Talking TV: CBS Goes Live With News At WWJ Detroit

After months of building a newsroom from scratch, CBS’s WWJ Detroit flipped the switch on its first newscasts last week. Adrienne Roark, president of CBS Stations; Brian Watson, VP and GM of WWJ; and Paul Pytlowany, its news director, make the case for how its community-based approach to reporting will differentiate the station. A full transcript of the conversation is included.

It’s not often a network launches a new newsroom at one of its O&Os, so the lead up to CBS’s debut of local news at Detroit’s WWJ was met with much anticipation. CBS enters a hotly competitive market with well-entrenched players, so the pressure to be distinctive was on right out of the gate.

Last week, viewers finally got a look at a news product that has been months in development. What WWJ has tried to deliver is something gritter, less polished and more distributed across its communities than centered in its newsroom.

In this Talking TV conversation, Adrienne Roark, president of CBS stations; Brian Watson, VP and GM of WWJ; and Paul Pytlowany, the station’s news director, lay out the case for what makes WWJ stand out.

Episode transcript below, edited for clarity.

Michael Depp: This month, CBS News and Stations has launched a new news operation in Detroit at WWJ. After months of incubation, it’s a hotly competitive market and WWJ will face a number of entrenched and innovative players there. So, how will the station create a compelling enough value proposition to lure viewers?

I’m Michael Depp, editor of TVNewsCheck, and this is Talking TV. Today, conversation with Adrienne Roark, president of CBS stations, Brian Watson, VP and GM of WWJ and Paul Pytlowany news director there. We’ll be talking about what WWJ has up its sleeve to try for momentum right out of the gate.


Welcome, Adrienne, Brian and Paul to Talking TV.

Paul Pytlowany: Morning.

Brian Watson: Hello.

Adrienne Roark: Happy to be here.

Thanks for being here. Adrienne, why launch a news operation in Detroit? And why now?

Adrienne Roark: So, you know, Detroit as we’ve all discussed, is a very strong news market. Viewers want news. They are devoted to news. And it is a market where there is a lot of consumption of news. And it just it just made sense. It just absolutely made sense to stand up a news operation and serve the viewers of Michigan.

I’ve been reading that you intend for this to be a streaming-first newsroom. Paul, pragmatically, what does that mean?

Paul Pytlowany: Our focus is delivering content on the stream that feeds the broadcast in linear time frames. But with the streaming mentality, we have the freedom and the ability to look at news from a different lens. More in-depth stories. Stories that maybe aren’t confined to standard broadcasting stipulations and time frames there. We can actually go into subjects that matter and really focus in and spend the time necessary because we don’t have those time constraints in the linear timeframe.

Right. And I understand that the bulk of your journalism corps is going to be comprised of MMJs, and many of them are embedded in specific communities across the DMA. So, Paul, does that mean that that most of them aren’t going to be coming into the newsroom too often to file? Will they stay out in the field?

Paul Pytlowany: That’s the intent. I mean, we love to see their faces every now and then because it’s a team building exercise as well. But yeah, this allows them to stay out in the field and really dig deep into the communities and the issues that matter most to those that perhaps aren’t being heard.

By keeping them out there, what are you finding about their productivity? Are they generating more story ideas? Are they having more conversations in there in their subset communities? Has it been more productive?

Paul Pytlowany: Absolutely. You see them not having to spend the time to travel into the station to file reports. Technology allows them to really be more efficient out in the field and really kind of get to know the neighborhoods that they serve.

Are their packages being edited in the field?

Paul Pytlowany: Correct. They are shot and edited in the field.

How long were they out there just making contacts and creating relationships with people before you actually went on air?

Paul Pytlowany: Well, it’s been a while as we hire the team. They they’ve been designated into the communities that they’re assigned. And that allows them to really make those connections with civic leaders, elected officials, but more importantly, the people that aren’t being heard. So, we’ve spent quite a quite a bit of time getting to know the communities prior to us launching.

Adrienne, this community-based approach to reporting is a growing staple, I know, across the whole CBS group. But is it fair to say that you’re doubling down on this dynamic in Detroit?

Adrienne Roark: Yes. I mean, this is really, as Paul said, the primary focus of how we are doing news in Detroit.

