WKMG Helps Floridians ‘Make Ends Meet’
On April 9, 2020, Stephanie Lindgren, a Florida entrepreneur whose event photography business was stymied by COVID-19 social distancing, applied for unemployment through the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO). By August of this year, she was still waiting for a check.
Help arrived after contacting Mike Holfeld, reporter for Graham Media Group’s Orlando CBS affiliate WKMG. In the early days of the pandemic, Holfeld launched a series of segments devoted to information that would aid viewers in their struggle for financial survival during the crisis. He presented items like how to balance a budget and how to apply for unemployment.
Dubbed Make Ends Meet, the programming has since proven far more valuable than Holfeld could have imagined, and not only to Orlando locals, but Floridians far and wide. Residents who’ve had trouble obtaining funds from the state have also experienced difficulty in communicating with DEO staffers. The government employees, Holfeld says sympathetically, are “just too damn busy.”
Holfeld has taken it upon himself to contact the agency on their behalf.
“Make Ends Meet has become the liaison for the State of Florida and the people who are unemployed,” Holfeld says. “We created these back channels and a bridge to the DEO. We’ve become the voice of the people.”
After Lindgren reached out to Holfeld, he presented her case to the DEO, as he says he’s done for thousands of others the past year-plus. Within a week, Lindgren’s issue was resolved, her benefits on the way.
Holfeld twirled the tale into a Make Ends Meet segment that aired Aug. 31, though he says not all of the people he’s helped are fit for broadcast. That would be too time consuming, and many of the stories would be redundant. He invests instead in the most compelling, unusual subjects and circumstances for segments.
The DEO isn’t the only government body he’s worked closely with while producing Make Ends Meet stories either. The Secret Service is on speed dial too.
“It’s like I’m making it up,” Holfeld says of his partnership with the agency, best known for overseeing presidential security measures, though it features other branches.
The investigations in which the Secret Service has teamed up with Holfeld focus on international fraud, with hackers from abroad stealing unemployment benefits from Americans. Other victims include men and women who believed they were engaged in long-distance romantic partnerships, only to be positioned as money “mules,” to use Holfeld’s descriptor.
In response to all this thievery, the DEO has taken additional security measures, which has led to erroneous lockouts of hundreds of thousands of citizens from DEO accounts, where their benefits are claimed and distributed. Make Ends Meet has covered that unfortunate turn of events as well, keeping Floridians informed on the state of the system.
Not every person who’s asked Holfeld for assistance has received their benefits. Using baseball terminology, he says he’s “batting about .300.” (If he was batting 1.000, Holfeld says he’d be running the DEO.) But all told, Make Ends Meet, he says, has aided in the delivery of $1.5 million worth of benefits to Florida residents.
When the first wave of stimulus checks was distributed to Americans last year, Holfeld says scores of Make Ends Meet viewers offered to donate their monies to others more in need. WKMG set up an account that Holfeld says at its peak reached about $100,000, all of it going to people who’d fallen on financial hard times due to the pandemic.
WKMG has been able to reach so many throughout the state — and even beyond its borders — in part because the group leans into the digital side of its business model. The station’s website is inclusively branded as Click Orlando, with no conspicuous call letters outside of one, right hand-side option near the end of a row of verticals. But WKMG takes unique-to-web content creation seriously, helping boost its appeal to non-Orlandoans.
Holfeld writes text versions of his Make Ends Meet stories, with an editor looking over them for website quality control. The TV newsman says when Floridians contact him, they often begin messages with “I read your article.” Many times, they’ve also seen his clips on WKMG social media channels, including Facebook and YouTube. Five thousand people have signed up for a weekly Make Ends Meet newsletter as well, Holfeld says, while 4,400 Floridians receive informative texts from the station through Subtext, a subscription-based texting platform.
On digital media consumption, Holfeld says: “Let’s face it, that’s the wave of the future.”
Holfeld, who’s been on the Make Ends Meet beat full-time since its inception, is also able to report on the hardships of folk across Florida because he conducts his interviews virtually over Zoom. Holfeld’s photographer, Robert Breuer, captures the footage and edits the stories, operating more like a producer than anything else. (Rounding out the Make Ends Meet team of three is a part-time intern who reads and responds to emails.)
For its work, WKMG’s Make Ends Meet was honored by the NAB as a finalist for the 2021 Service to America Award in the large TV market category. Holfeld says such accolades, as well as generated revenue, are but welcome accompaniments to the larger sense of satisfaction he and the Graham Media Group as a whole feel when serving the people of Florida so effectively.
In conducting its work on pandemic-related stories such as those in Make Ends Meet, WKMG was most “worried about the commitment to the community,” Holfeld says on behalf of the station group. “Ratings, business dollars, of course that’s important,” he adds, “but if you don’t have a commitment to a community, no one’s gonna watch you anyway.”
“[T]hat is what News 6 and Make Ends Meet is all about, getting results for our community,” says Jeff Hoffman, WKMG VP and GM. “We are committed to our efforts through Make Ends Meet and our work to help our neighbors continues every day.”
Holfeld also praises his production partner Robert Breuer for piecing together such quality segments. Breuer’s just happy to be a part of the team.
“I couldn’t be prouder to work with Mike Holfeld on the Make Ends Meet franchise,” Breuer says. “To date it has been the most challenging period of my news career, but also the most rewarding.”
Likening their collaborative efforts to that of “Lennon and McCartney,” Holfeld says he and Breuer have been “grinding out the hits for the last year and a half.” But Holfeld also asserts that he’s not being boastful. Instead, he’s sending a message to other news organizations that the Make Ends Meet approach, especially in its collaborations with government, highlights the power and possibilities of what they do every day.
“I think this could be a tremendous tool for television stations across the country,” Holfeld says. “We’ve given people hope.”
Editor’s Note: This is the latest of TVNewsCheck’s “Newsroom Innovators” profiles, a series showcasing people and news organizations evolving the shape and substance of video reporting. These profiles examine the inception of their innovations, the tools they employ and how they’re reconciling experimental approaches to news storytelling within daily workflows. You can find the others here.