Talking TV: WCBS Widens Its Community Reporting Web In NYC

Johnny Green, president and GM of CBS-owned WCBS New York, and Sarah Burke, the station’s VP and news director, say its community-focused reporters are gaining traction — and trust — in the neighborhoods where they’ve been embedded, a strength to draw on in a fractious news year ahead. A full transcript of the conversation is included.

Community reporters are a growing fixture at CBS News & Stations, where the group has been selectively deploying them to different neighborhoods since Wendy McMahon, the group’s president, took the helm.

The premise is straightforward — the reporter develops a closer relationship to the area, building trust and delivering more relevant, useful stories. The community, for its part, sees a station invested in its future.

At WCBS in New York, President and GM Johnny Green and VP/News Director Sarah Burke say the community reporters are gaining traction with viewers, as are the beat-focused reporters the station is increasingly turning to as well. They say the effort is an investment in trust, especially in a media hostile climate on the cusp of a deeply fraught election year.

In this Talking TV conversation, Green and Burke also discuss the momentum WCBS has built as a first mover in the local news streaming and how they’re readying their staff for safety in a rough year ahead.

Michael Depp: I’m Michael Depp, editor of TVNewsCheck, and this is Talking TV, our weekly video podcast.

Today, I’m joined by Johnny Green, president and GM of WCBS in New York, and Sarah Burke, the VP and news director at the station. There are always a million things going on at an O&O station in the country’s biggest news market, but our conversation is going to zero in on a few of them: The community reporting model being implemented across the CBS stations, growth in CBS’s local streaming channel there and how they’re bolstering for a tumultuous news year ahead of the enormous pressures that everyone in the industry—but perhaps especially the New York stations—are under. We’ll be right back with that conversation.


Johnny Green and Sarah Burke, you are very welcome to Talking TV.

Sarah Burke: Thank you. Good to be here.

Johnny Green: Thanks for having us.

To a greater or lesser extent, CBS-owned stations have been creating the position of community reporters in their markets, essentially to be covering a neighborhood with the idea of building trust, building relationships in the community and ultimately giving better, more relevant coverage. How widely are you doing this in New York?

Johnny Green: I can start from a broader sense from a station perspective. We assign journalists to geographical areas and beats. And what I can tell you is since we made that commitment, it’s kind of energized the entire station to be almost journalists across departments because everybody takes pride in where they live and share news from that beat. Being involved, community activities from that beat. I can toss it to Sarah, who can go deeper into how we do it specifically with our reporters here in the newsroom.

Sarah Burke: Thanks, Johnny. Our community reporting kind of takes several different forms at this point. So, we have the reporters who live and work in community. I have a reporter in the Bronx, I have a reporter in Brooklyn, Queens, someone who specializes in Harlem. Those are the investments we’ve made to date with other investments in the future.

We’d love to have someone on Staten Island. We have folks who are in New Jersey, two reporters there. And what we feel like that investment gets us is really hyperlocal reporting, but not just hyperlocal, as in, you know, we’re finding out about this story or that story, but the follow up is, I think, a little bit more authentic and automatic.

We are building real relationships with the people who, you know, Jessi Mitchell in Harlem or Elle McLogan in Queens, Hannah Kliger, who was born and raised in Coney Island and is getting good tips, is following up on stories and building a lot of trust in the community. Like you said, Michael, that’s one of the community reporter investments we’re making.

But the entire station is investing in community through our Better Together campaign, which is really active all year round, but particularly around the holidays. We’re doing our season of giving campaign and that I think has helped the whole organization understand the importance of investing in community for all of us, not just reporters who are working a beat. And we’ll be out on Saturday at several grocery store locations talking about food insecurity and things of that nature. We also just generally do internal efforts to kind of bring the station together, too, which I think has been really meaningful.

Johnny Green: One quick thing I would add is, the one thing that I think the newsroom’s commitment which spreads to the station — what I love about it is we’re there to cover stories that we have to cover that are not always fortunate, but we’re also there to celebrate when things go well and to be partners, you know, when things don’t go well. I think that is the biggest payoff from what I see from this seat.

You’re kind of actually getting to what I want to just follow up on with the community reporters. How are the communities that are being covered responding, and how are viewers more broadly responding to this structure? Is it something where you’ve had some concrete feedback so far to build from?

Sarah Burke: We’ve gotten really positive feedback in the form of emails. I forget the story last year that we covered, I think it was a domestic violence kind of survivor event. We went there, I think it was in the Bronx, we spent the day, we covered the story, we talked to folks and one of my news managers… her title is executive producer impacting community, and that’s a role that was new to the station group when [CBS News & Stations President] Wendy [McMahon] first came, came aboard… and it’s been just such a valuable role to have in our newsrooms. She works with our community reporters to just kind of keep track of what they’re working on and also engaging in some of these bigger station events.

