Talking TV: WTTG Keeps Upping The Ante With Local News, Programming
While almost every TV station is being squeezed to produce more content, Fox-owned WTTG in Washington, D.C., is taking it to the next level with almost 80 hours of original shows per week.
In this Talking TV conversation, Paul McGonagle, WTTG’s VP and news director, walks through two new shows debuting this fall and how they represent the need to constantly innovate on more tried-and-true newscast formats. He shares how the newsroom organizes its workflows to accommodate its high volume of content, especially the all-important handoffs of developing stories between shifts. And he shares what he’s doing to find new talent in a tight market where fresh blood is increasingly rare.
Episode transcript below, edited for clarity.
WTTG, the Fox-owned station in Washington, D.C., is a local content powerhouse, producing 78 and a half hours of original content every week. This fall, the station is adding even more with a new lunch hour program and an anchorless show that will be shot inside the newsroom itself instead of in the studio. But in a period where every station is struggling with hiring and retention issues, the Great Resignation and burnout, how is WTTG or any station managing to make more shows?
I’m Michael Depp, editor of TVNewsCheck, and this is Talking TV, the podcast that brings you smart conversations about the business of broadcasting. Coming up, the conversation with Paul McGonagle, VP and news director of WTTG, about creating new kinds of shows and staffing them up without breaking the staff.
Welcome, Paul McGonagle, to Talking TV.
Paul McGonagle: Michael, thank you very much for inviting me.
Paul, you are already producing a lot of daily content at WTTG. Can you break down how much you’re doing?
We’re doing 78 and a half hours of broadcasting, the majority of which is news. But we have original programing as well. We do the Final Five, which is a show about politics, not a political show, but a show about politics that runs Monday through Friday at 11:30 p.m., anchored by Jim Lokay. We run, Like It Or Not, which is a show it runs at 7. And that’s kind of what when we get into a spinoff of how we’re going to expand it at 11. It’s a spinoff of that show. And that’s a show where we have our anchors and surprise guests come in and they comment on social media, what’s on the social media feeds every day on your phone, on your laptop.
And then we have In the Courts, which is anchored by our chief legal correspondent, Katie Barlow, and that runs at 11:30 at night on Sundays. We just debuted that back in April, and shortly afterwards we had the leak at the Supreme Court. And, you know, we look like geniuses here are getting a chief legal correspondent. It has been nothing but court cases recently, whether it’s local or around the country. So, that show has been incredibly successful on Sunday night.
And your GM, Patrick Paolini, has a podcast as well. Is there a video version, too?
The Paolini Perspective. Absolutely.
As you contemplate adding new hours to your lineup, is it a key criterion now that when you spin something up, it has to be different? It can’t just be another newscast or a typical show, but somehow it has to break the mold.
Absolutely. And I think we’re talking about recruitment as well. The younger generation coming through our doors and through the doors of any TV station in this country didn’t grow up necessarily watching a traditional newscast with two anchors delivering the news, and they’re looking for something a little different. So, what we’ve done here first is we built our new facility, built to expand to control rooms, many different studios anywhere in this building can be set. We’ve always communicated to our staff we’re going to continue to expand and continue to grow as a TV station.
So, when I go back to some of the younger generation, they’re looking for a younger generation of broadcasters, looking for something a little different. In that aspect of it, it’s made it a little easier when we’re interviewing them to say, you know what, we’re not doing the traditional newscast. We’re looking for something a little different, whether it’s shows about social media, whether it’s In the Courts and, you know, peeling the curtain back behind what’s taking place in Supreme Court or superior court or district court. And they like that. They like that we’re doing something a little different.
Obviously, we have veteran broadcasters here who take care of the more traditional newscast. But it’s been great for our newsroom because the pulse is different. You know, we have some people working on that daily newscast of breaking news, but we have others spending a little more time on the creative or maybe the quote unquote fun topics. So, it’s a good banter in the newsroom. And now that everyone’s back from COVID, we have our producers and our talent cross-trained so they can go back and forth from show to show, whether it’s traditional, nontraditional. I think that helps in the overall production, whether it’s our regular newscast or some of these specialty shows.
And of course, talking of energy and morale, you are in a new location in Annapolis, a couple of miles from your previous studio. Your own view is the envy of any news directors out the window there. But it has had an energizing effect, having a brand-new facility with so many capabilities and coming back from COVID, it does have a marked effect on the energy level of employees.
