Good news: NBC restores Unit 5 reporting as ‘top priority’
Investigative reporting — one of the hallmarks of serious journalism — is making a comeback at Chicago’s NBC-owned station.
With the return this week of Peabody Award winner Katy Smyser as one of two new investigative producers, WMAQ-Channel 5 signaled a renaissance of Unit 5, its once nationally recognized brand for first-rate local reporting.
“Quite simply, we believe our ability to develop more exclusive and impactful local stories will help us attract more viewers to our newscasts,” Frank Whittaker, station manager and vice president of news at NBC 5, said in an interview Tuesday after announcing Smyser's hiring to his staff.
“We have such a rich history of investigative reporting at NBC 5. We’ve been able to keep it going on the consumer front with Lisa Parker and Target 5. But over the years, we’ve had to downsize Unit 5. Now we are adding more resources, and making investigative reporting a top priority once again.”
Whittaker said the move is directly related to a mandate to expand local newsgathering operations under NBC Universal’s new Comcast Corp. owners. Valari Staab, president of the NBC Owned Television Stations, said last month that more than 130 people, including reporters, producers and photographers, would be added to the group’s 10 stations as part of a multimillion-dollar investment in the product.
“Here in Chicago, we’ve added a noon newscast, we’ve added reporters and photographers, and now we’re beefing up our investigative profile,” Whittaker said. “More local coverage and more stories you can’t get anywhere else — that’s the strategy. It’s an exciting time.”
It’s a homecoming for Smyser, who spent 13 years as a top Unit 5 producer before moving upstairs to the Midwest bureau of NBC News as an investigative producer for the prime time Dateline series in 1995. The comeback reunites her with NBC 5 news anchor Rob Stafford, with whom she worked when Stafford was a Chicago-based correspondent for Dateline.
After leaving NBC in 2000, Smyser took time off to raise a family with her husband V.J. McAleer, who is senior vice president of production at WTTW-Channel 11, the Window to the World Communications public television station.
Whittaker said he’s still interviewing candidates for a second producer position with Unit 5, and expects to make a decision soon. Once the unit is fully staffed, viewers will begin seeing the result of what he called the station’s “rededication to the reporting of impactful, compelling, unique and exclusive investigative stories” on its newscasts.
How often they’ll appear is another matter. “I’ve always resisted trying to put quotas on investigative work,” Whittaker said. “Some stories can be turned fairly quickly, others take time to develop. Obviously, I want the Unit 5 brand to have a frequent place in our newscasts. But we will air the stories when they are ready.”