Everything’s bigger in Texas. Even investigative journalism. Find out why KXAN Austin’s latest investigation involved almost two dozen people in news, digital, production and marketing, and how the station balances that content on TV and digital platforms across all the Nexstar stations in the Lone Star State.
Everything’s bigger in Texas. Even investigative journalism. Given it’s the second largest state in America, it almost has to be.
KXAN, Nexstar’s NBC affiliate in Austin (DMA 40), has 10 fulltime members on its investigative team. But that number can grow depending on the project, like the station’s latest investigation, Locked In Limbo, which examines how mentally ill men and women can languish in Texas county jails for months, even years, because they are incapable of standing trail.
Locked in Limbo is the third in a series of investigations by the KXAN investigative squad.
“Last year we launched our first one, all about missing persons and a broken reporting system,” said Josh Hinkle, KXAN’s director of investigations.
“Then we did one about mass violence over the last forty years, and now we are onto mental competency. The way we have picked the topics is we feel like this could be applicable to any town, any market and we figure out how to broaden this to all of our Texas viewers.”
For a project with this much scope, Hinkle said, “We also bring in people from our digital team and our creative services team and other producers that might have interest in the topic so that everyone kind of gets a chance to work on something that is a little bit outside the box.”
In addition to the large scale of the projects KXAN covers in its investigations, another reason for having such a large team is that KXAN’s reports are shared with all of the other Nexstar stations in Texas.
“I was just on a conference call with all of the Texas news directors in the 15 markets that Nextstar has now in the Lone Star State,” said Chad Cross, KXAN’s news director.
“About half of them already have aired the series Locked In Limbo as well as it appearing on their websites and on their social media platforms. So truly it is a statewide project and that is one of the things that the team always looks for is an issue that is relevant to everyone, no matter if you are in a large market or a small market, wherever you are in Texas. Then trying to help them look at how they can localize the story in their own neighborhoods, their communities to tie it in even better with their audience.”
And that audience Cross refers to is much more than just a television one. When Locked In Limbo’s three-parts air in a newscast on KXAN or any of the other Nexstar stations in Texas, it’s consumed and then it’s gone. With its digital apps, a series like Locked In Limbo is always there, ready for more audience.
“We think about how a viewer or a user is going to consume this content,” said Hinkle, “and we know that we have a huge presence of people that are seeing KXAN’s content and our investigative brand on our digital platforms, social media podcast, KXAN.com anything like that. So everyone is getting all of the content on multiple platforms. So if you like podcasts, we have got something for you. If you like something to watch as a digital docuseries, we have got something for you.”
Yet another reason for KXAN’s sizable investigative staff is geographic. KXAN is in Austin, the state capital.
“Because we are a network of Texas stations and KXAN is at the center,” said Cross, “we are really thinking about projects that have got the whole state in mind. Our station is just a couple of blocks away from the state capitol. So we have access to the state’s leaders, elected officials, so we can hold them accountable and try to push for positive changes.”
Positive changes are one measure of an investigation’s success. But exposing a system that keeps the mentally ill in jail instead of in treatment doesn’t automatically lead to a quick change for the better. In the meantime, the station applies resources — people, time and money. So how does KXAN define success for its investigative unit?
“It’s all about resource allocation,” said Eric Lassberg, KXAN’s general manager.
“We just want to make sure that we own that word ‘investigative’ in the market because we found that if we do that, the common person goes, ‘well they must just be the best news department in the market’. And then we are going to look at the typical digital metrics, the page views, the time on site, and the ratings of course. But at the end of the day, if we have great journalistic value for our community, then everything else is a byproduct of that.”
The job of getting people to watch the investigations on KXAN news, or on any of its other platforms, falls to Dax Dobbs, KXAN’s marketing director. There’s Locked In Limbo on the website to consider, then there are the podcasts, so how do you find an audience for each?
“One of the things we do is build a custom audience on Facebook of people who visited a previous long-form investigative series,” said Dobbs.
“Then I can target those people with ads about the new investigative series. If they have already engaged with the previous ones they are more likely to come to this one. Then I can build a lookalike of that audience, according to Facebook’s own algorithms, and get them with similar messaging. Facebook is generally where we spend a lot of effort for these although we also run pre-roll ads on other websites.”
Other websites might include CNN, or Fox News.
“Then someone in Austin on those sites might see our pre-roll display ad.”
Station revenue is tied to newscast ratings or course, and website page views, time spent on the page once they get there and video views.
The overall objective, said Dobbs, is “brand building across various channels. There is probably a group of people who are not watching the newscast, but are engaging with this content on our website. We just want to make sure all those people know the KXAN brand and engage with this content on any of those channels. That is the ultimate goal.”
As the station’s marketing director, it’s Dobbs’ job to increase news ratings, website page and video views. But as an investigator, Hinkle’s goals for Locked In Limbo are more altruistic.
“We have gotten feedback from the families that the story was spot on. We told the stories to let people know the dark side of this issue and why it needs to change and how big of a problem it is in Texas and why our leaders need to do something about it as soon as possible.”
Click here to go to KXAN’s Locked In Limbo website page where you’ll find all the video parts to the series and other videos and graphs related to the investigation.
NOTE: Here’s the full interview by Market Share columnist Paul Greeley with KXAN’s Josh Hinkle, Chad Cross and Eric Lassberg.
WBRE and WYOU, Nexstar’s NBC and CBS affiliates in Wilkes Barre/Scranton, Pennsylvania (DMA 60) seek an experienced television professional to serve as Vice President & General Manager for the stations, as well as all digital, mobile and social assets associated with Pahomepage.com. Ideal candidates will have a minimum of five years of general management experience at a commercial broadcast television station. The right fit will be a candidate who is professional, and a driven advocate of local broadcasting with proven success in leading revenue and ratings/digital metrics. Click here for more specifics and how to apply.