By focusing on constantly connecting with news viewers in Dallas-Fort Worth, WFAA executive news director Carolyn Mungo has rebuilt the station’s early morning newscast, improved its ratings and sent its digital and social media visits soaring.
Mungo, who has been at WFAA since 2012, spent the past year and a half taking a hard look at the Tegna-owned ABC affiliate’s 4:30 to 7 a.m. news block, Daybreak, and reinvigorating it.
Those changes began and ended with the talent, who Mungo felt needed to be able connect authentically to each other and the audience. Those skills aren’t necessarily easy to identify in interviews alone, and Mungo and her team needed to look at many people before coming up with the current cast of anchors Ron Corning and Kara Sewell; traffic reporter Demetria Obilor, who came to the station in 2017 from Las Vegas; and meteorologist Greg Fields, who has been with WFAA for 20 years.
“We knew what we had in Greg, but we kept on looking for people who were not afraid to get out of the box, to let the audience in and be expressive,” Mungo said. “But we also didn’t want to wait to change and transform the show until we got the right people. Over time, we have acquired and recruited talent who would best fit in with the ensemble we were building.”
Instead of going from segment to segment with the team staying behind their respective desks and talking only about their assigned topics, each team member has the freedom to chat with one another about the news of the day, giving their takes on different topics.
“In my opinion, winning viewers’ loyalty today means pulling back the curtain,” Mungo said. “Our journalists are also members of our community.”
Whatever that secret sauce may be, the changes have paid off. The station’s early morning news block has improved by 200% among adults 18-49, Mungo said, good for second place in the Dallas-Fort Worth market — the country’s fifth-largest designated market area, according to Nielsen — up from a years-long run in third.
That success also has taken root on the station’s digital and social platforms. Visits are up every month in 2018 and the show averages more than 1 million social interactions per month. Video plays are up nearly 400% from January to September 2018, while YouTube video plays have increased more than 200% since the start of the year, surpassing 2.5 million as of September.
All good TV stations go far beyond their air to serve their communities, and in September 2017, WFAA lent its help to sister station KHOU Houston after it was thrown off the air by Hurricane Harvey when flood waters destroyed the station’s building and equipment.
During the hurricane, WFAA took over coverage, posting stories to KHOU’s Facebook page via Facebook Live with anchor David Schechter and Fields coming to the station on a Sunday to provide coverage.
“When we saw what was happening in Houston that night, we immediately jumped into action,” Mungo said. “Many of us had lived there; that was our station too. I was really proud of our staff that night.”
Just one year later, WFAA had the chance to unite Texas again. During this year’s contentious and closely watched midterm elections, Texas was the home of one of the country’s most-watched Senate races. Upstart Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke challenged incumbent Republican Ted Cruz, giving Cruz a run for his money in red Texas.
As soon as the primaries were concluded in March, Mungo and WFAA jumped into action, pitching both campaigns on a statewide debate.
Open to Debates
“The day after the primaries were over, I presented formal proposals to both campaigns,” Mungo said. “One of the benefits of having the debate at a Tegna station in Texas is that’s the only option the candidates had if they wanted to offer a live debate to viewers in every part of the state.”
There are 10 Tegna-owned stations in Texas that cover 88% of the state. On Oct. 16, WFAA produced a statewide live debate between the two candidates from Tegna’s KENS San Antonio before a live studio audience of about 120.
The debate was broadcast live in Abilene, Amarillo, Austin, College Station, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and several other markets, with C-SPAN picking it up for national broadcast. Afterwards, WFAA produced a 30-minute show on Facebook Live, and created a social media listening team that followed and reported on viewer reaction across social media.
WFAA also provided feeds to non-Tegna-owned stations across the state as well as live streams on digital and social media platforms. That experience changed the way WFAA’s team covered the midterm elections. On Election Day, Nov. 6, the team went live with three hours of coverage and incorporated much more social media into the broadcast.
The news team worked to keep its coverage of the night much more fluid, frequently going live to reporters and experts on scene and staying in the field instead of focusing on the anchor desk, said Mungo.
“I feel like we really informed our audience,” she said. “We’re going to do more of that in 2019. Our viewers loved it.”
In the end, having the right people in place is key, Mungo said.
“I have spent more time on recruitment in the past five years than I ever have. Recruitment is so important, and to find great people who fit your brand you have to be recruiting all of the time.”