Talking TV: Creative Approaches To Crime Coverage And The Great Resignation At St. Louis’ KDSK

TVNewsCheck’s Michael Depp talks with Carol Fowler, director of content at Tegna-owned NBC affiliate KDSK and Art Holliday, its news director, about the station’s 75-year milestone, how it’s evolving its reporting approach to crime coverage amid a dramatic surge and how the station is creatively navigating the staffing crisis facing the entire industry. A full transcript of the conversation is included.

KDSK, a Tegna-owned station in St. Louis, has just rounded the corner of its 75th anniversary on the air, and Art Holliday, its news director, has just marked 43 of those years on its staff.

Those two exceptional milestones foreground this week’s Talking TV conversation with Holliday and Carol Fowler, the station’s director of content. They discuss how crime has become the city’s main story, and how they’re trying to differentiate their approach by adding context and perspective to its bleak upward trajectory. They also share their proactive approach to heading off newsroom burnout while simultaneously giving young talent a head start in the industry.

Episode transcript below, edited for clarity.

Michael Depp: Tegna-owned KSDK in St Louis is celebrating 75 years on the air this year, having signed on in 1947 as the first television station in Missouri. Art Holliday is its news director, and Carol Fowler is its director of content. Both are here today to talk about how they work to keep their station relevant and competitive in a multi-platform world and what’s on their minds in a volatile summer on the cusp of midterm elections.

I’m Michael Depp, editor of TVNewsCheck, and this is Talking TV, the podcast that brings you smart conversations about the business of broadcasting. We’ll be right back with that conversation. Welcome Art Holiday and Carol Fowler to Talking TV.

Carol Fowler: Thank you. Happy to be here.


Art Holliday: Thank you, Michael.

KSDK is marking 75 years on the air this year. What are you doing to recognize and commemorate that on air and online?

Fowler: Hmm. Well, I’ll take that, and then I’m sure Art can talk at length about the great history of KSDK. Content has been front and center with us. We, first of all, wanted to just celebrate 75 years, let our audience know in a number of ways. We’ve produced a special that aired earlier this year, a year, an hour long, really a tribute to the greatest stories of St. Louis over those 75 years, because news and cover and community has really been at the heart of the mission of this station 75 years ago. And as it stands today, but integrated in the newscast, you can’t miss it.

We changed our bug. We produced stories to air inside the newscast. We produced three stories a month to air at various times during the month, and we’ll continue that through the end of the year. And then and later in August, we’re going to be having a big public event at the Missouri History Museum with a panel of people who’ve worked at KSDK over the years. It’s really going to be a great look back and also look forward to what the future looks like celebrating the past, but also being pretty excited about the future and what KSDK Five on Your Side means to St. Louis.

Holliday: I think over the years we’ve struggled to figure out what exactly to do with our archives. When I first started working here in 1979, I think we had just transitioned from film to videotape. So, we have 75 years of news coverage in our archives, all different sorts of technological formats. So that’s a challenge to continue to pay attention to that, to cherish it the way that it should. But in a situation like we are this year with our 75th anniversary, we’ve kind of rediscovered it and fallen in love with our archives again. We have a sports special with some of the iconic interviews that we’ve done decade after decade. So, it’s a really unique time for me personally. Next week is my 43rd anniversary.

Fowler: Yay, Art!

Holliday: Still standing, that’s the miracle. But, you know, so a lot of the stories I’ve grown up with professionally that we’re revisiting, whether it’s weather events, political events, celebrities coming to St. Louis, just big news stories of all sorts. So, it’s really an interesting time for us to look back and also try to figure out how much do people care about 75 years. I think there is there’s anecdotal evidence to suggest that for some people that’s very significant. For others, probably less so. But isn’t that true of most things?

It’s a platinum jubilee, isn’t it? And Art, that’s a remarkable run. I didn’t realize we started this conversation you were such a vet at the station.

Holliday: I am. I am a vet. Yes, that’s right.

Fowler: Yeah. Art was on the air for the vast majority of his career and only in the last couple of years stepped behind the camera and is now news director. So, we could probably do the whole show just on Art’s portfolio.

Could do a retrospective of your career.

Holliday: And my family might care.

Oh, don’t be so hard on yourself. So, you have a different kind of hierarchy at the station than many other stations have. Carol, you’re the director of content, you’re kind of sitting right under the GM and then you are in charge of both the linear and the digital, and then you have Art on the linear side and you have a digital director there as well.

