5 newsroom ‘resolutions’ for 2022

How would you like your newsroom to change in 2022?

As we do every year at this time, we looked at our most-read stories of the past 12 months, and they reflect a set of — cliché alert — challenges and opportunities for the year ahead.

I’ve attached the Top 10 of 2021 at the end of this article, but first, here’s a list of five potential New Year’s resolutions for local TV newsrooms, inspired by the stories you and our other readers found most useful last year.

Our two-part report on “The Local TV Newsroom Recruitment Crisis” was by far the most popular we’ve ever published. Part 1 (#1 for the year) outlines the reasons the recruitment pipeline of talented young journalists is broken and leaking badly from the bottom; Part 2 (#2 for the year) offers a broad set of suggestions to address the crisis.

This isn’t just an operational challenge; it’s a strategic imperative that will require groups and stations to work together on multiple fronts, from salaries to contracts to workplace culture to mentoring to compelling innovation that brings the best and brightest back to our industry.

Local is going national. The most obvious examples are programs like Sinclair’s The National Desk, which added an evening edition to its original morning version in the fall (our #3 story last year), and Nexstar’s NewsNation, but NBC’s LX, Tegna’s Verify, ABC’s Localish, Scripps’s Newsy, among others, all draw on local newsrooms to help create new shows and even new channels with nationwide distribution.

Collaboration can also fuel unique editorial projects that help both groups and individual stations stand out. Example: Gray’s “Bridging the Great Health Divide” (our #8 for the year), which draws on more than 100 journalists from around the company to report on health inequities in Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta.The ABC-owned stations’ data team is supporting the whole group’s original reporting on racial injustice, COVID, and other critical issues around the country.

Collaboration is a powerful tool for covering two of the big stories of our time: the lingering and still devastating effects of the pandemic, and climate change. And the powerful station groups are in a strong position to do outstanding work.

Our reports about stations experimenting with variations on the all-too-familiar tropes of local TV news always score well, and last year was no exception. Three made the top 10, all examples of locally generated innovation:

● NPG-owned KVIA in El Paso added its highest-profile reporter, Saul Saenz, to its late-news anchor team, creating an unusual three-anchor format (the #4 story in 2021) that calls on all three to contribute to an in-depth nightly segment called ABC-7 Xtra.

● Gray’s WBAY in Green Bay added a 4:30 newscast in a new format suggested by the long-time sports director, Chris Roth: fewer tape packages, longer stories built around interviews with newsmakers and station reporters, and a daily gee-whiz segment, Three Brilliant Minutes, from meteorologist and science buff Brad Spakowitz (#5 for the year).

● Scripps’s WTMJ in Milwaukee is putting its frontline anchors back in the field, and even giving them time away from the desk to do more original reporting (2021’s #6 story). It’s a determined effort to redefine the traditional anchor role and draw on the reporting talents of some of the newsroom’s most experienced journalists.

And these aren’t the only groups experimenting with standard formats. NBC Bay Area News Tonight built a new 7 p.m. newscast around deeper dives into fewer stories by sole anchor Raj Mathai, inspired by his Facebook Live segments during the pandemic. And TEGNA’s Portland, Oregon station KGW is sticking with The Story despite the departure of original anchor Dan Haggerty; a rotating cast now heads up the 6 p.m. program based on longer reports, investigations, live interviews, consistent viewer input, and the anchors’ distinctive personalities. (Our January 2019 story on KUSA’s Next With Kyle Clark, the Denver broadcast that inspired its TEGNA cousin in Portland, remains one of the most popular we’ve ever published.)

It’s easy to throw around the word “engagement” when talking about digital success, but it’s harder to connect clicks, views and likes to revenue and to audience trust. “Thinking Beyond the Buzzword” (#9 last year) reported on studies by two journalists-turned-academics, including the Cronkite School’s own Jacob Nelson, that offer fresh ways to think about what “engagement” really means to your newsroom. There are multiple ways to connect with viewers and users, both your current audience and the new people you’re going after. Choosing which paths to prioritize and building a strategy tailored to those specific goals is the challenge.

Every station is experimenting with streaming content, served up in both linear and on-demand formats. As in the evolution of station websites, what started as so-called “shovel ware” — broadcast content merely shifted to a new platform — is morphing into original programming created specifically for “over the top” consumers.

Gray’s Memphis station came up with a completely homegrown digital channel called WMC Plus (our #7 story last year), built on hyperlocal sports and news and designed for both linear over-the-air viewing and on-demand consumption on the station’s OTT app. Locally owned WBRZ in Baton Rouge created WBRZ Plus four years ago to reach more viewers across its digital sub-channel, local cable systems, and OTT streaming channel — and is now placing a big wager on a new content partnership with sports betting network VSiN.

How can you unleash the power of streaming to reach new audiences and to provide unique content and services to your community? It’s a critical question that’s worth addressing in 2022: what’s your Plus?

We look forward to hearing about your creative 2022 experiments and innovations. Happy New Year from the Cronkite News Lab!

Our Top 10 Stories of 2021

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The Local Newsroom
Recruitment Crisis, Part 1

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the first of two articles on the newsroom recruitment crisis, which I believe represents a critical danger for the quality and ultimately the viability of local TV news. This week, I’ll look at why it’s increasingly hard for newsrooms to attract and keep promising new candidates. Next week, I’ll examine some steps stations and groups are taking or should consider to fix the problem.

What’s the biggest threat to the future of local TV newsrooms? The long-term challenge may be how to build a sustainable model around a new generation of consumers who will never watch a linear newscast at 5, 6, or 11. But news directors and their bosses are increasingly concerned about a more immediate problem: the pipeline of talent for both sides of the camera is drying up.

Ty Carver, who ran recruiting at Raycom Media and now has his own firm, recently published a long, impassioned screed titled “Extinction Alert?” — at least there’s a question mark — that sounds the alarm and calls for news leaders to respond on multiple fronts. “The television station stress level must be released…and soon,” he writes. “At all levels. Because trust me, some newsrooms are at a breaking point.”

“If there is one overwhelming challenge that I hear from every news director I talk to, it is that they’re not getting the same quantity of applicants for jobs that are open as we did maybe as little as three or four years ago. And they’re certainly not getting the same quality applicants that they were getting before,” says newsroom coach Kevin Benz. “It is truly the biggest pain point that I am hearing from news directors across the country.”

Lesley Van Ness, head of recruitment at Gray Television, has 200 MMJ (multimedia journalist) openings across the company. “So in 102 markets, basically every station is averaging two MMJ positions that are open, and those are the people generating that content every day for our audience,” she says. “It is our smaller markets that are really struggling, because they have a staff of 25 or less. So when you’re down two MMJs, it’s hypercritical that we fill those.”

“I’m actively seeking out news anchor candidates for five of our six stations,” says Michael Hammond, who recruits for Hubbard Broadcasting. “You might have trouble finding a producer, but news anchor is the top role you want to be in for most people in journalism. And the fact that we’re just not getting natural applicants is really unusual.”

What happened? The industry experts with whom I spoke are in remarkable agreement on what’s gone wrong. Here are the key factors they talk about.

Pay

Bob Papper of Syracuse’s Newhouse School has been studying broadcast newsroom salaries for decades and is the nation’s leading expert on the subject; you’ve no doubt pored over his annual salary survey for RTDNA. As far back as 1999, Papper compared TV news employment to “indentured servitude,” and he hasn’t changed his mind since. “The origin of the problem goes way back,” Papper told me. “What there’s been is no solution to it. For 10-15 years or more, this industry has grossly underpaid people compared to other options. And I would argue that the notion that this industry is going to attract the best and the brightest probably hasn’t been true for a long time.”

Check out this chart from Papper’s 2021 analysis and picture what it’s like to live on these starting salaries today — unless you already know.

Courtesy: RTDNA/Newhouse School at Syracuse University Annual Survey

“If you want to be a reporter, there are dues to be paid,” Papper says. “We exact a hell of a price, because we’re going to pay them maybe $30,000 a year to do that. Whereas they could take that skill set somewhere else for 45 to $60,000. And if you’re walking out of school with no debt, and you’re really determined, you can afford to do that. But if you’re walking out of school with debt, which is what most of these kids have, that’s an awful tough choice.”

To make matters worse, young people just starting out can make more money in supposedly menial jobs — one recruiter who didn’t want to be named mentioned flipping burgers at California’s In-N-Out chain — than taking an entry-level job in a local newsroom. My local supermarket is offering starting wages of $17/hour — $35,360 a year if you work 40 hours a week.

“I cannot tell you how often I am hearing from news directors who know that working at a restaurant, or at a fast food place, or doing some manufacturing job, those jobs are paying extraordinarily more money. We’re talking about 30 to 40% more,” says Benz. “You can go work at Target, or you can go work at Starbucks and get paid more, and they’ll pay you to go to college,” says Van Ness. “Entry level MMJs and producers are really doing a lot of the heavy lifting in those newsrooms on a daily basis,” she adds. “So then if they feel underpaid, they feel undervalued. They don’t want to stay.”

New options

Related fields are also a direct threat. “You can struggle for $30,000 and have three roommates and maybe get food stamps, or you can earn a good living almost anywhere in the country, working in corporate communications,” Papper says. Graduates of journalism programs are finding compelling alternatives to the newsroom, not just in PR and marketing but at companies increasingly interested in creating original content.

“Look, the education you get as a journalist is pretty significant,” says Benz. “And especially now that it involves digital skills and production skills and storytelling skills, those are very much in demand by everybody. Every major company in the country now has full blown media departments. They’re doing media and communications, they’re doing content marketing, they’re developing video and audio and podcasts. If you’ve got the skills, you’ve got lots of choices, and you don’t have to go out and have people yell at you and spit at you and tell you you’re fake.”

It’s not easy to admit, but local TV news just doesn’t have the cachet it once did. “I think that local television for years just had the mentality that, ‘Hey, we’re local television: build it, and they will come,’ kind of like the Field of Dreams movie,” Carver told me. “And we’ll offer a salary and somebody will take it. And for years, they put a job posting out and they would receive many, many, many resumés and have their pick of the litter. Today, that’s not the case.” Hubbard’s Hammond agrees: “I would say that television is no longer the bright and shiny object.”

The Bigfoot Factor

Because of the worsening talent shortage, larger stations are reaching lower down the food chain, snagging less experienced candidates who would once have been happy to find work in smaller-market newsrooms. That sets off a cascading set of consequences that is putting an even tighter squeeze on markets below the top 100. “And so this domino effect happens,” says Benz. “And when you get to the smallest markets — around 120 plus, 150 plus — there’s nothing left.”

“A good producer goes to a top 50 [market],” Van Ness says. “So how is someone in market 150 ever going to get that standout entry level grad from ASU, or from Mizzou, or from Syracuse? They don’t even look at our smaller markets. If you could go to Phoenix, you’re going to go to Phoenix over Sioux City, Iowa — no disrespect to Sioux City, Iowa.”

Hubbard’s Minnesota-based Michael Hammond used to recruit heavily from colleges like nearby St. Cloud State University, but now he’s losing graduates to larger out-of-state cities like Des Moines and Madison. As for candidates of color, who are in particularly high demand, “When I reach out to these students at virtual career fairs, if I can get them to even speak to me, [they already] have job offers from the national news outlets: Fox, CNN, MSNBC, NBC national in New York. So how am I going to recruit these students to go to Rochester or Duluth, Minnesota, when they have a job offer in New York?”

Ironically, while interest from big-city newsrooms may sound like a great opportunity for young graduates, the experts say that moving too soon to a large market can backfire. Markets like New York and Los Angeles are “not getting the quality and experienced candidates that they used to,” says Benz. “And so what’s happening is they’re picking candidates from markets who probably needed one more step.”

“It is incredible to me, honestly, how many bigger markets I’ve seen hire MMJs who aren’t ready,” says Van Ness. “And my fear is, when you put someone in a market they are not ready for, and they’re thrown to the wolves, no one’s gonna hold your hand, and you are just constantly criticized. At some point, you give up, and you quit, and you leave the business — and we lose good journalists.”

Quality of life

It’s no secret that the pandemic has triggered a massive re-evaluation of the nature of work across all industries, with many workers taking a hard look at the impact of their jobs on their other priorities. So many have quit that it’s being called “the great resignation.” But working in a local TV newsroom has always made excessive demands on your personal life.

Gray recruitment honcho Van Ness worked her way up from MMJ to anchor at Quincy Broadcasting but stepped away from the newsroom after nine years at the anchor desk so as to have more regular hours with her two young children, ages two and nine months at the time. Now she deals with the changing expectations of a new generation of candidates. “You have to make a lot of sacrifices,” she says. “You’re sacrificing hours working weekends, working holidays. I don’t know what the answer to that is, especially now in a world where news is 24/7. There is this constant platform that we have to create content for that is just never-ending. And I think that even creates more stress and pressure on people.”

“It’s leading to stress, burnout, mental distress, mental health concerns,” says Ty Carver, whose post begins with the story of a highly qualified executive producer in tears and on the verge of leaving the business altogether. Post pandemic, more candidates want to live closer to home or family or in cities where they feel comfortable. Gone are the days when up-and-coming reporters and producers would routinely move anywhere in the country every few years, working their way up the ladder. “They’re choosing to live where they want to live,” Carver says. “Next to family, friends, the restaurants they’re used to, the culture they’re used to, etcetera, versus playing that kind of the chess game that many in the industry were used to for decades.”

The “Snowball Effect”

These factors build on one another and exacerbate an already critical challenge for newsroom leaders, who are experiencing “stress and burnout” themselves, Carver says. “It’s a snowball effect. They’re already doing more with less people, and now they have empty seats. And they had turnover as part of this ‘great resignation.’ And it’s a self-perpetuating situation that is just rolling downhill and gaining momentum. And how do you fix it? Because it’s not righting itself.”

Next week, I’ll take a crack at answering that question. Our experts had plenty to say about the problem; we’ll see what they propose as solutions, and I’ll add a few suggestions of my own.

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The Local Newsroom
Recruitment Crisis, Part 2

[Author’s note: This is the second of two reports. You can read the first one here.]

Talk about hitting a nerve! Last week’s report on the “Local Newsroom Recruitment Crisis” is already on track to become the Knight-Cronkite News Lab’s most-read article ever. The rupturing pipeline for young TV journalists is a major pain point for news directors, and the worsening shortage of new recruits is touching off a snowball or domino effect — pick your metaphor — of stress, burnout and resignations among those who already work in the newsroom.

After last week’s story, I got a note from a reporter in a top 20 market that said in part, “I’ve watched many friends and amazing colleagues leave the business for the reasons you outlined in the article. We’ve lost so many good people. It’s not sustainable. Burnout is real.”

Melissa Luck, news director at Morgan Murphy Media’s KXLY-TV in Spokane, posted this reaction on LinkedIn: “When I talk to other news managers, the two things that keep us up at night are recruitment and retention. We have to take a serious look at ourselves in this industry right now if we want to keep building and innovating.”

They’re both right. This is a fundamental threat first to the quality and ultimately to the viability of local TV news.

So — what can we do about it?

There’s no single or simple answer, but here are six ideas for station leaders to consider.

This is the most obvious remedy and arguably the hardest to execute, given that most ownership groups are public companies with shareholders accustomed to historically hefty profit margins. For fundamental change to take place, owners would have to believe that the recruitment crisis poses a threat to quality, viewership, and therefore profitability in the long run.

But news directors can’t sit around and wait for that to sink in. Local TV newsrooms simply have to start paying higher starting salaries now to compete against other options in a tight labor market. “Everybody’s gotta live,” says newsroom coach Kevin Benz. “Station groups have got to look at where they are, what the cost of living is in those places, and make sure that they are keeping up.”

“We have to address the issue of paying entry level candidates better,” says Gray Television recruitment head Lesley Van Ness — and that’s especially urgent given how much the explosion of digital content has added to the demands on the stations’ newest employees. “Entry level MMJs and producers are really doing a lot of the heavy lifting in those newsrooms on a daily basis. So then if they feel underpaid, they feel undervalued. They don’t want to stay.”

Compensation guru Bob Papper of Syracuse’s Newhouse School says that if salaries remain relatively low, stations could also help with the crushing cost of college, as Amazon and Starbucks do. “You would think if a coffee shop could do it, that a TV station could,” he says. “If you want these young people to sign a contract for two and three years, for amazingly little money, why don’t you also pay some of that student debt that they’ve got to deal with that they can’t afford to pay off on the salaries that they’re getting?”

Speaking of contracts, independent recruiter Ty Carver caused a kerfuffle when he suggested in his impassioned essay on the problem that companies throw them out altogether. “In my opinion,” he wrote, “non-competes and contracts should be unilaterally dissolved and never used by any broadcast group ever again. Wow, yes I said it.”

Okay, that’s not going to happen. But Carver is on to something, especially when it comes to onerous non-compete clauses. “When you take some of these contracts, coupled with these non-competes, it’s handcuffing these employees,” he told me. “If you dissolve contracts, are you going to lose some folks? Perhaps. Are you going to gain others? Perhaps. It may be the Wild West. But what is the alternative?”

As someone who’s been on both sides of those boilerplate-laden agreements, I think there is an alternative — a radically different approach. Let’s reinvent the contract as an individually tailored exchange of commitments that goes beyond the usual terms and recognizes the employee’s long-term goals as well as the company’s obligation to help achieve them. The agreement should lay out both the current assignment and a path forward and upward on an aspirational but achievable timetable. Build in vision, flexibility, creativity, and mutual accountability.

When local TV news was the hot game in town and turning away dozens of applicants for every job, leaders didn’t have to worry much about “culture,” but as we’ve seen, those days are gone. “A lot of people in the business don’t realize that the old way is not the new way — and the old way doesn’t cut it anymore,” says [my former CBS News colleague] Marcy McGinnis, a career coach whose practice includes many local TV journalists and the people who manage them. “Young people aren’t scrambling to get to your station, and you can’t treat them however you want once they get there. Millennials and Gen Z employees are looking for a sense that the company cares about them as people, not just as people who get a show on the air.”

Amidst shrinking resources and growing demand for content on all platforms, today’s candidates are bringing a new set of expectations and putting new demands on newsroom leaders. “We have to admit that newsrooms, while being fun places to work at one time, don’t carry a great reputation for being great positive workplaces,” says newsroom coach Kevin Benz, displaying a gift for understatement. “Once you get somebody hired, you don’t want to have to do it again in a year or two years, you want to be able to hold on to them,” he says. “Culture has everything to do with that: creating a culture in your newsroom that is supportive, a culture of growth and development, a culture where people feel like they’re listened to, where they have a say in what’s going on, where they have some ownership in the work that they’re doing. If you can create those kinds of cultures, you can get away with a lot when it comes to pay and size of market, if it’s a place that people look forward to coming to work.”

Van Ness calls for “a culture where you are appreciated and valued, and also gets you on a path of advancement.” The key to creating that kind of environment is providing regular feedback, mentoring and training. “I can’t tell you how many MMJs I talk to who say ‘No one ever looks at my work. No one ever tells me “Oh wow, you did a good job.” I’m just turning content,’” Van Ness says. “I think it’s about just paying attention. People want to hear ‘Thank you.’ And they also want feedback on their work, and that really will keep people motivated to want to do better for you and for the team.”

Station groups all acknowledge the importance of supporting their young employees this way, but beleaguered news directors often lack the time and background to do it well — if at all. That’s why McGinnis says newsroom leaders may need some training themselves. “The first thing that has to change is mindset,” she says. “The mindset has to be about the people who you want to work for you, and the people who already work for you. It’s not about you, it’s about them.”

Graham Media Group has a “Boss School” for newly minted managers. “The first message,” says CEO Emily Barr, ”is ‘Don’t be a jerk.’”

If too much work for too little pay is driving talented people out of the business, or keeping them away from it altogether, is there a way to lighten the load, or at least make it feel less onerous?

Here are a few suggestions to consider:

● Spread the work more evenly around the newsroom, calling on veterans, including the anchors, to do more reporting and digital content creation. (We recently wrote about Scripps’s initiative in this area.)

● Take advantage of technology that makes it easier for newsroom employees to create compelling content, even with limited resources., (We wrote about Gray’s “digital desk” here and here, and we’ll report on an ambitious TEGNA tool in the next few weeks.)

● Strengthen collaboration across the group — not just content sharing, which is already very sophisticated, but group-wide projects that provide relevant stories for local markets and opportunities for localization without heavy lifting. (Here’s an example from Nexstar, and another from Gray.)

● Develop deeper relationships with grassroots news organizations and especially journalism schools to collaborate on story ideas and reporting.

● Extend and expand the coverage pools that sprang up during the pandemic, even among competitors, for generic video (like news conferences), saving precious resources for distinctive stories.

● Build up a beat system in your newsroom, even if journalists have to continue some general assignment work alongside their specialties. That will generate ideas for enterprise reporting and follow-ups that take some pressure off the desk and young MMJs.

● Experiment with formats that don’t require “feeding the beast” with fresh news packages in every part of the day. Raise the bar for coverage of routine stories that drain resources without really serving the audience. Instead, let reporters develop in-depth stories that they can “leverage” across your program grid and on digital platforms.

●Introduce more creative and innovative storytelling to appeal to the very people you want to recruit. (NBCLX, the NBC stations’ experimental channel focused on younger viewers, tells me it doesn’t have a recruiting problem. Just the opposite.)

In three words: do less better.

Diversity isn’t just a moral imperative: it’s potentially a superpower. But that means allowing diverse viewpoints and personalities to flourish in the newsroom.

“We just think if we sprinkle a few Black and brown people into the mix, that we’re diverse, and that’s not really true,” says Tina Martin of Boston University’s College of Communication. Martin, who hosts the public television program Local, USA and spent 17 years as a reporter and anchor in commercial TV newsrooms, says leaders have to be more open to perspectives outside their own experience. “It’s diversity and inclusion,” Martin says. “So the inclusion part is being able to say, ‘Hey, you know what? I have a different take on this story,’ or ‘I think there are some different sources that we can use for this story,’ and not getting that pushback of, ‘No, this isn’t what we’re familiar with. So we’re not going to do it.’”

“First and foremost, I think we need to cast a wider net,” says Graham Media CEO Barr. “And I don’t think we’ve done a very good job with that, particularly where it comes to people of color, because we’re limiting ourselves. And then we’re all stealing and poaching the same people. And the excuses — I’ve heard them all, and I probably made some of them myself — have always been ‘Well, they don’t have enough experience. They haven’t worked in the right places. They don’t know enough about this, they don’t know enough about that,’ whatever it might be. And the real lack of opportunity is no one’s given them a chance.”

Martin says that newsroom leaders have to be willing to hire outside their comfort zone — as opposed to “‘How comfortable do you make [the manager] feel?’ That’s really what it is. It has nothing to do with me. It has nothing to do with my ability, my talent, my journalistic prowess, none of that.” Her advice: “Get that whole concept of ‘Do I want to play tennis with this person, do I want to golf with this person’ out of your mind. None of that is relevant. It’s ‘Can they do the job?’”

“We all hire in our own image,” Barr says. “I think it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that we check our own biases at the door, and say, ‘Okay, why am I not willing to talk to this person?’” And that principle of “casting a wider net” can promote all kinds of newsroom diversity, not just racial equity. “We are ignoring a potential group of of future journalists if we don’t start to look at other places where students are going to college and may not even be aware of the value of journalism,” Barr says, “and that can be everything from community college to lots of state schools that may or may not have a journalism program, per se. But if you learn how to write and think critically, if you’re fundamentally curious, you can be a journalist.”

More eclectic and creative recruitment is at the top of Kevin Benz’s list too. “We’ve got to look for non-traditional places to find people who are interested in telling great stories. Who are the podcasters in your communities? Who are the influencers who always seem to be in touch with what’s going on? Who are the most curious people that are commenting and looking for the things that are happening in communities? How about partnering or looking for the small community newspapers, the Black newspapers, the Latino newspapers: they may have people that are very interested in going into the business.”

With respect for journalists at a low point among many Americans, newsrooms need to reach more deeply into their communities and especially schools to make the case for working in the news business. Journalism students are the most obvious targets for deeper engagement at a younger age. (We’ve written about Gray Television’s programs at two different universities to expose students to producing as an alternative to being on camera and create a pipeline into the company.) But why stop with journalism students? “Not as many people are even thinking of journalism as a career path,” says Lesley Van Ness. “And we need to start earlier and reach out to children in junior high or the high school level so they have it in the front of their mind more often.”

Marcy McGinnis says newsrooms have to find a way to sell themselves as a “cool place with a meaning, with a mission.” She suggests that stations take a page from the playbook colleges and universities use to attract applicants. “If you go on a university’s website, you’re going to see a recruitment video, you’re going to see a video about their facilities, about all the things they have to offer about different opportunities,” she says. “It’s all about what the college can do for you. Why couldn’t you just substitute the word ‘station’ for ‘university’ and do all of those things?”

 

I hope some of these ideas are helpful to you, and I want to thank the experts who helped me think about them. In reporting this story, I was surprised to discover that some of my most reliable industry contacts were reluctant to speak on the record. But addressing the local newsroom recruitment crisis has to go from hot potato to high priority — and fast.

Local TV stations showed during the pandemic that they are capable of transformative innovation at speed and at scale. Addressing this crisis will require similar patience, adaptability, determination, and ingenuity. The stakes are high, especially if you believe as I do that local TV news is essential to the future of journalism. “If we don’t have a strong, vibrant, independent, local press, we won’t have a democracy, because everything starts at that local level,” says Emily Barr. “If we lose that, in the TV side of the business, we’re not going to have anything left.”

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Creating your own recruitment pipeline


Diane Kniowski knew she had a problem. Three years ago, as the newly minted head of Univision’s local media division, Kniowski felt the company was behind the curve in one critical area. “We didn’t have a lot of people who were bilingual who really understood digital content,” she says. “I needed people who were not intimidated. And I started thinking, ‘Okay, that’s everybody in college with a cell phone.’”

That insight was the inspiration for a program called STEP (for Students Training & Employment Program) — a nearly two-year-old collaboration between Univision and Florida International University (FIU). STEP is an ingenious and replicable answer to one aspect of the recruitment crisis that’s crushing local TV newsrooms, English and Spanish-speaking alike — a crisis we recently wrote about here and here. “We would be committing malpractice if we didn’t focus intently on creating our own pipeline,” says Chris Peña, head of news for Univision’s local media properties. “Finding qualified candidates who can work in a Spanish broadcast environment is getting more and more difficult.”

Here’s how STEP addresses that challenge. FIU selects high-performing seniors or graduate students for the program. Each year, three groups of 20 students each work at Univision for 14 weeks at a time, so there’s almost always a STEP team on the job. And it is a job, not a traditional internship, says the program’s in-house champion, local media’s head of operations Ruben Robledo. “We’re treating them like employees,” he says. “So a class could be at 10 o’clock in the morning. But if they have a project to deliver and it’s part of going on air, then they need to deliver within the eight-hour window of the work day. And so we put the pressure on them, we make them uncomfortable, but in a positive way where they can actually feel this pressure.”

The program has expanded beyond Kniowski’s initial vision of digital content creation, now ranging across all aspects of digital and TV production. “It used to be sexy to come and work for TV and radio. Now, not so much,” Kniowski says. “Now sexy is the digital world. But for us, training producers, training MMJs, technical directors and directors, those are the jobs that we’re going to start building.”

To that end, the students get intensive training in a broad array of digital and broadcast newsroom functions and departments (even radio!), equipment, lectures from high-level Univision executives as well as outside experts, and an hourly wage. Univision funds the program through its foundation and from operating expenses. While the program is based in Miami, the STEP students take on remote assignments from any of the company’s owned stations and even the network. During each three-month term, STEP students fulfill an average of 4,000 requests, according to Robledo — an astonishing output of 200 per student.

“These are Swiss Army multi-tool people,” Robledo says. “They can do anything and everything from being on air all the way to editing or doing technical stuff for your newscasts. So if somebody from Chicago calls us and says, ‘Listen, I have a package, I cannot edit it, can you help me out?’ Then we can send it to a STEP student and assign that to them. The digital teams lean tremendously on them: ‘We need to create a story about X, Y and Z, and we need to publish it on five different sites.’ They can do that. Other stations might need a translation, so they translate. Or ‘I need a full graphic design for a package that I’m building. Can somebody help me out?’ We can do that.”

A “selfie” with Igliozzi and fellow STEP students and professor Lilliam Martinez-Bustos

Andrea Igliozzi is a STEP success story. She’s now a multimedia journalist at Univision’s Sacramento station, recruited by an executive who met her at the program. “She’s kicking butt. in Sacramento, in her first job,” says Peña — and Igliozzi gives STEP much of the credit. “I think the things that make me stand out more as a reporter are the things that I learned in STEP, because we did journalism, but besides that, we learned how to do graphics, how to talk to people, how to manage social media, how to publish articles,” she says. “They transformed us into this beast of journalism, because everyone that graduates from STEP knows how to do everything, and I am one of them.”

Andrea Igliozzi on her first day on the job in Sacramento

Univision is drawing on this cadre of Swiss Army multi-tool “beasts of journalism” to fill a growing number of jobs. Peña estimates that more than a dozen SWAT alums are in the company already. “Selfishly, we need trained employees,’ he says. “And we’ve come to rely on the STEP program for almost every entry level and above sort of position.”

Univision executives also call on the STEP students for insights into their generation’s fast-changing media environment — a classic example of the “reverse mentorship” model. For example, Robledo has each group present an “app of the week.” “A lot of them bring different ideas,” he says. “They show us stuff and how they are doing it, and it just blows our minds. And if it is something that is worth it, we just grab it and use it in our company.”

“Change is a challenge,” Kniowski says. “Even good change is hard to implement sometimes. And technology can be intimidating. And so sometimes it’s quicker to bring someone from the outside that just knows how to do it. And once they start doing it, it becomes contagious. [The STEP students] are fearless, They’ve been raised on this technology. And it’s amazing how fast they come along.”

What started as a clever way to address Univision’s recruitment issues has the potential to help not just the students and the school, but other companies seeking highly trained and motivated bilingual journalists — and therefore local TV news in general. Robledo, who started as an intern in Univision’s Juarez, Mexico bureau in 1997 and worked his way up, is eager to pave the way for other young journalists like the STEP students. “They come as carbon, and we try to polish the gem and send them back as a good looking diamond, so they can get into the workforce and start working for any company. We wish they could all stay at Univision. But this program is about making sure that the industry as a whole continues to move forward. Because we believe that benefits all of us.”

“We want these students to get jobs, whether it’s with us or with Telemundo,” Kniowski says.. “We want this program to be extremely successful. I feel like we’ve provided something that we didn’t even know we needed yet. The best part of the outcome to me — the thing I’m most proud of — is that bilingual journalism is growing. We had an idea to solve a problem for ourselves that became something really good.”

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‘Enough is enough’ — a community-focused approach to gun violence


SOS. A cry for help from someone in danger. Philadelphia’s WTXF, a Fox-owned station that brands itself as FOX 29, has signaled its own SOS to bring awareness and try to find answers to a growing problem in its community. It’s a commitment to a single subject and to solutions-based reporting that is taking the newsroom into new territory.

The initiative is called Save Our Streets, a community-focused, station-wide project that engages with residents, public officials, and even ex-offenders to try to resolve the alarming increase in gun violence in Philadelphia and the surrounding area. “‘Save Our Streets’ is not just a title that we’ve given to ‘Let’s look at crime,’” said Jim Driscoll, news director at FOX 29. “When we started discussing it, we didn’t want to just start shining a light on what was going on in our town. We actually said, ‘What can we do as a TV station?’ I think the whole point was, enough is enough.” Driscoll calls it a “three-pronged approach”: identify the issues, find potential solutions, and challenge community leaders to act, all while allowing people most affected and underrepresented to have a voice.

Save Our Streets Promo

Save Our Streets came about in response to gun violence that has been devastating the Philadelphia area. As of Dec. 8, there have been 524 homicides in Philadelphia, a 13% increase over 2020 that has already surpassed the record of 500 homicides set in 1990. Gun violence has also wounded more than 1,700 people. “Our job is to tell stories through people,” Driscoll said. “The thing that bothers me most about these numbers that they just keep telling us about every single day is for most people, it’s just numbers. We want to attach those numbers to real people.”

The multi-platform project is a sustained effort to report on the effects of gun violence and on potential ways to address the crisis. “The concept [is to use our] platform to not only challenge us but challenge the people who are watching, who sometimes go numb, who sometimes see this as if it’s somebody else’s problem or somebody else’s challenge because it’s in a neighborhood that they may not necessarily be as familiar with,” said Bill Anderson, executive producer and anchor of FOX 29 special projects. “I like the idea that we could actually do something about it, that we could ask hard questions, that we, in theory, could make people uncomfortable, and talk about things that they don’t really always want to talk about if that’s what it takes to try to make some change.”

Anderson and his colleagues are willing to make viewers uncomfortable by highlighting the traumatic experiences people have endured, so they are harder for viewers to ignore. “Those are stories that people stop, [and] they think about for a day or two, and then they move on. We don’t want to move on anymore as a TV station,” Driscoll said.


Click above to see all SOS stories, specials, and TV segments

The station’s leaders say they are committed to Save Our Streets for the long haul, with the goal of generating solutions rather than purely ratings. “The reason we want more people to watch, and more people to be aware is because then they do care,” FOX 29 general manager Dennis Bianchi said. “And maybe they do get engaged in helping us solve the problem, but the only reason that we want to see this gain traction is to help alleviate the problem in some way.” “If we do this the right way, we can help to initiate change, and people watching can be inspired to share their opportunities and ideas that they may not always get a chance to share because they don’t always have a platform,” Anderson said.

Bianchi doesn’t label what the station is doing as advocacy or activism. “I don’t know if there’s a single word for it,” he said. “But it’s our ability and our power to paint pictures to shine a light. It’s just doing the right thing. It’s born in our ability to tell stories and put them on television, but there’s a host of other things that we can do as a station to convene discussion and action around this.” “As local journalists, we’re the last bastion of journalism, where we play everything right down the middle,” Driscoll said. “But when it comes to something like this, I don’t think anybody would fault us for truly being advocates of change when it comes to trying to save lives.”

In addition to regular SOS reports across all dayparts, FOX 29 is producing monthly 30-minute specials that will air three to four times on TV and then will be available on a dedicated web page that includes all SOS content as well as an evolving list of available resources. While his dual role is still being defined, Anderson hosts the SOS specials and goes into communities to report stories and create relationships to give residents a voice. The first special, “Caught In The Crossfire,” aired on Nov. 19 and explored the impact of gun violence on neighborhoods, with a special focus on young adults.


“Caught In The Crossfire” is one of many specials addressing gun violence in the city

Other specials will feature people who have committed crimes to share their motives and community leaders and individuals who are trying to create a positive impact. The station will also air live interviews with crime and violence experts and community leaders that will present facts and potential solutions. In communities most affected by gun violence, reporters have set up microphones and allowed people to voice their concerns and suggest solutions – a so-called “SOS-MOS.” The newsroom will make a compilation of sound bites from residents that will air as SOS-branded vignettes. “People [in the newsroom] have been pitching stories about organizations they have relationships with or communities that they cover who have said to them, ‘You’re here because somebody got shot. Why don’t you come back when we’re trying to do something about the shooting?’ And [our people] say, ‘Okay, I’m back,’” Anderson said. “If we can get into the communities, and those communities let us be part of what they’re trying to solve, then to me, that’s the success,” Driscoll said.

“If we do our job, more people truly will care,” Bianchi said. “More people truly will get engaged, enraged, and hold themselves, community leaders, politicians, [and] District Attorney’s offices accountable.” “Part three of [our three-pronged approach] is to challenge the leaders and to get them to stand up and say, ‘You know what, this is the right thing to do, and you know what, we saw the story on FOX 29 about this group making a difference,’” Driscoll said. “We want to get in there with them and help them. That to me would be success.”

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A new ‘digital newscast’ puts a Florida newsroom to the test

“The one conversation I do remember us having is ‘Do we really like that? Is that a word?’” Allison McGinley, news director at Graham Media Group’s WKMG in Orlando, doesn’t remember who came up with the name “Solutionaries” for the station’s experimental new digital project last spring, but the title stuck. And it turns out solutionary is, in fact, a word. Here’s how the station defines it on its website:

A Solutionary is someone who recognizes a problem or injustice in society and comes up with creative and innovative ways to tackle those inequities, thus making the world a better place, one step at a time.

