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Local TV – Intro

Intro

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

After several difficult years, there are some positive signs heading into 2005 for local television news, the most pervasive source of news for Americans, if not always the most respected.

The economy appears to have stabilized and begun a recovery. Advertising revenues, boosted by political advertising, grew in 2004, though slowly. Ratings, dropping for years, appeared finally to be leveling off. And while newsroom investments are still below where they were a few years ago and the pressure to deliver high profit margins is unabated, data show newsrooms overall added resources this past year.

One new area of concern for local TV news, however, is evidence that the public is worried about the medium’s believability, with fewer people giving it high ratings for being trustworthy and more people rating it poorly.

In recent years, three trends converged to create an almost perfect storm that battered local broadcasting.

As these events consumed the attention of industry managers, local TV news in many ways languished. Efficiency not only dictated how newsrooms worked; it became the driving force in determining what was news and how it should be covered.

Now, the regulatory environment appears to be changing in response to public concerns about the concentration of media ownership. The shift follows several high-profile incidents of supposed obscenity or “indecency” on radio and TV, sloppy journalism, and accusations of overt political bias. There appears to be a growing perception among regulators and the general public that an imbalance has developed between the commercial and public-service responsibilities of local broadcasters.

The decade-long decline in viewership of evening and late news appears to be stabilizing, at least for the time being. In addition, the loss of local TV news viewers during traditional time periods has been accompanied by increasing news audiences in other time slots, particularly mornings. As one researcher describes the local TV news audience, “It’s just not when it used to be, and it’s not when TV stations want it.”1

Local managers may be coming to grips with the evolution of local TV news from a mass-market product to a niche product. The addition of more news programming with more targeted content seen in new late-afternoon and early-morning newscasts is an example of how stations have reacted to the trend.

As corporations and managers better understand the changes that have taken place in the media marketplace and are better able to project viewership and advertising trends, investment in the news product may increase. More stations are providing local news than ever before, according to industry surveys, and 2003 saw a majority of stations increasing news budgets for the first time in years. (See News Investment.) Nexstar, a company that owns 46 TV stations, has recently set out to increase its investment in news programming for pragmatic reasons. “If we are asking the community to invest their ad dollars with us…then we must invest in public affairs,” company president Perry Sook explained in an interview with a trade magazine.2

The nature of this investment will be important. In recent years, newsroom staffs did not grow in proportion to the increased amount of news programming local stations added. Moreover, the additional hiring that did occur was often in the infrastructure of production (producers, anchors, directors) rather than in newsgathering (reporters, photographers, editors).

The result was more local news on the air than ever before, but with thinner content. This is illustrated in the decline of on-air reporting, the increased coverage of events that are easy to find and report, and an increase in the use of material from outside sources.

News directors are also complaining about the cost of switching to digital and the impact that’s having on station budgets. A number of stations changed hands, according to some observers, because some small companies couldn’t afford the costly switch to digital.

The expansion of people meters to measure audiences will also provide newsrooms with even more research about audience preferences. This may lead to further attempts to target specific kinds of news to certain time periods or audience demographics. Or it may convince managers that the best technique to retain or build audience is to increase enterprise.

Some in the industry now believe that the success of local stations may rest less on their ability to be all things to all people (the mass-market model) and more on establishing an intensely local identity based on distinctive characteristics of a market. If this perception is accurate, it suggests that the large corporations that own local stations should de-emphasize central control, encourage stations to establish unique brands and personalities, and encourage risk and innovation. News managers may now be positioned to put proportionally fewer investment dollars into the technology used to deliver news and more dollars into newsgathering for its broadcasts.

Even the consultants seem to recognize that to survive, local TV news must move beyond just presenting the news well. The news itself must become more relevant and more substantive.

Footnotes

1. Robert Papper, Ball State University, communication, November 28, 2004.

2. Sharon Donovan, “Brand builders,” Broadcasting & Cable, June 21, 2004.