by Jake Batsell
Verify debuted in 2016 in response to a challenge from WFAA’s corporate parent, TEGNA, to find ways to “truth-test” the news. For Verify, reporter David Schechter and producer/photographer Chance Horner select a topic of public interest (e.g. homeless camps, fracking, the death penalty) and invite a citizen reporter to join them on a “road trip” throughout the reporting process. The citizen reporter is then featured in the on-air segment and, at the end, explains whether his/her perspective on the topic has changed. Schechter also integrates Facebook Live into the reporting process and goes live on Facebook (often with the citizen reporter) immediately after a segment airs.
Project Goals: Schechter says Verify’s central goal is to create open-source journalism “by including our audience in as much of the reporting process as possible.” The project also seeks to bring a sense of discovery to the newsgathering process and to distinguish WFAA from its competitors.
- Involving the audience: In addition to taking viewers on the road to serve as citizen reporters, Schechter and Horner also broadcast field interviews using Facebook Live, “so our larger audience can ask their own questions and see how we conduct ourselves.”
- Creating a sense of discovery: “With that in mind, we plan our stories around activities and we let the viewers pick up the facts with us along the way,” Schechter says, “instead of laying out all the findings at the top of the story.”
- Gaining a competitive advantage: One of TEGNA’s goals for Verify, Schechter says, is to provide a distinctive experience that departs from the formulaic “sea of sameness” that dominates local television news.
Tools and Technology: Verify uses Facebook Live to solicit interest in potential topics. When a FB Live participant expresses interest in joining Verify as a citizen reporter, Schechter sends that person a Google Form and also asks for a 60-second video to get a sense of the person’s on-camera persona. Verify closely tracks FB Live engagement through Facebook Insights. To manage and track active story projects, Verify uses Trello boards.
Impact: Schechter says the project’s major impacts include boosting ratings, driving engagement on Facebook Live, and instilling an appreciation for journalism.
- Verify segments keep television readers tuned in: At six to nine minutes long, Verify stories run much longer than a traditional TV news story. But Schechter says most viewers don’t tune out — in fact, he says, minute-by-minute audience ratings have shown that “the lion’s share” of the audience sticks with the story until the end.
- Verify’s Facebook Live reach is especially strong: Verify’s Facebook page has a modest audience (about 13,000 followers), but WFAA makes a habit of amplifying Verify segments on its much larger flagship accounts. Schechter estimates that the Facebook audience for each story typically reaches several hundred thousand people and, in one case, topped more than 2 million. “We have a high engagement rate for those stories,” he says. “The audience for our Facebook Lives, broadcast during the gathering phase, continue to draw a larger audience than we deserve — and they are growing.”
- Verify helps instill an appreciation for journalism: Regardless of whether they change their minds on the topic, Schechter says, citizen reporters come away with greater respect for the mission (and hard work) of journalism. As a woman who participated in a Verify story about high school football concussions told Columbia Journalism Review: “Now I see that it’s very important for journalists to get out there and do these stories and ask questions, because there’s information out there that people need to know,” she says. “In the past I would think that was unnecessary–‘Why are they bothering these people?’”
Organization Background: WFAA-TV, Dallas-Fort Worth’s ABC affiliate, serves more than seven million North Texas residents in 16 counties. The longtime flagship station of Belo Corp., WFAA was acquired in 2013 by Gannett, which later spun off its broadcast properties into a separate company called TEGNA Media. Revenues at TEGNA’s 46 TV stations largely consist of on-air advertising and digital marketing.
Project Resources: TEGNA provided seed funding in late 2015 to produce a single-segment pilot for Verify. After the initial episode tested well, TEGNA provided additional funding to make the first five segments. Since then, WFAA has assumed all financial support for the entire operation, including the salaries of the reporter/photographer team. As of mid-2017, segments continue to air weekly on Fridays and Verify maintains a continuous presence on Facebook Live, although Schechter notes that travel funding is now more limited.
Here’s what worked
1. Incorporating real people into the reporting process
Schechter notes there are many challenges here: appealing for participation on Facebook, screening potential citizen reporters, coordinating around their schedules, and coaching them on how to ask questions like a reporter. But by demonstrating a sincere commitment to listen and learn, Schechter says, “I feel like we’ve crossed over to a more trustworthy place” with WFAA’s audience.
2. Building in a sense of adventure
To avoid the standard tropes, Verify seeks what Schechter describes as “first-hand, hands-on activities that provide the host/guest/audience with a better understanding of how things work.” For example, Schechter and a citizen reporter attended a police academy for a Verify segment on how police are trained to shoot (or not shoot) in high-pressure situations. The hands-on approach, in addition to providing more interesting visual material, “allows for discovery of information and facts as opposed to a recitation of findings,” Schechter says.
3. Committing to higher production value
Schechter and Horner convinced their bosses to pay for new equipment and allow them to experiment with non-traditional storytelling approaches and production techniques. As Schechter puts it: “Our goal is to provide a higher-quality, more modern presentation that is more in line with what an audience expects today.”
What could have worked better
1. Being realistic about the extra work
The logistics involved in bringing a citizen reporter along for an on-air TV segment can be challenging and time-consuming, Schechter says, not the least of which is asking participants to take time off from work. For these reasons, citizen reporters are no longer included in every Verify segment, but Schechter and Horner still honor the crowd-powered spirit by broadcasting field interviews on Facebook Live and inviting the public to ask questions in real time. “Instead of bringing one person, our thought was, why not bring along everybody?” Schechter says.
What else you should know
- Think ‘lean’: Verify is an ongoing experiment that embraces a culture of trial and error, Schechter says. The project follows many of the same strategies championed by the Lean Startup movement, which advocates quickly designing, building and testing a new product, then making continual adjustments based on audience feedback. “If it works, we keep it and keep iterating,” he says. “ If it’s a failure, we scrap it and learn from it.”
- Leverage your flagship social media accounts: Verify has considerably expanded its reach on Facebook by coordinating with WFAA’s main Facebook account and fellow TEGNA stations to share and tag both completed segments and real-time field interviews using Facebook Live. While Verify itself has roughly 13,0000 Facebook followers, its field interviews often draw tens of thousands of views, and some completed segments have attracted six- and seven-figure audiences.