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WJZY takes radical shift in developing local newscast

02/07/2014 9:54 AM

02/07/2014 10:41 AM

Viewers find it unusual, unfamiliar and unconventional. Depending on where you sit, the new 10 p.m. newscast on WJZY (Channel 46) is either the future of local news or an experiment gone boldly awry.

By any standard, it is different.

There’s no anchor desk. Reporters stand around a video table – think of a Ms. Pac-Man machine gone gigantic – and chat about their stories with host Cheryl Brayboy, in what feels like a cocktail party of news.

There’s no reporter standing in front of an empty courthouse talking about what happened there hours earlier. WJZY isn’t playing the “now-on-the-scene-of-nothing” game.

There’s no sea of flashing blue lights. WJZY isn’t spicing up its report with routine urban crime.

Launched six weeks ago, the hour-long show was designed to be unlike anything that has gone before. After the Fox network bought WJZY in 2013, it wanted to take a new approach, to see whether it could reverse declining viewership nationally and engage a younger audience.

Karen Adams, the station’s manager, remembers getting a call from Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy last January, asking her to leave the Fox affiliate in Greensboro and take over the network’s new Charlotte station.

“He said he wanted me to create the newsroom of the future and the culture that would support it,” says Adams.

She brought in as news director Geoff Roth from Fox’s Houston station. He’s a tech wonk who built a team outside the normal structure. Rather than a reporter, photographer and editor working on a story, the WJZY news team consists of “digital journalists” who can shoot and edit their stories on iPads or smartphones.

Stories are aimed not only at the TV broadcast, but the station’s website and mobile destinations. People aren’t waiting around until 10 p.m. to get their news anymore, Roth says. They want it now and they want it on multiple devices.

A traditional anchor desk was never part of the plan. “We were not going to do the traditional ‘voice of God’ behind the news desk,” Adams says.

“Everything we do is a two-way conversation with the viewer,” says Roth. “Young people are used to that through social media.”

For the newsroom, Adams wanted a more dynamic setting with people standing around the graphics-intensive video table discussing the news. Hand-held studio cameras give it a casual, reality-show vibe.

More than two dozen big screens line the walls. Fox spent millions on new technology, but not a penny on a microwave van. Reporters can access the Internet from the field and file stories that way.

That has also meant that the station could embed reporters around the region in Concord, Shelby, Hickory, Monroe and Rock Hill where they can work from home. Establishing a traditional news bureau linked to the station can cost about $500,000, much of it in technology. WJZY’s regional reporters, by comparison, go off with about $6,000 in digital equipment, says Roth, a fantastic savings.

WJZY’s news philosophy is to be alternative. Good stories do not have to fit into 2-minute reports and the staff is told to skip flash-and-trash and find stories of substance. “What we’re doing is harder than letting a police scanner dictate our newscast,” says Roth.

Chief photographer Stewart Pittman, known nationally among news photographers for his “Lenslinger” blog, says he was drawn to WJZY from the Fox affiliate in Greensboro because he’d grown tired of the vapid focus evident on so many local newscasts. “So much of local news is cloaked in the bones of vaudeville,” he says.

One aspect of TV’s showbiz roots is the widespread practice of reporters and anchors working under contracts negotiated by agents, who then rake up to 10 percent of talent’s salary. Old-fashioned nonsense, says Roth. Few in the WJZY newsroom have been hired under the contract system, and he intends to keep it that way. “We’re like the CarMax of TV news – this is what we’re paying and that’s it. No haggling on the price.”

Another ingredient of the WJZY newscast is its focus on social media. Showing the electronic pulse of the public is the “Tweet Wall,” a Twitter sampler. While I may think that’s the intellectual equivalent of interviewing drunks in a bar, you can’t dismiss it. On New Year’s Eve, a disco ball fell from the rafters at an Avett Brothers concert at Time Warner Cable Arena and WJZY was able to share pictures of it and cover it largely through Twitter posts during its final news rehearsal, which was streamed on the Internet.

Assignment editor Lauren Ratcliffe says the station uses sophisticated algorithms to monitor Twitter and other social media in the station’s 22-county viewing area. When something starts to trend, editors are aware of it in seconds, she says, a sort of early-warning system.

Glitches, missed cues and other rookie mistakes have been evident in the show’s early days, though they are falling off. It has been a relatively quiet winter and the staff hasn’t been tested by a major story. Much of the station’s report has a magazine feel to it rather than the urgent news pace of its competitors.

A morning show is in development and will probably launch in May. It will be more of a sofa-and-coffee-table production than hard-news wrap-up. By July, the station intends to add an hourlong 6 p.m. newscast. About 30 more people are expected to be hired for the news operation, which now has about 45.

Viewers whose letters are in the station’s public inspection file offered these observations of the show: Its “Hey, Hey, Carolinas” anthem – a country-rap mash-up produced by WJZY’s creative services department – needs to go; journalists should be more formally dressed during the show and men should wear ties; the news hasn’t got enough depth yet; it needs an anchor desk.

Roth says he intends to stay on course. “It’s something very, very different, a great alternative to what other people in town are doing – different in a good way.”

Media Movers

Corrie Harding, news director of WCNC (Channel 36) for four years, will leave at the end of the month to become director of news partnerships with NBC News in New York. In his new job, Harding will work as director of news partnerships with NBC, developing plans for the growth of news content on broadcast and digital platforms...

WSOC (Channel 9) sports anchor Tiffany Wright will depart at month’s end after 13 years. A replacement will be named soon. Social media professional Shannon Dawn Rauch and WJZY (Channel 46) part ways after two months. WSOC-FM (103.7) morning host Rob Tanner is recovering well from surgery Monday at Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer for removal of lemon-sized tumor. He started on a liquid diet Thursday.

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