Fowler: Correct. It works well here. It works well at KSDK. And I think across the industry, more stations are leaning into this model. You know, there was a time in TV when broadcast was virtually everything and digital was like, oh, it was kind of well, digital was kind of over here. But then there was broadcast and over time and certainly today, digital commands equal attention from the leadership in the newsroom. And this works out well for us.

I have my hand in both. I worked in the digital space. I certainly worked in broadcast for a lot of years. It is fantastic to work with someone like Art as news director. He supervises broadcast and also takes the lead on our recruiting and retention, which is I don’t have to tell anybody listening to this is a big deal at the moment. And then we have a digital director who does a great job watching our digital platforms and developing strategy. She and I work with that, so I have my hand in a lot of different things.

I really can’t imagine another model, but I think it depends on the talent you have in the room. You have to decide which hat is what leans into their strength, what’s their highest use is how I sometimes phrase it. And this works out actually. It’s worked out really well for us.

I want to come back to staffing issues in just a moment. But before that, I always love talking to GM’s news directors, other station executives, because they have their finger on the pulse of what’s going on like almost nobody else does in the industry. So, I’m wondering for both of you and starting with Art, what are you thinking about? What are your viewers thinking about? Where are you focusing your reporting resources most directly right now in this moment?

Holliday: I think one of the challenges that we’re facing right now is how do we cover crime in a meaningful way? Gun violence is prevalent all over the nation and certainly true in St. Louis. I mean, we had a high-profile shooting incident last night with 100 shell casings in downtown St. Louis. It’s really damaged the reputation of St. Louis.

So that’s part of the storytelling. But how do you provide a public service to the community rather than just the drive by journalism where you show the cops standing around in the shell casings and the crime tape? Because that doesn’t [help]. All that does is scare people.

Sure. And it becomes noise after a while, too. So, what are you doing to bring, I don’t know, more context, or what’s your solution so far to the problem?

Holliday: By reinforcing the message that the best crime stories are the next day or the next week or the next month, trying to find the humanity of the story. Who are the people that are affected? Are they willing to talk or are they willing to share how crime has impacted their lives? By certainly talking to public officials, which, you know, sometimes that’s like, you know, you don’t get the result that you would like, but you have to hold people accountable. You have to ask the right questions. You have to look at maybe solutions that may be working somewhere else and ask, OK, is this something that could work in St. Louis?

So, there’s a variety of ways. Late last year, we had a really unusual carjacking situation. It was a mother and her 11-year-old son were a carjacking team. So, if you see a mother and son, your defenses are down because you think it’s the mother and her child. Well, they got they carjacked the guy. The 11-year-old pistol whipped him. So that was the initial story, which on its face is, you know, somewhat dramatic. So, the original reporter, Robert Townsend, did some follow up work. We tracked down the victim and it turned out he was someone who had emigrated to the United States from another country, was not particularly street smart, was a good Samaritan who thought he was helping a mother and her son and wound up losing his car.

So that was story number two. So, the victim, a day or two later, called Robert back, Hey, I got my car back. And you’ll never imagine what they found. Well, apparently, the carjackers left some documents in the backseat of the car that identified them. But the police didn’t search the car. They just they just turned it back over to the owner. So now we’ve got a two for one story. The guy gets his car back and oh, by the way, the police aren’t very good at investigating stolen cars.

You know, so that story’s unusual. But it reinforces the idea that if you keep digging, keep asking questions, keep looking for the people who are affected, that’s the kind of crime coverage that provides some context and hopefully some information to people that goes beyond the first draft of crime that we started off with.

Well, Art, that example makes me wonder, how is your relationship with the police evolving as crime is surging, as cases are getting worse and the volume of crime is increasing? Do you have a more fractious relationship with the police than you did at the outset of the current crime wave? Or in what ways is that changing?

Holliday: I don’t know that it’s worse and I don’t know that it’s better. I know last year we invited public information officers, PIOs from multiple law enforcement entities in our region, to join our newsroom on Zoom so that we could just have a conversation when we’re not under deadline pressure or political pressure and just have a conversation about the symbiotic relationship that we have. There are times when the police need us, when they have important information to get to the public. There are times when we have to hold the police accountable, which they probably don’t care for very much, but that’s part of the job as well. So, I think the goal when I tried to create this conversation was to just recognize what each one of us has to deal with and the Venn diagram that brings us together on a daily basis. And I don’t know if it made things better, but it certainly I think it maybe there was some enlightenment on both sides, hopefully.