Absolutely. So, we’re actually in Bethesda, not Annapolis, just outside of D.C. Coming out of COVID, you know, where everyone was doing these Zoom calls and we’re producing from home and sometimes anchoring from home, coming to a new facility where literally, you know, we had to figure out our backgrounds again because now everything’s a screen. So, we had to figure out shots. What was nice about this whole thing, and it was really a blessing coming out of COVID, is it was a huge positive look to look forward to during the pandemic.
And once we’re here, it got the creative juices flowing again. And that’s what’s great. You know, I say to our staff, I said, we all get into this business for a reason. We’re creative people and you need to unleash creativity. And I think, you know, in the pandemic, our industry did an amazing job keeping things on the air. But things were sometimes basic just because technology had to keep it basic. And right now, we’re in a position where we can explore, we can do more creative things. And that’s what’s going to come out, especially with these new shows we’re rolling out this fall.
It’s like performing in Carnegie Hall. You game up?
What do you know from your audience about what they want to see more of and less of in your newscasts for your original programs?
D.C. is a really interesting market because we have the District of Columbia, Maryland and Northern Virginia, and then parts of West Virginia as well. We actually use through our guests, especially on our morning show, because we’re on 4 to 11 every morning, we have a lot of guests, a lot of content. Those guests, they’re kind of our focus group. What do you want? What do you like? What don’t you like about Fox 5? We have a very strong our social media presence and our viewers are dedicated Fox 5 viewers and they let us know what they like and what they don’t like. So, we really take into consideration all of that. But what’s also great about it is the fact that every one of our staff lives in different areas. This marketplace is very diverse, you know, Northern Virginia, Maryland, D.C., and they come with different perspectives and different ideas.
So, when Patrick, maybe over a year ago, was saying, you know, we’re talking about possibly expanding again, we need ideas, the staff comes with ideas. And staff has pitched many ideas. It’s a very collaborative effort, and I think that’s what makes it special, the fact that it’s not one or two people in a room trying to come up with a concept. We’re all pitching in, and the ideas that we’ve come up with, the shows we’ve come up with have evolved over time, you know, before we even went to the budget meeting to get them approved.
Let’s look at the shows here. You’ve got two new ones. One is the LION lunch hour, and I gather that LION is an acronym for Like It or Not. So that means, like it or not, you’re getting a new lunchtime newscast?
Exactly. We’re coming on 11 in the morning and when that’s going to start on Sept. 12. And it’s coming right out of Good Day. And our popular anchor, Marissa Mitchell, is anchoring that show. She should be the main anchor of the show. And then Erin Cuomo, who’s our traffic reporter and anchor, she also has a segment “Cooking With Cuomo.” The two of them are going to lead this show and we’re going to have contributors, guests and some of the top chefs in the D.C. market. So, we’re going to expand upon Like It or Not, where I said we’re talking about things that are out there on your social media feed. It’s what you’re talking about with your friends, the videos you’re passing around. But at the same time, we’re going to do it over making lunch or making a meal at the same time. It’s going to be a mix between the cooking and conversation. It’s going to be unscripted. It’s going to be unpredictable. And that’s kind of what we want. We don’t want to go in there with lines that are run down. We want to go in there with a thought and idea. OK: Here’s what we’re going to make today for lunch and the 11 hour. Who are the greatest people to bring in to talk about these topics that are on your social media feed and just keep that conversation going?
You’re getting people hungry then?
In terms of a social media-driven content, how does that come about? You’re watching feeds, are you watching trend lines and what stories are trending generally or in the D.C. metro area? And then sort of extrapolating on that, what does that literally mean?
Our digital team is very strong. Our digital team is very much a part of our editorial process, you know, in the meetings itself, explaining to everyone what is trending out there, what’s trending locally, what’s trending nationally. And they’re the ones helping direct our executive producers and producers of our shows. Or if there is a social media video that may be newsworthy, you know, maybe harder news and we’ll say, you know what, the viewers are hungry for this content on digital and we need to figure out if there’s more to do with that story in the broadcast side to do that story, because they’re seeing the numbers on digital itself.
So, it’s a communication effort. And what’s great about it is our digital teams on the front lines seeing some of these things before, some of us maybe even seeing it on our feeds or maybe even seen it as a news story that’s percolating in a neighborhood or region in the DMV.
So, you identify the story. I guess identifying it is sort of easy enough with tools to do that. But then what do you do? Throw out to people in the field who are going to cover it and follow it up? Are they just going to discuss it in studio? What’s the actual follow up?
