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Nov. 26, 2018, 9:28 a.m.
Reporting & Production

To improve local TV news, ABC’s stations are betting on a Localish brand and community-level hires

“The reality is we do not have folks who are embedded in the communities they serve who actually are responsible for telling these stories.” ABC is making local hires as one step to try to fix that.

Again and again, most Americans say they overwhelmingly trust their local TV news. Their strong local audience connections often translate into big followings on the web and on Facebook. And while TV is facing its own shifts in business model, local TV stations still achieve profitability with an ease most local newspapers can only dream of.

But despite those advantages, local TV stations have been notable laggards when it comes to digital innovation. Many are still happy to publish segment scripts as web stories, post video straight from their newscasts, and otherwise do little to note that digital as a medium has different demands than Eyewitness News Live at 11. For every WCPO or WRAL that tries something genuinely new, there are — well, a whole lot of stations that aren’t WCPO or WRAL or the handful of other standouts.

A large share of stations in the biggest markets are owned and operated by the networks themselves, so decisions made at the network level have a big impact on local audiences. And ABC — which owns its local affiliate in 6 of the 8 largest media markets — is making a set of moves aimed at preparing for a world less reliant on broadcast towers and cable bundles. That includes building a new local-national brand.

“We believe that local news and information is as relevant, as important as ever. It’s just the audience’s expectations as it relates to that content and the brands they chose [for that] relationship that has changed,” Wendy McMahon, ABC’s president of owned television stations, told me. She noted that southern California’s KABC saw record increases online and during its newscast the day the Woolsey fire began and two days after the Thousand Oaks bar shooting, with a 72 percent jump in newscast audience and a 451 percent increase in video consumption on KABC’s website and app. “The key to innovation in culture is twofold: There has to be patience in leadership and a commitment to not sit in the status quo.”

ABC — itself owned by Disney, which is itself growing by taking on 21st Century Fox, though not its local TV stations — says it’s betting on both people and platforms for its local coverage. It kicked off a digital-first brand focused on sourcing local content for national audiences called Localish, with a spread of shows — with funding via the embattled Facebook Watch — focusing on “the good in America’s cities.” (“Live like a local” copywriting and hot-new-restaurant content shares some DNA with millennial-friendly local startups like Charlotte Agenda and 6am.) On top of that, McMahon recently announced plans for ABC to onboard and embed dozens of new local journalists in communities instead of markets, with reporters moving up markets every few years.

At KABC, general manager Cheryl Fair says she is using the community journalists in an attempt to “make SoCal small again.” She’s hiring five entry-level journalists to the station’s news team of 43, with the goal of incubating local digital-savvy journalists from the start of their careers, McMahon said. ABC’s community journalist initiative includes plans to hire 20 locally-grounded reporters in 2019 in their markets of L.A., New York (WABC), Chicago (WLS), Philadelphia (WPVI), San Francisco (KGO), and Houston (KTRK). (ABC also owns Raleigh-Durham’s WTVD and and Fresno’s KFSN.) Bernie Prazenica, the GM in Philadelphia, is planning to focus his community journalists in undercovered/underrepresented groups. (PBS39 in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley has also hired reporters who agree to embed in neighborhoods instead of newsrooms, using money from its spectrum sale to finance a solutions-focused weekday newscast.)

“We have bureaus attached to [KABC’s designated market area] in Orange County and the Inland Empire, but the reality is we do not have folks who are embedded in the communities they serve who actually are responsible for telling these stories,” McMahon said. (Those mostly younger reporters also bring social media skills to the table.)

It’s one thing to hire more local reporters and another to actually push out more and more useful local news, so the jury is still out on that initiative. But ABC has also made inroads with more local content for a national audience on various social platforms — with that content sometimes mashed up into broadcasted formats.

Facebook has a troubled relationship with promising publishers the pivot-to-video is worth it, including with Watch, the platform’s ambitious video section with less-than-stellar reviews and audience. (Not to mention, you know, its whole internal leadership-crisis thing.) After subsidizing and then retreating from Live, Facebook again fed support to publishers to kick off Watch with quality content. Feedback’s been mixed, and Facebook appears keen to bring on shows that embody meaningful interactions and happy communities. It’s funded a cross-country corruption highlights show and Jorge Ramos treks through Real America. ABC’s main entry thus far is Localish this summer, highlighting initiatives that bring people of opposing viewpoints together at a dinner table (Democrat and Republican), softball field (police officers and gang members), or border wall (tennis players in the U.S. and Mexico).

“We so often go to the campaign events, the major rallies but rarely do we pay attention to people in between these cities,” said Michael Koenigs, More in Common’s host and an executive producer of Localish. (Which, if you didn’t notice, echoes the ABC sitcom “Black-ish.”) “It allows ABC to find a way to tell stories that capture both attention of what people in America are facing, but it reveals a resolution. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel; others [working in partisan media] don’t allow for a resolution of tension. We at More in Common recognize a solution is at the middle rather than the extremes.”

Yes, that’s warm and fuzzy, and news organizations in various mediums have tried to bridge the gaps with events gathering opposite-minded neighbors. But as local coverage in all formats shrinks, however, people are understandably concerned about parachute journalism.

What about bike-ride journalism? Koenigs is based in New York City — along with the rest of the digital news business, it seems — but in 2016 he spent the week between the Republican and Democratic conventions cycling through towns en route to Philadelphia from Cleveland, the two convention sites. This year, as midterm coverage was ramping up, Koenigs and the show’s bookers called local stations and nonprofits, he told me, to find and follow up on the local stories he encountered on his ride and that the stations find on everyday reporting assignments.

“The results of the midterms shows the country is now literally divided, blue and red, and we’re seeing that political tension hasn’t been resolved,” Koenigs said. “As we go into the presidential election in just a few short years people are going to be wanting to hear and see examples of what works, what helps diffuse animosity between groups.”

The team has compiled footage from More in Common to air in the local markets as well, using the views and other metrics from the episodes’ Facebook Watch performances to select stories for the on-air show. Other Localish shows include the influencer interview My Go-To and foodie havens Worth the Wait and Bite Size. (Pro tip: Don’t watch the 7-pound-burrito-challenge episode on a full stomach. Or any stomach.)

How much can this sort of initiative move the needle on people’s trust in digital news? And is the sort of thing other local broadcasters will do — or will they continue to be very happy sharing wacky videos from two time zones away on their Facebook page? Facebook Watch is clearly built for stories that scale, but the approach of Localish — as hinted by its name — and ABC’s community journalist program might get a tiny bit closer to an answer. Ish.

Image from one episode of “More in Common,” featuring a former KKK member and Syrian refugee who both live in Georgia, provided by ABC.

POSTED     Nov. 26, 2018, 9:28 a.m.
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