It turns out that the “one step at a time” approach also describes how McGinley and her team tackled the project itself, which is a model of collaborative innovation. Maybe we should come up with a new word for it — let’s say “Televisionary” — and a definition, of course:

A Televisionary is someone who recognizes an editorial challenge and comes up with creative and innovative ways to tackle that issue, thus making local TV news better, one story at a time.

The original idea for Solutionaries was to create what Graham Media describes as a “digital newscast” focused on people who are “making a difference” by implementing solutions to critical social issues. The proposal came from the Graham digital team, which incubated it at Table Stakes, the challenge-based innovation program at the Cronkite School that’s supported by the same Knight Foundation grant that funds our work here at the News Lab.

Ideas that come from elsewhere don’t always find fertile ground in newsrooms; chances are you’ve experienced the “not invented here” syndrome from one side or the other (or both) yourself. But WKMG was already doing a lot of solutions-based reporting. “Was there eye-rolling for me? Not at all,” McGinley says. “It was like, ‘Cool, this is something else we get to go play with.’” Besides, the parent company is known for not imposing its will on its stations. “That is kind of an expectation of Graham,” McGinley says. “As individual television stations, we are allowed to operate as a reflection of our local communities.”


WATCH Episode 1 of Solutionaries on policing

In that spirit, the WKMG team decided to focus on two issues important to Orlando: improving relations between the community and the police, and enhancing access to affordable housing. The plan, tailored to today’s consumption habits, was to create multiple stories for the station’s digital platforms and allow users to watch as little or as much as they liked. “The idea was to take this nugget of an idea or something that was looking for a solution, and then spiderweb it out. So that you could have a piece of the story that you could watch alone, or you could watch it in conjunction with the other media we created associated with it,” McGinley says.

So if you search for Solutionaries on YouTube, you can consume the collection of policing stories as 10 individual segments — a “Reporter’s Notebook” from anchor-reporter Erik von Ancken, for example — or stitched into an hour-long “episode,” with investigative reporter Louis Bolden providing the connective tissue. For housing, the team switched up the formula, producing a number of standalone stories in advance of a 33-minute episode built around three segments reported by Bolden and his colleague Nadeen Yanes.


WATCH Episode 2 of Solutionaries, on affordable housing

The two longer episodes eventually appeared on the broadcast channel, but it wouldn’t have mattered if they hadn’t: digital first could have turned out to be digital only. “The idea isn’t to create an hour-long special or half-hour-long special,” says Jeremy Allen, the Michigan-based special content producer from Graham’s digital team who helped shape the project. “It’s really letting the material that we have dictate the best way to use it. And so we find that [if] we make really good pieces, and we provide them on our channels, we can probably still take those and make them into a cohesive episode or a show. And so far, we’re two for two.”


WATCH a ‘Reporter’s Notebook’ from Episode 1 of Solutionaries

McGinley started with a core group of five people, mostly from her investigative unit, but the team grew to about a dozen as the project evolved. She and Allen encouraged the WKMG journalists to stretch beyond their usual reporting and producing style, but they made the interesting and important choice not to push too hard. Solutionaries blends experimentation with tradition. Remember: step by step.

“What’s really scary is to tell a bunch of journalists, ‘You have no rules,’” McGinley says. “And ‘This isn’t a newscast.’ And then they go ‘Well, we don’t know what to do with that.’ That’s where Jeremy has come in and really helped to inspire us to think more about how we consume information in our own personal lives. And then to take some of those tactics or techniques and inject them into our storytelling.”

“People want to see stories told where it’s like somebody just sat down in front of their computer and is talking to you or me and just telling a story. And it’s almost like taking the presentation out of the presentation,” Allen says. “We’re doing a lot of the same things that have been done in the past, but doing it in a way that feels like you’re having a conversation with a friend, or you’re going to explain something rather than put together a really highly produced package and explain something in a way that seems almost artificial in some ways.”

But as eager as he is to appeal to the next generation of news consumers, Allen understands the difficulty of breaking away from TV news formulas. “I worked in a newsroom for 21 years too,” Allen says. “So I know that you can’t just say, ‘Hey, you guys are so great at all this: stop it, and then let’s just do something completely different.’ In any beautiful growth, there are always uncomfortable moments, and that’s part of figuring out where each one of us needs to be down the road.”


WATCH a standalone affordable housing story from reporter Nadeen Yanes

McGinley says the team embraced the chance to do something new. “I think you have to get traditional journalists comfortable with the idea of pushing the boundaries. So from an elastic band perspective, you know, they stretch it a little bit, they go, ‘Okay, that was a little different. And I still felt like I gave the viewer, the user, the audience what they needed to know,’” she says. “At times where there was debate or there was pushback, at the end of it they have all walked away so excited, so energized and so proud of what they’ve done that the idea that they got pushed out of their comfort zone a little bit is so far in their rearview mirror it’s not even a thing.”

Coming in 2022, not just Solutionaries, Episode 3 — topic not yet public — but a broader collaboration across the group, with other Graham stations contributing to the project. Graham has engaged the Solutions Journalism Network, whose principles influenced the initial concept, to train the company’s journalists in its methodology for rigorous reporting on potential solutions to social problems. “Good storytelling is good storytelling, regardless of what the packaged content looks like,” McGinley says. “And that’s the most important part of this: We’re trying to encourage more solutions-oriented journalism that we know impacts the viewer and the user in a better way.”

So don’t expect the next stage of the project to look exactly like what’s come before. That’s the whole point, and it’s equally relevant for the “televisionaries” in your newsroom: embrace the flexibility of digital formats, study the metrics, listen to audience feedback, and keep evolving to make the next version better.

“We’re going to look at Episode 1 and 2 and go ‘Okay, what did we like? What really worked?’ And then ‘How can we make this just a little bit different?’” McGinley says. “Not like a hard left turn, but how can we continue to evolve it? I think we won’t fully realize success from an analytics standpoint until we’re half a dozen episodes down the road. Because we’re continuing to try to iterate and evolve, and I don’t think we want to cookie-cutter it. It wasn’t perfection in baking. It was more the spice of cooking, where you just experiment as you go along and hope you come out with a good dish.”

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NBCLX connects the dots with local newsrooms

Okay, ready for your next assignment? Close your eyes and take one slip of paper from each of these three bowls. You now have in your hand three randomly selected topics — an event, an issue, and an object. Your job is to find the connections among them and weave that into an entertaining story about what you discovered and how you did it.

That’s the unlikely but entertaining premise of Connect the Dots, a four-part series that “dropped” this fall on NBCLX, the millennial-focused TV and streaming network that functions as an innovation lab for the NBC-owned stations. It’s one of the channel’s more recent experiments in re-writing the rules of conventional TV news, an unusual (but commendable) ambition for an operation that’s nested inside a traditional media company — and is deepening its connection with owned-station newsrooms.

When I asked SVP Meredith McGinn for her elevator pitch for NBCLX, which she oversees, she rattled it off so quickly and confidently that I was able to get off on the second floor. “LX is a startup in a big, reputable news organization,” she said. “And our goal is to innovate in storytelling. We’re looking to attract new audiences, and find new ways of telling great character stories that relate to broad audiences.”

Here at the Knight-Cronkite News Lab, we’ve been following NBCLX’s evolution for more than two years now, from a smattering of stories on YouTube and social media outlets featuring a small core group of “storytellers” to a fully formed linear and on-demand channel available online, on mobile, over the air in 46 markets, on select cable systems, and on the usual array of OTT services. On any given day, more than 50 people are working on content for LX, including contributors from other parts of the company like Fernando Hurtado, who created Connect the Dots.

“Journalistic scavenger hunt: that’s how I pitched it to my boss,” says Hurtado, who works on NBC’s digital innovation team and contributes regularly to LX. “The point of the series is to show how different aspects of our lives are interconnected. And not just that, but how your action in one aspect of your life could be impacting a totally different aspect.”

Hurtado gulped down his own Kool-Aid by reporting the first episode himself, looking for links between the World Series (event), access to water (issue), and microwaves (object). For the viewer, it’s a chance to see a reporter grinding out the work. “We noticed that you always get to see the finished product, but very rarely do you get to see how that sausage is made,” Hurtado says. “So we wanted to unveil the behind the scenes process of journalism — the ghosting, the emails that don’t get answered, the phone calls that you have to make to get your story — and really show that.”

“This was, ‘Let’s go shoot a pilot and see how it looks,’” says Matt Goldberg, the former KNBC assistant news director (and Cronkite School alum) who leads the team that launched and runs LX. “And then, when It came together, we realized not only was it an opportunity, but it was also an opportunity to leverage our stations, and that really is a great win for us.”


Watch Episode 2 of “Connect the Dots”

Proof of concept in hand, Hurtado recruited three talented digital journalists from the NBC stations for the other episodes: NBC 10 Boston’s Rob Michaelson (Boston Marathon, student loans, coffee); KTAZ Telemundo Arizona reporter Gabriela Martinez (Arizona State Fair, infertility, cacti); and WNBC’s Kay Angrum (Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, gender equality, skyscrapers). As you probably noticed, the selection of events was market-specific in each case. Hurtado created a style guide for a consistent look and feel to the stories, and he edited two of the other episodes. (Michaelson shot, wrote, produced and edited his own contribution.)

More and more, NBCLX is connecting the dots with the stations, not just as distribution platforms but as additional sources of content, including hard news — all in the LX style, of course. “The team has been able to incorporate more of our storytellers from the owned stations in day and date stories,” McGinn says. “The team has done a great job over the last six to 12 months expanding the reach of the network and really tapping into the hundreds of journalists we have across the division. And that’s been an evolution.”

That has helped NBCLX double down on live reporting over the past year, not just in its six hours a day of regularly scheduled live programming but in extended coverage of milestones like Earth Day or the Mars landing. “It’s a brand of live, it’s a brand of depth,” says Goldberg. (The commitment to in-depth storytelling became literal when LX went live from the ocean floor off Florida for Earth Day.) Another hallmark: extended coverage of signature issues like climate change and racial justice. On October 4, LX’s 6 p.m. live show spent 17 ½ minutes in the first block covering the Southern California oil spill. “It’s live TV done in our brand,” Goldberg says.

WNBC’s Kay Angrum (right) reporting live on New York vaccine mandates

But the growing emphasis on live coverage hasn’t crowded out highly crafted long-form journalism — the kind of enduring (the cliché is “long tail”) content well suited to an on-demand streaming experience. Case in point: Dying to be Wrong, a four-part docu-series released last month. Storyteller Cody Broadway returned to his hometown, San Angelo, Texas, to report on the impact of the pandemic and how COVID misinformation has divided the town even as the numbers of cases and deaths climbed. “The numbers were wrong is one misconception that I saw,” Broadway says. “And then the other was that people really weren’t dying.”


Watch Episode 1 of “Dying to be Wrong”

Despite his connection to the city, where he even worked as a news director, Broadway kept himself out of the documentary, letting his characters — the city official who keeps pandemic statistics, a funeral director, a local cleric, the mayor, an editor, about two dozen residents altogether — speak for themselves. (He gets more personal in an accompanying podcast.) “There was one way that I could tell it, like ‘Come along, I’m going to take you on this journey back to my hometown,’” Broadway says. “But I felt like this wasn’t the right type of story to tell that way, that this was a story of voices of this community. And I didn’t want to overshadow any of that.” Broadway’s approach, which he calls “cinematic journalism,” is noticeably different from the highly experiential reporter involvement of Connect the Dots. In the research and development lab culture of LX, there’s room for both. “Everyone’s got a different style on the storyteller team,” Broadway says, “and that’s what I love.”

Coming early in 2022 to NBCLX: fan controlled football. “This is a startup league that’s like Madden meets a real live football game, where you can be a fan of a team, you join a team, you commit to it, you can watch their games and the live play on NBCLX,” McGinn says. “And through an app, you can actually call plays for the team to run. So it was completely on brand for us and in line with what we’re trying to do every day — innovate in a traditional space. This league is doing that with football.”

The storytellers and their bosses are gratified to see some results of their experiments percolating across the NBC stations. “We’re always looking at ways to collaborate with all the NBC owned stations and spread the wealth and the experiences to get a little bit of that NBCLX DNA in those stations,” Hurtado says. “There is this really nice infusion of the voice of LX that I am starting to see across the stations, which is really exciting.”

“No matter what your title is, or what equipment you have, you can tell these types of stories,” Broadway says. “What I hope happens in other markets is that we can take this concept and what we’re doing and spread it throughout the entire NBC owned and operated stations, to really kind of get that fire of storytelling, that passion of good storytelling.”

“I think [given] the success we’ve had in long form, many of our stations have decided to let stories breathe more, lead with an investigative piece,” Goldberg says. “And then even stylistically, if you look at our set, and how we don’t have a traditional desk, taking away those barriers as our stations refresh their sets and come up with different ways to tell stories, they’re leaning in on what we’ve learned.”

“We always talked about it being an R & D lab,” McGinn says. “That’s what the business is. And of course, we have to get viewership and we have to make money. But we want to be able to develop ideas and hit some great new forms of storytelling that can then flow out to the stations.”

Unfettered by the normal constraints of locked-down formats and long-established audience expectations, and relatively free of ratings pressure (at least for now), the people of NBCLX know how lucky they are, and they are taking full advantage of the opportunity to innovate, iterate, and evolve. “Like any startup, there are learnings every day, every week, every month,” Goldberg says.

Do you have an R & D lab of your own?

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Interactive storytelling that puts the viewer in charge

“Harnessing the cool.” It’s the mission statement for the innovation squad, a small team here at Cronkite News that experiments with different ways to present the news. The goal is to test new ideas for the news industry by tapping into students’ own media skills and habits. The latest example: a project that lets users control how they experience a video news story.

The squad used Mindstamp, an interactive video software that is featured on Cronkite News’ website, to take viewers inside the annual Arizona State Fair and let them manage their own experience. Like reading R.L. Stine’s “Give Yourself Goosebumps” series or watching Netflix’s “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,” the project allowed users to choose what they want to see at the fair, ranging from food and games to rides, performers, vendors, and of course animals.

Screengrab of different routes users can take on Mindstamp

“It’s kind of like a little game,” innovation squad member Milan Andrade said. “You get to pick and choose how you want to watch your news or how you want to watch these stories.” After considering other interactive video software, the team landed on Mindstamp because of its easy-to-use dashboard, professional look, and newsroom-friendly cost. “It’s a different style,” said innovation squad co-leader Isaac Easley, a Cronkite faculty member who helps oversee and guide the team. “It’s more what you see on Instagram or TikTok [but] on a professional level.”

The State Fair project launched late last month and featured multiple Cronkite News reporters, videographers, and producers. Each route on the interactive video leads to specific examples — if you click on food, you can select the cheesy bacon bombs option — that users can learn more about for up to two minutes. “We want to give the viewers an option to take whatever journey that they want to go on in the interactive video but also showcase all the hard work that reporters did on the State Fair,” Andrade said.

The squad’s goal was to engage younger viewers, particularly in the desired 18-to-34-year-old demographic, with an alternative to the standard TV news package. “We turned what could have been a VO/SOT into an experience,” innovation squad member Ryan Tisminezky said. “It kind of lets audiences just experience the news as opposed to having it be told to them. They get to be a part of it.”

The software isn’t exclusively for light features either. In a story about gentrification, for example, it could give viewers the choice to learn more about a local politician or to learn more about how changing neighborhoods affect one group versus another. “The possibilities are kind of endless,” Tisminezky said. “It’s pretty much up to the reporter on how creative they are.”

Ryan Tisminezky and Milan Andrade

Another advantage of Mindstamp is the analytics that it provides. Newsrooms can observe which interactive options users engage with the most and apply the insights to future coverage. “You can track what your audience wants to see or what they want to learn about,” Easley said. “You see the statistics, you see that they want to learn about a certain subject. From there, you can build stories around that.”

Cronkite News supported the feature by promoting it on its social channels and newscast, which is available in nearly two million households as well as online. “It’s a great opportunity to not only give a taste of what we’ll be showing, but direct people to the website for a fuller experience,” Executive Editor of Cronkite News Christina Leonard said.

Melissa Brennan

Mindstamp is just one example of innovation by the young journalists at Cronkite News. They have produced a newscast without anchors and used TikTok to report on news. Students even produced a “Choose the News” newscast where viewers selected which stories reporters covered. “My hope is [that] new directors don’t necessarily have to teach [an innovative mindset], but the younger generation of journalists going into new newsrooms [will] bring that, and news directors will be more open to it,” innovation squad co-leader Melissa Brennan said. “It has to be a culture where leadership wants to hear those ideas and embrace them,” Leonard said. “They need to establish a culture that it’s okay for their journalists, young and old, [to try] something cool and see something that could work.”

Through two weeks, the Arizona State Fair feature accumulated 898 views, 589 unique viewers, and 765 interactions. While the team is figuring out whether the Mindstamp program is too time-consuming for short-staffed newsrooms and how stations can monetize it, innovation squad members say trying new ideas is worth a shot, because you never know what can resonate with a community. “What I love about the innovation squad is that we are breaking [formulaic news reporting],” Tisminezky said. “Sometimes we’ll find something that works. Sometimes we find something that doesn’t, but we’re trying to find the future of broadcast reporting [and] digital reporting.”

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From our ‘Greatest Hits’ collection: a simple lesson in understanding your audience

When Univision announced expanded local news apps for seven of its top markets this week, one of the platforms for “integrated social media sharing capabilities” was a channel you won’t usually see in similar English-language-station releases. It’s WhatsApp, the world’s most popular messaging app, but one that’s little-used by U.S. newsrooms.

If you want to understand Univision’s embrace of WhatsApp, just ask Esteban Creste, VP of News for Univision’s New York station, Univision 41 Nueva York (WXTV). Creste’s station has a 12-year consumer franchise called 41 A Tú Lado (41 On Your Side) that’s now using WhatsApp as a new way to connect directly with viewers. When A Tú Lado correspondent Berenice Gartner suggested establishing a WhatsApp number for her franchise, “a light bulb went off,” says Creste. “Why didn’t we think of that before?”

Berenice Gartner

Gartner humbly refuses to take full credit for the idea, saying it came up when she and her cameraman were talking about new ways to reach the audience. Gartner believes the WhatsApp messenger is a powerful and valuable tool journalists like her can use to connect with their viewers. “We know all of our viewers have smartphones,” she says, “and they are on them constantly.”

In fact, Pew Research found that 74 percent of Latinos get their news via social media or smartphone app on a typical weekday. At first, the A Tú Lado team got plenty of news tips, Gartner says, but also a fair number of simple greetings: “You know, people who just want to say hello.” She sometimes responds with an emoji so they know the message was received.

What viewers see on A Tú Lado’s Whatsapp.

WhatsApp is a cultural phenomenon in the U.S. Spanish-speaking community. It’s particularly popular with Latinos because it offers a free way to communicate with their relatives in other countries. It’s also considered secure and private.

WhatsApp is perfectly suited to the way Creste’s viewers interact with A Tú Lado, an ambitious feature that runs three times a week, including a Friday segment in which reporter Gartner answers viewers’ questions. Univision has a unique relationship with its viewers, many of whom rely on both the national network and the local stations to be their advocates and allies rather than just purveyors of news. For that reason, the issues viewers share on WhatsApp range from “not having heat to…my husband was deported and I don’t know what to do,” says Creste. “They reach out to us when they have a consumer complaint, but also when they need help of any kind. Sometimes they call us before they call the police.”

It’s producer Sheyla Navarro’s job to wade into the steady stream of voicemails and WhatsApp questions, concerns, and tips — about 100 a day. She diverts the newsier issues to the assignment desk, converts some into fodder for A Tú Lado, and does her best to respond to the rest — questions about DACA and immigration, healthcare, education, and other pressing concerns for Univision 41’s audience. “Our goal is to educate, inform, and make sure the community understands its rights,” she says.

The station promotes the WhatsApp number on the air throughout the day, along with more traditional channels like email and a toll-free phone number. WhatsApp allows the station’s producers to respond much faster to newsworthy stories. “The success of this is really surprising. I didn’t know we’d get this many messages,” says Creste, who is now considering adding a second WhatsApp number for general news.

So, what are the lessons for “Anglo” newsrooms? Most obviously, in markets with large (and increasingly bilingual) Latino populations, WhatsApp may be worth exploring as an additional outreach to viewers. But for any market, Univision 41’s story illustrates the power of understanding your viewers, connecting with them on the channels they use and trust, and most of all, listening.

Creste likes to keep his ear to the ground. He encourages his journalists to walk New York’s neighborhoods and talk to people on their days off. The station collaborates with the city to organize regular phone banks to answer viewer concerns. And the A Tú Lado team tries to host meetings every month or so in the community to hear directly from viewers.

“I’m more and more interested in having unique content,” says Creste. “In order to be relevant to people’s lives, you have to create venues to have direct contact with the viewers…find what they need, and fill the void.”

Esteban Creste calls this “super-serving” his viewers. Tell us what you’re doing to super-serve yours. You can email us at cronkitenewslab@asu.edu, as we don’t have a WhatsApp number.

Yet.

[Disclosure: Andrew has done projects with Univision’s network news division in the past.]

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Building a Telemundo affiliate from scratch

Buenos días! Buenas noches! If WOIO-TV has its way, Northeast Ohio Hispanic residents will wake up and go to bed watching the region’s first Telemundo station. Starting in January, owner Gray is launching a sister station, WTCL, and offering local news in Spanish, starting with newscasts at 6 and 11 p.m. Univision has owned a station in the market for 20 years, but it doesn’t produce any local news broadcasts.

WOIO’s move is part of a growing trend: stations finding creative ways to expand their broadcast footprint in search of new audiences. “This is something completely different,” WOIO marketing director Rob Boenau said. “This is completely new from the ground up for us, so it’s going to be really exciting.”

Gray identified and purchased two low-powered transmitters that weren’t utilized often. Now, it is maximizing their potential by placing them in locations that will provide broad coverage and a stronger signal in the market. “We wanted to improve our signal on WOIO, and we wanted more outlets for broadcast undertakings like Telemundo,” WOIO general manager Erik Schrader said.

Unlike other stations that start from scratch, WTCL has an established foundation. Almost three years ago, WOIO started a digital Spanish language newscast called Al Día that covered issues in Cleveland on WOIO’s website, Facebook, and OTT services.

Caption: Screenshot from Al Día

While Al Día is on the shelf due to the pandemic, it tapped into a growing Hispanic audience in the region that wants local news and content and helped spur WOIO’s expansion into Spanish-language broadcasting. WTCL’s signal will reach as many as four million people in Northeast Ohio, nearly 180,000 of whom are Hispanic.

WTCL plans to hire at least two bilingual journalists for its news operation but will also lean on coverage from two Spanish-speaking WOIO reporters, both of whom worked on Al Día. “We’re blessed in that we have a full-blown, full-fledged news gathering team in place every day,” WOIO news director Ian Rubin said. The whole news team will be encouraged to gather elements in both English and Spanish whenever possible, for the benefit of both stations. “It is a goal of ours to be more inclusive and to display more diversity in our news gathering process, the content we select, [and] the way we go about producing our content,” Rubin said.

Schrader and Rubin are hoping their new hires will have an immediate impact. “We want them to either already be ingrained in the Cleveland Latino community or quickly learn it,” Schrader said. “There’s no shortage of stories because there is no broadcast television Spanish language [local] news right now.” WOIO is also exploring ways to collaborate with Spanish-language radio broadcasters in the market, but it’s too early to say how that might work.

WOIO has created an advisory committee of Hispanic community leaders to provide feedback and suggest issues for the new station to cover. “This is not just holding up a mirror to the community and saying, ‘Look at the challenges that it may face,’” Rubin said. “We want to be active participants in trying to fix those problems.” Among topics on the station’s radar: criminal justice reform, domestic violence, and evictions, along with local politics.

Station executives hope that Telemundo’s promotional power and national programming will give the new station a fast start — national programming like Super Bowl LVI, which airs on NBC and Telemundo in February. “We’re pairing up with a solid network that’s been around for years,” Boenau said. “Telemundo has great shows, great sports, great dramas, [and] great news.”

WTCL expects to air its first local news broadcast on Monday, January 3 at 6 p.m. “We want to be the go-to destination for the Hispanic community,” Schrader said. “They need something that is giving them daily news, and we hope to fulfill that.” “It’s a big project,” Rubin said. “But it would be even more challenging if we didn’t have the foundation of a great news gathering apparatus.”

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It’s anchors away — away from the studio and back to the street

Like a lot of anchors, WTMJ’s morning man Vince Vitrano started out as a reporter. But unlike a lot of anchors, he’s still on the street reporting stories every single week — so much so that viewers of the Milwaukee station occasionally ask him what he’s doing there. “When I’m out there sometimes in public, if I’m working on a story, people find it curious,” Vitrano says. “‘Why have you come down off the high mountain top of the anchor desk to be out here?’”

The answer: Vitrano and the station’s other front-line personalities are part of a drive by station owner Scripps to get anchors back in the field — not just for sweeps specials or big events, but for enterprise beat reporting. It’s a bet that the role of the anchor is overdue for an overhaul. “Redefining the role of the anchor is central to redefining our news brands,’ says Sean McLaughlin, Scripps VP of News. “People aren’t looking for good prompter readers. They’re looking for people with deep understanding of the community and real expertise.”

“It really wasn’t that hard to sell, because I think all of [the anchors] are reporters at heart,” says WTMJ news director Tim Vetscher, who launched the plan at his station last January. “So when we came to them and said we want to be doing more in the field reporting, we did not get any pushback at all; it was really welcomed.”

Well, not so fast. Shannon Sims, who anchors the 6 and 10 p.m. broadcasts, admits she initially had her doubts. “It seemed like a huge task, because for many of us, we’re doing two to three shows,” Sims says. “So now you want us to report every week? I’ll be honest, at first, I was like, ‘This seems like a lot.’”

But Vetscher and his fellow newsroom leaders had two smart selling points: they offered their anchors time to do the stories and the chance to choose a beat. Each of the station’s five anchors gets a day off the desk every week to work on an original story. The result is a kaleidoscopic schedule of substitutions and rotations to cover all the newscasts but a steady output for each anchor of one enterprise report a week. “Coming up with a system — the calendar, establishing what they would be covering, what they’re passionate about, aligning that with our content strategy — that was really what took more time,” Vetscher says. “Getting them on board was not that hard at all.”

Shannon Sims and Vince Vitrano

“Times have changed, and so you also have to change,” Sims says. “You have to pivot with the times and what the expectation is. But it is helpful when your management team understands the undertaking they’re asking, and they give you the resources to do it.” Sims chose women’s issues and women’s success stories as her beat. “The workflow that has been presented is a plus. Because it’s not the same as a run and gun GA [general assignment] reporter.”

Vitrano, whose beat is local business and real estate, agrees: “When we got the workflow down, and I knew that they weren’t interested in just piling on, that they really wanted to do good work and give me the time to do that, then I was really excited about it.”


WATCH: Vince Vitrano’s story on a new downtown development project

“These can’t be stories that are the anchors voicing somebody else’s work,” Vetscher says. “This is them out actively gathering, actively doing the journalism.” Specially assigned photographers like Dan Selan shoot the stories in a style that emphasizes the anchor’s direct involvement, and whenever possible, the anchors also present their reports live from the field rather than from the studio. “It’s that important to us that we’ll take them out of the mix on a day to gather and we’ll take them out of the mix to present it,” Vetscher says. “It is a big commitment. But we’ve identified this as a real opportunity. And I think it differentiates our journalism.”


WATCH: Anchor Steve Chamraz, whose beat is the environment and climate change, introduces a story from the field

McLaughlin says older viewers might be satisfied with the traditional desk-bound anchor, but younger viewers expect more. “The faces of our brands have to be active journalists well connected to the people of the communities they serve,” he says. “We used to define anchor images through promos. I believe in 2021 it’s through the stories they tell.”

The WTMJ anchors have to come up with their own ideas or be handed an assignment from the GA stack. (Vetscher says that’s only happened once.) “These are some of the most experienced employees in the newsroom,” Vetscher says “Between all of them, we’re talking decades of experience. So coming up with ideas is not a challenge.” In addition to finding, researching, reporting and producing their own stories, the anchors cover real-time news on their beats. For example, Sims pulled off her own fast break when the Milwaukee Bucks named Lisa Byington as the nation’s first female TV play-by-play announcer in a major men’s professional sport last month.


WATCH: Shannon Sims’s story on play-by-play pioneer Lisa Byington

Is the strategy working? Vetscher says it’s too soon to tell. He doesn’t market the anchor beats or give them franchise-y names (except for keeping “Positively Milwaukee,” which anchor Carole Meekins was already responsible for). Instead, Vetscher is counting on consistent exposure to get the message across to viewers, and to that end, he would like them out reporting even more often than the current pace of once a week. “We’re really proud of what our anchors are doing,” he says. “And we value it. I don’t want to say that we value their reporting work more than their anchoring work. But in some ways we do. I think it’s that important.”

Shannon Sims and Vince Vitrano both see themselves as role models for less experienced reporters in the shop, even in market #37. “I was really young at 26 [when I started] here,” says Vitrano. “We’re a lot younger than that now with reporters, so to have someone who knows the market, knows people and is recognized and can get those interviews that others maybe can’t and can give it the perspective, I think there’s no question it’s good content. So as long as it’s that, I think it’s absolutely worthwhile.”

“Here is an opportunity for you as an anchor to explore some of those stories that you really feel passionate about,” says Sims. “And if it’s in line with what the news director feels viewers need to see, it’s a win win, it’s a plus plus. But it’s also a chance to show some of your younger colleagues how it’s done.”

But there’s one place those young reporters won’t find her, Sims told me with a laugh. “In the wintertime, when the windchill is below 15, or you got that sliding rain going this way, and they need a live shot — on those days when reporters are out there? And it’s miserable? I just remind them, ‘You’re just cutting your teeth.’”

Anchoring still has its privileges — at least for now.

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‘Painful awakenings’ —
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“The data was heartbreaking, really astounding,” says Akilah Davis, a reporter at ABC-owned WTVD in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. “In Durham and Chapel Hill metro area schools, Black students are six times more likely than white students to be suspended. I just saw it immediately as a school-to-prison pipeline story. So I quickly got to work looking for faces for the story.”

Davis, a member of the ABC station group’s race and culture team (which we wrote about last April), drew her inspiration from an ambitious new project ABC calls Our America: Equity Report — a data-based analysis of racial inequities in the nation’s top 100 metropolitan areas that went public this week. It’s a striking example of group-wide innovation and the power of data to fuel original local reporting.

Our America: Equity Report fuses 10 million data points into a scorecard of sorts: an interactive overview of race-based disparities across 20 criteria in five critical areas: housing, health, education, policing, and the environment. Users can click on any of the 100 metro areas in the report and see how it scores across all the measures. For example, in Phoenix, the report charts inequities in all three aspects of policing that the report examines: unequal arrests, unequal drug enforcement, and diversity of police forces.

Explore the Equity Report for yourself here.

“When we thought about the issue of equity, and our desire to really reflect the diverse communities that we serve, we thought nobody’s really looking holistically across multiple areas of focus and across multiple data sets to give us a picture of how equitable or inequitable our communities are,” says Anna Robertson, the ABC group VP in charge of the project.

“We’re having these conversations all the time. And it’s extremely disheartening to see so many of those conversations based in people’s perceptions, or based on inaccurate conjecture by pundits, or based on something someone saw on a social media meme, as opposed to what the reality on the ground is in any of our cities,” says John Kelly, who runs the ABC station group data team that generated the report. (We first reported on the data team and its work on COVID coverage in May of 2020.) “The truth of the matter is, as you look at this data, there is something to work on, or something to talk about, or in most cases, some things to be working on and talking about in every one of our major cities in this country,” Kelly says.

As the Equity Report was taking shape, Kelly and his colleague Mark Nichols visited the ABC owned stations — seven of the eight, all but Fresno, have a data journalist on staff — to share results, offer reporting guides and encourage newsrooms to produce stories based on the findings. “It’s a story brainstorming session of sorts,” Nichols says. “What’s going on in your particular area that the equity report could help with?” The website links to local coverage that stations have already produced, and Nichols hopes the findings will now become a regular feature of their reporting. “We can certainly use the Equity Report to give some context or perspective or to enhance any of the daily stories that we are doing that have to do with any of these topics,” he says.

Robertson and the data team also assigned a succession of topics to the stations, starting with police diversity last spring, and asked all the newsrooms to find local angles to explore. Akilah Davis produced her story on disparities in school discipline as part of a collective focus on education. This week, all the stations aired stories on health insurance inequities in the Hispanic and Latino communities. “We wanted all eight stations to cover each topic,” Robertson says. “So we have really driven this as a priority across the group. But it also happens the other way.” To that point, Robertson and Kelly encouraged newsrooms to provide feedback as the project developed, and stations are also free to pursue any angle they find in the data.


WATCH Akilah Davis’s report on school disciplinary disparities

Mark Nichols also works with ABC News to mine the data for stories. The network’s Pierre Thomas did a lengthy report on police diversity based on the Equity Report findings, and a story on housing discrimination is in the works. Now that the full report is out, the team plans to work more closely with ABC affiliates that want to apply the results to their markets. And of course with the report now public, any media organization can use it as a resource.

To my surprise, the ABC team resisted the temptation to create lists of the best and worst cities, especially given that the data is all there and how well that kind of content performs on digital platforms. But that was a deliberate decision. “We didn’t want to sensationalize it in any way or call anybody out,” Robertson says. “I think we sometimes tend towards these Top 10 lists that can oversimplify complicated issues. And this is a very important and complicated report.”

“The point here is that you don’t even want another city to say, ‘Well, there are some cities worse than us.’ The idea here is to look at what your city’s doing,” adds Kelly. “There’s nothing about the homeownership gap in Philadelphia that is relevant to the homeownership gap in New York City. People who live in New York need to work on that gap regardless, and pointing over and saying, ‘Well, it’s worse in Philly’ doesn’t absolve them from dealing with their issues.”

The Equity Report, whose website was partly funded by a grant from the Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge, is the latest in the ongoing Our America series of projects from the ABC owned stations — a series that by its own description “aims to amplify the voices of underrepresented and marginalized communities.” Every chart and statistic in the report is clearly sourced; there are detailed explanations of how the data team defined and measured inequities; and there’s even an impressively humble request for feedback and additional ideas.

The team promises to keep the Equity Report up to date and is considering other social issues, like gender discrimination, that might lend themselves to a similar approach. Robertson, whose responsibilities include innovation, also sees strategic value in the project. “How do we serve the next generation mobile news viewer and make sure that our products and our brands are relevant to everybody? I think these kinds of tools and these kinds of approaches can appeal to a different audience than our traditional viewer.”

“I think the data has surprised some people,” John Kelly says. “I think even journalists who cover these issues all the time are surprised at how stark some of this data is, even in their communities where they live and work. Listen, for every community that looks at this, there are some pain points in this data. There are some painful awakenings perhaps for people around what this data may be saying about whether or not there are disparities and how deep those disparities are.”

“It wasn’t surprising to me, and, in fact, I was kind of surprised that it was surprising to a lot of my colleagues,” says Mark Nichols, who is Black. “It’s about our life experiences,” like gratuitous traffic stops or an overpriced mortgage loan to move into a suburban subdivision. “I hope that it’s at least eye opening to the audience at large. I just hope that we can start a deeper conversation that’s steeped more in the data we’re presenting here.”

“The data kind of validates the lived experiences of certain community members or certain reporters, and so seeing that data come to life through the storytelling is really what it’s all about,” says Anna Robertson. “We’re excited to see where it could have impact, whether it be with others in the media, with community leaders, or with government officials to really empower change.”

Back in Raleigh-Durham, Akilah Davis works with embedded data journalist Maggie Green to enhance her reporting on race and culture with hard numbers. “These stories are very important, and they do impact me, and they do impact my personal life,” she says. “I hope that I’m a change maker under this role. I really do. I think it’s groundbreaking, and I’m excited about the work we’re doing.”

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Is there a hole in your news coverage? Report for America wants to help you fill it


Orlando-based Spectrum News 13 recognized its coverage was missing a beat. So, in June 2020, it brought on Molly Duerig, a multimedia Report for America (RFA) journalist, who earned her master’s degree from our very own Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU, to cover an underreported topic — the central Florida housing crisis.

