Steve Eckert, a veteran TV newsman with stations and NBC news, was given the task of building an investigative unit at Gannett’s NBC affiliate in Minneapolis-St. Paul. He’s adding staff and equipment as part of a plan that involves more than rooting out the corruption, flawed systems and stupidity on which journalists thrive. He wants KARE to produce stories so compelling that they “make viewers feel the same exhilaration that I felt when I found that smoking-gun document in the dusty basement of the courthouse.”
After more than three decades in network and local TV, Steve Eckert has snagged a pretty sweet gig: building an I-Team from scratch.
Since January, Eckert, who most recently worked as a Dateline NBC producer, has been hunkered down at KARE, Gannett’s Twin Cities NBC affiliate, putting the various pieces of the station’s investigative unit in place. He expects the team to be in full swing and having “real impact” by the fall.
So far, Eckert has made a couple of hires, invested in some Grade A undercover cameras and learned how to work in sync with other Gannett stations and USA Today.
“I think we have enormous potential of great national scope and local impact,” he says.
Eckert’s plan involves more than rooting out the corruption, flawed systems and stupidity on which journalists thrive. He wants KARE to produce stories so compelling that they “make viewers feel the same exhilaration that I felt when I found that smoking-gun document in the dusty basement of the courthouse.
“My hope is that we add a new dimension, which is the rich tradition of storytelling,” he says. “I don’t want to just report findings. I want to take viewers along on the investigative process.”
Local TV’s standard “prosecutorial” style of investigative reports — declaring a strong finding and then laying out evidence that supports it — is “frankly a little boring,” Eckert says.
Reporters give away their discoveries too soon under that model, so viewers tune out before stories end, he says. “You don’t start with the conclusion. You start with a question and set out to answer it.”
In addition, the conventional method opens reporters up to allegations of bias or being one-sided. “The simple nature of reporting makes it look that way sometimes,” he says.
Eckert credits former NBC News President Neal Shapiro, who was the executive producer of Dateline during Eckert’s tenure, with showing him the value of “investigations being journeys of discovery, rather than just reports.”
“I think that’s critical in making them a success,” he says.
Eckert says his team is coming together. A.J. Lagoe, an investigative reporter from WRIC Richmond, Va., joined KARE in June and has been doing general assignment reporting during the “training wheel stage.” Eckert has also hired a full-time photographer, who will be coming on board in several weeks.
Two current KARE staffers will also be dedicated I-Team members: Jay Olstad, who has been dividing his time between general and investigative reporting, and Trisha Volpe, a practicing attorney and enterprise reporter who works for both KARE and Minnesota Public Radio.
He wouldn’t detail his budget.
If all goes as planned, the I-Team could be a boon to KARE, which is strong in latenight news but rates second to CBS O&O WCCO overall, ratings show.
In the May sweep, WCCO won with adults 25-54 at 6 p.m., followed by KARE in second and KTSP, Hubbard’s ABC affiliate, in third. That was a switch from last year, when KARE’s 6 o’clock news was No. 1. KARE’s 10 p.m., however, ranked first both this year and last. The 2014 May sweeps show WCCO in second, followed by Fox O&O KMSP in third and KTSP in fourth. KTSP was third and KMSP fourth during the same period in 2013.
And don’t let Minnesota’s homespun reputation fool you.
Eckert says the country’s 15th largest market has lots going on, plenty for the I-Team to dig into. “Every community — regardless of its reputation — has problems that need to be exposed, and Minneapolis is no different.”
And he should know. Eckert’s history in the market dates to the late 1980s, when he was part of what he calls “the legendary investigative unit” at WCCO, which was disbanded when CBS bought the station in 1992.
Favorite stories from those days exposed Northwest Airlines’ poor maintenance practices, which led to an FAA investigation and big fines; grave deficiency in child protection; and untrained dispatchers staffing 911 call centers.
Eckert continued to call the Twin Cities home during his two decades with NBC News, which ended when he took an early retirement last summer.
Since returning to local TV, Eckert steered KARE’s contribution to a national Gannett story about states not wanting the return of fugitive felons nabbed in other states.
One case involved a fugitive fleeing to Texas, where he murdered his girlfriend six months after Minnesota officials refused his extradition. In another, Minnesota relinquished responsibility for a man who fled after being accused of impregnating his 11-year-old stepdaughter.
Eckert says he “couldn’t be more delighted” to be working in local TV, and says that, thanks to technology, he doesn’t see a whole lot of difference between what affiliates and the networks can accomplish.
“There is almost no difference in the quality of work being done,” he says. “I would put some of the local projects I see with the best of the best of the networks.”
They also share the same goal of effecting change for the better.
That, Eckert says, is something he learned at his first TV job Decatur, Ill., when a farmer who had seen his report on tractors bursting into flames due to a design flaw called Eckert to thank him for saving his life. Had the man not seen Eckert’s report, and known to jump off the machine as soon as he heard a hiss, he would have burned to death.
“I’ll never forget that call and I’ll never forget that we can have real impact on people’s lives,” he says. “Most of all, I still want to have that impact.”