But anyway, she was the one who received this email from somebody who said, I can’t believe you showed up. You’re never here to cover us for something good. I’m not doing the email justice because it was really just a beautiful sentiment that meant a lot to the newsroom, and I think it has that reinforcing effect. We want more of that. We want to be there for positive stories and make sure that we’re shining a light on good things, things that are helping community as much as we’re there for the things that certainly become news coverage and are unfortunate stories.

I’m just curious about the implementation of this idea in New York, particularly because it’s such a massive city and you have such giant populations even within neighborhoods. I mean, you could have a community reporter just in Astoria, Queens or in Hell’s Kitchen or, you know, you could divide it up in an even more granular way. You just have people covering essentially boroughs, it seems at the moment, or Harlem. Do you foresee kind of any allocation shift of more reporting resources into this model significantly than you have now?

Sarah Burke: That’s a good question. I think we’ll continue to invest, like I mentioned, we don’t have someone on Staten Island just yet, but we do have two reporters on Long Island, and we have somebody in Westchester County. We’ve deployed in a geographic way already, in addition to the people who are identified specifically as community reporters.

But we’ve also, Michael, talked a lot about specializing in a topic and developing more expertise in that way as well. So, we have the geographic community, but then we also have an education community. We have people who are focusing on congestion pricing, which is such a huge issue here in the tri-state area. So, we’re also specializing reporters in a kind of a hybrid beat way that we think will really help our audience more deeply understand important issues to the viewers we’re trying to serve.

Let’s talk about streaming. CBS had one of the earlier and more robust local streaming channels, piggybacking initially off of CBS All Access. Flash forward a few years and you’ve got these relatively mature streaming operations that I understand are quite successful – their digital performance in all your markets, including New York. I know also that you’re morning blocks are particularly strong with traffic. But what can you tell me about the growth that you’ve had there and how you’re how you’re maturing that operation on streaming?

Johnny Green: Yeah. Michael, thank you for that question. You know, as you pointed out, we had the luxury to bring in the first local streaming channel, local station in the country, and we did get a jump start as far as being out there. People know where we are. And what we’ve seen by the research is those morning hours were heavily viewed.

So, in the last year plus we launched a 7 a.m. That was streaming-only to start. We recently, two months ago, launched an 8 a.m. now both a simulcast also on WLNY ch. 55, which is our sister station.  You know for example, the 7 a.m., the month of October got 7.5 million minutes watched. And it has certainly been a success, I think, post COVID, you see viewing habits changed, so the commute might be different, so we’re going through that 4:30 through later in the morning. We’ve seen some success there. Sarah, anything you want to add about kind of the content and what you guys would produce news-wise?

Sarah Burke: Thanks, Johnny. It’s been really heartening to see just that we’re creating something that there is a big demand for, and to have some of the most successful streaming shows in the station group has been, I think, really rewarding for us. And so, we’re trying to build on that success with the 7 a.m. and we’ve launched the 8 a.m., as Johnny mentioned, come December, it will be a full hour. And so, we’ll have a sizable morning block that starts at 4:30 in the morning on linear. Of course, we’re simulcasting everything on stream, so we’ll be on from 4:30 all the way till 10 a.m. with, I think, newscasts that not only serve our audience with weather and news, but we’re really trying to create an experience for the viewer that allows them to stay as long as they want. You’re not going to get something that feels like a wheel in the morning. You’re going to get news, you’re going to get weather. But we’re also trying to incorporate newsmakers, especially into the 8 a.m. hour, which is hosted by Chris Wragge, who’s an excellent interviewer, and we’re planning on having him lean into that when the show expands to the full hour.

Sarah Burke: And then 9 a.m. is one of my — you can’t say one of my favorite shows, but I have a soft spot for it because it’s so much of what we’re doing in the community. And that’s another kind of leg of the stool of our community engagement is to have this platform where we are celebrating community in such an intentional way. Cindy Hsu is the perfect anchor for that show, joined by John Elliott, who does weather for us. But all of our community partners have a home in the 9 a.m. and it’s just got an excellent warmth to it. And so that’s the streaming block that we’re talking about when we talk about the shows that are really, I think, performing strongly for us.

And elsewhere, Sarah, do you find it’s breaking news that’s driving peak performance on the streaming channel or are there other drivers?

