Ellen Crooke, VP of news at Tegna, says the company is doing a top-to-bottom overhaul of its approach to local news led by next-generation innovators with a digital mindset. The goal is drawing in younger viewers with binge-worthy investigative, episodic digital content that finds broadcast iterations afterwards.
The “assembly line” of local news needs a revamp, and Tegna believes its next-gen, digital native journalists are the ones to do it.
Ellen Crooke, Tegna’s VP of news, says the company convenes a group of its most ardent innovators every few months, brainstorming and then piloting ideas for content worthy of Netflix-like binge watching. Teams out of its Atlanta, Houston and Washington stations have been leading the way with work that has garnered awards and broken through to younger demographics.
In an interview with TVNewsCheck Special Projects Editor Michael Depp, Crooke said that an aggressive social media strategy is essential to boost ratings, old-school anchors are a thing of the past and transparency is essential in an age of media mistrust.
An edited transcript:
I understand Tegna has been having success reaching younger male demographics with its news content on YouTube. Where do social platforms fit into your news and audience strategies right now?
We can talk about the platforms, but we’re seeing success because we’re focusing on the content that’s going on those platforms. If we do not change the content that we’re creating to be more innovative, interesting and exciting, then it doesn’t matter what platform we’re on.
We have a simple mission: to create more exciting, shareable content. We’re seeing success on YouTube, but also on television, Facebook and over the top. And that is because we are putting our innovators — our next generation of journalists — in charge of the transformation.
We’re bringing in innovators from around the company — not department heads or leaders. They’re people who are passionate about changing what local news has become. They’re next-generation journalists, and we bring them [in] every few months. They come up with hundreds of ideas over a three-day period, we let them vote on the top 10 and then we support those pilots with funding and time.
You’re talking about iterating on multiple platforms?
Exactly — digital, episodic, investigative work out of the assembly line of local news. We put teams together and create in-depth content that is not your typical local news fare.
[They are] set aside so that they’re not in the daily mix, and their mission is to get people to binge watch local news. These teams have won national Murrows and Cronkite awards. It’s incredible the type of work they get to produce when you say do it digitally first.
Doing television first puts you into that local news format. They think of creating these episodes that people would want to watch like a Netflix series.
So, these are produced for digital first, but do they find a television iteration?
After it has been released and people start talking about it, then it turns into television. [Some examples are] The Triangle, which is about heroin in some of the wealthiest suburbs of Atlanta; Charlie Foxtrot, which changed laws and saved lives around our veterans losing benefits; and Selling Girls, which exposed child sex trafficking. They all had a television component, but not until after the digital component was realized.
Where are these teams based?
We created the first team in Atlanta, and it was just a group of people who were passionate and had gotten kind of sick of doing the old-fashioned, regular television news. They did some amazing work. Then we built a team in Houston. And then we’ve just created another team in Washington that’s working on their first piece.
This is all predicated on the idea that the traditional local newscast is antiquated or has problems. Drilling into those newscasts, where do they need a revamp?
The whole thing, top to bottom. One great example of that is Next with Kyle Clark at KUSA [Denver]. They decided to take their 6 p.m. show and blow it up and create content that is interesting, different and smart. It involves really great investigative work and commentary on the day’s news.
It lost audience first, that traditional older audience, but our goal was to bring in new audiences, and that’s exactly what happened. That newscast now is the No. 1 local television newscast in all of Denver. We’ve done the same thing with Breaking the News in Minneapolis. But we’re transforming newscasts all over the country.
Our morning newscast at WFAA [Dallas] has been transformed. There’s not a robotic formula that we’re having them go through. Each one is unique and different. But one of the common factors is, it’s social media first. It’s social conversation before, during and after these newscasts. It’s an ongoing conversation that happens before, during and after the show.
A large part of your role is hiring the right talent to lead your broadcasts. What are you looking for in an anchor today to connect with audiences?
I would say that word “anchor” is really becoming out of date. We like to think of them as influencers. They’re smart, quick on their feet, able to have a point of view. They’re not just people who sit behind a desk and read a prompter. That day is forever gone.
If you take a look at the success we’re having at WUSA [Washingon] in the morning, the host [Reese Waters] has a background in standup comedy. He is witty and smart and able to take the day’s news and give you a fresh perspective. We like to think of them as not just newscasts anymore, but as live events.
How are you tackling the general climate of hostility towards the mainstream media and audience mistrust?
Trust with our journalists is perhaps one of the biggest concerns that any news organization has right now. It’s really important for all of us to understand that this problem of trust with the media started well before the current administration took office. So Tegna is working on good quality, smart, transparent work.
One of the things that’s really taken off that came out of our innovation summit is a program called Verify. We asked people to send us content that they’re seeing where they wonder if it’s true or not and we work with them to verify it. We show our sources up front. It’s a regular segment that plays on social media, television and is something that people can interact with, and each station does its own version.
To pull everything off that you’re describing, it seems that you need to lay a lot of your local resources against social media platforms. There’s been skepticism for years about being too invested in those channels because they’re not owned and operated and the monetization isn’t there. How do you convince the brass to get behind this strategy when so much is contingent on working with outside channels?
Because that’s where our audience is. In order to have them relate to us, see our product, become fans and begin to interact with us, we need to speak to them where they are. And they are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.
Have you yet to see in any way a positive correlation between your volume of social activity in a given market and your local ratings?
Absolutely, yes. WFAA’s morning show would be one example. It has just in the past year had a complete reboot. We changed the graphics and the music and brought in different hosts, but one of the biggest changes is we really began to engage with the audience before, during and after the show. That’s shown a direct correlation to the increase in their ratings, and we’ve seen that at WXIA in Atlanta, at KARE in Minneapolis and KSDK in St. Louis. In all of those our morning ratings have seen great growth over the past year.
At the executive level at other broadcasters, the position of news VP is sometimes now getting converged with marketing VP. What do you think of that shift and what it means about the industry at this moment?
We aren’t combining that. At Tegna, we have incredible marketers and we believe that having strong brands at our stations is perhaps one of the most important things you can do to have vital and relevant content for your market.
It’s important to have journalists understand marketing and how to get our message across. We have individual teams, but we are cross-training and understanding. In order to lead multiple newsrooms in these days, you have to have that sense of marketing.