An upstart 24/7 cable channel tries to rewrite the rules for local TV news

“We don’t do car chases.”

What if you could build a local television news operation from scratch? How closely would it resemble the typical newsroom of today — say the places where you’ve worked or work now? And how would it be different?

Cater Lee and Scott Warren, both veterans of the Los Angeles local TV news scene, got the chance to meet that challenge. “We had this once in a lifetime career opportunity to try something new with a blank canvas here at Spectrum,” said Lee. “And it’s been incredibly exciting.”

Cater Lee and Scott Warren.

The mandate from their bosses at Charter Communications: build a 24/7 hyper-local news operation that would be exclusive to Spectrum cable customers — an incentive to stay subscribed rather than cut the cord. “Hopefully we become that thing that makes you decide that your cable subscription every month is really a great value,” said Lee, who serves as VP of News and Content for the new venture, “because you get this local news that you don’t get anywhere else.”

Easier said than done. Los Angeles-area consumers are known for their relatively low news viewing, but that doesn’t mean they are under-served. Quite the opposite. There are multiple stations offering local news in English and Spanish, with long-standing reputations and well-known personalities. CBS’s KCBS/KCAL duopoly even started a 24/7 OTT streaming service recently, CBSN Los Angeles.

So the challenge for Spectrum News 1 in Southern California, which launched last November, was how to stand out. “At every level, we’ve taken localism, which we all know is important, and tried to fundamentally do it differently — from the way we staffed, to the way we do storytelling, to the day-to-day execution of how we work.” Lee said.

For starters, the executives looked for local knowledge and storytelling skills rather than just TV credentials. “It didn’t matter if you were the best reporter in the country in a different market,” Lee said. “If you didn’t know Southern California and you weren’t a storyteller here already, it didn’t work for us.”

In fact, on-camera experience was not a must. The executives recruited people with experience — local experience — in radio, documentaries, newspapers, and digital journalism along with more traditional TV news backgrounds. The station calls all its reporters “multimedia journalists,” and they range from rookies to veterans like Giselle Fernandez, who came back to TV news after more than a decade away to co-anchor the new channel’s morning program and her own weekly show, L.A. Stories.

Giselle Fernandez

Clip from LA Stories with Giselle Fernandez. Courtesy Spectrum News 1.

“We wanted to make sure that we had experts: hyper-local experts, experts in their communities,” said Scott Warren, Senior Director of News and Content, with “all of our reporters living, working, eating, breathing from their neighborhoods. They know the people in the neighborhoods, they know the issues in the neighborhoods. And they’re actually digging for stories proactively in those neighborhoods, not reactively.”

The operation is decentralized, with almost everyone working remotely. Warren calls it an “outside-in newsgathering operation rather than an inside-out.” The 28 reporters are encouraged to pitch their own stories every week rather than have them handed down from an assignment desk. “We’re not watching the scanners, we’re not waiting for the press releases, we’re not looking at the wires. We’re actually depending on our reporters out in the field to generate the stories as well as produce them,” Warren said. Sometimes all the journalists band together to tackle a single theme, reporting on it from their respective communities, as they did for a recent special on homelessness — one of 13 themed specials the new venture has produced since its launch in November.

Most strikingly, “we don’t do car chases,” added Cater Lee. “And that is a huge point of difference in Southern California. There’s no argument that they can be compelling. For us, there’s no context around it. It’s just another breaking news event that is not relatable to most people.” Ditto for routine crime coverage, said Warren, who does hold a couple of reporters in reserve each day for breaking news. But for the most part, “that’s the exception, not the rule. The time taken to chase some of these breaking news stories takes away from the time where you could be talking to a person affected by an issue in their community.”

Yes, the channel does report on traffic — it’s L.A., after all — but with an emphasis on major alerts and stories, not granular freeway-by-freeway details. There’s an app for that, as they say. And yes, there’s a meteorologist, but Robert Santos often foregoes the usual maps for 3-D graphics that he walks around on-set “so we can explain what’s happening to you, instead of just telling you what the forecast is,” Warren said.

Screenshot of Robert Santos working with his 3D weather graphics.

Lee and Warren imposed a unified storytelling approach on their diverse corps of journalists — what Lee calls a “style guide to how we tell stories.” Warren admits that their formula — character-driven stories shot in an intimate, cinematic style — isn’t original, but it’s just not common in daily news coverage. ”We trained everybody to have that same look, that same style, that same feel so that the seasoned veteran’s story looks a whole lot like the first-generation journalist’s story.”

Lee and Warren say their approach is working, telling me that viewers they surveyed could see the difference and liked what they saw. A Charter spokesperson declined to share viewership numbers but attributed a significant decline in the ratings for L.A.’s incumbent English-language news broadcasts to the new channel’s launch late last year. “You put it out there with a wing and a prayer,” said Cater Lee. “But what we’re seeing is that it is resonating.”

Near the end of our conversation, Scott Warren proudly shared an anecdote about the L.A. teachers’ strike in January, which affected more than 30,000 teachers and more than half a million students. Everyone in town was preparing to go live as the teacher’s union leadership came up to the mic to announce the walkout — but then a car chase broke out. Guess which channel was the only one that didn’t cut to the chase?

“We stayed with the teachers’ strike, and we went wall to wall for a week on it,” Warren said. “But we didn’t get tempted to go away and do something that we’re not supposed to do, that’s not in our mission.”

When a smart aleck from the Knight-Cronkite News Lab asked Warren how he could be sure it wasn’t the superintendent of schools trying to hightail it out of town, he had a ready answer:

“It was a Toyota Corolla, and it ended peacefully.”

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