Report for America, a nonprofit national organization that recruits and supports a corps of young reporters around the country, is hoping that more local stations will hire people like Duerig — one of the few RFA journalists to join a TV newsroom.

“I was really drawn to Report for America because of its focus on community-driven journalism and telling stories for positive social impact,” she said. “I really appreciate their investment in very specific topics that outlets don’t always have the resources to cover.”

Molly Duerig (All images Courtesy of RFA)

In 2019, we reported on Spectrum News Buffalo becoming the first TV news operation to get involved with Report for America. Its journalist was Camalot Todd, who moved from Las Vegas to establish a mental health beat in Buffalo. “As a company, they looked at areas where they felt they really wanted to have additional support, [and] we were able to help,” Report for America deputy director of corps excellence Teri Hayt said.

RFA reporters usually cover beats such as education, healthcare, communities of color, rural issues, politics, local business, and the environment. But, last week, the organization released a new list of six undercovered topics — “beats to consider” — and is urging more newsrooms to apply. Here’s the list:

However, newsrooms ultimately decide what beats they want an RFA journalist to cover. “We’re looking at what they are identifying as underserved communities or beats,” Hayt said. “We don’t specifically have criteria. We want to see newsrooms make a really good case for this is why we want to cover this beat. This is why we want your help supporting a reporter here.”

Although 300 Report for America journalists are working in more than 200 newsrooms, there are only eight journalists at local TV stations. “We’re always looking for more TV stations to become involved with us,” Hayt said. The eight cover everything from public health to racial inequity to rural issues for other Spectrum News channels in Buffalo, Columbus, and Milwaukee; PBS stations in Kansas City and Minnesota; and Scripps station WCPO in Cincinnati, where Monique John covers gentrification.

Report for America ensures that newsrooms have sufficient support for its emerging journalists. In the selection process, it considers what newsrooms offer in terms of mentoring and editing help. Once a newsroom qualifies for the program, it gets to make the final decision on which RFA journalist to hire.

Watch a Report for America promo video featuring Molly Duerig

Report for America also provides funding for its corps members. It pays half of their salary, usually up to $25,000, and the host newsroom raises money from local philanthropy to pay for the other half. In the second year of the two-year program, the host newsroom pays two-thirds of the journalist’s salary, while RFA pays the remaining third. The organization is now starting to support and place a few more experienced reporters along with its early-career journalists.

RFA reporters normally start in June. However, RFA hopes to use a system of rolling admissions to allow corps members to work as soon as January to respond to the nationwide decline in newsroom resources. “Journalism is in crisis,” Hayt said. “Report for America is dedicated to trying to build back that news infrastructure.”

For Duerig, her battle is understanding why many Floridians can’t find consistent housing. “I didn’t realize before coming here how many people in the country, and in this area specifically, live in hotels, motels, and even in their cars as a way of living,” she said. “Housing is a beat that really allows you to get to know a wide range of people and learn about people’s lives, deeply and intimately in a way that maybe other beats don’t allow you to do.”


Click above to read Duerig’s latest story.

If you think your newsroom has a hole and room for a Report for America journalist to plug it, there’s still time to apply for the 2022-23 class, but hurry: applications close on September 30.

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Apple TV+. Paramount+. CNN+. If there’s a sign of the times in TV these days, it’s the “+” sign.

“Plus” generally denotes a new program service for on-demand streaming platforms. And local TV newsrooms are joining the trend. After we published a story about WMC Plus, a local news and sports channel created by Gray’s Memphis station, I got an email from Trey Schmaltz, the news director at WBRZ in Baton Rouge, telling me about WBRZ Plus, an unusual broadcast/cable/streaming channel that recognized early on what’s now become a priority for every local TV newsroom: reaching beyond conventional programs and platforms for new audiences and revenue.

Now, nearly four years since its launch, WBRZ Plus is breaking new ground again, introducing a 9 p.m. newscast this month — a couple of weeks earlier than scheduled so as to cover Hurricane Ida — and this past June becoming the first local broadcaster to forge a partnership with a sports betting network.

WBRZ Plus signed on in January 2018 to meet a challenge Schmaltz describes like this: “How can we create something to monetize that provides information and builds off of what we’re already doing, which is what we know how to do: local news.” In effect, the answer was for the newsroom to start competing against itself. “We had reached the maximum amount of local news potential on the legacy station, so we turned to our startup to add local news,” Schmaltz says.

The original concept was simple: simulcast any newscast that’s live on the main channel, but add more hours of local news when WBRZ, an ABC affiliate, is on network or syndicated programming. Plus is also a handy outlet for breaking news that isn’t worth interrupting the legacy channel for, like live coverage of coaches’ news conferences in a football-crazy market.

That means two additional hours of local news in the morning, an extra half-hour at 6:30 p.m., and an extra half-hour of late news — all produced exclusively for Plus. There is also heavy reliance on repeated newscasts to fill the gaps between fresh programs: the full 6 to 7 p.m. hour repeats on Plus from 7 to 8 p.m., for example, for people coming home later.

Up to now, the priority has not been differentiation, but accessibility — doubling down on the news that viewers know and like. “If you’re seeking out Plus, you’re seeking WBRZ news content at a time that’s more convenient for you. So we’re going to deliver the same strategy across both stations,” Schmaltz says.

Michael Shingleton and Sylvia Weatherspoon (all images courtesy of WBRZ)

The new 9 p.m. newscast extends that approach. It’s an attempt to attract viewers who want their late news earlier, replacing a half hour that originally followed the legacy channel’s 10 p.m. newscast. While there is a small team dedicated to the new program, WBRZ’s 6 and 10 p.m. anchors, Sylvia Weatherspoon and Michael Shingleton, also deliver the 9 p.m. along with the rest of the A-team. “This is a full blown primetime newscast with the major players in our station,” Schmaltz says. “The 10 o’clock news still has its own set of reporters, turning stories that you won’t get at 9, that you don’t get at 6. In today’s multi-platform world, we really can’t be too concerned about cannibalizing anything. We need to look more at a way of being almost everywhere, at almost any time.”

Beyond adding and repeating newscasts, Schmaltz is also looking for more original ways to drive new viewers to Plus. He plans to experiment with a Friday night football show, a Friday evening political show, and original long-form programs, like an upcoming youth crime special.

But the station’s big wager is on three hours of sports betting programming every weekday, with another chunk on Saturdays. It’s a unique partnership with a sports betting streaming channel, VSiN, that originates from the Las Vegas sports books. WBRZ Plus joins VSiN programming for an hour at a time at 10 a.m., 3 p.m., and 8 p.m. weekdays and from 3 to 6 p.m. on Saturdays. This football season will be the first to feature legal sports betting in Louisiana, and Baton Rouge, home of SEC powerhouse LSU, is fertile ground.

“It was very clear to us at an early stage in this sports betting realm that this was going to be a big deal,” says Schmaltz, who describes VSiN as a CNBC for sports bettors. “How do we create something that is not just extra, but meaningful?”

WBRZ Plus relies on a solid three-legged distribution platform: it’s a digital sub-channel for over-the-air viewing, it appears on basic tiers on both cable systems that serve Baton Rouge, and it’s an OTT streaming channel. (If your only source of TV is a satellite dish, you’re out of luck.) Schmaltz says he pays as much attention to promotion as he does to editorial direction. “We cross-promote 24 hours a day. Every newscast will cross-promote to the next newscast on the other channel. And we’re looking for ways that we can cross-promote even after the news is over” — such as referring back to a story that broke on the sister channel.

The station also gets strong support from its local owners: the Manship family, which has a 112-year history in the news business and deep roots in the community. Still, Schmaltz prides himself on fielding a lean team, although he doesn’t want to divulge just how lean it is. Instead he sent me an email that said in part, “Innovation doesn’t have to mean expensive. It means thinking smarter, harder and more efficiently about what you want and how to get it done.”

That advice from Market #94 echoes what GM Jonathan Mitchell of WMC in #51 Memphis told us about his new Plus channel: “You don’t have to be in a major market. You don’t have to be a network O-and-O. You can have a standard of excellence, and everyone can strive to reach that standard every single day.”

Words that might inspire other local newsroom leaders to ask themselves: What’s our Plus?

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The Locked On HBCU podcast tackles underreported stories

After an odd year in college sports, when schools played a modified season or no season at all due to the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes and their fans are eager to get back in the game. One TV station group is capitalizing on the excitement by introducing a new podcast that will both expand the company’s digital footprint and promote diversity.

Last month, TEGNA-owned Locked On started the Locked On HBCU podcast, which covers historically Black colleges and universities’ (HBCUs) sports, athletes and culture. There are 107 HBCUs, but the podcast focuses on the top conferences. Hosted by Reggie Flood, a well-known New Orleans radio sportscaster, the daily podcast also features TEGNA local TV news correspondents and anchors who cover or attended an HBCU.

The Locked On Podcast Network started in 2016 with a single podcast about the Utah Jazz and has since expanded to more than 175 podcasts covering the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, major college teams, fantasy sports and sports betting, with over 80 million downloads in 2020. TEGNA purchased Locked On last January.

Locked On HBCU is the first daily podcast devoted exclusively to HBCUs. “The podcast started from “a combination of a few forces,” president and founder of the Locked On Podcast Network David Locke said. “One, the natural expansion of our college programming. Two, I think there’s been an increased interest in HBCU programming… [Three], a lot of our markets match HBCU markets.”

Locked On HBCU also opens a new page in TEGNA’s local TV playbook. “We’re trying to integrate our audio talent along with some of their television,” Locke said. “We’re moving our podcasts all to video, which increases their video content on their OTT apps and their watch channels.” Local reporters and anchors join the podcast to report on the latest news at an institution and to provide analysis of a team, which increases exposure for them, their station and the podcast. “If you get a name that’s familiar to people from a certain region, [and] they tell their people that they’re going to be on the podcast, more people tune in because they want to hear what they have to say,” Flood said.

Mo Carter, a contributor to the Locked On HBCU podcast and sports director at WZDX, TEGNA’s Huntsville, Alabama station, believes availability and accessibility for viewers is why local TV sports news is going digital. “[A] big difference with TV is that I only have my certain times of the day in which I’m on a television screen,” he said.

Rather than watching local sports coverage at a designated time, fans can listen to in-depth analysis of a team or conference at their convenience. “That’s kind of how things are really moving, not just for the podcasts but in the entire news and sports and digital world,” Carter added.


Listen to an episode of Locked On HBCU

Carter sees an opportunity to cover local sports that networks often ignore. “You may not get those [local stories] on a national or even a regional level, so that’s why it’s important to tell those stories locally and build that fan base,” he said. While professional and big-name college teams dominate the news cycle, there is still a demographic of fans who follow underrepresented sports, including the HBCU teams.

The Locked on HBCU podcast will also touch on HBCU life, culture and education with the help of well-known anchors like Lesli Foster and Allison Seymour of WUSA, TEGNA’s Washington, D.C. station. Prominent TV personalities like Foster and Seymour, both HBCU grads themselves (Howard and Hampton Universities, respectively) can help boost the numbers for the podcast, but the cross-platform play also introduces them to potential new viewers.

The anchors plan to highlight the importance of attending and supporting HBCUs. “The world needs to understand the fabric of who African Americans are and how we contribute to the wider community,” Seymour said. “It’s just about everything: representation, diversity, stories told by people who understand the history and the stories and care about it.”

Lesli Foster (Credit: Tommy Collier) and Allison Seymour (Credit: WUSA)

Locke says the new podcast has performed well since its Aug. 2 debut, thanks to the “uniqueness of pride” shown by the HBCU community. “I think the reception has been really positive. People are super excited to have [HBCUs] being covered the same way we are the SEC, the ACC, the Big 10, Big 12,” he said. “​​I think there is a thirst. I think people really want to have information about HBCUs,” Flood added. “There’s been a resurgence in interest in HBCUs, so people out there want the information, and they want it from viable and credible sources.”

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How’s your story strength today?

Is this article weak, fair, good, or excellent?

How are you supposed to know? You haven’t even read it yet. But if I worked for TEGNA, I’d be getting that kind of feedback already, while I’m still typing away. It’s a built-in feature called the “story strength meter” that was recently integrated into the company’s proprietary content management system (CMS) called “TEGNA One.” “This is like when you’re creating a new password, and it tells you if it’s weak, good, or really strong,” says TEGNA’s chief digital officer, Adam Ostrow. “This does the same thing for stories. And it’s based on how well that story executes against our best practices.”

The new story strength tool is just part of an ambitious home-grown CMS that is still evolving nearly three years after launch — an example of collaborative and continuing innovation. As we mentioned in our widely read report on how to address local TV newsrooms’ recruitment crisis, making the workplace less onerous for overburdened producers is an important priority. But that’s by no means TEGNA One’s only goal. “I’d say a theme is integration and simplicity,” Ostrow says. “It’s also how to use technology to drive performance, as well as to power better content experiences.”

“Story strength is a live meter grading scale that you see at the top of any article that you’re writing in TEGNA One,” explains Jessica Mullins, a regional digital director based at Boise’s KTVB. “And as you’re writing it, you’ll be able to watch the ratings go from weak to fair to good to excellent. And there are built-in criteria that are weighted in different ways that will help you get your score up.”

The tool generates a score for your story on a 100-point scale, and it also offers drop-down menus with suggestions for how to improve your tally as you go along — adding video, say, or links, or more details. “Any story we do can benefit from being optimized,” says Ostrow. “We want the story to find an audience. So it’s really designed to help the creators do that.”

The CMS offers suggestions for raising this story’s strength score (images courtesy of TEGNA)

Ostrow, who joined TEGNA about four years ago after a decade at Mashable, realized that creating a new CMS would be a priority when a survey of stations revealed a satisfaction rate of only 30% with the previous system, which came from an outside vendor. Moreover, he says, “We were probably using five or six different tools to do all the things that we can now do in one.”

TEGNA used in-house product managers and developers, along with a New York City design firm (Code and Theory) to create TEGNA One — with a lot of input from employees in newsrooms around the country. “[We] asked for feedback on all the different core features as well as suggestions for things that the field would like to see to help them do their jobs better,” Ostrow says.

Regional digital directors like Mullins, who works with nine other stations as well as her own team in Boise, have a key role. “They’re our eyes and ears for the field,” Ostrow says. “So they play an important part in planning our product roadmap, as opposed to just the technology and product people.”

The result: features like the ability to send push alerts right from the CMS, rather than relying on an often sluggish third party as before; the ability to select video clips from station newscasts, all of which are accessible on the system; the ability to vet and integrate user-generated content that is uploaded directly into the CMS; the ability to share content easily with other stations, with rights management built in; and the ability to live-stream across OTT platforms, mobile apps, social media, and owned websites. “It does it all from one interface, and it’s ‘Click, click, click, here’s where I want it to go,’” Ostrow says. “And they can do that from inside TEGNA One.”

The most recent addition: headline testing. Users can submit up to four different headlines, which undergo real-time testing on the station’s home page. The algorithms select a winner based on proprietary engagement metrics. “It’s not just clicks, it’s kind of a special secret sauce,” says Mullins. “The best thing is that once there’s a determined winner, it will automatically change the headline of the article to the winning headline. So your digital producer, who’s already spinning ten plates — managing social media, the website, everything else, and writing stories — doesn’t have to remember to go back in a timely way and update their headline after that.”

A/B (or A/B/C/D) headline testing is not new, of course; it’s been standard practice in digital publishing for years. But integration into the CMS has made a dramatic difference at TEGNA. Ostrow estimates that when stations had to use an outside service for headline comparisons, they ran a couple of hundred tests a month. Now, thanks to the latest feature in TEGNA One, content creators ran 4,000 tests in September alone.

Screenshot of the headline testing dashboard

The story strength meter may sound a tad more Orwellian to you. It did to me at first. But both Ostrow and Mullins say that it’s used to drive better practices across teams and enhance quality, even though “it definitely creates a competitive dynamic,” Ostrow says. “Some people really want to make sure that their stories are good or excellent.” “We really emphasize to stations and producers that this isn’t about just getting a 100% score every time,” says Mullins. “It’s just this tool to help guide you to make the best possible content. It’s not about gaming the system.”

Ostrow says that thanks to the real-time story length tutorial, flagship Washington, D.C. station WUSA raised its average from a lackluster score in the 50’s to almost 80, “which is almost as high as you can go. And they’re also one of our top-performing stations in terms of growth this year, from a digital KPI [key performance indicator] perspective. So we do see correlation.”

The story strength feature does establish a new metric for evaluating the performance of stations and, when necessary, individual employees. Mullins says she doesn’t routinely look at individual producer scores, but “If I have someone where I’m monitoring performance, I can go back and look up the stories they’ve authored and see what their scores are. And that could be a constructive feedback conversation. But we don’t have any kind of structure in place where we’re holding everyone accountable to their individual scores.”

This story is ready to go: headlines tested, and an excellent strength score

Ostrow says satisfaction with the new CMS is up to 85% in the latest field survey. The company still uses third parties for some functions, like Google for web analytics and outside ad tech. “We’re not trying to replicate the entire vendor ecosystem,” Ostrow says. “There are certain areas where we think it makes a lot of sense to own and control it.” For other broadcasters considering similar DIY projects, Ostrow advises thinking about “the bigger picture” — how to support them and keep improving them after they’re built.

“Prioritizing innovation is so important with the digital landscape and the future of news,” says Mullins. “We’re all figuring it out together. Making sure that your product is prioritized as a good experience and not a point of frustration, when you’re already combating the stress of the newsroom — it’s huge for morale.”

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All news may be local — but more and more of it is going national

“It’s the most thoughtful approach to journalism that I’ve seen in a really long time,” says Meagan O’Halloran. “It seems like the perfect hybrid: national news with a local feel.”

O’Halloran has just moved into a new office in Washington, D.C. This is her first week on the job as anchor of an innovative news program that Sinclair is launching on September 27 — a nightly version of its nationwide morning show The National Desk (TND), which premiered in January. O’Halloran left a successful five-year run as morning anchor at Nexstar’s KDVR (Fox31) in Denver to join Sinclair and a fast-growing trend: local station groups creating national programs and even whole channels to amortize resources, populate new platforms, and replace generic syndicated fare with original content.

Meagan O’Halloran

Sinclair pumps out the morning version of The National Desk from its Washington station, WJLA, for five hours, from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. Eastern Time. Stations can take as much or little of it as they like. The main broadcast outlet is Sinclair’s CW and MY stations, many of which don’t have robust news departments. “We think that being able to create original programming, especially news programming, is a real opportunity for us on a lot of these stations,” says Scott Livingston, the group’s SVP of news.

The new evening edition will air from 10 p.m. to midnight Eastern — one feed for all time zones — and it (or chunks of it — again, the stations get to decide) will appear on 64 stations in 60 markets. But TND also streams on all Sinclair station websites as well as its OTT platform, Stirr, which we wrote about here. The National Desk represents a substantial investment: about 60 people in total work on the two editions. A standalone TND website and app are due next month.

TND draws on content from all of Sinclair’s local newsrooms

“It’s a newscast of discovery, using all the resources across Sinclair,” says Livingston, who talks proudly of the company’s “4,000 journalists.” “When you watch The National Desk, we are taking you along this journey as news unfolds,” he says. “We can discover important things and storylines together.” If that sounds different from the usual formula of a conventional newscast, it’s supposed to.

“If the newscast is live, and truly digging while it’s on the air, I think it’s a new concept that doesn’t exist right now,” says TND director of content Mike Garber, who joined the team in June after more than four years as news director at Sinclair’s Salt Lake City station. Garber uses the somewhat oxymoronic term “real time investigative” to describe the new approach: “What we want to do that’s different than anybody else is each night take on a controversial topic, the big story of the day, but do a real time investigation into it that night.”

In order to accomplish that ambitious goal, Livingston, Garber and nightside executive producer Ryan Minnaugh are counting on an innovative feature: a three-person team, internally dubbed “the truth squad” while management decides on its real name, that digs into one big story each day. The “squad” is assigned to come up with relevant context and hard data and then share it online as well as live on the air with O’Halloran, who reacts on the fly. “It’s not going to be a fancy, pre-packaged three-minute or five minute story,” Livingston says. “It’s a conversation. It’s pulling up the documents that support what we’re seeing, what the trend is, and then taking all that content and posting it on our website. So folks can continue to do their own discovery, if you will, based on all the information that we’ve gathered throughout the day.”

Livingston sees this as an important exercise in transparency at a time when partisan divides continue to erode trust in news organizations, as the Pew Research Center reported this week. “There are now a lot of questions about ‘How do I know we’re getting to the truth? How do I know that’s accurate?’ Well, we’re going to take you along for the ride,” Livingston says. “I think viewers want to see how the sausage is made. These are all the things that we typically do in a newsroom, but we just don’t showcase it. So this is the process of getting to the truth.”

Some readers may find it ironic that Sinclair, which has faced searing blowback for forcing political opinion into local newscasts, is presenting its new program as a needed alternative to the opinionated scrum of prime time cable news. “We believe there’s a gap there that we can close by providing a distinctive and unique news product,” says Livington. The news release announcing O’Halloran’s selection promises a “comprehensive, commentary-free look at the most impactful national news and regional stories of the day.” “It’s going to be fact based; it’s not going to be opinion,” Garber says. “What are the facts telling you?” Adds O’Halloran: “I hope that [viewers] would watch and say, ‘I like them. I trust them. And I’m getting a product that I’m not getting on cable news.’”

All images courtesy of Sinclair

In addition to the nightly exploration of a hot topic, TND is borrowing several features from its morning progenitor that it hopes will also help it stand out: a “live desk anchor,” Eugene Ramirez, reporting on unfolding events like his morning counterpart Cayle Thompson; a national correspondent, Ryan Smith, reporting on major stories like his morning counterpart Angela Brown; and “Pulse of America,” a collection of local stories of national interest culled from Sinclair stations. There’s also the ability to call on Sinclair’s army of local reporters when relevant news breaks on their turf.

The new team: Eugene Ramirez, Meagan O’Halloran, and Ryan Smith

Livingston, Garber and O’Halloran all stress the importance of going deeper than the headlines, which sounds like a cliché until you actually try to do it. “That’s part of the conversation that we have every day,” O’Halloran says. “What are the most important stories? And how do we take that a step beyond the local news headlines? How do we dig into that with the truth squad?” “People understand that we’re going to a local reporter who can provide context: not just the ‘what,’ but the ‘so what,’” Livingston says. “I get the ‘what’ all day long on other platforms, on my phone, so if I don’t provide the ‘so what,’ we’re really in trouble.”

As I mentioned, station ownership groups creating national programs and channels for both broadcast and digital platforms is all the rage. We’ve reported on ABC’s Localish; NBC’s LX; Scripps’s Newsy; Gray’s Full Court Press with Greta van Susteren; and TEGNA’s Verify, among others. The most obvious competitor to Sinclair’s efforts is Nexstar, which, despite well-chronicled growing pains, is adding two high-profile new programs to its cable news channel, NewsNation, on the same day that The National Desk makes its nightly debut.

Does Sinclair have plans for a news channel of its own? You can be pretty sure that if the second edition of TND succeeds, more hours of news will follow. “We’re going to crawl, walk, run, but expansion’s got to be on people’s minds,” says Garber. “I think we recognize that if we’re going to be relevant in all of our channels and all of our markets and all our platforms, we need to focus on news and sports,” says Livingston. “And that’s local news, national news, regional sports, national sports. So I think there’s real opportunity there. And I think we’ll always look for opportunities to expand our local and national brands.”

I’ll take that as a yes. As for O’Halloran, she’s just eager to get started. “We really have a huge hand in making this what we want to make it,” she says. “We’re really excited about it. I’m really excited to see where we go from here.”

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When will hyperlocal targeting come to TV news? It already has.

One of the challenges for local TV newsrooms as they embrace the digital age is balancing broadcasting and narrowcasting: one size fits all versus one size fits me. Websites and apps allow for a degree of personalization that TV has never been able to match. But that may be about to change.

“There are challenges because, as you can probably imagine, some things that are important to our folks out in Valdosta may not be as important to our folks all the way here in Leon County,” says Sabrina Fuller, news director at WCTV, a Gray station that’s based in Tallahassee, Florida but also serves Valdosta and Thomasville across the state line in Georgia. “To be able to target a story to folks who live in Thomasville so that it’s at the forefront of what they see — that’s what people crave more and more.”

That’s why Fuller’s station is ground zero for a highly experimental technology that allows viewers to integrate hyperlocal stories with the traditional broadcast signal. “What’s happening is, the TV screen is becoming a website,” says Gray Television’s CTO David Burke. “A television set now has a back channel to it: an IP [internet protocol] stream that hits a television set. So you can do a lot of things other than just play video and audio. By default, it knows where you’re located. And now with the user call to action, you can see stories or weather that are geo-local to your location on top of the primary video stream.”

The “broadcaster app” integrates local videos with a conventional broadcast

If that sounds like something from the future — it is. Gray is developing and testing what it calls a “broadcaster app” to work with the next broadcast standard: ATSC 3.0, branded by its evangelists as NextGen TV and promising to provide superior video and audio quality plus a lot more. While stations in about 40 markets already transmit a NextGen TV signal — eight Kansas City stations and five Atlanta stations began broadcasting in ATSC 3.0 just this week, according to TVNewsCheck — only about 4% of sets are equipped to receive it, says Burke. Broadcasters are betting on wide adoption by set manufacturers and viewers in the next five to seven years, but right now, WCTV’s broadcaster app is out there where the trains don’t run.

The “call to action” button

Still, you can see the potential, which I did thanks to a demo from Burke’s colleagues Michael Watson and Peter Gogas. A viewer in Valdosta, say — assuming she has a NextGen-enabled set and an internet connection and is tuned to WCTV’s 3.0 transmitter, cleverly named WNXG — sees a “call to action” button at the side of her broadcast picture and can use her regular TV remote to call up news videos and weather graphics tailored to her zip code. The “second screen” meets the first screen.

An overlay tailored to a viewer from Valdosta

“It’s described — and it should be — as a great cutting edge thing,” Fuller says. “But when you actually look at it, you can wrap your mind around it. Though it’s great technology, it’s not inaccessible or difficult to understand. I think most folks are going to get a lot out of it. It’s easy to navigate. It would be easy to promote and easy to explain how it works to a viewer. I think it’s going to appeal to a lot of people in different age groups who want to have these things accessible but are still comfortable with a TV set in the living room.”

All Fuller’s digital producer has to do is tag each video with its relevant location — a process easily integrated into the normal content management system workflow. “Even for folks who are in smaller markets, or have even more limited staff, it’s not like ten extra steps to get the content to where it needs to be,” Fuller says. “You’re basically just checking a box to make sure that it gets tagged to go where it needs to go. So far it’s been pretty easy.”

But while the broadcaster app may be relatively simple for the newsroom and the viewers to use, developing it was not. WCTV started with a framework created by Pearl TV, a consortium of nine broadcast companies collaborating on new TV technology, and a UK-based firm called Yotta Media Labs. Then, a lucky break: Gray SVP Sandy Breland learned of a Knight Foundation program, administered by our very own Cronkite School at ASU, to encourage stations to experiment with new technologies. Breland worked with assistant dean Melanie Asp Alvarez to secure a $50,000 grant to develop the custom app. “They helped jumpstart our whole effort,” Burke says. (Knight also funds this News Lab under a separate grant.)

Gray has a strong track record of testing new technology at one station and then rolling it out once it proves successful, as it did with the one-person “digital desk” incubated at Cleveland’s WOIO. So you can be sure versions of the broadcaster app will start popping up in other Gray markets as they build ATSC 3.0 capability. But the Knight/ASU grant, along with the Pearl TV collaboration, means that the company will share what it has learned more broadly.

“[This] approach can now be a blueprint for any TV station,” Burke says. “And part of our deliverable to Arizona State is to document the end to end: This is what a newsroom would have to do. This is what the digital or technology guys would have to do. And then you could replicate this.”

The emerging technology has the potential to deliver all sorts of content, as well as gather valuable data from viewers who elect to use it. It’s also going to be yet another battleground for stations striving to create a uniquely valuable user experience — essentially a new “channel” on a familiar platform. “You’re going to see that this broadcaster app is going to be a competitive point for broadcasters in the market,” Burke says. “How well you develop it, what it looks like, how gee whiz it is.”

One more challenge not just for NextGen TV, but for “NextGen ND” — the smart young news directors who are re-inventing the TV news experience for a new generation of consumers. “I’m excited to see where we go with it, how far we can actually take it,” Fuller says. “It’s a good time to be in the business and to be taking a look at these emerging technologies. It’s fun. It’s just fun.”

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Research explores how local TV news affects public perceptions of pandemic protocols, the rise of national coverage on local TV news, and changes in how local TV journalists do their jobs.

Whodunit? An Arizona newsroom makes crime pay


Picture this.

Rugged mountain ranges, tall saguaros, deep canyons, and endless sunshine. These are features of the quintessential American West. Ordinary sights Arizonans wake up to every morning.

“There’s a lot of desert charm,” said Briana Whitney, a general assignment reporter for the Meredith-owned Phoenix news operations collectively branded as Arizona’s Family.

But as Whitney discovered, that charm can be deceiving.

A Scottsdale father wanted by the FBI for the murder of his family. A Phoenix woman accused of chopping up her friend’s body and taking it in a piece of luggage to Los Angeles. A seemingly perfect mother connected to six mysterious deaths. A body discovered in a man’s freezer near Prescott.

These are just a few of the dozens of solved and unsolved Arizona-based cases Whitney has covered along with fellow Arizona’s Family journalist Serjio Hernandez in the podcast and TV series True Crime Arizona. It’s a prime — or in this case, crime — example of newsrooms using in-depth original content to drive audience, revenue, and brand awareness.

It all started with an idea for a November 2019 sweeps piece.The station would take a look back at the infamous Robert Fisher case. “It’s probably one of the most talked about cases in this state because it’s so bizarre,” said Whitney. Police believe Fisher killed his wife and children in 2001, and then cut their Scottsdale home’s gas line, which caused the house to explode in flames.To this day, Fisher remains on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted List, his whereabouts unknown. “What really interested me was I remembered that the current detective thought he was dead and the retired detective thought he was alive,” said Whitney.

The series started with a handful of seven-minute TV pieces on different cases, built into the evening newscast under the branding Unsolved Arizona. They hit pause due to the pandemic, but returned several months later with a broader focus and a new name, True Crime Arizona.”We morphed into both unsolved and solved, in terms of just bringing cases that were intriguing back to life,” said Whitney. But the big change came last November with the expansion to a popular new platform: a recurring podcast.


Listen to the Robert Fisher podcast episode

“We’re curious people, that’s why we’re journalists,” said Jennifer Dahl, the executive news director at Arizona’s Family. “That curiosity factor got us going, and it turned into a runaway train, which has been very successful.” So far the podcast has been downloaded over 200,000 times, with each of the top 10 episodes getting at least 7,000 individual downloads. According to recent data collected by Libsyn, the prominent podcast host, those download numbers place True Crime Arizona among the top 5 percent of podcasts.

Whitney, who is 28, has also observed its popularity anecdotally. “The people I know in my generation really want the podcast, and they want them longer and longer as opposed to the shorter TV clips. It’s interesting to see the evolution and be a part of it. I feel like I’m in that age group that’s wanting those new mediums,” said Whitney. “That’s also why I’ve loved doing the podcast: because there’s not a time limit, so that just breeds more details that we can put into the cases.”

While Whitney may have found her passion in long-form storytelling as the host of True Crime Arizona, she’s still a general assignment reporter for both Arizona’s Family stations, KTVK (3TV) and KPHO (CBS 5). Whitney takes calls for the series before work, in between live shots, anytime she can get a second in. Then she’ll request a day off with Hernandez to record all of the interviews with families, neighbors, police departments, anyone connected to the cases.

Whitney in a warehouse shooting the opening of a TV special on vanished children
Hernandez and Whitney looking through archives

“It’s a delicate balance every day,” said Dahl. “At the end of the day, our bread and butter is live local TV on Channel 3 and Channel 5, and so we have to feed that beast.”

It may be a juggling act for the stations, but the series is part of a deliberate strategy to expand across platforms and attract new audiences. “We understand that there’s a generation that is very entrenched in podcasting. Then you have the genre of true crime, so this was an opportunity to be an entry point to the Arizona’s Family brand,” said Blanca Esparza, the station manager at Arizona’s Family. “We hope that they’re going to start to learn the brand, start to trust the brand, and when they need to consume news in a linear fashion, when they need to go see a newscast, they already know and are familiar with the brand. That’s how we create brand loyalists.”

Whitney and Hernandez still produce seven-minute TV versions of the longer cases for certain Friday night TV newscasts. They also combine multiple cases into 30-minute specials and produce True Crime Arizona documentaries airing on both CBS 5 and 3TV, generating additional ad revenue.


Watch the TV special Vanished Children

Beyond the financial possibilities, the team sees the series as an extension of the stations’ public service imperative.

“Could you imagine if you had a sister or a brother or mom or a dad who had been murdered, and you didn’t know what had happened to them? Wouldn’t you want to be able to sleep at night?” said Esparza. “That’s the mission for these guys ultimately, and why it is made for who we are as a brand. We want to provide closure to these families, because that’s the least we can do.”

“We want to get the case back out there so people know about the memory, new theories, and information to solve it. We want to bring light to it again,” said Whitney. “I think that touches these families more than anything — that this community and our station has not forgotten about them.”

That’s exactly what happened with one case this year. In 1982, a young woman’s body was found on the side of a highway in northern Arizona on Valentine’s Day. For about 40 years, this Jane Doe remained nameless, except for the nickname “Valentine Sally.” But, about two weeks after the station’s True Crime Arizona episode aired on TV in February, police identified the body as Carolyn Eaton through DNA testing.

Whitney believes that her team’s continuing focus helped spur the police to action. “We were able to give our Sally a name, “ said Whitney. “Sometimes just asking departments questions can light a fire under them to relook at something or put some of their resources or funding back towards trying to make identifications, retesting DNA, things like that. I think that was probably our most proud moment so far in this series, just feeling like we may have played a part in helping to partially solve a cold case.”


Listen to the podcast on Valentine Sally

While the investigations may pay off, they are undoubtedly time consuming. Each case takes at least a month, if not several, to produce. But, since the stories are evergreen, the producers create a backlog of content and re-release episodes on case anniversaries (as they did in April near the anniversary of the murder of Robert Fisher’s wife and children).

The team generates additional content — and adds a fresh element of transparency — by taking podcast listeners behind the scenes. Another journalist at Arizona’s Family, Kris Pickel, turns the tables on Whitney and Hernandez and interviews them about their experience on a specific case. “In traditional journalism, we don’t really give our opinions, but in a podcast scenario like this, I think it allows us to give our viewers behind the scenes views of how it all happened, “ said Whitney. “They want to hear what you think, what you found bizarre, or what you found really interesting.”


Hernandez and Whitney recording a Q & A episode on the Robert Fisher case

“We’re not just a podcast company, we’re not just a documentary company, we don’t just do the local newscast, we do it all,” said Dahl. “That way we’re able to touch, and hopefully inspire somebody.”

But Dahl also believes the True Crime Arizona team can do more than just inspire.

“I’m waiting because I think Robert Fisher’s alive, and I think Briana’s going to find him.”

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Hearst TV Launches Free ‘Very Local’ Streaming Channels in 26 Markets

The debut of Very Local comes after several months of Hearst TV quietly piloting the free, ad-supported service.

Skeptics or cynics? Age determines how Americans view the news media

A new analysis of data reveals that age is an important differentiator in understanding the complexities of Americans’ trust in and perceptions of the news media.

Young people think it’s “very important” for news organizations to link out to their facts and research. Older people don’t care as much.

New data reveals trust in the media varies by age.

Pew: Sizable Portion of U.S. Use Social Media for News

“Despite growing concerns about the amount of misleading information on social media, almost one-third of Americans surveyed get news from Facebook and a sizable number from other sites.”

CBS to Phase Out CBSN Name for News Streaming Service

CBS News intends to phase out the CBSN moniker later this year and give its streaming effort the same identity its other products have: CBS News.

‘Harnessing the cool’ in search of new audiences


The video is informative and slickly produced: a 1:42 “explainer” in which a reporter deftly interacts with animated on-screen graphics and data to bring a potentially dry story on COVID-19’s global impact to life.

