If you watched the Sept. 29 presidential debate on KTTV in Los Angeles and stuck around for some instant analysis, the first people you heard from were Jeanne Harrison, Miriam Gorbatov, T.J. Chang, Ashley Wiley Johnson, and Brett Zebrowski. Not household names, perhaps (at least not yet), but part of a deceptively daring experiment in viewer engagement.
Anyone who talks about news innovation nowadays inevitably talks about “listening” — tuning into what really matters to viewers, users, or readers rather than assuming that the news professionals know best. But the unique combination of pandemic and politics this election season has prompted the Fox-owned TV Stations to go a big step further: not just listening, but giving viewers a regular and prominent role in their newscasts. “Instead of going to outside pundits and politicians, we’re actually embedding our voters, our citizens, in our coverage,” says Sharri Berg, COO of News Operations for the Fox TV Stations (and also EVP of the Fox News Channel). “And I think that this is something that will remain a permanent part of how we operate.”
The new feature is called Your Take, and the concept sounds and looks simple: assemble panels of regular viewers to comment on issues in the news. Your Take emerged from an August brainstorming session among a handful of Fox station executives from around the country — members of a “politics task force” charged by Berg with finding innovative ways to cover the campaign in this extraordinary year. “The Your Take idea came up on this call as part of a conversation about how we get away from all the punditry and more towards what viewers and voters really care about,” says Erica Hill-Rodriguez, news director at KTTV in Los Angeles. “We wanted to hear more from the people who are actually making the decisions.”
KTTV agreed to serve as guinea pig and produced the first viewer roundtable just a few days later, and the idea took off. It’s now a regular feature at more than half a dozen Fox-owned stations around the country. But don’t confuse Your Take with the conventional man-on-the-street interviews journalists have conducted forever. Inspired by the way Zoom has transformed newsgathering in the pandemic, the newsrooms are creating a carefully curated new form of audience interaction.
Putting the panels together is the first challenge. Hill-Rodriguez says her team uses “our resources in the newsroom and recommendations of friends and neighbors through digital outreach” to recruit a pool of (unpaid) panelists and find the right mix. Matt Piacente, news director at Chicago’s WFLD, brings the whole team, including sales and creative services, into the recruiting process. “You’re going to need a diverse cast with different political leanings, with different ideologies,” says Piacente. “And the only way you’re going to do that in finding regular people is throwing it out to the whole station.”
And ideological diversity isn’t the only criterion, says Hill-Rodriguez. “Any time you assemble a panel of people, it’s like, is this going to be chaos? Or is this going to be awkward? So there’s a lot of pre-vetting that we do with the panelists: making sure they’re comfortable being on television, making sure they’re not really shy or timid, and also making sure they’re not rude. But you never know until you get into it.”
In fact, the panels, which vary in size but typically number three to five participants, are remarkably civil — just the opposite of a cable news slugfest. “What we found is graciousness,” says Hill-Rodriguez. “Even when there are divergent views on a topic, these panelists are kind. They’re willing to give each other enough space. It’s not negative, which is why it felt so refreshing.” “They’re relaying and sharing their own personal worries and stories,” says Berg. “Everyone has their concerns and their issues, but we open it up and create this platform for them to do so in a meaningful way.”
Your Take producers usually add a “baseball card” graphic that fills in personal information about each panelist: “Brett Zebrowski/Manhattan Beach/Real Estate Agent/Married, 3 Children,” for example. It’s a really smart touch that adds useful context to what the panelists have to say.
But not every station does this — a reflection of the freedom news directors have to mold the feature to their own taste. There’s no “must-carry” mandate from Berg or even a standard look. It’s how Fox’s model for innovation and collaboration is supposed to work. “We’ll come up with an idea from any of our task forces and then show it to the rest of the group,” says Berg. “And not everyone adopts it, because every market is different.”
Watch a “Your Take” following the VP Debate
Some stations do Your Take live, others tape the segments and edit them. Each station decides for itself when to air them. And the panels have moved well beyond politics to include topics like the COVID-19 vaccine, back-to-school issues, the indictment of an officer in the Breonna Taylor case, the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and even whether to reopen Disneyland. Seattle’s KCPQ has started a knockoff called Mom to Mom, with Dad to Dad and mom-and-dad parenting segments in the wings. “All of our stations are used to collaborating, brainstorming, sharing ideas, sharing best practices,” says Berg. “That’s pretty standard for us. But this was really a whole new level.“
“It’s collaboration and sharing that start to produce more innovative ideas about how to expand it,” says Hill-Rodriguez. “It’s our own newsroom, but it’s also what every other market is doing with this concept. And it’s like, ‘Wow, I didn’t think about it doing it that way. We should try that.’”
Watch KCPQ Seattle’s Erin Mayovsky host the “Your Take” clone “Mom to Mom”
I called Your Take a deceptively daring experiment earlier because it’s such a contrast to the conventional wisdom of what makes television news compelling — breaking news, conflict, emotion, visceral stories with visual punch, and an aversion to so-called “talking heads.” Will Your Take survive the pandemic and the white-hot political campaign and continue to thrive even when “normal” newsgathering returns?
It certainly helps that the boss is a champion and cheerleader for the concept. “There’s something about it that obviously works, that resonates,” says Sharri Berg, “because we have been looking for a way to talk more directly and connect more directly with our consumers.”
LA’s Hill-Rodriguez believes the idea can pave the way for an even deeper relationship with the audience. “We are better journalists when we listen to the community that we serve and really make sure that those viewers and that audience have a seat at the table — not just for the segment that we’re airing, but for the editorial process,” she says. “What do they care about? The closer we can get to those answers and those topics in our community, the better job we do serving that audience. So it has to expand.”
“I think you could turn this franchise into a brand for your station,” says Chicago’s Piacente. “It’s really a focus on the outside in, instead of delivering the news inside out. Instead of us telling you what we think, we want to hear what the viewer thinks. In this age of social media and everybody having an opinion, that’s what this can do. So we’ll continue to do this segment past the election, but I want to evolve this into a whole ideology for this station.”