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Aug. 23, 2016, 12:36 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Where does local TV news fit in the digital age? Tegna, a year separated from Gannett, has some ideas

“By following the lead of our employees to create content that is digital first, it frees them up from the sameness of format that is plaguing local television news.”

Television isn’t dead; it isn’t even TV, as we’ve known it. Broadcast companies may be weathering for now the rise of platforms, the fractured nature of digital news consumption, the uncertainty of digital advertising models (name a trend, any trend) better than their newspaper peers, but there are plenty of signs of turbulence ahead, especially when it comes to local TV news.

Tegna thinks it’s setting up its local news stations to survive a future where the habit of sitting down in front of the TV after dinner to watch the evening news is overtaken by over-the-top, on-demand, mobile device and social media-driven “TV” viewing.

“We recognize our audience increasingly doesn’t distinguish screens: they might get something from our newscast, or from our mobile app, or from being a fan of our local station’s Facebook page, or an Instagram video,” Frank Mungeam, VP for digital content at Tegna, said. “Part of our reinvention effort is to recognize that the most compelling way to tell stories in the digital age is an all-day story experience that starts with social engagement, that gives updates on digital, context on broadcast, and then offers extras as a digital followup, and then continues with a social conversation — and then you repeat that cycle.”

Tegna, the funkily named spinoff of Gannett’s broadcast and digital media assets (not Tenga: NSFW, Google at your own risk, etc., etc.), operates 46 TV stations as well as digital properties like and is now a little more than a year old. Mungeam and Ellen Crooke, Tegna’s VP of news, are eager cheerleaders for the company’s efforts to change the staid format of local news programming.

There’s much to be optimistic about in an election and Olympics year, when profits are up sharply: Tegna reported a profit of $99.5 million last quarter, up from $38.5 million last year. (Though according to one recent analysis from Bloomberg, spending on political advertising since late April 2016 fell to $146 million, down from $373 million over the same period in 2012, thanks to a free-media-happy Donald Trump and a protracted primary season for both parties.) Tegna is hiring for lots of editorial positions at its stations (the descriptors “multiplatform” and “multi-skilled” rule those job descriptions). All of its stations have on-demand channels on Roku; some stations are testing on Amazon’s Fire TV as part of a partnership (Apple TV and Apple News are under consideration as well). It’s pushing out Google AMP pages for station websites.

As a case study of Tegna’s digital reinvention, Crooke and Mungeam cite an investigation by Tegna’s Atlanta NBC affiliate WXIA into the heroin crisis in a triangle-shaped region of the city’s suburbs. The series, conducted by the station’s journalists over six weeks, was first published online (and widely viewed and mostly via mobile) and aired later on broadcast, with updates (other Tegna stations are looking to model releasing similar projects this way).

The heroin investigation was one of several pilot projects that emerged from a piloting process Tegna has been experimenting with, in which it surveys staffers at its various stations for new project ideas, convenes some of those people for company-wide brainstorming, and then advances about 10 projects into a six-week pilot stage, complete with funding and other resources (outside producers or production companies might be hired to help execute a pilot, for instance). The pilots then go through extensive user testing, whether online or with focus groups.

“We’ve asked creative minds across all of our stations to fill out a survey that has five questions in them, including things like, ‘If you were in charge of your newsroom tomorrow, what would it look like?’ ‘What ideas do you have about the current state of local news?’ ‘What would you like to see changed?’ The people that we see who really have a passion and a vision for it, we invite them into a brainstorming session of how we can transform local news,” Crooke said. “And the ideas that seem to do well, we are funding in getting spread across the country. Pilots that don’t work, we’re learning just as much from.”

For the heroin investigation, the idea was to dedicate five journalists to a single topic for six weeks, and focus on a piece that would be released online first. Another project, Verify, came out of an idea to fact check on the road, allowing a non-journalist to tag along with a journalist to get a feel for themselves whether certain widely reported narratives ring true. The project was tested at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Verify segments will air in September on all Tegna’s Texas TV stations.

The company is in the testing stage of its second cycle of pilot projects — a third brainstorming session will start in September at its Denver station KUSA — and expects to have the third round of projects launched by the end of the year. Crooke declined to share how much exactly pilots receive in funding, saying that “the amount each gets is variable. There’s substantial support for many of them.”

“At the brainstorming session, we strategically give staff topics and ideas that stations need to work on, and let them go. For this particular session, we had them focus on local information content — they’re not coming up with talk shows or anything,” Crooke said. “One of the things we’ve learned through this process is we have to let go. Things where we think, well, we’ve tried that, that won’t work — had we actually gone with our own sensibility, we might not have moved forward on something good. We try to keep our minds open to what our employees are interested in doing.”

“By following the lead of our employees to create content that is digital first, it frees them up from the sameness of format that is plaguing local television news,” Crooke added.

“The kinds of criteria we look at when evaluating which projects to invest in are, will we learn something, will we develop new skills through the process, will we develop content that’s more effective on emerging platforms?” Mungeam said. “Will it grow our storytelling skill, and grow our audience in the places where our audiences are moving?”

For Crooke and Mungeam, finding ways to monetize these digital projects will follow after pilots prove they can attract an audience: “Our job is to create meaningful, valuable content. We have smarter, other people working on the monetization part,” Mungeam said.

Other pilots include a 360º video pilot tailored for YouTube and Facebook and a social video pilot that tested explainers for the conventions — both trendy formats that all publishers, not just broadcasters, are scrambling to master. Some ongoing projects are educational in nature. One curriculum focused on listening and discovery using social media was crafted by five social media managers from different Tegna stations, after crowdsourcing best practices. Those volunteers are traveling to all the stations, spending two days in each newsroom offering training to staffers tailored to their roles at their station.

“The training itself is peer-based, but we are taking advantage of our size and scale, and leveraging the wisdom of the crowd,” Mungeam said.

POSTED     Aug. 23, 2016, 12:36 p.m.
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