Local Broadcasters Investing in Investigative Reporting

WRC Washington had seen its eminence in DMA No. 9 slip over the years, a product of NBC’s ailing primetime, a lack of commitment from parent GE and improved local competition. But when Comcast took over NBC this year and vowed to reinvigorate the 10 owned stations, Camille Edwards, VP of news, petitioned the new parent for some cash to bring back the investigative reporting unit that WRC had scrapped a few decades before.

Edwards had barely gotten the request out when the answer came back as a yes. Hiring has begun for the as-yet-unnamed three-person I-team, which will get an assist from NBC News and its various marquee properties, such as Today and Dateline, on stories Edwards said will be about people that are wronged and those who are responsible for the wrongdoing. Promos for the I-team began in early October, and reports from the gumshoe crew are scheduled to be on-air by the end of the month.

Edwards suspects a top-notch investigative unit can bring WRC—one of several stations in the NBC owned group relaunching well-funded I-teams with Comcast-NBCU’s blessing—back to its former glory. “For a long time, the station felt there was a void in that area,” said Edwards. “The new owners and new stations boss [president Valari Staab] made a reinvestment in the stations, and we’re certainly reaping the benefits.”

Investigative reporting is expensive and labor intensive, and its returns are hard to quantify. As a result, such journalism is, by almost all accounts, on the decline in the U.S. But several stations, capitalizing on the demise of newspapers in their markets and the billions of dollars in political revenue set to gush in over the next 12 months, are bucking the trend and using rock-solid investigative journalism to reinforce their brands, firm up the relationship with viewers and, ultimately, increase ratings points and revenue. Viewers, who are increasingly bombarded with the white noise of news and information from social media and an endless array of digital outlets, are asking their local stations to dig a little deeper and offer them some substance.

“Investigative has generally been in decline over a prolonged period of time, but I think it’s turned a corner and become more important to people,” said Ray Heacox, president and general manager of KING Seattle, which claimed a prestigious duPont- Columbia award this year for a series on wasted tax dollars in the Washington State ferry system. Amidst the immediacy and ubiquity of online news, Heacox said, people are less reliant on local TV for breaking news. “They’re looking for you to take it to the next level, and I think there’s actually a bit of a shift toward more signi! cant journalism,” he said. “That can mean taking on really big investigative reporting.”

Too Costly, Too Difficult

The recession, which hit local television particularly hard, expedited the retrenchment in stations’ commitment to investigative journalism. The Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) association noted in a recent Federal Communications Commission study that its broadcast membership dropped from 874 to 648 from 2000 to 2010, while stations’ submissions for IRE awards fell by more than half since 1999.

“When the belts tighten, there are a variety of ways to save money,” said Bob Papper, journalism professor at Hofstra University and author of the Hofstra /RTDNA local news studies. “Investigative reporting is the most expensive thing, so it’s going to take a hit.”

The rise of backpack journalists, with their lower salaries and ability to produce packages on the " y, may have hurt the investigative field, too. Station management, faced with limited budgets and larger content demands from their newsrooms—the average station cranks out 5 hours and 18 minutes of local news a day, reports a Hofstra/ RTDNA study, 18 minutes more than last year—opted to put their resources into these multimedia jacks of all trades. It’s not hard to see the logic when two or three one-man bands, hired for the price of a lone investigative journalist, can produce dozens of pieces in the time it takes the investigative dude to get records back from a Freedom of Information Act filing for a story that may never air.

“Things that are harder to do take longer. The stories that turn around quicker are more attractive,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of Pew Research Center’s Project For Excellence in Journalism. “It’s hard to escape the structural trends.”

Some broadcast leaders are imploring their brethren to pick up the torch. CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager, keynoting at the RTDNA “Excellence in Journalism” convention last month, challenged the roomful of news vets in New Orleans to keep shining their investigative lights in dark places. “I think a lot of people shy away from [investigative journalism] because it’s expensive and it’s difficult and it takes a lot of time,” Fager said. “We succeed at 60 Minutes by…caring about it and by working hard to make it as interesting as we can, because there is a place for it and I think there’s a hunger for it out there.”

Viewer studies reinforce Fager’s belief. Laura Clark, senior VP at Frank N. Magid Associates, said viewers are increasingly demanding more substantial information, and more of an investigative approach, from local stations. It’s on TV reporters to unearth hard news that those in their community cannot simply pull up on Google, Clark said. “What drives viewer decisions is the quality of the content,” she said. “The overarching answer is, viewers are asking [stations] to investigate everything—there has to be an investigate/uncover/dig tone to everything they do.”

