ST. PETERSBURG — The first time he heard the idea, Reginald Roundtree was convinced that he was never, ever going to go for it.
After nearly 20 years at CBS affiliate WTSP-Ch. 10 and more than a decade as the St. Petersburg station's main anchor, there was no way he was going to spend time talking to people online.
Then he met viewers like JustinSRQ34238.
A 14-year-old fan from Kentucky who summers in Sarasota, Justin Lauffer sent Roundtree vote totals from CNN while the anchor was covering the presidential election at the Push Lounge nightclub, and he regularly watches the station's continuous online feed.
"This kid's a loyal viewer — he's here every night," said Roundtree, scrolling down a list of 150 or so screen names who regularly message during newscasts.
But are those 150 names worth it?
The coming year looks like a long, tough road for all TV stations, facing a year without much political advertising, no Summer Olympics, a transition to digital TV (which could knock out some viewers) and continuing problems for big advertisers such as car dealers and retail stores.
Roundtree's relationship with the young Web fan is just one sign of what local TV stations are doing to compete for viewers.
Under pressure to boost ratings, WTSP this year developed its 10 Connects identity, a catch-all slogan for the myriad ways reporters, producers and anchors are now trying to connect with viewers outside traditional one-way newscasts, from trading instant messages during shows to using footage shot by amateur "citizen journalists" in stories.
Some experts wonder whether the effort expended on these projects winds up recruiting too many fans like Lauffer — who lives hundreds of miles away most of the year, won't often patronize many local advertisers and doesn't often help WTSP's local ratings.
"Often, you're really connecting with a small number of people — it's dozens of people, sometimes — and you have to ask yourself, 'Is the hassle and hype worth it?' " said Al Tompkins, a former local TV news director who now teaches television and online journalism at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the St. Petersburg Times.
Darren Richards, WTSP's news director, has heard such skepticism before. His answer: If you engage viewers on more platforms, that has to result in more viewer loyalty, doesn't it?
"We're all on this journey right now, trying to figure out where is this (industry) going?" said Richards, who often refers to WTSP viewers as "customers," stressing "customer contact" stories that arise from phone calls, e-mails, IMs or blog posts. "What we're saying is, we are in the customer-service business, and (the viewer) is our customer."
Ratings trends aren't helping. At 6 p.m., WTSP's ratings for November among viewers ages 25 to 54 — a group prized by advertisers — dipped in half this year from 2006 levels, placing the station last among the four network affiliates offering local news at that time. At 11 p.m., ratings among the same viewers in November dropped by one-third from 2006 to now, according to data provided by WTSP.
Richards blames the sagging 5 p.m. syndicated show Dr. Phil, which once fed a huge viewership to the early evening news, but has dipped more than 50 percent in key demographics this year (at 11 p.m., the station placed second). Last year, Nielsen Media Research began tabulating Tampa Bay area ratings using Local People Meter technology, a method the company says is more accurate, but one that also cost every station viewers in key areas.
Some experts now wonder: Can the Tampa Bay market support four network affiliates and a local cable news channel all chasing the same news advertising dollars?
It's been a difficult year all around for WTSP, which started 2008 with the unexpected death of longtime weather forecaster Dick Fletcher, a near 30-year fixture at the station. As officials searched for a replacement, forecasters Anna Allen and Randy Rausch were let go, along with traffic reporter Meredyth Censullo and weekend anchor Jennifer Howe, a 12-year veteran.
The 10 Connects theme was introduced in October, weeks before new hire Tammie Souza would succeed Fletcher to become the area's first female chief meteorologist. And as all this change was percolating, WTSP president and general manager Sam Rosenwasser — named Manager of the Year in 2007 by station owner Gannett Co. — announced his surprise retirement, with successor Ken Tonning named within five days.
Could this be too much change for a station trying to make a lasting impression with viewers?
"Well, change can be good, if you make changes for the right reasons," said Tonning, who came to WTSP from running a "duopoly," two stations owned by Gannett in Jacksonville. "We have an opportunity to be more of a solution to issues, rather than just reporting them."
Still, as Gannett offers buyouts across the company amid widespread layoffs in its newspaper division, Tonning and Richards downplay any talk of morale problems, insisting WTSP's newsroom is energized by new online platforms and storytelling opportunities.
"Think about the news you grew up watching. … It was special because it was live," Richards said. "I think what we're trying to do is make the product special again. … And the key is the engagement of the customer in the process."