Changing the culture is a challenge, even when it’s the boss’s idea

KGO-TV is 'Building a Better Bay Area' — and a new identity for itself

Sometimes you have to look hard to find a good story — and sometimes all you have to do is look around you.

That’s what Tom Cibrowski did a year ago, when he started his new job as general manager of KGO-TV, ABC’s San Francisco station. Cibrowski, who had moved from a big network job at ABC News in New York, would walk to work every day from his temporary apartment. What he saw when he looked around was a catalogue of big-city problems such as rampant homelessness, unaffordable housing, and endless traffic jams — only far more severe than he expected. “Everybody kept saying, it seems worse, it seems much worse than it ever has been,” he told me. “So that just logically leads to ‘Well, what are we going to do about it?’”

Sounds pretty straightforward, but Cibrowski’s new colleagues in the newsroom didn’t share his enthusiasm — at least not at first: “My experience coming in as a brand new person was that the newsroom would face the daily influx of, ‘Oh, you know, I have to do another homeless story, I have to do another traffic story.’ And it was kind of like an eyes-glaze-over situation.” But news director Tracey Watkowski soon went from jaded to jazzed. “Okay, you know, what?” she said. “He’s got a fresh perspective on this. He’s just coming in with eyes wide open.”

The result: Watkowski pitched a new initiative, originally called Saving San Francisco, that quickly morphed into Building a Better Bay Area, a seemingly simple but powerful idea that is transforming how the station covers news and connects with its community.

“BABBA,” as it’s called internally, focuses relentlessly on the biggest issues confronting the Bay Area: concerns like homelessness, transportation, education, the environment, and more. It’s a big commitment of time and resources. When the project launched last October, management made sure everyone was on the same page — literally. Anchors on every broadcast read this promise to KGO’s viewers:

ABC7 is launching expanded coverage of the biggest issues facing the Bay Area today. We’re devoting more time, resources and reporting to the major stories impacting your quality of life. From the housing crisis — to our schools — to getting to work via our freeways and public transit, our goal is to bring you even greater context and perspective. And we’re digging deeper to find solutions. Every day.

“I think once it came out of their mouths, they knew it was the real thing” said Cibrowski. “And now we have to make good on that.”

While there are multiple “BABBA” stories throughout the week now, a signature feature is the occasional “roadblock” — a full week of coverage on all broadcasts and digital platforms around a single issue. The February roadblock on San Francisco’s troubled BART transit system, for example, involved ten different reporters, six of whom rode the rails from 5 a.m. to midnight.

This kind of investment obviously means scaling back some routine spot-news coverage — not an easy change for the newsroom at first. So Cibrowski and Watkowski set about breaking down a mind-set hardened by decades of habit. “All of these things end up being somewhat significant changes,” Cibrowski said. “Even saying directly to the assignment desk, ‘Look, I know you’ve got the scanner on. It’s chirping away, but you are no longer responsible for covering every single little breaking story. That’s in your DNA, that’s in your blood. But we’re telling you, we actually want to spend more time on these much broader issues and devote our resources in a different way.’”

But the newsroom has come around, not least because reporters get more time to dig deeper and press for answers. “I think there’s been a new sense of pride, kind of like a back in business attitude,” Cibrowski said. “I think most reporters would rather get out and cover these larger issues than the smaller breaking story down the block.” Watkowski agrees: “What I love is that the reporters, when they’re pitching a story in our editorial meetings, will say, ‘I have a BABBA story.’ It’s a part of our culture. So I’m really thrilled with that.”

In fairness, KGO-TV was already moving away from a breaking-news image towards a more community-focused approach, re-branding itself five years ago as “ABC7 — Where You Live.” (In the bad old days of the 70’s and 80’s, KGO was seen as so tabloid that its call letters were jokingly said to stand for “Kickers, Guts, and Orgasms.”)

“We can’t position ourselves as the best at breaking news,” which has become a commodity, said station marketing head Candace Hirleman. “We saw that people wanted and expected something more from us.” Hirleman sees Building a Better Bay Area as a strong rallying cry for the whole station. “Our purpose now we can say is to help improve the quality of life for people in the Bay Area, give them the information that they need to help them thrive. It’s something that we can all be really proud of.”

Has the station-wide effort made a difference? Cibrowski cites a small ratings uptick linked to the franchise, but the really encouraging news comes from the research firm SmithGeiger, which found in a January study that 40% of local news consumers were aware of Building a Better Bay Area. Of that group, nearly four out of 10 associated the project with KGO-TV — in just four months, one of the fastest spikes in brand awareness the firm has seen.

Given that momentum, Cibrowski and his team are working on ways to expand and extend the franchise with events, partnerships, and long-form programming. “I think there’s a lot more we can do with this,” says Watkowski. “And just knowing that people are seeing it and recognizing it and identifying it with us is terrific.”

Cibrowski wants an even greater emphasis on solutions. He sees this not just as an opportunity, but his responsibility as a local broadcaster. “With the issues that exist in the local print area and local publishing area, we are still these big television stations equipped with incredibly talented and experienced and veteran reporters. We’ve got helicopters, we’ve got microwave trucks, we’ve got Dejeros. We’ve got it all. How can we use this incredible resource we’re sitting on to make a difference? Just doing your standard everyday newscast is just not enough anymore. We’ve got to figure out a way to plant our flag for the future.”

Hey, here’s an idea. ABC owns stations in other big cities that have plenty of problems and room for improvement, including mine. “BABNY” has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

[Disclosure: Tom Cibrowski and Andrew worked together at CBS News years ago.]

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