After 10 years, news boss keeps ABC 7 ahead of the curve

Despite sweeping changes in WLS-Channel 7’s news operation over the past 10 years, two things have remained constant: The ABC-owned station has never been out of first place in the ratings, and Jennifer Graves has been the woman in charge the whole time.

On the eve of her 10th anniversary as vice president and news director at ABC 7, Graves isn’t resting on her laurels. Last week she announced the expansion of her station’s 10pm newscast to one hour on Saturdays and Sundays — the latest among countless initiatives that continue to set the pace for the market.

At a time of rapidly changing delivery systems and increasing audience demands, Graves’ ability to manage innovation without compromising responsible journalism is one reason her boss continues to sing her praises.

“Jennifer is the smartest, most strategic news director I know,” said Emily Barr, president and general manager of ABC 7. “Her news judgment is impeccable.  She believes wholeheartedly in getting the story right and putting it in context, and she is a fierce advocate for her entire staff both in front of and behind the camera.”

Graves told me that the biggest change in her job has been adapting to technology “both in the way we produce the news for television and in the different ways we provide information.”

“On the newscast side, we’ve implemented a number of huge workflow changes in the past decade, from a tapeless server system to HD video acquisition to an Ignite automated control room,” she said. “I often joke with the chief engineer that I’m almost part of his department! If anyone had told me 10 years ago that I’d understand as much as I do about this technology, I would not have believed them.”

As for distribution, Graves said, “we now think of ourselves as news content providers — not only news broadcasters. Like most newsrooms now, we are feeding on-air, our website, iPad and other mobile apps and social media. Who knows what the next 10 years will bring? All in all, these platforms make it an exciting time to be in this business and offer us new ways to fulfill our mission, which is to bring local information to the Chicago area.”

Graves, 49, a native of Belleville, Illinois, and journalism graduate of the University of Missouri, joined ABC 7 as executive producer in 1992, moved up to assistant news director in 1998, and was promoted to vice president and news director in October 2001. She previously worked at WAGA-TV in Atlanta and KSDK-TV in St. Louis.

When I asked what one thing she was most proud of in her last 10 years as news director, Graves cited her staff of 135 employees — equally crediting those in front of the camera and behind the scenes.

“Each day this talented group of professionals, with a wealth of experience and keen knowledge of Chicago, comes together to do the best job possible to inform our community,” she said. “And I’m honored to lead them and set the agenda for our coverage.”

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)