Pandemic Broadens World Of ABC’s Localish
Michael Koenigs spent more than 100 days reporting from the road last year.
Koenigs is executive producer of Localish, ABC Owned Television Stations’ digital-first reporting project aimed at courting millennials back into the local news-watching fold. He’s also host and sole correspondent of More In Common, one of its key shows whose title denotes a self-evident mission in divided America. “I was on the road all the time,” Koenigs says. “I did the interviews for all the stories.”
The show had him crisscrossing the country among ABC’s markets, producing character-centered, visually jaunty stories with a baked-in penchant for social media virality.
Those stories — along with others produced for Localish by its remotely-based journalists — worked. Localish scored 400 million views on its Facebook page, racking up 800,000 followers there, where videos typically get over 100,000 views.
Only now, Koenigs, like everybody else, is grounded. He works out of his home in New York with a webcam, iPhone, Skype and BlueJeans for the kinds of interviews he’d normally be doing on the ground at a drive-your-tractor-to-school day at an Ohio high school or reporting from the border of North and South Korea. More in Common itself has pivoted with a series of Check In specials that focus on people stepping up to help their communities amid the pandemic.
But just as the coronavirus closed off the world to do the kind of reporting that put Localish on the map, it paradoxically supercharged the project’s output and widened the geographic range from which stories are sourced.
“We are actually moving faster than ever before because we don’t have to jump on planes and coordinate logistics,” Koenigs says. “We went from creating these six-minute deep dives as the format of More in Common before we moved to the Check In model. Now we’re able to crank out more than a hundred posts a week.”
And because all of its interviews are being done remotely, stories now derive wherever something uplifting is happening in the pandemic-upended world, such as a recent piece on a Lithuanian wedding photographer shooting playfully-staged photos of stir-crazy people quarantining in their apartments via drone.
“It’s never been easier to record live interviews with people without having to even send a crew,” Koenigs says. “It allows us to tell far more stories in far more parts of the world than would ever be possible with the old constraints.”
As the pandemic bears out, the ish in Localish turns out to be pretty elastic.
Part of Localish’s initial appeal was to shake off the visual and storytelling conventions of local news that made it unpalatable to many people under 40. Rigid standups were jettisoned for fluid camerawork that conveyed a stronger sense of place and flavor. Interesting sources were given more than brief soundbites and allowed to tell the stories and perspectives that made them interesting in the first place.
They felt more authentic. And the COVID-era Check Ins take that to the next level, says Jennifer Mitchell, SVP of content development for ABC Owned Television Stations. “There is an even more raw authenticity that has been added to the pieces we have been producing recently,” she says. “People are getting a peek inside other people’s homes, and that immediately causes a more personal connection.”
The other dynamic underneath Localish’s success has been its multiplatform distribution model. From its inception in 2018, stories originated on Facebook and the ABC stations’ digital channels where younger viewers were more apt to find them than on linear TV. But Localish’s trajectory expanded, pushing out to appearances on the local stations and, as of February, its own ABC multicast channel where it replaced the Live Well Network.
Now, the life cycle of a show like Check In branches in multiple directions. On completion, stories debut on Facebook Watch, where they also come together as a weekly short-form series (Check In segments have generated over 11.9 million views since their late March premiere). Those shows are simultaneously published on Localish.com and ABC’s local digital apps and later as a linear broadcast on the Localish diginet. Since April, Check In has also run during weekend slots on ABC’s local stations’ broadcasts.
“Our mission was always to be a very heavily distributed brand,” Mitchell says. “We want to be all places for all people.”
As to how Check In finds more places and people to bring into its own content fold, Koenigs has help from a team tasked with sourcing those stories more globally now. Local producers in ABC stations’ eight markets also help find the most uplifting stories to be used in their own markets. “Those teams submit around five different piece each week and we include the best of that in the linear broadcast,” Koenigs says.
“There is no shortage of these inspiring, uplifting stories that are coming out of each and every one of our markets,” Mitchell says. Sometimes they involve circling back to pre-pandemic Localish subjects, such as the Houston bakery that had been struggling since COVID-19. After Localish revisited, orders shot up and led to a knock-on effect of supporting businesses with which the bakery worked — including website designers, graphic artists and supply vendors, all of whom got a lift through the surge in business the bakery saw through the coverage.
It’s the kind of influence Localish hopes to exert in its new pandemic iteration, tapping into local stories where it can do some good to effect change.
There’s a second influence it may have on the look and feel of local newscasts. That could have longer reverberations for the ABC stations’ newscasts themselves. “It is out of pure necessity our teams across our eight stations are now producing in a very similar way Localish had been,” Mitchell says. “One of the beauties of launching this brand is that it really supercharged our modernization around storytelling capabilities two years ago. We were very well positioned to infuse that very quickly across the organization.”
Mitchell says there are “active conversations” around which elements of remote production now might be more permanent. “Will there be more people working in remote locations versus being on a traditional news set? These are all things every news organization is thinking about,” she says.
Koenigs also sees the potential for pandemic production characteristics sticking around, especially the kind of story-driven approach Localish has codified since its launch.
“It should be about the story rather than the look of the set or the clothes being worn by the reporter,” he says. “It should be more about the conversation and the information we learn from these stories. That is clearly what the viewer really wants.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of total views of Localish’s Facebook page and suggested Koenigs reported from a loofa farm in California, which was the work of another Localish journalist. The story has been edited to reflect those changes.
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