Talking TV: How Scripps Is Helping Reporters Be Better Storytellers

Chris Nagus, senior director of storytelling and content strategy at E.W. Scripps, explains how he works closely with reporters across the group’s stations to hone their journalistic chops and storytelling skills to make for stronger newscasts. A full transcript of the conversation is included.

“Make it new,” the poet Ezra Pound once instructed writers. There is a similar maxim at work at E.W. Scripps these days, where the company has been overhauling its entire journalistic apparatus.

Chris Nagus has emerged as one of the key architects in that overhaul. Nagus’ title alone — senior director of storytelling and content strategy — speaks to what the company is prioritizing as it bulks up its reporting staff at even the smallest of its stations, trims away anchor positions and focuses on getting more relevant stories, and a lot more of them, out of each of its markets.

In this Talking TV conversation, Nagus explains his role and how he works with individual reporters to better focus their search for stories and better frame them once found. He shares how Scripps is working to execute that labor-intensive process at scale and what the company’s expectations are for a stronger product that puts the “new” back in TV news.

Michael Depp: How does a local TV station win with content? How does it make sure that it’s covering the right stories, asking the right questions, talking to the right people to truly address what’s important to the community?

And how, when you’re telling the story, do you make it new?

I’m Michael Depp, editor of TVNewsCheck, and this is Talking TV. These are questions confronted daily by my guest today, Chris Nagus. Chris is the senior director of storytelling and content strategy for the E.W. Scripps Co. He’s on the front lines of the company’s strategy to reaffirm its relevance in local markets, to break TV journalism’s worst habits and conventions and find its way towards a daily news product that will reconnect with audiences.


Coming up, a conversation with E.W. Scripps’ Chris Nagus about how he’s trying to reboot local TV news by going back to bedrock journalistic principles and more engaging ways of telling stories. We’ll be right back.

Welcome. Chris Nagus.

Chris Nagus: Michael, thank you. It’s great to be here today.

Good to see you, Chris. Your background entails over 20 years in this business and extensive experience as an investigative reporter. Your job title at Scripps is senior director of storytelling and content strategy. What does that mean and what do you do every day?

Yeah, it’s a really good question. You know, I’m the first person at the E.W. Scripps Co. to hold this title, to hold this position. I’ve been doing this job for approximately two years after what you just mentioned, a 20-plus-year television career in various markets, mainly in the Midwest. And it is my job to work with reporters across all of our markets, our smallest markets like Helena, Mon., to our biggest newsrooms, Detroit, Phoenix and Tampa. And I work with our reporters and our anchors to elevate the storytelling, to elevate the journalism.

Michael, you’ve been around this industry for a long time. And one of the things that we hear from our viewers is it oftentimes will scratch the surface of a story that we’re not digging deep enough. We’re not making that story relevant in the lives of our viewers, the communities we serve. So, it’s my job to work with those reporters, work with those anchors and turn them into the best possible storytellers they can be to better serve their communities. And in many cases, that includes the added depth, those investigative elements, those pieces that I’ve picked up along the way. And now I’m charged with trying to pass that knowledge along to the next generation of reporters.

You just mentioned you’ve actually been in this position for a couple of years, but there’s a new urgency to what you’re doing within Scripps. And now there are positions reporting up to you that aim to widen and deepen this effort, including a new position of executive reporter. How is that working?

We just hired our very first executive reporter in our Tallahassee, Fla., newsroom. His name is Channing Frampton. He was the main Monday through Friday evening anchor and now he’s working behind the scenes on the other side of the camera with the reporters in that newsroom to help them with their storytelling. And really, if I had to define that role in one sentence, it’s to make the journalism better, period. You know, and it’s a tough task. He’s working in a small market. Most of his reporters have under a year of experience. So, it’s really making sure that they’re going back to some of those basics — who, what, when, where, why of journalism and making sure that those questions are answered for the viewers in that market.

But it’s not just Tallahassee. This is a role that we are hiring across many of our newsrooms. In fact, we’re doing that right now in Fort Myers, Fla. We’re getting ready to do it in Waco, Texas. Omaha, Neb. You know, Green Bay, Wis. Lansing, Mich. I mean, just a few. And the hope here is to roll this out across most of our newsrooms, even in our middle and large markets. Even our seasoned reporters benefit from that additional conversation.