Again, it depends on whether this is a news content story. If it’s a hard news story, we will discuss this in an editorial meeting, who we think is the most appropriate reporter on that. If this is a social media story that’s maybe more pop culture, this is where we have a conversation internally because we have ties with a lot of different radio stations and in social media outlets in the DMV, we’re like: You know what? This disc jockey at this radio station may be the best person to bring in because he or she is also a contributor for our station. But this is something that really interests them, and they can keep the conversation going, not only on our show, but they can keep the conversation going on their radio program as well. And it’s really cross-promotion for both of us.
The second show is called DMV Zone. And the DMV there is not the Department of Motor Vehicles, but D.C., Maryland, Virginia. I did not know this acronym, though I think you might have bumped into something accidentally fascinating if you did set up cameras in the DMV and just waited for the fireworks of people exploding in impatience. But in the real world, what is the premise of your show?
We’re big fans of TMZ. And again, we’re trying to figure out how to present news in a different way. We’re going to take the TMZ format, so to speak, and the show itself is going to take place in the newsroom live at 3 o’clock. We’re going to utilize steady camera, a jib, mobile cameras all around. And we’re going to have our reporters, the assignment desk, our digital team, but also bring in contributors who will be either in-house or we have a giant media wall that we’re going to display where we can do live zooms or live talkbacks with people.
What we’re doing here is to take an issue, let’s just say, for example, one of the things that’s taking place here is masking in schools, right? We’re going back again and whether you should mask in school. You know, it may be a two- or three-minute story in our traditional newscast, maybe at 10 here. We want to give it maybe 11 minutes, and we’re going to talk about it more and get more voices.
Our biggest goal of this 3:00 show is to get more voices, some of those voices that maybe don’t make our newscast. They can have a voice in some of these issues that they’re dealing with on a daily basis. We’re also going to have a man on the street … we’re going to get a lot of live comments on these shows and on these topics. We really want it to be interactive. And as I said earlier, we have a very strong social media presence in D.C. We put on hashtag, and it takes off. We’re really hoping that the use of tag board, which we can literally put people’s social media posts on the broadcast screen, whether it’s Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, and make sure we are going to them constantly to and say, OK, here’s what we’ve been talking about this issue and people in real time commenting on it. Here’s their take on it.
This is anchorless, but you do have to have some sort of organizational driver here. Are you going to be sitting in the newsroom playing that role of the main TMZ guy, kind of bouncing around ideas or is someone stepping into that role to steward the show?
You’ll see someone there to steer the ship. Absolutely. At least keep it going and knowing as to when it’s time to move on to a different topic or whether it’s time to expand, because this thing maybe, you know, the topic itself may be taking off and it’s very successful. And we shouldn’t end the conversation in eight minutes like we originally thought. There will be someone there, but it’s not going to be the traditional news anchor type thing.
Now, of course, you also have to make sure that you have enough reporters actually in the newsroom during that show. So, Paul, the big question hovering over all of this as you create new shows and have creative different angles to try to break away from traditional news show structures is how do you make more stuff like this, more local shows, without crushing the people who are making it? Are you staffing up to handle this?
We are staffing up. We’re hiring seven for this expansion. We’re lucky. We have a strong workforce here and we have people who really want to continue [and go] outside of what they’re used to contributing. It’s a juggling act. Because, you know, when this is all said and done, and we have the DMV Zone on as well as LION Lunch Hour, we’ll be doing 88 and a half hours of broadcasts a week. It’s a lot of time on television. You know, people are going to people start their shift and end their shift and the show on is still on television.
But the one thing we have found, Michael, honestly, is we have to verbally communicate more, especially in this new setting, in a new building. We’re having more in-person meetings, verbal communication instead of a top line or an email. We’ve got to talk it out. We all have to make sure we’re on the same page. You got to take everyone’s temperature to see how people are doing, how people think the show is doing. And we need everyone’s feedback.
And with that, feedback has to come from talent on television, the producer or the people in the control room. Not only are they producing these new shows or existing shows, but they’re also viewers. They’re watching this content. And if they have some thoughts or ideas or concerns that this segment may not be working well or this is what we need to do, or adjust we listen to that. And that’s what’s made this process in our expansion so successful. Everyone has a voice in what we are putting out there and everyone has had a voice in this expansion as well.
