Lessons from a Year on the Front Lines of Innovation

5 takeaways from newsrooms that are starting to re-invent local TV journalism

“We should be terrified of NOT being innovative,” said TEGNA VP of News Ellen Crooke. “Not taking action is even scarier than trying something new.” That was last fall, at the “Excellence in Journalism” (EIJ)/RTDNA conference in Baltimore. We were there to introduce the Knight-Cronkite News Lab — a project funded by the Knight Foundation and based at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism to report on, implement, and perhaps inspire local TV news innovation. Since then, we’ve been sharing stories of people who are overcoming the “fear factor” that too often impedes innovation; working with a group of stations on a transformation program called “Table Stakes”; and conducting newsroom experiments with Cronkite students under the leadership of my colleague Frank Mungeam.

As EIJ 2019 gets underway in San Antonio this week, I thought I’d offer five takeaways from our first year on the job, along with examples, shout-outs, and updates from some of the innovators who’ve shared their work with us.

“Creating a product for everyone is creating a product for no one,” said Kyle Clark, solo anchor of the 6 p.m. broadcast at Tegna’s KUSA in Denver. Clark and his collaborator Linda Kotsaftis convinced their bosses to let them ignore what they would call “flashing light” coverage — murders, fires, car crashes — and create an idiosyncratic program built around the anchor’s distinctive style, quirky segments, and heavy viewer input. After a scary initial plunge, Next with Kyle Clark climbed back to the top of the ratings heap.

When Tom Cibrowski took over as GM of ABC’s KGO in San Francisco, he was surprised at the urban ills he discovered walking to work in his new city. At his urging, news director Tracey Watkowski and her team created a franchise called Building a Better Bay Area. That meant pushing a sometimes entrenched newsroom culture to deviate from the standard formula and convincing their colleagues that it’s okay to forego some routine local stories. Since our story, Cibrowski has hired a new executive producer, Mariel Myers, to expand the “BABBA” franchise into “premium content,” which Myers defines as “original, creative, long-form, long-tail, high-end, multi-platform.” Phew!

Nexstar’s WPRI in Providence brought back good old-fashioned beat reporting, part of a growing trend towards more original enterprise journalism. City Hall reporter Dan McGowan, one of the news hounds we featured in our story, has been snapped up by the Boston Globe — but his colleague Ted Nesi tells us that the station has since “doubled down on [its] commitment to investigative, in-depth reporting” and proudly offers this new promo to make the case.

We also reported on challengers from outside the broadcast arena, including Spectrum News 1 in Southern California, a 24/7 cable upstart that is trying to rewrite the rules for local news in LA and its surroundings. “We don’t do car chases,” said news honcho Cater Lee. “We’re not watching the scanners, we’re not waiting for the press releases, we’re not looking at the wires,” added her colleague Scott Warren. “We’re actually depending on our reporters out in the field to generate the stories as well as produce them.”

That said, breaking away from the tried-but-increasingly-less-true isn’t easy. If you haven’t yet read Frank Mungeam’s popular and influential essay, Want Newsroom Innovation? Start with a STOP List, here’s your chance.

Gray’s InvestigateTV is an OTT channel built around the work of Lee Zurik’s investigative team out of WVUE in New Orleans, additional Gray (and formerly Raycom) stations, and partners like ProPublica, the Cronkite School’s own News21, and others. Zurik says that recent reporting on undercounting of hate crimes illustrates what he calls “the power of local.” The FBI ignored Zurik’s requests for comment until two InvestigateTV stories on the subject aired on Gray stations, and the Bureau started hearing from viewers and its agents in the field. The FBI not only called back but promised to start reporting the numbers. Measure of Hate eventually became a 30-minute documentary that aired on Gray stations in August.

Sinclair’s STIRR streaming service combines content from local stations with programming from partner channels. GM Adam Ware told us he wants to tap into local newsrooms’s creativity — to “expand the newsroom into a ‘content room.’” VP of News Scott Livingston added, “It can be a content lab where we test new things.”

CBS recently announced that it is planning to expand its 24/7 local news stream to more of its owned stations. We reported on the launch of CBSN New York, which was followed by CBSN Los Angeles. Boston and San Francisco are on deck, with nine more markets to come next year.

