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News Investment

News Investment

Little appears to be new, or improved, when it comes to newsroom investment at the networks.

Staffing and Workload

The news about staffing and workload in network newsrooms is again not good. By anecdote and by statistic, all evidence points to people being stretched thinner.

For 20 years, some of the most carefully drawn data on network newsroom investment came from Joe Foote at Arizona State University. In 2003 Foote decided to end his project.1

For 2004, we have turned to similar data collected by Andrew Tyndall of the Tyndall Report, who is also a contributor to this study.

There are echoes in the two sets of data over the years that allow us to make comparisons. The specific numbers sometimes vary, (Foote’s are based on seven days a week, Tyndall’s on weekdays) but both trend lines move in the same direction through 2002 – fewer reporters and more work.2

Tyndall’s data, using an approach similar to Foote’s, go back to 1994 and fairly closely track Foote’s.3 His data through 2002 show workload increases similar to Foote’s. The number of stories filed per year per correspondent was at 42 in 2002, up from 35 in 1996.

For 2003, Tyndall found a slight uptick in the number of correspondents appearing, and a slight decrease in workload. The average number of correspondents who appeared on the newscasts rose to 45. The average number of stories filed dropped by 2 to 40.

In 2004, Tyndall found the number of correspondents basically unchanged (dropping from 45 to 44), and the workload also unchanged (the average number of stories filed per correspondent remained 40).

But there are differences by network – or at least at one network.

The CBS Evening News had notably fewer correspondents than NBC or ABC (about 15% fewer) doing substantially more work in 2004. NBC had 46 correspondents averaging 39 stories each (to be counted, a correspondent had to produce at least five stories during the year), and ABC had 47 correspondents producing on average even fewer pieces, 35 a year. CBS’s correspondents had a heavier load; only 39 correspondents, with an average of 46 stories. That is 30% more stories than for ABC correspondents and 18% more than for NBC.

There were several retirements: At NBC, Robert Hager, know as “the rabbit” internally, was by many counts the most productive network correspondent for many years. CBS lost the top London-based correspondent Tom Fenton as well as Bruce Dunning, the network’s veteran correspondent in Tokyo. There were no announced replacements for those departures.

It should be pointed out that while the trend lines over time in both the Foote and Tyndall data are clear – more work for fewer reporters – there are up and down movements year to year. Thus it would be premature to say whether the 2003 changes indicate anything more than one of these temporary blips.

While there are no comparable data for off-air personnel, most people in network TV whom the authors of this report have talked to over the years acknowledge that the cutbacks in these unseen staff members are probably comparable or even greater.

Average Network Newsroom Size and Reporter Workload
1994 to 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Unpublished data from ADT Research

Bureaus

Last year’s report also detailed cutbacks over time in network bureaus. Since their peak in the 1980s – about the time that network news divisions began to feel the impact of cable and began to be viewed by owners as profit centers – the number of international bureaus have been cut roughly in half.4 In the last year, CBS and ABC report that they have added one bureau each, in Baghdad. NBC told the Project it had added four bureaus over the past year: Cairo, Germany, Beijing and Tokyo, while not closing any.

The Cutbacks in Context

We had a full discussion of the implications of these cutbacks in last year’s report, and we refer anyone who wants to examine this issue in depth to that. In brief, however, some network news professionals we have consulted with argue that counting people does not tell the whole story. The networks in the 1980s, they suggest, were bloated. New technologies have also allowed more productivity. And if one were to compare a network story today to one 20 years ago, the number of elements and video sources that can be assembled into a piece is notably higher today, even with fewer correspondents.

Network veterans who tend to see the cutbacks differently argue that the scale of the cuts exceeds what might be justified by efficiency, that what has been lost is often the institutional memory and skills of veteran correspondents, and that forcing fewer people to do more stories has an unavoidable impact on the time put into stories. It limits the ability to go to where the news is being made and to research, verify, edit and write pieces-in addition to the ability to do enterprise stories off the beaten path, to break news or blaze new trails. On the stump, the networks’ political teams used to consist of five or six correspondents; nowadays the number is two or three.

There is merit, we think to both arguments. One can be dazzled by the quality of a nightly newscast on a heavy news day, in particular. It is on the days when the obvious news is not so heavy, and in the ability of the newscasts to sustain coverage over an extended period of time on a major story without fatigue, that network insiders say and our own viewing affirms that the differences become clear.

