Deep dive, digital release stories have impact

By Jeremy Campbell, RTDNA Contributor

I remember my first digital pitch: "Let's do a segment about how people are reacting to this online."

I also remember the sarcastic response from a news elder: "You could do a report about what people wrote on the bathroom wall... that would mean as much."

It was 2007, and I was working in my first TV newsroom. I felt like a stupid kid.

Things change fast. Ten years later, and I read most news updates on my phone. That small screen is a direct connection to the world, and it lives in my pocket.

Yep, I'm a cord cutter. At home… and in the newsroom. I upgraded “live at 5” to “digital first.” 

Everything changed with an opportunity to break free from the predictable routine of daily deadlines and traditional newscasts that dictate how and what we cover. Instead of feeding a formulaic machine, I started covering stories the same way most of us watch them: digital first.

This opportunity arose from TEGNA’s innovative pilot process and overall content transformation initiative. Over the past few years, TEGNA has created a series of Innovation Summits designed to bring diverse talent from across the company together to brainstorm and incubate new ideas pitched by reporters, producers, news directors, multi-skilled journalists, marketers and photographers. During some of the first of these summits last year, my team focused on developing digital, episodic investigations with plot twists and cliff hangers as dramatic and authentic as the real lives we cover.

Our pilot series, “The Triangle,” exposed a dramatic rise in heroin-related deaths in Atlanta’s wealthy suburbs. Since its launch, the series has gained more than 9 million page views online.

We took the same “deep dive, digital release” approach with “Charlie Foxtrot.” Our investigation premiered online, exposing a military policy that stripped veterans of benefits. We highlighted potential solutions through a website created for the story, TEGNA affiliate stations chose to localize these reports in 38 markets and amplified the investigation, which culminated with the head of the VA citing our work as a reason behind his decision to give veterans a second chance at benefits.

So how do you make the transition from traditional to digital journalist? Here’s what you’ll need:
  1. Support. I had the backing of station leaders at WXIA and TEGNA who recognize the “digital future” of local news is actually happening right now. Taking a reporter out of the daily news machine pays off when it leads to an impactful, long form investigation with the power to change the world.
  2. Quality Time. Churning a story just to fill a slot in the newscast can be harmful to our credibility as journalists. Our reports matter when they uncover facts and provide credible perspective.
  3. Optimism. Innovation comes from those who make bold, hopeful decisions. If you believe it will work out, chances are you’ll find a way to make it work. If not… fail fast and move on to the next try!
  4. Be relentless. Don’t evolve – lead. If you discover a new format that works well, advance it. It’s a “choose your own adventure” landscape. Be optimistic, be bold, unchain yourself from the formula and create stories you’d want to watch. 
Jeremy Campbell is a Reporter/Executive Storyteller of WXIA’s digital, investigative unit. In the past year his team has been honored with 6 Emmy Awards, a Cronkite and the Murrow Award for Innovation. Find him on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.