Not long after the doors opened at the massive San Francisco Marriott Marquis, the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) convention started filling up. More and more attendees— from seasoned corruption-busters to hungry students—piled in, eager to garner tips on surveillance, ethics, interviewing prisoners and filing a Freedom of Information request. When it wrapped four days later, the final attendance for the late June show climbed north of 1,650—well ahead of the roughly 1,200 that turned out last year and a record for the IRE.
Jonathan Mitchell, KNTV San Francisco news director, picked up on the unique vibe. “As soon as you walked in, it felt busy,” he said. “It sure felt like there were a lot of people there.” (KNTV, with 20- plus news staffers making the trip to IRE from around the Bay Area, were partly to blame for that.)
The booming turnout and the rapidly launching and expanding investigative reporting units at TV stations around the nation make one thing explicitly clear—broadcasters are increasingly focused on enterprise reporting, which means local officials intent on malfeasance may have a tougher go of it. Industry watchers offer a number of reasons for the I-team influxes: The recession is well behind us, and stations are flush with election money; amid a prolonged distaste for dysfunction in Washington, consumers demand greater accountability from their local politicians; and newspapers, long the local municipal watchdog, are increasingly ill-equipped to play that role.
And with more people using social media for the day’s commodity news, TV stations had better be bringing something mighty fresh and unique to each night’s newscast, say several local industry vets. “Enterprise reporting, and what we call ‘watchdog,’ is more and more who we are and what we need to be,” said Dave Lougee, Gannett Broadcasting president, who was one of 150 Gannett staffers, representing broadcast and print, in attendance at IRE. “It’s how we differentiate ourselves from commodity information. In an age of blogs, we need people who are paid to look under rocks.”
On one hand, stations have never been up against so much competition, with local sites trying to make a buck by covering the community events, crime and politics that have long been local TV’s bailiwick. On the other hand, with established brands and a corps of experienced news gatherers, stations are well poised to stand out amidst the local media clutter. “In all of that noise, consumers of media want to go to trusted sources,” said Bill Hoffman, Cox Media Group president. “More than ever, they want sources who do the vetting and who can tell them about the community in which they live.”
Stations that have launched or expanded their investigative efforts of late include KNTV, WIS Columbia (S.C.), WLS Chicago, WSB Atlanta, WPIX New York, WBAL Baltimore, KVOA Tucson and WIVB Buffalo. Jerry Gumbert, president and CEO of research firm AR&D, calls the rise of investigative a “significant trend,” and gives some of the credit to feuding politicians in Washington and a ripple effect extending well beyond the Beltway. In an AR&D survey, 73% of respondents said their interest in investigative at the national level is “high,” with 21% answering “moderate.” There’s not much of a drop-off at the local level, with 67% answering “high” and 25% saying “moderate.”
After years of watching the country teetering along the fiscal cliff, cellphone snooping and other federal foibles, consumers want to know someone is keeping a gimlet eye on elected officials at all levels. “They want accountability,” Gumbert said. “It’s not just a federal issue—it’s an every-level issue.”
Fully 50% of a station’s revenue typically comes from news, said Gumbert, so it is incentivized to offer the viewer real value in its newscasts. “Stations are motivated to invest in a richer, higher form of local content, not just the news of the day,” he said. “If you don’t invent or evolve a new value proposition for your newscast, [viewers] go away. They already know what you’re going to tell them.”
Follow the Leader
Perhaps no group has been a bigger champion of investigative reporting than NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations, which—flush with a cash infusion from parent Comcast—has launched or expanded units in all 10 markets, dedicating nearly 70 people to local investigative. In a recent interview with B&C, group president Valari Staab spoke of launching investigative as a way to “heal” newsrooms that had been neglected under previous ownership. “That was all about developing a culture of enterprise journalism in the newsroom,” she said.
As more stations make that investment, it puts pressure on other outlets in the market to up their game if they wish to remain in the ratings hunt. When stations rack up viewers, awards and buzz for investigative work, it can leave other stations in the market hustling to catch up. “When another station has a good story and gets ratings, it’s something you take notice of,” said Mikel Schaefer, WVUE New Orleans news director.
Besides two Alfred I. duPont- Columbia awards last year, WVUE was one of four stations, along with WTVF Nashville, WBZ Boston and KING Seattle, to claim prestigious Peabody awards for their watchdog journalism in May. Mark Lund, WBZ president and general manager, calls his investigative unit a “cornerstone” of the station. “If you provide differentiated content, you provide value to news viewers in return for them spending their time watching your news,” he said. “You have to make it worth the 30 minutes of time they give you.”
Talk About the Weather
The prevailing wisdom in local TV has long held that one needs to win weather in order to win the local ratings (and revenue) race. But with well-established national brands such as Weather.com and AccuWeather providing community- level forecasts that are available online and on mobile, 24/7, one wonders how much longer weather will make or break TV stations.