And many stations have started original programs designed specifically for streaming, such as the new 9 p.m. hour on Graham Media’s KSAT in San Antonio.

But OTT has also brought new challengers into the game, such as Local Now, featuring “local” content produced by The Weather Channel team in Atlanta as well as content from partners. We also reported on Newsy, an over-the-top and cable channel owned by Scripps. It’s not local, but millennial-friendly story selection and talent could chart a path to younger audiences for TV stations. News VP Christina Hartman reports that the channel just released its first feature-length documentary, Blowout, about the global impact of America’s energy production boom.

With a new emphasis on enterprise journalism, some for-profit newsrooms are drawing on funding from the nonprofit world to beef up their original journalism and beat reporting. Camalot Todd became the first journalist from Report for America, a nonprofit venture supporting reporters in so-called “news deserts,” to join a TV operation: she’s covering mental health issues for Spectrum News Buffalo.

CJ LeMaster, investigative reporter at Gray’s NBC affiliate WLBT in Jackson, MS, unexpectedly found himself with a new partner in Erica Hensley, a data reporter from the nonprofit Mississippi Today. The Knight Foundation underwrote an 18-month collaboration, paying Hensley’s salary for four projects with the commercial TV station. It was an experiment designed to see what happens when a print reporter and a TV reporter join forces. Hensley tells us that the pair is about to complete the final story in the project — you can see their work to date here — and she says their most recent story, an investigation of ambulance services, was their most successful collaboration yet. “We shared initial datasets, but let them complement each other to tell pretty different stories,” she tells us, “which all things considered, is in the true spirit of the collaboration.”

The notion of joining forces to serve different audiences in distinctive ways also describes the Denver collaboration we reported on recently, between TEGNA’s KUSA 9News and Rocky Mountain PBS — unusual in that it involves two TV newsrooms working together. NBC10 and Telemundo 62’s news director Anzio Williams learned to put aside his natural competitive instincts to join Broke in Philly, a collaboration among multiple news organizations to report on economic hardship in Philadelphia, giving new heft to the phrase “City of Brotherly Love.”

Gray is experimenting with a different kind of collaboration, this one between its own stations and a national star recruited from cable. Full Court Press with Greta van Susteren premieres Sunday, cleared in 76 percent of the country and promising to break new ground in the familiar territory of the DC-based public-affairs show. Van Susteren and Gray SVP Sandy Breland told us that the program will draw heavily on story ideas and content from the company’s 93 stations. Breland reports that Sunday’s episode will have reaction from stations around the country to illustrate the program’s “local lens” perspective, and the second episode will feature a story from anchor/reporter Tara Mergener of KWTX in Waco.

We’ve met lots of TV journalists who are experimenting with Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms to create new content and attract new audiences — so many that we eventually created our Social Media Spotlight franchise to profile them. Research Associates Sarah Farrell and Jill Ryan have done the reporting, so I asked them and our digital producer Alicia Barrón for their favorites. The team singled out Lauren Donovan of Hearst’s KCCI in Des Moines, who does conversational “translations” of her daily assignments just for her Twitter followers; Ben Winslow of Tribune’s KSTU in Salt Lake City, a master at knowing the distinctive strengths (and audiences) of each social-media platform; Abbey Fernandez of NBC Bay Area (KNTV) and Telemundo 48, who writes, edits, and posts three times a week on Instagram and Twitter, in English and Spanish; Kristen Hampton of Gray’s WBTV in Charlotte, who became an accidental viral sensation when she started testing beauty products from her car on Facebook Live; and Bob Herzog of Sinclair’s WKRC in Cincinnati, whose “Wake and Make Up” videos on Facebook put a human (and un-made-up) face on the morning anchor.

Esteban Creste, VP of News for Univision 41 in New York, was just hoping to beef up the station’s 12-year-old 41 A Tu Lado (On Your Side) franchise after correspondent Berenice Gartner suggested connecting with viewers on WhatsApp, a messaging platform that’s especially popular with Latinos. The simple move unleashed such a flood of tips, requests and story ideas that Creste had to assign a producer just to channel them all. The lesson for any station: reach out to your viewers and users on the platforms they use and trust — and then listen to them. Since our story, Creste has added a daily newsletter and begun producing twice-daily digital news segments in Spanish for Altice USA’s local News 12 Networks.