Stations in a Strong Position

A handful of media trends pave the way for stations to reinvigorate their investigative efforts. First, the sorry state of newspapers, which have lost 30% of their workforce since 2000 according to the Pew Research Center’s recent “State of the Media” survey, opens the door for stations to pick up enterprise reporting slack. The same survey showed local TV is the “outlet of choice” for 55% of respondents, far more than the Internet (16%) and newspapers (14%).

There is no shortage of stories about government waste and civic corruption, but with print newsrooms often a shell of their former selves, there may be a shortage of reporters there to ferret them out. “There are stories to be told. There are things that go on that need to be covered,” said Bob Sullivan, VP of content at Scripps. “If we’re not doing it, then who will?”

And while every station is feeling the squeeze of a shaky economy and a corporate parent that wants more done with less, local TV will get some $2.5-$3.3 billion in political spending between now and next November, according to Kantar Media/ CMAG. While that revenue is already baked into current budgets, the more enterprising broadcasters will allocate some of that for their I-teams. “It depends on the finances and the philosophy of the company,” said Rosenstiel. “If they feel that’s a way to shift viewership and change the ratings trend, they’ll put that money on the air.”

Stations of Substance

In a world where there may only be room for a few TV news departments in a given market, a number of local TV chiefs say the time is right to define and burnish their brand with robust investigative work. Management at KMOV St. Louis, a distant No. 2 to KSDK for years, set out to boost its local presence through an enhanced Iteam. The Belo station now has five full-timers in its crew, up from three a few years ago. “When the world fell apart in 2008, we said, ‘What are the ways we can differentiate ourselves in the market?’” said Sean McLaughlin, KMOV news director. “We feel strongly that investigative is the one thing that sets us apart and increases the bond between us and our viewers.”

Ratings suggest it is working; McLaughlin notes that KMOV won the 10 p.m. news race in September in both households and the 25-54 demographic for the first time in his four-year tenure at the station. “I think we stayed top of mind through our investigative efforts,” McLaughlin said. “If it’s done right, it’s absolutely a differentiator.”

While not every station’s parent sees the merits of a seasoned I-team, several are making similar moves. Fully half of the NBC owned group, including WRC, WMAQ Chicago and KNTV San Francisco, are in the process of launching investigative units. WMAQ is bringing back the Unit 5 crew that had been dormant for 30-plus years, listing a pair of producer positions in an effort to reestablish the team—and take on WLS for Windy City primacy. “We’re figuring out how to be No. 1, and we think original, hard-hitting content gives us an advantage,” said Frank Whittaker, WMAQ VP of news/station manager. “Our thought is that will bring more viewers into the tent.”

Scripps’ recent $212 million deal to acquire the McGraw-Hill stations was that much more attractive, said Brian Lawlor, Scripps senior VP, because of their investigative chops. “The culture of McGraw-Hill stations fits so well with ours,” Lawlor told investors. “They’re truly dedicated to the mission of community service, to high-quality journalism and to meaningful investigative reporting.”

So much a part of the company DNA is investigative that Scripps footed the bill for 60 local producers and reporters to attend the IRE convention in Orlando in June, along with a corporate recruiter. Sullivan said ABC News correspondent Brian Ross, who gave a keynote to the Scripps group on investigative reporting at the conference, could not believe everyone in the room was part of the same station group. “He said, ‘Wow, there is hope,’” Sullivan said.

Comcast in Their Corner

Measuring the return on an investigative investment is difficult. But Scott Blumenthal, LIN Media executive VP, breaks it down to its elements when explaining why the broadcaster has expanded investigative teams at CBS-Fox pair WPRI-WNAC Providence and NBC-Fox duo WAVY-WVBT Norfolk, among others, while getting one off the ground at Fox af! liate WALA Mobile. “Viewers want to know we’re out there representing their best interests,” Blumenthal said. “If we do a good job, that should mean more ratings. More ratings should mean more revenue.”

News veterans suggest other bene! ts of a highly visible investigative brand. There’s the goodwill in the community after a policy-changing investigative report, such as KING’s on food stamps being dealt on the black market and KNXV Phoenix’s piece on fudged kidnapping statistics that brought down the city’s police chief. Strong investigative stations may be top of mind when tipsters pick up the phone, leading to new enterprise stories, and the so-called “Big J” journalism stations attract the best reporters. “People want to work for quality news organizations,” Peter Diaz, Belo executive VP, told B&C recently.

Morale in the NBC owned group had suffered under GE’s tight fist, but WRC newsroom chief Edwards, who lured Rick Yarborough, ace executive producer, from rival WTTG for the new I-team, said spirits are sky-high again on the eve of the investigative unit’s relaunch. “It’s through the roof,” Edwards said. “This shows that our new bosses believe in investigative work and have put their money where their mouth is.”

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @BCMikeMalone

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.