It always takes a certain amount of time to go and report anything. Even if you’re talking to one source, that takes time to do. And just seems like people are on camera a lot or they’re facing the audience. There will be 80 hours a week, as you said. So, do you find that your reporters are checking in more incrementally now as their stories are developing? And rather than sort of waiting to file the big piece, they’re coming to you in pieces? And then the thing gets cumulatively put together later on in the story package? How is that impacting what is being delivered by reporters out in the field?
I think this has been something that’s been taking place over time with technology. Obviously, the check in, you know, you’re not waiting necessarily until 1:30 in the afternoon and a conference call with everyone. We utilize Slack here, so people are constantly Slacking information so you can literally in real time get a sense of where everyone is in their story gathering and story developments. And that has really helped us.
I ran track, you know, and the baton you’ve got to hand off at the top and every shift has to hand off to the next shift. And that’s and that’s key because they have to make sure that we’re advancing a story. So, if someone is assigned to a story, we’re covering it as part of a segment. We have to make sure that not only are we passing that segment or that story along to the next shift in the next set of shows and next set of executive producers. But that reporter and the photographer are saying here’s how to advance a story. Here are the questions that still need answers. And that’s been a huge asset to us. But it’s you know, it’s a team effort, but it has paid off dividends.
Is Slack enough of a tool to execute that or are you having to bring in other systems, too? I mean, it’s enormously complicated. What you’re describing is these intersecting workflows that are bridging, you know, one day and multiple shifts and different iterations on different platforms. It just boggles the mind how complex those threads are intersecting.
It absolutely is. But you know, Slack has an incredible tool because not only we can you know, put in text how it reporters developing something but then really put video on there and we can bring that right to air. It’s really cut down a lot of processes. It’s really streamlined things. But this is something that we’re constantly evaluating. How could we do it better? And again, it takes everyone. You don’t know what you don’t know. So, we need to know what is working, what can be adjusted.
But again, it’s that handoff that is key in knowing how to continue to advance the story because if not, you get the criticism of many when they say local news is very repetitive. We need to make sure we’re not repetitive. We need to make sure that we’re advancing the story or at least even telling the viewer, you know what, we don’t have answers but here are the questions we want to ask. There’s certain tools and strategies like that. I think the viewer appreciates, like, OK, I didn’t get the whole story yet, but I know they’re still working on it and maybe they will get it on social media an hour from now or two hours from now. Maybe they’ll have it on a future broadcast.
But, you know, as I said, internally, we need to verbally communicate. And I think we’re doing a better job of it with our viewer. As well as what we’re working on, what questions we have, who we want as guests. If some people we are trying to avoid being questioned on a topic, we let the viewer know we’re trying our darndest to get this, you know, politician on TV because they work for you. And we need answers.
Lastly, D.C. is a very exciting market. Obviously, a lot of people want to work there, but it’s still hard to get a high caliber of worker to come into this business in any market right now. You talked to this a little bit before of when you’re trying to get new recruits giving them a narrative that you’re moving toward different types of programing, not just a traditional newscast. But what else are you doing to try to get in the best talent right now and convince them that local broadcasting is a good career? It’s exciting, and more importantly, it’s sustainable?
It’s funny, we’ve kind of gone old school in some ways. We’re saying reach back to your college and universities. People are helping to recruit some of the people, whether they went to school with them or, you know, years later, they’re talking to a broadcast journalism class via Zoom. And we’re trying to make those connections. We have a great internship program, and I think D.C. obviously attracts a lot of people because they at least want to experience the District of Columbia and all the politics and excitement of it.
We’ve been really selective because in Washington, D.C., in a market like this, we look at these interns as possibly employable after they graduate in May or after they graduate in December. They may be a writer or an assistant on the assignment desk, not a reporter necessarily. But we now look at them differently. It’s no longer the day you need to go to three markets before you come back to D.C. So, we’re really looking at these people and having really good conversations with them. What do you want to do if there was an opportunity to be here and be a writer? But you really want to be a reporter? We can help you and we can critique your tapes. We’re having those kinds of conversations.
And I think it’s really helped us. We’re going back to LinkedIn. We’re recruiting big time on LinkedIn. In a strange way, as tough as it is in this workforce trying to find people, I feel like we’re really not settling now. We know we need the best of the best. Right. If there’s if the pool is limited, we need to make sure we get the best people working here.
Well, that’s sounds like quite an elaborate system you have. That’s all the time we have today. Thank you. Paul McGonagle, news director of Fox’s WTTG for being here today.
Michael, thank you so much.
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