Stations, Networks Break News Together
When a five-year-old boy in Midland City, Ala., was kidnapped off a school bus in January, ABC News turned to WDHN, the network’s affiliate in nearby Dothan, for the lowdown on the story, which was quickly gaining national interest.
That set the stage for the collaboration between ABC and WDHN news during the week the child was held hostage in an underground bunker. WDHN did its part by working its cache of local sources. Network correspondent Pierre Thomas reciprocated by sharing with the affiliate what he learned through his federal connections.
The story exemplifies what some broadcasters say is a new spirit of cooperation between networks and their affiliates on local stories of national interest.
Al Prieto, VP of ABC NewsOne, the network’s affiliate news service, says it's an important alliance to nurture.
“We know a lot, but the local stations are on the ground; they are covering their cities,” he says. “When the value of that relationship kicks in, it pays off.”
Despite the mutual benefits, cooperation has not always been a given.
“It used to be that networks would sort of parachute into our backyards and we wouldn’t even know they were there,” says Mike St. Peter, the news director at NBC-owned WVIT Hartford-New Haven, Conn. (DMA 30), which won a Peabody for its coverage of the Newtown shootings late last year.
“The networks didn’t always let the local stations know what they were doing and they didn’t seem to care what we were doing,” he says.
But such attitudes seem to be fading. “I think the networks are respecting and acknowledging that there is value to the folks who are in the field, who have that local knowledge,” says Lana Durban Scott, Scripps’ director of news strategy and operations.
Bill Hoffman, president of Cox Media Group, says that he finds the networks are even open to feedback from the affiliates once breaking news events wind down.
“There is not one of them that minds critiquing,” Hoffman says. “They welcome the two-way interaction. It’s healthy and it makes for better breaking news the next time it happens.”
Broadcasters and industry watchers say a range of factors is transforming these relationships. Stiffer competition is one, primarily because broadcasters need to have more information faster than ever before to stay relevant. The networks don’t have the luxury of waiting until they arrive at the site of the story to post reports and video on their websites. Another is technology that has made sharing easier.
Close collaboration has been evident in the coverage of recent big events.
Dennis Kinney, the news director at KXXV, Drewry’s ABC affiliate in Waco-Temple-Bryan, Texas (DMA 88), says his station was among the first on the scene of the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, in April.
KXXV sent video over the Internet to ABC News, with which the station was in continual contact that night, according to Kinney. Meanwhile, he says, KXXV benefited by being able to use aerial footage of the scene, shot by helicopter crews sent by affiliates in Texas’s big markets and made available through the network’s affiliate services.
“We don’t even have satellite trucks, let alone choppers,” Kinney says.
ABC and Scripps' WEWS Cleveland (DMA 18) worked side-by-side in May on the kidnapping story in which three women who had been missing for years were discovered in a Cleveland home. When a source leaked a police report detailing the conditions under which the captive women lived to a WEWS reporter, the station and network together vetted and confirmed the information, Scott says. When the story was ready to go, ABC News and WEWS both aired it.
An interview with a WEWS reporter was featured on a special 20/20 report.
When a bridge north of Seattle collapsed in May, CBS’s This Morning and the Evening News aired stories featuring a reporter and video from KIRO, the network’s affiliate in the country’s 12 largest market. But it was a CBS News producer in New York who wrote them, says New Director Bob Jordan.
Working at an O&O, WVIT’s St. Peter has an especially close working relationship with NBC News. As the first broadcaster in Newtown, Conn., the morning of the Sandy Hook shootings, WVIT provided the network and other stations the first images from the site.
The NBC News crew that arrived later that day brought different assets to the job, St. Peter says. Correspondent Pete Williams, for example, was able to obtain information through federal sources that WVIT reporters didn't have, he says. Likewise, WVIT shared developments gotten from local sources as the story progressed, too.
“It’s not a competitive thing; we are truly sharing that information,” he says.
Over the last few weeks, KOCO, Hearst’s ABC affiliate in Oklahoma City (DMA 41), has had ABC News personalities on air as part of its coverage of the deadly tornados that hit the area.