Fowler: I think in the last year, Art and I and the station as a whole have worked really hard to be more thoughtful about how we use information that the police provide. Just because the police say the suspect was Black without any other description doesn’t mean that we use that in our reporting. Just because we’re given a mugshot of someone who is charged, we have a process that’s on our Microsoft Teams. We immediately start a conversation. Is it newsworthy to use this photo? Is it newsworthy to include this fact? Are we going to report the story? I think Art raised an excellent point about not just covering it in the moment, but the best stories happen two or three days after the crime. Go back, circle back.

We don’t cover every crime. We don’t cover every shooting. We don’t cover every murder. You know, I’m sure a lot of stations grapple with this, too, but we don’t cover as much as because we’re being more thoughtful about it. Is it something that we can provide context to? Is it just another carjacking? Let’s not cover it unless we can bring a perspective. And also, our audience is telling us we want solutions. News is depressing, and I think that’s probably one of the biggest things as an industry that we’ve got to come to terms with is people are watching because it’s such a serious world they don’t want to hear anymore unless we can bring forth stories and then take that extra step to find out, is there a path forward? What is the solution? Is there hope? We have to put that as part of our reporting in crime report.

This applies to a lot of different reporting, but certainly crime. All of that gets into discussions. We have really robust discussions in our editorial meetings. Art and I are almost always present. We prioritize the editorial meeting because this is really where the decisions are getting made in terms of who’s covering what and where we’re putting our resources on any given day.

I want to switch gears and ask you about streaming and your streaming trajectory. Where is the station currently represented on streaming platforms? Are you on most of the major ones or what are you doing on that front?

Fowler: We’re on Roku and Amazon Fire. And we’ve launched, along with all of our sister stations inside Tegna, a new platform a couple of months ago and really are a first mover in our market, St. Louis. In this space, we take it very seriously. We look at the analytics every day and have been surprised by a few things. I thought I knew streaming. I thought I kind of knew. But this is really uncharted territory. And, you know, audience habits are taking shape. So, we’re kind of watching. We’re in the infancy of a delivery platform that is growing by leaps and bounds. The metrics really are growing so fast that, you know, to have triple digit growth month to month is really expected.

I’m curious, what surprised you in the in the audience behavior of the analytics that you saw?

Fowler: That people want to watch newscasts and don’t necessarily care if they’re live. So, for instance, we’re seeing strong interest in the morning. And I think it’s a function of, you know, people working at home. Habits in the morning are changing a lot in terms of the amount of people that are in the workforce and that have to get out the door and or fighting a commute. We’re an NBC station. So, at 7 a.m., we close our local newscast and go to Today. If I wake up, if I’m a consumer, I wake up at 7 a.m. I’ve missed our live broadcast. Maybe I want a local show and not the Today show, as good as it is. And now streaming is a free and a real convenient way to catch up on a local newscast that may be only a half hour old. We have a simulcast and then and I’ll just use the morning as an example. We have a show, 6 a.m. So at 7 a.m., we recue that show and we play it and we have found a really strong audience for that.

Are you also producing original content for streaming at this point?

Fowler: Only weather. We’re producing what we call big weathers and that’s our top video. So, what we’re not doing is just cutting up the newscast and putting it like a video jukebox in our Roku and our Fire TV. Our strategy is really to lean into longer form. So, instead of taking the two minutes of weather from the 6 p.m. news after the 6 p.m. news, our chief meteorologist will record a four-or-five-minute weather that then we post and it runs as it interstitial with our other content. And then we also have a weather section. Someone with the app can go straight to the weather section and see an extended [forecast]. We even have started teasing it during our weather that, you know, the extra content that we’ll be talking about on our OTT.

What’s the road map on streaming? Is it a goal to produce more original content newscasts or special, you know, documentary content, exclusively for streaming?

Fowler: Probably at some point. We’re still learning what the audience has the biggest appetite for. You know, longer-form custom content is expensive to produce and it’s labor intensive. And right now, we have to make tough choices on how we’re going to use our resources down the road. It’s the perfect place for documentaries. I mean, think about the things that you watch on the entertainment streaming platforms. You watch movies and documentaries that are longer.

