TV stations fight ‘sea of sameness’ with experimental local news

Loozrboy, via Wikimedia Commons

Tegna’s Atlanta television station, WXIA 11Alive, tried to break the local television mold last month with an investigation into a national issue: veterans denied benefits after being less-than-honorably discharged when they should have instead been offered treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The story was unusual in several ways: At nearly 30 minutes, it was extraordinarily long for local television; it was rolled out online first; the station became an advocate and tried to motivate viewers to get involved; and the focus of the investigation was a national issue, not a purely local one. It is also what Tegna is calling the future of local news, or one of them.

Tegna VP for News Ellen Crooke says the docuseries is an example of a new push by the company to emphasize investigations that not only expose problems, but also present solutions. The company is committed to freeing up investigative teams to do creative work that doesn’t fit traditional local TV molds, she says.

“We hear over and over again from our audiences that they want us to find solutions,” Crooke says. “We want our teams to experiment more. It used to be you aired a story at 11 o’clock and then you went on to the next thing. This team can stay on this story, which is kind of unheard of in local news.”

The company’s experiments didn’t begin with the Atlanta veterans’ investigation. Last year, an investigative reporter at Tegna’s Tampa station, WTSP, wrote a 6,000-word story to accompany his five-minute television investigation into the influence of one PR consultant on local politics; more recently, the same reporter has been dabbling in satirical takes on the news, and says other Tegna stations have sought his advice on replicating the snarky Rachel Maddow-style analysis. In recent months, a Dallas channel has rolled out a series in which regular people join a TV reporter to conduct interviews as a way of helping audiences better understand how journalism gets made.

Crooke declined to put a price tag on Tegna’s investment in these new approaches, but said they are among the company’s top priorities, part of a concerted effort to escape the “sea of sameness” that is local news. In the last year, Tegna has invited employees from across the company to three major brainstorming sessions. The thinking was, “What if we got a team of people who were completely out of the mix of local news and had them work on digital episodic content instead of making minute-30 packages for the local news, would that yield some extraordinary work?” Crooke says. The company has rewarded the top 10 ideas from each so-called innovation summit with financing, extra staff, and time for participants to depart from the daily grind and try something new.

Those winning ideas included the investigation into the mistreatment of veterans, called Charlie Foxtrot,  which aired on an Atlanta NBC affiliate as a docuseries: five episodes whose combined length amounts to an eternity for local television news. The station put the entire series online before broadcasting it as a special on Veteran’s Day, and provided it to other Tegna stations, along with information on how those stations could localize the project for their viewers, which some did. Though the core reporting was done by the Atlanta station, those efforts at localization got results, with one viewer in Seattle, a veteran, donating $1,000 to a local food drive Tegna station King5 was sponsoring because he said the series showed the station was “doing good for the community.”

11Alive then hosted a viewing of the series and panel discussion on Capitol Hill with two of the veterans featured in the piece and one veteran’s mother, partnering with Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who is chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. The Facebook Live stream of the event two weeks ago had more than 88,000 views by Monday of this week. 

The station also asked viewers to sign a petition it created and posted on its website urging Congress to pass the Fairness for Veterans bill, which requires the military to consider evidence of PTSD or traumatic brain injury in its discharge decisions. More than 12,000 signed the petition. Jeremy Campbell, 11Alive’s lead reporter, delivered it to Isakson in person. The bill passed last week.

Crooke says the Fairness for Veteran’s bill was a good fit because it had bipartisan support.

“We would never take a [partisan] side, but there were people on both sides supporting this,” she says.

Reporter Jeremy Campbell says that doesn’t mean they chose a topic in which change was already inevitable. “Nowhere along the way has this been a sure thing,” he says. “This is something the veteran’s community has been fighting for for years. It wasn’t something that was expected to pass.”

Though Campbell took on a national issue, he intentionally approached it from a local perspective. “All of the veterans featured in Charlie Foxtrot have a Georgia connection,” he says. “The scope changes because people can watch it from anywhere in the country.”

What is sacrificed when Tegna frees up local investigative teams to dig deep into a national issue and spend time producing longform journalism? Crooke says the company hopes to move away from the standard car accident and house fire coverage that clutters the nightly news, and replace it with stories that have broad impact. “We hope that what doesn’t get done is commodity news, the stuff that isn’t interesting and isn’t relevant to daily lives but had become standard local TV news,” she says.

It’s a habit that will be hard to break in local newsrooms, where a flashy video, no matter how irrelevant to most viewers’ daily lives, often gets airtime, like this story 11Alive aired on December 13 about a local house fire. Getting and keeping television viewers’ attention is a constant struggle.

Charlie Foxtrot is not Campbell’s first experiment with longform journalism. This spring, he reported on heroin overdoses in Atlanta’s wealthy suburbs. That four-part series generated 4 million views online in one week, and the follow-up on-air special was one of the station’s most-watched specials in recent years, according to Crooke. The success of the series prompted other stations to consider rolling out longform investigations, she says, citing an investigation by Tegna’s Houston station, KHOU, into police body cams.

And Noah Pransky, the WTSP investigative reporter in Tampa who wrote a lengthy story to accompany his Tegna station’s TV investigation last year, is again pushing the envelope in terms of what local investigations can be. He’s been doing humorous outrage videos about his investigations that more closely resemble a Daily Show piece than they do standard local journalism. The first few were just for Facebook and YouTube.

His most recent one, a local look at rising costs of commonly used drugs like scalp cream in conjunction with a broader investigation done by Tegna’s KUSA in Denver, also ran on air. He says he was writing a more traditional TV script and realized he simply could not get viewers interested in scalp cream the old fashioned way. “A story about scalp cream can only go so far,” he says. “But most people affected by drug prices are not facing life or death issues. The EpiPens and cancer drugs get the congressional hearings, but these drugs are also important to people.”

Pransky knows that his forays into humor risk trivializing the news. “It’s a delicate balance,” he says. “There’s always the risk of turning people off. If I can advance watchdog goals by putting a humorous video on Facebook, I’ll do it every time. Facebook gives us a new avenue to reach people.”

Higher-ups at Tegna have encouraged creative  thinking, he says. “We’ve been given the green light to try things that aren’t being done in local TV,” he says. “We don’t know where [the next thing] is, but we’re never going to get there is we don’t experiment.”

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.