In Cincinnati, a local TV station sets out to build a full-fledged digital newsroom

An editorial board. An editor-in-chief. A staff editorial cartoonist and a high school sports beat writer. A revenue stream that combines both advertising dollars and subscribers.

Those sound like classic elements of a major metropolitan newspaper. But the description also applies to WCPO, the Scripps-owned television station in Cincinnati that has been experimenting, under the watchful eyes of industry observers, with a full-fledged local digital news operation. Since the effort began three years ago, WCPO’s digital newsroom has grown to nearly a dozen reporters, many of them newspaper veterans, along with a fleet of web editors and a regular corps of 40 to 50 freelancers. Staffers cover a range of traditional beats in the city, and travel the country for enterprise projects. Readers are asked to pay for access to in-depth coverage.

The financial details of this experiment are closely held. And which, if any, of the developing WCPO strategies will be widely adopted among Scripps’ 23 other TV markets still remains to be seen. But in Cincinnati, where the Gannett-owned Enquirer has been the only daily paper in town since the Cincinnati Post folded in 2007, WCPO’s investment has had an effect, media observers say.

“It’s renewing the newspaper war without the newspaper,” says Bob Jonason, assistant professor in the University of Cincinnati’s journalism department.

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The initiative was born out of conversations a few years ago at Scripps’ headquarters in Cincinnati, not far from WCPO’s offices. Executives contemplated launching a digital startup from scratch, says Dave Peterson, one of the architects of the venture and now WCPO’s general manager for digital. But ultimately, they decided it made more sense to begin with a familiar brand, and work in partnership with an existing TV newsroom.

The idea is less to demonstrate an entire model that can be replicated elsewhere than to test a variety of editorial, technological, and marketing strategies; three different executives described WCPO to me as Scripps’ “petri dish.”

The daily goal, according to editor-in-chief Mike Canan, is to produce at least one strong piece of journalism in each of six “content pillars”–mostly conventional beats like education, business, and government. But there are plenty of big projects, too. WCPO staffers traveled to Colorado for a series on the implications of marijuana legalization, for example, and again to explore public investment in parks and bike trails.

Then there’s “Below the Line,” an ongoing exploration of childhood poverty, which has published about 120 items in the past 18 months. That includes “Childhood Saved,” a longform reported comic that was a clever solution to a journalistic conundrum: how to tell a detailed narrative about a family in crisis while honoring anonymity norms designed to protect children’s privacy.

The emphasis on experimentation is “empowering,” says transportation and development reporter Lisa Bernard-Kuhn, who worked on the marijuana and bike trail projects. “If something doesn’t work, we learn and move on,” she says. “When a new approach does work, we celebrate and replicate when we can.”

Meanwhile, the outlet continues to expand. Earlier this year, WCPO scooped up Mike Dyer, who had previously written for the Enquirer, to begin its first serious coverage of prep sports. Dyer is slated to be featured in a high school sports podcast that will launch in the fall, along with a new Bengals podcast; WCPO already has a weekly news podcast and another on the Cincinnati Reds, which they’ve experimented with streaming on Facebook Live. The local push into podcasts aligns with some recent corporate acquisitions: Scripps now owns Midroll, a podcast advertising network and production company, and Stitcher, a popular distribution app.

And in June, WCPO hired Kevin Necessary, one of the collaborators on the “Childhood Saved” comic, as its full-time editorial cartoonist—the only one in the city. His work appears in an opinion section, alongside op-eds and editorials penned by a year-old editorial board. (Canan, a member of the board, cites John Oliver as a model for WCPO to follow for well-researched commentary, and anticipates opinion pieces in a range of formats.) One early influential edit board meeting prompted the creation of WCPO’s Heroin Advisory Board, which now includes 25 people from the fields of law, addiction treatment, science, social work, and health care, as well as former addicts and families impacted by heroin abuse. The solutions-oriented task force meets monthly, informing a series of WCPO editorials.

In building out its online presence, WCPO has very explicitly started competing with the Enquirer–not least with its #dropthepaper campaign earlier this year, which raised eyebrows from print journalists around the country after it got picked up by Jim Romenesko’s Facebook page. (Peterson says the campaign was effective, and that WCPO was “punching up.”)

The competition underscores a potential irony, or perhaps just a sign of digital-era media convergence: As it embraces trends in digital media, and draws from different formats, WCPO is arriving at something that looks in many ways like a contemporary newspaper.

That’s reflected in the beat structure and the opinion section, but also in the craft of its daily work. “They have a traditional newspaper approach to stories, in their length, their sourcing, the construction of stories,” says Patricia Gallagher Newberry is a former Enquirer journalist who now teaches at Miami University in Ohio. “It’s plain old-fashioned, good community journalism … that is well presented on the screen.”

How big is the audience that’s willing to pay for that? It’s not clear. The annual fee for an “Insider” membership, once set at $79, is now $19.99; it comes bundled with numerous deals, tickets, and a digital subscription to The Washington Post. Scripps and WCPO don’t disclose how many memberships have been sold, though Adam Symson, Scripps’ senior vice president and chief digital officer, says, “We are very happy with where we’re at.”

Peterson, the general manager, bristles a bit at the idea that WCPO is recreating a newspaper. “We don’t want to be a television station’s website, or a local newspaper website,” he says. “We want to be the local news and information leader. What does that look like? What does a digital newsroom do? These are the things that inspire us every day.” 

Going forward, it will be well worth watching to see where that vision leads–and which parts of it Scripps implements in other markets.

In the meantime, “I’m pulling for them,” Newberry says. “I think anyone who cares about good journalism and knows the value of competition in the marketplace can’t help but root for their experiment.”

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Anna Clark is CJR’s correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.