A Positive Side Effect of COVID-19: Experiments in Storytelling

Hearst’s Field Notes brings local coronavirus stories to the nation

Scene from <i>Field Notes</i>
Scene from Field Notes

Bulletin from Captain Obvious: COVID-19 has triggered an explosion of innovation among local station groups. It’s most apparent in the ingenious technical solutions that allow reporters, anchors and producers to do their jobs from home. But stations are also experimenting with content and creating new programs that could point the way to a more flexible and less formulaic approach to storytelling down the road, even when the worst of the crisis has passed.

Scene from Field Notes

One impressive example: Field Notes, a new magazine show on Facebook Watch and other digital platforms produced by Hearst Television and based on the virus-related reporting of its local stations in all 26 of its markets. “I think our stations are producing such incredibly high-quality stories, and they do an excellent job of making sure that those stories find an audience in their markets,” says Andrew Fitzgerald, Hearst Television’s Chief Digital Content Officer. “The idea with Field Notes was…how to refashion that for this new giant story that’s affecting every single one of our markets in the same ways, but also unique ways in each market, and try to pull the threads of all those unique local stories together to tell the larger national story of what’s happening.”

Andrew Fitzgerald (courtesy Hearst)

The producers make liberal use of audio and video from the original coverage, but this is not a cut-and-paste job. The name Field Notes is apt, because each segment is built around what’s in effect the local reporter’s notebook: the journalist who covered the story has a chance to share details that would never crack the rule-bound haiku of a 1:30 news piece. Every good journalist knows far more than she or he gets to report on the air, and this format allows for color and context that normally never goes further than the “dish” in the newsroom.

A small team based in New York — the same group that re-purposes local Hearst content for digital platforms — collects several COVID-related stories each week from different stations and crafts them into a coherent whole around a theme. The 10-to-15-minute episodes to date have names like “Life Disrupted” (our daily world transformed); “Destination Denied” (travel woes); “Staying Connected” (with loved ones); “Good Deeds, Selfless Acts” (everyday heroes); and “Helping the Most Vulnerable” (the homeless and indigent).

Here’s how Fitzgerald explains the process: “The news gathering, the production, the reporting, all of that happens for TV. And then whoever reported out the story works with a producer on our central digital content team, who interviews them to talk through the story. We record that interview, we take their package and any other material they have access to, and we piece together a national-facing version of the story.” This has the virtue of putting few additional demands on hard-pressed local stations beyond the reporter’s on-camera “de-briefing.”

Watch an episode of Field Notes

Field Notes spun out of a show called Dispatches from the Middle that Hearst has been producing for Facebook Watch since late 2018. Dispatches focuses on one story per week, and Fitzgerald’s team was already working on a pilot for a multi-topic magazine called The Vibe. As COVID-19 started to spread, managing editor Emily Phillips suggested devoting one episode of the pilot to the pandemic. “And about two weeks later,” says Fitzgerald, “we realized we should only do episodes about this coronavirus story, because it’s not going away.”

Watch an episode of Field Notes

Facebook, which provided seed funding for the first set of Dispatches episodes a year and a half ago (along with shows from the ABC Owned Stations and TEGNA, as we reported at the time), stepped up again for Field Notes. “We were trying to figure out from a resourcing perspective how we could get into production as quickly as possible,” Fitzgerald says. “And it was around that time that we heard from Facebook about their interest in underwriting a show.”

The ABC Owned Stations have also spun out a COVID-19 series, called Check In, from their own Facebook Watch show, More in Common — part of the Localish brand. The focus is on individuals going out of their way to help their communities during the pandemic. Facebook is sponsoring the first 16 episodes on Facebook Watch. The Hearst and ABC shows also appear on YouTube and the stations’ own websites.

Local TV newsrooms are playing a critical role in covering COVID-19 and finding new ways to experiment at the same time. These programs illustrate the value of strong original stories that transcend the strictures of format and even geography. “Through the process of Dispatches, through the process of Field Notes, we’ve been able to learn a lot about workflows that allow us to make stories portable outside of markets,” Hearst’s Andrew Fitzgerald says. “We believe very strongly in the power of the storytelling that we’re doing at the local level. With both of these shows, we’re able to find new pathways to bring great stories to wider audiences.”

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