WMAR Goes In-Depth To Shake Up 6 P.M.
On a day when Boston marathoners, sparring gubernatorial candidates and a shooting made Baltimore news, viewers who tuned into WMAR at 6 p.m. Monday got long, pre-produced stories on illegal dumping, police overtime and big-event security.
Those enterprise stories added up to ABC2 In Focus, a new half-hour newscast that is intended to differentiate the Scripps-owned ABC affiliate by giving viewers something more substantial than they can find on rival stations driven by the day's breaking news.
“We are all covering the same news every day,” says News Director Kelly Groft. “This is news but it takes a little longer. We let it breathe.”
Groft says Monday’s stories (there were just the three of them) exemplify what she’s trying to do with In Focus: provide a news-heavy local alternative to traditional evening news, while hopefully solving WMAR’s problem of being the market’s lowest rated newscast at 6 p.m.
Groft describes In Focus as being more “in-depth” than “investigative,” featuring fewer but lengthier stories than those that typically appear on traditional newscasts. Stories run up to five-minutes long, and there won’t be more than six of them per show, she says.
Many of the stories, like the ones Monday, are produced in advance of the live broadcast, but In Focus will cover breaking news when called for, she says. But the show won’t air the same sorts of live reports viewers will catch on, say, WMAR’s 5 p.m. news or its competitors, she says. In Focus stories will maximize coverage of breaking news events by widening the scope of the reporting done to cover them.
“Someone will be behind the scenes, digging,” Groft says.
To make that happen, WMAR is expanding its investigative reporting staff from two to four (the current team is working exclusively on In Focus) and has hired two investigative journalists for digital endeavors.
The station’s Jamie Costello and Kelly Swoope will split anchoring duties, most likely by alternating nights, Groft says.
In Focus looks different than other WMAR newscasts as well. The show broadcasts from its own sleek set using black, white and red, as well as a wall plastered with nine TV monitors.
“We are very serious, and I think it shows an investment in our product and an investment in our market and to our viewers,” Groft says. “We are evolving and bringing them into something different.”
In Focus also has a big digital component. The station’s new digital journalists are producing their own investigative reports, as well as supplements to stories that appear on-air, Groft says. On Monday, users were able to follow the Boston Marathon course using an app WMAR made available.
Digital platforms are also being used to pique viewers’ interest in stories before they air, Groft says. Questions to spur conversation about story topics will be posted a full 24 hours before broadcast, hopefully driving viewers to tune into them, Groft says. WMAR successfully used a similar strategy to woo Scandal viewers to its latenight newscast earlier this year, she says.
In Focus has been long in coming, starting a year or so ago when research showed viewers have “a thirst for news” and that 6 p.m. would be the right timeslot for it, Groft says.
For years, WMAR’s 6 p.m. newscast has ranked third, while WJZ and WBAL go “head-to-head” for first and second place, she said. Although WMAR saw some spikes in viewers surrounding weather, there was otherwise no significant change.
Scripps execs say they fully back In Focus. “We have assessed an opportunity in Baltimore, based on that market’s unique dynamics, to serve viewers in a way that differentiates the depth of our story telling from the other competitors,” says Scripps SVP of Television Brian Lawlor.
But the show won’t likely leave Baltimore, he says. “We do not expect In Focus to be a model that would be rolled out across our division. We do not believe that every newscast needs to look the same and are very comfortable with taking creative risk in an attempt to find new ways to engage viewers in specific markets,” Lawlor adds.
Which is what Groft hopes the payoff will be from offering viewers a new take on news: “It’s essentially your big sweeps stories five days a week.”