AIR CHECK BY DIANA MARSZALEK

WTHR Sets Itself Apart With Serious News

The Dispatch Broadcast Group’s NBC affiliate in Indianapolis has a clear goal — to be the best station in the country — and a strong strategy to accomplish it: a total commitment to enterprise and investigative reporting. It’s working as its RTDNA, DuPont-Columbia and Peabody awards this year attest. And it’s No. 1 in the ratings, too.

Earning multiple awards for investigative reports, WTHR Indianapolis — a family-owned station in a mid-size Midwest market — has emerged during the last year as a model for good local TV journalism.

The NBC affiliate, owned by the two-station Dispatch Broadcast Group, captured top broadcast journalism awards this year from RTDNA, Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University and the University of Georgia (Peabody).

Most important, perhaps, WTHR won the RTDNA Edward R. Murrow Award for overall excellence by a large-market station. Reporter Bob Segall’s eight-month investigation — Reality Check: Where are the Jobs? — that exposed state leaders’ grossly inflated job-creation claims won honors from all three organizations.

With time-consuming, hard-hitting stories getting increasingly difficult to pull off anywhere these days, that it’s being done in the 27th largest market is especially noteworthy.

John Cardenas, WTHR president and general manager, says producing news that separates the station from the pack is good for viewers and WTHR alike.

“At the end of the day the big payoff is when you do public service for the community and for the viewers, and in return that gets you the viewership, the loyalty of viewers and ratings — and therefore revenue,” says Cardenas, who joined WTHR last year after 11 years as the news director at Dispatch’s other station, WBNS Columbus (DMA 34).

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“When I got here, our No. 1 goal was to be the best station in the country and our staff asked how we are going to measure that. I said, we will know when we get there,” he says.

“When your peers recognize the overall work that you do, and recognize you for overall excellence in the country, I think it speaks to everyone’s hard work and focus on that vision that we established nearly a year ago.”

WTHR dominates the evening news ratings, with nearly double the viewers of second-place WISH. WTHR is also No. 1 at 11 p.m., but just barely. In the May sweeps, it won the slot by just half a ratings point.

The news standings are undoubtedly affected by the lead-ins. Up until the end of May, WTHR’s evening news was preceded by Oprah. On the other hand, its latenight newscast has had to follow NBC’ s weak primetime schedule.

News Director Keith Connors, who joined WTHR from Belo’s KHOU Houston in January, says the roots of WTHR’s success are in its culture. “You don’t have to have 150 people on your staff to do serious journalism,” Connors says. “You just have to make that commitment.”

That commitment, Connors says, manifests itself in a number of ways.

First, there is the station’s dedicated investigative unit: two investigative reporters, two photographers, a producer and “the time and resources and support to do the kind of investigative reporting that is impactful and important to serve this community,” Connors says.

With the exception of major breaking news, that team is dedicated to investigative reporting, with the directive that there is “no strict timetable and no strict deadline other than producing high-quality investigations,” he says. That unit produces between three and four dozen in-depth reports a year, including multiple parts of a single story.

In producing Where are the Jobs?, for example, Segall and his team traveled the state in search of the 100,000 jobs supposedly created by the Indiana Economic Development Corp. after the quasi-state agency refused to give them the proof the station asked for.

Logging thousands of miles visiting hundreds of so-called “economic success stories,” the team uncovered shuttered factories and cornfields rather than the tens of thousands of new jobs claimed by state officials.

In exposing the fraud, the story promoted reform and heightened government transparency and “a statewide dialogue for what really are the real job numbers in the state,” Connors says.

Adds Segall: “We set our goals pretty high. And we get the time and we get the resources to do the type of journalism that used to be commonplace at a lot of stations around the country.”

“Now unfortunately, there are only a handful of newsrooms around that still have the type of commitment that WTHR has,” he says.

WTHR’s commitment to watchdog reporting also affects the way daily news is covered. That’s particularly true when it comes to major stories, like this month’s collapse of a stage during a storm at the Indiana State Fair, which left seven people dead.

While that story was certainly big news in itself, KTHR took its coverage to the next level. Station reporters uncovered problems with the construction of the stage and found that the Indiana incident was not the first of its kind.

WTHR also broke the story that the State Fair’s severe weather contingency plan is only one page long — just nine bullet points — and doesn’t even deal with the outdoor stage areas, the largest congregation points on site, Connors says.

When it comes to covering issues like crime, WTHR is less likely to cover individual acts of violence than use them as platforms to investigate related trends or public safety concerns. “We are focused on breaking important stories, while other stations are focused on breaking news,” he says.

Al Tompkins, The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting, sits on several awards juries, including the one that determines DuPont  winners. He says the work WTHR did in the last year reflects “a simply outstanding year for investigative reporting in many ways.”

“Local TV stations from Seattle to Nashville to Indianapolis, Miami and Houston, did outstanding work that made a difference,” he says. “Often this work took weeks or months to compile — and it was not limited to large markets.”

“Despite the challenges of the media economy, forward-thinking stations realize that enterprise journalism is their golden goose,” Tompkins says. “It is what Twitter and Facebook cannot replace.”

As far as Connors is concerned, that is not an option. “This is a long-term business decision, not a quarter-to-quarter one,” he says.

“If all we do is cover the late-breaking news then we are rapidly making ourselves irrelevant in the minds of our viewers,” he says. “We have to be committed to enterprise and investigative reporting for our own sake and our own survival.”


Diana Marszalek writes about local TV news every other week in her Air Check column. You can reach her for comment on this column or with ideas for upcoming ones at [email protected]. For other Air Check stories, click here.


Comments (2)

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kendra campbell says:

August 23, 2011 at 9:23 am

Kudos to WTHR. Local TV news would not be in the sorry state it’s in if one station in every market adopted their philosophy. The audience has clearly rejected the “breaking news” model that relies on crime, mayhem, car wrecks, and weather hype.

Jack Quick says:

August 23, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Unfortunately in some markets, viewers eat up the mayhem. It would appear WTHR is a newsroom populated by grownups, not the “car wreck kids,” and also has the good fortune to have an audience that appreciates its effort to consistently give them the very definition of “News.” Things previously unknown. Congratulations to you and your staff, Keith.


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