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Best in Broadcasting, Barr None

23/09/2020

Emily Barr, president and CEO of Graham Media Group, is TV Technologys sister publication B C's Broadcaster of the Year. Barr has led the broadcast TV division of Graham Holdings Group since 2012. Its stations include KPRC Houston; WDIV Detroit; WSLS Roanoke, Va.; KSAT San Antonio, Texas; WKMG Orlando, Fla.; and WJXT-WCWJ Jacksonville, Fla. Graham Media Group also has Graham Digital and Social News Desk in its portfolio.

Graham Media Group was named B C's Station Group of the Year in 2016. Barr came to Graham after a long run as president and general manager of ABC-owned WLS Chicago. She will be honored as Broadcaster of the Year at TVB's Alt Forward Conference on Oct. 1.

Barr spoke with B C about the stations' coverage of COVID and racial equality, how they reach younger viewers and what the future looks like for local broadcast. I have great faith in local television, she said. I believe it's incredibly important, maybe more important today than ever. An edited transcript follows.

B C: In terms of COVID coverage, any stories at the Graham stations that stood out for you?

Emily Barr: We have been covering COVID, obviously, from the very beginning, and we've been really trying to make it clear to people what is factual versus the rumors and the misinformation that seems to run around social media. We've done a lot of work to try to make it clear what's going on and what people can do to stay safe.

In Jacksonville, one of our reporters actually contracted COVID and did a whole series of reports on what it's like to go through it and how sick he was. He chose to do this, we didn't ask him to. It was met with a lot of incredible responses because it was a very personal point of view of living through this.

We've had about 23 people across the group contract COVID. Everyone has recovered, which is very much a blessing. One employee's spouse, unfortunately, passed away from it. Early in April, we were feeling the weight of it just from that one incident. Since then, the people who have contracted COVID have all recovered. A couple landed in the hospital for a day or two, but nobody had to be put on a ventilator.

We've been trying to really get at the misinformation and give people really good facts so they can make informed decisions.

B C: Any Graham stories on the fights for racial equality that stood out?

EB: WSLS in Roanoke, our smallest station, just did an amazing report, a primetime special and a series of news reports and online reports called 2020 Focus: The Push For Equality. It was really, really well done. They went back and looked at the history of Roanoke, they looked at redlining, some of the housing issues that came up, things that were done with the development of the communities around Lynchburg and Roanoke that caused neighborhoods to become cut off. They explained all that history and where the inequity has grown from.

What I really thought they did a particularly good job on was, they talked to leaders in the community about what they're trying to do going forward. It wasn't just a historical piece, but a look forward. There was quite a bit of hope in the information we provided. It felt more positive as a result.

Every station has gotten involved and has been doing reporting on this. The way we work as a company, we never tell our stations what to report on and how they should do their work. They will occasionally get together and share the stories they do when it is something larger than a single community. In the push for racial equity and inclusion and justice, our news directors have gotten on the phone with each other and really tried to wrap their arms around it, look at the fault lines, look at the issues that have plagued so many of these cities. They're doing a series of ongoing reports, they're not just doing one-and-done. This has become part of the fabric in each newscast in each of these communities.

B C: With so many workers showing they can do their jobs from home, how do you see the Graham stations the actual buildings looking in a year?

EB: I think there's going to be a little more room in all of these TV stations. What we have discovered is that we've been able to do our work really efficiently and without any interruptions, with probably about 80% of our staff working remotely. The one thing you lose when you work this way is that serendipitous meeting in the hallway, the idea that might get shared between one person and another just because they happen to be talking to each other. That has to be more formalized because you have to get on teams or get on Zoom or whatever video platform you are using and it becomes less by chance and more by direct connection that you have to make.

I think that the buildings themselves will feel a little more spacious, because some people that work for us will not be coming back on a regular basis other than maybe for meetings. We have a couple of hubs. We have a traffic hub out of Jacksonville; I think 17 people work in that hub. What we found is that they're really working well from home and there may not be a need to bring them back in full time. With some of the hubbing you find station groups doing these days, it may make more sense to allow them to work from home.

It also gives you the flexibility to hire from other cities if that is what you choose to do. If you're looking for someone, you don't have to limit yourself to someone who lives in Jacksonville.

I think what will happen is, when we can safely allow people to come back into the buildings, we will probably have a fairly large percentage of them come back. But there will be more flexibility in terms of working from home a few days a week. Salespeople have much more flexibility to go to sales calls directly from home; maybe they'll work
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