A year after gambling on building a truly “digital first” newsroom, KNXV, Scripps’ ABC affiliate in Phoenix, has seen big boosts in on-air and online audiences, validating a model that could be adopted by other stations in the broadcast group.
“When you look at the analytics, we are definitely onto something,” said Sean McLaughlin, Scripps VP of news. “If we look to which of our stations is doing the best job reaching consumers and their demands, Phoenix definitely leads the way.”
News director Chris Kline, who has orchestrated the newsroom overhaul, said each one of the station’s newscasts was up in the July ratings book, a significant feat for a station whose news programming typically ranked third in the market a year or so ago.
Late-night news rated No. 1 during the month, bolstered by a 28% growth in viewership, Kline said. Audiences at 4, 5 and 6:30 p.m. also grew by double digits, resulting in either No. 1 or No. 2 finishes for afternoon and evening news throughout the month, Kline said.
In-market traffic on KNXV’s website, abc15.com, has grown 77% since producing digital content became a newsroom centerpiece starting June 2015, Kline said. The affiliate has 100,000 more Twitter followers and 50,000 more Facebook fans than it did a year ago.
Kline, previously KNXV digital director, said that success has been driven by the revamp of everything from job descriptions and workflow to mindsets. “What makes or breaks our business is the content we produce. So our mission became dedicating half of our resources to that content—and not just the TV content,” he said. “Although that is still a core part of who we are, the digital side continues to grow and evolve. We need to be playing in these spaces and playing aggressively.”
That has shown in the station’s coverage of this summer’s rash of storms, which have led to flooding and dust storms, Kline said.
TV coverage was boosted by having more journalists in the field, the result of newsroom personnel changes, he said. “This has made a notable difference in our ability to be everywhere and show all sides of the stories.”
Meantime, digital endeavors included Facebook Live reports, some drawing hundreds of thousands of viewers, Kline said. Newly hired digital journalists are turning user-generated storm footage into short-form videos. Interactive features that allow users to track rainfall and test storm preparedness are posted online.
“We are trying to find new ways to serve or audience,” Kline said. “We are not going to sit back and look at the way things have always been done.”
Being able to do that has required sweeping— and sometimes difficult—changes in the newsroom, said Kline, who built a career on blending the news and digital sides of local TV since the early 2000s. That includes:
• Merging the newsroom’s traditional news desk and digital staff to create a “much nimbler group,” that no longer includes assignment editors or web producers, Kline says. Today, that 10-person team handles it all—procures TV and web content, as well as managing the breadth of digital postings, he said. Pooling resources has yielded “a much more powerful” newsroom operation, Kline said.
• Hiring digital-specific journalists to boost coverage of core beats—including courts, police and business— on digital platforms. Their content often complements, or takes a hard look at, TV stories. The goal of bolstering online and mobile content through features including data visualization and info-graphics also drove the move, Kline said. Doing so required going outside traditional recruiting sources to places such as Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism.
• Restructuring staff to have more news crews— TV and digital reporters and photographers—on the street to generate more stories and increase investigative work. “We wanted to get to a point of our newsroom where half were in a content gathering role,” Kline said. He said adding staffers required him to make cuts elsewhere through steps like phasing out associate producers.
That process cost a few journalists their jobs, which Kline said stemmed from putting resources into hiring journalists who specialize in digital. “We had to take a hard look at who in our newsroom was up for this challenge,” Kline said. “Some of the skill sets we needed weren’t necessarily available in the traditional newsroom.”
Kline would not specify how many people lost their jobs, saying only that the “vast majority” of journalists who worked at KNXV before the overhaul still do. Station staffers are not unionized.
Kline is giving increased consideration to the moneymaking side of the business. “In every decision we make we are thinking how is this going to build the business as well as the content foundation,” he said.
That includes using analytics, like site traffic and consumer engagement, to measure whether the new digital journalists are not only sustainable but profitable, he said. Digital features are created with sponsorship opportunities in mind, Kline said.
Analytics are also used to drive content. “Being digital first means that what we are creating is going to evolve based on what the audience is going to tell us,” Kline said.
“I think any news leader in this day and age has to be cognizant of the business side,” Kline said. “Are there lines you can’t cross? Of course.
“But if we live in bubbles then how do we build the business we are working in and would like to continue to be working in for decades to come?”