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News Investment

Local TV
By the Project For Excellence In Journalism
News Investment

While getting inside local television news operations can be difficult, all the evidence points toward one conclusion:  Stations are producing more news with fewer people and fewer resources.

An annual survey of news directors by the Radio Television Digital News Association reveals further cuts to budgets, declines in the size of the average newsroom and in newsroom salaries.

But the overall amount of news actually increased, suggesting that stations are finding ways to spread existing staff farther.

Some noted cost-cutting methods in 2009 ranged from full newsroom mergers to heavier use of part-time staff:

  • Stations merged their newsgathering resources through the formation of video content pools, also known as local news services. In January 2009, for example, Philadelphia stations owned by Fox Television and by NBC began sharing video. Fox and NBC franchised joint video pools to cities where they both own and operate stations: Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Dallas and Washington. Affiliate stations in Cleveland, Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio, also formed content pools.  Such arrangements do not always work out, however, and in some markets pools have been disbanded.
  • In at least four cities – Honolulu; Peoria, Ill.; Rochester, N.Y.; and Augusta, Ga. –  some local stations merged their news operations.
  • Many stations let go experienced and highly paid staffers, including anchors and on-air reporters. A handful of stations made cuts to their sports departments. Longtime sportscasters at Fox-owned WFXT in Boston and CBS-owned WBBM in Chicago were dropped and another was cut to part time at the ABC affiliate WFLA in Tampa Bay, Fla. The NBC affiliate in West Palm Beach, Fla., WPTV, outsourced its sports department to a local ESPN radio station.1
  • The use of part-time journalists in local television grew and anecdotal evidence suggests that stations utilized more freelance or per-diem staffers to gather and produce the news.2
  • An increasing number of stations have abandoned the dual-anchor format that was once a mainstay of early evening and late newscasts.
  • Some stations equipped their reporters with cameras to eliminate the need for separate camera operators.
  • Some cut back on other jobs, as well, such as editors and engineers.

While the methods each station used to cut costs in 2009 varied, most owners sought to produce more news with fewer people.

TV News Budgets

For the third year in a row, news directors at local stations expected their budgets to be smaller in 2009 than they were in 2008.

Robert Papper, who conducts a survey of radio and television news directors each year for the Radio Television Digital News Association, or RTDNA,3 and is chairman of the department of journalism, media studies and public relations at Hofstra University, expected budget reductions in 2009, though not as steep as those in 2008.

Looking ahead to 2010, with both the Olympics and a heavy election year, he expected most budgets to remain flat or actually increase.

But for now, the latest survey data are from 2008, and they show hefty budget reductions and deep cuts in the newsroom.4

Local TV News Budgets, 2008

Increase Decrease Same Don’t Know
All TV News 25.1% 41.9% 28.1% 4.9%
Top Four Affiliates 24.7 42.1 28.4 4.7
Other Commerical 18.2 54.5 9.1 18.2

Source: RTNDA/Hofstra University Survey
Based on survey responses of news directors

In 2008:

  • Four in ten news directors (41.9%) reduced their budgets, more than three times the percentage that reported cuts in 2007.
  • Just one quarter, on the contrary, reported increasing their news budgets, compared with 46% in 2007.
  • Another 28% reported that their budgets would stay at the same level, down from 34% in 2007.

Budget cuts dominated in 2008 in all market sizes except for one.  The single exception were stations in medium-to-small-sized designated market areas or DMAs (ranked 101 to 150). News directors at those stations were just as likely to report increasing their budgets as decreasing them (25.9% each).

Local TV News Budgets by Market Size Grouping, 2008

Increase Decrease Same Don’t Know
Markets 1-25 23.5% 50.0% 20.6% 5.9%
Markets 26-50 26.7 40.0 33.3 0
Markets 51-100 31.1 46.7 17.8 4.4
Markets 101-150 25.9 25.9 38.9 9.3
Markets 151+ 17.5 52.5 27.5 2.5

Source: RTNDA/Hofstra University Survey
Based on survey responses of news directors

Those most likely to have reduced budgets were the smallest (151 and above) where more than half (52.5%) reported reductions.

Independent stations fared worse than those owned or affiliated with the ABC, CBS, Fox or NBC networks. More than half of news directors at independent stations (54.5%) reported reducing their budgets in 2008, contrasted to 42.1% for affiliates.

Stations in medium-sized markets (DMAs 51 to 100) were most likely to have increased their budgets in 2008, with 31% of news directors reporting higher budgets. But even among this group, a plurality (46.7%) said they reduced their budgets.

Among the affiliates, NBC and Fox affiliates were more likely than those of ABC and CBS to have had a budget increase in 2008; CBS affiliates were a little more likely to have seen a decrease in budget.

Newsroom Staffs Get Smaller

Job losses in 2009 were not as severe as 2008, when the industry cut about 4% from a workforce that had reached, in 2007, its highest level since the news staffing and profitability survey has been conducted.