The segment is a social media extension of the Health Insider series on Scripps station KNXV (ABC15) in Phoenix, but the reporter, Jamie Landers, doesn’t work for the station. Landers is a May graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU, and she created the video using a green screen and a tool called Moovly as part of an unusual experiment in collaboration between a local TV newsroom and a journalism school.


WATCH the Jamie Landers explainer on COVID’s global spread

For the station, the project is an opportunity to expand its on-air health franchise to new users on social media platforms, including people who are unlikely to watch a traditional newscast, as well as to find out which techniques and platforms are most successful. The students produce the videos, but the station decides where to post them: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or a combination.

“I think part of it is giving a fresh perspective to how we’re covering digital news,” says Courtland Jeffrey, a senior digital editor who along with his ABC15 colleague Katie Fisher works closely with the students. (Fisher and Jeffrey are both Cronkite grads: it’s a cozy fit.) “I think we tend to get in the trenches of what we know works, but this kind of took off the reins and just let us go free and say, ‘Hey, let’s try these things. Let’s try these other different tools out. Let’s try these other visual formats out and see how they connect with our audience,’” Jeffrey says.

Click above to WATCH an explainer on the Delta variant on ABC15’s Facebook page

And why Cronkite News? The bespoke work for a commercial station is part of the newsroom’s participation in Table Stakes, a 10-month challenge-based innovation program for local TV newsrooms based at ASU and funded by the Knight Foundation, which also underwrites our work here at the Lab. (ABC15 went through Table Stakes itself in the 2018-19 session.)

One explicit goal in Cronkite News’s Table Stakes challenge is to “harness the cool” of the students, whose media habits and savvy reflect their own peer group — and therefore the news consumers of tomorrow. “Who better to help reach the younger generation than people in the generation,” says Isaac Easley, a Cronkite video journalism and innovation instructor who works closely with the student team. “We’re catering to an audience that spends 90% of their time on social media, and most likely gets 100% of their news on social media,” says Landers. “And it’s important for them to be informed as well. So you might as well make it fun.”


WATCH a Simon Williams explainer on “brain fog”

The core team at Cronkite News is a three-person “innovation squad” — currently consisting of Landers, Jordan Spurgeon, and Simon Williams — that has been creating explainers at a pace of one or two a week since the spring. (The project wraps up next week.) The Cronkite crew meets with Fisher and Jeffrey every week to plan and compare notes.

Most of the videos draw on the station’s reporting, but the students also contribute their own ideas. In addition to Moovly, they have experimented with tools like Wideo and VideoScribe and Vyond and techniques like stop-motion and anime and flipbook animation.

Topics range widely. Some examples: whether youth sports leagues will require vaccinations; the difference between heat stroke and heat exhaustion; COVID vaccine side effects; understanding sunscreen SPF levels; brain fog, and the newly approved Alzheimer’s treatment (a stop-motion explainer using creative arrangements of M&Ms).


WATCH the team use M&Ms and stop-motion to explain a new Alzheimer’s treatment

ABC15 hasn’t put any of the student videos on television — just its social media pages — but Fisher says segments like the Landers story on COVID’s global expansion are already suggesting ways to add a valuable element to the station’s newscasts. “That could easily have an application for on-air,” she says. “It’s the depth, it’s the context, it’s showing the viewer in a visual way, breaking it down in a new way. And they are trying to do that more in our on-air broadcasts.”


WATCH a flipbook explainer on heat-related ailments

Both the students and the ABC15 editors keep meticulous records of what has worked best on which platforms — and what hasn’t. Timeliness and topicality are a constant concern, “Innovation takes time. And not all of it works,” says Easley. “It’s walking that tightrope between trying something new, and trying to meet the deadline. So finding that balance between creativity and making it timely was always a big challenge.”

The team found that stop-motion is engaging but very time-consuming to produce

To that end, the students also post information about each tool, including its ease (or difficulty) of use. Cronkite News plans to publish an online playbook with all its findings by the end of this month, so that every newsroom, including yours, can profit from the lessons learned. “We had a lot of fun doing it and learned a lot from it. So for us it was a success. Now the next step is sharing the results with the rest of the world,” says Christina Leonard, who oversees the project as executive editor of Cronkite News. “Everybody else gets to reap the benefits of our experiment and see if they want to give it a shot.”


WATCH Jordan Spurgeon’s anime explainer on youth sports leagues

How hard would it actually be for other newsrooms to replicate this experiment? Thanks to the Knight funding, ABC15 didn’t have to pay for the school’s work, but the students also benefited greatly from the station’s guidance and from exposure to its larger audience. If collaborating with a journalism school isn’t an option, a newsroom has to decide whether to invest some of its own resources to train reporters and producers to create these explainers.

“I think it’s 100% worth it,” says Landers. “That’s what I would tell a news director. It’s never a waste of time to try to grab one more person’s attention. I think people are hungry for information, but they’re not clicking on digital articles and going behind paywalls anymore. They’re not sitting down at 6 p.m. and watching your evening newscast. And if you know that, it is up to you to do your best to find a different way. So I think it is worth it to train your reporters, and I can guarantee that they can do it.”

But in addition to spending time and money, a key ingredient in this experiment — and a hallmark of most successful innovation efforts — is the willingness to fail, learn from the setbacks, and quickly move on. “Everything that you try for the first time is daunting and frustrating,” Landers says. “But if you push past that, that’s where the good stuff comes from.”

Maybe this time, the students are the ones teaching us.

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Amid Local News Death Narratives, There’s An Opportunity For TV

So, is local news dying? Old mentalities are certainly dying, but only because new ones are being born.

In era of weather extremes, TV forecasters become climate educators

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The future of TV news won’t be on TV

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For local journalists, there’s nowhere to hide from trauma

Increased attention has been paid to the trauma of journalism in recent years, more so since the pandemic hit.

InvestigateTV Debuts Weekly News Program

Gray Television’s investigative team is launching a weekly show across the group’s stations in 102 markets.

Where can you find Stephanie Haney? Try everywhere!

What’s one thing broadcast journalists can never get enough of?

Time.

Time to add in that extra 15-second soundbite to the package, or that 45-second health explainer to the newscast.

But Stephanie Haney, digital anchor and legal analyst at the TEGNA-owned Cleveland station, WKYC, has all the time — and space — she needs.

“I think journalists around the world share the frustration: You just don’t have enough time to get all those details in,” said Haney. Thanks to a multi-platform approach, Haney offers a mix of reporting, analysis and personal revelations — creating a unique experience for WKYC viewers without the time constraints of a typical TV broadcast. “Doing it in this multi-platform way really enables the audience to get that information immediately.”

Every weekday at 4 p.m. you’ll find Haney online keeping Ohioans up-to-date with the top headlines in the digital show 3News Now with Stephanie Haney. Then she’s back at 5 p.m, this time on the air, to produce and host Clicking in Cleveland for the TV broadcast, a daily trending stories segment repackaged from 3News Now. Each week she takes a deeper dive into evergreen topics like “revenge sleep procrastination” with her award-winning weekly podcast 3 Things to Know with Stephanie Haney. (Don’t know what that is? I didn’t either. Click the link further down to find out.)


Watch Haney on 3News Now

For that much-needed midweek mood boost, Haney and the WKYC team launched a new digital show It’s All Good (News!) with Stephanie Haney in April, which features three uplifting stories (often viewer-submitted) to “make your heart melt.” Haney also breaks down complex legalese in her occasional legal analysis segment Legally Speaking with Stephanie Haney. (She’s also the station’s on-air legal analyst.)


Watch Haney on It’s All Good (News!)


Haney explains in Legally Speaking how viewers can get their money back when a business closes

Each show or segment Haney hosts (even the podcast) is video-centric, with eye-catching graphics or on-camera guests so that it can be adapted to fit a multitude of platforms. 3News Now, for example, streams every weekday on the WKYC Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and all podcast platforms with the repackaged segment, Clicking in Cleveland, airing on TV.

“I get to meet people where they are, whether it’s Facebook Live, Instagram, YouTube, or just sharing things on Twitter,” said Haney. “Really having conversations with people in our community where they are.”

It’s a community she knows well as a Northeast Ohio native. However, growing up, Haney never intended to become a journalist. Instead, she wanted to be a lawyer, and she is licensed to practice in both Ohio and California. After law school, Haney worked in the entertainment industry but felt she wasn’t making enough of an impact at the local community level. So, Haney went back to school for her master’s in journalism at the University of Southern California. Haney came to WKYC in 2019 after working at DailyMailTV in New York.

“It was an interesting feeling coming to a TV station to be the digital anchor,” said Haney. “Just knowing that the industry is really moving more toward a model where it’s content first, platform second.”

The platform may no longer matter to audiences, but Haney certainly notices a difference in the style of digital-first content compared to TV.

“I think the tone is different, just speaking more plainly and conversationally. I think people get a little bit caught up sometimes in the broadcast space of trying to be very serious all the time.” said Haney. “I don’t feel that pressure in the digital space.”

Haney’s style has resonated with audiences, her WKYC videos on YouTube alone reaching over 1 million views in the past year. She’s also amassed quite a large social following of more than 225,000 users combined on her personal Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages. There, Haney makes a point to connect with viewers during Instagram live check-ins and share behind-the-scenes photos. Plus, she always keeps her DM’s open. “It can’t be a one-way street. If I’m asking people to share with me, I have to share with them too, and I think that encourages people to be a part of the conversation,” said Haney.

That unspoken rule she subscribes to — being open and vulnerable with her audience — is just as noticeable in the stories she covers. A few years ago, Haney decided to freeze her eggs and share her experience on her own social media pages. “I documented it in real-time when I was doing it about two years ago. I always had a plan to sort of put it together in a more cohesive way,” said Haney.

So when Haney read that fertility clinics were reporting a spike in egg freezing during COVID-19 rather than the expected baby boom, Haney pitched the idea to her digital director. They created a three-part series featured on her podcast 3 Things to Know (which was recently named the #1 podcast at the 2021 All Ohio Excellence in Journalism Awards by the Press Club of Cleveland). During the month of May, Haney offered a first-hand account of what it is really like to go through the egg freezing process. The series blended in experts who could speak to testing, costs, and long-term health concerns.

“Sharing that story with people gave me something to focus on,” said Haney. “It gave me sort of a bigger goal that was beyond my own personal reasons for doing it because I wanted to have the best chance at having a family.”


Listen to the first episode in the three-part series on egg freezing

Whether you’re ready to share a personal story, connect on a deeper level with your audience, or launch a new show, Haney believes the digital space is the place to be. “With the constant change in this space, if you can be open to it, there are a lot of great possibilities to tell stories and really connect with people in a meaningful way.”

Do you know an anchor, reporter, or meteorologist who is creatively using social media and should be featured in our next Social Media Spotlight? If so, email us at cronkitenewslab@asu.edu.

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This news consortium aims to cover rural America from coast to coast

More than 50 member newsrooms will help identify and investigate inequities in health, work, and environmental issues in rural America.

The Backstory: USA TODAY newsroom now majority female, sees gains in Black, Hispanic and Asian American journalists

Women now make up the majority of the newsroom at USA TODAY.

News collaborative for Black communities launches

Ten Black newspapers have joined forces to “amplify the Black experience by reporting, collecting and sharing stories about real people in communities across our country.”

‘Not on me to save the media industry’: Confessions of an early-career journalist leaving the industry

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How do you ‘super serve’ your news audience?

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – JUNE 18: (L-R) BNC Correspondent Aiyana Cristal and “Start Your Day” Hosts Sharon Reed and Mike Hill attend the Juneteenth ‘Celebration of Truth’ Community Festival hosted by Black News Channel in Atlanta’s Historic Castleberry Hill neighborhood on June 18, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Black News Channel)

“This is such a tremendous opportunity for us to put a stake in the ground and say, ‘We do hear you, we do see you,’” says Vickie Burns, “‘and we want to super serve you: your needs, your interests, your curiosity.”

Burns, a veteran leader in local newsrooms in Chicago, Los Angeles, and most recently New York, where she was the news VP at WPIX, is talking about the new job she starts on Monday: SVP and head of content for Black News Channel (BNC), a fast-growing 24-hour network serving African American viewers.

“It really all comes back to storytelling,” says BNC CEO Princell Hair, “and that is telling those stories in your communities that are most relevant and matter to your audience.” Hair, whose resumé bristles with senior roles that include the CBS owned stations, CNN, and Comcast/NBC regional sports networks, took over a year ago and has wasted no time.

Hair has made distribution deals with cable, satellite and OTT providers to increase the potential audience from about 2 million to 52 million viewers, with more to come. In a relaunch in March, BNC, whose principal backer is Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan, added nine hours of live news/talk programming a day, for a total of 17 — from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. every weekday. And Hair has increased the staff from 55 to more than 300, including high-profile hires like New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who hosts a new prime time hour at 10 p.m. Hair’s goal is to have at least one correspondent in all 25 top African American markets — he has 12 more cities to go.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – JUNE 18:BNC CEO Princell Hair and SVP of Content Vickie Burns attend the Juneteenth ‘Celebration of Truth’ Community Festival hosted by Black News Channel in Atlanta’s Historic Castleberry Hill neighborhood on June 18, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Black News Channel)

We generally write about local TV news here at the Knight-Cronkite News Lab, so why focus on BNC? As I learned in an interview with Hair and Burns, these two seasoned veterans, with decades of local experience behind them, have plenty to say that’s relevant to station newsrooms, especially as new generations of viewers seek out news that speaks directly to them rather than trying to speak to everyone.

Here are my seven takeaways from our conversation.

1. Identify the unique communities in your market — especially ones that feel underserved by what you’re doing now.

“We have learned over the years that the Black and Brown community does not feel that the traditional core media hears and sees and understands that community,” Burns says. “We’ve heard the research over the years that says we amplify the negative and we underreport or ignore the positive.”

This lesson doesn’t just apply to communities of color. Who else in your market has specific journalistic needs that you’re not addressing? And when you identify those groups, don’t ignore stories that report on solutions to problems and offer examples of achievement and hope.

2. Think of those communities as beats, and insist that your reporters generate original stories from the ground up.

BNC has 16 reporters in 13 cities with large Black populations, and when they’re not covering breaking news, they’re expected to come up with unique stories sourced from the street. We’ve written about similar approaches by the ABC owned stations community journalists and by the Spectrum News regional networks.

“With the people in the communities really being the ones driving the stories, we’re hearing things that we hadn’t heard before,” Hair says. “Ideally, on our best day, if we’re doing our jobs, our correspondents are coming up with stories that you’re not going to see anywhere else, enterprise stories that are going to really drive the conversation, whatever the conversation is on that particular day.”

3. Even your breaking news coverage should reflect those communities’ unique interests and needs.

“We have to cover breaking news. It’s the price of admission into our audience’s homes, whether you’re doing it nationally or locally,” Hair says. “We’re selective about the breaking news that we cover. We don’t cover every tree that falls. But whenever we do cover breaking news, we do try to cover it from the Black and Brown perspective.”

If you applied this filter to your breaking news stories — the ways in which they actually affect the various constituencies in your audience — how might your daily coverage change?

BNC brings its unique perspective to topical news coverage

4. Apply the lessons of the pandemic to make better use of time and resources.

No explanation needed here: every newsroom we know is figuring out which pandemic-driven workflows (and workarounds) are worth keeping even as the crisis starts to ebb. “We have really leveraged the circumstances around the pandemic — that we could not gather in offices — to build a workforce that operates pretty well remotely,” Hair says.

Hair estimates that of BNC’s 300+ employees, about 100 work at the channel’s Tallahassee headquarters; 20 or so are in the Washington bureau; and the rest are scattered around the country, with no brick-and-mortar base. Nayyera Haq and Kelly Wright, co-anchors of The World Tonight, a signature BNC newscast that runs from 5 to 7 p.m. daily, appear from their home studios in two different states, with the senior editorial and production team in Florida.

“The pandemic really taught us to maximize these tools, these communications protocols,” says Burns, who’s bringing her local chops to the challenge. “We’re not local, we’re a national network,” she says. “But we are borrowing some structural things and some sensibility about how you make the most of your resources from local.”

5. Build mentoring into your newsroom culture.

Mentoring happens informally in most newsrooms and formally in some. At BNC, it’s considered part of the mission. “We’re training the next generation of Black journalists,” Hair says, “and that’s an important part of what we do here as well: how these people grow, and how we impact them, as journalists, over their career.”

While this may sound too touchy-feely for some newsroom managers, I would argue that a reputation for active mentoring is good for recruitment and retention, not to mention the ongoing vitality of local news (and your particular ownership group).

6. Build in community impact as a measure of your success.

We heard this recently from Stacy Owen, GM of NBC Bay Area: she uses impact as a key performance indicator, along with more conventional metrics like ratings. Ditto for BNC, which emphasizes reporting not just on problems affecting African Americans but also their achievements. Here’s how Princell Hair puts it: “We’re trying to bring attention to a community that has been underserved and largely ignored forever. And I think that when we start to see some of these more obvious outward results of our reporting, our storytelling, that to me will be success.”

The pandemic brought out the best in local newsrooms, which rose to serve their audiences with life-saving information. Assuming that enhanced emphasis on community service survives COVID, now might be a good time to figure out how to measure the results — and bake those expectations into your ongoing work.

7. Express your unique value in everything you do.

This takeaway runs somewhat counter to the notion of local broadcasting — something for everyone, or all things to all people. But as the media marketplace fragments and users take sole control of their news, information and entertainment menus, I predict newsrooms will start targeting specific audience segments with more distinct value propositions. Maybe not quite narrowcasting: let’s call it smartcasting.

That’s easier for BNC, whose content is aimed squarely at Black news consumers. The channel even has a manifesto that proclaims its principles (see above). But what is the opportunity in your market to “smartcast” for the individual communities within it? And how might you define yourselves around a unique value that your newsroom can provide?

“You have to have a direction that defines your brand that isn’t a slogan, that can be lived in every part of what you program, from your news, to your marketing, to your whatever,” Vickie Burns says. “And I think that that is the opportunity for BNC: to define ourselves and our mission to super serve this community, and then refine and define that so that we live it in every part of the day, and in every stratum of the content that we’re going to create.”

What’s the vision that defines your newsroom?

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This article is part of our ongoing series, Changing Weather, focused on innovations in local weather coverage. This is the second of two reports highlighting free resources designed to help your newsroom bring the climate change story home to your viewers.

Matchmaking in the 21st century is not just for dating or job searching. Why not match journalists with expert sources?

“A lot of issues that are important to communities, whether it’s pollution from a local manufacturing plant, or extreme weather as it’s linked to climate change, are now being covered by reporters who don’t have a background in science, health or the environment,” said Becky Hazen, Associate Director for SciLine, a nonprofit service connecting journalists and scientists. And not surprisingly, SciLine saw a huge surge in the number of requests during the pandemic. “Suddenly every local reporter in America became a science reporter or a health reporter,” said Hazen. “Sometimes, finding a credible source is really tough. If you’re not a science reporter you don’t know who to call.”

That’s where SciLine steps in, matching any journalist who is looking for a scientist for an upcoming story with an expert from its extensive database of 23,000 researchers. For TV journalists specifically, SciLine also coordinates broadcast quality, one-on-one interviews with experts, adding scientific context to current topics in the news.

“We have an in-house team of Ph.D. and master’s level scientists who will actually do the research to find the exact right expert who’s perfectly matched to the reporter’s needs, so we do all that on a one-on-one individual basis,” Hazen said. SciLine guarantees the team will get back to you within 15 minutes (between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. EST) after a journalist has submitted a request to discuss his or her reporting needs.

Founded in 2017 by former Washington Post science reporter Rick Weiss, SciLine has fulfilled close to 2,000 requests from about 650 journalists across all areas of science: not just climate, health, biology, astronomy and so on, but even some social sciences like economics. Based at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), SciLine is editorially independent and nonpartisan, funded by philanthropic donations. Scientists are not compensated for their participation; instead, SciLine offers them media training and helps pitch their research to reporters.

Jim Morelli, a reporter at Boston’s WFXT, became an avid SciLine user after discovering the organization in March. “I thought, wait a second, they’re going to get the experts if I need them,” said Morelli. “You have got to be kidding me. It is so hard to get doctors to call you back, and I work on a daily deadlines basis, so I’m constantly calling hospital PR departments.”

Morelli has a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy and later got a master’s degree in civil engineering. With his science background, he’s been his station’s go-to reporter for COVID-19. “I hit them [SciLine] at least once a week, and I always apologize to them. I always say ‘Look, I’m really sorry.’”

But Hazen said that’s exactly why SciLine is there: “The pandemic has only underscored why our mission is so important. Our mission is getting more science and evidence into the news.”

During the pandemic, audiences turned to local news for trustworthy information. Respondents in SmithGeiger research in March 2020 ranked the strength of local news’s pandemic “performance” higher than the CDC, the Federal Government or the White House. And, among local TV, radio, print or digital newspapers, audiences turned to TV first.

“There are lots of places that don’t have a local newspaper anymore, and so local TV is the only local news that’s left, “said Sara Brinda, the local media outreach manager at SciLine.

Brinda said that’s why SciLine developed Experts On Camera, a free service designed specifically with television reporters in mind. The SciLine team follows trending topics in the news and invites scientists who can speak in depth to those issues, contextualizing drought, water conservation, violent crime, and more. Experts On Camera bypasses the traditional PR process. Reporters can sign up for a 15-minute time slot to speak with the featured scientist. Every scientist participating in Experts On Camera is even sent an AV equipment kit with resources such as lights to guarantee interviews are up to broadcast quality.

Two climate scientists who participated in SciLine’s Experts on Camera series

Ensuring that scientists in the SciLine database not only look good but sound good is a priority for the team. On top of vetting for scientific excellence, published research, and active projects, SciLine evaluates the communication skills of the scientists it recommends. The team looks at clips from lectures or a Ted Talk to determine their skill level. “We’re actually collecting information about whether those experts could be referred to a TV reporter, a radio reporter, or a print journalist,” said Hazen. “We know that it takes different skill sets and levels of experience to be interviewed for different types of media platforms.”

In addition to SciLine’s expert matching service and the Experts On Camera program, the organization offers several other free resources for journalists. These include; general media briefings, expert quotes to pull from for stories, crash courses, in-person workshops with panels or field trips on science topics, and quick fact sheets on science-related issues in the news.

While SciLine covers all science disciplines, it knows that climate change is top of mind for reporters. It has a partnership with another nonprofit, Climate Communication, specifically to develop climate-centric quick fact sheets.

“In some cases, scientists can now say with increasing confidence whether a particular weather event was more likely to happen because of climate change or not,” said Hazen. “We want to make sure that reporters have at their fingertips science-based insights.”

Morelli believes incorporating accurate science into more news stories is important for the future of journalism.“We now have to rebuild this trust. Part of doing that is making sure we get science right, we understand people’s fears, and we try to address those fears,” said Morelli. “You do it with the facts, and SciLine has helped me do that.”

“I think that scientists and journalists are a lot more alike than they may think. Both professions are all about fact-finding and uncovering the truth,” said Hazen. “We’re looking for opportunities to bridge those gaps and to help scientists and journalists better understand each other’s profession. We think that when they cooperate everyone stands to benefit: the reporter, the scientists, and the public.”

To request an expert, review a fact sheet, or sign up for an upcoming media briefing, visit SciLine’s website.

If you know an organization or meteorologist whose work should be featured in our ongoing series, please send us an email at cronkitenewslab@asu.edu.

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Want to make your climate change coverage ‘local and personal’?


This article is part of our ongoing series, Changing Weather, focused on innovations in local weather coverage. This is the first of two reports highlighting free resources designed to help your newsroom bring the climate change story home to your viewers.

“In a world of climate change, the impacts are in our face right now. You’ve got a global issue, but how you feel it is local, and it’s personal,“ said Bernadette Woods Placky, the Chief Meteorologist at Climate Central, a nonprofit, non-advocacy organization analyzing climate science. “And what you do about it is local and personal.”

That’s the idea behind Climate Central’s newest venture: Realtime Climate, a free tool that meteorologists and other journalists can subscribe to, connecting local weather events to climate change, all in real time.

“There are so many demands on local meteorologists right now, like everyone working in the media across the board,” said Woods Placky. “So it makes it harder to really carve out time to do research and to dig deeper into certain topics. And so we tried to do that for people.”

Realtime Climate, introduced officially on June 21, is a “massive tech build,” according to Woods Placky. The tool essentially monitors local weather across the U.S. and finds connections to climate change using publicly available data from organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The system scans for more than 10 weather conditions, everything from unusual heat to unusual rainfall, coastal flooding, air quality, allergies, and more. If the events are newsworthy, the system will trigger an automatic email to a Realtime Climate user in that geographic area. The email includes meaningful scientific data and high-quality graphics produced by Climate Central to help explain a local weather event as it relates to climate change.

Check out this Realtime Climate alert for Minneapolis.

Climate Central already has a free national program that provides graphics, a climate archive, and story ideas to about 2000 members — meteorologists and other journalists. But what makes this new Realtime Climate tool different is that it’s localized and personalized.

Although Realtime Climate is especially well suited to TV meteorologists, it’s a tool that any journalist can use. “All journalists out there are already doing climate stories, whether they know it or not,” said Woods Placky. “Honestly it’s unfortunate, but climate change is affecting all aspects of our lives at this point. There is almost always a climate connection.”

Audiences are yearning for more climate connections too. “One of the biggest misconceptions about climate change,” said Woods Placky, “is not even some of the disinformation that’s been put out about science itself, but people’s interest in the subject matter.” In fact, over 70 percent of Americans are interested in climate stories, according to public opinion data tracked from Yale University.

As a former local TV meteorologist for over a decade at Arkansas’s KNWA; Lexington, Kentucky’s WLEX; and Baltimore’s WJZ, Woods Placky’s goal was always “to be a value add, to be more than an app, to be more than something that you could just get online.”

Woods Placky says that one of her favorite features of the new tool shifts the focus from how climate change affects viewers to what communities can do about it. Realtime Climate alerts also include information on two climate solutions: wind and solar. Meteorologists can then use the data and graphics to answer compelling questions — How many homes could be powered? How many smartphones could be charged? — all helping to make climate change a part of the daily conversation.

Local graphic created by Climate Central focused on climate solutions

“Wind and solar are a huge part of our climate change solutions, and it’s the weather,” said Woods Placky. ”So we have a whole tool called weather power, and its ‘weather powering’ our society.”

Meteorologist Amber Sullins using the Weather Power tool

Although Realtime Climate has been “beta-tested” for over a year by a group of more than 1,000 meteorologists like Amber Sullins of KNXV in Phoenix, it’s still in its early stages. The Climate Central team plans to build out alerts for wildfires and droughts next. You can subscribe to the free Realtime Climate alerts here.

Valuable climate context starts with accurate data, graphics, and forecasting, but it doesn’t stop there. Audiences sometimes need to hear from trustworthy scientific voices who can explain climate conditions. In next week’s report, we’ll tell you about SciLine, a free matching service connecting journalists to more than 23,000 scientific experts.

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Newsroom innovation’s ‘greatest hits’ of 2021 — so far

Every year at this time, just before the July 4th holiday, we take a minute to look back at the stories that resonated most with you, our readership of local TV news professionals, in the first half of the year. Even with the pandemic still shaping our lives inside and outside the newsroom, stations are innovating on multiple fronts, taking on the challenges of a rapidly changing media, business and social environment.

Here’s the Top 10 list — just click on each title to read the story. 

Innovation begins at home, Part 1
When longtime WBAY sports director Chris Roth walked in to pitch an unusual format for the new 4:30 p.m. newscast on Gray’s Green Bay station, news director Matt Kummer listened — and he’s glad he did.

The realities of ‘engagement’

Laura Kraegel’s story focused on two new works of scholarly research: Andrea Wenzel writes about the new skills stations need to strengthen community ties, and the Cronkite School’s own Jacob Nelson explores whether there’s really a direct connection between engagement and profits.

(Courtesy of Andrea Wenzel and Jacob Nelson)

The power of collaboration and community service

Gray Television won a Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge Grant for this ambitious project called Bridging the Health Divide, focused on health inequity in Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta. Gray’s 25 stations in the region will work with the company’s national resources in a collaboration that could involve more than 100 people.

 

The rewards of original reporting

No, you’re not seeing triple: NPG’s El Paso station KVIA went to an unconventional three-anchor format on its late news to build on the street chops of Saul Saenz, and now all three anchors are in on the experiment — a big bet on the appeal of in-depth reporting.

Coming back to a new normal

No surprise to see this on the list: every newsroom in the country is wrestling with the new expectations of its employees post-COVID. We checked in on TEGNA’s WKYC in Cleveland to explore what has to change for good. If you thought leaving the newsroom was hard, coming back presents its own unique challenges.

Innovation begins at home, Part 2

Hyperlocal sports, hyperlocal news, and a “digital desk” that turns anchors into one-person control rooms fuel a new channel at Gray’s WMC in Memphis that combines the linear experience of broadcast and the on-demand appeal of OTT — another example of new ideas grown from the grassroots.

Breaking the mold at 6

This innovative solo-anchor 6 p.m. newscast on TEGNA’s Portland, Oregon station KGW launched into the teeth of the pandemic in early 2020. A year later, we checked back to see how a program built on in-depth reporting, listening to its audience, and the anchor’s signature style was doing. In the words of anchor Dan Haggerty, “I’m surprised it’s gone as well as it has.”

 

Univision’s Albert Martinez believes that TV meteorologists have to go well beyond the conventional forecast to compete with what’s on every smartphone. As Kylie Cochrane and Alicia Barrón report, he puts himself and his viewers in the picture with dramatic interactive explainers that hit close to home.

Martinez building his own AR graphics on Univision’s weather computer

 

Finding younger news consumers where they live

Speaking of close to home, this popular story comes right out of our own Cronkite newsroom, where a talented “innovation squad” is leading some bold experiments on younger-skewing platforms. The team set out to do 30 TikToks in 30 days — and ended up doing 65! We share the lessons learned.

The climate may change, but some things don’t

This story, along with the Albert Martinez profile sitting at #8, is part of our ongoing series, Changing Weather. Climate change has made the role of the TV meteorologist more important than ever, but credibility still starts with getting the forecast right — good old-fashioned accuracy. One company tries to get beyond the hype to measure who’s really the best in town.

WISC general manager Lyle Banks and his weather team, led by chief meteorologist Gary Cannalte

All of us at the Knight-Cronkite News Lab hope your forecast is for a festive July 4th holiday. We’ll see you next week!

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How a ‘digital first’ station is breaking new ground — on television

“Our goal is simple,” anchor Raj Mathai told his viewers. “Go beyond the 30-second sound bites and get you better informed on the big stories of the night.”

That was on June 10, day four of Mathai’s assignment as sole anchor of his station’s new 7 p.m. newscast, NBC Bay Area News Tonight. “My hope, my vision for it is pretty simple,” Mathai says. “Just take a genuine conversation, have a few topics and try to connect with the viewers authentically. And I hate using those buzzwords, but really authentically.”

This month, several NBC-owned stations, including NY and Los Angeles, replaced a prime-access syndicated show with a newscast at 7 p.m., coming out of NBC Nightly News. But San Jose-based KNTV, which brands itself as NBC Bay Area, is using the new time period to experiment with a new take on the familiar formula. “Most newscasts are very traditional,” says news director Stephanie Adrouny. “They’re the way they’ve been for years and years and years. So this is our way of trying to engage [viewers] in a different way.”

Adrouny and her boss, general manager Stacy Owen, got the idea for the new format when Mathai, one of their main anchors, started doing Facebook Live segments during the pandemic, focusing on the day’s big stories but in a less formal way. “He’d do these Facebook Lives where he engaged with [regular people] in the Bay Area, and he would get this great response,” Adrouny says. “I’d be at home watching him. And it was a great conversation. So when Stacy came to me and said, ‘Hey, we have an opportunity,’ we both jumped at it: ‘Why wouldn’t we try this? He already has such great engagement with the community. Let’s try it.’”

The result is a blend of the known and the new: a polished (and impeccably dressed) veteran anchor, a big studio set, slick production values, but all in the service of just a handful of stories that the news team has deemed worthy of a deeper dive. “We’re doing the usual 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. newscast, which is content content content, a bunch of stories, and then we just kind of throw on the brakes, we jump tracks and all of a sudden we’re doing something that’s more thoughtful,” Mathai says. “Nothing against the traditional newscast, but the 7 p.m. is a more thoughtful, reflective newscast. It’s just really nice to not just give the beginning and the end of the story, but give the middle of a story.”

“Stories We’re Watching” is a regular feature on the new program

While there are recurring elements, the format is unusually flexible for a five-day-a-week news program, mixing in video, infographics, expert and newsmaker interviews, along with occasional reporter packages and (more often) Q & As with Mathai. Meteorologist Jeff Ranieri delivers a traditional forecast but also engages in detailed explainers with Mathai about climate change-related stories like the ongoing drought that’s parching the West. “We really try to focus on what we think is important to our community and that maybe needs a little bit more attention,” Adrouny says. “What we heard from [viewers and users] was that they really wanted the news explained. They wanted it to be more conversational, a little bit looser, and ask the questions that after a newscast as a viewer you go, ‘Huh, okay, so what about x? What about y?’”

Under Stacy Owen’s leadership, NBC Bay Area has aggressively expanded its original content strategy for digital platforms. We’ve reported on an investigative series created expressly for streaming (Using the ‘Netflix experience’ to deliver local investigations’); Sand Hill Road, a podcast about Silicon Valley investors; and journalist Abbey Fernández’s one-woman show in both English and Spanish on Instagram and Twitter.

“We really see ourselves as a multi-platform content provider,” Owen says. “You know, we joke that ‘TV station’ is sort of an old-fashioned way of describing who we are and what we do.” Owen says local TV news became like Mr. Rogers’s cardigan: something familiar and comfortable to put on when you get home. But while TV is still the station’s biggest platform and very important, Owen says, so are streaming and OTT and social media. “The goal of the show is to be a dual-screen experience, to be interactive,” she says. “So I do want to make sure that we’re not going back to a traditional TV show or traditional newscast, and that’s why the show is not a traditional newscast. Your cardigan is now this mobile device. So you can experience the seven o’clock show without having a TV in the house. And that’s an important piece of this as well.”

 

“Television is still a healthy medium,” Adrouny agrees. “But we need to find people in the other places where they exist, where they check, where they look. So we give them those opportunities to connect with us on all platforms, even though we’re ‘on television’ so to speak at seven o’clock. We think digital first all the time.” Adrouny is now looking for a multimedia producer who “pulls content and pushes content” across all the station’s platforms, with a special emphasis on the new 7 p.m. show.

NBC Bay Area News Tonight shares some DNA with two now-established TEGNA programs we’ve reported about: solo-anchor 6 p.m. newscasts in Denver (KUSA’s Next with Kyle Clark) and Portland, Oregon (KGW’s The Story with Dan Haggerty). And like those shows, KNTV’s new entry emphasizes viewer input and a conspicuously conversational delivery. Abbey Fernández appears on the 7 p.m. newscast with a segment called Question of the Day, sharing viewer and user responses to topical issues, although depending on the mix of the night, Mathai might handle the feedback himself instead. He’s also kept up his Facebook Lives, sometimes even during commercial breaks. Halfway through the first week of the program, Mathai left his Facebook camera on in the studio to give his followers their own unique angle as he did the show. “I realized, people just want a regular voice to talk,” he says, “not the scripted, [putting on his anchor voice] ‘I’m Raj Mathai at 6 p.m., here’s the news that you need to know.’ They just want a regular voice that’s maybe not as perfect, not as clean.”

Raj Mathai chats with his Facebook Live followers just before going on the air

As fresh as these formats feel, they are also a throwback in that they depend heavily on the credibility and personality of a single anchor. Mathai’s colleagues Jessica Aguirre and Janelle Wang will get their own crack at the 7 p.m. newscast when he goes off to Tokyo to cover the Olympics, but Owen makes no bones about Mathai’s role in the experiment. “Raj with this seven o’clock is definitely an expression of a guy who was born here, grew up here, went to high school here, knows this community and the community knows him. And so that was also part of our design for the seven o’clock: to really have the Bay Area talking to the Bay Area.”