How do you make the storytelling, the journalism better? Look, none of us have all the answers to any one story or any one question. I’ve always found that I’m better with collaboration, and I find that most reporters are as well. And so that role is really there. You know, think about what an executive producer did for the shows, for the producers. That executive reporter role now applies to our newsrooms and the reporters will report to that individual who then reports up to the news director. But again, it’s about making the storytelling in those newsrooms better.

As you mentioned, a big part of your job is going to be going to stations all the way through the medium- and smaller-sized markets and working very closely with the reporters there, looking at how they’re structuring their day, finding their sources, finding new stories. Can you take a recent example of this and walk me through what that looks like in detail?

Absolutely. So, when I go into a station, the first thing I do is I meet with the reporters. Oftentimes, I’ll hold a group storytelling session. We will look at examples of best practices. We’ll take a look at other stories that are being done in markets that they might not be watching because I find that we often get tunnel vision. We work in our newsroom. We work in our market, and we look at what our competition is doing, but we’re not necessarily watching what’s happening in other cities. That’s step No. 1.

Step No. 2, I meet with those reporters one on one, and we will sit down and review their work. And I always say, please do not bring the greatest hits reel. Don’t bring the sweeps piece that you did three years ago. Bring me two or three stories that you did last week. And even if it’s a story that you’re not particularly proud of, let’s take a look at it. Let’s get that feedback, that conversation going, and talk about ways that we can improve the next time around. And sometimes this is getting out into the field. I call it, you know, a reporter field trip.

I was in Green Bay, Wis., recently and met one of our — we call it Neighborhood News in that market. I met our neighborhood news reporter that covers Door County, Wis., and I said, I’m going to drive out to her. It’s about an hour from the station in Green Bay and we’re going to show up at the courthouse. We’re going to show up at the sheriff’s office. We’re going to make introductions. We’re going to get to know the people that work in these buildings, these officials, and find out what kind of stories we might be missing. And during that example in Green Bay, I went with a reporter that’s been out of school for six or seven weeks at this point. We met the county clerk. We learned how to go through court filings. We looked up felony charges that had been filed that day and we were able to pull out relevant stories that were happening in the community that week.

I remember the feedback I got from the reporter, and she said, gosh, this is a place I just haven’t looked before. So, my job in a lot of ways is teaching people how to fish. I need them to be able to do it over and over and over again to make sure that we’re not missing those stories in those communities, because even small communities deserve good journalism. They deserve good television news. I mean, that’s what we’re trying to teach and what we’ve got hundreds of reporters.

Michael, I’m one person. You mentioned that I’m bringing somebody else on. Yes, I’ve hired another director of content in storytelling. She’s currently a photographer in our Cleveland newsroom. She brings that visual component of it, but she’s also a journalist that’s been in the business now for a number of years that can help these young reporters know where to look, how to tell better stories. So, together as a team, we’re going to try to elevate the journalism in person in as many newsrooms as we can.

In the case of the younger reporters, the newly minted J-school graduates, I assume, in most cases, is there any message you’d want to relay back to J-schools about something that they might do to better prepare those reporters as young reporters for the realities of the journalistic market right now and how they should be practicing? Are they not to be critical necessarily, but is there something maybe that they’re missing? Because, you know, they’d like to hear back from people actually in the field.

I’m so glad you asked this question. You know, I went to the University of Missouri, you know, journalism school 20 something years ago at this point in Columbia, Mo. And one of the things that helped me was obviously getting out in the field, right? You learn the daily deadline pressure, as you understand that that deadline comes every single day. But the one thing that I think journalism schools forget to teach or maybe they just don’t know to teach is curiosity, because I run into a lot of young reporters that get stuck. You know, they’re like, OK, I know what the story is. You handed it to me on a silver platter, but now how do I execute? What questions should I be asking? Who do I go talk to? Where do I get information to add depth?

