The station group’s new news chief, Katherine Green, has a mandate to improve and expand local news. With expansion underway in a number of markets, she says her goal now is “to create the profound consumer experience. What would I love for the Tribune stations? I would love for them to begin connecting in ways we haven’t done before to really move forward and advance information. I don’t want people to think news is dead. I want people to think news is alive and it’s shifting and it’s becoming an exhilarating experience.”
Green On Reinventing Local News At Tribune
Tribune flagship WGN Chicago and KSWB San Diego yesterday launched 4 p.m. newscasts, the latest of the group’s 42 stations to expand news programming since Katherine Green came onboard as SVP of news in May.
The expansion, which has also included the addition of 11 p.m. newscasts in Los Angeles, Seattle and Indianapolis, is at the forefront of Green’s effort to develop more engaging and “exhilarating” news programming.
Green joined Tribune after six years at CNN, but most of her career was spent in local news, including stints as the news director at Fox O&O WTTG Washington and Hearst NBC affiliate WBAL Baltimore.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck, Green talks about the allure of working in local TV again, her goal of “taking down the Plexiglas” between on-air talent and viewers and getting “to a point where we really incorporate what the audience wants” in the news.
An edited transcript:
In a short time, you’ve overseen the addition of news at stations in at least 10 markets, from L.A. and Chicago to De Moines and Norfolk. What’s next?
What’s next is becoming very consumer oriented and really begin delivering news for a consumer in 2014. Moving WPIX [New York] forward, developing bigger audiences in a more advanced, sophisticated and engaging way is a priority. WPIX represents a big opportunity for Tribune. I look at that marketplace and say there is an audience that can be better served. The opportunity in New York is for news to stand for something again.
WPIX News Director Mark Effron just announced that he is leaving. Does his departure affect your plans?
Mark did a great job and now we now we want someone to come in and move the product forward. We are in midst of an active search to find somebody who is going to be the right leader for WPIX. We are making some other changes, too. In 2015 we will also have a new studio and a new set.
You inherited some of the more offbeat news shows out there — NewsFix, the anchorless newscast on KIAH Houston, and the syndicated morning show Eye Opener. Are those models for other markets, or are there other non-traditional formats in the works?
We have these two formats, Eye Opener and NewsFix, which took big risks and I think we really owe it to those products to look at them closely and figure out how we can increase the audience for them.
NewsFix and Eye Opener are fascinating, and I like watching them to see how we can deliver information in a different way. Not everything needs to be done with two anchors and a desk. But when I say that it doesn’t mean that you get rid of those things, but understanding that we’re looking for something more interesting, more distinctive than the traditional model.
We have some newscasts where they are taking down the boundaries. The [WGN] Chicago morning show for example has real people with real lives who have a sense of humor but can also be serious. They are people who let their hair down a little bit.
Sometimes it feels like the people behind the news are behind the Plexiglas screen and I think that we should be all in this together. But I am not the person behind all the ideas. It’s really more about how do we give [the stations] permission to move forward without trying to be gimmicky.
After investing decades building a career in local TV, why’d you leave it for CNN?
You have those moments in time when you wonder what’s next, and at the same time CNN started knocking. They offered me a lot of different jobs but the one that really appealed to me was running [CNN’s services] outside the U.S. The guy who is in charge of CNN International, Tony Maddox, has to be the smartest man I’ve ever met. I was so intrigued that I took the job. So there I was with this local TV profile and I am trying to serve a global news audience of 265 million households.
What was your takeaway from that experience?
I had spent so much time in local news in the U.S., that I didn’t really understand how myopic Americans could be. When you get outside the U.S. and you spend time outside you realize, wow, there are so many things happening right now that we don’t even have any sense of. My New York was Germany. It just changed me.
That sounds pretty profound, yet you’re back in local broadcasting.
[Interviewing with Tribune] was like the longest courtship. But it was just so intriguing. Here is this company coming out of bankruptcy, with an unbelievable history, and then you have Local TV merging with it and these two cultures coming together. It’s mass. In our four top markets, more people watch a Tribune product than all of the cable news networks combined.
We have nearly 75,000 hours of news a year and every day we seem to be adding more. I’m new so there’s a lot for me to learn and I have to figure out how to give the stations the power to move forward and begin to repower because, arguably, we might be under serving the audience.
How do you even begin doing that?
I am very sensitive to knowing that every marketplace is different and you have to be very respectful of that. But what I learned from the global experience is that there are core values that just draw people to news, and those values tend to be same [regardless of location]. So instead of looking at demographics, I look at psychographics. I pay close attention to why people are watching news and what they are looking for. It boils down to three groups of people who watch the news and making a product that serves them.
And those three groups are?
There is a group of people who watch news for their jobs and want and need as much up-to-date information as possible. They are probably the biggest news consumers but they don’t sit and watch news. Digital probably supplants TV for them.
Then you have a group of news consumers who are both family- and career-oriented called “balancers.” News benefits them personally and from a business perspective. They tend to watch news at specific times for specific things.
And then there is a group of news consumers who are trying to better their lives. News to them is something that is to inform them, educate them and entertain them. This group is fascinating to me because the No. 1 word they use when they talk about news is “connected.” They want to be connected to other people and news helps them.
Sounds like a sociology study.
It’s anthropology. I used to say I’m an anthropologist and I spend a lot of time studying the tribes within our communities.
Is it possible to create a news product that reaches all those groups?
There is the “fast and furious” model of news where we think high story count will win. But when we look at consumers, they almost always tell you that what they are looking for is understanding. That is, context, perspective and history.
We need to get smarter, and deliver a product that has a lot more options to it. That’s a tough thing because a lot of newsrooms lost resources and we need to get to a point where we really incorporate what the audience wants.
News teams are already pretty overextended. Is there enough oomph left to redefine the medium too?
The resource constraints exist and so I want to say to everyone who values news to watch more of it because the more we fuel news the more we can fuel resources.
But Tribune is already investing, and because the company is sort of a start up by nature, it’s able to do things that are harder for other groups to do, like bringing in the new tools and getting people trained, reinventing TV newsrooms to being more content centers. Marketplace to marketplace we’re seeing expansions, and we are hiring wherever expansions are occurring. Within the Tribune group there are probably 100 or more jobs open.
That’s a lot of jobs. What position are you trying to fill?
We are looking for a little bit of everybody – news directors in Denver and New York, middle managers. There are opportunities for assistant news directors and executive producers. We have openings for anchors and reporters, and are particularly interested in MMJs, people who are truly hybrids with TV and digital sensibility.
In Indianapolis, we will be launching a CBS news operation in 2015, and we will be hiring 70-plus people there by the beginning of the year. [Editor’s note: Tribune’s WTTV takes over as the CBS affiliate in Indianapolis on Jan. 1, after CBS failed to come to terms with its affiliate of nearly 60 years, LIN Media’s WISH.]
Many of Tribune’s stations, though, are CW affiliates. Can those CW stations really compete against the Big Four affiliates they’re up against, many of which have long histories in their markets?
The thing I love about the CW stations is that they don’t have the network tradition. When you’re the No. 1 station and owned by a network you are far less likely to take a chance. But I am not bound by those traditions and/or worried about first place, so I am able to say I want every minute of that news program to be engaging and make changes. I look at New York and I would argue that the three network-owned stations ultimately do the same thing. Change the anchors, and its still the same news product.
So now what?
My goal is to create the profound consumer experience. What would I love for the Tribune stations? I would love for them to begin connecting in ways we haven’t done before to really move forward and advance information. I don’t want people to think news is dead. I want people to think news is alive and it’s shifting and it’s becoming an exhilarating experience.