Local television station news: Scripps WCPO in Cincinnati vs. Sinclair Broadcasting Corp.
See these previous blog entries on the importance of local media:
-- "The ongoing tragedy of dying print media, the latest being community newspapers in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, Maryland," 2015
-- "Voting vs. civic participation | elections vs. governance," 2016
-- "One more blow against community media: Washington Post drops Thursday "county" news special sections," 2017
WCPO-TV, is decidedly different from other for profit broadcast stations in that it is seriously in-depth and more like a newspaper, with deep beat reporting and serious in-depth investigative reporting, even an editorial cartoonist on staff.
Among other things, I was surprised by an ongoing coverage of poverty issues with one journalist, Lucy May, assigned to the beat and putting out incredible stories, and coverage of quality of life issues triggered by referendum and bond issues, and the station's sending journalists to other markets to be able to compare and contrast policy and practice.
I interviewed Mike Canan, the editor in chief of the tv station's digital news operation--he believes that he is the only person working in local television broadcasting with such a title, but I have been remiss in writing about it, because I wanted to read the old tome Making Local News, and I just hadn't gotten around to it.
Sinclair Broadcasting's conservativizing and "de-localization" of local television news. The recent and deserved criticism of Sinclair Broadcasting Corporation--a major television station operator with a decidedly conservative bent--forcing anchors across the country to read the same statement during regular news broadcast, inferring that traditional media is "fake news" ("How Local News Stations Are Rebelling Against Their Sinclair Overlords," Deadspin; "Backlash grows over Sinclair Broadcast Group's 'must-run' conservative content on local TV stations," Los Angeles Times; "Sinclair's Boss Responds to Criticism," New York Times; "US broadcaster Sinclair has plenty to gain from parroting Donald Trump," Toronto Star) supporting the lies and mis-statements of President Trump, makes it important to call attention to the WCPO-TV digital news operation as a counter-example of what is possible in television news journalism.
-- Deadspin produced a video showing the various newscasters saying the same thing at the different stations.
Sinclair is the largest station group across the country, and if the merger with Tribune Broadcasting is approved--that company has leading stations in the top three television markets--New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago--the company will be even more powerful.
the Scripps Company and its group of 33 television stations, and the other stations in the group don't have nearly as deep a digital news operation as the Cincinnati station.
Scripps: roots in newspapers but shifting to television and digital. And the company had owned newspapers for more than 100 years (although now those properties have been sold off), still owns radio stations although they are up for sale ("Scripps cuts dozens of Cincinnati jobs, selling radio stations," Cincinnati Business Courier), and a separate but related firm of cable television networks has just merged with Discovery Channel ("Discovery completes $12-billion takeover of Scripps Networks," LAT). Likely the company's deep roots in print journalism have shaped the WCPO experiment.
More broadly the Scripps Company is repositioning around digital media ("Scripps, known for local TV and radio brands, finds new strategies for national digital audiences," NiemanLab). Scripps has the millennial focused Newsy digital news "channel," which is not a broadcast network, but exclusively distributed online and through cable, digital, and satellite carriers ("Newsy to Launch as Cable TV Channel After E.W. Scripps Buys RLTV," Variety). It's based in Columbia, Missouri and has some similarities to Vice Media. The company also has investments in podcast production and advertising networks.
Cincinnati's WCPO-TV digital news operation is unique by design
This text is based on a telephone interview with Mike Canan, editor in chief at WCPO-TV
Newspaper digital subscriptions as a model. Not quite 5 years ago, Scripps began to think about how to differentiate its television stations news content to build a deeper connection with its audience. At the time the company still owned newspapers, and had gone through the launch of various subscription products/paywalls at newspapers. While controversial at the time, now subscription-based paywalls are a standard practice at newspapers and the company thought it would be worth experimenting with subscription based products at the television stations.
-- "A Cincinnati TV station with a paywalled site is challenging the city’s leading daily newspaper," NiemanLab
-- "Cincinnati TV station WCPO decides to declare (newspaper-style) war on the local daily," NiemanLab
-- "Inside Scripps WCPO paywall gamble," NetNewsCheck
The belief that the standard local tv news product wasn't strong enough to support a subscription-based product.. But in order for subscription-based content to work, there was an understanding that a tv station's traditional news coverage wasn't enough in and of itself to justify someone wanting to pay extra to access it.
They decided to provide not just more coverage, more news, but deeper and richer journalism, much more in depth compared to typical local television news stories, with the aim of developing a deeper connection with the audience.
As mentioned, Mike Canan's title is editor in chief, when typically such a position would be titled "digital executive producer" or "director of new media." Canan worked in newspapers for the company, including 10 years in news management and service as managing editor of a moderate sized newspaper.
Differentiating a local television station within a market by creating a strong digital news operation. A typical television station in a market the size of Cincinnati--it's #36--would have 3 to 6 digital journalists supplementing the on-air broadcast team.
By contrast WCPO has invested in building a robust digital news operation with 27 digital journalists, 5 more people marketing and promoting the digital news operation, and supplemental resources from the parent company's headquarters team for development work.
From the Columbia Journalism Review article "In Cincinnati, a local TV station sets out to build a full-fledged digital newsroom":
“It’s renewing the newspaper war without the newspaper,” says Bob Jonason, assistant professor in the University of Cincinnati’s journalism department.WCPO Lounge Acts," a program that features bands playing at local venues.