(All images courtesy of NBC)

It’s too early for any meaningful ratings data, but Owen and Adrouny cite additional measures of success: the connection with audiences on all platforms and the ability to affect their lives in a positive way, in keeping with the station’s new tagline: “Moving You Forward.” “Our goal here is to talk to people, engage them, have their voices heard in our newscast,” Adrouny says. “I think in a year, if we look back and feel like we’ve had good engagement with our community and our audiences, then I think we’ll say this has been successful.”

“We measure everything by engagement and impact. And even when we look at ratings, we don’t look at them as numbers, we look at them as how many people we were able to impact today,” Owen says. “It’s not a traditional KPI [key performance indicator]. But we do track that: where are we actually having tangible impact in our communities? So that’s very important.”

One KPI the newsroom leaders don’t have to worry about: anchor enthusiasm. “I’ve been around the block a couple times here, and it was getting monotonous,” Mathai says. “And this is now a new way to engage. And I love it. And really, it renews my enthusiasm and my faith in local news.”

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One meteorologist’s superpower: augmented reality


It’s not every day you watch someone stop a truck mid-air, in the middle of a tornado. Albert Martinez, Emmy-award winning chief meteorologist for Univision’s network news, may not be a superhero, but his knack for augmented reality (AR) helps his weather explainers fly off the screen.

In addition to that flying truck, Martinez has withstood Category 5 hurricane winds, crashed a car off a bridge, submerged himself in nine feet of dirty flood water, and started a wildfire in the Univision studio.

Martinez has his own theory about why his unconventional weather explainers are so popular with viewers.

“Normally they are always a hit because it catches the attention and it breaks the regular newscast,” said Martinez. “It makes the people at home turn around to the TV to see what’s going on, and then continue making breakfast, or whatever else they are doing in the morning.”


Watch Martinez explain how strong tornado winds can be

Born in Spain, Martinez started his career in radio, but over time he has perfected the visual forecast. Martinez uses IBM Max, a common weather software used across TV stations. But what really sets him apart from other meteorologists is his interactions with the graphics. “At the end, you do augmented reality graphics because we want viewers to believe that the graphic is in front of you, when there is nothing, so you need to interact with the graphic as much as possible.”

It’s a talent he’s developed after working with AR for more than seven years, first at Univision’s local stations in Dallas and Houston and now on network’s Despierta América, the most-watched morning show on Spanish-language television.

When done well, AR is a multi-sensory experience. Martinez incorporates sound effects, body language, vocal inflection, and facial reactions to transport viewers to the weather event.

“Sometimes I feel like I am a frustrated actor or something like that,” said Martinez. “Because when the car walks into the graphic I say stop and then break the car.”

Here Martinez uses an industrial fan to enhance his weather segment

With such attention to detail, it may come as a surprise that Martinez makes the majority of his own graphics from start to finish. From creating the animations to building the transitions and even adding the sound effects, he describes himself as a one-man band. Martinez only relies on a graphics editor for more complex segments like that recent hurricane explainer. This year Martinez and his colleague, Ivo Dovale, won two Telly Awards in the immersive and mixed reality category for their AR hurricane graphics.


Watch Martinez’s award winning weather explainer “Hurricane Storm Surge”

Now it only takes Martinez a couple of hours to build the graphics, but in the beginning it wasn’t so easy. “It used to take me eight hours or a week to do something,” said Martinez. “But now I am more fluent and I have a lot of palettes.” These palettes function as templates. For example, after you build a car once, you no longer need to animate the wheels or add in the sound for brakes.

Martinez building his own AR graphics on Univision’s weather computer

Martinez said the best way to get started with AR is to sketch out your ideas. Before that truck started flying through the tornado, it was parked in the back of his mind for about a year.

“I didn’t know how to start or how to end it,” said Martinez. “But I knew that the big moment of the explainer will be when the truck will float over me and I will say stop and everything will freeze, just to explain how strong the winds on a tornado can be.”

Another one of Martinez’s strategies for explaining tornado winds or other complex weather events — basic vocabulary. “Use simple language, not very complicated language, no updraft, no wind shear,” said Martinez.

Martinez, who is trilingual in meteorology, is especially sensitive to the language needs of different audiences. He spoke Catalán at the start of his career in Spain but switched to a more commonly-spoken Spanish vernacular in the U.S. However, where he’s noticed the biggest challenge is in translating English weather terms for Spanish viewers.

“In English it’s different, but talking about the weather in Spanish has a vocabulary that’s very difficult for the audience to understand, with a lot of technical words,” said Martinez. “Our audience, the Spanish audience, they’re not used to that because most of them come from Peru, Colombia, Chile, Nicaragua, where the weather on TV is not as popular as it is here.”


Watch “The Saffir-Simpson Scale,” Martinez’s second award-winning hurricane explainer

Martinez’s weather segments are not just entertaining to watch, they are vital to public safety. Since official weather sources often only publish in English, Spanish-language meteorologists are responsible for translating information for their local communities. Even if Spanish-speaking viewers understand some English, Martinez said, not everyone can read it, so it helps to have a familiar face to explain what is going on.

“You are the only one who can talk to them on TV directly saying, “Hey, hay un tornado aqui. Busquen refugio ya!” “Hey, there’s a tornado here. Find shelter now,” said Martinez. “I think it’s very important.

His final piece of advice to other meteorologists? Make the forecast memorable by customizing it to your audience’s specific needs.

“Know your community, what they want, what they do, and then do a forecast for them. Don’t do the Siri, Alexa, or whatever forecast, because they have that forecast,” Martinez said. “Bring something else related to the community.“

Plus, Siri and Alexa can’t deliver an augmented reality forecast — yet.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of our ongoing series, Changing Weather. Coming up in two weeks, we’ll have a story on free resources to help your newsroom report on climate change. In the meantime, check out Climate Central’s upcoming webinar, showcasing a new tool that provides personalized alerts connecting local weather events to climate change. You can sign up here.

And if you know a meteorologist whose work should be featured in our ongoing series, please send us an email at cronkitenewslab@asu.edu.

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WMC Plus is a big idea that started close to home — and plans to stay there

“We started seeing all these opportunities to literally program a new network. The light bulb just came on for all of us,” says Jonathan Mitchell, general manager of Gray’s Memphis station WMC.

Mitchell’s team didn’t let that light bulb moment go to waste. Next week, WMC is expected to launch (very softly — shhh!) a new digital channel called WMC Plus — or in effect two digital channels. A linear version will be broadcast over the air (OTA) while an on-demand version streams on the station’s OTT app.

WMC Plus won’t officially kick off with a full slate of original programs until September, but the project is already a model of collaboration and innovation that balances technical challenges, creativity and experimentation with careful planning and cost controls. Most of all, it’s homegrown. “It’s completely ours. It’s whatever we want to do. It’s the stuff that we can do really hyperlocal,” says Mitchell. “And it doesn’t really get much more local than local sports, local news and information.”

The idea started gathering steam last December, when the station began producing live University of Memphis sports events for ESPN Plus, with station personnel doing double duty to cover the games, on both sides of the camera. (Just one example: A young marketing producer turns out to be a talented sideline reporter too.). The station has produced about forty NCAA Division One games to date, in sports like men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, men’s and women’s soccer, baseball, and softball. “And that kind of got the juices flowing,” Mitchell says. “What else can we do technologically to produce local programming? That we can’t put on WMC, but we can put on this digital channel.”

Sports executive producer Chris Olivere saw an opportunity to create “shoulder programming” around the events, even without rights to air the games themselves. “The question was, how do we leverage these live events and build content around that?” he says. “In this multi-screen world that we all live in now, we can do a pregame show on the new channel. And then for the fans who want to watch the games, we’ll be doing [them] live on ESPN Plus, and then they can come back to us on the WMC Plus channel for postgame.”

 

At the same time, news director Greg Phillips was developing new content ideas of his own. While he doesn’t call it shoulder programming, the concept is similar, in that it builds off what the station is already doing. Key to his plans: an innovation called the “digital desk” that allows a single anchor to become essentially a one-person studio operation, curating and creating content on the fly while adding production bells and whistles. Gray’s experiment with this “control room in a box” technology at Cleveland’s WOIO, which we told you about last year, was so successful, the company invested in digital desks throughout the group.

“It’s kind of like a one-person newscast,” Phillips says. “First and foremost is what’s happening now. It’s an opportunity to cover breaking news and, for lack of a better term, breaking information that’s going on in our community.” But the tool has also helped Phillips and his team produce extended interviews, anchor analysis, reporter’s notebooks, and even two COVID specials.

Anchor Andrew Douglas mans the digital desk

Phillips is so excited about the technology’s potential that he went to a single anchor format in his noon newscast to free up a person for the digital desk. He says the new channel is an opportunity to drill more deeply into his anchors’ interviewing and storytelling skills. “In the old days — the ‘old days,’ you know, two years ago — you had a live stream, you threw it out there and people watched it,” Phillips says. “Well now, it’s perspective: an anchor can watch it, give their thoughts, frame it with what has been leading up to this moment. What are the takeaways from it?”

Phillips has also made deals with local publications like the daily newspaper The Commercial Appeal, Memphis magazine, and an alternative weekly called Memphis Flyer, hoping to expand coverage of areas like food and music. “It’s an opportunity for them to showcase some of their work and reach an audience that they may be looking to reach. And it’s an opportunity for us to tap [into] their expertise and some of the cool work that they’re doing,” Phillips says. “All of these are rolled into creating content when there is nothing going on, if that makes sense. So when there is no breaking news, when there is no scheduled press conference, we want to be present with information and interesting things for the OTT viewer. So it’s a live experience, but it’s also a VOD experience.”

But those two “experiences” — OTA and OTT — pose a challenge: how do you monetize the content? “Well, that’s the tricky part,” says Jonathan Mitchell. “Because you’ve got two very different things: you’ve got a traditional linear broadcast channel, [and] you have an OTT channel that can sort of be all over the place.”

Part of the answer: With help from Gray digital guru Mike Braun, Mitchell has developed a system that allows the digital desk anchors to play back commercials without involving master control. He hopes to attract a new group of hyperlocal advertisers and sponsors. “We want this to be as local as possible,” he says. “It gives us the opportunity to give some advertisers a chance to reach their customers in a way that maybe they couldn’t on the WMC main channel. Their budget might be a little bit lower, but they really want to get out and begin advertising.”

But it will be a while before the sales team hits the bricks with the new offer. Mitchell and his team have been working out some technical glitches behind the scenes first. Hence the soft launch. “Let’s just get it up and running. Let’s make sure it’s good. And once it’s good, and we’re really programming it how we want to program it, then we can go out and start selling.”

So far, Mitchell has only added one “head” to the mix: a just-hired OTT producer will help Phillips and digital content manager Jessica Remer create new programming over the summer. And sports EP Chris Olivere will be looking for more deals with minor league and school teams, hoping to create “what would be a Mid-South version of a regional sports network, but it would be that on steroids.”

Can a new hyperlocal channel built on news and sports and distributed on linear and non-linear platforms work in other Gray markets? “First and foremost, it was an idea for Memphis, but we look at it as something that has a lot of tentacles, and it can really help some of our sister stations,” Mitchell says. “To me, it’s just a natural progression. If we can create it, and test it, and it works well, then we’ll want to show this to other stations and see if they want to follow the model.”

But for now, Mitchell and his team are busy trying to make their grassroots experiment in innovation a success in market #51, with corporate support but little interference. “I don’t care what size market you’re in,” Mitchell says. “You don’t have to be in a major market. You don’t have to be a network O-and-O. You can have a standard of excellence, and everyone can strive to reach that standard every single day.”

“It’s really whatever we make it,” Greg Phillips says. “That is the cool thing about it. We have the ability to forge our own path.”

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Coming back to the newsroom

It’s hard to imagine a more intense period of rapid newsroom change than the early days of the pandemic last year, but this year’s gradual re-opening is posing significant challenges of its own. Rather than back to normal, it’s back to the future — a future that will require a new burst of innovation and one that local news leaders will help define.

“I think people have used this year to have life-changing moments,” said Joan Barrett, who took over as general manager of TEGNA’s WCNC in Charlotte just three days before the pandemic lockdown in March of last year. “Like thinking about, do they want to work nights or mornings or weekends anymore? And do they even want to do this? And maybe they do want a full-time work-from-home job, and they’re pivoting to look for those opportunities. I think our workforce is really going to change, evolve, turn over in the coming year or two. I think what this 15 months did is give people time to reflect.”

In addition to her day job, Barrett is a faculty member of The Carole Kneeland Project for Responsible Journalism, a nonprofit organization that provides continuing education for TV and digital news managers. Some of the news leaders who have gone through the program have been meeting up virtually from time to time to compare notes.

Last week’s topic was “The Big Return.” I was allowed to listen in on the conversation, which was led by Kneeland executive director Stacy Baum. The participants stressed that they were speaking for themselves and not their corporate bosses, who will set the rules for the big return. But the issues these local leaders are now confronting will resonate in every TV newsroom.

Here are my five takeaways.

Local TV newsrooms deserve credit for an extraordinary job continuing to serve their audiences under extremely difficult conditions, but that drastic adaptation came with a cost.

“I think there’s a significant loss of collaboration,” said Kim Holt, who runs investigations and special projects at Cox’s WSOC in Charlotte. “There’s just something about having everybody at the table that fosters collaboration and creativity. And despite your best efforts, you can’t replicate that through virtual meetings.”

“You didn’t get to walk the room,” said J Bates, news director at Scripps station KIVI in Boise. “There was no way to connect with people except through this thing [i.e. Zoom], which made change hard, because you couldn’t really reassure someone through a screen as well as you could at their desk.”

“I actually had a producer that had to bail on me about halfway through it,” said Nick Genty, news director at Sinclair’s KATV in Benton, Arkansas. “Because she’s like, ‘I miss being around [the newsroom]. And now it’s just a job.’ And I think we lacked a lot of that sense of newsroom camaraderie, where people can talk about things other than just work.”

Another COVID casualty: the in-person mentoring of young journalists. “I look at the rookie class of reporters as having gone through [an experience] kind of like how they talk about virtual school: how much was missed versus in person,” said John Laughrin, news director at Scripps station WGBA in Green Bay. “I think this whole last class of MMJs who came into the field in this last year are behind because they didn’t get to be a sponge and get to experience newsroom culture and grow and learn.”

“People who feel they have successfully been working from home are now wondering why they can’t continue to do so,” Joan Barrett said. “I think the challenge is that it’s as unique as people are unique. This person wants to come back and this person doesn’t. It is not one case fits all.”

Kim Holt pointed out that while some of her young producers can’t wait for everyone to return to the newsroom, “We have people who are very eager not to return, because they’ve been able to achieve a work-life balance through working from home and not commuting. I had a producer put it this way: ‘Working this way allows me to work my job around my life, versus working my life around my job.’”

“I really want producers back, because we’re having trouble with the collaboration thing. You know, Slack just isn’t cutting it for that,” said J Bates. “But here we are. The producers are like, ‘No, I kind of like my life — sitting at home writing the news.’”

“We’ve all changed,” John Laughrin said. “I know I’ve changed myself. My routines have changed, my patterns. So knowing that I have a little anxiety about going back and exactly what that’s going to look like, now I’ve got a whole team to lead through that. That’s what’s keeping me up at night; How are we going to work ourselves through this and get ourselves to the other side of what will be that new normal?”

Ownership groups are for the most part moving slowly as they set policy for returning to the newsroom, and with good reason (in addition to safety). On one hand, flexible policies about working remotely will be popular, especially with some employees. “It’s going to make it easier for this industry to keep working parents, specifically working moms, in a career where maybe they don’t feel like they have to leave because ‘I want to go have kids, I want to be able to do my job and also be there for my kids,’” said Ryan Robertson, news director at TEGNA’s WOI in Des Moines.

But Robertson also worries that some employees could take advantage of policies that are too lenient. “I think when you start going down the work remote route, we’re all assuming that the people who are going to be on staff are the highest character, best self-motivated people,” he said. “Everyone on my staff now, absolutely, they can work remotely, and they can kick butt doing it. Not everyone in my career that I’ve worked with would I say the same thing about.”

Michael Fabac, a Kneeland faculty member who oversees news for the News-Press and Gazette (NPG) stations, agrees that the balancing act can be tricky. “That’s something our company is struggling through: if it makes sense for a producer or an assignment editor to have some parameters set for when it is okay to be remote. One of our markets sort of went rogue, and we had people just going, ‘I’m working from home today,’ with no other explanation. That’s way too flexible. But does it make sense based on good performance and planning, and all of those other things that factor into the well organized newsroom, to set those parameters? I think it does.”

“Millions of people have spent the past year re-evaluating their priorities. For many people, this has become a moment to literally redefine what is work,” veteran editor Joanne Lipman wrote last week in TIME magazine.

In this post-pandemic moment, newsrooms will be struggling to manage a new set of expectations among their employees. J Bates thinks that for some, quality of life issues will alter the traditional trajectory from market to market. “Our philosophy on recruiting needs to change,” he said. “Nobody’s climbing to get to New York. They’re climbing to get to where they want to live.”

“The competition for people right now is really, really stiff,” said Melissa Luck, news director at Morgan Murphy Media’s KXLY in Spokane. “And I think a lot of people emerged wanting to do something different or wanting to get closer to home. Some people [used to say] ‘Eventually, I want to get closer to home.’ I think after the last year, people want to be close to home now.” Adding to the challenge for small and mid-size stations, Luck said, is that bigger markets are now hiring people “with way less experience.”

Some of the news leaders were reluctant to speak for attribution about pay scales given corporate sensitivity, but they shared a concern that low newsroom pay and rising wages elsewhere will make it harder to attract good people. ”I heard about a burger place [whose] fry cooks will make double what my reporters make,” said one. “We’ve got to start paying people or they’re not going to come into this field,” said another. Independent consultant and Kneeland faculty member Kevin Benz agreed. “I’ll go on the record saying it: corporate television executives must look at this. It is a moral issue, as much as it’s a business issue.”

After the session, Joan Barrett told me about a different but related concern: during the pandemic, young people — and especially those from underrepresented communities — lost the opportunity to learn about the business through internships and job-shadowing. So she and her team are putting on a virtual job fair next week called “Discover Your Pathway to a Career in Local Television.” WCNC staff produced explanatory videos and will lead live sessions describing various jobs at the station — everything from reporting and photography and the assignment desk and meteorology to marketing and sales. The eight free sessions are aimed at high school and college students, and slots are still available. (You can learn more and find out how to enroll here.)

All the news leaders agreed that remote interviews are here to stay, at least as an added tool if not the exclusive one. But the trickier issue is the evolving nature of news coverage. Stations did a terrific job serving up vital information to their viewers and users during the pandemic, often instead of the usual “breaking news” fare.

J Bates said that the emphasis on substance over sensationalism was already a priority for Scripps. “[Our] content strategy did more for morale than probably anything,” he said. “If it bleeds, it leads — gone. Live for live’s sake — gone. Breaking news for breaking news’s sake — gone. All of that has been fantastic for us. Now for the viewers? [The ratings] didn’t go down. I’ll give it that: they didn’t go down.” (The Atlantic just published an interesting piece by Amanda Ripley that digs into the story behind Scripps’s change in approach.)

“In our editorial decisions, we’re not just telling people what happened or what is happening anymore,” agreed Amy Beveridge, news director at Hearst’s WMTW in Portland, Maine. “It’s much more of the in-depth, explanatory stuff than it is the spot news, the things that just don’t affect as many people. I think that’s the big difference.”

But Beveridge admits it’s easy to slip into old habits if you’re not careful. “I think that there are times where we do fall into that,” she said. “People will pitch [a routine spot story] and I’ll be like, ‘If it’s something like that, it can be a VO/SOT.’ Our reporters need to be doing stories that have a beginning, middle and end, that have a protagonist, that explain something. That’s something that we need to remind people of daily.”

I came away from the Kneeland session with even deeper appreciation for the high stakes involved as people return to the newsroom. As Joanne Lipman wrote in that TIME story I mentioned earlier, “We have an unprecedented opportunity right now to reinvent, to create workplace culture almost from scratch.” And she adds: “Companies that don’t reinvent may well pay the price, losing top talent to businesses that do.”

Editor’s Note: As your newsroom confronts the new challenges of work after COVID, we’d like to hear about what you’re learning and what you’re doing differently. You can find us at cronkitenewslab@asu.edu.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of Changing Weather, our occasional series on innovation in local weather coverage. Check out earlier installments here.

Kevin Robinson waits eagerly for the announcement each spring.

Sure, he’s gotten the same good news for the past 10 years. But it never gets old — and it’s never guaranteed.

“The excitement never goes away,” says Robinson, chief meteorologist at Hearst-owned WLWT in Cincinnati. “It’s hard staying in first place. It’s like winning the championship. It’s like winning the Super Bowl of weather forecasting.”

This year, WLWT’s weather team beat out three rival stations to earn its tenth consecutive “Super Bowl” title — actually known as the seal of approval from WeatheRate, an independent research company that evaluates the forecasts of local TV stations across the country’s 95 largest markets and certifies one as the most accurate in each community.

The idea came to Bruce Fixman — WeatheRate’s founder and president, and a meteorologist himself — about 20 years ago.

“I was tired of every TV station claiming to be the most accurate, wherever I went,” says Fixman, whose six-employee company is based in Phoenix. “Every city, you’d go to turn on the TV: ‘We’re the most accurate.’ ‘We’re pinpoint.’ ‘We’re the most accurate.’ It’s like, ‘This is ridiculous. I want to know who it really is.’”

Bruce Fixman and Pete Salkowski

Inspired by his college days competing in forecasting contests against other schools, Fixman designed a methodology and launched his business. Every day, his staff gathers stations’ forecasts in a database, investigates how they stack up against actual conditions using data from the National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and then uses a proprietary scoring algorithm to rate their accuracy.

“It’s pretty detailed,” says Fixman. “We’re looking at sky cover, precipitation, timing of precipitation, strong winds, dense fog, severe thunderstorms, and in places where it snows, snow and ice accumulation. So it’s pretty exhaustive. When I went into this, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m not going to do just high and low temperatures. That’s like a middle school project.’”

Also unlike a middle school project? There’s no prize for second place.

Stations don’t pay to be evaluated, but at the end of WeatheRate’s yearlong research period, the station with the best cumulative score in its market can pay to license the company’s “most accurate” branding for the next year. “If number one says ‘no,’ we’re not going to go to number two and say, ‘Number one doesn’t want it. Do you want it?’ We don’t do that,” says Fixman.

How much does it cost to license WeatheRate’s seal? “We keep that private,” he says. “But I will tell you this . . . the ROI is off-the-charts. We’re not that expensive. We’re a lot less expensive than a new Doppler radar the TV station might buy or even a weather graphics package that they may buy. We’re not even in the same universe as those.”

The fact that you can’t buy the title — or luck into it — is what makes it so coveted, says WLWT creative services director Pete Salkowski. He remembers there was a “big brouhaha” when the station first earned the achievement in 2011, breaking a crosstown competitor’s years-long streak: “It took a lot of dedication, hard work, and accurate forecasting to take it away from them.”

Watch this spot promoting WLWT’s “most accurate” certification. It aired after the station earned its sixth straight title. (Courtesy of WLWT)

Since then, WLWT has used broadcast spots, digital banners, and more to highlight the recognition. Salkowski says it’s helped to communicate the weather team’s scientific expertise, local knowledge, and reliability — three hugely important traits in an era when competition is increasing, public trust in the media is waning, and unproven claims can easily gain traction.

“You can say whatever you want,” he says. “You can source anything: ‘We have the best news in town, according to my mom.’ ‘We asked 10 people on the street, and they all love us.’ But we’re not saying we’re most accurate. WeatheRate is saying we’re most accurate — and that’s the difference. It’s an independent company. They verify it. They certify it. They’ve got the science behind it.”

Over the last decade, Salkowski says that message has “resonated really well with the people in Cincinnati,” citing both ratings and the station’s own research.

“At the time we got it, we were probably, honestly, trending around three or four in the market,” he says. “Now, we’re one or two — consistently one or two. So there’s a trust between the viewers and the people who they see. They trust them to keep them safe during severe weather, to prepare them for the day with an accurate forecast. It’s a great achievement for our meteorologists.”

It’s also a major accomplishment for WISC-TV in Madison, which just earned its first WeatheRate certification this year. Lyle Banks — VP and general manager of the Morgan Murphy Media-owned station — sees it as an critical tool for the future.

“I have decades of experience in TV management, and there’s always a commonality with stations that are either number one or on their way to number one: how well the market perceives their weather operation,” says Banks. “It’s virtually impossible to have a number-one station without having a number-one weather operation. And for us, getting that designation is a big step to continuing to move the station forward.”

Lyle Banks and the WISC weather team, led by chief meteorologist Gary Cannalte

Beyond building community trust or external marketing power, he says earning the “most accurate” title also means a lot internally. Weather teams can see their market’s accuracy rankings — or get their hands on WeatheRate’s data — whenever they like, opening the door for real-time self-evaluation and improvement.

“To be able to do that really requires a lot of communication among our meteorological team,” says Banks. “They have to collaborate and be in sync in so many different ways, so it really promotes a sense of teamwork — this designation or the quest for this designation. It’s like having a golf team, where if one member of the team scores a bogey, that affects the entire team score.”

“It’s a way to keep us accountable,” agrees WLWT’s Robinson. “Throughout the season, we’re able to gauge where we are in this four-man race: Are we really smoking them? Or do we need to work even harder? So it’s good to be able to have an independent source, where everyone is on the same playing field, and you have the opportunity to outshine your competition.”

More stations may have that opportunity in the years to come. WeatheRate has expanded its research into the country’s 25 largest Spanish-language markets in the last three years, and Fixman says he may continue to add markets in the U.S. — or even branch out into Canada. He’s also drilling down further into areas with particularly complex weather.

For example, “San Francisco at the coast is different from San Francisco Bay, which is different from inland another five miles,” says Fixman. “So we’ve started splitting forecasts into those microclimates, and we’ll verify for those three different microclimates. In San Diego, we do two: We do coast and valleys. And we’ll probably start doing coast and valleys in LA soon, too. We just haven’t gotten there yet.”

Whatever happens next with Fixman’s company — or in the broader world of weather innovation — Robinson says there’s one thing that won’t change: “Everyone claims that they are the best, or everyone has the super-duper Doppler that can see from here to Japan. And it’s like, ‘No, what can you do for viewers locally? What’s the information they need? Can they trust you — and is it accurate?”

“At the end of the day, a lot of people just want to know: ‘How is this going to impact my life? How is it going to impact me picking up the kids from the bus stop? How is it going to impact scrimmage after school?’ So for us, it’s just an easy way to be able to say, ‘Hey, over here! You don’t have to go any further. Stop right here.’”

If you know a meteorologist or weather innovation that deserves to be featured in our ongoing series, please send us an email at cronkitenewslab@asu.edu.

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VERIFY goes national on digital and social platforms


“Доверяй, но проверяй.” (“Doverai, no proverai.”)

“Trust, but verify.”

Back in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan used that Russian proverb so often in tricky disarmament talks with the Soviets that his counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, complained about it. But it worked.

Today, the phrase sounds almost quaint. In our polarized political and media climate, trust is vanishingly scarce, which makes the other half of the idiom — verify — even more relevant.

That’s one reason TEGNA announced a big bet at this week’s Interactive Advertising Bureau “NewFronts” presentation: expanding its fact-checking VERIFY franchise to reach across the country. “The idea is to take VERIFY national, evolving it beyond a product that lives primarily on television and our station websites, to being a national platform that exists on both TV and digital,” says the company’s digital czar, Adam Ostrow, “From a mission standpoint, it’s really to disprove misinformation and combat it. We think we’re in a position as TEGNA — working in local media, which is generally more trusted than national media — to be one of the companies that aggressively goes after that mission. I think it’s critically important.”

All images courtesy of TEGNA

With this week’s announcement, TEGNA joins other station groups expanding beyond their owned-and-operated markets to launch national brands, like NBC’s LX and ABC’s Localish. VERIFY, which grew out of an employee brainstorming session at a company off-site six years ago, combines research and transparent sourcing to respond to timely questions in the news with a simple answer: true or false. The segments are produced by a central team as well as individual stations.

Last summer, we told you about a new VERIFY segment for the Snapchat Discover platform. That experiment succeeded, Ostrow says, now attracting more than 170,000 subscribers, many of them much younger than the typical TV news viewer, and still growing. “The success we had on Snapchat last year and continue to have today really gave us confidence that there was a big opportunity to take the brand national, beyond just TEGNA markets,” Ostrow says. Adding to that confidence, the “info-demic” of misinformation and disinformation around COVID and politics increased website traffic to the VERIFY content on station websites by more than 400 percent last year, the company says, and Ostrow says traffic from January to March of this year was up another 200 percent over Q1 of 2020.


Watch a VERIFY segment on COVID vaccines on the Snapchat Discover platform.

TEGNA is making a substantial investment in the national brand. Jonathan Forsythe joined the company in January from McClatchy to become VERIFY’s managing editor. Forsythe is building a team of 15-20 people including producer-editors, digital journalists, researchers, audience engagement experts, graphic artists, and dedicated on-air reporters. Most will be based in Washington, D.C., but others are sprinkled around the country. Two deputy editors, Lindsay Claiborn and Sara Roth, oversee video and digital production, respectively.

Forsythe’s team has already created or is now launching new VERIFY accounts on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube, as well as a newsletter. There’s also a new Twitter handle: @VerifyThis. “One of the tenets of VERIFY has always been answering the audience’s questions,” Ostrow says. “So by expanding to all of these different social platforms, where so much of the misinformation spreads, it puts us closer to the sources of misinformation.”


Watch a promo for the new VERIFY social strategy.

There’s also a phone number to which viewers can text their questions. “We’ve been using texting in a variety of ways at the stations over the last year and a half or so,” Ostrow says. “That’s going to be a big part of it, too. People will be able to text in things that they’d like verified as well.” (In case you have a burning question that can’t wait until you finish reading this article, the number is 202-410-8808.)

Once the team is fully staffed, Forsythe hopes to produce an ambitious menu of five to seven original stories a day for the verifythis.com website, three or four of them with video, along with “social-only” products for the other platforms. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be the polished broadcast look, per se, and the Snapchat series is a perfect example,” Forsythe says. “I’m very excited to do a lot more experimenting with that type of storytelling across social platforms.”

That said, Ostrow and Forsythe aren’t neglecting VERIFY’s broadcast roots at the TEGNA stations. The team intends to offer “a couple of stories” each day for stations to use in their newscasts if they choose to — but it’s also providing training and a style guide to encourage more of the company’s stations to produce their own versions of the franchise. Each station even has (or will soon have) a “VERIFY champion.” “As part of this expanded push, we are working even more closely with the stations and certainly hoping to see more stations integrate VERIFY into their local storytelling,” Ostrow says. “We want stations to be much more engaged. We want them to run the national stuff when they find those stories interesting for their audience. But we also want them to be applying that format to local stories as much as possible. I think that’s the best-case scenario.”


Watch a VERIFY broadcast segment on President Biden’s infrastructure plan.

In that best-case scenario, stations will also contribute their reporting to the new national effort. “We are getting good stories that are being produced by some of those stations that we are looking to promote across our new digital channels that we’ve just launched,” Forsythe says. “And that is the sort of symbiotic two-way street that we see — this national brand being mutually beneficial for the stations as well.”

How will TEGNA measure success? Launch, but verify. That means analyzing audience research and metrics — much easier to measure on digital platforms — and noting the degree to which stations adopt and adapt the mission. Over time, Ostrow and Forsythe also hope to create more long-form VERIFY programming for streaming platforms, perhaps building on the Verify Road Trip concept pioneered by Dallas station WFAA. (Reporter David Schechter’s episode on climate change won a duPont-Columbia award this year.)

Adam Ostrow and Jonathan Forsythe

And there’s a less tangible but even more ambitious goal: to become a go-to national resource for anyone seeking accurate information across a broad range of issues. “I think it’s about being much more present on the platform for misinformation,” Forsythe says. “It’s about having our content be available wherever somebody has a question that they want verified or confirmed.”

“With ‘VerifyThis’ as the social handle, that’s actually kind of intentional,” Ostrow says. “The brand is still VERIFY. But aspirationally, we’d love for ‘VerifyThis’ to be in the vernacular. If people think, when they see something on Twitter or Facebook or wherever, ‘Oh, I’m going to tag VerifyThis and have them look into it,’ that’s the type of ubiquity we hope to achieve.”

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The timeline: 30 days. The mantra: “TikTok, we don’t stop.”

Last month, Cronkite News challenged itself to produce 30 TikToks in as many days — an effort to get the newsroom experimenting with the short-form mobile video platform that’s gained more than a billion users since its worldwide launch in 2017, but has yet to catch on widely with local TV stations.

The idea came from Katelyn Keenehan, a senior here at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and a reporter with Cronkite News, the student-run news division of Arizona PBS. Last summer, she created a personal TikTok account and started recording videos delivering the headlines of the day — all under the 60-second time limit. She says they caught on with a surprisingly large audience, especially given that the platform is best known for viral dance trends and fun visual effects.

“Within like two months, it had 45,000 followers,” says Keenehan of her account. “It was one of those things where I really realized: Okay, there is a really big audience on this app for news. It’s just not the same audience that we’re seeing for broadcast.”

Half of TikTok’s users fall between the ages of 10 and 29. So Keenehan pitched the Cronkite News experiment as a kind of low-pressure laboratory for testing out different ways to connect with that coveted demographic: “How do we make things appealing for Gen Z? How do you grab their attention within the first second or two? How do we keep people interested in news even though they might not watch a 30-minute broadcast? TikTok really became that outlet for us to be able to explore.”

Katelyn Keenehan and Isaac Easley

By the end of the month-long challenge, the newsroom had trounced its initial goal and produced 65 TikToks. In all, about 50 different people contributed to the videos — from anchors and reporters to producers and the audio team. Some were assigned to the project daily, but many helped out for a day here or there — or whenever an idea struck them.

“It’s really been fun to see the creativity,” says Isaac Easley, a Cronkite News instructor in video journalism and innovation. “At first, we started out just doing headlines — having the students do little recaps of their stories, take a 1:30 package and break it down to 30-45 seconds, things like that. But then they really opened it up.”

To experiment with the platform, Cronkite News created 65 TikToks in 30 days. Most videos took no more than a half hour to produce. (Courtesy of Cronkite News)

Bloopers, explainers, camera tutorials — Cronkite News played with them all. Easley says most videos only took about a half hour to produce, whether reporters were shooting TikTok-original footage on their phones or repurposing material from their broadcast work. “It’s only like a 30-second video. So if something doesn’t work, it’s fine,” he says. “Life’s all about trying new things, and TikTok is really an open forum where we can find new ways to get the attention of that younger generation.”

The staff also issued teleprompter-reading challenges to its viewers, shared behind-the-scenes looks at life in the newsroom, and put journalistic spins on a number of light-hearted TikTok trends. One of the latter videos even went viral, earning more than 10,000 views for its student-news-anchor version of a Real Housewives of New Jersey audio sample that became a trending sensation.

@cronkitenewsWe’re trying to get rid of them. ? #fyp #foryou #studentjournalist #AirPodsJUMP @jamielanderss♬ original sound – Amir Yass

Watch one of Cronkite News’ most successful TikToks. The video, by reporter Jamie Landers, riffs on an audio sample that went viral in March.

While the newsroom account saw its “likes”’ grow by more than 1,000, it hasn’t replicated Keenehan’s individual success — at least not yet. Most videos average about 250 views, but Easley says it’s a solid starting point that has offered valuable lessons about the platform:

Don’t waste a second. At first, Cronkite News used traditional graphics and music to open each TikTok version of one of its new stories. But Easley says they’ve had better engagement since scrapping the standard lead-in: “Cutting the intro and just getting into the story, I feel like we’re getting a few more views. With the younger generation, we just have to get them immediately.”

Capitalize on trends. Beyond sharing reporting, senior producer Amna Subhan recommends getting into the spirit of the platform and finding ways to link local news with viral trends. She points to one of her favorite videos, by reporter Gabrielle Zabat, which used a TikTok rhyming challenge to deliver headlines. “She put the trends together, but she was also relating back relevant news about Arizona,” says Subhan. “I was, like, ‘This is brilliant.’”

@cronkitenewsYou heard right, we’re Cronkite News. ? For all these stories and more check the link in our bio. #fyp #foryou #arizona #news #AerieREAL♬ morgen meditation – guidet meditation – Lisbett Wedendahl / LIFT YOUR MIND


Watch one of Cronkite News’ trend-centric TikToks. The video, by reporter Gabrielle Zabat, combines a viral challenge with local news.

