The Paolini Perspective

A brash GM pushes the limits of local news production, promotion and personality

Look closely at the picture above. That tattooed leg on the left belongs to WTTG – TV General Manager Patrick Paolini — as does the properly-suited and well-shod leg on the right. The self-described “News Junkie. Runner. Opinionated GM at Fox5 DC” is promoting a podcast from one of the station’s most visible personalities: Paolini himself.

Here’s the rest of him.

In his six years as GM of Fox5 DC and its Washington duopoly partner, WDCA (which he re-branded as Fox5 Plus), Paolini has pushed the limits on original production, productivity, promotion, and personality. Depending on which numbers you cite, Fox5 is either “the” or “a” news leader in the market. WRC-TV NBC4 would aggressively dispute the word “the” in the last sentence.

Paolini’s weekly podcast, now nearing its 60th episode, is a series of conversations with contributor Sarah Fraser in which he expounds on politics, pop culture, and whatever else is on Paolini’s restless mind. It is indeed “opinionated.”

We thought it would be interesting to get the “Paolini perspective” on some of the issues we write about here at the Lab. So here are my five (naturally) takeaways from a wide-ranging conversation about how to survive and thrive in today’s local news environment.

1. Bet on local production — you can’t do too much.

Paolini believes the audience’s appetite for news and information is pretty much boundless. “People are tuning in all the time for news. And if you’re not there, you’re dead.” He has expanded the two stations’ weekly output from 51 hours a week when he arrived in 2013 to 78.5 hours as of this July, when Fox5 DC launches a 4 PM newscast.

On Paolini’s watch, the station has added an hour to its morning program; introduced 8 and 9 PM newscasts on the duopoly station; and created two new daily programs: a half-hour of topical commentary with an ensemble cast of four each night at 7 PM called Like it or Not, and a late-night political roundup with solo anchor Jim Lokay called The Final 5 that is competitive with network heavy hitters Colbert, Fallon and Kimmel. It obviously helps that the Fox broadcast network isn’t a player in morning or evening news or late-night, but Paolini is a proponent of replacing tired and/or overpriced syndicated fare with local programming wherever he sees an opportunity.

“Like it or Not” on Fox5.

As Paolini’s own weekly contribution suggests, Fox5 DC has also moved aggressively into podcasting. He commissioned a new studio to produce podcasts ranging from true crime to politics to faith and more. He admits the podcasts are not a big revenue generator for now, but “it rallied our newsroom.”

2. Push your newsroom’s productivity to the limit.

Yes, you can do more with the same number of people, Paolini says. “Most stations now are operating on a legacy model of positions, job descriptions, workflow, and resources,” he says. When he arrived, “there was a mentality, especially in the morning, that if we wanted to create more authentic, innovative content, we had to hire more staff. And I firmly believe that that wasn’t the case.” He admits it was a “major undertaking” that took a few years, but he methodically worked through every job description — non-union and union alike — and says he is doing all that new production with essentially the same number of people.

Which isn’t to say Paolini takes news director Paul McGonagle or the staff for granted, praising them as tireless, creative, and a “fantastic team that cares deeply about the industry and the success of the station.” And with the impending debut of the 4 PM news, even Paolini admits he may have reached the saturation point. “Are you pushing the newsroom too far to create content?” he asks himself rhetorically. “Right now to be candid, we’re about there. I don’t think we could add much more without adding to the resources of the TV station.” Phew.

3. Engage (and sometimes even enrage) with provocative promotion.

In a fragmented media marketplace, Paolini says you can’t count on standard promotion to cut through or resonate, which is why by his own admission “I drive promotion manager Scott Perkins crazy.” Fox5 DC’s edgy promos might offend you, but somehow I don’t think Paolini is losing sleep over that. ‘Weather What the Blank,’ for example, shows regular people reacting to really bad weather with really bad language — but lets you fill in the blanks, as in “Holy _ _ _ _!” or “What the _ _ _ _!?!”

 

4. Encourage your talent to be themselves — and to share their opinions.

Every manager I know uses the buzz word “authentic” to describe the ideal on-air talent, and Paolini is no exception. But at Fox5 DC, that means encouraging the anchors and reporters to walk right up to the line between “objective” journalism and opinion — and sometimes cross it. Paolini admits this is a “gray area” that has to be managed carefully. “I don’t want them endorsing candidates,” he says. “But I’m okay with them saying, ‘That monster should be put in jail forever for raping those children.’ That’s opinion. But I think it’s also real. And I think that’s what viewers expect now.”

It’s a balancing act that permeates the “Paolini perspective,” between delivering on conventional expectations and blowing them up. “Being a fact based news organization is still paramount. If you’re just provocative, you’re not going to be successful. If you’re just the traditional, boring way to deliver news, you’re not going to be successful.”

5. Follow your instincts — and your viewers’ interests — rather than legacy conventions.

Paolini, who goes out of his way to stress that he’s not a journalist by trade or training, unabashedly caters to what he and his team think will grab and hold viewers. “Yes, they are news shows,” he says. “But in this day and age, we have to entertain the public. People have no patience.” Paolini says he keeps Nielsen for his clients but uses digital metrics, the discovery tool TopicPulse, and his own and his team’s instincts, not ratings, to decide what’s working and what isn’t. “I try to step back and be a viewer when I watch the shows, and I get feedback from throughout the building.”

The GM holds sessions a few times a year with groups from the newsroom, who critique a selection of stories from the previous months. He also likes discussing story ideas with the young interns, who wouldn’t watch local TV news if they didn’t work there. ”I think we have to stop making decisions on what stories we’re going to do because that’s what the people in the editorial meeting think people are interested in. We have to ask those questions: Are [the viewers] really interested in this? If so, what do they want to know about it? If so, how are we going to tell the story? And why are they going to share it once we post it on digital?”

Paolini abolished sweeps series as an outdated concept, instead emphasizing “day in and day out content.” His broadcasts don’t have a sports segment, although they cover sports stories they feel are important to the audience. Ditto for investigations: there’s no separate unit, but his reporters are expected to do enterprise reporting. And his newsroom is more likely to double down and stay on a high-interest story — even one that’s not in the market. “I think the Paolini perspective on that is: stop thinking too local, number one, and stop thinking that you have to follow a formula.” That means sometimes skipping or downplaying standard fare — a reporter “standing in front of a building with a dark parking lot for no apparent reason” — that is not necessarily compelling to viewers. “We’re not afraid to forego something to do something we think is going to resonate and work.”

All that said, Paolini is at heart a local broadcaster with a strong belief in the value and potential of local news. He knows that he’s competing not just against other television stations, but against a host of strong newsrooms, especially in Washington DC. “We’re all fighting for a piece of that news audience. The one thing we have that they don’t: We can be local. We are part of the community… and we have to make sure that we’re constantly tapping into that.”

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