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.”
Compared to newspapers, tv stations typically spend little money on freelancers, but that's not the case with WCPO's digital news platform. And because, unfortunately, many media outlets have closed or cut back on staff, there is a large pool of veteran, experienced journalists to draw upon to expand the range of stories that can be covered.
The journalists working for the digital news operation have experience with newspapers, magazines, and business publications. They bring a different thought process than is typical of a television journalist, where visuals over-dominate the narrative. There is a big focus on enterprise journalism. From the CJR article:
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.”Developing unique editorial content differentiates WCPO from other television news operations in Cincinnati. WCPO's digital news operation focuses on areas that a tv station doesn't typically cover in depth. Regular tv news is about breaking news, crime, fires and accidents with strong visuals--"if it bleeds it leads."
Deep coverage of important community issues, commentary, and aiming to create dialogue within a community is not a normal part of a local broadcast tv news operation. The station is trying to build deeper connections with younger audience demographics, people who haven't grown up with newspapers.
The station aims to provide unique content, and not merely the best "television journalism" in Cincinnati, but the best journalism--print or broadcast. (Scripps used to own the Cincinnati Post, but the newspaper shut down in 2007.)
Like newspapers, the station has a number of "beat reporters" dedicated to covering specific topics and developing a strong knowledge base on the field. WCPO has 10 beat reporters in the digital news operation and the station uses these digital reporters as on-air experts, not unlike how a tv network has dedicated reporters on military or health topics.
The station works to achieve excellence in both the on-air news product as well as the digital news operation. There are 6-10 digital stories produced each day, complemented by digital versions of the on-air broadcast stories, and sports-related podcasts. In a typical week at least two digital stories make it to the on-air news product. Overall there is a much greater focus on improving the story and going deeper for the digital news stories.
As an example, because Procter & Gamble is based in Cincinnati and is a major national and international corporation, it's a beat for the station, and recently had a big breaking story, where activist stockholders were demanding board representation, the reporter on the P&G beat, Dan Monk, did a live talk back with the on-air newscasters, and later did segments on the morning show and provided deeper analysis that is usually beyond the capability of a typical tv newscaster. He supplemented the tv story with an in depth story for the online platform.
Another great story was on public housing in Cincinnati ("Rats, roaches and resilience: Cincinnati's public housing at a crossroads").
Lucy May covers poverty. For the story on public housing, working with photojournalist Emily Maxwell, they went deep into three complexes, and produced digital and broadcast stories.
The version of the story for the television broadcasts during sweeps week was 8.5 minutes long--a story that length is practically unheard of for a local tv station. The story was very different from traditional tv news stories. It had voice overs, music, a number of interviews and special effects. It was more like a digital video.
Both examples demonstrate how the unique expertise for the station's digital news operations is drawn upon and leveraged by the regular tv news broadcasts. At least a couple stories each week go from the digital platform to on-air broadcasting.
The station has more and better assets than a typical local news broadcast operation. The robust digital news operation allows the station to utilize journalism investments in multiple ways, and it makes for better television and video too, but also for better digital news stories, such as better illustration and video elements that other digital news platforms might not be able to include because they don't have the resources nor the expertise.
Digital news journalists and the on-air news operation may look at how to report stories differently, but working together they do a better job and drill down and get better stories for both formats.
The website also has an opinion and commentary section overseen by an editorial board.
Results. The station is making a lot of progress. While for various reasons, the decision was made to drop the subscription requirement for access to the digital news platform, there is a rising number of people who pay a subscription fee (not unlike donations to public television and radio) out of a recognition that the station is providing unique and valuable content.
Subscribers get access to stories that are ad free, and there is an insider rewards program including purchase discounts, special access to events, and special events held specifically for subscribers.
Many months, the WCPO digital news site gets more unique visitors than that of the local newspaper, the Cincinnati Enquirer. And the station leads the market in social media impressions ("WCPO on top in Cincy social media," TVNewsCheck).
The station's broadcast ratings are rising and the station is moving up the ranks in the Cincinnati market. Because in television news, pretty much every station does the same thing, "when you offer something deeper, it's a breath of fresh air, not what people expect," and the station's ratings have benefited.
While the digital news operation is somewhat separate from the broadcast operation, the site does include the on-air stories in digital form, and as discussed above, stories from the digital operation increasingly run on-air too, especially in-depth stories that are particularly noteworthy (and can generate high visibility and ratings).
WCPO-TV as an experimental platform for the company. The Scripps television group looks to WCPO as the test bed for new technologies and ways of doing things, not just for news but also for business practices. It's become the hub for innovation for the company, along with other digital media efforts like Newsy.
Conclusion. Given the effect of digital delivery on newspapers, radio, cable network access and delivery, and increasingly television (for example with the rise of ESPN, most tv stations no longer cover professional sports teams in as much depth), it's important to experiment and integrate digital news delivery into the program to remain relevant and competitive.
In the Cincinnati media market, there is a recognition that the WCPO digital news operation produces worthwhile, high quality and unique journalism. As media evolves and advertising revenues shift from broadcast outlets, the station needs to continue to be able to fund journalism in a way that is productive. The WCPO news operation is a big step towards figuring out how to do that.