As TV stations struggle to distinguish themselves with hyperlocal strategies, one old solution is looking new again. A number of station groups — including Hearst, Belo, Cox, Gannett and Scripps — are finding that the specialized, localized reporting they get from their Washington bureaus has become a differentiator for them. As the head of Cox’s bureau says: “Our sole mission is to give stations hyper-local, unique coverage they can’t find anywhere else.”
Flip on the morning show on any one of Hearst Television’s stations around the country and you’ll likely see a piece from Washington with a familiar face.
With reporters from Hearst’s Washington bureau, the segment could be a preview of what’s on tap in D.C. that day. On later newscasts, viewers may catch bureau reports with the local angle on a national issue or an interview with a lawmaker from their state or congressional district.
It’s routine at Hearst. Its Washington bureau sent a remarkable 16,442 such feeds to the company’s stations in 2010, according to Brian Bracco, VP of news for Hearst Television. “Our correspondents are really integrated into every one of the TV stations’ DNA,” he says.
“It’s a brand extension … and, quite frankly, it’s a differentiator for many markets,” he says. “There are not many markets that can say they have a Washington correspondent when they need them.”
Actually, there are at least four others: Belo, Cox, Gannett and Scripps.
Long-time industry watchers say there used to be more: the now-defunct Gillette group had a D.C. bureau as did Tribune broadcasting. A number of large stations had their own Washington reporters as well. The Hearst bureau, started in 1988, is one of the oldest still in existence.
Local broadcasters closed bureaus to save money, says Bob Papper, a Hofstra University professor who tracks TV journalism trends. “The bureaus also become more vulnerable as more and more stations put greater emphasis on local news.”
The scope of the stories produced by the bureaus is not necessarily restricted to Washington. The Scripps bureau, for example, produces local takes on Washington stories, like the effects of Social Security Administration errors on recipients. But it also produces market-specific stories — unsolved homicides was a recent topic — that stations do not have the time or abilities to do themselves.
“We are the national bureau based in Washington,” says Peter Copeland, head of the Scripps bureau. “The story does not have to be in D.C. It just has to be a good story or of interest to one or more of our markets.”
Stories covered by the Cox bureau run the gamut from the current debt limit negotiations, localized with interviews with market-specific legislators, to the testimony of a Forsyth, Ga., woman whose daughter was murdered while serving in the Peace Corps. That story, focusing on Peace Corps safety, aired on WSB, Cox’s ABC affiliate and flagship in Atlanta (DMA 8).
The bureaus generally have better access to officials than the stations they serve, meaning they can help news directors round out their coverage of issues by providing interviews with those officials.
When bureau reporters had the opportunity to sit down with the president, as those at Hearst and Cox recently did, the interviews are peppered with topics of specific interest to people in their station’s markets, often at the request of the station news directors.
During a seven-minute interview with Cox reporter Scott MacFarlane earlier this month, President Obama spoke directly to the impact that proposed Social Security cuts would have on people in Ohio and Pennsylvania where Cox has stations.
Bureau heads and reporters are typically involved in station newsroom meetings via teleconferencing. There is a continual back-and-forth between stations and D.C. bureaus so that news directors get what they need and bureau staff can pitch their ideas as well.
All of which, the bureau heads say, distinguishes their Washington-based content and coverage from network news feeds, to which stations have access as well.
“We don’t want to be the networks. We don’t want to be national news,” says Heidi Wiedenbauer, who heads the Cox Media Group’s 13-person Washington bureau. “Our sole mission is to give stations hyper-local, unique coverage they can’t find anywhere else,” she says.
The 18-person Scripps Howard News Service — which has existed since 1917 to serve newspapers, but added TV to the mix just two years ago — will produce for the stations 11 in-depth investigative packages in addition to spot stories this year, Copeland says.
Although many of Scripps bureau staffers have trained at the company’s “MMJ University” to learn multi-media skills, TV coverage out of the bureau consisted largely of text and B-roll until Scripps hired reporter Kristin Volk in January, he says. Volk is the bureau’s only full-time, multimedia reporter.
Stations have been receptive.
“For us, it’s been fabulous because the TV stations treat us like a shiny new toy,” Copeland says.
The Cox bureau has a particularly interesting history. For at least 20 years, the company operated two separate bureaus, one to service the company’s 15 TV stations and six news/talk radio stations and the other to serve its newspapers. The latter was shut down in 2009.
Just recently, though, Cox is starting to put print reporters back into the mix.
Belo’s Washington bureau — which consists of four people producing news for stations in 15 markets — has also gone through several transformations since opening in 1996, a Belo spokeswoman says.
At that time, the current “consolidated” bureau was created by folding the Washington bureaus of Belo’s three largest stations at the time into one.
Gannett’s 16-person Washington bureau also produces content, although that company also relies on content sharing among its stations as well as its core brand, USA Today, a spokeswoman says.
Bracco won’t say how many reporters the Hearst bureau has, but he hints that it isn’t large. “I think some of the networks have more interns than we have reporters.”
Papper says he doesn’t know whether bureaus make sense financially. “But I think a group could, by amortizing the costs across all the stations.”
In any event, he and Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute say the content the bureaus provide helps boost the credibility and range of coverage of the station that use it.
“Do D.C. bureaus generate ratings? Maybe not,” Tompkins says. But they do deserve credit for telling stories that others are not.
“I say bravo to those groups who have found a way to keep this public service journalism going.”