And when you’re in that space, you’re kind of expecting to have an experience. That certainly is. And I’m speaking locally. Nationally, Tegna has big plans for producing content that can run across the company. But as far as KSDK goes, if we could just produce a fantastic newscast experience that people want to seek out in the streaming space on their own schedule and have weather and showcase breaking news in that streaming box. I think in the short term, if we could check all those boxes and do them very well, we would be really happy.

Perhaps then the next step is to think about creating content that lives there. We have a Missouri primary coming up in the next few weeks and we’re experimenting with streaming in the Illinois primary, which was about a month ago. We at right after the polls closed, we streamed an election show from 7 p.m. until our late news. To me, that’s the perfect place to take advantage of having a lot of room to run and things that are happening in the moment. So breaking situations like election night. We’ll be doing a lot of custom content in that respect. But as far as storytelling, that’s probably down the road a bit for KSDK.

Well, talking of cross-Tegna initiatives, Art, I know Verify is a very big product inside of Tegna. It’s got a national unit and iterates it on local stations. How are you handling that inside of your newsroom? Do you have a dedicated person who’s sort of your Verify reporter? Is that spread across multiple people or how does it work?

Art Holliday: Our Verify reporter is one of our main anchors and she’s probably doing locally, maybe one or two Verifys a week. She worked in conjunction with our special project unit. So that’s kind of how we handle it locally. And then obviously Tegna has a national unit that’s feeding to all the Tegna stations. So, it’s a combination of those two ways of producing content for Verify.

And just one more thing on the content side in terms of weather, which came up a few minutes ago. Midwest summer is always about major storms. Potential tornadic activity commands a lot of attention. It’s very important, life or death sometimes. So, what are you doing to stay competitive on the weather front in your market?

Fowler: Well, our market, like most markets, is very competitive on weather. It’s our number one priority. We talk constantly about how to make our weather distinctive, to excel at breaking weather, and to have protocols in place in which you have a mindset not only your newsroom but in your entire station that you jump into action. Everybody knows the hat they’re wearing when we’re in situations where there’s a tornado warning, for instance. So, we’re looking at everything from resources to staffing.

We’re making staffing decisions right now to bolster weather, to get more resources where we have openings and, you know, there’s a lot of churn going in on in the business right now. We’re taking a look. Do we need that opening for that purpose or is it better suited to supporting weather, for instance? We made that decision recently, so I don’t think weather is ever going to take a backseat to another content category and a TV stations. It’s still a reason to watch.

And even as we all know audience, you know, some of the audience that traditionally watch broadcast are now getting their news online. But those folks still come back, and we know they still come back in severe, life threatening weather situations. And you have to be at the top of your game. You have to be first, and you also have to be right. You have to have the credibility. We work on that every day.

Staffing has come up a couple of times now. I want to pivot to that as our final topic here. Obviously, the Great Resignation has impacted this entire industry and many others, but it seems to be pretty acutely growing as a problem. So, Art, you’re the recruitment man there. How are you dealing with that? I mean, people are not moving into this field. People are leaving it. They’re burned out. They’re exhausted. They’re tired of doing multiple shifts. You know, they have a litany of complaints. So, how are you confronting that?

Holliday: Well, I think there’s a couple of components there that you talked about. One is the people who are already mid-career who are deciding or at least giving some serious thought to, you know, I’m tired, I want to do something else. So, there’s that part of it. We do see that in St. Louis.

We also see people that we hired four, five, six years ago did a lot better and then move on to other markets. So that’s part of the churn. And then part of it is recruiting new people. I spent a lot of time looking at resumes and tapes. There’s a lot of people that still want to do this, whether it’s sports, whether it’s weather, whether it’s news. So, that’s the good news. The challenge is that most of those people are kind of in in terms of talent and performance, they’re kind of in the vast middle, right? They could probably do the job, but there’s not a whole lot that necessarily sets them apart from everyone else. So, are you going to coach them up or are you going to wait a little while longer and hope that you find someone that really does stand out?

I mean, Carol and I were talking earlier this week. Carol, you sent me a text of a young reporter that we thought we had kind of discovered. She was working in Springfield, Illinois. And I you know, the first time I looked at her reel I’m like, wow, she’s really good. And I looked at her resume and she was like less than two years out of college. So, I’m like, whoa, OK.

She’s just a ringer.

Holliday: That we wanted to zero in on. She just started her new job in Philadelphia. So, she went from Springfield.

And bypassed Missouri.

Which is in the in the triple digits in terms of market size from Springfield to Philadelphia. So, our instincts were great, but Philly beat us to the punch.

