Q&A with Frank Mungeam, new chief innovation officer at Local Media Association


In September, Frank Mungeam joined the Local Media Association team as chief innovation officer, having most recently been a Knight Professor of Practice in Newsroom Innovation at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and previously vice president of digital content for TEGNA. Mungeam shares his vision for the industry, what keeps him up at night, and more.

Frank, it’s so good to have you here at Local Media Association. We know you are a strong believer in keeping the local news ecosystem healthy – how do you see the industry working together to make sure that happens in 2020 and beyond?

Frank Mungeam

Mungeam

Collaboration is key. The mission that unites us as journalists and newsrooms – informed, engaged communities – is stronger than any perceived competition that might have, in the past, divided us.

I see more and more newsrooms (and owner/operators) recognizing that the real competition today comes not from that news outlet across town but from a streaming service like Netflix or Hulu, or from the firehose of unverified online and social media content. Especially for downsized newsrooms, there is a real opportunity to be “better, together.” We have seen some early wins on collaborative journalism projects and I’m excited to try to build on those – especially cross-platform collaborations where local newsrooms pool their strengths to create multiplatform reporting that truly serves the entire community.

Talk to us about the role you see philanthropy having in funding journalism. We know you want to explore ways for media companies and funders to pair up on specific areas of reporting, right?

Everyone within journalism understands the traditional advertiser-based business model has been massively disrupted. I think publishers wish for a “silver bullet.” I don’t believe there is one magical solution. But I absolutely believe philanthropy can become one of the pillars of funding moving forward.

What I see, especially in the last 18 months, is a growing recognition in the philanthropy community of the documented strong correlation between informed communities and engaged communities; e.g., civic health. A healthy local journalism ecosystem and civic health are deeply intertwined.

Funders focused on journalism have always appreciated this connection, but I now see a much wider group of philanthropic organizations recognizing both the value of supporting local journalism, and the opportunity to fund specialized coverage on critical issues like underserved communities, investigative and solutions reporting, climate and more. Philanthropy – especially when used to support these critical categories of coverage – can be one part of a new, diversified and sustainable business model for local news.

You’ve had a wide-ranging career ranging from producing local news broadcasts to digital leadership at TEGNA, and then to a Knight-funded position at Arizona State focused on news innovation. Is there a thread that connects those experiences?

Sometimes we understand a journey better when viewed through the rear-view mirror. As I look at my career path, what I realize is that my true north has been “follow the audience.” I started in print and radio, but quickly pivoted to TV, which was really the dominant medium in the ’80s. I remember like it was yesterday, being fascinated by this internet thing, and badgering our general manager to add that curiosity onto my existing TV duties. As audiences embraced the web … then mobile devices … then social media, so did I.

During my time at TEGNA, I really saw how all these pieces started to merge and become a true multimedia ecosystem. Today’s media consumer is not platform “agnostic” – platforms do matter to them – but they are “platform-agile.” They move seamlessly from screen to screen based on their needs. It’s our job as journalists to be just as strategic in meeting the audience where it is. I think my career path has prepared me well for that.

Can you tell us a bit more about Table Stakes and how it works? Many people have heard of it but want to understand more about what it really is and how it inspires newsroom transformation.

Table Stakes – a term borrowed from poker, meaning the minimum needed to have a “seat at the table” – was developed for newsrooms by Doug Smith in 2015 with support from the Knight Foundation, and first applied to a group of major daily metro newspapers as a performance-driven way of accelerating their digital transformation.

Through another grant from the Knight Foundation, I had the opportunity to help adapt that program for local broadcasters. At ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism, we have hosted two year-long cohorts – 18 local TV stations in total – and used the Table Stakes transformation principles to coach those newsrooms to achieve outcomes that really matter to their civic mission, and their bottom line.

The keys of the program include rigor and strategic planning around what success looks like and how to measure it. The program has helped newsrooms bring structure to their transformation. If I were to highlight just one example, I’d say that most newsrooms are great at the immediate, and the urgent: they are primed to “do.” However, activity is often conflated with outcomes. Tables Stakes really helps newsrooms move from being busy to being impactful by achieving measurable outcome goals.

2020 has been a wild year. What keeps you up at night? And gets you out of bed in the morning?

It’s one answer to both questions: the fate of local journalism! Local journalism faces so many challenges: disruptions to its business model; an erosion of trust, compounded by attacks on journalists as the ‘enemy’; a reckoning around issues of diversity and inclusion; plus, the ambient increase in unverified social and digital content.

Yet, in my long career, the work and purpose of journalists have never felt more vital to me than at this moment in history. I hear the same thing from colleagues who are 30-year industry veterans. And I can assure you, from my time working with students at ASU’s Cronkite School, that this next generation of journalists is absolutely mission-driven.

What gets me up in the morning is the chance to play a part both in addressing our failings, and in sustaining the civic good that journalists enable by informing and serving their communities.