I really think those exercises would help immensely when reporters get out into newsrooms, and they start doing this for real every single day. You know that again, deadline, you know all the pressures that the business brings. I think the journalism schools are pretty good at teaching that. But I think that one thing that is lacking with a lot of reporters that I see, they’re right out of college is, oh, my gosh, where do I even go for information? Who do I ask? And it’s hard to teach that sometimes until you have the life experience and you’ve been there, you’ve been in the field, you’ve done it. But anything we could do to teach that, to get people more curious about their communities.

One example I’ll bring up, you know, I get neighborhood reporters and I’ll always ask them, what’s the population of your neighborhood? And I get answers ranging from, oh, I don’t know, 5,000 people to five million. You’ve got to know that stuff. You’ve got to be curious about the place you live in, the community you serve. So that’s something I really love to drive home to young journalists that are getting out of college, getting ready to enter the workforce.

That kind of press release-driven journalism is really a trap that a lot of newsrooms fall into, isn’t it?

Right. I think that a lot of people think, look, I’ve been spoon fed some information here, but how do we go beyond that? We’ve got a reporter in our Nashville market who I think is fantastic at taking a press release and making it real news. Right. We all get the news releases. But how do we go beyond that and dig down into the information what’s really being said?

That’s the curiosity that I would love to see out of our young reporters. OK, the city of Nashville told me they’re putting in new LED lights, but what neighborhoods are getting them, and which neighborhoods are being left behind? Right. Like there are all these questions that we have around the original news release, and it’s making sure our reporters know how to ask those questions and where to go for that information.

The lament of so many reporters is often, if I only had the time. And it’s a completely understandable dilemma. I mean, most of them wake up every day. They have very rigorous quota of day turn stories that they need to render across multiple media. And that beast has to be fed incessantly. So, how does a reporter break out of that pattern?

One of the things that we’re doing is going to help reporters in that regard, and this is a wholesale change in the industry, at least at Scripps, taking place. You know, show me a reporter and I’ll show you a bunch of gratuitous live shots right where we’re out there holding up a building where something happened five hours ago. We are really trying to get away from that live-for-the-sake-of-live reporting. I can’t tell you how many times I was out in the field doing, you know, live shots at 4 or 5 and 6. And, gosh, when is there time to actually do the journalism and do the story? If we can take those live shots outside of breaking news, those live shots that are live for the sake of live off their plate, No. 1, that gives them time back in the day to not worry about doing that aspect, that performative part of the business, and instead work on the informative aspects of their job.

So, we’re trying to free up time in that regard. And you know, Michael, one thing that we’re also doing in a lot of our smaller markets writing back in beat days. That is a luxury that reporters for a long time have gone without in broadcast news. We are hiring. We are increasing the number of MJ and reporters in our small markets. In some cases, we had three or four. We’re ramping that number up to 12 and 13 in some of these markets.

So, what does that mean? It means every one of our reporters doesn’t have to be on the air every single day. That gives them time to cultivate a story, cultivate sources, go out in the field and do what I just mentioned in that Green Bay example. Spend an hour or two with the county clerk, bring them a box of donuts, make them your best friends. Old fashioned reporting that we didn’t have time for in the old model.

All of a sudden, we’re shifting back into let’s put some time not only into the investigative, the depth, all of that, but back into the reporter’s day so they can do better journalism. I think it makes perfect sense, right? I mean, when we look at what we’re going to get out of a journalist, well, the more time we give them, the better the story is likely going to be. I say to every one of our reporters, spend more than five or 10 minutes with the person you’re interviewing. Get to know them.

You and I have talked before and I said, gosh, Michael, if you and I spent an hour together or two hours together over lunch or a long meal, I’d learn all kinds of things about you. I want our reporters to be able to do the same. Time is their most valuable resource, and we’re trying to give them more of it.

Sure. And, of course, staffing up threefold in a small market would dramatically change any newsroom. There’s a question to be asked there about how you afford to pay for that, especially in a small market, but I suspect you are not the person to answer that question given the remit of what your job is. But affording to expand your staff is a question for another Scripps executive for a later date.

Yeah. One thing I’ll say about that, you know, the nice thing about adding reporters in these communities and think about this in a place where we only have three reporters, we’re covering the bare bones, the basics, 12 reporters, all of a sudden that gives us more opportunity. And we can be picky with those stories and make sure that we’re covering all of these communities, our urban centers and our rural surrounding communities more effectively.