So, is this sort of what you intend to be a key differentiator for the market?

Adrienne Roark: Absolutely. I mean, really turning neighborhoods into newsrooms.

Brian, it has to be a daunting prospect to launch a sales operation whole cloth in this market amid so much very well-entrenched competition. How are you getting on with that effort?

Brian Watson: Do you mean on news operation or what do you mean by sales operation?

You’ve got your news operation, but you’re selling spots, are you not?

Brian Watson: Correct.

That operation, I guess, has been in place for before you had the news operation. But has that changed at all with the news operation on board now? Has that changed the sales dynamic?

Brian Watson: Oh, absolutely. Once it became official that we were going to be starting news, well, quite frankly, even before that, the ramp up to the official announcement, we began to map out our strategy with our go-to-market strategy with how we were going to position news. Fortunately, you know, we had the pent-up excitement and lessons that we had learned from having to sell against news that we knew that we would convert into the sales strategy for how we were going to sell our news product.

And we’ve just been so overwhelmingly happy with the results that we’ve got from the market. It almost seemed to us in a lot of ways that on the part of our advertisers, they were happy to see a new and fresh voice coming to the market. And so, our pre-sales leading up to launch far exceeded our expectations.

Have you been able to expand your client base because of a news operation coming on board and have new folks in there that you didn’t have before?

Brian Watson: Absolutely. I mean, I was already happy with our team, how we were able to convert what you would consider non-news advertisers to our non-news environment that existed prior. But absolutely. Now we are capturing those news-only advertisers now and in a greater capacity.

We know that the news operation staffed up obviously from zero to what you have now. Are you sharing that number yet? How many people were hired up?

Brian Watson: No specific numbers, only that were comparable from, you know, comparable from a staffing size, but more importantly, output to other news organizations.

Well, have you stepped up any on the sales side commensurate to the news growth?

Brian Watson: No, we already had an overachieving and very productive team in place that that is quite capable of selling this new news product.

Sales have a lot of headwinds this year, obviously, because no elections, recession looming, auto hasn’t exactly had a rebound yet. Has this mitigated any of those headwinds?

Brian Watson: Absolutely. The premium that advertisers place on a news impression is greater than what those time periods are, the dayparts that those newscasts are now falling in. So, we’ve been able to offset and augment, you know, our revenue that we’re seeing from those time periods.

I imagine there’s been no small marketing effort in all of this either to get Detroiters aware of what’s going on. I’m sure you’ve been building momentum. So, where have you been focusing your efforts, Brian, on that so far?

Brian Watson: Well, we’ve been running just a basic awareness campaign that CBS News Detroit is coming. Just leading up to launch in the weeks prior to launch and continuing now we’re changing that now to more of “Hi, nice to meet you” messaging, basically who we are. And that will continue as we move forward before we start getting into really into the nitty gritty of a comprehensive marketing campaign.

Given the community-based nature of the reporting, will the marketing of the station kind of be molded around that? Will it be a different flavor of marketing because it’s a different flavor of news?

Brian Watson: Absolutely. I mean. First of all, we know who we are. You know, we’re new on the block. But we know the whitespace that we’re identified in our go-to-market strategy to execute within that space. You know how we’re going to be bringing in viewers to our station. What you’ll also see is how well woven the brand in the messaging is in our marketing materials outside of the newscast.

But also within the newscast, there is a perfected integration that we see that we’re looking forward to leaning into heavily in the weeks to come. But already it’s started now, if you if you watch our newscasts, you’ll see how we’re really driving home that messaging of converting neighborhoods into newsrooms. You can see that in the different elements that we’ve incorporated already.

Getting back to the news product for a moment, I’ve read that you’re aiming for a more democratic kind of environment where people at all levels will have a say in stories, in the story meetings, rather than a more top-down sort of approach. Paul, on the day to day, how does that look and feel differently in daily meetings and in workflows?

Paul Pytlowany: Well, I think it goes back to the messages being in the communities. They’re there bringing content in and story ideas that they’re hearing from the communities that they’re in because they’re hearing discussions from people that are talking about topics that matter to them at dinner tables and in backyards. So, those ideas are being presented in the editorial meetings and collectively as a group, we talk about those issues and see what really resonates with the producers and what’s coming in from the MSJs. That’s different. Instead of someone just sitting in an office saying, these are the stories I want, go and report it. It goes back to neighborhoods, into newsrooms, instead of vice versa.

