Baltimore station promises new show won’t be a ‘rip and read newscast’

A series of scandals led to more in-depth local news at Baltimore’s WMAR-TV. And not just any old government malfeasance. A congressman being taken hostage. A mysterious downed fighter jet. A covert government agency run amok.

Yep, the ABC affiliate decided to use the walloping audience “Scandal”‘s fall run led into its evening report on Thursdays to try out a new format for presenting local news on the Web and on TV: It published a Web-only story on Wednesdays, and shared facts from it until Thursday night, when it ran a longform story. Last Monday, it enshrined the concept as a daily show called “In Focus.”

“In Focus,” which airs at 6 p.m., does only a few longform stories each night. Each evening has one anchor, who doesn’t always “toss” to reporters in the usual way; they can introduce their own stories without a blaze of graphics or swooshing sounds. “This won’t be a rip and read newscast,” WMAR anchor Jamie Costello promised viewers in a show last week.

WMAR Managing Editor Jeff Herman doesn’t even like using the word “anchor” with regard to this show: “I look at it more as the term ‘host,’” he said in a phone call with Poynter. A piece will often end with a reporter’s notebook segment, or the anchor/host and the reporter doing a debrief. Going forward, he hopes to follow some stories with on-set interviews with experts. “We’re trying to make it not look like your traditional evening newscast,” Herman said.

Herman said the station has “had a lot of good discussions on how to break up the typical news format.” WMAR anchors Costello and Kelly Swoope are currently trading hosting duties. The show has three dedicated reporters, two dedicated photographers, a producer and a special products executive producer. It hired two digital reporters earlier this year to put together the Web stories. Some of the station’s general assignment reporters have pitched stories; “we’re giving them the resources” to do them, Herman said, joking that the new format can “get them off the streets for the day.”

Each half-hour-long show will feature “maybe three or four topics total,” Herman said. Sometimes they’re complementary, like a recent show I watched that began with a four-minute-long report by Brian Kuebler that used a hit-and-run death in Anne Arundel County as a jumping-off point for a look at why legislation to increase penalties for hit-and-run drivers couldn’t get through the statehouse. Reporter Amy Aubert followed that with a nearly three-minute-long report about efforts to decrease pedestrian deaths in the city of Baltimore, where, she says, 700 people are struck by cars each year, with 100 deaths.

Kuebler’s report, as many “In Focus” stories do, throws to what Herman calls a Web “sidebar,” in this case a collection of comments by psychiatrists on what sort of person might commit a hit and run.

WMAR has a traditional hourlong newscast at 5 p.m. and low numbers at 6, which leaves it space and motivation to shake things up, or as Herman said, “slow down a little bit, take a little more time, go a little bit longer, go a little big deeper on some topics.” (He hasn’t seen numbers for “In Focus” yet but says he’s been told it’s holding the audience from 5.) One recent report on illegal dumping led to some municipal action, Herman said, and the station planned a follow-up. He hopes more story ideas will come from viewers, for whom “In Focus” can be an advocate. He also hopes to get stories from throughout the WMAR building, not just its newsroom.

“Part of this thing is, OK, are we ever going to run out of story ideas, and so far the answer’s been no,” Herman said.

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