Portland is not exactly overflowing with celebrities. We have the Blazers. Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes when they’re in town. Ted Wheeler, maybe? A Project Runway winner here, Dear Sugar/Wild author extraordinaire Cheryl Strayed there. A whole bunch of comedians who have left us behind for LA, but whom we still, optimistically, claim as our own.
That leaves local news personalities, who, by virtue, of being on TV every night, are among this town’s most recognizable faces, especially those old-school anchors—Brenda Braxton, Jeff Gianola, Laural Porter—who’ve stuck around, instead of using Portland as a stepping stone to a bigger market.
And yet, TV news is most definitely not immune to the well-chronicled headwinds facing local journalism in 2020, from staff cutbacks to demanding owners with an agenda to promote to declining ratings, given a generation of viewers that prefers their news on demand via their phone, instead of promptly at 5 pm.
All of which makes what happened last night at 6 pm on KGW, Portland’s NBC affiliate, pretty interesting. The station, owned by Tegna, a spin-off of Gannett, which owns USA Today and an arsenal of local newspapers, is changing up its format in that slot, after station brass noticed a steady drip-drip of viewers in the post nightly news slot.
“The news has become very formulaic,” says Dan Haggerty, who is the solo anchor of the new show, called ‘The Story.’ “I have worked at a handful of different stations. And there has always been research done, and what always came back, at like three different stations, is that viewers couldn’t tell us apart. When you are talking about something as creative as reporting and storytelling, that’s pretty sad.”
Right off the bat, The Story has a different feel from what Portland viewers are used to. There’s no desk, the graphics and branding are crisper and the music is more Fine Young Cannibals meets the dot-com boom than the usual quasi-operatic jingles that signal that the news is forthcoming.
The mix of stories, too, is intended to be different, says producer Brian Kosciesza, who has been at the station since 2015. Fewer “if it bleeds it leads” wacky-crime shorts, he promises, and more tax policy and city hall coverage, explained conversationally. (“I would find myself reporting on a story one way for television, and then calling my mom and telling it to her an entirely different way,” Haggerty says. “I started thinking to myself, ‘Well, why do I do that? Maybe I should tell it to everybody the way I tell it to my mom. She likes me more than anyone else.’”)
On night one, that meant a kick-off segment on proposed sex ed curriculum for elementary schoolers in Washington state (Sex still sells. That’s never going to change.), plus a lengthier take on accused MAX killer Jeremy Christian, and his infatuation with the white supremacy movement. In coming weeks, the show will spotlight work from the station’s investigative team, including long-time reporters Kyle Iboshi and Pat Dooris, and from reporter Maggie Vespa, who gave KGW perhaps its buzziest moment of the fall when she clapped back at a viewer who had criticized her for wearing (super-fashion-forward) high-waisted pants on air.
And they’re not averse, Haggerty says, to featuring reporters from other print and radio outlets who’ve done good work that deserves the spotlight, rather than falling back on the “rip and read” model. (Collaborative journalism of this sort seems to be having a moment in Oregon. Witness last week’s announcement that nonprofit investigative outlet ProPublica was teaming up with the Oregonian and Oregon Public Broadcasting for a deep dive into Oregon’s logging heritage and future, or recent news that a dozen local news outlets had banded together for pro bono legal help with public records requests.)
The model for all this was tested first in Denver at Tegna station KUSA (not coincidentally, KGW’s new general manager, Steve Carter, came from there in December 2018.) That show, Next with Kyle Clark, hemorrhaged viewers at first before finding its feet and pulling in new audiences. Haggerty and Kosciesza say they are hopeful about following the same path—minus the bit about losing viewers, which they could presumably do without.
“There are a lot of smart people who live here who value being spoken to and educated with a local news program,” Haggerty says. “They almost get a little irritated when they don’t feel it is meeting the standard they want it to meet. We hope to make them happy.”