When a gunman attacked the Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California this summer, the top editor at Hearst’s national digital desk in Pittsburgh felt a surge of adrenaline as if the incident had happened across town.
Stephanie Backus, Hearst’s national editorial manager, dropped what she was doing and returned to the office where she pulled an all-nighter with her team of reporters.
For Backus and her staff, it was more like a local story. Based at WTAE-TV’s offices along the Parkway East at Ardmore Boulevard, the 12 people on the digital team cover national news for all of the websites at the company’s 26 local television stations, service audiences in 39 states. That includes the station Hearst owns in Monterey, California, near Gilroy.
The news desk has operated with little local fanfare since it opened in late 2016, and yet Backus said its reporters produce web news for TV stations — like the one for WTAE — that reach one in every five households across the United States.
When a national story breaks, in many cases Hearst has a local station within the coverage area. The national reporters, who work shifts, 24/7, start collecting information from that source that can then be shared across their network.
That happened when Hurricane Barry crashed into Louisiana in July, and it happened again when mass shooters attacked people in Dayton and El Paso. Hearst has stations near all those places — in New Orleans, Cincinnati and Albuquerque.
“We just try to focus on the big national news that we think people will care about, and the stories that will resonate with a good national audience,” Backus told me.
Because it has to reach such a wide swath of the United States, the national desk has to produce news in a way that appeals to a variety of audiences. Rather than trying to color coverage for regional audiences, the national news desk sticks to the facts and a straightforward approach, Emily Phillips, Hearst’s managing editor, said.
“We know that some audiences are going to receive some information differently,” she told me, referring to a question about regional biases. “We really don’t tailor it in that way. We still very much believe in the news that we’re producing, that it is factually accurate, and that we have very thorough standards and processes for copyediting. I feel like if we’re setting the highest possible bar, we’re confident in the work that we’re doing across the board for any audience.”
Based in New York, Hearst has had a presence in Pittsburgh since acquiring WTAE radio in 1931 as its second station. It later launched WTAE-TV in 1958 and has owned the station since then.
When the company thought about where to place its national desk, it considered that history, of course, but also other factors such as Pittsburgh’s geographic location, its access to technology and the talent pool of journalists — those who already live here and those who left the region but want to return.
“I’ve been so impressed by the candidates,” Phillips told me. “We see so many young journalists who have been living in a different community for a while, and they want to come back home to Pittsburgh. It’s really exciting to see candidates who are so passionate about their community.”
Backus came to Pittsburgh from Oklahoma City three years ago, falling in love with the city the first time she came through the Fort Pitt Tunnel from the airport. She lives in Sharpsburg and has gotten involved with local groups such as the Online News Association’s Pittsburgh chapter and a women’s choir in Fox Chapel. The week we talked, she had attended two Pirates games.
Those kinds of connections to Pittsburgh made it especially difficult for Backus and her team to cover the mass shooting at the Squirrel Hill synagogue last October. It was a national story — and the reporters had to treat it as such for their audiences in other markets — but it obviously hit home for them.
“It was super unique for our team because we live in this market, and the news was happening here,” Backus said. “But our job has to remain the same as if it were anything else. Our job is to tell the national story for all of the stations. We had this really great reporting that WTAE was doing, and we were able to highlight that and give the national audience a sense of what was going on in Pittsburgh.”