Sarah Burke: Breaking news is a huge driver, absolutely, and that has been a learning curve for us. Not to say that we didn’t anticipate that breaking news would drive people, but just how much it does. And we know that if we’re not standing up excellent coverage during breaking news, we are missing a huge opportunity to serve our audience. They find us during breaking news. We’ve seen it with a crane collapse in Midtown, with the unrest in Union Square when Kai Cenat gave out the video games. It’s millions and millions of minutes streamed and, you know, I’m kind of constantly amazed that people are so available to just start streaming us. And it’s a real opportunity that energizes the whole newsroom.

And Johnny, what about advertisers there? Is it still largely, I mean, generally across the industry, it’s largely programmatic advertising, but are you doing a lot more direct sold into this?

Johnny Green: Yeah, it’s a combo. You’re right. It is more programmatic buys in the OTT space. But as we have these added live hours that we can point people to, and as we see the minutes watched grow, we’re certainly looking to kind of match the model that has worked for linear for many years.

How does that translate to OTT? So, that’s certainly something that our sellers are out in the marketplace marketing when we see this growth. You know, and what I’m happy about, what Sarah mentioned, is when we have those big breaking news events that translate to give us a little bit more regular viewers. Which is kind of the challenge in the sales space, but where we’ve seen some growth after being there, when people need us to be there, they’ll come back perhaps when there wasn’t a big break or so. We’ve definitely seen some success and some growth there.

How’s the learning curve with advertisers on streaming? Do they get it? Some markets I’ve heard are harder than others to kind of explain it to people. Some advertisers get it right away. They see it’s just like TV. They’re very savvy to it. Others, it’s harder.

Johnny Green: Yeah, it’s hit or miss. And you know, in New York is different to where, you know, some agencies are used to it, and they buy network. So, being in New York that works, some agencies are not as used to it and it’s the explanation, it’s calling out these positive stories that we see in our numbers and our growth. You know, reinforcing what we were bringing to the community, and just the convenience of it.

You know, we’re a big commuters place, so a commuter city, so people taking the train into the city, like we literally carry a story that way to advertisers. So, they know that, you know, there’s not appointment we’re constantly on, we’re 24/7. When it’s breaking, we’re there, and you know, slowly but surely, we see that they’re coming around.

Sarah, in terms of creating the programing that is bespoke or original to streaming, how difficult has that been to work it into the workflows of the newsroom? You know, it’s another thing you have to do. I don’t know how much you’ve staffed up to handle these additional streaming only hours or units, but has that been difficult to reconcile?

Sarah Burke: Well, I think yes and no. I have to give the newsroom a lot of credit because I’ve worked in several. They’re all fantastic places, but this is a group of such driven, professional, probably type-A people that you create a new mission, and they’ll achieve it, and frankly, usually in ways that I have not even imagined.

We have just a great team here who has really embraced the challenge of streaming, and more than just in a thing I’ve got to do, kind of like you’re saying, you know, you add another show, it’s another thing, it’s another drain on the newsroom. But that’s not how streaming has been perceived, I don’t think, by the newsroom. I think it’s viewed as the opportunity that it really is. And so, there’s a lot of excitement about it and a lot of people who are willing to pitch in. What I was talking about previously with the breaking news, we use the acronym, S.O.S. — stay on streaming. It helps us remember that, you know, even if we’re stopping down because we’re cutting in on linear, we got to stay on streaming, we’ve got to super serve our audience, and that’s a rallying cry for us, to just make sure that we’re thinking about serving the audience, whether it’s with a chopper picture or a live reporter or information driven from the anchor desk. And I think it’s a challenge that the newsroom has embraced, and we all understand that it’s important for our future to knock it out of the park.

And I should mention to viewers of this right now, if you want to learn more about CBS’s streaming news strategy and how it’s evolving, we have Sahand Sepehrnia, who is the group’s SVP of streaming, on a panel on this very subject at our NewsTECHForum conference in New York on Dec. 12. So, register for that.

Now, speaking of that conference, the overall theme of it this year is adapting to a culture of continuous crisis, which the industry finds itself needing to do now more than ever. And I wonder how you both are adapting yourselves. You know, you’re running one of the country’s biggest local newsrooms in a city that doesn’t ever have a moment of downtime on the best day. So, let me put a finer point on that. Sarah, I’m wondering specifically here, how are you prepping for coverage in an upcoming election year that’s going to see perhaps the most sharply divided electorate since the Civil War and where the prospect of violence against your journalists, you know, just as one baseline concern is perhaps higher than ever?

Sarah Burke: Thank you for that question. It’s certainly something that Johnny and I talk a lot about, and our senior leadership talks a lot about, because the concern that we have for our newsgatherers in the field, it’s real. And I will say that the safety concern is nonstop. Certainly, the election coming up will intensify those conversations and those concerns. But it’s always a concern.