Andrew Tyndall, a collaborator on this report, says he finds that the cutbacks do not effect the major stories but the middle-tier ones. Iraq and campaign 2004 were both covered as heavily as they would have been 20 years ago. What gets cut is the middle rank story which requires assignment expense to dispatch a correspondent. That is more likely to become a read-only or voiceover video nowadays.

News Hole

In addition to staff and bureau cutbacks, the networks have also cut back on the amount of news in each newscast – that is the block of the newscast that excludes advertising and network promotions and teases. The notion that the 30 minute newscast was really a 22-minute newscast is no longer true. It is closer to 18 minutes.

Data from Tyndall show that the amount of time devoted to news – as opposed to ads, promos and teasers – on the half-hour network nightly news shrunk 11% in 12 years, from 21 minutes in 1991, after the first Gulf War, to 18.7 minutes in 2002, on the eve of the second Gulf War. Extra time devoted to coverage of the September 11 attacks in 2001 accounts for the only anomaly in the downward trend.

In 2004 the newscasts shrank just slightly, to 18.6 minutes on average, down from 18.8 minutes a year earlier. NBC had the largest news hole, 19.3 minutes and ABC the smallest, 18.3, with CBS at 18.4.

Average Time Devoted to News on Evening Newscasts
1988 – 2002

Year
Time (in Minutes)
1988
21
1989
21
1990
21
1991
21
1992
20.6
1993
20.4
1994
20.1
1995
19.9
1996
19.6
1997
19.1
1998
19.0
1999
18.8
2000
18.8
2001
19.0
2002
18.7
2003
18.8
2004
18.6

Source: ADT Research, unpublished data

Some in television believe that the shrinkage of the newshole is an underrated factor in audience erosion. If TV news viewing involves some trade-off between the annoyance of watching commercials and the gain of watching the news, then the annoyance factor is up by over two minutes from an earlier era. Conversely, Tyndall believes that the fact that two of the morning news programs (Today and Good Morning America) now offer 20 minutes of program uninterrupted by commercials is a factor in their audience growth.
Information on the news hole of the morning shows is more limited, but it shows a similar trend. Over ten years, every hour of morning news contains two fewer minutes of programming – 44 minutes 10 seconds in 1992, down to 41 minutes 57 seconds in 2001 – according to a study from the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers. The Association has discontinued this reporting, but Andrew Tyndall did a census that shows for 2004, the morning shows averaged 42.5 minutes of news each hour, perhaps a slight up-tick.

Average Division of Time on Morning News
1992 – 2001

Programming
Commercials
Promos/Credits
PSAs
1992 44:10 13:49 1:49 :12
1993 43:34 13:48 2:26 :11
1994 43:25 13:27 2:47 :21
1995 43:40 13:29 2:22 :29
1996 44:27 12:56 2:06 :31
1997 44:01 13:20 2:13 :26
1998 43:20 13:29 2:42 :29
1999 42:28 14:49 2:18 :25
2000 42:15 14:34 2:47 :24
2001 41:57 14:57 2:42 :24

Source: American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) and the Association of National Advertisers, Inc., “Television Commercial Monitoring Report,” 2001, p. 18.

Last year’s report explores the implications of this diminution of news hole at more length, but there are several facets to consider. Shrinking the news hole reduces the size of the product, and packs more ads, teases and promos into the show, which may make it more irritating to viewers. On the other hand, all that also translates into more revenue for the news division that could be used, if executives were so inclined, for correspondents, equipment, salaries and other resources to gather the news. History suggests, however, that that is not happening. Shrinking the news hole also means that less news has to be gathered each day to fill a newscast.


The Cost of War

A great deal of the money being spent on covering the Iraq war is to protect the journalists who have been sent there to cover it. In a May 2004 article in Broadcasting & Cable magazine, one network executive was reported to have said that his company “is paying $2 million a year for life insurance for employees who are, quite literally, in harm’s way. That expense and security – highly trained, ex-Special Forces military types that all the networks have hired from shadowy British firms like Centurion, Pilgrims and AKE – are the largest line items for the networks.”5 The article suggested that, conservatively, a network like CNN might be spending some $360,000 a month on the just over two dozen bodyguards traveling with its four dozen staff members.