Step lively — but watch your step. “The trends change so fast,” says Keenehan. “Something will be trending one day, and then three days later, it’s no longer existent on the app. So you have to be very on top of those things.” Still, it’s critical to avoid trends that may be inappropriate for a news outlet. “They’re constantly telling me what slang and certain acronyms are,” says Christina Leonard, Cronkite News’ executive editor, of her students and teenage children. “I’m like, ‘What? I didn’t know that word that I use all the time, the meaning is now something very different.’ So that’s important for other newsrooms — that they’ve got people who are culturally connected and understand the audience, so they can help watch out for those landmines.”

Keep the content diverse — and keep it flowing. “We wanted different types of races and cultures, men and women, people with different roles — whether that be a producer, somebody who works in the studio, a digital reporter,” says Easley. While showcasing a variety of voices, he also suggests keeping a steady stream of material in the TikTok pipeline: “I can’t tell you there’s a formula for the perfect thing. [But] to get the views, it seems like consistency is the key word — just consistently having some type of content.”

Amna Subhan and Christina Leonard

During the fast-paced experiment, Cronkite News posted at least once a day — often twice a day — and found that frequency worked well. While Keenehan isn’t sure if the outlet will maintain that exact schedule now that the 30-day challenge is over — just given the rest of the workload on broadcast, digital, and social — she says she definitely expects TikTok to stick around, both for her newsroom and the wider industry.

Reporter Katelyn Keenehan uploads a TikTok video covering efforts to vaccinate grocery store employees against COVID-19. (Courtesy of Cronkite News)

“We’re in this age where citizen journalism is on the rise, and there are pros and cons to that. But more and more people on TikTok are trying to inform other people of stuff that’s going on,” she says. “So I think it is really important — now more than ever — that journalists do have a voice on these platforms.”

“When we look at the future of the news industry, will we still have a nightly newscast? Will we still offer long, in-depth digital stories? Absolutely,” says Leonard. “But these younger generations — they like fast, entertaining, flashy bits of information, and I think it’s our job to help the industry try to figure out how to do that.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Cronkite News is experimenting with TikTok as part of Table Stakes, an initiative that supports innovation in local TV news with funding from the Knight Foundation. Our work at the News Lab is funded through the same grant.

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Earth Day 2021: Seizing this moment to report on climate as an emergency

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–Andrew Heyward, Senior Research Professor, TV News

Breaking news: We face a climate “emergency” according to everyone from the heads of the European Union to the Pope. That realization can be overwhelming. After all, climate change is a planet-sized problem. But we see and experience the effects of climate change locally.

That’s why local reporting is the most direct way to connect people in our communities to the real-world impacts of climate change. It’s also the most direct path to empower communities with reporting on solutions, and meaningful actions we can take individually and collectively.

Local media outlets looking to lean in to climate coverage might have a surprising ally: Your trusted local TV meteorologist. Yes, the same person who’s been giving you those “Bus Stop Forecasts” and the “7-Day Planner” in many cases also happens to have an advanced degree in meteorological sciences.

As news consumers become increasingly mobile-first in their daily weather habits — when it comes to the 3-day outlook and school forecasts, “there’s an app for that!” — these local TV meteorologists can evolve to be more: the chief science officers of their local newsrooms.

These “mets” combine science knowledge, a trusted audience relationship and large following, along with weather graphics tools that enable clear and visual explanatory storytelling. That is a potent recipe for compelling local climate reporting.

It’s why Local Media Association is excited to have seven local TV stations among the 22 newsrooms in its newly launched Covering Climate Collaborative. Local newsrooms like these recognize both the opportunity and the responsibility to do more and deeper climate coverage:

 

“Climate change impacts our stations on personal, professional and business levels. We all live in this rapidly changing world, and we’re all experiencing the effects of climate change first-hand. Our stations are committed and excited to join the LMA Covering Climate Collaborative, which may well result in the most important journalism they do this year and beyond.” — Emily Barr, President and CEO, Graham Media Group

 

“The impacts of climate change threaten to fundamentally alter not just our local habitat but Chicago’s place in the world. WBEZ Chicago is proud to be a part of a collaborative working to deepen understanding of how vital the natural environment is to our region’s past, present and future health.” — Tracy Brown, Managing Editor, WBEZ Chicago Public Media

 

“Northern California is experiencing unprecedented smoke conditions, power outages and fire danger firsthand with greater urgency each year. We are on track for even more serious drought conditions. It’s clear that these changing climate conditions are impacting our underserved communities the most. Our research shows that 68% of people in the Bay Area say the climate change problem is ‘huge’. ABC7 is committed to telling these stories and finding local solutions.” — Tom Cibrowski, President and General Manager, KGO-TV San Francisco (ABC Owned Television Stations) 

 

“Arizona is getting warmer and drier every year, and ABC15 Arizona (KNXV) wants to show our viewers how we can be smarter and adapt to the changing demands of climate change. The LMA Covering Climate Collaboration is a great opportunity for us to show the real-world impact of climate change, and what our community can do about it.” — Anita Helt, Vice President and General Manager, KNXV-TV Phoenix (E.W. Scripps Company)

 

Audience data is on the side of these local news leaders. People are consuming more climate coverage, and want more reporting than they currently see.

A data analysis by Chartbeat of news website content and traffic found that, while climate reporting increased from 2017 to 2019 (the pandemic suppressed coverage of climate and other issues in 2020), audience consumption of that reporting has gone up even more. In other words, the audience appetite exceeds even our increase in coverage.

Likewise, data from Yale’s annual Climate Opinion Survey show more and more Americans say they’ve personally experienced the effects of climate change; they want more climate coverage; and, alarmingly, most are not seeing as much coverage as they want.

The data also show that local newsrooms should not be misled by a few loud and vocal “Fake News!” comments on their Facebook page when it comes to current attitudes about the facts around climate change. In their landmark research describing the “Six Americas,” researchers at Yale and George Mason University found that a solid majority of Americans are “concerned” or outright “alarmed,” dwarfing those who “doubt” or “deny” climate change.

And those numbers have shifted significantly in just the past five years toward “alarm.”

LMA created the Covering Climate Collaborative to support and amplify the work of local newsrooms reporting on this critical issue. These newsrooms will lead the way in moving local climate coverage beyond the silo of a narrow “beat,” to better connect the ways in which climate intersects with and impacts other local issues, whether they are health issues or infrastructure policy decisions or, importantly, making the vital connection between climate and social justice. Far too often, the harmful effects of climate change fall disproportionately on communities of color, and that story must be told.

The participants will share climate reporting, and collaborate on joint storytelling projects in ways that take full advantage of the cross-platform skills of the collaborative, which includes print, digital, radio and broadcast newsrooms. Coordinating storytelling efforts across text, audio and video is the best way to meet audiences where they are.

Finally, these newsrooms will benefit from the expertise of key science and journalism partners committed to excellence in climate reporting. From organizations like Climate Matters and SciLine to Solutions Journalism Network, these newsrooms will be able to tap trustworthy experts who can communicate clearly the science of climate change. LMA will share case studies from the collaborative on lessons learned that can be used by any local newsroom looking to deepen its climate coverage.

Climate change may be a planet-sized problem, but it is no longer distant in time or space. Our audiences are experiencing its impacts locally, right now. Now is the moment for local climate journalism to lead.

Covering Climate Collaborative: Partners on Science and Journalism

Climate Matters is a climate reporting resource program that helps meteorologists and journalists report on climate impacts and solutions in ways that are local, immediate, and personal — grounded in the latest science.

George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication is the nation’s first research center devoted entirely to improving public communication about climate change.

Climate Central is a science and communications organization working to make climate change local, relevant, and understandable.

SciLine, based at the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science, is a philanthropically-supported free service that connects reporters to knowledgeable, articulate scientist-sources and validated evidence on deadline.

Climate Communication is a Climate Communication is a non-profit science and outreach project supported by grants from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Hartfield Foundation.

Solutions Journalism Network’s mission is to spread the practice of solutions journalism: rigorous reporting on responses to social problems so that every day people are exposed to stories that help them understand problems and challenges, and stories that show potential ways to respond.

About Local Media Association/Local Media Foundation

Local Media Association/Local Media Foundation is intensely focused on creating new and sustainable business models for news to ensure a healthy future for local journalism, which is essential to a strong democracy. LMF is a 501(c)(3) charitable trust affiliated with LMA.

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Finding the sweet spot in local news streaming

“I would contend that the news space is effectively wide open in the streaming world,” says SmithGeiger president and research guru Seth Geiger in a newly published conversation with TVNewsCheck’s Michael Depp. “It is critical that broadcasters be able to deliver their content in all the places where audiences are congregated, and there is no more momentum than there is in streaming.”

One station that doesn’t need the pep talk is New York’s WNBC. The NBC flagship just launched a daily 10-minute(ish) newscast designed primarily for streaming (OTT, or over the top) consumption — specifically Roku and Apple TV. Actually, I should say re-launched. We told you about News 4 Now’s first incarnation more than two years ago. Back then, it was a two-minute news summary relying mostly on YouTube for viewers, but last year, News 4 Now became a casualty of COVID — shelved as the station focused on maintaining its core broadcast products.


Watch an episode of “News 4 Now”

With pandemic pressures easing, WNBC made bringing back the “digicast” a priority, for a simple reason that other stations all over the country are starting to address as well. “What has happened since is that OTT has really exploded for us,” says Ben Berkowitz, VP of digital for WNBC and its Telemundo sibling, WNJU. “The growth has been extraordinary.”

In fact, Berkowitz estimates that views on Roku and Apple are seven or eight times what they were before the huge growth spurt in 2019, with those two streamers alone now accounting for as many views as all of WNBC’s digital platforms combined five years ago.

Even more remarkable is the amount of video that viewers consume on OTT platforms compared to other digital options. “If you look at traditional digital platforms — desktop, mobile web, app — and then you look at OTT platforms — Roku, Apple TV, etc. — the average OTT visitor watches 27 times more video than the average visitor to a traditional platform,” Berkowitz says.

Wait — WHAT??

“Yeah, it’s extraordinary,” he continues. “We spent a lot of time crunching those numbers because they were so astronomical, we sort of didn’t trust them at first, but they’re real. They’re absolutely real. It’s 27x.”

Numbers like that convinced NBC to develop new content for OTT and to spend money on marketing, especially on Roku. “A double-digit percentage of our monthly consumption is just Roku. And we know that the audience is highly, highly engaged and will watch lots of news programming at great length,” Berkowitz says.“They’ll watch news, they’ll watch lifestyle, they’ll watch a lot of weather, they’ll watch investigative. It really started to look viable really quickly, and that’s what gave us the confidence to make some investments. And those investments paid incredibly handsomely.”

The newly reinvented News 4 Now has a simple format that shows its linear roots every bit as much as its digital DNA. There’s an anchor along with a meteorologist; six or seven news stories, mostly voice-overs with an occasional sound bite peppered in; and two packages, one usually a news feature and the other a cutdown of a story from the station’s 11:30 a.m. lifestyle program, New York Live.

Like many successful innovations in TV news, News 4 Now balances the tension between what worked before and what needs to change rather than discarding all that’s tried and true. “It’s not just a digital show. It’s not just a linear show,” Berkowitz says. “It’s everybody putting their heads together and saying, ‘Okay, we make news for all platforms. We don’t just make linear newscasts, we make newscasts for everybody.’ And so getting all those heads in one room and saying, ‘Okay, what’s the OTT version of that show, as opposed to the linear version of that show?’”


Watch an episode of “News 4 Now”

Even the staffing is a hybrid: Christian Stapleton, a newsroom content producer with multiple other broadcast duties, writes the show and shoots the studio standups with 11 a.m. anchor Adam Kuperstein and meteorologist Maria LaRosa. Then Linda Gaudino of Berkowitz’s 11-member digital team takes over to assemble the final product, which posts sometime around 5 p.m. “It’s got classic news writing, but from a writer who happens to have a digital sensibility, and then digital production values,” Berkowitz says.

That means that Kuperstein speaks in a more informal style and (of course) doffs his tie. There’s a subtle music bed, along with custom graphics and sound effects. Perhaps more important, the team selects the stories with a digital audience in mind. “There are certain linear stories that just don’t hold the digital audience’s interest,” Berkowitz says — routine crime and fire coverage, for example. “The linear lead story might be Newark schools reopening; the digital lead story might be a vigil for [the late rapper] DMX. Because that’s what the digital audience really cares about,” Berkowitz says. Last week, “the audience for DMX was 11 times the audience for Prince Philip.”

Tie-free “News 4 Now” anchor Adam Kuperstein

Berkowitz says it’s too early to share viewership data, but the new incarnation of News 4 Now is doubling the audience of its pre-pandemic predecessor, with a completion rate of seven-plus minutes — impressive for a 10-minute show. “The early numbers are very, very encouraging,” Berkowitz says. “They prove that this is not a fluke.”

News 4 Now is also available on all of WNBC’s other digital outlets. “It is a combination of the right length, the right mix of content, but then also the right distribution strategy,” Berkowitz says. WNBC’s Roku channel has lots of other video content, of course, but Berkowitz believes that News 4 Now hits a sweet spot for the platform’s news watchers. “This really is their newscast. This is the OTT newscast for that audience who’s coming home or coming back to a TV at the end of the day and saying, ‘What happened today?’ It was really about giving them as much newscast as they were willing to consume, where they wanted to consume.”

NBC’s owned station in Philadelphia, WCAU, started its own “digicast” called The Lineup for OTT platforms in January; the company says other NBC and Telemundo stations will be introducing their own versions later this year. Also in January, WNBC became the first station to start producing two daily local cut-ins for LX, the company’s streaming and broadcast channel designed for younger viewers. And just yesterday, NBC announced that all its stations will be offering news “playlists” to the company’s own Peacock streaming service.

So streaming is “absolutely critical,” in Seth Geiger’s words. But a cautionary note for other stations about to embark on their own OTT adventures: A key element to digital innovation and ultimate success is “being willing to take chances” and keep adapting, Ben Berkowitz says. “You wouldn’t necessarily think of the flagship NBC station in New York City as the place to experiment and play around and be willing to try and be willing to fail and be willing to try again. Try vertical, horizontal, short, long, colorful, serious. And just take the audience’s pulse and then take the stuff that works. And double down on it, triple down on it, don’t be afraid to reboot things every six months, every year, change the format, go shorter, go longer.”

Case in point: Berkowitz’s team has been honored two years in a row by the Local Media Association — for best video strategy and then a year later, best social media strategy. The first award mentioned the original version of News 4 Now — now completely overhauled — and both awards cited a breezy news summary called Listen Up that has had multiple iterations (we reported on the first one here) but now appears on IG Reels, Instagram’s answer to TikTok. “We’ve blown that show up four times in three years,” Berkowitz says. “And it’s doing as well as it ever has. Because as the audience’s tastes change, and as their platforms change, as their appetites change, we change with them.”

Buckle up.

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A new way to cover underrepresented communities


EXCLUSIVE: Oakland man uses machete to scare away robbers,” the headline reads.

It’s a new twist on a familiar story for KGO anchor and reporter Dion Lim: Yet another attack on Asian-Americans in Oakland, California, except this time, the son of an elderly couple robbed right on their front porch fought back, chased off the assailants, and reluctantly agreed to share his story and the surveillance video (but not his identity).


Watch Dion Lim’s report on an Asian-American crime victim who fights back.

A year ago, Lim sounded an alarm about hate crimes and bigotry directed against Asian-Americans in response to the pandemic. Breaking down the wall of “objectivity” that traditional anchors maintain, Lim wrote a passionate op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle, and the station followed up with a special program addressing the issue.

Lim, who got national attention for her outspoken reporting, now has more stories than she can handle covering what’s in effect a full-time beat — with even higher stakes given horrific events like last month’s mass shootings in the Atlanta area. “I think I have more heart in what I’m doing, now more than ever,” Lim says, “because it’s lives that are on the line. It’s not just people’s livelihoods and feelings, but it’s their physical lives and their families. And I think for me, I’ve let the wall down even further.”

Lim told me she couldn’t help tearing up during a live tag to one victim’s story. “I kind of lost it,” she says. “It just kind of all came out. And I was crying on the air. And I didn’t know what to do. And I think the anchors who were tossing to me and reacting on the back side really understood the toll that it was taking on me. And that opened the floodgates to more people wanting to reach out and say, ‘I feel the same way too.’ I feel like it’s the burden of five reporters all in one. But I use the term burden very carefully, because it’s a burden, but yet it’s a blessing. And it’s what every journalist wants in their career: to have more stories than they could possibly be able to tell.”

That burden just got a little lighter. That’s because the ABC Owned Television Stations have created what they call the “race and culture content team” to expand coverage of underrepresented communities, both in daily news reporting and in a series of specials. Lim’s reaction to the announcement: “Hallelujah, it’s about time!”

The newly announced initiative is an ambitious experiment in collaboration and a significant commitment of resources: a dedicated “multi-skilled journalist” (MSJ) embedded in each of ABC’s eight owned-station newsrooms, three executive producers, and two senior executives. “This is much more than 11 people,” says Jennifer Mitchell, senior vice president for content development. “The intention is that everyone throughout [the owned stations] is a contributor and a collaborator in this space. This is not a moment. It’s a movement. And we are committed to the work.”

“Race and culture is not a silo: You’re not going to go off into a little corner of the newsroom, and it’s only your work. It’s everybody’s work,” says Maxine Crooks, vice president of talent development. “We have to be able to use the voices of people whose neighborhoods we don’t normally go into and tell these stories from their vantage point. This is a way for us to really focus on doing that in a more intentional way.”

Jennifer Mitchell and Maxine Crooks (all images courtesy of ABC)

Many stations around the country have created special programming in response to heightened national concerns about racial injustice. Even before last month’s official announcement of the new unit, the ABC Stations started producing new specials and series under the Our America banner. We’ve reported on the docu-series Living While Black and the role of the division’s data journalism team in producing Hidden Stories.

ABC’s diverse new MSJ team is already covering a range of topics. KGO’s Julian Glover, billed as “race and social justice reporter,” told the story of a Black couple who had their home appraisal increased by half a million dollars after they asked a white friend to pose as the owner instead — and has followed up with a series of hard-hitting reports on the issue. (As Dion Lim has found, one good story leads to many more like it.) And there are features as well, from the history of the nation’s first Black-owned hospital (WLS-Chicago) to how families are celebrating the Lunar New Year — the Year of the Ox (KFSN-Fresno).


Watch MSJ Julian Glover’s report on housing discrimination.

The unit also plans to turn out special programs for broadcast and digital platforms, from 30-minute magazine-like compilations to hour-long documentaries, at a rate of about one a month. The three executive producers, who are based in different cities, meet every day, attend editorial meetings, and coordinate with the eight ABC newsrooms and the squad of embedded MSJs to manage the mix of day turns and specials. “There are things that are initiated at the local level that we try to support however we can, and then there are things that we initiate at the division level that we have them support,” says San Francisco-based EP Mariel Myers.

Executive producers Mariel Myers, Nzinga Blake and Porsha Grant 

So far, everyone is playing nicely in the sandbox. ”We’re really here to give guidance. I think having this unit has really empowered people within the stations to speak up,” Myers says, and quotes her Philadelphia-based counterpart Porsha Grant as saying, “We’re not the culture police.” “It’s not that watchdog role,” agrees Los Angeles-based EP Nzinga Blake, “It’s bringing awareness to what is really happening, and allowing the space for us to actually have a real conversation — you know, a candid conversation.”

That candid conversation reflects a growing change in the newsrooms themselves — a change that may be just as significant as the content the new team creates. “The culture shift within the organization has been tremendous,” says Mitchell. “I think it’s just about people bringing life experiences to how we tell stories,” says Crooks. “I think what’s different is that people now recognize that it’s okay to be who you are in your work settings, and it’s okay to show your ethnicity or to have a different voice and to use that voice.” “I have never been comfortable speaking about race in my place of employment, and that has completely changed,” says Blake. “I got really emotional with Jennifer [Mitchell] the first time I met her, because I’m like, ‘I can actually have a conversation with you without feeling judged or being afraid.’”

Dion Lim also sees the creation of the race and culture team as significant progress. “It’s going beyond the step of having people who look diverse on the air,” she says, “because this is putting your money where your mouth is. I’ve always said that it’s the people in the decision-making positions that need to be diverse, but now you [also] have dedicated people on the ground, and everyone is working together towards it.”

I asked four senior members of the team for their definition of victory.

Nzinga Blake: “I will consider it a victory when I finally see comments on a race and culture story, and people don’t say, ‘So what?’ People ask the question, ‘Why?’ Or, ‘How can I help?’ When we start seeing empathetic responses in our viewers.”

Mariel Myers: “I will feel like there’s victory when people feel like they belong to the community because they see the representation. Viewers and users would feel like they are a part of the community, they are part of the conversation, that they don’t feel shut out — that they belong.”

Maxine Crooks: “I’ll be happy if this just becomes routine, in the sense that it becomes second nature. That it’s something that we don’t have to always plan, that we just do on a regular basis — just come out and do it.”

Jennifer Mitchell: “In two years, exactly as Maxine said, all 1,500-plus employees are doing the work that this group is doing right now.”

That’s an irony underlying this new initiative: The ultimate measure of success may be that it’s no longer needed.

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Envisioning the post-pandemic newsroom


If Jonathan Adkins, who oversees the broadcast news operation at Cleveland’s WKYC, wants to see the dramatic effects of COVID-19 on TV news production, all he has to do is go downstairs.

“If a year ago, you had told me I could sit in my basement in my house and see 16 live feeds from the field, have direct interaction with the talent on the set, and be able to watch feeds and our broadcasts with less than a half second delay, I would have thought you were crazy,” he says. Adkins can even re-set the teleprompter from home.

Part of the makeshift control room in the basement of broadcast news head Jonathan Adkins (All images courtesy of WKYC).

“An industry that has been famously plagued by tradition — we still put on broadcasts that look the same way they did when we were all children, and our parents were children — was suddenly forced to innovate,” says Adam Miller, Director of Content at WKYC. In that role, which station owner TEGNA has introduced around the country in lieu of a more conventional management structure, he oversees both Adkins and a head of digital, Denise Polverine.

“If we go back to the way things were, we failed,” Miller says. Adkins agrees: “I think our eyes have been opened over this last year to say, ‘Hey, it’s not acceptable to do things in the manner that we’ve done them before.’ We need to be different as an industry to be able to compete with those other industries that have been accepting [innovation] for a lot longer than we have.”

But what does that mean, exactly? I asked the three WKYC executives, along with veteran anchor Russ Mitchell, to share a conversation that’s going on in every newsroom in America — or at least should be: Which innovations prompted by the pandemic should survive it?

Adam Miller, Jonathan Adkins, and Denise Polverine

The most obvious legacy of coping with COVID is the ability to work and cover news remotely. The executives expect their staff to return to the newsroom when it’s safe, but that doesn’t mean returning to routines that they’re better off leaving behind.

Example: the dreaded morning meeting. “The days of going into a conference room for a morning editorial meeting with 30 people, and four people giving the ideas and the other 26 not really wanting to be there — those days are gone,” Adkins says. “We need to evolve.”

The empty WKYC newsroom

Reporters will come to the newsroom when it makes sense, but they can also go straight to their stories when that’s smarter and faster. And after a year of putting employees’ safety first, Miller and his team say they’ll take advantage of remote technology to be more flexible in accommodating personal needs. “There are so many different examples where this is going to benefit employees in terms of striking a better work-life balance,” Miller says. “Everything is on the table. We’re having these conversations now about what that flexibility may look like.”

Newsgathering will change permanently too, largely because journalists and viewers alike have grown accustomed to interviews via Zoom. “It opened the world for us,” says Russ Mitchell. “If we want to interview a lawmaker in Columbus or Timbuktu, you just do it on Zoom. It’s incredibly easy.” “It suddenly feels like the news gods looked down upon us and said ‘Access granted,’” Miller says. “It’s this YouTube generation, where if your video suddenly is a little blue, or the audio suddenly choppy — look, we never strive for lesser quality, but the viewer is much more accepting. And I think that that combination of a more accepting audience, combined with the access granted, makes for a better content experience. The world is our oyster. That will not change, it should not change.”

Zoom gave anchor Russ Mitchell easy access to Ohio Governor Mike DeWine.

Digital head Denise Polverine says that thanks to the pandemic, she no longer has to evangelize about the importance of creating original digital and social content. “As the digital director, I’m always trying to get reporters to think digital first, and producers to think digital first. I don’t have to make that case at all anymore,” she says. “We’re leaps and bounds ahead of where we were even just a year ago with getting everyone to engage on digital and social. So we’re much more strategic, we’re much more engaged as a group of reporters, no matter what your role is in the newsroom.”

Polverine says the sheer volume of vital COVID-related information — a “fire hose,” in her words — forced her team to be more efficient, using Slack as a substitute for in-person contact, with surprisingly good results. “When we were in the office, we felt very efficient,” she says. “But it wasn’t until we really were forced into this role and all working in different spots that all the tools came into play in a big way for digital. We’ve been able to pump out more stories, more accurate stories, cross-checking each other really quickly, just by using some of those simple tools, which we will continue whether we’re in or out of the office.”

Like so many other stations, WKYC expanded its original slate of digital content, with new series like Faces of COVID; pandemic-focused Q & A’s with medical correspondent Monica Robins; and community fundraisers for people having trouble paying their utility bills and for beleaguered local restaurants.

Medical reporter Monica Robins answers anchor Jay Crawford’s COVID questions from home.

The digital team also made a lot more room for the voice of the audience — and that’s not going to change either. “It’s no longer just a one-way street. It’s a two-way street. And we are encouraging our audience to weigh in on everything,” Polverine says. “People still want to come to us to get the information, but really peppering in what people think and how they feel and what their reaction is has been such a huge part of the content that we do now — just making it more of a conversation. I think that’s one of the big takeaways, too, that our audience is part of what we do.”

Adam Miller says that seeing the talent working from home has also helped bring viewers closer to the newsroom. “That opened up a whole new door in terms of building connections and relationships with our team that you don’t always get behind the anchor desk,” he says. “I think the important thing to do is to pinpoint what about that relationship struck a nerve, what resonated, and build off of that in the months to come.”


Watch a behind-the-scenes video of how WKYC went remote.

But not everything is changing. Mitchell, who anchors the 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts (and serves as executive editor of the late news as well), chose to broadcast from the studio throughout the pandemic — a classic role for an anchor in a time of crisis. “I would argue it offered the viewer not just credibility, but comfort,” Miller says. “And I think that comfort is something Russ could offer that you couldn’t get just anywhere.”

Mitchell, who worked at CBS News for many years (we were colleagues there), is now an evangelist for local news — and can’t wait to get back on the street. “The beauty of local news is getting involved in the community,” he says. “And you can do that via Zoom, you can do that on the telephone, but there’s nothing like getting out there and actually meeting people in person. And I haven’t had a chance to do that in the last year. I hope that comes back in terms of the emotion that television can give to viewers. Only we can do that. TV is still magical.”

Russ Mitchell, here interviewing candidate Joe Biden, is eager to get back in the field.

Adam Miller uses the same word in agreeing that it’s important to bring back the power of face-to-face interaction, not just on the street but in the newsroom. “It’s the moment when you have that exchange with a colleague, and then suddenly boom — an idea is hatched. That’s where the magic happens.”

So, like many innovation challenges, imagining a post-pandemic future is a balancing act — a matter of preserving what’s best about local broadcast and digital journalism while learning from the crisis to change for the better. “A lot of people look at last year, and it’s been awful,” Jonathan Adkins says. “We’ve all lost loved ones, and those that are close to us. And many of us have been touched in different ways. But for our industry, I’m excited about what can come from this.”

Adam Miller, who returned to his native Cleveland after a successful career at NBC News that started with an internship and culminated in a senior producer job on Today, sees a post-COVID opportunity for local news to play an even bigger part in people’s lives. “Never has there been a story as universal and yet hyperlocal as COVID-19 and the pandemic,” he says. “It has put a spotlight on the importance of local news and reminded people of the power and responsibility that comes with it. I’m hoping, and I believe, that this interest in local news will stay. And as a result, I think we should be offering and could be offering more.”

As for that makeshift control room in Jonathan Adkins’s basement: It’s staying right where it is.

Editor’s note:
If you have a compelling example of COVID-driven innovation that will have a lasting impact on your newsroom, please share it with us at cronkitenewslab@asu.edu. Thanks!

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Can’t cut through the noise on social media? Try texting instead.


We’ve all relied on our phones over the last isolating, overwhelming year. Some of us text with family. Some text with friends. And here in Arizona, some text with P. Kim Bui, director of audience innovation at The Arizona Republic.

Since last spring, she’s sent messages en masse to anyone who signs up for the latest information on COVID-19. In return, those 3,000 subscribers text her back with their questions, concerns, and photos of the family dog, which she sometimes replies to one-on-one or with another blast.

“People feel like they know me,” says Bui with a laugh. “If I say I’m having a hard day, they’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry. What can we do to help?’ I think people are feeling extra lonely. I mean, I’m feeling extra lonely. And any sort of connection you can build during the pandemic is big.”

One recent text in The Arizona Republic’s Subtext thread marked the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. About 3,000 people have subscribed to the texting campaign.

The tool she’s used to build that connection is Subtext, an SMS messaging platform that lets Bui see all of her replies, but only shows subscribers Bui’s texts and their own. That chance to create a personal, conversational relationship has drawn a variety of users since Subtext launched in 2019 — from chefs and YouTubers to musicians and other news outlets. In addition to The Republic, its journalistic clients have included local organizations like Newsday, The Des Moines Register, and The Austin American-Statesman, as well as national ones like BuzzFeed News, Vanity Fair, and Teen Vogue.

Absent from the list so far? Any local TV stations. “I’ve found it interesting that more radio and TV stations haven’t done this,” says Bui. “Because everyone who’s on-air has a voice already — a really strong voice, compared to a newspaper writer. It’s just training somebody to utilize that voice in a different way.”

At the News Lab, we’re also interested in texting’s potential for TV. We’ve covered Univision 41 Nueva York’s effort to connect with its predominantly Latino audience on the messaging service WhatsApp, as well as a Cronkite News experiment that solicited story ideas on another texting platform called GroundSource. So after reading up on Subtext in a piece by NiemanLab, we wanted to reach out and gauge the opportunity for local stations.

“I think there’s a ton of potential,” says cofounder David Cohn. “Broadcasters already have a sense of personality, right? They’re on TV. There’s a voice and a personality that people associate with and trust. And local topics do really well. Things around local businesses do really well. Local sports, local news and information — civic and politics stuff.”

P. Kim Bui and David Cohn

Bui also sees an audience for TV meteorologists. “The weatherman — like, c’mon! I would love to be on a text thread with a bunch of weather geeks,” she says. “Anything where there’s a niche community or an ongoing issue. Say [you’re] an investigative reporter working on the foster care system, and you want to connect with foster parents and share your work over that. I think it’s particularly useful for beat reporters or anybody who’s working on the same topic for a while.”

With a Subtext combining journalists’ local knowledge and strong voices, Cohn says a TV station could engage more deeply and productively than it does on the major social platforms: “That’s a very noisy space. You have to think about the whole world and trolls, and there’s the algorithm — all of that is gone with texting. You send out a text, and about 80% of people who are going to respond will do so within an hour.”

As an example, he points to the text thread for Buckeye Talk, a podcast about Ohio State football hosted by Doug Lesmerises, a sportswriter at Cleveland.com who takes listener questions in every episode.

“Before Subtext, he would do this through Twitter,” says Cohn. “He had like 40,000 followers, and he’d send out a tweet and get like four or five good questions. With a much smaller Subtext audience, he’ll get 50 or 60 good questions, because these are people who get his text — it doesn’t miss them — and who have self-selected or self-identified as super passionate about this. One of them texted back, and he said, ‘Doug, my girlfriend thought you were a friend who just texted me every day about the Buckeyes. I had to tell her what this is and that you’re a reporter.’ That just goes to show the kind of relationship you can build.”

Outlets can choose whether to make their text campaigns free to the public or subscription-based.

Cohn also makes the argument for Subtext on the metrics and financial fronts. To the first point, he says texting tops social media and email: “Text has a much higher open rate than email — like, 90-plus percent — and a much higher engagement rate. Nobody really responds to email newsletters, but people do respond to text.” And to the second point, he says Subtext doesn’t require web development, making it a faster, more affordable option than building your own app.

For accounts that are free to the public, newsrooms pay Subtext a fee based on the total number of subscribers, but organizations can also monetize and pay for their threads by finding sponsors or setting up subscriptions. “A lot of sports campaigns are subscription,” says Cohn. “People pay $4 or $5 [per month] to get text messages from a local reporter about whatever team they’re passionate about. Those are free [for organizations] to create, and we just do a revenue share.”

P. Kim Bui says The Arizona Republic’s free thread has converted some of its Subtext subscribers into subscribers for the newspaper’s digital content as well. It’s also generated tips and sources for the paper’s health reporters. But its real purpose, she says, is to serve Arizonans with critical COVID-19 updates, cut through the confusion and misinformation in the unending news cycle, and nurture a genuine sense of connection.

“It’s about being a service,” says Bui. “I think that’s what people are really craving and what they’ve really responded to — that we consider this a service. We’re not getting millions of dollars off of it or hundreds of subscriptions. It’s because we see the need, and we want to fill that need as best as we can. And I will say, having been a social media editor, this community we’ve built is more positive and supportive than any other community I’ve worked on.”

The Arizona Republic uses text messaging to share critical COVID-19 updates. One recent blast gave subscribers new details on how to get vaccinated.

With the pandemic ongoing, Bui isn’t sure how long the thread will last. Newsrooms can start and stop their Subtexts whenever they like — and take their subscriber list with them when they go.

But whenever the virus subsides enough that The Republic can phase out its texts, Bui has other ideas for the platform — ideas, she says, that could work for TV stations as well as newspapers. “I think this is a great way to reach people who don’t have a lot of internet access,” she says. “That might be in rural places or on the reservation — or somewhere it’s just a lot easier to send a text than to send somebody to a big database or a website.”

There are other companies that support interaction through text messaging: WKYC in Cleveland is using ZipWhip, for example. Whoever the tech partner may be, if you haven’t tried texting as a supplement to your social media outreach, Bui says it might be worth a look.

“It’s about building loyalty,” she says. “Right now, I’m thinking like, ‘Oh, I haven’t sent a text today. And I didn’t send a text yesterday, because I was off. People are probably wondering where I am.’ And legitimately, that does happen. If I disappear for a couple days, they’ll be like, ‘Where are you? Is this ending? I really need this. Can you help?’ It’s managing a community.”

New expectations for a continuing relationship: a nice “problem” for newsrooms to have. If your newsroom has experimented with texting, we’d like to hear about what you learned. Please let us know at cronkitenewslab@asu.edu.

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Is there an ‘active, engaged, working journalist anchor’ in your newsroom?

Question: How many anchors does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: None! That’s what producers are for.

Okay, here’s an easier one:

How many anchors does it take to do the late news?

If you said two, chances are you work at pretty much any local TV newsroom in America…and you definitely don’t work at KVIA in El Paso, Texas.

The NPG (News-Press & Gazette)-owned ABC affiliate broke new ground last June by introducing an unusual three-anchor format for its late news. What may sound like a gimmick turns out to be a valuable lesson in three R’s — research, reporting and risk.

The risk was tinkering with a successful formula. KVIA’s late news had survived the retirement in January 2020 of beloved anchor Estela Casas after nearly 27 years at the station. The new team of Stephanie Valle, who in 20 years at KVIA worked her way up from intern to main anchor, and relative newcomer Erik Elken, who joined the team in the fall of 2018, was holding up competitively. That said, everyone’s late news was declining, as it is in many markets. “We have to give people a reason to stay up late, and we cannot do that doing the same newscast that we’ve been doing,” says news director Brenda De Anda-Swann, “because the audience is changing the way it consumes news, and we can’t do it the same way.”

Saul Saenz reporting on the vaccine rollout.

