As the station group’s VP of local content development, Jerry Walsh explains how his four-person team is working to make every Nexstar station a better local news producer and programmer. In addition, he’s the newly minted chairman of RTDNA and he offers his take on the evolving mission of that group.
To get the most out of its stations’ newsrooms and creative services departments, Nexstar Media has established a team of group-level executives to act as a resource to the stations — establishing best practices, coordinating disaster coverage, overseeing Nexstar’s Washington bureau, acting as clearinghouse of ideas and helping produce multi-market special events and political debates.
That team is headed Jerry Walsh, VP of local content development, and also includes Chris Berg, Andy Miller, Melissa Stacy and Dan Salamone.
Walsh’s broadcasting career stretches back 25 years, including 11 with Nexstar. He started as a videographer and producer, but quickly stepped into news management jobs with increasing responsibility. Prior to joining the corporate ranks in 2011, he was news director at WROC Rochester, N.Y. He reports to Blake Russell, SVP, station operations and content development.
Walsh has also been active in the Radio Television Digital News Association and, at last month’s annual conference in Baltimore, he became chairman of the organization.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell, Walsh talks about the different ways his team tries to make every Nexstar station a better local news producer and programmer and the evolving mission of the RTDNA.
An edited transcript:
So I understand that one of your big jobs is to assist stations when major disasters strike.
Absolutely. When Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina, Greenville needed help. So, we moved some crews in from other markets to help them report on the news, but also to make sure the local reporters and producers had time to take care of their personal lives. Their homes were potentially being affected; families were potentially in evacuation areas.
Can you give me examples of how you work with stations in other ways?
In Tennessee, we produced three debates during the primary cycle — two Republican, one Democratic — and then syndicated them to all the Nexstar stations in the state as well as a non-Nexstar station in Chattanooga. Obviously, that requires some coordination, some planning. Chris Berg was the point person.
Earlier this year, we sent teams to South Korea to cover the Olympics. Everybody in the group wanted to send people to the Olympics, but you can only send so many people based on credentials that we get through the Olympics and NBC.
So, our team was charged with developing the content strategy. You can’t just show up and cover the Olympics. You have got to know which local athletes from which local markets to track down.
We produced over a thousand live shots from South Korea over that two and a half weeks, communicating with the stations, making sure that they were getting what they wanted, bringing in digital content that could play not only on our NBC stations, but on all our stations. It was really a multiplatform approach. We also did that for the Super Bowl. We do that for the Daytona 500 and other big events.
So New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas is obviously a big event and KLAS for years has produced a show around it. It’s got some music and there are fireworks at midnight.
After we acquired that station, Chris Berg developed a way to basically syndicate that program to other Nexstar stations in West Coast markets. You and I are probably watching New York at midnight, right? But that happens at 9 o’clock local time out in Las Vegas.
You also serve as a kind of clearinghouse, right?
One of the benefits of having a group our size is there is a lot of great journalism that is taking place out there. We do a really good job of spreading that information around the group.
If something works in Rochester, N.Y., the group needs to hear about that because what they are doing there could be used in Fresno, it could be used in Lubbock.
The Carolinas were a big story groupwide. But each market had to tell it a different way — whether it was focusing on the local people that were maybe in the Carolinas or had just returned from there or couldn’t get home to the Carolinas.
Editorial decisions are best made at the local level and what we try and do is guide them with great best practices and great information so that the news directors can make those decisions.
Among your responsibilities is the Washington bureau. Last year, you brought in Bill Mondora as bureau chief and said you were expanding the bureau. Did you follow through?
Absolutely. We now have 10 full-time employees. They are doing an outstanding job of servicing the markets with information that they can’t get from our network partners.
Obviously every one of our markets has a network partner that has got a resource in Washington, but they are not as inclined to talk to the local congressman, the local senator because they are trying to fill network and other affiliate responsibilities.
Our team there is focused on asking questions to those local lawmakers, getting information for the markets that they can’t get anyplace else and building those relationships within Washington.
Our team helped our station in South Dakota secure a one-on-one with President Trump when he made a trip to the state. We were the only television station to have that out there.
The bureau provides vital information, especially during these hurricanes. During the storms in the Carolinas and Hawaii, the DC team went to the FEMA press conferences, got sound bites from lawmakers about the federal response and provided a different perspective for our stations and their news consumers.
Is there a lot of sharing among the stations of feature stories or investigative stories? I noticed that KGPE won a Murrow for a special report on the border wall. Does that play in other markets? Did other stations pick that up? Did you encourage them to pick it up?
All of our markets communicate and collaborate on a daily basis. So there is sharing that takes place on a regular basis. We don’t, from a corporate level, say, “Hey you have got to go run this type of piece,” but all that material is available.
This also trickles down to sports. We have got a lot of NFL teams. They will be doing a lot of sharing back and forth as they are building up for a Sunday game.
