‘I’ll Have Some News, Please — Hold the Crime’

If it bleeds, it leads. We’ve all heard that before, but News Director Chris Turner never wants to hear it again.

Chris Turner hadn’t even started his job as news director at WJTV, Nexstar’s CBS affiliate in Jackson, Mississippi, when his wife Rene almost convinced him to turn around and go back to Georgia. They were watching the news on WLBT, the market leader, in their motel room and counted nine crime stories in a row at the top of the newscast. That’s when Rene said, “Are you sure we want to live here?”

Turner took the job anyway, and almost immediately found himself on the sharp end of a tirade from a prominent local bar owner: “All you talk about is the bad stuff. You guys are ruining the city!”

That helped settle the matter. After just three weeks on the job, at the end of the November book in 2017, Turner issued an unusual edict: no crime for the first five minutes — at least not the routine crimes that clutter up so many newscasts. Here’s a line from the memo Turner sent to his team:

So on the day we first talked with Turner, when his competitors led with five and seven crime stories respectively, WJTV had no crime until 5:05. And that’s how the newscast looks pretty much every day.

From WJTV.

There are exceptions, of course, and Turner spelled them out: a mass shooting, a hostage situation, a dangerous suspect at large, or a crime involving an officer or a child. Those stories go right to the top.

The rule has forced the station to do more enterprise reporting on local issues for the first five minutes of the newscast, Turner says. He encourages his reporters to seek out stories that directly affect viewers.

WJTV still covers crime, it just doesn’t lead with it — a distinction Turner has had to explain to assignment editors who missed some stories under the mistaken belief that “we don’t cover crime anymore.”

The station’s new assistant news director, Rob Taylor, is still getting used to the format too — a big change from his two last producing jobs in Chicago. “Crime does not lead. That’s unique. I’ve had to re-train myself, and I’m still doing it. There’s plenty of other news going on in this town.”

Turner says his veteran anchors are excited about the policy, his bosses at Nexstar are giving him free rein, and focus groups support the idea of downplaying crime. That bar owner who yelled at him must be happy, too.

Interestingly, Turner isn’t promoting the change to his viewers. Because of those exceptions, it would be too easy for them to get confused when crime does lead the program.

Of course with or without promotion, the viewers will decide whether this experiment is a success.

Early ratings were inconclusive, with one book stronger and one weaker after his “hold the crime” rule kicked in. But Turner is convinced that ultimately, crime doesn’t pay:

“News is how events and people affect our lives. I will stick with this plan: as long as I’m news director, this is how we’re going to do it.”

Our thanks to Fuzz Hogan of New America Foundation for telling us about this experiment and introducing us to Chris Turner.

If you have your own examples of how to shake up conventional TV news formulas, we’d like to know. Please email us at cronkitenewslab@asu.edu.

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