National news brands are far less likely to bust open a story on government waste in Topeka or Honolulu. Increasingly, leading stations seek to own these stories. “If you’re going to be the news leader, which we claim to be, you better be doing investigative,” said Robert Leider, executive VP and general manager at WSVN Miami.
Newspapers, of course, have significantly reduced resources to dedicate to these stories. Full-time newsroom employment declined 6.4% in 2012, Pew Research’s State of the News Media study reported earlier this year, with more losses expected for print going forward. While Gannett remains highly invested in print, its acquisition of the Belo station group last year shifted the company to primarily a broadcast one. Lougee mentions hiring a substantial number of print journalists to report at Gannett stations, though he notes they’re not coming from Gannett papers. This year, notable investigative reporter Rose Ciotta joined LIN’s WIVB from The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Staffing was flat in 2013, the annual RTDNA/ Hofstra University TV stations survey reported, but author Bob Papper expects it to grow in 2014. “Newspapers are doing less and less of this as they cut back on manpower,” he said. “It opens up more opportunities for stations.”
A Big-Ticket Item
The investment in investigative reporting is daunting. A three-person I-team in a midsize market might cost more than $500,000 annually. There may not be enough budget—or news, for that matter—to justify the cost of such a unit in smaller markets. Legal costs for vetting hard-hitting stories are substantial, and an aggressive I-team can tick off advertisers to the point where they withhold spending. In an era of multimedia journalists turning around multiple packages daily, in-depth investigative work is, at least on paper, highly inefficient.
To be sure, loads of stations are slapping an “Investigates” graphic on the screen to sex up fairly mundane stories about small-time cheats and napping security guards. Some believe the rise in local investigative brands is partially a marketing ploy dreamed up by consultants, with traditional station reporting breathlessly promoted under the I-team banner. “The root of all good reporting is investigative reporting,” said one group news VP.
But those who are putting forth extraordinary spadework appear to be rewarded for their effort. In the AR&D study, 62% of respondents said investigative reporting “is a reason to regularly follow” a particular news organization “when ‘news of the day’ has become commodity content.” And fully 76% of media executives polled by AR&D strongly believe that investigative reporting is a “vital” part of their organization’s future.
“I believe this business is still about ratings and eyeballs,” said Debbie Turner, Journal Broadcast Group executive VP and longtime WTVF Nashville GM. “Do it right, and you attract ratings and eyeballs. But you have to create content that people want to see.”
Mark Horvit, IRE executive director, was elated to see the record turnout for the association’s recent convention, with media giants such as Gannett and Scripps holding staff meetings in conjunction with it. One takeaway from the four days’ worth of panels and sessions is that content needs to be differentiated, and high quality, to set a news brand apart now.
“It used to be, you put stuff on your site and say, we have a lot of content—we’ll compete,” said Horvit. “[Media outlets] have come to the realization that simply having stuff is not enough. It has to be good stuff. It has to be unique stuff.”
FOUR STATIONS BAG PRESTIGIOUS PEABODY AWARDS FOR STANDOUT REPORTING
Four TV stations were in New York recently to claim Peabody awards for their work. Gannett’s KING Seattle won for “Hanford’s Dirty Secrets,” which exposed a tank leak at a massive nuclear dump, and a substantial payment to a contractor for its management of the site. “We are so lucky to work for a local TV station that still believes in investigative reporting,” Susannah Frame, KING chief investigative reporter, told the crowd at the Waldorf-Astoria.
Journal Broadcast Group’s WTVF Nashville was awarded for “Question of Influence,” about what it described as rampant “cronyism” in Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s administration. “We are driven to do stories that matter to our communities—stories that make the world just a little bit better,” said Phil Williams, chief investigative reporter.
Louisiana Media Company’s WVUE New Orleans claimed its prize for “Louisiana Purchased,” a multifaceted series with the Times-Picayune’s NOLA.com. Chief investigative reporter Lee Zurik cited the “commitment and vision” of his bosses at LMC and Raycom, which operates the station. Then came CBS-owned WBZ Boston—TV and radio—for its work on the Boston Marathon bombings. “Nothing was more important to us than getting the story right,” anchor Lisa Hughes said. “The community was grieving, still in shock.”
The University of Georgia gives out Peabodys to electronic media outlets for “stories that matter,” and the 46 winners range from investigative-minded news orgs to primetime dramas. Four stations— Scripps’ KNXV Phoenix and KMGH Denver, NBC’s WVIT Hartford and Dispatch’s WTHR Indianapolis—picked up Peabodys in 2013.
WBZ and WVUE were two of the five TV stations that claimed similarly elite duPont-Columbia awards this year for their hardnosed reporting. David Friend, senior VP of news at CBS Television Stations, calls it “huge recognition for the great work they did under very difficult circumstances.”
Mikel Schaefer, news director at WVUE, describes the awards as a “cherry on top” after months of hard work. The honors may be recruitment tools too. “I’d like to think people look at the quality of what we do,” he said, “and want to be a part of that.”