Armored vehicles, like the car that may well have saved the lives of a CBS production crew targeted by a bomber in February 2004 on the road near Baghdad, run approximately $150,000 to $200,000.6

Network insiders also told Broadcasting and Cable that ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CNN, combined, had spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $35 million, or an average of $7 million apiece over the first year of the Iraq conflict. That figure was most likely higher for NBC, with additional responsibilities to CNBC, MSNBC and Telemundo; it may have spent $8 to $9 million.7

In a speech delivered as part of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies’ Media Conference: The American Media and Wartime Challenges prior to the start of the Iraq War (March 22, 2003), Lawrence K. Grossman, former head of PBS and NBC News, said NBC had spent $250,000 a day “in pre-war coverage, positioning…people and equipment.” At that time, Grossman stated that Network news divisions were anticipating spending as much as $1million a day on coverage-roughly what was spent at the start of the 1991 Gulf War.

The conflict has continued longer than anyone anticipated, and networks have continued their coverage, although not with the intensity seen during the so-called initial combat phase; there are fewer embedded correspondents, reporters in Baghdad are now confined largely to the Green Zone, and there is more pool coverage. The networks’ planning may have fallen into the trap of “fighting the last war”: much of their budgeting and planning may have been based on the expectation that this war would be as brief as the one in 1991. There is little doubt that the original budgets are being stretched.

Will the networks scale back their coverage? As Grossman said in his speech, those news operations are now financially cushioned by much larger corporate entities.8 That will greatly strengthen their ability to continue covering the war even as it continues to be an unexpected and unwelcome line item.

According to the May 2004 Broadcasting & Cable article, a news organization insider said those in charge know covering a war is “expensive [but] they know we’ve been fiscally disciplined, and they’ve been exceedingly generous in making sure we have the money we need to cover war.”9

On the other hand, other insiders say that historically, parent companies, big or small, have always been generous when it came to covering extraordinary events, such as wars or disasters. The real issue is whether the owner then offsets those costs by insisting on cutbacks elsewhere in the news division later.

There is less doubt that news organizations have also benefited, at least financially, from the fact that improvements in technology have made covering the war easier and more cost-efficient than before. The two-man crew that was the rule in years past, for instance, has been reduced to one as the weight and bulk of TV news field cameras have shrunk.

Footnotes

1. The Project contacted Professor Foote to confirm that he had concluded his study. He said he did so because the twenty-year time span made this a logical time to close things. He also said it seemed the network newscasts “were not as important in the total scheme of broadcast journalism as they were in 1983 when I started.”

2. Foote’s data, as described last year, found that the number of reporters who appeared on network news had declined by more than a third from its peak in 1985, from 76.7 to 50 in 2002. That is a drop of 35 percent. That reduction in staff has meant an increase in reporter workload. In 1985, reporters appearing in evening newscasts did an average of 31.4 stories a year. By 2002, that number had climbed to 40.9, according to Foote. Figures for other network staff (producers, cameramen, etc.), were not available, but reductions among them may be even greater because of technological changes.

3. Tyndall, tracking weekday newscasts, puts the average number of correspondents who appeared on network evening news in 2002 at 42. Foote, tracking seven days a week, puts the number at 57.

4. According to accounting by American Journalism Review, since the peak in the 1980s, ABC had closed seven foreign bureaus and as of the summer of 2003 had six remaining. NBC had closed seven as well, also leaving six. CBS had closed four, but had fewer to begin with, thus also leaving six. Lucinda Fleeson, “Bureau of Missing Bureaus.,” American Journalism Review, October/November 2003. www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=3409.

5. Steve McClellan, “The War of Addition,” Broadcasting & Cable, May 17, 2004

6. Ibid.

7. The U.S.-led coalition’s bombing campaign started at 9:30pm ET on Thursday, March 20, 2003. Figures quoted were published in a Broadcasting & Cable article, “The War of Addition,” published May 17, 2004.

8. “Last year, NBC’s parent company, GE, took in $132 billion in revenues. All of NBC News probably accounted for less than one-half of one percent of that number.”-Lawrence K. Grossman, Triangle Institute for Security Studies, The American Media and Wartime Challenges, March 22, 2002

9. “The War of Addition,” Broadcasting & Cable, May 17, 2004