The Gannett NBC affiliate in Buffalo, N.Y., is bucking industry trends with its focus on in-depth reporting. And that effort isn’t going unrecognized. It’s making steady gains in the ratings and was just honored by the Radio Television Digital News Association with an Edward R. Murrow Award for overall news excellence in a small market.
WGRZ: Small Market, Big News Commitment
With so many factors making producing local TV news harder than ever, you have to hand it to Gannett’s WGRZ Buffalo (DMA 51) for doing journalism the way purists say it’s supposed to be done.
The Radio Television Digital News Association just did. The organization earlier this month named the NBC affiliate winner of its prestigious 2011 Edward R. Murrow Award for overall news excellence in a small market. (Dispatch Broadcast Group’s WTHR Indianapolis [DMA 27] won the large-market prize.)
While so many stations are struggling with just getting news on the air, WGRZ has been able to encourage and free up reporters to delve into issues and produce stories with the kind of depth that’s increasingly rare in local news.
“Sometimes important stories, compelling stories, stories at the core of what journalism is about, do not always fit into a minute-thirty, but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do them,” says News Director Jeff Woodard.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of putting people and resources where they matter, he says. “We are not afraid to not cover that house fire or that car accident … the other stations in our market will not only cover, but will put a reporter on it and package it and lead with it.”
It also helps to have the right people.
WGRZ reporter Scott Brown is the winner of two 2011 Murrow Awards. Brown earned one of those awards, for a small-market station’s continuing coverage, for his investigation into the January 2010 murder of Laura Cummings, a mentally challenged woman, by her mother and brother despite repeated reports of abuse to county social services.
That story ran 13 minutes, consuming virtually half of WGRZ’s 11 p.m. newscast. Exploring the horrific conditions under which Cummings lived — and how Cummings’ mother and brother continued to torture and rape her after turning away adult protective services — the investigation spurred New York State legislation designed to protect vulnerable adults from abuse.
Brown’s other winning story, which garnered the Murrow Award for small market station hard news reporting, told the story of Jason Dunham, a 22-year-old Marine from the area who died in Iraq when he jumped on a hand grenade, saving the lives of fellow soldiers.
Dunham received a posthumous Medal of Honor. When a Navy guided missile destroyer was christened the USS Jason Dunham, Brown and a photographer flew to Florida to cover the event. All told, Brown says he and his photographer committed six or seven days to producing the story.
News productions like those – and reporters who are committed to spending the time and energy to report them in-depth — are remarkable in and of themselves.
“I know when I speak to reporters at other stations in town they are in disbelief at the amount of time we get to spend on our stories,” Brown says. “I know there are cutbacks in a lot of places and people are shooting their own stories, and a lot of the time quality suffers. But in our place there is still a strong commitment to doing strong stories and powerful stories and stories that leave an impression on people.”
Brown’s stories reflect WGRZ’s philosophy of producing news that promotes accountability, investigation and enterprise.
Woodard credits his ability to implement that philosophy to corporate support, enterprising reporters (most investigative stories are reporter driven) and his predecessor, Ellen Crooke, who, before leaving the station for Gannett’s WXIA Atlanta, “brought back that watchdog journalism to a community that desperately wanted it.”
WGRZ also values the work of the photographers. Brown says his stories would not have been possible without highly skilled photographers on his side.
Which is not to say that WGRZ isn’t changing with the times. WGRZ does employ its share of multimedia journalists — but because they are good, not just cheap. One of the seven regional Murrow Awards the station won leading up to this year’s national awards was for a story done by an MMJ.
“If you’re hiring the right people, anyone that you hire should have the ability to do the high-quality stuff,” Woodard says.
Newsroom veterans mentor young MMJs, he says. And when Gannett invested in a new workflow system last year, old and new staff came in on a Saturday to work together without being asked .
Woodard says the work is also paying off in ratings, although Buffalo is a “traditional market slow to change, so this is a longer process than other markets would see.”
For the last several years, WGRZ has been gaining on WIVB, LIN Media’s CBS affiliate and long the market leader.
The 6 a.m. hour of the station’s Daybreak morning show has been No. 1 with adults 25-54 for the last seven ratings periods, Woodard says. Daybreak along with NBC’s Today, which together run from 5 to 9 a.m., combined have won 16 ratings periods in a row with those same viewers.
WGRZ and WIVB are still jockeying for the top position in evening and late news, Woodward says. This May, WIVB edged WGRZ slightly in the three key demo groups in the evening. WGRZ won those same demographic groups at 11 p.m., Woodard says.
“It was almost shocking that Gannett’s stewardship of journalism at channel 2 has proved to be as vigorous as it seems to be,” says Jeff Simon, weekly TV columnist for The Buffalo News.
“The Buffalo market spent decades thinking of channel 4 [WIVB] as the journalistic standard on TV. That hasn’t been true in quite a while.”
Although this year’s national overall excellence award is WGRZ’s first, a six-minute sports story won a national Murrow last year and another Scott Brown story won a Murrow the year before that.
The New York State Associated Press named WGRZ Station of the Year. The New York Broadcasters Association named WGRZ the best newscast.
“The awards are nice. They are great morale boosters. It’s also motivating,” Woodard says. “But to us it’s more of a symbol of our commitment to community, which, these days in local news is one thing that sets us apart from those apps on your iPads.”