Name: Dustin Block
Title: Digital Executive Producer, WDIV/ClickOnDetroit in Detroit
Tell us a little about your background? I’m the digital executive producer for WDIV/ClickOnDetroit in Detroit, MI. I’m originally from central Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1998 with a degree in journalism. After working as a print reporter and editor for Lee Enterprises, I launched a local news website in Racine, Wis. and then worked for Patch in the Milwaukee area. I moved to Detroit in 2012 to work for Advance Digital rebuilding MLive’s Detroit hub before jumping over to my first broadcast newsroom at WDIV.
What do you do in your current role? I build bridges across departments to encourage and support digital innovation. I’m technically a news employee, but spend hours a day in sales, creative services and with our corporate digital teams building and tinkering ways to grow audience and revenue.
Tell us a little about the cultural change you have helped lead in the Detroit newsroom around digital? What’s been your secret to success? I got really lucky. Managing Editor Dave Bartkowiak and the web producer are the best I’ve ever worked with, and managers across the board at WDIV get and support digital. If I played any role in culture change, it was clearing the way for everyone to succeed. One of the first things we did as a team was set a clear goal: Win comScore in Metro Detroit. We dug into the metrics and set aside anything that didn’t fit that goal, building on our strengths of breaking news and weather. Setting one clear, measurable goal clarified the decision-making process and defined success in terms everyone believed in. But it really starts with top decision-makers like General Manager Marla Drutz and News Director Kim Voet. They create the space needed to experiment and progress.
You all have developed a really great tone on social media. Any tips you can share on how others can be great at this as well? Hire Ken Haddad (not really … he’s ours). But seriously, Ken started as a “social media manager” and grew his position into something far bigger in the newsroom. Every day he works with our broadcast newsroom content to maximize audience, but he also calls his own number, so to say. He writes stories all day long he knows will succeed on social and search. It’s that ability to create that sets him apart.
An example of WDIV social media tone:
Outside of Ken’s individual contribution, we take Catherine Badalamente, Graham Media Group’s vice president of digital, seriously when she pushed for building ClickOnDetroit into its own platform. We use Facebook and Google, but only to build ClickOn. That may not seem like an answer to the “tone” question, but stepping away from gauging success on Facebook metrics somehow set the “tone” in how we posted and shared content. It’s likely tied to our entire staff’s efforts to create original content (outside of broadcast) for ClickOnDetroit, and then us our social platforms to help find audience for that content.
You have been recognized for the work you all have done in contests. Can you tell us about some of your most popular with readers? We have two biggies right now. Vote 4 the Best is ballot contest that’s become something of an institution in Metro Detroit after a decade in operation. Success here is in the details. Donna Harper runs the campaign and brings remarkable attention to every aspect of the contest from launch to announcing winners. Customer service to the 2,200 participating businesses and 75,000 voters is crucial to supporting the brand. This year Donna added a placemat coloring contest to the campaign and had children involved. It’s the little extra that makes it work.
Here is an image from their coloring contest:
Our other major contest is 4Frenzy, which is really more of a digital campaign. It’s the evolution of our “Friday Football Frenzy” franchise, moving from a football focus to all high school activities. Expanding the universe to all sports, plus activities like marching band and theater, engaged more students and families and created a more valuable brand for sponsors. This last year we continued 4Frenzy through the winter and spring seasons, which allowed sales to work more sponsorships into the program.
Your digital work isn’t just about contests and social media but deep reporting. Tell us what has worked in terms of telling big stories and presenting them?
This is our work with the broadcast newsroom, which is just stacked with reporter and producer talent. Along with daily stories, the special projects team is creating two daily promotable stories, plus specials and stretching into new areas, like podcasts.
The digital team works to do their part. Timely, accurate, well-crafted pieces using best practices to maximize audience and engage users. We also take seriously our role in connecting users to our newsroom. News tips through ClickOnDetroit are a steady source of story ideas, and engagement projects help bring our audience into the reporting process, creating buy in and support, while adding depth to projects.
One of my favorite examples was health story on snoring by Paula Tutman. While Paula worked the story, we built an online callout asking people to send in recordings of snores from themselves or their partners. People actually did it, and Paula was able to play the recordings to a snoring expert, who could evaluate whether they suffered from apnea. We tied the entire package up with a snoring resource guide that was sent to everyone who shared a recording and made available on our website. It’s far from the biggest story to come out of our newsroom in recent years, but it’s a way to take a serious personal issue like sleep apnea and building a deeper connection with the audience.
What are you all doing in the podcasting space? I can’t take any credit for our podcasting work, but it’s been an impressive year for WDIV on that front. Zak Rosen from Graham Digital working with Ro Coppola, Jeremy Allen, Sandra Ali and Kevin Dietz have turned out some remarkable sound.
“Shattered: Black Friday” revisits the tragic deaths of three young boys and dug up new material that may well help authorities resolve this case.
Up next is a podcast on “White Boy” Rick Wershe, an infamous Detroit drug dealer who is now one of the longest-serving non-violent offenders in U.S. prison history — all after turning informant as a teenager and help authorities break up drug rings. Matthew McCounaghy is starring in a movie about Wershe, which coincides nicely with a podcast by Dietz, Rosen and Coppola.
We also launched the podcast “You Have A Friend in Detroit” by Jason Carr and “Mismatch” by Roger Weber. It’s a real mix of styles that’s produced remarkable storytelling.
Anything else you’d like to share that you are proud of in Detroit? Last year we launched a new local website called “All About Ann Arbor,” which extended our digital coverage to an important, but underserved, city in our DMA. Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, had the highest property values in the entire state in 2017, topping even Detroit in total value. It’s a hub of tech entrepreneurship, and a cultural center in the Midwest. Our team, led by Meredith Bruckner, is building A4 one coffee at a time with locals. She’s interviewed dozens of Ann Arborites from all walks of life, turning them into compelling narratives designed to add to the tightly knit community. We’re really proud of the work done in the first year, and excited to keep building.