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How Charlotte’s WSOC-TV dove deep on affordable housing to serve its community — and improved its ratings

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: Choose an issue you’re already covering that’s of deep importance to your community. Go beyond the story and rally your newsroom and your viewers to make a concrete positive impact.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Mike Oliveira, news director, and Kim Holt, head of specials, both of WSOC-TV in Charlotte, North Carolina; and Zack McGhee, vice president of product and innovation for WSOC’s parent company, Cox Media Group. They participated in the Knight-ASU Tables Stakes program in 2019-20.

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

Answer: We had already been working on an initiative called “Priced out of Charlotte” for about 18 months, since May 2018. It was a series of special reports and primetime specials focused on Charlotte’s shortage of affordable housing and the broad impact of that shortage. 

Our general manager, Cedric Thomas, challenged us to identify ways to go bigger, better and deeper on it. As luck would have it, that’s when we joined the Knight-ASU Table Stakes program. We went in thinking we’d pursue a challenge focused on growing our ratings at 5 p.m. But pretty quickly our coach, Joanne Heyman, showed us that we had this huge opportunity staring us in the face to redefine what success really meant to us. (Read this Cronkite News piece about how they rethought the meaning of success.)

Our previous efforts had shown us that the affordable housing crisis in Charlotte was an important issue to our audience. We were the only station in the market with an in-depth commitment to it. Going even deeper was both exciting and a little daunting, because we really wanted to do it right.

We admittedly were very focused on our broadcast audience in the beginning, but part of the Table Stakes process is about meeting the audience where it is. We realized this story that affects our entire community needed to be told well on all of our platforms.

The goal was to connect with an underserved part of our community — whose problems really were everyone’s problems — and to create a broader understanding of the impact. Along the way, we wanted to focus on solutions and hold those in charge to account. 

In Charlotte, as in many cities, it can be easy for leaders to dodge the hot seat on social issues. We wanted to make clear that ultimately, this issue was so much more than just about housing. It was (and is) a community issue. We wanted to use our influence to bring positive change. 

If that process of creating positive change in the newsroom and the community also brings enhanced ratings and revenue, then that’s an unexpected benefit. As hard to believe as it may be, this initiative was not about ratings. It was about stepping up for the people in our community whose voices, hardships and lives were so often glossed over.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A: This approach is related to Table Stake No. 4 (“Funnel occasional users to habitual and paying loyalists”) and Table Stake No. 6 (“Partner to expand your capacity and capabilities at lower and more flexible cost”).

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: We were already producing frequent reports on the affordable housing issue, but we doubled down on that commitment by producing at least two stories on the topic each week.

On the left are WSOC’s six-month SMART goals; on the right are the results for the first half of 2020.

On the left are WSOC’s six-month SMART goals; on the right are the results for the first half of 2020.

For example, during one very focused month, we challenged ourselves to do at least one housing-related story every day. It was during that month that we launched a fundraising and awareness partnership with Crisis Assistance Ministry, a Charlotte nonprofit that helps to keep families from being evicted or having their utilities disconnected. 

We used newsletters, social media and our digital platforms to reach people. We took a 22-county housing resource guide we had created and translated it to Spanish. We set out to break down walls between digital and broadcast so we could accomplish our goals, and to foster collaboration across sales, marketing and the newsroom.

Q: What worked?

A: In the first half of 2020, we raised almost $50,000 in our partnership with the Crisis Assistance Ministry. On average, they tell us it takes $400 to keep someone in their home. That means we were able to keep 120 individuals or families from eviction.

On top of that, we’re raising awareness: One of our digital stories about affordable housing got 32,000 page views. All of the stories we produced ended up in our special section in our app and on our website. The idea was to build this library of information and use all of our platforms — TV, digital, email, OTT (“over the top” is a way to deliver content to viewers via the Internet) — to direct people to it. We did a ton on-air, but we stepped up our game on OTT, newsletters and social platforms to reach more folks.

On social media we did more mini-stories, ensuring the images were real people while avoiding stock art of buildings and objects. We made a point to focus on people who were givers and not just receivers, in the hopes of inspiring other people. We focused on trying to tell the story from all angles.

We wanted to draw people in with stories that touched people on an emotional level and provide the most thorough coverage possible. We built relationships in the community and with advertisers, and we became a more well-rounded organization.

But when we talk about how our ratings went up, we were rewarded by the audience for telling stories that mattered and connecting with people in a way we haven’t done before.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: We had to evolve how we told the story. We couldn’t just do 20-second readers or voiceovers anymore. We had to go in-depth to get people to see us — and the issue — in a different light. We also couldn’t do this top-down: We had to unite people and empower them to make a difference through their work. That meant using new language. We started using terms like “our neighbors” when referring to people facing housing issues. We also used phrases like “a safe place to live” when appropriate, to get away from the phrase “affordable housing crisis.”

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: We took the lead in the early evening ratings race — #1 in adults 25-54 and #1 in households. Even though we were trying to be intentional about not making that the focus, it happened as a byproduct of this effort. 

In addition, our audience clearly saw the importance and impact of our fundraiser for Crisis Assistance Ministry. Every time we did a story, the total would go up. The owner of a local restaurant chain learned of our efforts and made an unexpected $5,000 donation.

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: If it hadn’t conflicted with another fundraising drive we were already doing for a local food bank, we would have launched our fundraiser for Crisis Assistance Ministry sooner. Obviously, awareness is important. But there’s a lot to be said for raising the cash that actually keeps people in their homes. And if this hadn’t all taken place during a pandemic, we could have done a LOT differently — in-person events could have raised our total even more. 

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: Find a way to reconnect with the people in your community. We recommitted to identifying and talking to the “real people” affected by this problem. We empowered our reporters to invest time and resources into turning housing-related stories, which otherwise might have been deemed “too dry” and not even been pitched. That led to new contacts for our reporters, and inevitably, one story led to another.

We have to stop appearing to folks like we’re just commenting on what’s going on. Move beyond the old tactics. We have an incredible platform to improve things — to shine a light, to tell people’s stories, to empower people to make a difference and to hold leaders accountable.

Also, delegate responsibility to your team — a lot of responsibility, to a lot of team members. They WANT to be involved in things that build the community. So often, their day-to-day work has a relatively short shelf life. We were thrilled at the excitement among our team members to go above and beyond for this initiative.

Q: Anything else you want to share about this initiative?

A: We’re still a news organization. But maybe we have a renewed sense of purpose and of mission. On top of showcasing the problems in a community, we can show what approaches are working or not, and we can explain why. It also helped that we were able to demonstrate that this issue cuts across all of the Fault Lines ®, as defined by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education (Maynard offers training sessions for news organizations that want to address personal bias in the areas of race, gender, sexual orientation, generation, geography and class — which are known as the Fault Lines). It isn’t a problem for just one segment of our audience. It really affects everyone. 

Related: How the Detroit Free Press reinvented the way it does projects and saw a boost in digital engagement