USC Annenberg students had the chance to work with KTLA this past Spring in a course designed to expand the reach of local TV News.
Photo by: Shutterstock / Alex Millauer

Experimental journalism class offers KTLA new tool for engaging its viewers

Olsen Ebright of KTLA-TV had a bit of a surprise the first time he spoke with the Spring 2021 “Expanding the Reach of Local TV News” class from USC Annenberg.

The station’s assistant news director for digital knew that the class was going to be working with the TV station on developing strategies for audience engagement, and that social media would likely be part of those solutions. But what he didn’t know was that KTLA would be working closely with just two faculty members and three students. “I realized that this was going to be very focused and hands-on,” he said. “I knew we were really going to work through something.”

The two faculty members who created the course, Stacy Scholder and Laura Davis, designed it to do real, impactful work for local TV news because of the important role local news still plays in the evolving news ecosystem.

“Local television news is perhaps the most trusted source of news,” said Scholder, professor of professional practice and Annenberg Media’s video director. “We thought we really need to explore what it is that a local TV station can do to build on that trust while growing and maintaining its audience.”

“We felt like this was a really good place for us to try something different,” said Davis, assistant professor of professional practice of journalism. “We were able take some of these things that I've done in my career working in digital journalism, and combine them with Stacy’s experience in broadcast journalism, and put together a program to look at how to deepen the connection between local TV news and their audience.”

The idea started off as a Maymester proposal, but Davis and Scholder quickly realized that the scope was just too broad to cover in a two-week May program. Reaching out to her contacts in local TV news, Scholder was able to enlist KTLA as a media partner, and she and Davis designed it as a Journalism 499: Experimental Journalism course.

The three students who enrolled had all worked previously with at least one of these professors. Leanna Faulk, then a master’s of journalism student, was Scholder’s graduate associate; then-junior journalism major Jillian Carmenate was in Scholder’s producing class and was an executive producer for ATVN; and then-senior communication major Erica Hur was the executive editor of Annenberg Media.

“As someone who wants to enter a career in broadcast news, I was immediately drawn to the course,” Carmenate said. “Expanding the reach of local TV news is extremely important, because local news can really make an impact on people’s lives.”

The class had meetings early in the semester with Ebright and other news executives at KTLA to get a sense of what their needs and priorities were. “It was beneficial for us to have those early-stage conversations,” said Faulk. “We could really nail down what the actual problems they saw facing their station.” Most of the issues, Faulk said, centered on KTLA’s desire to create more active and organic connections with their audience that could help shape the station’s coverage. “From there, it just was a lot of brainstorming to see which aspects of the issues we wanted to tackle, and which ones we felt like we had suitable solutions for,” she said.

In addition to getting to know KTLA itself by meeting with staff and binge-watching its news shows, the students began interviewing a selection of people to find out what they wanted from their local news, and how they felt they could be more connected. Davis and Scholder made sure that this sampling of 37 people from 28 different Southern California cities was representative of the diversity of the audience, across age and ethnicity.

“A lot of people that I talked to in the community said that they felt like there was too much crime coverage,” Carmenate said. “Yes, crime is an issue, but instead of just covering the symptoms of these problems, people said they wanted the newsroom to look at the systemic issues that are contributing to that, like poverty.”

Based on their survey of KTLA’s coverage and viewership, the students created design challenges aimed at improving some aspect of KTLA’s connection with its audience. Ebright emphasized that neither he nor his colleagues at KTLA saw this as a mere academic exercise. “We wanted something meaningful to come out of it,” he said.

After KTLA selected one of the design challenges, the students conducted more research and then settled on the idea of using the Close Friends feature of Instagram to create a community of KTLA viewers who could engage directly with the station’s digital team. This community could share feedback on existing content and coverage, as well as providing tips and direction for coverage they would like to see. The team called the concept KTLA Changemakers.

“This was a way that we could have a newsroom utilize this resource they already had and create this group of people who want to be a part of the newsmaking process,” Faulk said. “It was something that we hadn't seen done before.”

The solution was notable for both its simplicity and its potential impact, Ebright said. “This would create a very select group of KTLA superfans who, when they give you feedback, it’s coming from a place of care and respect for the product, of wanting to help us as a news organization, be stronger and tell different stories — or tell them in a different way.”

Ebright adds that, while KTLA hasn’t implemented the Changemakers strategy yet, “I have the students’ slide deck saved with an asterisk on it. What they proposed is not a huge lift for something that would get us back a lot of valuable insights with our audience.”

While KTLA looks for an opportunity to implement their solution, the students emphasize that the process itself held immense value for them. “This class was unlike any other I took at Annenberg,” said Hur, who will start at the USC Gould School of Law in the Fall. “Being able to work with a local TV station taught me the importance of human-centered design. We spoke to real people affected by local TV news across Southern California, discovered real problems both the audience and KTLA were facing, and created real, meaningful solutions. We were learning by doing.”

Faulk, who just started working for KRNV, a local news station in Reno, Nevada, says that the research she and her classmates did about local news consumption will inform her work and storytelling in her new position. “A lot of these issues aren’t isolated to Southern California,” she noted. “Stations are having these problems all over the country. I'm hoping that I can take what I’ve learned here and create a better experience for all audiences.”

“As someone who wants to work in broadcast news, this class really inspired me to directly engage with community members,” Carmenate said. “One person I interviewed who was a local organizer in Pacoima said to me that she was so glad that I was taking this class, because it just meant a lot to her to know that somebody cared about her community. That’s something that's going to stick with me.”