Reporting that hits people where they live — by reporters who live there too

How a new generation of digital storytellers is changing the rules at ABC

“It really started like every other story in LA — as a discussion about how we solve for traffic.” That’s KABC-TV’s President and GM Cheryl Fair. She wanted to find a better way to cover neighborhoods across the sprawling Southern California landscape that were more likely to see a Channel 7 helicopter overhead than a reporter next door — and even then, usually because of a crime or fire or car crash. “Getting from point A to point B is so hard that there are sections of the coverage area that you either don’t get to very often or get to most frequently for something that isn’t good,” Fair says. “So we came up with this idea of the Community Journalism Program, where we would embed reporters in the neighborhoods that we felt needed this kind of attention” — namely a more nuanced view of community life than “breaking news” coverage allows.

Fair’s idea was part of an innovative approach that has changed the way the ABC-owned stations recruit and retain young reporters and tell stories, not just on digital platforms but even on traditional linear broadcasts. ABC’s experiments with an emerging generation of journalists are helping to forge a new relationship between broadcast and digital — one that reverses the usual pattern of stories originating on television and migrating to other platforms.

KABC-TV President and GM Cheryl Fair

The embedded journalists “would live where they work,” says Fair. “They wouldn’t have to come in to the station every day like all the rest of our reporters. They wouldn’t have to drive out with the news trucks, They would be shooters, editors, they’d be digital natives, with lots of proficiency when it came to publishing to digital. And they would become part of the community that they’re covering.”

ABC Owned Television Stations President Wendy McMahon liked the pitch so much, every one of the group’s eight stations has adopted a version of the plan. There are 19 community journalists across the group, with plans to add 10 more in 2020. KABC has five, four of whom arrived early this year.

The idea was to recruit the kind of aspiring young reporter who usually has to move to the hinterlands, hoping to return to the big city several years and markets later. Eric Resendiz, an Orange County native and former KABC intern and news assistant, went off to Abilene for an on-air job, but returned in March to be embedded in East Los Angeles, where he reports on his new neighborhood and the surrounding area in English and Spanish. “It’s the town that I’m living in,” he told me. “It’s people who I go to the grocery store with. It’s people who I pump gas with. It’s people who are waiting at a stoplight to make a turn. It’s my community that I’m living in.”

KABC-TV Community Journalist Eric Resendiz

Resendiz covers breaking news when it happens in his territory, of course, but he estimates that 85% of his work consists of “hyper-local” stories he finds and develops himself — not to mention shoots, edits, produces and promotes on his social-media channels. He creates multiple versions of his stories for platforms like Instagram and Facebook as well as more traditional reports for the station’s website and often TV. “I try to tailor it to what’s best for that platform and for my audience, because I know that on each platform, I’m going to have a different type of audience.”

Watch: Eric Resendiz’s story about the life and death of a neighborhood celebrity who owned the “Gypsy Rose” — the famous lowrider featured in the introduction to the sitcom Chico and the Man.

KABC’s most recent community journalist arrived just three months ago. Ashley Mackey played two years of professional tennis after college and then got a Master’s degree in sports journalism from our own Cronkite School here at ASU, where she was a reporter and anchor for Cronkite News. Now she’s back living in and reporting on the place where she was born and raised: Inglewood, California.

KABC-TV Community Journalist (and Cronkite School alumna) Ashley Mackey

“I think the biggest surprise is stepping out of your comfort zone and trying to be more creative versus traditional news,” she says, “but it’s been good so far.” Mackey says her rotating cast of supervisors, surprisingly called “buddies,” gives her wide latitude to experiment with different kinds of storytelling techniques. “The saying ‘You have to know the rules to break the rules’ comes to mind,” she says. “You still have to know how to interview, you still have to know how to put together a story. You have to know how to edit, and write, and manage social media, which are all things that I learned at Cronkite.”

Watch: Ashley Mackey’s story about a neighborhood soul food restaurant that’s also good for your health.

“Their storytelling style is different than our traditional reporting has been,” says GM Cheryl Fair. “And they’re using all different types of devices to shoot their stories, whatever they need.” Even when the young journalists’ stories migrate to the broadcasts, Fair encourages a digital look and feel. “One, we want to infuse some of that storytelling style in our normal day. I think they bring some energy and life to the process that we want to infuse throughout our organization. The other part of it is as we try to attract a digital audience to watch us on television as well, we’d like to present content that looks familiar.”

Jesse Kirsch agrees. “I’m trying to break rules all the time. And I don’t think anyone’s really outraged by that because it catches your eye. Whether it’s a jump cut or shaky cell phone video, I want my material to feel like something you’re doing at home.” Kirsch works 2,000 miles away from KABC at sister station WLS-TV in Chicago, but Cheryl Fair says WLS paved the way for the community journalists by hiring him nearly three years ago. Kirsch interned at ABC network news in Washington and New York while a student at Northwestern and then had the moxie to send his reel to WLS instead of a small out-of-town market. News Director Jennifer Graves and head of digital Jennifer Hoppenstedt decided to take a chance on him in the newly created role of digital journalist.

WLS-TV Digital Journalist Jesse Kirsch

“From day one, they were more than okay with it,” Kirsch says. “They were encouraging and facilitating experimentation and figuring out what clicked best.” Kirsch is not embedded in one neighborhood, but otherwise the model is the same: hyper-local stories told in a variety of styles and adapted to multiple platforms. “Every day we’re experimenting with the way we we cut those videos,” says Kirsch. “How much sound we use, how many graphics we use, if there’s music involved. Am I on camera? Am I nowhere near it? It changes story by story as well as platform to platform. I try to tear up the handbook. And not just for my digital edits, but for stuff that makes it into television.”

Watch: Jesse Kirsch’s story about one family’s extraordinary Halloween tradition.

Kirsch and the community journalists embody two important trends. Original hyper-local content for digital is increasingly a potent way to reach new audiences with new forms of storytelling. And a new breed of reporter is blurring the lines between broadcast and digital. “I’m able to pivot between digital and TV and the gray area in between based on what we need,” says Kirsch. “I think this is where the entire business seems to be going, where you figure out how to use a good story in every space you can reach an audience.”

Kirsch’s story last fall about Anthony Alfano, a 9-year-old cerebral palsy victim who has become a neighborhood celebrity because of the extraordinarily elaborate Halloween costumes his parents make for him every year, reached an estimated 43 million people — and that’s just on the station’s Facebook page. And oh yes, WLS also put it on television.

[NOTE: This is the first in a planned Knight-Cronkite News Lab series on experiments in new forms of storytelling.]

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