Pragmatically, for a morning meeting then, is that a hybrid zoom/in-person kind of affair?

Paul Pytlowany: It’s a combination because our producers are in here, our EPs are in here. And then the MSJs kind of Zoom in as well with their what their topics and their ideas that they are hearing from the neighborhoods that they’re in.

You had mentioned at the top there’s a bit of elasticity with story length because of the streaming kind of digital-first nature of the newsroom. Is that translating onto the air at all to you pushing past a minute 30 with your stories? Are you able to expand and contract a little bit more liberally than other more entrenched newsrooms might do?

Paul Pytlowany: Absolutely. We’re seeing in our in our extensive research that people want to have extended periods of time to tell stories, and our audience wants that as well. And I think that’s what’s perhaps missing in local news today. Absolutely.

Now, as we’re talking, you’re only just a few days into this operation being live on air. What are you hearing with regards to the newscast product so far from viewers? What kind of feedback are you getting, both positive and negative?

Paul Pytlowany: We’ve only heard positive feedback. For example, our one of our sports anchors, Ronnie Duncan, went out to get a sandwich the other day at Jimmy John’s and he already saw people watching the newscast saying, we’re watching. We love what you’re doing already. So, it’s that granular already in the market.

The other word kind of out there, what I’ve read about that newscast is that you’re not going for polish or a slick veneer here. And there’s a more conversational tone in the reporting. In terms of the set and what you’ve got there, does that mean more minimalism in the set or less use of it overall?

Paul Pytlowany: The set’s important to what we’re doing because it’s a working newsroom, right? Everyone’s in the same room working. The assignment desk is there. The producers are back behind the anchors working and producing their shows. So, it really shows how gritty Detroit is, how focused we are and how we’re working together as a team to tell the stories that resonate most with our viewers.

And you have cameras in the newsroom, like on the assignment desk, for instance. You can cut to that if you want to?

Paul Pytlowany: Yes, we do. So, if something is going on, we have another outlet that could contribute and that really shows that the team is multi-skilled. We have team members that perhaps are coming in from different organizations where they were in silos, but they want to grow, they want new opportunity. And this provides them that that avenue to kind of to grow personally, but also to present a product that perhaps isn’t as polished off as, as you mentioned, It’s more that we’re working in your community, we’re working in the newsroom, and we’re able to have many different voices contributing to that broadcast.

And while you’re in the business of eschewing some conventions, are you are you questioning or getting rid of other conventions like the anchor throwing to the reporter in the field and then the toss back or, you know, things that take a lot of time in a newscast and don’t necessarily add anything to it? Are you looking at those things and saying, you know, we don’t need that?

Paul Pytlowany: No, I think it’s important to have that interaction. We need to let people know that we’re here and they’re getting to know us. But I think it’s important to have that relationship and that and that ability to toss to our reporters who are out in the field. Yeah, we’re still doing that as well.

So, Adrienne, you have a view over the whole group or at least a chunk of the group here. You’re watching this develop and seeing how this experimentation takes purchase. Detroit is its own market, it’s got its own vibe. Every market is individual. That said, are you thinking about taking some of the successful elements here that might be deviations from conventional newscasts and applying them perhaps at other stations?

Adrienne Roark: You know, we do that. To answer your question, yes. And we do that with every station. Every station has unique things that they do and also best practices to share that can absolutely be shared across not only, you know, the stations that I oversee, but all of our stations in the group. And we do a really good job of doing that. The general managers and the news directors and the staff talk to each other at each station and really do a great job of sharing a lot of best practices and ideas.

Well, I know that all of your Detroit competitors will be watching very closely and so will the industry at large. So good luck to you out of the gate this month and keep in touch with how things evolve at WWJ. Thank you, Adrienne, Brian and Paul for being here today.

Adrienne Roark: Thank you.

Paul Pytlowany: Thank you.

Thanks to all of you for watching and listening. You can watch past episodes of Talking TV on and on our YouTube channel. We will see you again next week.

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