How WDIV Detroit’s investigation into an underwater oil pipeline became a broadcasting and digital event is the result of quality content delivered where people want to be served.
An investigation by WDIV, Graham Media Group’s NBC affiliate in Detroit, initially looked like a routine three-or-four-minute story.
“That was the intention,” says Karen Drew, WDIV investigative reporter and anchor. “Then as we started digging and finding information and meeting people and doing interviews, I thought there’s just no way I can put this in three minutes. It’s too big.”
Drew’s investigation focused on a 645-mile oil pipeline known as Line 5, that pumps 22 million gallons of oil per day across the state of Michigan. Most of the pipeline is underground, but about 4.5 miles of it lays underwater in the shifting currents where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan meet.
What if there was a spill into the lakes?
“The way the currents shift you could have an oil problem in many ways,” says Bob Ellis, WDIV’s general manager. “You’re talking about the most precious resource we have in the state of Michigan, which is water.”
Is the Line 5 pipeline a ticking timebomb? There’s reason for concern. The pipeline is 70 years old, more than 25 years past its intended lifetime of 45 years.
Ellis says it begs the question of how long the pipeline will last going forward in one of the state’s popular vacation spots.
And the company that owned the pipeline doesn’t exactly have a spotless record. Another pipeline owned by the same company spilled more than a million gallons of oil into the Michigan waterways in 2010, one of the biggest inland oil spills in U.S. history.
And Drew discovered “a lot of viewers didn’t realize it was there. These pipelines go through our state. It does affect all of us.”
Drew says it was a story that needed much more than three or four minutes, so she went to management to suggest the station air a longer version story during its news broadcast and stream a half-hour special on Local 4+, the streaming section of the station’s website.
So, on Thursday, Oct. 26, WDIV led its 5:30 evening newscast with a 15-minute-long investigative package about Line 5.
In the world of local TV news, a 15-minute-long report in a newscast is rare. Rarer still, this report aired without commercials. “We have never done that before,” Drew says.
And at the end of the 15-minute investigative report in the 5:30 news, the station pushed broadcast viewers to stream more content on its website at 8 o’clock.
Piggybacking the digital streaming platform from the TV broadcast news was another first for the station. Ellis says he wants to use all the station’s platforms to meet people where they want to be served.
“How do we tell those stories differently on all those platforms and serve the needs they all have in the way they want to be served,” Ellis asks. “Between social, our website, obviously broadcast and our streaming platform, we put this content together in such a way that it was easily understood by those who wanted to watch it.”
Drew knew her challenge was keeping viewers’ engaged through a 15-minute story.
“We told the story a little differently,” Drew says. She used some 3D animation and tried to stay from the anchor desk.
“We used a standup where I went from one studio to another studio and shared different maps so we could visually keep your attention,” she says. “We kept the audience and we saw that from there they went to streaming.”
To promote the broadcast/digital event, WDIV did some targeted advertising using a program called Local Four Insiders, which has well over 125,000 people signed up, Ellis says.
“We were able to use that database and target specifically to people who were interested in stories like this, whether it be an environmental story or an investigative story,” he says. The station pushed bite-sized pieces from the investigation to get people to the linear TV newscast at 5:30, then use the linear to promote the 30-minute streaming special.
The 15-minute commercial-free segment on WDIV’s 5:30 news “was the highest rated quarter hour of the early news on that particular day,” Ellis says. On the streaming side, as time progresses, “we have continued to see audience growth,” he says.
Also growing is the station’s brand as the investigative station in Detroit and Michigan.
“Just wanted to drop you a note about your Line 5 special – WOW! It’s so well done. I was glued to it from start to finish. I’ve always been a fan of your style and your photog killed it!”
“Excellent report on line 5. I’ll bet you were amazed at how many people know nothing about the impact of line 5. Thank you for your continuing investigative reports.” Ken Miller
“Anyways, just wanted to say great work. You had it all – accountability, access, real people. Loved it.” Ryan Raiche
“Just when I give up on local news, you come out with this incredible piece. thank you.”
“Your reporting on Line 5 is deeply appreciated. Watched the entire 30 minutes online. Very thorough.” David Holtz
Ellis says he’s thrilled “that we not only spent the time, effort and energy on this story to tell it. I think investigative reporting is still the lifeblood of what a thriving news organization does and it’s something we need to be doing.”
NOTE: A town hall meeting is scheduled to take place later this month in a movie theater with the oil pipeline company, environmental groups, elected officials and community experts where the Line 5 investigation will be shown to kick off the program.
“I have never done a story where so many people were interested enough to go to a movie theatre to see it,” Drew says.
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