But again, this is about increasing the content and giving our audience more access to the news that has, quite frankly, been missed in some of these markets in the past. We’re trying to change that or trying to change that model. And, you know, it is an investment in these reporters. We have increased salaries of our members because we want them to be able to make a home and live in a small market.

You know, the old model was start small market, go to the large before you could make, you know, a decent income or a decent living. We’re trying to change that because again, we understand these smaller communities. Small markets deserve good journalism, and we’ve got to have some seasoned folks covering the news in those places that have that experience, that depth of knowledge of that marketplace.

Now, there’s a second major element to what you’re doing. You started to anticipate a little bit about what I want to ask you next. That’s the construction of the news stories themselves. Tell me about how you’re trying to compel journalists at your stations to look at that process with fresh eyes.

I think that any of us that have watched enough local TV news over the years — and this is not something just in small or middle markets. We see it in large markets. I talk about that gravitational pull to the track, SOT, track, SOT, track, SOT storytelling approach. What I’m trying to do, not only myself, but with this person, Bridget from Cleveland, who I’ve just hired and subject matter experts that I tapped from our other stations, is to get out in the field and teach nontraditional interview framing.

I am a huge proponent of leaving the mic on our central compelling characters and just being a fly on the wall. Just observe part of their day. We’ve got a photojournalist in Nashville that’s fantastic at this, so put the mic on them. She won’t even do a traditional interview and she’ll get a heck of a story just by listening to that. What that person’s saying and watching them engage with their environment.

I’m trying to teach that approach with so many of our reporters to get away from those. You know, I don’t want to [do] staged looking interviews, but it’s where we set up two chairs in the corner of a living room. We’ve got a blank wall behind them. Let’s get these people out there. Let’s get them engaged in what they’re doing.

Or the walk and talk. That’s pretty awful to behold.

Yeah. I just want to see people engaged with what they’re doing. And I want to break up that traditional-looking television story that we’ve become accustomed to seeing. And that takes a lot of different a lot of different forms. We’ve got a lot of creative reporters. And I think about the material. I’ve got triplet boys that are going to turn 13-years-old. And I think about the content they consume and the way they swipe through videos and what catches their attention.

I’m not saying that we’re trying to design, you know, television stories for 13-year-olds. But what I am trying to do is figure out a way to captivate our audience and make sure they’re engaged, because if they’re not engaged with us, they’re not watching, and we lose those viewers. Audience erosion is real. We know people have choices, so we’ve got to bring them back. And that means getting away from some of that old, stodgy-looking news coverage that we’ve been accustomed to over the years and figuring out a way to make it visual, making sure that that story pitch is relevant. Making sure that we have depth.

I want people to see our product and understand that it is a Scripps station. It’s a Scripps brand. I think we live in a world where people look at local news as the same. So, we’re trying to differentiate the product, and we’re doing that by getting into these newsrooms, having these conversations, giving that feedback and continuously trying to raise the bar with the reporters.

You’ve described how you went to the county courthouse or the clerk of court and made acquaintances and tried to broaden the sources there. Putting the stories together, will you sit with someone editing something? Will that be part of it where you kind of talk to them when they’re there and they’re shooting the story? Make some suggestions about where to put the camera when you actually go out in the field and work on some of those pieces with journalists?

The answer to those questions: Yes, yes and yes. Yes, I will go out in the field with reporters. I will suggest shots. Now, do I do it with every single reporter? No, because when I’m in market for a couple of days and I’m working with nine or 10 reporters, time doesn’t allow me to be out in the field three or four hours with every single one of them. But yes, I have done that. I will do that.

The director of content and storytelling that I’m bringing on board here, she will absolutely do that. Her job will be very tactical and very hands on. She will be out there showing them better shot selection, how to frame an interview, how to edit. She is well versed on all editing systems. So, if it requires that level, if we go into a Tallahassee and we’ve got a reporter that’s struggling with editing, let us sit down and show you how to do it. So, yes, that tactical hands-on approach is absolutely going to be applicable with some of our reporters.

Scripps stations share content daily with Scripps News, the company’s national network. Is this effort benefiting that network by improving the pipeline of local stories that have potentially national currency? Is framing stories to a broader audience part of what you’re trying to do when you’re working with these stations?

