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“Having relevant content for viewers is key,” Emily Barr, president and general manager of the Chicago news station ABC 7, told Executive MBA students on Jan. 15. Barr spoke at Kellogg as part of the Executive MBA Luncheon Speaker Series.

Emily Barr

A local role

Emily Barr, president and general manager of ABC 7, describes the ‘enormous transformation’ in TV news

By Amy Trang

1/25/2010 - The ABC 7 (WLS-TV) news team had made the decision to preempt the weekly NFL game to cover a fire in a downtown Chicago high-rise.

The next day, Barr, the station president and general manager, received hundreds of comments from outraged viewers. But surprisingly, the move had boosted the station’s ratings, doubling the normal number of viewers for that hour. It was then that Barr realized that local news coverage is vital to the news industry’s survival.

“News has to be delivered in multiple forms,” Barr said. “But having relevant content for viewers is key.”

Barr spoke to Kellogg Executive MBA students on Jan. 15 on the Northwestern University campus. Her talk was the latest in the Executive MBA Luncheon Speaker Series, which features notable executives from a variety of industries. Previous speakers have included John Reinhart, president and CEO of Maersk Line Ltd., Scott Griffith, CEO of Zipcar and Matt Ferguson, president and CEO of Careerbuilder.com.

Barr began her career as a news editor at a St. Paul, Minn., news station in 1980, rising through the ranks at stations in Houston, Washington D.C. and Baltimore before moving to Chicago in 1997. Under her leadership, ABC 7 is No. 1 in ratings in the Chicago area.

“Television is going through an enormous transformation,” Barr said. “If you like a scary ride, it’s a good business to be in.”

Barr noted that when she started at ABC 7, the station had 500 staffers and produced two and a half hours of local television news. Today, her staff numbers 250, and puts out five and a half hours of local news.

“Technology has made us more efficient in being able to do more with less,” Barr said. “But now we are competing with other businesses for your time” — and those competitors include newspapers, the Internet, podcasts and cable, she added.

To thrive, Barr said, television news must provide news on demand through cell phones and other mobile devices — and must find a way to monetize those outlets. Stations also need to look for alternative sources of revenue besides advertising dollars, she said.

But only local news media can provide local information. “We have to be as local as we can to distinguish ourselves from the competition,” Barr said. “It has to be news you can relate to.”