AIR CHECK WITH DIANA MARSZALEK

Scripps Stations Get Options From DC Bureau

“The focus of the company is moving away from newspapers and moving toward serving our television properties more than we ever have,” says Scripps National Investigative Correspondent Mark Greenblatt. “We are constantly trying to be aware of how we can be a service to a lot of TV stations that have different types of news,” he says. “We are trying to operate like a mini-network investing in our affiliates.”

With the company shutting down its wire service and ready to spin off its newspapers next year, Scripps’ Washington bureau, once heavily print-focused, has made “a radical change,” becoming a leaner operation supporting TV stations’ broadcast and digital efforts, says Bureau Chief Ellen Weiss.

“Looking down the road, we are both building for the future and trying to meet the needs of the audience where they are now and how they get their content,” Weiss says.

“We should be producing national stories that are relevant in people’s communities, and putting in the hands of local broadcasters stories that they can own,” she adds.

“The focus of the company is moving away from newspapers and moving toward serving our television properties more than we ever have,” says Scripps National Investigative Correspondent Mark Greenblatt, a broadcast journalist who joined Scripps from ABC News last year.

“We are constantly trying to be aware of how we can be a service to a lot of TV stations that have different types of news,” he says. “We are trying to operate like a mini-network investing in our affiliates.”

The transformation of the bureau sped up last July after Scripps announced a deal with Journal Communications in which Scripps will end up with all the two companies’ TV stations, and Journal with their newspapers. When the deal closes next year, Scripps will have 23 news-producing TV stations.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

With the closure of the Scripps wire service, the19-person operation dropped to just 10 staffers.

Weiss says she has been in the process of rebuilding the crew with digital specialists that have expertise in areas like multimedia production and data visualization. She also has created a five-person broadcast team that includes Greenblatt and another reporter, a photographer, an editor and a producer.

Last year, Scripps also bought DeCode DC, a three-person operation whose produces politically focused podcasts, as well as blogs, all of which are accessible through Scripps’ local TV websites. DeCode DC is housed in the Washington bureau and works with the larger staff on developing content, Weiss says.

Weiss likes to think of DeCode DC, which was created by former NPR reporter Andrea Seabrook, as a “B.S detector” — journalism aimed at people who aren’t enmeshed in Washington minutia and are “kind of disgusted and confused with politics.”

“We are not afraid to use humor and have the kind of style and attitude and voice that are as much fun as insightful,” she says.

Greenblatt’s  investigative reporting is already have an impact.

Two weeks ago, for instance, Scripps TV stations around the country presented one of the bureau’s biggest projects yet: Under the Radar, Greenblatt’s multi-part, multiplatform investigation into what happens to military sex offenders when they return to civilian life — which is often nothing.

Greenblatt says he worked on the investigation on-and-off since February, poring over data, interviewing everyone from Pentagon officials to a victim’s mother and dealing with roadblocks including the military “being very protective of the privacy of these convicted sex offenders.”

Greenblatt eventually found a “gaping hole” that allows military sex offenders to be discharged without registering with authorities, like civilian sex offenders are required to do. Instead, he says, the military expects them to do that of their own volition, resulting in “an alarming number of sex offenders living “under the radar.” Some went on to commit other sex crimes, he says.

“What the military does is literally place their trust in the sex offenders to go free when they leave,” Greenblatt says. “We have 240 [unregistered offenders] –convicted rapists and child molesters — who we believe are out in civilian society.”

Scripps stations ran Greenblatt’s two-part series on their newscasts, and posted digital content supporting the investigation, including an interactive feature allowing users to access data on the unregistered offenders Greenblatt identified.

The investigation is also being used as the basis for an in-depth DecodeDC podcast “which will come at the story in an entirely fresh and more breathable in-depth fashion tailored to audiences who are podcast users, which is entirely different than local TV audiences,” Greenblatt says.

That kind of customization for different platforms is key to the bureau’s efforts being successful, Weiss says.

“We don’t want to just do a broadcast story and then put it in text and on digital,” she says. “It’s how we tell that story so that it’s the best possible experience.”

The play stories get on various platforms — and when they get it — also varies, she says. For instance, Greenblatt broke a story exposing the high number of first- and business-class airplane tickets purchased by NASA employees online so that Scripps would have it first. The bureau didn’t produce a TV story on the topic until a week later.

Bureau staffers followed up on “a good text piece” on how the federal government distributes disaster relief money by creating digital features, including online video that allowed users to see how the story affected them locally.

The bureau also suggested TV stations do their own broadcast versions of that story, Weiss says.

Weiss says that in making those sorts of offerings available, the bureau is in no way competing with local stations’ news teams “who have broken huge national stories” on their own.

Greenblatt agrees. “We don’t have an audience without our local stations,” he says.

“This concept of investigative reporting does take time, and it does take resources, and this is a way that Scripps is working to try to scale the benefits across all its properties in addition to very strong, robust local units,” he says. “We are not here to replace them in any capacity, and we don’t have the time or resources or ability to report on Tampa or Phoenix. We just offer this national presence where we can go up against the Pentagon.”

It’s just that defining that role is part of a learning curve, he says. “It’s not always easy trying to invent something, but we are having fun.”

Read other Air Check columns here. You can send suggestions for future Air Checks to Diana Marszalek at [email protected].


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