How do you transform a legacy brand?

Spectrum News brings its vision for local news to America’s biggest market

One of the most daunting barriers to innovation in local TV news is fear — the danger of driving away viewers who like what you’re doing and don’t necessarily want it to change. By that standard, Spectrum News is taking on a tricky challenge: tinkering with its iconic 24/7 New York City cable news channel, NY1 (pronounced “New York One”). “No one reaches a pinnacle where they should stop growing. And if they do, that’s when they are irrelevant,” says Helen Swenson, who joined Spectrum News last February as NY1’s VP of Content to oversee what she calls “an evolution.” “We want to stay relevant,” she says. “And I want to find ways to make [NY1] even more relevant.”

But innovation doesn’t have to be scary when it’s rooted in a newsroom’s core values. It turns out that the new vision for NY1 grows directly out of the old vision for NY1 — a reimagining of the channel’s founding principles, updated with modern technology and techniques. “This is really a return to our roots,” says Spectrum News EVP Mike Bair. ”This is part of our DNA at NY1. Change can often be seen as a negative. But these changes feel like they’re part of who we already are, as opposed to something radically different.”

Even if you don’t live in New York, you’ve almost certainly seen NY1 in countless movies and TV shows — most recently in HBO’s whodunit The Undoing — as a way for filmmakers to drive the narrative and display authentic New York chops at the same time. Founded by then-owner Time Warner Cable in 1992 as one of the first 24/7 local cable news channels, NY1 has built a devoted following with its strong political team, beat reporting from all five city boroughs, and the metronomic reliability of franchises like traffic, transit and “Weather on the 1s.”

Helen Swenson and Mike Bair

Now, behind the scenes, NY1 is undergoing a subtle but significant transformation — the latest proving ground in Spectrum’s campaign to rewrite the rules of local TV news. “As we moved very methodically across the country, rolling this out in every market and creating new markets, we ultimately came back to the beginning of it all, which is NY1,” Bair says.

Spectrum News, owned by internet, cable and phone provider Charter Communications, has launched 16 new cable news operations around the country in just the last two years and expanded others. We’ve reported on the company’s “We don’t do car chases” challenge to the crowded Southern California market and its distinctive blend of regional, state and local news in places like Kentucky, Ohio, Wisconsin, Texas, North Carolina, Western Massachusetts and upstate New York.

What the ventures have in common is an emphasis on original storytelling by empowered storytellers: self-starting multimedia journalists (MMJs) embedded in their communities but sharing their expertise across a wide coverage area. “The heart of the organization is the journalists who every single day are working their beats,” says Bair. For NY1, that means building on existing strengths. “When we came into NY1 and we talked about some of the learnings in other places and rolling out the MMJ approach, it wasn’t a really big shift for them,” says Bair. “Because they’ve been doing storytelling from their communities and neighborhoods and boroughs for almost 30 years.”

Amy Yensi and Michael Herzenberg

“I live, eat, breathe Bronx,” says Amy Yensi, a NY1 reporter whose beat is … well, you probably guessed it. Yensi returned from WJZ-TV in Baltimore 2 ½ years ago to report from the borough where she grew up. “We’ve gotten training recently that I feel has taken our journalism to the next level,” says Yensi. “I feel more assured out in the field in a way that I have not in the entire time that I’ve been doing this.”

WATCH this story about an all-woman EMT squad, shot on Amy Yensi’s iPhone

Since October, Yensi and more than 100 other staff members — including every reporter and anchor and the whole management team, plus producers, photographers, and even truck operators — have undergone a new training program led by video storytelling guru Michael Rosenblum. “For me, the biggest change, the most incredible thing, was this investment that the company made on such a wide-scale level. You know, in 20-plus years of reporting, I’ve never seen a company do that,” says Michael Herzenberg, who covers housing, immigration, and real estate after nearly a decade at the channel. “Just seeing that they wanted everybody to become better storytellers was really refreshing. And unheard of.”

The NY1 reporters, many of whom have already been operating as MMJs for years, will be shooting and editing with new tool kits that include iPhones, laptop-based editing software, and supplemental audio equipment. But along with the gear and the training comes a management mandate to dig more deeply for the human stories behind the issues. “What impacted me more than anything out of that entire training was the first day, when we were told, ‘Forget trying to be a reporter,’” says Yensi. “We have this image of what a reporter looks like, talks like, how they act in the field. And I feel like stripping that away, that burden that this needs to be a certain way, has been very empowering for me, because I don’t feel like I have to play a role. The story is whatever the person I’m talking to says is the story. It becomes more about them. And I feel like that gives them power, too.”

“I don’t think [viewers are going to say] ‘Oh, we’re seeing more character-driven stories,’” says Herzenberg. “That’s not something a viewer notices, because it’s something we’ve always done. But you’ll see it more frequently, because that’s what management is asking us to do. And it’s creating the space for us to do it. And the time.”

WATCH Michael Herzenberg’s report on the pandemic’s economic impact, shot on his iPhone

All that original reporting comes at the expense of some of the same-day stories that “feed the beast” of local TV news. “As opposed to the assignment desk driving a lot of the content selections each day, you’re actually putting control of the storytelling back in the hands of journalists,” says Bair. “We’re actually going to be creating and developing our own news stories based on what people know, in their communities, because we’re embedded there. And that’s a really big difference, I think, from what we do and what the others do.”

“I want to get more people and reporters in the streets, in the neighborhoods and in the communities,” says Swenson. “We already do it so well. And so if we double down on that, and expand on it, it’s a home run.” She has created special topic-based task forces in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, expanding the many beats NY1 already has. While the channel’s anchors will continue to play a critical role, and important breaking news will remain a priority, Swenson says that her eventual goal is for 75% of NY1’s stories to be enterprise reporting generated by its field-based journalists and only 25% “day turns” — a reverse of the current ratio.

“You know, at the end of the day, after someone watches us for 20 minutes, they’re well-informed, yes. But what did they get that was moving? What was the emotional connection? What was memorable?” she asks. “Nowadays, you can get information anywhere. But the difference between what I want to build here at NY1 and the information you can get on your phone is people. It’s the people you connect with, the people telling you the news, and the people that the news is about. And that’s where I think we have a lot of room to grow.”

Spectrum News eliminated some jobs recently when it shuffled its upstate New York operation to relocate reporters to more cities, but Bair says his goal is not to cut costs. “We’re not going to shrink our way to greatness,” he says. His report card is not based on ratings but on sustained engagement: If viewers consider Spectrum News essential, day in and day out, they’re more likely to renew their cable subscriptions.

Bair read to me from a memo written nearly 30 years ago by the men in charge when the channel was invented. “Our editorial judgments are based on the relevance of the news to our New York City viewers and are not driven by ratings or sensationalism,” they wrote.

Excerpt from a memo written by NY1’s first leadership team (highlight added)

“It was really something to find this and see that it tied so specifically into what we’ve been doing,” says Bair. “This is kind of back to the future. This is how NY1 was created, this community-based journalism. And this is why people came here in the very beginning and why they stayed with us for 30 years. And now we’re saying to them, we’re doubling down on that original approach. We are deepening our commitment to that local journalism.”

Swenson doesn’t want to reveal what she’s planning for 2021, but she promises that no matter what else changes, traffic and transit, weather and politics will still be staples of the channel — maybe even more than today. “Yes, NY1 has an amazing legacy,” she says. “And it’s my goal to make sure that that legacy lives for decades to come.”

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