That’s where the second R — reporting — comes in. De Anda-Swann came up with an unorthodox idea: Add the station’s highest-profile reporter, Saul Saenz, to the anchor team. Saenz, a veteran journalist who returned to his native El Paso in 2018 after nearly four decades working in other markets, was the host of a Sunday night public affairs show as well as a dayside reporter during the week.

“Saul was looking for an opportunity to change; we wanted to keep the strongest reporter in the market,” De Anda-Swann says. “And we thought we could continue to have Saul with us and provide an opportunity to anchor, but it was more than anchoring. It wasn’t just ‘Break up the show.’ We knew that we needed to provide something extra. The motivation cannot be only talent, it has to be the content. If you don’t have the content, the three-anchor format is not going to work for you. So that’s why it’s so important to make it based on what’s driving the story that day, what’s going to be interesting to viewers.”

Brenda De Anda-Swann and  Kevin Lovell

That “extra” ingredient is, in fact, called “ABC-7 Xtra,” an in-depth nightly exploration of a single story. Conveniently, that’s already the name of Saenz’s Sunday night program, and back in the 1990s, it was a half-hour show that followed the late news every weeknight. “We had a background and a heritage of developing the big story of the day or the week, putting it together, providing extra context,” says general manager Kevin Lovell, “and that’s why we decided to go ahead and name this Xtra when we moved it to the weekday. We wanted to provide the extra content on a daily basis. So we have it Sunday through Friday — Xtra — and that heritage made a difference.”


WATCH an Xtra report on migrants with COVID-19 crossing into the U.S.

The new nightly segments average around three minutes but can go as long as 4:30, and they cover a wide range of subjects, from longer takes on headline stories like the vaccine rollout to proprietary investigations and features. Chief meteorologist “Doppler” (I’m not making that up) Dave Speelman and sports director Adrian Ochoa sometimes have to squeeze down their segments to make room, but De Anda-Swann says “whoever needs the time has to earn the time.”

This time, it’s Saul Saenz’s turn to toss to “Doppler” Dave Speelman.

Producing the in-depth segment every day is a challenge for the 37-person newsroom, De Anda-Swann says. With no extra resources added, everyone has to pitch in. “The entire newsroom is behind this. It’s not a single person that’s driving this,” she says. “Every day, we ask: What are we going to do for Xtra? And how are we going to execute it? So that’s why it’s been a work in progress. It has not been an easy package.” “Yes, it is a lot of work on Brenda’s shoulders, and everyone else in the newsroom,” Lovell says. “But it makes us better. It drives us to go in depth on a daily basis. You don’t see enough of that, and I wish other stations would do it.”

For you show producers out there, yes, managing three anchors can be tricky. “That’s something that we are working on throughout as well,” De Anda-Swann says. “[Rather than] making a three-way ping pong every single time, sometimes you highlight two anchors and have them split the different stories and then bring in the third anchor. That’s been a balance that we are still working on.”

One key decision: The incumbent anchors, Valle and Elken, share ABC-7 Xtra reporting, producing and writing duties rather than putting the whole burden on Saenz. “That was one of the options that we considered — making him ‘Mr. Xtra’ and tossing to him for all of the context,” De Anda-Swann says. “But we felt that because the anchors have different strengths, it would be better just to spread it out.”

Anchor Erik Elken reports on budget issues in the University of Texas at El Paso sports program.

Kevin Lovell, a former news director himself, admits the three-anchor concept was controversial at first. “Initially, it was not a unanimous decision. It was something that we all had to analyze because it was so outside the box,” he says. Corporate news director Michael Fabac was skeptical too. “I had trepidation about the three-anchor format, specifically in the late newscast,” Fabac says. But “while the format was unknown, the personalities that would be delivering it were not. And we all agreed that, yes, we’re in the dominant position, but that is no reason to sit on our laurels. I said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”

Michael Fabac and Pete Seyfer

“I liked the idea,” says KVIA’s news consultant Pete Seyfer of the Magid firm. “Why does someone stay up and watch the 10 o’clock news, the late news? We’re giving them exclusive new content with better understanding, better perspective, better context. And Saul, Stephanie, and Erik, all three, their roots are in good storytelling. Each one of them is truly an active, engaged, working journalist anchor. So I think that that was another part of the impetus in terms of pulling this off at 10 o’clock, and so far being successful.”

Anchor Stephanie Valle started at KVIA as an intern in 2001.

But Kevin Lovell wasn’t willing to rely solely on his news director’s conviction and his own instincts, which brings us to the third R: research. Last fall, several months after the new format’s debut, Magid conducted an audience survey, and the results were heartening. “The research was very positive for our own loyalists, but also the other viewers across the marketplace, in terms of the idea of the three anchors and added depth and understanding that this could bring to a 10 o’clock newscast,” Seyfer says. “Ultimately, the research really sealed it,” Lovell says, “because our loyalists were the ones who most liked it. You’ve got to keep them. And they really wanted to come back for more.”

The former news executive in me wondered whether any of this would have happened if Saul Saenz’s contract hadn’t been up. “His contract was up or coming up,” Lovell says. “But people’s contracts come up all the time. And that alone would not be the reason to start a new 10 o’clock theme; we wouldn’t have done it. The idea was that we were going to have additional content, and it would really provide an impetus for people to tune into late night news, where audiences have generally been declining. I’ll tell you what: If Saul were not here, we would still want to continue. And we would find someone else to be that third person.”

Ratings for KVIA’s late news are up since the new format started — double-digit increases year over year by last November, according to Comscore. The successful innovation is a testament to the power of enterprise reporting, especially when it’s done by seasoned anchors. It’s also a tribute to a news director willing to challenge conventional wisdom, and to managers willing to listen. “Our news director championed it,” Lovell says. “Brenda is a great news director. And ultimately, she believed in it. And I supported it. Because she had a real true vision for it.”

Maybe we add a fourth R: reward.

Recommended Reads for Journalists

What’s Behind the Big Shuffle Among TV News Executives?

“There’s reason for the revolving door in the top news suite. The near-constant shuffling of news leaders in some of TV’s most prominent newsrooms has less to do with the old process of gathering facts and is tied instead to the spate of senior management changes within the ranks of executives who run the largest media conglomerates.”

CBS News Will Try to Reinvent Itself, Again

In an interview as she prepares to step down as news division head, Susan Zirinsky said, “I feel I have given my entire soul into rebuilding this organization.”

A ‘powerful tool’ for newsrooms to connect with their communities

When Mona Morrow joined the Scripps Cincinnati flagship WCPO in 2000 to run community affairs, she brought a simple idea with her — an idea that was way ahead of its time but two decades later is finally gaining widespread support as an important tool for local newsrooms.

Morrow’s successful pitch to her new general manager: Establish a community advisory board, made up of a mix of local citizens who would provide feedback and ideas to the station. “Honestly, I thought other people were doing it,” Morrow says. “I knew they weren’t doing it locally. But I thought surely people are doing this. It only makes all the sense in the world. And then I realized that really they don’t.”

Morrow’s idea had some basis in local TV news history. Some readers may recall that years ago, news directors were required as part of the station’s license agreements to do regular “ascertainments” — visits with community leaders. “Remember those? They were a pain in the butt. I was always a procrastinator,” admits Scripps VP of News Sean McLaughlin. I do remember those, and he’s right: Most executives considered the meetings a chore rather than an opportunity.

What a difference today makes. Most Scripps stations now have community advisory boards, and the company’s more recent acquisitions will soon — at McLaughlin’s urging. “It’s a powerful tool,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s about listening to our consumers and being more engaged and in touch with our communities. How do you go wrong with that? It’s part of transforming ourselves into a two-way communication, versus the old way of ‘We tell you what the news is.’”

For nearly five years, McLaughlin and his team have been doing research that includes interviews in viewers’ homes to study their needs in depth. “And I say frequently that I never want to get as out of touch again as we were when we went into those homes in 2016 and started discovering that news consumers were telling us they wanted one thing, and our whole industry was delivering something else,” he says.

One result: a content strategy that since 2018 has required every Scripps station to commit to sustained coverage of a “signature issue” of vital importance to its market. (We wrote about Scripps’s The Rebound project last spring.) In the same spirit, in McLaughlin’s words, it’s “pretty well expected” (no translation needed) that his stations will establish advisory boards. “I think our news directors need to become more community-facing people, the way the editor of the paper used to be a major person in the local community. Generally speaking, TV news directors have never really held that kind of stature or that kind of visibility,” McLaughlin says. “And I do think they need to be face to face with the community, with a much higher degree of frequency than certainly I was when I was a news director.”

Of course, thanks to Mona Morrow, WCPO was ahead of the curve. The station’s advisory board numbers around 20 people, from civic leaders to ordinary citizens, selected to ensure a range of viewpoints across gender, age and ethnicity. “We set an agenda, but we also want it to be very loose and friendly and a safe space for them to say whatever they want to say,” she says. “We want to hear it if we got it wrong. We don’t need ‘yes people’ on this board. That doesn’t do us any good.”

Community affairs director Mona Morrow also co-hosts a mid-morning show, Cincy Lifestyle

“You have a large mix of different types of people coming to this group to sit down and talk about our coverage, but also just what’s happening in our community,” says WCPO news director Mike Canan. “And I think as a news leader, you’d be a fool not to take advantage of that access. For years, TV stations have spent thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars on research, to try to find out what their audience wants and thinks. This is an extremely low-cost way to regularly touch your audience and figure out what your audience thinks of your coverage, to get story ideas to improve your journalism.”

Canan became a believer when he was running the digital news operation for the station; he even formed a second advisory board for two years starting in 2015 to help with coverage of the opioid crisis. “We would have these monthly meetings, and it would be people from all walks of life that were affected by the opioid epidemic: everything from law enforcement, to the medical community, to recovering addicts, to family members of people who died of overdoses. And I’d come out of the meeting, and I would meet with one of my managers and I’d be like, ‘Okay, so I have 15 story ideas. How about you?’”

Both Canan and McLaughlin say the boards really showed their value as COVID-19 put an end to business as usual a year ago. Typically, the boards meet monthly or quarterly, but Canan asked Morrow to gather their group for virtual consultations every other week as the pandemic isolated people, including most journalists, at home. “I know I personally felt cut off from our audience in a way that I didn’t feel was healthy for our coverage,” he says. “And all that while, there’s this enormous weight of trying to understand something that no living person in our market has gone through.” Sean McLaughlin agrees: “I remember telling news directors this when I proposed using [the advisory boards] during early COVID: ‘I have no idea how you could run a major newsroom without having some sort of system like this in place right now, where you’re getting regular community feedback as to what’s important.’”

The community board members aren’t compensated for their time. “They like being heard. They like giving feedback,” McLaughlin says. And he stresses that the news director is still in charge. “They make recommendations, they help us keep in touch. But we can’t run newsrooms by community committees. That would never work.”

“I don’t think the board members feel like they suddenly are running the TV station,” Canan says. “I think they have a good understanding that they’re there as a resource and as advisors. That doesn’t mean we take action on every single thing that the advisory board says, but there’s never been a moment where I felt like we were at odds or it was argumentative or combative in any way. I’ve always found it to be helpful, even if the suggestion that people are giving isn’t realistic or feasible or something that we want to take action on.”

The WCPO “castle” — notice, no moat!

McLaughlin expects advisory boards to become even more important to stations, especially as a means of reaching out to underserved members of their communities. “I can tell you from doing it for 17 years, being a news director is a really lonely job sometimes. And you go out there every day, hoping you got it right. And you’ll have a group of people you can check in with once in a while, and say, ‘Hey, let me run this by you, here’s what I’m thinking, what are your thoughts?’ And they kind of poke and prod at you a little bit, make you look at it a little bit differently. I think that provides a lot of comfort. I think news directors will continue to find new ways to see value in that.”

With community connection and inclusion a growing priority for newsrooms and a key element in attracting a new generation of viewers and users, it’s no surprise that advisory boards have come into their own. “A lot of newsrooms may not be as diverse as they can be or should be,” Mona Morrow says. “But I’m telling you, you can get that diverse thought by putting together a community advisory board.”

That said, Canan and Morrow have advice for any station considering one: You have to be willing to do the work. “It takes time to put together, and Mona can attest to that,” Canan says. “But the value you get out of it is worth the time and energy. And like anything else in this world, you’re going to get out of it what you put into it. You show up to the meetings, and you pay close attention, and you build relationships, and you truly listen to what people say, and then you’re going to get a lot of value out of it. Hearing things first hand, from real human beings who live in your market, is invaluable.”

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Recommended Reads for Journalists

Bad news for journalists: The public doesn’t share our values. But there’s hope.

“Ask almost any group of journalists to name the core values of their profession, and they’ll probably deliver a list like this:
Oversight. We’re the watchdogs keeping an eye on government officials and other powerful people and institutions.
Transparency. We believe it’s best to put information out in the open, not keep it hidden.”

Even without deep pockets, Main Street shows up to support local news

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Reflecting on the state of student journalism

How would you define the state of student journalism?

Election SOS Report: Newsroom lessons in engagement and trust-building from the 2020 elections

Newsroom lessons in engagement and trust-building from the 2020 elections.

Can Twitch help your TV station connect with a younger audience?

Most local TV stations use them — Facebook, Twitter, even Instagram. It’s 2021, after all. But as Sarandon Raboin scrolled through her phone, checking her social media accounts, she wondered: Why aren’t newsrooms on Twitch?

Sure, the livestreaming platform, founded in 2011, is mostly known for its popularity among video gamers and the fans who watch them play. But it’s also expected to surpass more than 40 million monthly viewers by the end of this year, with more and more Twitch streamers offering up other types of interactive video.

“I’m on TikTok a lot, and I saw this trend of a lot of creators being like, ‘Hey, I’ll be streaming on Twitch,’” says Raboin, a senior here at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and a producer with Cronkite News, the student-run news division of Arizona PBS. “I started to see more YouTube creatives or just people who aren’t necessarily gamers move to the platform. And I thought to myself: In the news, we’re all trying to get in contact with our audience. We want to know what our audience wants, we want to be able to have that real-time communication — so it would be really interesting and cool to use Twitch in the newsroom.”

She pitched the idea to her editors and they were onboard — even though many of them weren’t familiar with the service. One who was: Isaac Easley, an instructor in video journalism and innovation at Cronkite News, a 2012 alum of the Cronkite School, and a self-described “big Twitch guy.” He says the majority of users fall within the elusive 16-34 age bracket and that the chat feature on a successful stream feels “like a big party.”

Sarandon Raboin and Isaac Easley

“I like the community connection with the chat. You get to know other people,” says Easley. “I watch a podcast called Double Toasted. It’s pretty much two Black guys who talk about movies all the time, and I love the vibe. Twitch gets a younger demographic, and an interactive demographic as well. So we looked, and there were no other news stations using Twitch. I’m like, ‘Well, let’s see what we can do with it. Let’s give it a shot.’”

Last week, Cronkite News hosted four hour-long livestreams during the rehearsals for its daily newscast, which airs on Arizona PBS at 5:30 p.m. Each one offered viewers a behind-the-scenes look at a different aspect of the show: the weather forecast, the sports report, the control room, and the anchors. While one person roamed the studio with an iPad, another sat in front of a desktop computer, explaining through the webcam how each element of the program comes together and answering viewer questions ranging from “Why is that anchor standing on a wooden box?” to “What story are you most proud of?”

“People were asking about Reed’s suit and where he got it, so we got to talk about European fashion for a minute and ‘What’s important for anchors to wear and why?’” says senior Emma Parkhouse, a Cronkite News reporter and one of the Twitch hosts. “It was also awesome to explain journalism vocabulary, because if you say ‘B roll’ to someone on the street, the average person typically doesn’t know. So explaining things like voiceovers, teleprompters, scripting, ad libbing — that’s really fun.”

Emma Parkhouse and Christina Leonard

That opportunity to demystify the processes behind a finished news product was also one of the big reasons Cronkite News decided to try Twitch, according to executive editor Christina Leonard, who spent more than a decade at The Arizona Republic before joining ASU.

“For the general public right now, I don’t think it’s a secret that there’s a trust issue with journalism,” says Leonard. “Anything that we can do to help peel back that curtain, say, ‘This is what we’re doing, this is why we’re doing it,’ and try to repair those relationships is really critical for us. The industry, for so long, has been closed-doors. But with experiments like this, people can get a behind-the-scenes glimpse and see we’re working hard. We want to do the right thing, we’re trying to make the right decisions, and we are really interested in engaging with our audiences.”


Watch Tina Giuliano host the Twitch stream dedicated to Cronkite News’ control room and newscast production. (Courtesy of Cronkite News)

The streams saw viewer numbers fluctuate between about five and 30 people at any given time, but the number of Cronkite News subscribers grew with each show. “They weren’t blockbuster in terms of audience,” says Leonard. “But I think it was a good way for us to — number one — see what it takes to do it. Number two, it was just good for the newsroom and getting people excited about experiments like this, because it’s really important that we bake this culture of innovation into our newsroom and that they’re seeing it, embracing it, and coming up with more ideas.”

After the first round of streams, those Twitch ideas are already flowing. The Cronkite News team is talking about other time slots to try, other ways to promote their upcoming shows, and other established Twitch influencers they might connect with and learn from. If the experiment goes well in the long term, they could even monetize their content on the free platform. In 2019, Twitch streams generated an estimated $300 million in ad revenue. And once streamers reach certain benchmarks, they can set up subscriptions as a way to offer special features to their users and generate additional revenue.

Raboin says she’s excited at the possibility of livestreaming in the field once the technology setup has been refined: “Take it back to this last summer — the protests. You could stream and have your anchor talk about it live. I think there’s potential with that.” Meanwhile, Easley sees a chance to help new journalists build their confidence and experience: “You get maybe someone who’s not ready to be an anchor? They could be the Twitch host — that new vibe, that new energy. So we can get younger blood into newsrooms earlier, which is good.”

For now, though, what advice does Cronkite News have for other TV stations thinking about trying Twitch for the first time?

  • Embrace the informal tone. “It’s all about the live factor, and it’s like you’re chatting with someone you know and you’re friends with,” says Raboin. “We want to seem approachable.” Parkhouse calls it the “entertainment aspect.” In the newscast and on other platforms, she says, “we give you all the good information and inform the community the way that we’re supposed to as journalists — but sometimes, we’ve got to have fun.”
  • Plan ahead and prepare your hosts. “To keep people’s eyes, you have to do some pre-production,” says Easley. “Of course it’s free-flowing, but you have to have a little bit of a direction.” He suggests preparing a variety of talking points so hosts are ready for slower stretches without viewer questions. Another tip? Showcase the right voices: “The way you draw your audience is going to be based on your host. So it’s got to be fun and informative. It’s got to be fly.”
  • Test your tech and be ready to troubleshoot. “It’s like learning any new social media, right? There’s going to be a little bit of a learning curve,” says Raboin, who says there were some on-air struggles with volume. “I had to switch mics in the middle. At one point, I was really struggling putting my mic on, and I got so many questions in the chat, like, ‘Hey, why is it hard to put on the mic?’ They were able to see I’m able to laugh at myself. It shows we’re all human and we’re just people, and I think that was really cool to see.”
  • Don’t feel pressured to narrate every second. “You don’t have to chat the entire time,” says Raboin. “It’s kind of like play-by-play for sports. Speak about 70% of the time, and sometimes they can just watch.” She says those moments without commentary are when your backdrops and visuals can really shine.

“I don’t know that Twitch is going to be the end-all, be-all,” says Christina Leonard. “But I think it’s another thing we can add to our toolbox to introduce younger viewers to what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and also build more of that trust.”

If your newsroom has tried Twitch or has plans to try it, let us know about your experience by writing to us at cronkitenewslab@asu.edu.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Cronkite News is experimenting with Twitch as part of Table Stakes, an initiative that supports innovation in local TV news with funding from the Knight Foundation. Our work at the News Lab is funded through the same grant.

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New ‘How To’ original video series features advice from TV experts

‘How to Animate a News Story’ is the inaugural video in a new original series from TVNewsCheck in which experts in news production, sales, tech and marketing share innovative and practical tips. TVNewsCheck’s Michael Depp tells us to expect a new video every two or three weeks.

The first video features Steven Silcox, a senior designer for CBC News, showing producers how to use animation to add value to feature news stories.

Watch the first ‘How To’ video below:

How to make reporting on racial inequity ‘actionable and meaningful’

The eight ABC Owned Television Stations are a small group that thinks big, and their new project, which was recently awarded a grant from the Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge, is just the latest example. Our America: Hidden Stories is a series of broadcast and digital reports and specials that seeks to address systemic racism with a distinctive combination of historical perspective, inspiring stories from today, and hard numbers. It’s an approach that stretches the traditional role of the newsroom in order to promote social change.

“I don’t think it’s enough for local journalists to just tell the stories anymore. It’s critical that we inspire and empower our communities to take action,” says Anna Robertson, vice president of content and partner innovation at the group. “Over the past year, we saw real hunger for people to understand the history of these cities and understand things that they may not have been taught in school. And so we decided to set out and tell the hidden stories, the stories that don’t always get told in the textbooks.”

“One of the things that we’re going to explore are the root causes and lasting impact of systemic racism,” says Jason Potts, who’s managing a cross-functional working group from around the division that helped come up with the idea to pitch to Google. “I just want to say that being a part of this project has been very meaningful for me and the team. What we’re looking to do is to create content that’s actionable and meaningful.”

That’s an ambitious goal, and to tackle it, the ABC stations are leaning hard on their group-wide data unit, some of whose nine members are embedded in the newsrooms themselves. We reported last spring on the unit’s work during the pandemic, which continues today. Every ABC market now has a customized “vaccine tracker” that helps users find where shots are available. Each city gets its own localized data and interactive online tool; the group is testing several formats in the different markets to see which are most effective.


Watch a team from Houston’s KTRK explain how to use the station’s vaccine tracker

The data team is also finishing work on last year’s Google Innovation Challenge project — the ABC station group has won two years in a row — which harvests publicly available municipal data from all over California to create a new resource for journalists, especially in underserved communities.

“The data journalism work over the past year has really just supercharged our newsrooms,” Robertson says. “Each of the news directors is just hungry for more. They want data to be a part of every story. So it’s really a two-way street, where we’re pitching them stories, and then they’re coming to us and saying, ‘We’re covering this issue today. Is there data to support it?’ They’re hungry for it because this is what is differentiating us from our competition and enabling us to serve our communities in really powerful new ways.'”

Example: One of the most distinctive features of the new Hidden Stories project is a database the team is calling an “Equity Report” — a constantly evolving statistical picture of racism in areas like policing, housing, economic opportunity, and access to health care. “We felt that by creating a living breathing ‘Equity Report’ to track progress against these different areas of importance, we could do what we do best and get that information to our reporters to tell stories to hold local officials accountable,” Robertson says.


Watch Carlos Granda’s KABC report on disparate vaccination rates in LA County

While the Equity Report won’t be available until sometime this spring, the underlying work is well underway — and already showing results on the air. In San Francisco, KGO investigative reporter Stephanie Sierra, working with data journalists Lindsey Feingold and Grace Manthey, has done a series of reports on so-called “pharmacy deserts” — neighborhoods with few or no pharmacies to serve them. KABC’s Carlos Granda teamed up with Manthey to expose huge disparities in COVID-19 vaccination rates among different demographic groups in the Los Angeles area. WABC investigative reporter Dan Krauth and data journalist Frank Esposito documented a coming wave of evictions in the very same New York City neighborhoods hit hardest by the pandemic.


Watch Dan Krauth’s data-driven WABC report on eviction disparities in New York

“One of the things that we’re pursuing here is the ability to gather some of that hard data and make that a foundation or a piece of this broader storytelling, so that you can set the agenda in these communities,” says John Kelly, who leads the ABC data squad. “The data journalism gives us an opportunity to change from conversations where people are basing their policy decisions or the things they want to talk about on their perceptions or their opinions or what they’ve heard from somebody else, and instead, move the conversation into something that we think the viewers are hungry for, which is hard, irrefutable data. In an era of an avalanche of misinformation, [these are] numbers that people can get their arms around and understand, which led us to this Equity Report concept in all of our communities.”


Anna Robertson, Jason Potts, and John Kelly

Our America: Hidden Stories comes in the wake of a series of ABC reports and specials called Our America: Living While Black, which we wrote about last fall. “We got a terrific and tremendous response to that, and a hunger for more storytelling about people like that in our communities who hadn’t been profiled by the mainstream media, and who are really interesting and really dynamic and making a huge contribution to our society,” Robertson says.

A collaboration with the North Carolina-based Racial Equity Institute, which provided training to ABC general managers and other executives, also helped inspire and shape the new project. “What they do is combine data and storytelling,” Robertson says. “Data is great, but we have to explain the why behind the data. And if we want to make progress in our communities, we can’t do so without understanding the history that got us to where we are. I think that’s the key piece: bringing the current data together with the stories of our past and the people who are trying to change it, going forward into the future.”

“I would like for this project to change minds. I would like for this project to make a real impact in our communities with regard to the issue of racism,” says Jason Potts. “We think that this has the potential to dramatically change the thoughts and minds of our community members.”

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Recommended Reads for Journalists

NYT Executive Editor Dean Baquet Accepts 2020 Cronkite Award

Dean Baquet, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who is the first Black executive editor to lead both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, emphasized the importance of deep and open-minded reporting as he accepted the 2020 Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism from Arizona State University.

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Is your best idea for newsroom innovation sitting just down the hall?


Can a spider weave a web in zero gravity?

If you know the answer, you’re either an arachnologist, a space buff, or perhaps just a viewer of WBAY’s new 4:30 p.m newscast in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Spiders in space may not sound like typical local news fare, but that’s by no means the only unusual thing about the program, an impressive example of homegrown innovation created with limited resources and some simple but potent ingredients.

When news director Matt Kummer got word that the Gray-owned ABC affiliate would need to add a half-hour newscast to replace Family Feud at 4:30, his first reaction was to round up the usual suspects, including sports director Chris Roth.

“The first word that came to me was Matt pulling me into his office and saying, ‘We’re gonna add another newscast, and we’re probably going to need sports help to fill it,’” Roth says. But Roth had other ideas. “He said, ‘Why don’t you do something a little bit different at 4:30?’” Kummer recalls, “and [he] pitched me on an idea that would essentially use the knowledge of our people — our solid journalists, anchors, reporters — to take a more in-depth look at the day’s news.”

To Kummer’s credit, and with the blessing of GM Steve Lavin, he and Roth came up with a starkly different format: just two stories in the A block, built around a live Q & A with the reporters rather than tape packages; a short headline wrap-up in the B block, using still pictures instead of video; an extended interview with a community newsmaker in the C block; and a new segment called “3 Brilliant Minutes,” with meteorologist Brad Spakowitz going well beyond the weather. “It allows us to expand and give more depth and perspective to stories that we wouldn’t normally have the time to do in a conventional newscast,” Roth says.

What about a main anchor? No surprise: Roth told his boss that “I wouldn’t mind branching out and getting into news myself and anchoring this,” Kummer says. Actually, it wasn’t a tough sell. Roth is a veteran of the station — 22 years next month — who is respected for his broad interests. With COVID cutting down on organized sports, travel, and access to the market’s beloved Packers, he was looking for more to do.

Chris Roth in conversation with reporter Brittany Schmidt

So last September, Action 2 News at 4:30 was born. The team modeled the new half-hour, which is sandwiched between two traditional newscasts at 4 and 5, on Roth’s Sunday night football season sports program, which features expert interviews and a loose, conversational style. “There are times where I have to make sure that I know some of the players involved, because I hadn’t followed it closely until recently,” Roth says. “But the format in which we do this suits me: live, off the cuff, constantly interviewing. That’s what I enjoy doing. And that’s what I’ve been doing with our coverage here for 20 years.”

Producer Morgan Schillinger, whom Kummer moved over from the 6 p.m. newscast, writes about 90% of the program — standard practice in Market #67 — with Roth producing and editing the in-depth C block interview. “I think the biggest challenge was probably changing the way that I write, the language of how I write, and I still struggle with it,” Schillinger says. “You know, sometimes Chris will have to just tell me, ‘Be more conversational.’ Because with your typical newscast, ‘These are the facts. This is what’s going on right now.’ And in this newscast, it’s a little bit more unconventional.” Schillinger had to fill in on the 10 p.m. newscast over the holidays, and “it was like riding a bike. But it was weird.”

Kummer admits that all this tinkering with conventional TV news rules didn’t come easily. “Full disclosure: The concept with weather was probably the hardest one to sell me on,” he says. That concept: Unleash meteorologist Spakowitz, a proud geek, to explore and then explain to Chris Roth a wide range of science stories that spark his interest. “That took me a while to get my head around,” Kummer says. “And I relented on it, saying, ‘Okay, just as long as we get some sort of short forecast element in it.’ But then once I saw it actually happen, I was like, ‘Alright, this is cool.’”

“When it was explained to me, I instantly knew what it needed to be,” Spakowitz says.
“If I did what I do as a package, it would not be nearly as interesting as it is in this venue.” Spakowitz already has a longtime franchise called “Astro Extra” to report on events in the night sky and elsewhere in outer space. He now reads for hours looking for just the right topic for his 4:30 segment — something with what he calls the “wow factor.” “People will say to me, ‘I love the science lesson I’m getting everyday with Brad,’” Kummer says. “A lot of it is driven by his own personality, and you can tell that he loves it. He geeks out on it, and it’s fun, it’s infectious.”

Kummer thinks the new realities of TV news production forced by the pandemic may have helped prepare the audience — and his own colleagues — for something different. “Instead of ‘I have to have X amount of stories in my newscast or my A block,’ maybe it’s not really that way anymore,” he says. “Maybe people are digesting it differently. Maybe we were already in the space to think about reinventing ourselves a little bit, because we just had to do it for almost a year now.”

But another key element in WBAY’s 4:30 experiment is that it features longtime station personalities: familiar faces doing somewhat unfamiliar things. Spakowitz, who carries the wonderful title of “severe weather specialist,” has been at the station even longer than Roth — a total of 28 years, in two different stints. (News director Kummer is in his ninth year — not too shabby for that species.) “We’re all veterans, but that also gives us an innate understanding of our market, and perhaps what our viewers will appreciate,” Roth says. “With Brad being here forever, and me being here forever, we have, hopefully, credibility, but we certainly have longevity, and a track record that people follow and hopefully trust to do something that works.”

Spakowitz and Roth share “Three Brilliant Minutes”

And because Roth comes from the world of sports, he brings an on-air humility to his news interviews that stands in contrast to the myth of the “omniscient anchor” that exacerbates the formulaic feel of so many newscasts. “I learned this at an early age in this business: It’s really important to know what you don’t know. And don’t act like you do,” Roth says. “So I try and make sure that I don’t say things on the air that I have no idea what I’m talking about. And if I don’t know, I ask.”

“You can look at [the new program] as a bit of a laboratory, if you will, to be able to try different ideas,” Kummer says. And he’s seeing the effects in other newscasts as well. “There’s more willingness [on the part of reporters and anchors] to be able to try different things in terms of their presentation. I don’t think they feel that there’s necessarily ‘the way that we have to do it’ anymore.”

Kummer says reaction to the new program from viewers has been “overwhelmingly positive.” Props to owner Gray for giving its station the freedom to try something new without a lot of second-guessing. No corporate suit had to change at O’Hare and fly to Green Bay to greenlight the idea.

Click above to watch Brad Spakowitz’s spider segment

And speaking of flying, that airborne arachnid I mentioned earlier was the star attraction (sorry!) in what Brad Spakowitz calls his favorite segment so far: “the spider that was brought to the International Space Station.” “They wanted to see how the spider behaves in zero gravity,” Spakowitz says. “They found out it could make a web quite well, despite the lack of gravity. The problem the spider had was it couldn’t figure out where the top of the web was. And that’s where spiders live: They live at the top of the web so they can pounce down on their prey. Well, they discovered that if you introduce a light source into the spider’s vicinity, the spider automatically assumes that that’s the top of the web. So even when you move the light, the spider moves his position. The takeaway is: ‘Show me where the sun is,’ said the little spider. ‘I’ll figure out which is up and which is down.’”

It’s not a bad metaphor for innovation in local TV news. Escape the gravitational pull of conventional formulas, build what you do best, and find the light.

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Recommended Reads for Journalists

Build for a crisis: Ideas for the future of local news

“We believe for local news to have a future, it has to be built for people when they truly need information before it is built for people when they are just curious.”

Seeing through a new Prism

Started in June 2019 by a staff composed entirely of women of color, Prism soon found itself covering intersecting crises—a pandemic that all disproportionately devastated communities of color.

A group of climate journalists are launching The Uproot Project to support environmental journalists of color

The Uproot Project, a collective network of and for environmental journalists of color that’s launching this month.

AAJA Encourages Newsrooms to Empower AAPI Journalists and Their Expertise

On behalf of our broadcast members nationwide, the Broadcast Advisory Council of the AAJA urges newsrooms to empower their Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) journalists by recognizing both the unique value they bring to the coverage of the Atlanta shootings and the invisible labor they regularly take on, especially in newsrooms where they are severely underrepresented.

The meaning of Amanda Gorman

When journalists regularly acknowledge Black women and their strides in every sector, the reporting helps to dismantle white supremacy and patriarchy in one fell swoop.

Thinking beyond the buzzword


Working in local news, it’s a word you probably hear a lot: Engagement.

“It’s the buzzword,” says Sue Robinson, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s been around for a few years now at this point, and it’s really kind of taken hold and developed into its own kind of ecosystem.”

Swirling within that ecosystem are a whole host of engagement tools, engagement metrics, and engagement initiatives. But to move beyond the buzzword, Robinson helped organize a recent symposium on the subject, inviting two journalists-turned-academics to share from their new books on engagement — and discuss what it can actually do for a newsroom’s relationship with its audience, according to their research.

“Both have been really helpful to me in trying to understand the ‘shiny’ of engagement strategies as a way to build trust,” said Robinson at the virtual talk, which was co-organized by Valérie Bélair-Gagnon, a professor at the University of Minnesota. “But also the problematic realities that accompany any new technique — the newsroom constraints, fickle and stubbornly polarized audiences, and also global conditions around media systems.”

Andrea Wenzel’s Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust was released over the summer. And due out this month is Imagined Audiences: How Journalists Perceive and Pursue the Public by Jacob Nelson, an assistant professor here at our own Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU. (Wenzel and Nelson are also Knight Innovation Fellows with Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and the Knight Foundation underwrites our work as well.)

Sue Robinson, Andrea Wenzel and Jacob Nelson

Successful engagement requires newsrooms to build new, non-traditional skills

Even among those who study it, engaged journalism “can mean very many different things,” said Wenzel, an assistant professor at Temple University. “It could be transactional thinking, just audience ‘likes’ and clicks, or it can be more relational and focused on civic engagement. In my work, I generally focus more on the relational aspects […] And I argue that solutions journalism and engaged journalism are the peanut-butter-and-jelly of journalism: They’re each potentially delicious on their own, but could they not be so much stronger together?”

Local TV newsrooms all over the country have been serving up engagement experiments as journalism becomes more audience-focused. Among the many examples we’ve covered: solutions journalism projects at Nexstar; post-pandemic rebuilding projects like Scripps’s The Rebound; WSOC’s affordable housing series in Charlotte, North Carolina; the ABC Owned Stations’ community journalism program; and Gray’s massive new collaboration to improve public health in Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta.

Wenzel has led and studied a variety of local reporting projects in Los Angeles, Kentucky, Philadelphia, and beyond. She found that when newsrooms experimented with ways to forge deeper connections — by taking a “solutions” approach that covers community responses rather than just problems, and by taking an “engaged” approach that brings residents into the reporting process itself — they had better outcomes than when they just paid for targeted ad campaigns on Facebook, even ones that reached hundreds of thousand people.

While the measurements for success differed according to the different projects and places, Wenzel said the most effective efforts improved “communication health” between newsrooms and community members, whether it was by partnering with a local library to seek out their story feedback or inviting them to pick the topics for monthly community discussions.

The Germantown Info Hub, a community journalism project co-founded by Andrea Wenzel, hosts feedback workshops and community discussions with residents of the Germantown neighborhood in Philadelphia. During the pandemic, in-person engagement events have shifted to online discussions and radio shows. (Courtesy of Germantown Info Hub)

“There are different actors who are involved in telling the community’s stories,” she said. “You have your local media, but then you also have community groups and residents. And when the relationships between these actors are strong, people tend to have a shared understanding of what issues their community has, and what they might be able to do about them. But when links between these actors are weakened — say, the community’s divided along lines of ethnicity or language, or if the stories circulating in the network are exclusively negative — then the network is weakened.”

