The past year has seen an increase in investigative reporting by stations in Washington. “You’re not going to distinguish yourself by covering that fire — unless you can follow up on why the fire hydrants didn’t work,” says WUSA News Director Fred D’Ambrosi.
Washington, D.C., TV stations are going to head-to-head with newly created teams of investigative reporters and producers, reflecting renewed interest in watchdog reporting around the country.
Much of the ramped up activity in the eighth-largest DMA stems from NBC-owned WRC and Gannett’s CBS affiliate WUSA. Both have staffed up their investigative teams in the past year and say their efforts have already been rewarded with improved ratings.
“That’s what people in the community want and that’s what’s going to keep them watching,” says WUSA News Director Fred D’Ambrosi.
The flurry of investigative reporting was set in motion last October when WRC, the beneficiary of NBCU’s investment in its stations, hired investigative reporter Tisha Thompson and her producer away from Fox O&O WTTG. At the time, WTTG was the only station in the market with a full-time, dedicated investigative team.
WTTG replaced Thompson by promoting longtime general assignment reporter Sherri Ly to do investigative work. During her relatively brief time in that role, Ly has created a franchise called “Monitoring Metro,” investigating Washington’s troubled Metro system, says News Director Phil Metlin.
WUSA officially entered the investigative arena in February, when it hired Russ Ptacek from KSHB, Scripps’ NBC affiliate in Kansas City, where his efforts included uncovering toxins and deaths at a secret nuclear bomb parts plant.
Late last year, WUSA reporter Andrea McCarren also started focusing almost exclusively on investigating issues related to underage drinking. The station is in the process of hiring two investigative producers, D’Ambrosi says.
WJLA, Allbritton’s ABC affiliate is taking a different tack in Washington. About three years ago, that station dismantled its full-time I-team, and today relies on several regular reporters to contribute watchdog reports, says General Manager Bill Lord
The stations’ efforts have already produced results — at least journalistically.
A WRC report in May found that the state of Virginia hadn’t for years inspected the massive road signs that line highways, one of which fell on a passenger truck last February, says VP of News Camille Edwards. The department of transportation started inspecting the signs soon after the story aired.
Another WRC story found that a 9-1-1 operator who was asleep when a woman called for help (you could hear him snoring on the phone) had been on the job for 17 hours when the call came in, spurring officials in the county where the dispatcher worked to review rules governing time shifts.
WUSA’s ongoing investigation into underage drinking also has drawn interest and results, including last week’s sentencing of a Georgetown liquor store owner known by kids for selling alcohol to minors without IDs, D’Ambrosi says.
The stations say they expect such investigative work to be a year-round endeavor, rather than one reserved exclusively for ratings periods. “I don’t think viewers are waiting to see these stories in May or February,” says Edwards.
That said, Edwards and D’Ambrosi say they believe the new emphasis on investigative reporting — which is being promoted both on and off-air — is behind a boost in both WRC’s and WUSA’s May books.
Dave Hughes, who covers Washington media in his blog, dcrtv.com, says that while having investigative reports certainly may be helping stations, Washington viewers are just as likely influenced by other factors, such as news personalities and shows leading into newscasts.
WRC is the news leader, ranking first at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. in May 2011 among viewers 25-54 and moving up to No. 1 at 5 p.m. in May 2012.
WJLA, which had been first at 5 p.m. in May 2011, experienced a sharp decrease in viewership after its evening news lost its lead-in from Oprah. It’s now tied for second with WUSA and WTTG at 5; third at 6 behind WRC and WUSA; and second at 11.
May to May, WUSA’s ratings are up 27% at 5 and 49% at 6, but down 12% at 11.
(WTTG’s late newscast was actually the highest rated at 2.4/7 in the demo, but it airs at 10.)
Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters & Editors, which will hold its annual convention starting Thursday in Boston, says what’s happening in Washington is happening in many other markets.
Stations “are recognizing that what sets their broadcast apart from all the other places people can get local news is enterprise,” Horvit says. “The best way to have unique content is to generate it on your own.”
Lea Thompson, who led WRC’s investigative team for more than a decade (and is Tisha Thompson’s mother), says competition is at least partially responsible for the Washington resurgence.
“I’ve discovered in my career that if there is one good investigative unit in town, than everybody feels like they have to do it to compete,” she says. “It’s been shown again and again and again in television that if you build that trust in viewers and tell them you have a big story coming, they will come to you.”
Thompson, who will present at the IRE convention, says that robust, investigative broadcast journalism is long overdue in Washington.
Thompson says that WRC “just stopped” doing investigative reporting when she left for Dateline in 1992. “It’s been pretty bad,” she says. “This city really needs it.”
Washington stations have promoted many stories and consumer reports as “investigative” over the years, she says. “I would suggest to you that’s baloney. That doesn’t mean that certain reporters might not do an investigative report. But if you’re an investigative reporter in this country, you know how computerized data and FOIAs work, how to read very complicated spreadsheets and know where to find government documents.
“These are skill sets for investigative reporters that most reporters don’t have,” she says.
Whatever the history, investigative journalism is here to stay, at least at WUSA, says D’Ambrosi.
Gone are the days when a station could make itself on “commodity news,” he says. “You’re not going to distinguish yourself by covering that fire — unless you can follow up on why the fire hydrants didn’t work.”
Read other Air Check columns here.