Jonathan Mitchell, news chief at KNTV San Francisco, explains how the NBC O&O built what today, he says, is the biggest investigative unit in the country — and at the same time created an enterprise culture in the newsroom.
Four or so years ago, the folks at NBC O&O KNTV San Francisco, decided to make an investment in turning their newsroom into an investigative powerhouse.
After a few lean years, the station’s newscasts typically rated fourth in the market, and with the other station all producing newscasts that were “pretty good,” KNTV would have to offer viewers something pretty dramatic to give viewers reason to tune in, says VP of News Jonathan Mitchell.
“We needed a unique value proposition that no one else had in the marketplace,” he says. Research (and the fact that ABC O&O KGO had a wildly popular consumer investigation franchise) showed that creating a focus on investigative journalism — the kind that holds higher-ups accountable — was the route to go.
“We needed to add depth and context to what we were doing,” Mitchell says.
Speaking to a room full of news directors Wednesday at the NAB Show in Las Vegas, Mitchell spelled out what it took to build what today, he says, is the biggest investigative unit in the country and — what attendees really came to learn — create an enterprise culture in the newsroom.
For Mitchell, some of the nuts and bolts of doing that were easier than they may be at other stations. Once Comcast purchased NBC, and pledged to improve its O&Os’ news operations, he was able to hire staffers in support of the plan, and dedicate resources to back them up.
But it also required buy-in from the news team, from the lead investigative reporters on down.
Expectations for general assignment reporters were raised, too. Reporters started creating databases so they could start tracking issues like crime trends.
Mitchell spent several hours with every new employee reviewing the station’s new emphasis on enterprise journalism, making sure the mission was understood.
He makes it a policy of acknowledging particularly good stories with a thank you and a handshake.
By last year, KNTV had risen to second in the market in ratings and revenue, Mitchell says, something he credits to staying on course.
“We said from very beginning that we need to build a culture.”
Few stations, however, have the opportunity to build an enterprise-focused newsroom, literally and culturally, the way Mitchell did.
“In most places, there is not more money to do this work,” says Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors.
However, there are ways of infusing newsroom cultures with that enterprising spirit — and presumably the higher quality of content that comes with it, he says.
Doing that requires news managers to take stock of what they do — and don’t — have, he says. Examining the newsroom structure, and whether it maximizes staffers’ talents or encourages shallow reporting, is a primary step.
“Identify the skills of individual reporters and make sure you’re taking advantage of them,” he says.
Reviewing budgets — do allocations of resources match newsroom goals? — is also necessary, as is evaluating whether newsroom hardware and software can meet expectations.
Crucial too is providing the means to mine more stories. One good enterprise story often results in multiple follow-ups, Horvit says. Let the audience help through tip lines.
And reporters need support to get the job done, he says. “It’s important to make sure the people you have have the resources and the knowledge they need to do what you want them to do,” he says.
Rather than make new hires, Susan Tully, VP of news at NBC O&O KXAS Dallas, shuffled around employees — using them in ways that maximize their skills — to create a news team more focused on enterprise reporting.
Tully says she “coaxed” Scott Friedman, who was then a morning anchor, off the anchor desk to lead an investigative team — and “he has had such wild success he couldn’t imagine going back.”
She moved a nightside photographer — used to cranking out daily stories — to do a similar job during the day. She brought in IRE to do training.
Tully says, however, that maintaining a culture of enterprise in the newsroom is an ongoing effort — and one that spans all members of the news team.
General assignment reporters, for instance, are also increasingly using investigative skills to improve the scope of their work, ways of which are being continually evaluated.
“It’s a nonstop conversation,” she says.
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