Multiplatform Broadcaster of the Year: In 2020, Tegna’s Transition to Digital Was Complete

True Crime Network
Tegna is using stories from its local stations as the basis for shows on its digital True Crime Network. (Image credit: Tegna)

The key to the success of Tegna is the years it spent preparing, long before anyone had even considered a global pandemic, to switch to a digitally-focused content approach. That preparation paid dividends in the difficult year that was 2020.

“One of the things we have focused on in 2019 and 2020 is uniting our news and digital teams so that we are all one team,” Tegna VP of news Ellen Crooke said. “I might be VP of news, but I work hand in hand with my partner, who is VP of digital. We are one voice. There is no longer any division between news and digital. We are one content team and that has made all the difference.”

Making that move required shifts on both the content and technology fronts. Content is developed with an eye toward all platforms, as opposed to producing it for television and online in separate silos. To serve that vision, Tegna created an entirely new content management system (CMS) called Tegna One to better serve the needs of its multiplatform journalists.

“From the get-go, Tegna One has been really well-received,” Tegna chief digital officer Adam Ostrow said. “It was built in consultation with [the people who would be using it]. It was a much needed change that allowed us to then move forward and innovate on digital consumer products.”

Those products include new mobile apps that Tegna also built itself, which now are available on such over-the-top (OTT) platforms as Roku and Amazon Fire TV, as well as redesigned websites optimized for mobile. Once all of that was complete, the company launched “a unified brand experience across all of our websites, so that there’s now a constant look and feel across all of our platforms,” Ostrow said.

Those moves paid off in 2020 with Tegna’s digital properties averaging more than 74 million monthly unduplicated multiplatform visitors from January through August 2020, according to Comscore. Visitors to Tegna stations’ websites are up 80% year-to-date, while video plays are up more than 123%. 

‘Three Stories of Our Lifetime’

It was all done just in time to cover what was possibly the biggest year of news in modern history, with the pandemic, protests against police brutality and racial injustice, and the election. 

“Three stories of our lifetime happened in one year while 80% to 90% of our teams were working from their homes,” Crooke said. “How incredible is that?” 

“At Tegna, we believe our mission is to speak the truth,” she continued. “In 2020, it became even clearer that our mission is to fight the spread of disinformation. We train our television and digital journalists how to properly dispel and debunk misinformation across all platforms.”

Assisting with that effort is Tegna’s fact-checking initiative, Verify, which is “something our journalists came up with about four and a half years ago,” Crooke said.

With Verify, viewers and readers ask questions and Tegna’s journalists report out the answer and then produce stories to answer those questions. 

“They are asking us as trusted local journalists to let them know if something they heard or read or saw that their Uncle Bob shared on Facebook is true,” Crooke said. “We go through a process, put our sources out front and don’t use any second-hand sources so that we can really let people know what is true and what is false.” 

In August, Tegna started featuring Verify stories on Snapchat Discover and has since reached 90 million daily active users in North America. Since then, the episodes have attracted more than 80,000 subscribers and 3.2 million total unique viewers. More than half of Verify’s audience on Snapchat is under age 25, a demographic that doesn’t often tune into local linear television.

“From past experience, I knew it was a good platform for reaching a demographic that we don’t reach on TV or even on our websites and social media,” Ostrow said. 

Turning to True Crime 

Along those lines, Tegna also is continuing to expand offerings from its Vault Studios, which produces true-crime podcasts. In 2020, Vault Studios launched three podcasts, including The Officer’s Wife and Selena: A Star Dies in Texas, which it produced in collaboration with all of Tegna’s Texas stations. Vault Studios launched with 2019’s Bomber, a six-episode podcast about Mark Anthony Conditt, who planted bombs around Austin in 2018 that killed two people and injured five. That podcast was produced from KVUE Austin and represented the start of an evolving business model. 

“A perfect example is that our digital team is housed within our news team and marketing is in lockstep with them,” KVUE presidennt and general manager Kristie Gonzales said. “When we produced the Bomber podcast, we distributed that through PodMe, we put it on YouTube and we also did news stories about the subject. We distributed it everywhere but customized it according to each platform. We are thinking through every channel.” 

Tegna is turning some of those local true-crime stories into original video episodes for its True Crime Network, rebranded from Justice in July. Over the summer, Tegna launched True Crime Network as a standalone streaming service with the app available on Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV, via mobile and tablet on iOS and Android devices and on the web. 

“People really like true-crime stories and [those fans] are among the most loyal and passionate audience out there,” Brian Weiss, president and general manager of True Crime Network and Quest, said. “But the other benefit — and I think this gets to the story of Tegna and its multiplatform success — is that the rebrand was brought about because Tegna also was doing other things in the true-crime space. True Crime Network, the brand, can provide true-crime content wherever audiences may be —- on broadcast, cable, streaming or via podcasts. The True Crime Network is bringing all of those assets together.”

Said Crooke: “These days, everything we produce is everywhere. We rarely even say digital anymore.” 

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.