Things are different out in the public now, even if it’s not covering a very controversial story. We face aggressive people when we’re newsgathering. And it’s difficult because I have a lot of veteran reporters and veteran photographers who tell me that, “you know, I was out, somebody flipped me the bird for no reason.” So, there’s a lot of animosity just generally toward the media, which is really unfortunate. I’m sure your point about the upcoming election, it will escalate, and we have lots of conversations about providing security for our teams and deciding if we really need to be live on a story, and any other thing we need to talk about is on the table for discussion. But what we’re not going to do is stop covering the news. That is our commitment to our audience and to do so with the same kind of integrity, accuracy and context that we want to provide. But it can be really tough.

Johnny, let me follow up on that with you, because you’re looking after the overall station, too, and the building itself. And, you know there’s a threat of people coming in there with maybe bad intentions. What are you having to put in place for contingencies now that maybe you didn’t even have to think of a couple of years ago?

Johnny Green: You know, I think Sarah spoke to some of it. What we didn’t do a few years ago, as much, I wouldn’t say we never did it, but was the security with news crews specifically. It’s not too many days go by that we don’t consider it, having that available. We’re having to be in a space where we share with our other CBS entities, CBS News, CBS Sports in the same building. We have constant conversations about this very thing and making sure that, you know, this entrance, that exit, that may not have been covered before, that there’s security all there. And I think, you know, Sarah also touched on something that we do is conversations, having the conversations with staff. “How are they doing?” I think in news, in the news department in particular, we do a good job of. “OK, I’ve covered this story, this terrible story for two days. I need a break from that.” Let’s reassign you to something else.

You know, another thing I’ve done station-wide is, working with Sarah, is bringing in experts and people that can talk. Media psychologist Dr. Don Grant we’ve had in several times to talk, have listening sessions, hear people out, where managers are not necessarily in those conversations. So, they can get the necessary tools they need to mentally do the job, and, you know, just having conversations. “How are you feeling out there?”

You know, I’ve had an incident where I wore a CBS hat, and somebody, and I wasn’t covering a story, I was walking down the street and someone, you know, yelled out something to me. So, I know it happens. It is how do we conversate? There are places where me and Sarah aren’t out in the field covering. We want to hear from them. What are they dealing with and making sure they have the proper resources across the board to do their job.

Sarah Burke: I just wanted to add that a little bit of an antidote to this is community reporting. You know, and certainly the trust we’re building by being in in the boroughs, by being in community, it’s really hard to say something mean to somebody who you see at the grocery store and somebody you’ve built a rapport with or somebody who you’ve sent an email to, and they followed up and helped you get your problem solved.

It’s not, of course, a full solution, but we do take hope from that because we see those relationships as a future and as something that can help us kind of on a dark day feel good about what we do because we know we still have a lot of power to help people and shine a light on problems. And so that helps me when we have some of the more negative, you know, issues pop up. I think a lot about community.

When you are sending crews out into stickier situations, are they sort of less branded maybe with CBS, you know, caps or jackets or, you know, your cameras may be smaller? Are you thinking about the crew drawing less attention to itself as one of the safety precautions?

Sarah Burke: That’s certainly part of the kind of toolkit. Yes. We don’t necessarily roll in a marked vehicle.

And just lastly, I mean, so many parts of this question we could get to, but what do you both think are the stakes for local news in this coming year?

Sarah Burke: Johnny?

Johnny Green: Yeah, I’ll take it first., I’ve been at nine TV stations. The stakes couldn’t be higher with, you know, you talked about at the top the war that’s going on right now, the election year coming up. You know, we all read the credibility and the issues that media as a whole has faced in recent times. And I think, you know, local news, not as much as some national outlets, I think is more important now than ever for us to be their voice to report unbiased and be essential to our viewers. You know that we have that information, and as I said earlier, we’re a partner.

When things don’t go well, we want to be there and be a partner and help it be better. When things are going well, we want to be there and help celebrate. And I think this year, you know, and not even mentioning the economy itself, so with all those things happening, it is more important now than ever for us to be an advocate, the voice for our consumers.

Sarah Burke: I couldn’t say that better.

We could get into all sorts of subsets of this question and be here for a long time, but you are both very, very busy people and you need to get back to it. So, I want to thank you, Johnny Green and Sarah Burke, for joining me today.

Sarah Burke: Thank you, Michael.

Thanks to all of you for watching and listening. You can catch past episodes of this podcast at or on our YouTube channel, and we’re back most Fridays with a new episode. See you next time.

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