Allison Smith worked as a producer at television station KCCI, getting a good look at the camaraderie and market-leading journalism after she earned her degrees at Drake University and worked on her MBA at Iowa State University. She later left Iowa for stints at stations in larger markets — Cincinnati and Pittsburgh among them. WLWT in Cincinnati is owned by Hearst, which also owns KCCI in Des Moines. She got on the management track, and after nosing around a couple of opportunities that didn’t seem right, she learned that longtime news director Dave Busiek was retiring at KCCI, Channel 8. When she indicated she would be interested in returning to Des Moines, an exec wondered only why so many minutes had passed before she raised her hand. She got the job in November.

So the Emmy Award-winning Smith is back in town, thinking about ways to slowly tweak an old-school station that has moved to use new-school tools like digital technology, drones and a website that enjoys some of the highest traffic among news sites in the market. 

We asked Smith about her return to Iowa and what the future holds.  

How does it feel to be the fourth news director since KCCI started in 1955? 

Surreal. Dave Busiek [who recently retired from the position] hired me as an intern. He hired me for my first full-time position. And so to be sitting in his office … it is the office of a legend. You feel a little like the kids sitting in the chair for a little bit. 

Getting this position means more to me than getting this position in a bigger market, knowing how much KCCI has meant to this community. It’s about KCCI’s relationship with the people in the city. It has a unique culture. I have told many people that KCCI ruined me for other stations. 

It’s such a great team to work with, such great journalists.

I felt like I learned from the best when I was there as a producer. So you felt like you just learn the right way to do things. And there’s a camaraderie, there’s an engagement from everybody that’s pretty unique. I’ve worked for a variety of companies in a variety of cities since then. And none of them are like that. 

Was Des Moines itself a lure?

Absolutely. It was very impressive to me how much the city had grown. When I was here before, I was a single woman. So now I have a family, and you look at things and it’s such a great quality of life. It’s so easy to go do things and embrace the activities that are there. All of the developments seem so smart. It just seems so well thought out.

How did you come to be the kid in the big chair?

I worked for a station in Cincinnati that has the same parent company, Hearst. One of Hearst’s biggest missions is to develop people within the company. I guess you could say I was on this track to become a news director for a while and they really tried to develop their news leadership. I was a unique candidate for this position since I had been here before, I knew and love the city, but then I bring this outside view a little bit. I look at some of the product and procedures a little differently. It all kind of fit. I raised my hand. Our news VP, when I called to raise my hand, he said, “What took you so long?”

Initial thoughts?

You have something that’s really, really strong already at its core. And so you get this chance to polish it, and just sort of elevate it further. And that’s really a fun thing. One of the things that’s unique to KCCI is if you go to an editorial meeting, they’re just a lot of fun. There’s a lot of witty banter and everything. These are people you want to be in the trenches with. 

Dave Busiek had said there aren’t a lot of ego problems. Do you agree?

Everybody cares about the product. They aren’t just coming in to read. You have people who want to be journalists at their core, not personalities at their core. They’re engaged in the production of the show and the story selection and how those stories are presented. 

What are your early goals?

I have some that are more internally focused. I don’t know that I’m really ready to talk about them publicly. 

The goal always is to make sure that KCCI lives up to “Iowa’s News Leader” in every respect on TV, online and in terms of new products. We want to make sure we are leading on all platforms. Part of that is making sure it’s in a business model that continues to keep the station healthy financially.

Do you see yourself being involved in local boards and commissions? 

Yes. I think it’s very important for someone in my role to be engaged in the community, both within the industry and on a community level.

What are KCCI’s strengths and weaknesses?

Our best strength is storytelling. We have outstanding reporters, outstanding photographers who make really good TV out of stories. 

Every station is facing challenges in terms of meeting the changing demands of viewers. People are consuming news in different ways, at different times, using different technology. It’s a matter of being able to adapt quickly. I believe the KCCI news team has the adaptability and attitude to meet those challenges.

Do you have general observations?

Right now I’m just in observation mode. What are the most important changes? I’m a firm believer that slow changes are more effective changes. 

How do you approach your job? How are you wired?

I try to be as open as possible. I try to pick my battles. I try to make priorities clear. I try to ask a lot of questions. I might put someone on the spot and ask, “What story do you want to lead with today?” Through questions I try to shape thinking. I see myself as more of a coach. 

How do you decide whether to emphasize hard news or features?

I think there’s a balance here. I think people love people stories. I think there is a bigger appetite for it here. We’ve been very, very successful with Eric Hanson’s “This is Iowa” segment. We have people who say they tune in just for that, and those stories tend to do well on social media. It’s about the nuances of making sure that you keep viewers engaged with news, but also tell people about their community. 

Do you have hobbies? 

I ran the first Des Moines Marathon [in 2002]. I ran it very, very, very, very slowly. But I’ll be honest. I don’t run now. I plan to embrace some more community activities. I will tell you for me it’s about being a mom. My children are pretty young [Ethan, 5; Isabel, 3].