.”