How one locally owned TV station does statehouse coverage right

Photo: WikiCommons

Late last month, a North Carolina news outlet unveiled a new feature on its website: Hover over the name of a sitting state lawmaker mentioned in any story, and you’ll see the top five donors to the legislator’s most recent campaign.

The tech tool, called Donor Reveal, was inspired by a browser plug-in developed by a teenager to track donations to Congress and draws on data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. It’s not necessarily earth-shattering, but it’s a nice example of the way political journalists can weave transparency and campaign-finance themes into their work in the digital age.

But here’s what’s most interesting: Donor Reveal was developed not by some online startup or good-government nonprofit, but by WRAL, the CBS station in Raleigh.

The tool is just the latest part of a larger effort by the station to devote sustained investment to the capitol, and to position its website and broadcasts as a go-to source for state politics coverage. The strategy is bearing fruit. Paul Woolverton, a reporter for The Fayetteville Observer, has observed a range of North Carolina broadcast outlets ramping up their statehouse presence; in the race for stronger capitol coverage, “first place is WRAL,” he said.

To reach that position, WRAL has built on a solid broadcast operation with some key hires to lead its online coverage. Donor Reveal was developed in part by Tyler Dukes, 29, a former managing editor of the Duke University Reporters’ Lab who joined WRAL as a data and public records reporter in 2013. Dukes, who spent a couple weeks working with the WRAL tech team to get the project up and running, describes his background as “sort of newspaperish.”

His colleagues include two of the state’s sharpest and most plugged-in politics reporters: Mark Binker, who came from the Greensboro News & Record in 2012, and Laura Leslie, a public radio veteran who joined WRAL as capitol bureau chief in 2011. Binker and Leslie anchor the @NCCapitol section of WRAL.com, an oft-updated politics page that offers a daily rundown of what’s on the legislative agenda; livestreaming coverage of committee hearings, news conferences, and other public events; and The Wrap, a short video summary of the day’s events. This steady day-to-day presence can help give WRAL a jump on fast-moving or under-the-radar legislative stories. Other features track promises made by Gov. Pat McCrory, monitor the progress of key legislative issues, and factcheck politicians’ claims.

The audience for @NCCapitol coverage is “substantial and recurring,” said John Conway, general manager for WRAL’s digital side. Some months, it tops one million pageviews.

When he decided to join WRAL, “My old paper was going through what a lot of newspapers were going through with a lot of sort of uncertainty financially, so there was completely the mercenary aspect of the paychecks being steadier,” Binker told me. “To not acknowledge that would be a little dishonest. There seemed to be a little bit more financial security.”

There was also a chance to do new things. He’d been on the capitol beat at the N&R, a job he loved, for about seven years, but his work focused largely on the legislative impacts for Greensboro and Guilford County.

“WRAL was going to give me a little wider lens to look through, so that was attractive,” he said.

Leslie, too, said the project offered new journalistic opportunities: “After years of doing statehouse stories on radio, I was ready to learn some new ways to tell those stories, and I was really intrigued by what WRAL was proposing to do. Plus, I got to help create it and steer it. It’s not often you get to build a plane and fly it at the same time.”

With the shrinking statehouse press corps a perennial concern in journalism circles, WRAL’s example might seem to offer hope. As the Pew Research Center’s latest “State of the Media” report confirmed again last month, local TV stations—buoyed by surging spending on political ads—remain in much better financial health than newspapers, which have traditionally anchored state politics coverage (and in North Carolina, still do a capable job).

But the financial success of local TV stations hasn’t always translated to deeper, better, or even more coverage of politics and government. And there are a couple factors that make WRAL something of an outlier.

For one thing, it’s based in the state capital, which is also a sizable local media market—something that isn’t the case in many states. For another, well before the push over recent years, the station had a solid news pedigree. “They’ve always invested more resources and done a better job at doing actual news and government coverage,” said Fiona Morgan, the author of a 2010 New America Foundation study about media in the state’s Research Triangle region.

In a time of increasing consolidation among the chains that dominate local TV, WRAL is also locally owned—its parent company, Capitol Broadcasting, is based in Raleigh. The aggressive move into sustained capitol coverage followed a series of meetings with management and company president Jim Goodmon a few years ago, Conway said.

“It really stems from our ownership and having a local owner who lives in the community,” he said. “He very much believes that local broadcasters have an obligation to really cover their communities aggressively, and he’s willing to back that up with money and resources. Most stations aren’t.”

WRAL is privately held, and Conway declined to say whether a bigger bet on statehouse coverage has proved to be a moneymaker. “The payoff is that we have been able to establish a foothold and reputation for providing coverage in an area where historically television stations haven’t done a lot,” he said. “That, to us, is the payoff. The other payoff is that along with that has come what I consider to be a sizable audience.”

Conway’s role highlights something else notable about WRAL: its split management structure. While Conway oversees the digital side, another GM, Steve Hammel, manages broadcast operations. Each has his own staff and profit and loss accounting, but talent is shared across the platforms, and the journalists work with bosses on both sides. Binker and Leslie, while filing stories daily for the website, also appear on air. Dukes, who spends most of his time in the newsroom working on the digital product, will also jump on air from time to time. Meanwhile, politics segments produced by the broadcast side can appear on @NCCapitol.

“The two are a strong, strong complement for each other,” Hammel says of the interplay between digital and broadcast.

In a sense, WRAL’s statehouse project is about stretching expectations for the sort of coverage a local TV station should produce. In a phone conversation the other day, I asked Dukes if he feels now like a TV reporter.

“I’ve never been one, so it’s hard to say,” he said. “I’ve never been the guy out there with the camera in the snow.” He continued: “I would say on the surface no, but I [would add] that I think we are trying to break down this idea about, ‘What kind of reporter are you?’”

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.