Well, you just brought up the conundrum that you have: Do you take somebody and train them up to the level you want them to be? Or do you hold out for that better candidate? What’s the solution that you typically then come up with yourself?

Holliday: I would say that we do both. And so far, it’s working. The one of the challenges is that the longer you wait to replace someone, the more it becomes punishment for your newsroom because you’re short staffed and people are like, what’s taking so long? And we hear that all the time.

And, you know, conspiracy theories are usually oh, they’re just trying to save money. No, we’re trying to get it right. And so far, our track record in the last year, where we’ve hired a lot of people last year and a half, is that we brought a lot of great people into our newsroom. But occasionally we will take a chance on someone who shows that based on where they are in their career that they haven’t reached their ceiling yet.

A specific example would be that we just created a reporter in residence program as an experiment. So, it is a one-year contract, market rate salary, but it’s someone who has just graduated. And we identified a young lady who just graduated from the University of Missouri. She was one of the one of a handful of people who clearly seemed to be ahead of her peers. And so, we use that as vacation relief. She works a variety of schedules. When people go on vacation or get sick so that you’re not disrupting your entire schedule when someone inevitably goes on vacation or is ill or whatever. And in exchange, we coach her up.

And, you know, and the worst-case scenario for the reporter in residence is that at the end of the year, they would have jumpstarted their career to start in the 23rd market. Their resumé tape is probably going to be light years ahead of where it would have been if they had started it in Market 95. But what’s more likely is that sometime in that year, we’re going to have a reporter leave for one reason or another. And we have someone, hopefully that we think is good enough to just plug and play.

It sounds like an elegant solution to kill two problems at once. But also, it’s not just about recruitment. It’s about retention. So, what are you as the newsroom manager and everybody’s boss doing to mitigate all of the stress that [employees] have right now to head off burnout and to try to keep them not just at your station, but in the business?

Holliday: We are trying to do a lot of different things. One, we talk openly about the stress associated with this particular line of work, especially in the context of the last two years of a pandemic. It has taken a toll mentally on a lot of people. On a more personal note for me, there was the school shooting in Nevada recently. For whatever reason, it hit me harder than other mass shootings because my daughter is an elementary school teacher.

Now, we encourage people to speak to a news manager, speak to someone close to them, make sure that they understand that there is professional help that is provided by the company, that it’s OK to talk about your mental health in our newsroom. So that’s one thing that we do.

Fowler: We do regular check ins, too. We have a minimum monthly, we sit down with all the employees. And I have to tell you, coming up in the business, I don’t remember that ever happening. We’ve gotten a lot smarter with, you know, staying close to our people so that if somebody is really feeling like they want to quit, that it doesn’t come as a complete shock. Like you never said anything. I thought things were OK. It’s not so much a shock anymore. And there are people who are leaving the business for really good reasons and ones that I wouldn’t quarrel with for a second.

But more of it is going on and there are more career options. I will just say for people who work in TV news, there are a lot of jobs now that are outside of your market that you can do from home. And so those career opportunities that didn’t exist before the pandemic now exist. So, there may be several jobs that are appealing, not necessarily in television. Maybe in media, maybe in digital that I can do now because of Zoom and because of everything going virtual. So, we have competition now. We have competition for our really smart people who are great writers and are critical thinkers.

Other industries want these sort of people, too. And now they can offer them a really attractive career path that involves perhaps 100% work remote or a good chunk of it working remote. So, we’re being really proactive in the work from home space, too, because our employees told us that we did it by necessity in the pandemic and now by choice. We’re doing it because we know what makes for happier people.

Holliday: And we also encourage people to talk about their desire for advancement and how we can play a role. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people are concerned not just about today, but the next year or the next five years. And will they have opportunities to grow? Will they have opportunities to get trained to acquire new skills? And in our newsroom, all the answers are yes.

And so, we have to do a great job over and over and over again of communicating that and making sure that those topics also come up in our monthly meetings with the people that we report directly to.

Well you certainly have a lot going on, a lot to handle, a lot to manage as things are not getting any easier.

Holliday: You’re a master of understatement.

And all that amid a 75-year anniversary at KSDK. So, congratulations on that milestone to both of you. And thank you very much, Art Holliday and Carol Fowler, for being with me here today. Appreciate it.

Carol Fowler: Thank you, Michael.

Art Holliday: Thanks for having us.

And thanks to all of you for watching and listening and see you next time.

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