In that way, Wenzel said engaged journalism offers newsrooms new opportunities to strengthen ties — if they’re willing to embrace some new roles and skills: “Most of these projects challenged traditional journalism norms and assumptions in some way. They used skills like facilitation or information-needs assessment or community organizing practices. And these practices offer value because each, in some way, is premised on sharing power […] They saw themselves as trying to help solve community problems if they could. They saw themselves as trying to be advocates for the community.”

In other words, she said successful engagement often uses “a different set of values than that traditional arm’s-length, objectivity-orientation to a community,” and it can mean “letting go of expectations that interactions always have to happen on the newsroom’s terms.”

(Courtesy of Andrea Wenzel and Jacob Nelson)

But does stronger engagement necessarily lead to greater sustainability?

It seems natural to assume that making stronger community connections will help boost a newsroom’s revenue. But Jacob Nelson’s research challenges that tempting notion — and has implications for the relatively healthier business models of local TV stations, not just their beleaguered print and digital counterparts.

“As the news industry continues to struggle,” he said, “in terms of its trust problem among the public, and also in terms of its difficulty finding any sort of financial stability or a business model that will actually work, people look to this idea of audience engagement as the solution to those problems.” But he wondered: Can engaged journalism really do all that?

So Nelson set out to analyze how journalists perceive their relationship with the public — and how much power they actually have to change that relationship through engagement strategies. He collected data at two Chicago organizations where engaged journalism is central to the mission — Hearken, a company that provides engagement tools for newsrooms, and City Bureau, a local news nonprofit that covers and collaborates with communities on the city’s often-overlooked South and West Sides — as well as the more traditional Chicago Tribune.

“All of these conversations at City Bureau, at Hearken, at the Tribune constantly came back to: What can journalists do to fix journalism? Implicit in that was this idea that journalists had a great deal of power and agency when it came to improving their relationship with the public,” said Nelson. “And that raised a really important question for me, which was: How accurate is that framing? How much agency do journalists really have when it comes to influencing the way that audiences interact with the news?”

The surprising, unsettling answer? Not as much as newsrooms would like to think. Nelson’s study of audience behavior saw that it’s influenced by a lot of powerful “structures” outside of journalists’ control — like Facebook’s algorithm, which can change and show people fewer local stories, and the saturated news ecosystem, which has helped larger, prominent brands like CNN and the New York Times to grow while small outlets struggle.

“In light of the structures and the influence they hold over how audiences actually interact with the news they consume, it’s worth considering that journalists actually have less power over that relationship than they might care to believe,” said Nelson. “I argue for what I call ‘journalistic humility,’ which is basically encouraging journalists to accept that limitation.” As he writes in a related essay for the Columbia Journalism Review, “Even if journalists make the exact news that their audiences want, how those audiences react remains outside of journalists’ control, which means that journalism’s reception will always be at least somewhat unpredictable.”

Nelson said that may sound like “kind of a downer” — but it doesn’t have to be. “Really, what I’m trying to do is just make the conversation a little bit more realistic,” he said. “What I suggest is that we split this conversation about solving journalism’s sustainability problem and its quality problem into two. Not only because I think that’s a fairer way to understand the circumstances and a more accurate way of understanding the power that journalists have — I also think it sets up engaged journalism for success more than it does for failure.”

Nelson’s advice to newsroom leaders in a follow-up interview with us: Evaluate how much your engagement project helps your particular audience, but don’t expect it to solve all that’s ailing journalism — including financial pressures. Rather than putting unrealistic expectations on engaged journalism, the answer is for more news organizations to start addressing the larger structural problems in the industry.

“That’s where I see the optimism,” he said. “Once journalists give up on this idea that, ‘We will implement the thing that will work for us, and then it can be replicated at other news organizations,” and instead say, ‘The things that need to change are bigger than any one news organization,’ we can maybe mobilize and push for changes to take place. We can actually create a news media environment that can support the valuable local news that we want to be making.”

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Recommended Reads for Journalists

What would you do if a suspected hostage taker called your newsroom?

On March 8, 2021, a man took four people hostage inside a home in Livermore Falls, ME, about 60 miles outside of Portland. Sinclair-owned WGME-TV, a CBS affiliate, sent reporter Taylor Cairns and a crew to report the story.

How well does the media cover the climate movement?

For some journalists, covering activism presents an uncomfortable dilemma. Too much coverage might come across as cheerleading or make journalists look like they are activists themselves, contradicting institutional notions of neutrality.

Journalists: You can earn your community’s trust, and this course can help you do it

You are indeed part of “the media,” but you can and should differentiate yourself from that by telling the story of your work.

Local News Philanthropy: Strong Signs of Positive Movement

Local philanthropy in support of community journalism appears to be growing significantly.

Better Journalism: A Roadmap for Engaged Democracy

Hearken invites you to join the Election SOS summit on lessons learned from the 2020 elections and build a roadmap for engaged democracy.

Seizing the opportunity to collaborate on climate coverage


Editor’s Note: Before joining the Local Media Association last fall, Frank Mungeam was part of our team as Knight Professor of Practice in TV News Innovation here at the Cronkite School. With this post, we welcome Frank back as a Guest Contributor.

The U.S. rejoined the Paris Climate Accord on the first day of the new Biden administration. There’s now a cabinet-level position focused on climate change. A week later, General Motors stunned the auto industry by announcing its goal to sell only zero-emission cars and trucks within 15 years. The problem of global warming is ‘cool’ again.

It’s why Local Media Association this month launched a nationwide Covering Climate Collaborative and is inviting local newsrooms to join. The time for journalists to focus on climate change at the local level is now; and collaboration is the best way to do it. Here are three reasons why.

Your Audience Wants Climate Reporting

Public attitudes on climate change have shifted dramatically in just the past five years. Don’t let that predictable “Fake News!” comment on your news station’s Facebook page mislead you or deter coverage. Nearly two-thirds of Americans now report being concerned (28%) or outright alarmed (31%) about climate change; while the minority of doubters (10%) and outright deniers (10%) continues to shrink.

Data from the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University

As I’ve noted previously for the Knight Cronkite News Lab, news reporting on climate change has indeed been increasing in recent years; but consumption of climate news has gone up even more, according to Chartbeat data. Even during the peak of pandemic coverage, when climate reporting ebbed, interest remained. Meanwhile, news consumers report not seeing much climate coverage. In the latest Yale Climate Opinion Map, only one in four respondents said they saw climate covered in the media in the past week. The bottom line: The audience interest in climate reporting exceeds the current level of coverage.

News consumers also want more than just ‘problem reporting.’ Increasingly, audiences are seeking reporting that empowers them to take meaningful action. They want to know what they can DO. A 2020 Google study found this was especially true of Gen Z. These young news consumers said they wanted “more information about how to get involved and take action” on issues reported in the news. It’s why the Solutions Journalism Network is one of the partners in LMA’s Covering Climate Collaborative. The message from our audience is clear: report on what’s working and ways to get involved.

Better Together: A Story Bigger Than Any of Us

When it comes to this planet-sized story, there’s strength in numbers. No single newsroom is likely able to go it alone. Most journalists are not scientists and either hate — or convincingly pretend to hate — math. That’s why newsrooms need partners who are experts in science and the specific skills of climate journalism. LMA is partnering in its climate collaborative with a range of experts in the Climate Matters in the Newsroom coalition: the team at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication brings crucial research and opinion data; Climate Matters supplies newsrooms with free localizable data visualizations, regionally relevant story leads, and a remarkable archive of the best in local climate reporting; and members of the Society of Environmental Journalists are the specialists in the field. Among the other contributors are NASA and NOAA.

There’s another way in which newsrooms can be better, together, in covering climate. In this digitally disrupted news environment, our audiences are now spread across many platforms and media preferences. For Gen Z, that’s even more pronounced, where research shows social media is their leading pathway to news. Local newsrooms that care about reaching audiences where they are — and achieving impact with their reporting — will accomplish more by joining forces with complimentary news organizations to bridge platform and audience gaps. Our LMA collaborative will seek a mix of platform partners in each region to combine the best of print, digital, broadcast, social and audio storytelling.

LMA is also working with technology companies on tools we can share with participating local newsrooms that will empower their local audiences to take meaningful action. Product innovation isn’t a strong suit for many media companies. With the collaboration of technology partners, we intend to build and test engagement tools that will connect local audiences with meaningful and measurable actions people can take.

Think Globally. Report Locally

Climate change as a subject is too big and too complex for any one local news outlet. And yet, we each experience its effects — and can take personal, meaningful action — at the local level, in our own communities.

Two years ago, I wrote a prediction for the ‘future of news’ published by the Nieman Lab on why local TV was unusually well-positioned to lead on local climate reporting. Those arguments are even more true today. Think about the assets a local broadcaster already has:

  • A ‘chief science officer’ in the form of the station meteorologist, someone truly trained in and knowledgeable about the science
  • Trust and recognition: the TV meteorologist is often one of the most recognized and most trusted local news personalities
  • The tools and technology to visualize complex climate stories: the weather center is, in most newsrooms, a best-in-class graphics system. This is a huge ‘running start’ for newsrooms looking to visualize complex climate stories
  • Local audience reach: despite all the challenges facing the news business, local broadcasters still have strong and loyal audiences, and this reach enables impact

If any broadcaster needs further motivation to leverage its weather expertise for climate coverage, consider this. Other than extreme weather events, most of the traditional core of the daily weather forecast — from highs and lows to bus-stop forecasts to the weekend or seven-day outlook — are now more easily available on demand on a smartphone, with the added bonus of being location-specific. Climate reporting is a way for newsrooms to leverage their existing weather brand while future-proofing against competition from apps.

Oh, and one more thing: Going green in coverage could also mean more green for the broadcast business. The Knight-Cronkite News Lab previously covered how WRC-TV gained sponsorship for its climate campaign; and other newsrooms have begun selling sponsored solar forecasts. Recent shifts in U.S. national policy and announcements like General Motors’ zero-emissions goal are signals that there’s an opportunity to build new revenue streams around climate coverage.

A bright future for ‘green’ reporting: KSEE in Fresno, CA broadcasts a daily Solar Forecast.

In my two years working on TV news innovation at the Knight-Cronkite News Lab at ASU, I had the opportunity to meet and get to know many of the smart, innovative, dedicated folks working on climate coverage. In my new role as Chief Innovation Officer at Local Media Association, I’m delighted that many of these same thought leaders have committed to work together and help each other as partners in the Covering Climate Collaborative. We’re looking for 25 newsrooms committed to this kind of coverage, and to the ‘better together’ spirit of collaboration. It’s the only planet we have.

You can read more here about the LMA Covering Climate Collaborative. Local newsrooms interested in joining can apply here. Deadline is February 28.

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How Yahoo News reached 1 million followers on TikTok in 1 year

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Nearly Half of Digital Subscribers Are ‘Zombies,’ Medill Analysis Finds

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Is Substack the panacea local news is looking for?

The news business — and local news, in particular — is an industry practically begging to be disrupted. While national news outlets have largely found a new model that works, many local newspapers are trying everything to find something that might change their fates.

Scripps commits airtime in all 41 markets to advance national conversation on implicit bias

As part of its commitment to creating a better-informed world, The E.W. Scripps Company will run a commercial interruption-free special on its local television stations to spark a national dialogue around implicit bias.

The story behind The Story: one year later

“I’m surprised it’s gone as well as it has,” says KGW anchor Dan Haggerty.

One year ago this week, Haggerty was part of a small team that took a big risk. Tegna’s Portland, Oregon station transformed its legacy 6 p.m. newscast into a daring experiment called The Story With Dan Haggerty. The broadcast is a unique mix of in-depth reporting, investigations, interviews, audience feedback, humor, and opinion — all delivered in Haggerty’s signature style.

If covering the extraordinary events of 2020 was a challenge for every local newsroom in America, it was a baptism of fire for this innovative program that set out to break the rules of TV news and quickly had to make up some new ones of its own. “This show could not have come at a better time for the year that Portland had,” says producer Brian Kosciesza. “That was something we would try to do every day: ‘How can we meet the moment today?’”

And Portland had “moments” in abundance: the coronavirus pandemic, raging wildfires that attacked the city itself last summer, and protests and riots following the killing of George Floyd that continue several nights a week in the city even now. “That was the point of the show all along, that deeper discussion of issues,” says KGW news director Greg Retsinas. “We thought the issues would be the environment, homelessness, economics, affordability, housing, politics, the full gamut of issues that we have on our roster. And all that got scrapped by events in the world.”

“I thought that we did a good job of building context around extremely delicate and complex conversations and issues that the country was having,” Haggerty says. “And I think that our show came around at the right time, because I know from the people who emailed every single night that they found value in it that they weren’t finding other places.”

I reached out to the KGW team to share lessons learned in the year since we first reported on the show — and to see what aspects of The Story’s story might be relevant to other newsrooms seeking to break the mold.

The Story relies heavily on audience input, harvested from social media, for story ideas and feedback. And the program itself is infused with the viewers’ comments and questions, giving them a real voice in each night’s episode. “The viewers are part of the content and part of the journey, and they’re part of the makeup of the show,” Retsinas says. “We wouldn’t do the show without them. And we couldn’t do the show without them.”

“I remember having a lot of anxiety about having a social element be such a major part of the show, because there’s always that fear that people aren’t going to respond and that you’re going to be opening emails to the noises of crickets every night,” Haggerty says. “And that has not been the case. And it wasn’t the case, starting the first week of the show.”

Haggerty, who might spend five minutes on air answering a viewer’s question, gives the audience credit for many of the team’s day-to-day decisions. “It helped us steer the ship,” he says. “We very rarely went into a day thinking, ‘Where do we go with this today?’ Because we just listened to our audience and to our own judgment on things, and it’s kept us on course.”

Mila Mimica became The Story’s executive producer in August, drawn in part by the viewers’ role in shaping the content. “For me, it was a really good opportunity, as somebody who was starting to get slightly jaded by the daily kind of regular newscasts, to jump in and see what it is that people actually want to watch, what they want to talk about, what resonates in our community,” Mimica says.

Unlike conventional TV news anchors, The Story doesn’t shy away from stating a position on issues — wearing a mask to protect against the coronavirus, say. “Some people may decide this is not the show for them, because we’re not going to be, ‘On the one hand, on the other hand,’” Retsinas says. “We’re going to have a point. And our point was measures like that work. We’re not going to be the solution to divisions in America. But hopefully we can be part of the conversation about solving it. We can better amplify and highlight facts and truth and fight the disinformation, misinformation that seems to cause a lot of the divisions.”


WATCH an episode of The Story on misinformation and disinformation

Haggerty’s on-air opinions come with another caveat: not just a foundation in facts, but a respect for the audience. “We discovered that we could have an opinion without telling people that they had to have that same opinion,” Kosciesza says. “I think it gives [the viewers] comfort that even if they don’t agree with something, or the way that we do something, they can verbalize that to us, and we’ll listen,” Haggerty says. “And I think people do want to be heard, they want to have that respect given to their opinions. And we give that.”

Again, the goal is to spark an ongoing dialogue with the viewers: in Retsinas’s words, “not in a sound bite way, not in a blame way, not in a ‘I’m smart, you’re dumb’ kind of way. Let’s have a discussion about it. And let’s lean on facts to help inform a better conversation.”

Humor and irreverence are a key ingredient. “No matter what, we tell the facts, we’re ‘big J’ journalism,’” Mimica says. “We fact check, we do everything right. And then on top of that, you get another layer where you have a little bit of fun, you loosen up a little bit.”

Example: In November, viewers clamored for The Story to mark the 50th anniversary of a famous local incident in which state engineers used dynamite to blow up the carcass of a 45-foot sperm whale that had washed ashore in Florence, Oregon. Trouble is, unlike a crosstown competitor, KGW didn’t have video of the 1970 incident, so the team came up with a new segment called “No Video, No Problem.” Haggerty retold the story by drawing on an erasable white board.


WATCH The Story’s “No Video, No Problem” segment on the exploding sperm whale

“We try to have one moment in our show where we get a little offbeat, because we found that those irreverent, offbeat moments were the ones that people remember,” Kosciesza says. “The ones they kept emailing about and kept saying, ‘Oh, my God, I love when you did that.’ Nobody writes about city hall meetings.”

But like his opinions, Haggerty’s irreverence only works in the context of solid journalism. “When you are being funny, or if you’re trying to do something sarcastic or weird, if you don’t have the fundamentals, then it’s only going to be those things,” he says. “It’s not going to be smart, it’s not going to have a point.”

Producing The Story is a balancing act: on the one hand, no formulas. On the other, strict adherence to the program’s vision and personality. “One of the missions of The Story is that this is our own newscast in our own way,” Retsinas says. “There are no must-cover, must-carry, must-watch, must-do rules: The word ‘must’ is not part of The Story’s mission. Be a different kind of show.”

Mimica, Haggerty, and the three-person producing team keep a close eye on what the rest of the newsroom is doing, looking for opportunities to build on existing coverage and tap into individual reporters’ expertise, but in the program’s unique way. “We developed as a team the ability to spot Story stories,” Kosciesza says. “Is this a Story story? Or is this not? We know what we don’t want to cover. And now we have to decide what we do want to cover.”

The Story may look spontaneous and free-wheeling, but it’s also just the opposite. “Dan needed to be freed from the shackles of the traditional newscast to do it in this modern way that The Story tried to,” Kosciesza says. “So we just kind of let Dan be Dan.” But Haggerty is quick to point out, with admirable candor, that he and the producers carefully map out pretty much everything he says. “I have a huge amount of trust in the team that I work with. And I don’t ever just go on TV and do my own thing. We discuss everything. Sometimes I want people to see the prompter when it seems as though I’m going off the cuff. This is something we have planned. We are very intentional on the show, even in our attempts to try to look like we’re not.”

Brian Kosciesza and Dan Haggerty in the KGW newsroom

What would it take for other stations to emulate The Story — assuming any of them wants to take the risk? For starters: supportive leadership, a strong vision, talented producers and editors, and a versatile anchor like Dan Haggerty. “The stars [have to] align to create this, but it’s really, really hard,” says Kosciesza. “It’s the hardest show I’ve ever had to produce just in terms of creativity.” “It’s really hard,” agrees Haggerty, “because there is a formula to television news, and there is a certain comfort in that formula. And we’ve tried to throw all of that out the window and just start from scratch. And while that in itself is very difficult, it’s also terrifying.”

Brian Kosciesza just left KGW for a segment producer job at MSNBC. His colleague Stephanie Villiers is holding the fort, along with the original team’s digital maven Christina Kempster, but Mimica is looking for a new lead producer. If you think you’re the right person for the job, you can email her at mmimica@kgw.com. (You’re welcome.)

KGW still posts the complete shows on YouTube every night. “Many people might engage with us socially and never watch the show. That’s totally okay,” Retsinas says. “We’re not trying to drive everyone to stop their world at 6 p.m. and sit down. Enough will.”

To that point, Retsinas says The Story is “definitely a success.” Without agreeing to get specific about the numbers, Retsinas says, “We’re very pleased with the growth of this show and the strength and the quality of our audience across all platforms. Very pleased.”

Retsinas says he doesn’t hear as much these days from critics of the show, probably because some of them have given up and moved on. “Now the feedback we get from people is largely ‘Thanks for having a show like this on local news. Thanks for having this kind of show.’ No doubt about it.”

I asked Dan Haggerty to complete the following sentence: “The Story will have succeeded if we …”

Haggerty: “… get people to care about the local news as much as they should.”

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Recommended Reads for Journalists

News organizations that want journalists to engage with their audience may be setting them up for abuse

Here’s an essay for NiemanLab on “audience engagement” by our colleague Jacob Nelson of the Cronkite School. And here’s our own recent report on Nelson’s research.

A New Tool to Measure the Health of Local News Ecosystems

As local news outlets face business challenges, philanthropy is helping fill gaps by supporting organizations who provide vital local information.

Journalists don’t always cover anti-racism protests as fairly as they think they do

“As the journalism industry commits to doing better, though, we have to question what “better” actually looks like.”

Let’s find out what conservatives really think about local news (not “the media”)

Trusting News is inviting journalists from local newsrooms to interview right-leaning individuals in their own communities about their perceptions of journalism.

Five big findings from the Journalism Crisis Project

The tracker’s map tells part of the story of journalism’s ongoing crisis: an upheaval that hurt newsrooms, journalists, and—by straining journalism’s margins—the communities that those newsrooms and journalists are charged to serve.

From the front door to the front office

Photo courtesy of Emma Bowen Foundation

As I write this, Kamala Harris has just been inaugurated as the first woman and first person of color to serve as vice president. That is an inspiring sign of progress — but it’s also a reminder of how challenging it is to increase racial diversity in the highest ranks of leadership.

Sadly, the television station business stands as a sobering example. “The best candidates of color certainly want a great place to work and where the journalism is great,” says Jordan Wertlieb, president of Hearst Television. “But they also want to see a management team that reflects them. And I’ve said this publicly: Shame on the broadcast industry.”

According to RTDNA research released last fall, “general managers are less racially and ethnically diverse than last year [2019]. Just 7.1% of general managers are people of color, down from 10.3% last year.” Wertlieb estimates fewer than 20 stations have Black general managers. “And that’s a staggering number, if you think about it, with all the broadcast television stations that are in the country.”

Table from the RTDNA’s 2020 Report on Newsroom Diversity

“When I go back to Emma’s purpose, it wasn’t just about having talent in front of the camera. But it was also ensuring that we were in decision-making roles behind the camera,” says Nikki Bethel, president and CEO of the Emma Bowen Foundation, which has been placing talented students of color in multi-year paid internships in media and tech companies for more than three decades. “If you have no senior leaders of color in the newsroom, on the ground, out in the field, then are you really serious about what you say you’re talking about? Show that you believe it by putting your money where your mouth is and hiring people who look like me in positions of authority, and then allow me to sit next to them. No matter how young I might be, no matter how inexperienced I might be, it has to start somewhere.”

The foundation has placed more than 1,400 interns over the years — alums who form a growing network that’s a potential resource for the next generation of newcomers, for companies eager to draw on it, and for the foundation itself. “As the network grows, we keep our ear to the ground around what is the culture and the climate like,” Bethel says. “And culture and climate, though they are complementary, are two different things: Culture is set by the C-suite, climate is how you feel on the ground.”

Jordan Wertlieb and his team in the “C-suite” at Hearst Television are longtime Emma Bowen partners. Nine Bowen alums are working at Hearst stations now. The executives agreed to talk with me about what it takes to change both culture and climate: to move more diverse candidates not just through the door but up the ladder. “Let’s be clear and be careful. There aren’t quotas,” Wertlieb says. “But it’s a numbers game. So if you fill up more of the producer ranks and more of the sales ranks with diversity, if we’re pushing them towards more training and more mentorship and more exposure, then they naturally progress into department head level. And then they naturally progress into a general manager.”


Watch a Hearst video celebrating its Emma Bowen alums.

Hearst has multiple initiatives to help address this goal, all of which were underway before last year’s nationwide reckoning on racial inequity. In May of 2018, Human Resources SVP Katherine Barnett presented every GM in the group with statistics comparing diversity at their stations with the populations they serve in their markets. “The GMs were already focused on it,” Barnett says, “but this really punctuated it for them when we held the mirror up in front of them. It was just further fuel in their tank to continue to move the needle.”

Jordan Wertlieb and Katherine Barnett

The company has a program to recruit military veterans, a naturally diverse pool from which to draw. There have been 51 hires in five years. In addition, since 2014, the Fred Young Television Producing Fellowship has been plucking promising producer candidates right from college for 10 weeks of training and then putting them to work at Hearst stations. “While it is not defined as a minority fellowship, it has evolved [so that] about 50% of our fellows have been people of color,” says News SVP Barb Maushard. “And the majority of those fellows are still moving through the company.”

A year ago, Hearst appointed its first director of talent recruitment, Sinan Sadar, a former news director and veteran of three Hearst stations whose brief includes increasing diversity across the company’s 26 news markets. Even before taking on his new job, the gregarious Sadar had a reputation for connecting people with the right station in the company: Wertlieb calls him “the Swiss Army Knife” of mentorship. “I think it’s just trying to broaden our pipeline and our funnels at the entry-level stage and at the mid-level stage — bringing in the people that will eventually move to department head and more senior positions,” Sadar says. “We think this is the time that, especially in my role, you can help amplify that and increase the aggression. Because there’s a way to go.”

Barb Maushard and Sinan Sadar

“We have allowed [mentorship] to just be organic and natural up until now,” Katherine Barnett says, “but now we’re ready to put some more formality and structure to it. And we have solicited all of our general managers initially to suggest to us individuals who could be mentors and individuals who would like to be a mentee — and at all levels, not just entry level.”

The executives say that an ironic outcome of the pandemic is more face-to-face contact with and among employees, albeit virtually, and the ability to match people by shared experience rather than by proximity. “It’s giving us a plethora of combinations that we never had before,” Wertlieb says. “There’s not a criterion other than saying, ‘You know what? That person, that department head has had a pretty similar path as what we’re trying to do here with this person. Why don’t we connect them?’” Just one example: Anel Disla, who helps run creative services at WPBF-TV in West Palm Beach, is now mentoring Michée Mande, a newly minted promotion producer at Sacramento’s KCRA-TV. (Both are Emma Bowen alums.)

Barb Maushard also hopes to expose mentees to a more diverse array of talents within the company — and perhaps reap some unexpected rewards, “With some of these more formalized mentorship programs that we’re working on, I think we’re going to find different people from very different disciplines getting mixed together and figuring out what some of the skill sets are that we might not have otherwise known about,” Maushard says.

Nikki Bethel of the Emma Bowen Foundation agrees that a formal mentorship program is essential to generate more newsroom and station leaders of color, and she hopes that her growing network of alums can help.”It’s one thing to hire, it’s another to retain,” Bethel says. “You retain folks that are a part of this community by aligning them with other individuals who’ve walked the path they think they want to walk. You put them in touch with people who can say, ‘Been there, done that. This was my walk. Here are my wins, here are some failures.’ All things and roads lead back to mentorship.”

Jordan Wertlieb says the road to a general manager’s office at Hearst is a “10-year journey.” He’s proud to have the three Black GMs on his team — WDSU’s Joel Vilmenay in New Orleans, KOAT’s Lori Waldon in Albuquerque, and WJCL’s Ben Hart in Savannah — but rather than try to speed that process up (and set people up to fail), Wertlieb and his team are moving aggressively to bring in more people of color and support them through the ranks.

It’s not just up-and-coming employees who are on a “journey” either — the management team must be as well. And the first step is to recognize that waiting for change to happen on its own won’t work. “You’ve got to walk the walk,” Wertlieb says. “You’ve got to point out to these candidates, ‘There’s no ceiling: You can run a television station, you can go to the corporate level.’ So what the industry has to do is start demonstrating more successes in the levels you’re talking about. And then your pipeline will get better.”

Editor’s Note: Every station group is trying to meet the challenges of diversity, equity and inclusion in its own way, and we’re interested in what your company is doing to change the equation. Please share your story with us at cronkitenewslab@asu.edu.

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In 1964, president Lyndon B. Johnson launched the nationwide “War on Poverty” from the small coal mining community of Inez, Kentucky. Its legislative initiatives created Medicare, Medicaid, and dozens of other programs. But almost 60 years later, Inez native Glen Hale says his hometown is still struggling with many of the same challenges that LBJ had hoped to solve.

“You’re dealing with locations that have inadequate infrastructure. And income-wise, there are just a lot of barriers that a lot of other places in our country don’t face to the same degree,” says Hale, VP of digital content and audience development for Gray Television. “I have connections in those areas. I have family in those areas. You always want to get into a position where you can give back to people who gave to you — and to me, this is a way to do that.”

“This” is Bridging the Great Health Divide, an ambitious new experiment in collaborative journalism that Gray plans to start rolling out in March. Supported by $200,000 from the Google News Initiative (GNI), its multiplatform coverage will take a fresh look at the longtime health disparities in both Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, two sprawling regions where health indicators and outcomes are far worse than the national average — and where the group has more than 25 local TV stations serving affected communities.

“While the geography is diverse, the concerns are similar,” says Hale. “In looking at some of the data, we just thought, ‘Our footprint matches.’ We knew it was something we could make a difference in. And it just so happened that Google had opened up this round of funding. So we thought, ‘You know what? This just makes sense. Let’s put in a pitch and see where it goes.’”

Glen Hale and Sandy Breland

Gray’s pitch was one of 30 selected in the U.S. as part of the 2020 GNI Innovation Challenge program, which funds projects that “inject new ideas into the news industry.” Sandy Breland, SVP of local media, says the group is using its win to experiment in a number of ways, all with the goal of effecting positive change for residents of Appalachia and the Delta.

“The problems are not new, but we want to try a new approach in covering them,” says Breland. “We thought that by combining the strengths of our local stations with our national investigative unit and our D.C. bureau, we could cover this in an extensive way — where we raise awareness about why these disparities exist, explore some possible solutions, and create resources for people to make better-informed decisions about health-related issues.”

Bridging the Great Health Divide is a bigger collaboration than Gray has ever done, with more than 100 reporters, producers, news directors, and managers expected to work on its wide-ranging mission over the next year. Among those taking the lead is Lee Zurik, Gray’s New Orleans-based director of investigations, who says the broadcast, digital, and mobile stories will explore different angles every month, like the regions’ unreliable access to clean water or their shortage of health care providers.

WVUE’s Sabrina Wilson reports on virus awareness efforts in New Orleans during the COVID-19 pandemic. With its new project, Gray Television aims to expand health coverage by local stations, as well as tap its national investigative unit and Washington, D.C. bureau. (Courtesy of WVUE)

Zurik’s national team, which also runs Gray’s “InvestigateTV” OTT channel, will help stations ramp up their existing health reporting, partner with Kaiser Health News on a number of deep data stories, and collaborate with Greta Van Susteren’s Sunday public-affairs show to connect with decision-makers in Washington, D.C. But perhaps most importantly, Zurik says, the project will shine light on the organizations making progress on health issues, as well as create hyperlocal resources for residents. That includes interactive digital maps with health information specific to their areas and specially designed for access where broadband connectivity is poor.

“Quite frankly, if we did a series of stories and it was all just negative —‘you don’t have access to health care’ — I don’t know how much that would resonate with the people who need it,” says Zurik. “We also need to humanize it and show that there are some success stories out there and that those can be replicated elsewhere. That’s an important part of what I hope we bring — and what I expect us to bring — to the table.”

Lee Zurik and James Finch

Extending the solutions focus even further, Gray’s director of news services, James Finch, says the project will work with regional universities to make some of the stories and resource materials available as educational curriculum. Gray will also organize a campaign to raise awareness about health disparities through public service messages.

“We’re going to enlist the help of other influencers, outside of our news folks, to speak from an advocacy standpoint to some of the issues — to try to change minds about things like smoking and other things that lead to negative health outcomes,” says Finch. “That would include non-controversial political people, celebrities, athletes, actors — you name it.”

As for the business side of things, Sandy Breland says the goal is financial sustainability. The GNI program asks winners to experiment with innovative business models that support their projects beyond the initial funding — and she says Gray is taking up that challenge, even though it’s not ready to share details yet.

“This kind of journalism takes time,” says Breland. “It takes commitment. It takes resources. It’s expensive, right? But it’s the kind of thing that we should be doing. So we’re looking at: Can this type of quality journalism be supported? And we think it can be. We have a group of marketing directors working from that standpoint: How do we get the word out? What are the best ways to do that? How do we brand this? So it’s journalism, it’s marketing, it’s sales … it’s a significant effort.”

It’s a “significant effort” that could chart a new path for station groups eager to serve their communities in new and more direct ways. And as the project unfolds, Glen Hale will be ready to track the impact on his Kentucky hometown — and the hundreds of other communities like it.

A New Orleans pharmacist told WVUE reporters the community should expand its COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Gray Television stations are planning to cover regional health disparities as part of Bridging the Great Health Divide. (Courtesy of WVUE)

“What you’re really hoping for is that both in the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia, [when] you look at the same regions five years from now, the health outcomes have improved,” says Hale. “Do I have any misperception that we’re going to be the direct causation? No, but I think that we can be part of a solution — part of a groundswell and maybe changing the ways that some of these things are approached in these regions. To me, this is one of the reasons why you get into journalism. You’re trying to effect positive change in the communities you serve. We want to live in places that are better today than they were yesterday — and better tomorrow than they are today.”

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How experiments with streaming put viewers first

Is on-demand streaming the future of local TV news?

At KGUN-TV, Scripps’s Tucson station, you might certainly think so. Digital director Laura Kittell has even tinkered with the station’s familiar tagline: “We’re ‘KGUN 9 On Your Side,’” she says. “We’re using a new twist on that, which is ‘KGUN 9 On Your Time.’”

But for Kittell and news director Leeza Starks, OTT is not just a convenience for viewers. It’s an opportunity to experiment aggressively with new programming driven by new technology — and a way to deepen ties with the community. And all in market #65, not Phoenix or San Diego. “While it’s beautiful, what those large markets are doing, we know we can’t do that,” Starks says. “But we want to use the tools. So how can we still have something of value and meaning without disrupting our current workflow at our current staffing levels? Because it’s already pretty tight.”

So for example, every Wednesday, the station produces a new 30-minute show strictly for streaming called The Rebound Arizona. And when I say “the station,” I really mean digital EP Sam Radwany, who knocks out the program by himself in about three hours, using technology from Softron that the newsroom acquired just six months ago. Radwany simply “drags and drops” story files to string together KGUN’s most popular reports — as measured by digital metrics across platforms — about people and businesses coping with the pandemic. (The Rebound is a company-wide initiative that each Scripps station can tailor to its own needs; our report on it was one of our most widely read stories last year.)

“We wanted to really expand our OTT unique content and offerings,” Starks says. “It just made logical sense for us to say, ‘Well, we’re doing this great enterprise work. Let’s turn it into a very simple 30-minute show.’” Simple it is, with basic wipes between stories and minimal if any anchor involvement — substance over slickness.

The same goes for KGUN’s daily OTT news “wheel,” a 30-minute news summary called KGUN 9 Now, mixing local reports with national content provided by Scripps. KGUN 9 Now is updated several times and repeated multiple times a day on all the usual streaming platforms. Anchors and reporters record custom headlines, intros and tags for the wheel, and there is local weather too. “So we have the ability to make it whatever we want it to be,” Starks says. “And the way we have designed it is [that] part of the duty of our executive producers for each shift is to make sure they’re dragging and dropping and making those choices, essentially stacking a show for digital.”

KGUN’s Megan Meier (Cronkite grad!) reports for the KGUN 9 Now streaming news “wheel.”

But the station also streams live coverage of news conferences, public hearings and other newsworthy events. Every day, “we decide what stories we’re going to follow,” Kittell says. “And what we’re streaming on OTT is a big part of that.” Sometimes a reporter or anchor is involved, but the station often lets the live stream speak for itself. “If it’s a complicated issue, we have somebody there who explains what’s just been said, what that really means,” Kittell says. “So we’re still performing our job as the media in helping viewers understand what’s happening, and we’re satisfying this need for everybody to know everything right now.”

Ironically, covering these live events on OTT is a job made easier by the pandemic, when most meetings are virtual. “The pandemic has allowed us to share more content with our viewers in a way that we’ve never been able to before,” Starks says. “I believe that this is what we’re going to continue to see even after the pandemic has some resolution. I think this is a really smart way, especially for markets our size, to cover so much more. And I think it’s wonderful for our communities.”

Leeza Starks and Laura Kittell

Like any innovation, KGUN’s ambitious OTT strategy has brought new challenges and some unintended consequences. Last June, the station was streaming a Tucson Police Department news conference about a suspect’s in-custody death when the police suddenly began showing graphic, unedited body camera footage of the incident. Starks was horrified and decided the station would institute a new policy NOT to stream potentially violent body cam footage without vetting it first.

In the spirit of transparency, Starks posted a note about the new policy on Facebook as well as the station’s website. “I really thought it would be 50/50 in terms of reaction,” Starks says. “Half of the viewers would be upset that we aren’t just showing it all, and the other half would understand and be supportive. I’d say 99.9% of them were upset with our decision. The pushback we got was honestly pretty cruel. But we’re sticking with our decision.”<