Forty years ago, New York advertising legend George Lois, one of the iconic real-life “Mad Men,” came up with a tag line for WCBS-TV’s news operation that would be edgy even by today’s standards: “What a bunch of Newsbreakers!”
Aaron Shelden, who oversaw promotion for CBS stations at the time, admits that he and his corporate boss were worried that the suggestive double entendre clashed with CBS’s “classy” image, but the GM and the news director prevailed, and Channel 2 became “Newsbreaker Territory.”
And then something really interesting happened. News director Steve Cohen, a hard charger who came to WCBS from ABC’s less genteel station ranks, re-focused the news coverage to fit the new campaign. “Steve realized that they wouldn’t get an audience to sign on to it unless they delivered on the promise,” says Shelden. So all of a sudden, WCBS reporters were knocking harder on more doors, asking tougher questions, and coming up with angles and details that the competition didn’t have. The reporters actually became “a bunch of newsbreakers,” and the ratings went up. “We just had a different sensibility that came out of our attention to that kind of reporting,” says Cohen, today the news director at KUSI in San Diego. “We had a uniqueness, we carried ourselves differently, and the community got it.”
Cut to today. That notion, namely that every TV reporter can and should be digging harder in her or his everyday work, is one of the ideas behind a series of regional training sessions run by the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). “IRE believes that every journalist can be a watchdog journalist,” says IRE Executive Director Doug Haddix. “You don’t need to be on an I-Team or on a projects desk to be able to do watchdog investigative work.” “How can we help those that haven’t crossed that fence yet over into being investigative?” echoes Chris Vachon, IRE Director of Partnerships. “And if they have, how do we help them to continue to do a better job, so that their community benefits?”
IRE runs ten regular “Watchdog Workshops” a year for all journalists, but the “TV Watchdog Workshops,” as the name suggests, are geared specifically to television newsrooms. “There are just so many differences that go into producing a television investigative story that you just don’t have when you’re doing an investigation for newspapers”, says TEGNA and KUSA investigations lead and IRE board member Nicole Vap. “We’re just different dogs.”
There have been six workshops so far, in different parts of the country, with three more this year: the next one is in Miami on April 4, with the two more coming in the fall, locations TBD. The project is supported by a grant from the Knight Foundation, which also underwrites our work here at the Knight-Cronkite News Lab at ASU.
The one-day sessions, usually held at a local TV station, attract journalists (and would-be journalists) from miles around. The workshops draw not just seasoned investigative hands but other TV reporters and producers interested in stronger enterprise journalism. “They may not ever become an investigative reporter,” says Vap, whose Denver workshop lured people from Kansas and Utah as well as the rest of Colorado, “but they want to dig deeper. They want to make their stories go further and make a difference.”
The instructors are either flown in or are farm-to-table journalists sourced from the region, and all of them (with the exception of the occasional legal expert) have hands-on TV experience. The curriculum varies somewhat based on who’s teaching, but it includes topics like mastering the latest social-media tricks, turning dry data into graphics gold, perfecting the investigative interview, and injecting enterprise into day turns, even including breaking news. Training Director Patti DiVincenzo calls it “everyday watchdog” or “watchdog frame of mind.” “We’re not trying to teach them television,” she says. “We’re trying to teach them how to make investigative stories and watchdog stories look good on television.”
The workshop costs $55 for news professionals, and the fee includes a one-year IRE membership, normally $70 in its own right — not a bad deal. The organization backs up the sessions with a regular newsletter and a rich database of resources drawn from these workshops and its other training products. “This grant really focuses on local TV,” says Doug Haddix. “We’re not trying to help the folks at 60 Minutes or Dateline or places like that. It’s really in small and mid-sized markets around the country, to try to infuse watchdog reporting into what they do on a regular basis. So we’ve tried to make everything very practical, which is the IRE way. Very practical and very relevant.”
KUSA’s Nicole Vap says that today’s young multimedia journalists (or multi-skilled journalists, as her company calls them) are asked to do so much that basic reporting can sometimes get “pushed off to one side. And so I think it’s really good for newsrooms to go back to some of those reporting skills and remind people how it is to report, and not just that, but how to do it better.”
Back in the early 1980’s, WCBS changed agencies, dropped the Newsbreakers campaign and adopted the inoffensive tag line “If it concerns you, it concerns us.” But history repeats itself. Here in 2020, newsrooms increasingly see enterprise reporting as a way to differentiate themselves and create unique value amidst competition that now extends well beyond the other stations in town. “Everyone’s covering the same stories all the time. And it’s what can set you apart.” says Nicole Vap. “That’s really going to make you a better reporter, your station stand out, that newscast stand out. And I just can’t think of a better way to get that advantage than investing in the training.”
Think about it. Who knows? You just might find yourself in Newsbreaker Territory.