TEGNA created its Verify segments to build trust through transparency. In its simplest form, reporters fact-check the news based on viewers’ questions. But WFAA in Dallas goes much farther: on Verify Road Trip, reporter David Schechter takes viewers through every step of the journalistic process, and sometimes even takes a viewer along for the ride. Schechter reports that a road trip he and a viewer took to report on the border wall has won a national Murrow Award for large-market documentary, and next week he’s off to Alaska to report on climate change with a roofing contractor who’s a skeptic on the subject.

It’s always struck me as ironic that journalists, who cover change for a living, are often change-averse themselves. But local TV innovators are starting to experiment with new storytelling forms and program ideas. My colleague Frank Mungeam has a colorful metaphor for how to innovate while sustaining the core business: check out his essay, Why Every Local TV Newsroom Needs a Zodiac Project.

The most obvious example is podcasting, which is nothing short of a craze at this point. We reported how Bonneville’s KSL in Salt Lake City helped reporter Dave Cawley turn his obsession with a local cold case into a top-ten podcast and a station-wide news project. Beat reporter Scott McGrew of NBC Bay Area turned his connections with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs into the podcast series Sand Hill Road. This summer, WTTG (Fox 5) in Washington released the latest episodes in its own true-crime podcast series, Missing Pieces. The station’s colorful GM, Patrick Paolini, who is the subject of one of our most widely read profiles, even has his own podcast: The Paolini Perspective.

Paolini’s Fox colleague Byron Harmon, news director at WNYW in New York, started what he calls an “ICU,” but it doesn’t stand for “intensive care unit” — rather, it’s the Innovation and Creativity Unit, part of Harmon’s campaign to shake up newsroom conventions. Harmon reports that next week he’ll launch a noon newscast anchored by Joe Toohey, a former NBC News producer whom he hired after a chance encounter in the hallway, and produced by a former intern who worked her way up at the station.

ABC’s Localish is a multi-platform brand built partly around the work of the company’s owned stations. We reported on its Facebook Watch show More in Common, which we compared with TEGNA’s An Imperfect Union and Hearst’s Dispatches from the Middle. Since then, Executive Producer Michael Koenigs tells us that Localish has produced ten original digital shows with hundreds of episodes for ABC’s digital platforms and has expanded to major-market newscasts and other platforms. We also reported on the record-setting Localish segment produced by ABC’s Fresno station KFSN, about a local farmer growing and selling luffa sponges. The luffa story is up to 23 million views on Facebook, but Koenigs tells us that this uplifting segment about an extraordinary gift for a boy with a rare skin condition is the new champ at 30 million.

Kevin Necessary of WCPO in Cincinnati calls himself a “cartoon journalist.” His cartoons and comics bring difficult-to-visualize stories to life, mostly on the digital side but occasionally crossing over to TV. His boss Chip Mahaney, who’s since been promoted to a corporate job with station owner Scripps, told our Sarah Farrell, “I’m always looking for us to be different in some way.”

And it doesn’t get much more different than The ClassH-Room, a game show created by news executives and their colleagues at Fox 29 (WTXF) in Philadelphia. GM Dennis Bianchi, News Director Jim Driscoll, and Senior EP Tom Louden had to ascend the steep north face of the learning curve for this one: a daily quiz show that pits local high-school students against their teachers. It’s a slick production full of bells and whistles that’s hosted by an actual teacher (and TV natural), Richard Curtis. Driscoll tells us that the show has added new segments like Music Class, Art Class, and Study Hall to a collection that already included Pop Quiz, Detention, Spell Check, Picture Day and Final Exam. And the station now airs each show twice — at 6:30 p.m., so the students and their parents can watch, and the next day at noon, where it will soon lead into Meredith Vieira’s new nationally syndicated game show, 25 Words or Less. The ClassH-Room even produces the occasional celebrity edition — local radio hosts, Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders — and is already booking schools into next year.

Congratulations! You’ve made it all the way to the end of my year-end report, which tells me you certainly have the stamina to subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking here.

We hope to feature your story on our innovation hub soon, and perhaps you’ll also see your name in lights, right here, same time next year.

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