At first blush, the idea of a television news story on suicide sparked an instinctive "bad for TV" response — weak visuals for a difficult topic that would take more than a couple of minutes to explain.
But as producers and editors at KSL-TV looked deeper into the subject, the opportunities to not just expose a troubling problem — Utah ranks among the top 10 states in suicide — but also to offer some hope and solutions for families struggling with an issue that few people want to talk about became clear.
"We talked to experts on how to cover suicides because traditionally the media doesn’t cover suicides," said producer Candice Madsen. "We also wanted to be hopeful ... that there are solutions and answers for families who have dealt with it."
The end result was not a single story, but an entire 30-minute, 10 p.m. newscast in April dedicated to "Breaking the Silence on Suicide." The program has been followed by other enterprising coverage focusing on the issues and solutions regarding family caregiving, online dating, home security, panhandling and email scams. Another full newscast was dedicated last month to "Runaways: Kids at Risk."
The departure from the traditional fast-paced newscast of one- to two-minute stories documenting car crashes, fires and planned news events is something KSL's executive vice-president of news Tanya Vea has pushed for the past two years to distinguish the station as the place for more in-depth coverage that looks at solutions as well as problems.
As local television news viewership drops locally and nationwide, KSL is also carving out a unique position in a media market where consumers can get their daily news from their phones, tablets, laptops and other sources around the clock.
"There is more risk in doing it the tried and true way" of packing as much of the day's news into a 30-minute show as possible, Vea said in response to people's changing news consumption habits. Instead, she has invested resources in a team of producers and reporters dedicated to generating unique and useful content at a time when other news organizations are paring down staff.
"We are the only locally owned station (in the Salt Lake market), and we are fortunate to have an owner that encourages us and even expects us to focus on quality as part of our business model," she said. "Our charter is to be a value and a service to the community and we take that very seriously."
KSL is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as is the Deseret News.
That's not to say Vea and the rest of the KSL team don't also want the station to return to its historical status as the top-rated newscast in the state. The latest ratings in November show KSL second, behind KUTV.
But KSL was the only station in the local market to register growth from November 2012 — a 4 percent bump in ratings and a 25 percent climb in share of households watching television during the late news time period.
What was more remarkable about Nielsen's November ratings was that the number of households turning on their televisions during the late news hours dropped 13 percent from a year earlier. While the 2012 presidential election boosted last year's November ratings, the difference is typically a 2-5 percent swing from an election year to a non-election year.
Asked if the investment in more long-form content has made the difference for KSL, Vea said:
"We haven't done research on it, but we certainly have ratings to back it up. We are the only station that had growth during an incredibly difficult period (when) the entire market contracted, late news specifically."
Time will tell whether KSL's efforts to distinguish itself from its competitors will pay off financially. But the industry has responded to the different approach, with KSL winning 18 regional Emmys this year compared to the four received by its three local competitors combined.
And Vea is confident the new approach satisfies what consumers in the community need and expect from their local news outlets.
The suicide special was recognized recently by an award from Hope4Utah, a suicide prevention organization.
Greg Hudnall, Hope4Utah executive director, said he received hundreds of calls and emails from individuals and families and others seeking help within hours of the show's airing. Mental health agencies in and outside of Utah are using the show in training, he said, while he has used all or clips of the show in training more than 10,000 parents and students.
"What KSL has done is reach out and make a difference in the people's lives they present the news to," he said. "Those stories helped give people permission to talk about suicide and move that agenda forward."
Community feedback has not just fueled ideas for stories aligned with community interests, but helped producers and reporters know how to execute those stories, as well.
Station leaders had impaneled a focus group over the summer to gather input in other areas of operation, but in reviewing the feedback executives also heard suggestions on content.
"People are worried about family stability and financial stability. It was surprising to hear about the level of insecurity people feel in their lives," Vea said. "Some of the feedback was that they didn’t feel news organizations were doing enough to impact people’s daily lives and family situations. We definitely got a clear message about what we are not doing."
Taking that cue, enterprise managing editor Ken Fall and his team began looking at stories from a different vantage point: Rather than focusing on just the problem, they sought to give viewers information about what they could do to address the problem.
Embracing what the industry calls "solutions journalism" also gave reporters and producers an opportunity to turn stories that didn't appear TV-friendly into compelling stories that viewers could use.
"We can sit down with people and get to know them better, and that enables us to more eloquently tell their story," Fall said. "That (caregiving) story was really a powerful piece that on the surface screamed, 'Bad TV.'"
Producer Tania Mashburn said the runaways story began as a single story on missing people. But when the research turned up a network of searchers devoted to finding runaways, the story exploded with more information than she knew what do to with.
"Once we found out there was a network using social media and a group of private detectives who will go find people for free, it suddenly became, 'Oh my gosh, nobody knows about this.' ... It helped the whole thing come together," she said.
A single story on missing persons turned into an entire commercial-free, 30-minute newscast with additional pieces airing on other news shows.
Deborah Potter, founder and executive director of the nonprofit journalism training and development initiative NewsLab, said local television stations have been reluctant to back away from their standard format of delivering news for fear of losing more of their shrinking pool of viewers to the competition.Comment on this story
"Stations worry that folks who really want all of today's headlines won’t be back if (those headlines) are not there," she said.
Fall, who has worked in television journalism since 1977 and came to KSL two years ago, said that KSL's commitment to try something different is rare in today's uncertain environment of declining audience. And he's confident that delivering what the community wants will pay off.
"That’s how we are hoping to make our mark," he said. "Better storytelling and more focus on an issue."