Station Group of the Year: The ABCs of Thriving Local Broadcasting

WPVI Action News protest coverage
A crew from ABC’s WPVI Philadelphia interviews protestors. (Image credit: ABC Owned Television Stations)

 A hyper-eventful year such as 2020 might not be the best time to rethink one’s news operation, but that’s what ABC Owned Television Stations has done this year — and every year, for that matter. Whether it was COVID, battles over racial inequality or the monumental election, the ABC station group utilized a wide range of next-generation news-gathering facets, including community journalists, interactive town halls, data journalism and group-wide specials, to rise to 2020’s unique news challenge. 

“In the midst of a global pandemic and a year of unprecedented racial reckoning, audiences turned to our stations for trusted, relevant, unbiased and often life-saving news and information about our communities,” ABC Owned Television Stations president Wendy McMahon said. 

The group includes WABC New York, KABC Los Angeles, WLS Chicago, WPVI Philadelphia, KGO San Francisco, KTRK Houston, WTVD Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina and KFSN Fresno, California. The eight stations reach 23% of all U.S. television households.

All eight stations were focused on producing forward-thinking news to meet these momentous times. The group hosted dozens of interactive town halls, connecting its journalists and community members to allow the latter to share with the former which issues are most relevant to them. 

Data Gives ‘Critical Context’  

Late in 2019, the group launched a data journalism initiative designed to analyze data at the neighborhood level and offer high-impact community reporting as a result. The project proved to be a vital asset in 2020. During the pandemic, the data journalism team analyzed millions of data points, resulting in hundreds of cutting-edge stories in newscasts and on digital platforms, offering viewers wrinkles to critical stories that the competition did not. One joint report between the stations and ABC News, for example, analyzed millions of flight records to show how COVID-19 spreads from international arrivals.

Wendy McMahon of ABC Owned Television Stations

Wendy McMahon (Image credit: ABC Owned Television Stations)

“Our newsrooms had an unprecedented opportunity to provide critical context and relevance around the most important issues impacting local communities and find what we call stories ‘hiding in plain sight,’ ” McMahon said. 

Another enterprise saw 15 community journalists hired at the stations, assigned to specific neighborhoods and tasked with finding positive stories often overlooked in the linear newscasts. More community journalist hires will follow. “Their presence in the community allows us a new way to deliver neighborhood-level news,” McMahon said. 

Stay Positive 

Sticking with the theme of positive news, ABC Owned Television Stations launched Localish as a digital brand in the fall of 2018, sharing the good stuff happening in a given market with younger consumers who may not watch the
5 p.m. news. In February, it expanded to The Localish Network on owned stations’ D2 channels, taking the place of the Live Well Network and reaching over 14 million homes. 

McMahon said at the time, “While the ABC Television Stations are best-in-class in terms of breaking news and covering big stories, we thought we weren’t capturing as many of the positive stories in our communities, so we thought about how we could intentionally bring good stories about people, places and things into our brand offerings.”

During the pandemic, Localish shifted to remote filming, and launched national series More in Common about Americans coming together in unexpected ways. It aired on digital platforms before becoming a weekly half-hour program across the group in March. “It remains a force, with high-impact reporting relevant to current events making an impact in the communities it serves,” said Jennifer Mitchell, senior VP of content development, ABC Owned Stations. 

Seeing how local businesses were so gravely impacted by the pandemic, the ABC group launched the #BeLocalish initiative to help support them. “We told the stories of struggling small businesses,” Mitchell said. “But just as important, we showcased their resilience and ingenuity, and the compassion of the communities that supported those businesses.”

Standout Stories

Perhaps the ABC group’s most significant achievement in 2020 is Our America: Living While Black, a five-part docuseries that culminated in a 60-minute documentary. All eight stations contributed. 

The special featured stories of multigenerational Black families across America navigating policing, healthcare, education, wealth and housing disparities, while seeking to build more resilient communities. The series aired daily in all eight stations’ newscasts. 

Cheryl McKissick Daniel and Deryl McKissick in Our America: Living While Black

Design firm owners Cheryl McKissick Daniel and Deryl McKissick are interviewed for Our America: Living While Black(Image credit: ABC Owned Television Stations)

Our America: Living While Black came to be due to a viewer survey. “Those results showed they wanted to see more diverse and inclusive storytelling,” said McMahon. “We listened to them and this led to the production of Our America: Living While Black.”

Many stories out of the ABC Owned Group stood out this year, including ones depicting the disproportionate impact of COVID on communities of color, including extended school shutdowns in low-income communities; ones about the so called digital divide hindering minority students learning remotely, and a lack of polls available prior to the presidential election in Huntington Park, California, which has an enormous Hispanic population. KABC Los Angeles’s reporting resulted in local officials doubling the area’s poll locations before Election Day. 

With so many newsroom denizens stuck at home due to the pandemic, the ABC group got a look at how news can be gathered in the future. Many hard lessons picked up during COVID times will contribute to how business is carried out when things get back to normal. “In many ways, the pandemic accelerated much of the modernization work that we had already begun, particularly as it relates to remote work, leveraging technology to produce content more efficiently and supercharging the development of multiskilled journalism,” said McMahon. “We’ll also continue to foster the authentic connections that have deepened between our talent and viewers, and we’ll lean into the capabilities that have produced more important and impactful journalism.”

Digital Doyenne 

Wholly focused on reaching viewers wherever they may be, and at whatever hour they seek a connection with their favorite station, the ABC group launched mobile 32 apps for streaming platforms across the group. “We have always challenged ourselves to meet the audience where they are,” said McMahon, “embracing technology to drive innovation, and adapting our teams for the now and the next.”

McMahon is well-suited for devising a progressive digital strategy. Before taking over the station group in January 2018, she was senior VP of digital for ABC’s owned stations. 

Dion Lim of KGO San Francisco

Dion Lim of KGO San Francisco (r.) at a Building a Better Bay Area event.  (Image credit: ABC Owned Television Stations)

The ABC group features numerous local news powerhouses. WABC, for one, has been the most watched station in the country for 17 years, according to Nielsen’s total day ratings. Yet the stations remain highly motivated to innovate and stay on top. 

“We never take our leadership position for granted, and we acknowledge every day the trust our audience places in us,” McMahon said. “Local news has never been more important and it places our stations in a greater position to positively impact our communities.” 

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.