And there is this: The race to replace Chris Collins’ seat — the congressman that has been indicted on potential insider trading — covers two different television markets, Rochester and Buffalo. So those markets are doing a lot of sharing on that specific story.
So it’s your job to encourage such sharing?
It is and maybe it is better to say creating that culture. In New York, we own a station in every market but New York City. So how can we cover New York state like nobody else can cover New York State? That’s with regular communications.
Every day those markets are talking. Now I am not sitting there facilitating that, but we facilitated the culture that that is what is expected, that is what is going to help each of the local markets and arm those news directors with best information to win every day in their markets.
Do you have an enforcement function where you try to make sure that stations are not taking the easy way out by, say, airing too much news from outside their markets?
Well, yes. We will review and critique the products and give some guidance. We travel an awful lot. We spend time in the markets. We are watching the product. We are able to come in and give them that outside perspective that they appreciate and helps make their product better.
So what is your your policy toward social media? What do you tell stations about how they should be using them?
So, No. 1, we view social media as a great way to engage, communicate, talk to our viewers. As the guy who used to call up talk radio as a kid and talk about sports and think that was the greatest thing in the world, I think it is really neat that you can now have a two-way conversation with your local sports anchor or other talent on social media.
There is a lot of information that can be put out in social media. We want to take advantage of all that, but we also want to make sure that we are driving folks back to our products and obviously we are seeing a lot of activity on our stations whether it be our apps, whether it be our core websites, whether it be our broadcast products. So social media has to be used to engage, to inform and also to make known what other opportunities our news consumer has to get information through all the other platforms.
There is another function of social media. That is keeping a finger on the pulse of what is happening in the community. Do you have a system for doing that or advice on how to do that?
Yeah, the stations are monitoring the chatter in their markets, whatever that might be, but I would also tell you that social media is only going to tell you some of the picture. But the other picture is what are people in the community actually talking about? You know, what are they talking about in the supermarket? What are they talking about at the ball game that you might be going to with your kids? That is something I think we have gotten away from, especially in the world of social media — actually having conversations with viewers.
You know, everybody talks about doing something about the sameness of local new, but nobody seems to do anything about it.
I think that things don’t change because people are really comfortable. That is a problem we have as an industry. We continue to do the same thing over and over and over again. We need to look at that. There is an opportunity to break the norm.
Some of our markets are playing around with different formats. We don’t offer sports at certain time periods and, maybe when we do offer sports, it’s really hyperlocal. In terms of weather information, a lot of our markets start their newscasts with the forecasts. That is something that is not really the norm in the industry. Usually you wait till 15 minutes in to get to your weather forecast, but it is something that we believe that our news consumers really like and really want. If executed right with great journalism afterwards, there is no reason why people would turn the television station off.
With newspapers shrinking in size and resources, do you see think it is the broadcasters’ job to pick up the slack a little bit by covering the nitty-gritty of local and state public affairs, going to the city council meetings and all that?
Absolutely and I think that is why we have invested in state capital bureaus. We have over 20 state capital bureaus. Some of these are one or two- person operations, but their full-time assignment is to go to the state capitol and do some news that is relevant to the community there. We have seen a big decrease in the news organizations that are covering state governments, but that is still where a lot of information comes from that impacts people’s lives, their taxes, their opportunities for further growth.
You just became chairman of the RTDNA. I would say that the organization is not what it was in the 1990s when it was the Radio-Television News Directors Association. What do you see as its mission these days?
When I was a news producer, I would go to training events that RTNDA sponsored in Washington, D.C. I can remember producing a 5 o’clock news on a Friday, driving all night to get to D.C. for the sessions that started at 8 a.m. on Saturday morning and listening to some people in the business.
There has not been a whole lot of that training and development and building of that next generation of journalists, and that is something that we are trying to bring back. At our conference in Baltimore, the sessions really fell into one of four different areas — digital news, news management, news gathering and career development.
In the days of RTNDA, we offered a lot of guidance to build news managers and if you were going to be a news director, you had to be involved with the association. It has not necessarily been the case especially at the conferences.
So this year there was a big increase in management development sessions. There were more than 12 sessions, which is a substantial increase from what we had a year ago. That was a big focus for us, to really engage and figure out how can we build these next-level news managers and also inspire our news managers that are currently members of the association.
Over the summer, the Boston Globe had called on newspapers to push back on president Trump’s denigration of the press as “the enemy of the American people” and RTDNA Executive Director Dan Shelley urged broadcasters to join in. Few did. Were you disappointed by that response, by the response of the broadcasters?
Well, listen, I think that every broadcaster is going to make their own choice. I think that, at the end of the day, we don’t have to come out and say something against the president, against any politician, to be supportive of the freedom of the press and the First Amendment of the constitution.
The association doesn’t dictate policy for companies, but the association obviously provides guidance, provides insight, provides support. Every company is going to make their own decision; every television journalism organization is going to make their own decision on that.