It’s anchors away — away from the studio and back to the street

Scripps tries to redefine a traditional newsroom role

Like a lot of anchors, WTMJ’s morning man Vince Vitrano started out as a reporter. But unlike a lot of anchors, he’s still on the street reporting stories every single week — so much so that viewers of the Milwaukee station occasionally ask him what he’s doing there. “When I’m out there sometimes in public, if I’m working on a story, people find it curious,” Vitrano says. “‘Why have you come down off the high mountain top of the anchor desk to be out here?’”

The answer: Vitrano and the station’s other front-line personalities are part of a drive by station owner Scripps to get anchors back in the field — not just for sweeps specials or big events, but for enterprise beat reporting. It’s a bet that the role of the anchor is overdue for an overhaul. “Redefining the role of the anchor is central to redefining our news brands,’ says Sean McLaughlin, Scripps VP of News. “People aren’t looking for good prompter readers. They’re looking for people with deep understanding of the community and real expertise.”

“It really wasn’t that hard to sell, because I think all of [the anchors] are reporters at heart,” says WTMJ news director Tim Vetscher, who launched the plan at his station last January. “So when we came to them and said we want to be doing more in the field reporting, we did not get any pushback at all; it was really welcomed.”

Well, not so fast. Shannon Sims, who anchors the 6 and 10 p.m. broadcasts, admits she initially had her doubts. “It seemed like a huge task, because for many of us, we’re doing two to three shows,” Sims says. “So now you want us to report every week? I’ll be honest, at first, I was like, ‘This seems like a lot.’”

But Vetscher and his fellow newsroom leaders had two smart selling points: they offered their anchors time to do the stories and the chance to choose a beat. Each of the station’s five anchors gets a day off the desk every week to work on an original story. The result is a kaleidoscopic schedule of substitutions and rotations to cover all the newscasts but a steady output for each anchor of one enterprise report a week. “Coming up with a system — the calendar, establishing what they would be covering, what they’re passionate about, aligning that with our content strategy — that was really what took more time,” Vetscher says. “Getting them on board was not that hard at all.”

Shannon Sims and Vince Vitrano

“Times have changed, and so you also have to change,” Sims says. “You have to pivot with the times and what the expectation is. But it is helpful when your management team understands the undertaking they’re asking, and they give you the resources to do it.” Sims chose women’s issues and women’s success stories as her beat. “The workflow that has been presented is a plus. Because it’s not the same as a run and gun GA [general assignment] reporter.”

Vitrano, whose beat is local business and real estate, agrees: “When we got the workflow down, and I knew that they weren’t interested in just piling on, that they really wanted to do good work and give me the time to do that, then I was really excited about it.”

WATCH: Vince Vitrano’s story on a new downtown development project

“These can’t be stories that are the anchors voicing somebody else’s work,” Vetscher says. “This is them out actively gathering, actively doing the journalism.” Specially assigned photographers like Dan Selan shoot the stories in a style that emphasizes the anchor’s direct involvement, and whenever possible, the anchors also present their reports live from the field rather than from the studio. “It’s that important to us that we’ll take them out of the mix on a day to gather and we’ll take them out of the mix to present it,” Vetscher says. “It is a big commitment. But we’ve identified this as a real opportunity. And I think it differentiates our journalism.”

WATCH: Anchor Steve Chamraz, whose beat is the environment and climate change, introduces a story from the field

McLaughlin says older viewers might be satisfied with the traditional desk-bound anchor, but younger viewers expect more. “The faces of our brands have to be active journalists well connected to the people of the communities they serve,” he says. “We used to define anchor images through promos. I believe in 2021 it’s through the stories they tell.”

The WTMJ anchors have to come up with their own ideas or be handed an assignment from the GA stack. (Vetscher says that’s only happened once.) “These are some of the most experienced employees in the newsroom,” Vetscher says “Between all of them, we’re talking decades of experience. So coming up with ideas is not a challenge.” In addition to finding, researching, reporting and producing their own stories, the anchors cover real-time news on their beats. For example, Sims pulled off her own fast break when the Milwaukee Bucks named Lisa Byington as the nation’s first female TV play-by-play announcer in a major men’s professional sport last month.

WATCH: Shannon Sims’s story on play-by-play pioneer Lisa Byington

Is the strategy working? Vetscher says it’s too soon to tell. He doesn’t market the anchor beats or give them franchise-y names (except for keeping “Positively Milwaukee,” which anchor Carole Meekins was already responsible for). Instead, Vetscher is counting on consistent exposure to get the message across to viewers, and to that end, he would like them out reporting even more often than the current pace of once a week. “We’re really proud of what our anchors are doing,” he says. “And we value it. I don’t want to say that we value their reporting work more than their anchoring work. But in some ways we do. I think it’s that important.”

Shannon Sims and Vince Vitrano both see themselves as role models for less experienced reporters in the shop, even in market #37. “I was really young at 26 [when I started] here,” says Vitrano. “We’re a lot younger than that now with reporters, so to have someone who knows the market, knows people and is recognized and can get those interviews that others maybe can’t and can give it the perspective, I think there’s no question it’s good content. So as long as it’s that, I think it’s absolutely worthwhile.”

“Here is an opportunity for you as an anchor to explore some of those stories that you really feel passionate about,” says Sims. “And if it’s in line with what the news director feels viewers need to see, it’s a win win, it’s a plus plus. But it’s also a chance to show some of your younger colleagues how it’s done.”

But there’s one place those young reporters won’t find her, Sims told me with a laugh. “In the wintertime, when the windchill is below 15, or you got that sliding rain going this way, and they need a live shot — on those days when reporters are out there? And it’s miserable? I just remind them, ‘You’re just cutting your teeth.’”

Anchoring still has its privileges — at least for now.

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