Absolutely. Listen, you know, Scripps News and the locals really need to work in tandem to provide the best content to our viewers on our various platforms by having more than 40 local markets. Think about that. We have 40 bureaus. You know, think about the way network news is set up. We have reporters. We have newsrooms in 40 mid-size, major, small markets all across the country. We have a diverse geography, whether it’s urban versus rural Southwest, Southeast, Northeast. We’ve got stations all over the place. So, just by the size of our stations and our group, that’s going to help us with both platforms.

But, you know, yes, absolutely. My hope is that if we take stories at the local level from the network, I want to see them take stories from the locals and apply those to the network as well. Think about it: All national news is someone’s local news, right? All of it comes from somewhere. And if it’s a compelling story that has broader reach beyond Tulsa and it’s worth sharing on the network side, absolutely.

Well, it’s just a matter of the framing and the storytelling, really.

Exactly. You know, a story about, you know, a tax levy or an increase in South Tulsa is probably not interesting nationwide. But if we’ve got a positive story that we’re highlighting about somebody doing something good in that community and that character is relatable, why wouldn’t we share that across our platforms?

Sure. This is a very big undertaking, trying to effect systemic change to the fabric of a newscast and the efforts of a newsroom. So, how do you follow up with newsrooms and how do you keep this process going, keep spinning the plates and keep the connections charged after your visits?

I try to be present. I don’t want them to forget about me. I want to be that voice in the back of their head that’s like, OK, Chris told me that this might work if I do it this way. One of the things that I do is I send out an email that goes across our company every Friday. In fact, I just send it out about an hour ago. I call it “Winds of the Week,” and I highlight three really good stories across our company. I’ll pick one generally from a small market, a middle and a large. And my hope is that our news directors and our general managers share those wins with all of our newsrooms. That’s got my signature on it. And as a result of that, every week, I get reporters that are submitting their nominations to me saying, Chris, I saw your email. Here’s what I did this week. So, they’re all working to raise the bar together. They want to be featured in that email because their work then gets seen across the company by all of our corporate executives, a lot of people internally within the company.

When I actually visit a station, my follow up is pretty simple. I’ll work with eight or nine reporters over the course of a couple of days. Before I walk out of that newsroom, I put those reporters on my Outlook calendar, and I send them a Zoom invite. I said, I’ll be seeing you again in three weeks. And you and I are going to work. I’ll be virtual. You’ll be back here in your newsroom and you’re going to share two or three stories that you’ve done since my visit. And let’s see if you’re applying what I’ve told you. Let’s see if it’s showing up in the product.

Of course, the news directors follow up with me, the general managers, the executive reporters. They’re going to be following up with me. But again, it’s making sure that we keep this going, because my biggest fear is that, you know, I walk in, and things change for a couple of days and a reporter takes all of that. They’re excited, they’re motivated, and then we fall off, right? We revert back to what we were doing. And that does happen. I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say it doesn’t, of course it does, but it’s trying to be present as much as I can be in the lives of those reporters and letting them know that, you know, they can reach out to me. Yes, I work for the corporate office, but I was a reporter for 23 years. I know what it’s like to be challenged in the field. I know what it’s like when a story doesn’t go your way.

I’m always available to them to talk things through. Just a couple of weeks ago, I had a reporter in Milwaukee call me, and he was about to door knock an individual that he was a little bit apprehensive about door knocking. And he’s sitting outside of his house. He calls my cellphone, and we walk through it. We talked about all the scenarios. Here’s how you can approach that. Knock on the door, walk off the back porch, stay safe. I mean, all of those things that I try to offer to them, but I want to be that resource as often as I can for our reporters. I’m on the phone and I’m on Zoom a lot.

Well, Chris Nagus, what an interesting and challenging job you have in front of you. Thanks so much for coming here to talk with me about it today. I appreciate it.

Michael, I really appreciate your interest and again, I look forward to following up with you as well in the future.

Thanks. You can catch all of our past episodes of Talking TV on and on our YouTube channel. We also have an audio version of the podcast available most places that you get your podcast. We are back most Fridays with the new episode. Thanks for watching this one, see you next time.

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