A PEJ accounting of staff reductions reported in the press puts the number of job losses for the year at about 450 or roughly 1.7%. These layoffs were mostly limited to anchors and other on-air staff staffers including meteorologists, sportscasters and some reporters.5

The estimate released in late spring 2010 (after the release of this report) by the Radio Television Digital News Association was in line with PEJ’s accounting. According to the RTDNA survey of news directors, conducted in the fourth quarter of 2009, 400 local TV news staffers lost their jobs throughout the year, equivalent to 1.5% of an overall workforce of about 27,000.6

Fox-owned stations in the nation’s largest markets had some of the biggest staff reductions in 2009, at least partly as the result of consolidations of commonly owned stations in the same market.7

Among the announced and reported cuts:

  • In Los Angeles, 95 staffers at Fox-owned stations KTTV (a Fox station) and KCOP (a MyNetworkTV station) were dropped in June 2009, with 117 more employees reportedly cut in September. The staff reductions followed the merger of the stations’ news operations in December 2008.8
  • In June, 20 staffers at Fox’s two New York stations — WNYW and WWOR — were reported to have been cut.9 Some NBC-owned stations had staff reductions as well.
  • In July, NBC-owned WTVJ in Miami dropped three anchors and five other employees to cut costs.10
  • In August, 10 design and production staffers at the Dallas NBC station, KXAS, were reported to have been laid off.11

And companies owning both local television groups and newspapers also instituted staff reductions. Media General, a company that owns 18 affiliated stations and 21 daily newspapers in the Southeast, announced 130 dismissals in January 2009.

Gannett, which owns 23 television stations and 84 daily newspapers, including USA Today, cut 2% to 4% companywide in 2009, from its 41,500-person workforce. These cuts came after Gannett cut 10% of its workforce in 2008.12

Newport TV, which owns 56 stations in 24 markets previously owned by Clear Channel Communications prior to 2007, announced 33 cuts in June 2009.13

Some of the job losses were the result of consolidation within markets.

In Syracuse, N.Y.,40 staffers at WTVH, a CBS affiliate owned by Granite Broadcasting, which has 11 stations, four of them in New York, lost their jobs when the station combined news operations with WSTM. The latter is the NBC affiliate in Syracuse owned by a private investment-backed television holding company, the Barrington Broadcasting Group.14

Several owners of local TV stations instituted furloughs in 2009 as a cost-cutting measure.

  • Irvine, Calif.-based Freedom Communications, the owner of eight television stations and newspapers including the Orange County Register, announced a companywide furlough in March 2009 that required employees at all levels to take five days off of work, without pay, between April 1 and June 30.15
  • Wisconsin-based Journal Broadcast Group, which owns 14 stations in nine markets, instituted a 6% pay cut in April, and gave two weeks of personal days in return.16
  • Missouri-based Newport Television, which operates 56 stations in 24 markets, announced a 10-day furlough for employees in addition to layoffs in June 2009.17
  • The Richmond, Va.-based Media General required employees to take 15 furloughs days throughout 2009.18
  • Gannett, which announced furloughs in January and March, mandated two weeks’ unpaid time off for its employees in 2009.19

Harder to document were other cost-cutting tactics employed by station owners, including salary cuts and the suspension of contributions to retirement accounts and health insurance.

To get a sense of the where the industry stands as a whole, the latest data available are again from the 2008 survey by Robert Papper.20 According to that survey, the industry lost 1,200 jobs, or 4.3% of the workforce, in 2008.

The survey, conducted in the fourth quarter of 2008, indicated that a majority of news directors, 56%, made staff reductions in 2008, compared with just 20% in 2007.

News directors expected 2009 to be another down year, but fewer (32%) said they planned to decrease staff during the year.

Because of earlier cutbacks and anecdotal evidence of staff reductions in 2009, local television stations’ news staffs were very likely smaller than they were in 2007.

The survey data suggest that one result of these cuts was the lowest median staff size for local television newsrooms since 2004:  30.5 employees, down from 33.5 in 2007. (The only other year that staffing dropped in the survey was 2000, another year of financial setbacks for the industry.)21

The greatest increase was in the biggest markets, those 1 to 25. In 2008, the median station staff size in those markets was 69, up from 58 in 2007. The median for markets 100 and above was flat from 2007 at 28 employees.

And again, affiliated stations were more protected than others. The median at network affiliates remained at 32 in 2008.  At independent stations, a small group with more volatile numbers, the median fell from 21.5 in 2007 to 12 in 2008.

Local TV Newsroom Staff Levels
1999-2008, Median Number of Full-Time Employees
Design Your Own Chart

Source: RTDNA/Hofstra University Surveys
Based on survey responses of news directors

Salaries Get Smaller

As with budgets and the size of newsrooms at local stations, salaries of news staffers shrank in 2008.

According to the RTNDA survey, average salaries for local television news professionals decreased by 4.4%, compared to a 5.2% increase in 2007. Real wages, which are adjusted for inflation, fell 8.2% in 2008.

In 2007, salaries of on-air staff and station managers grew, while they held flat at best for most others. Not so in 2008, when median salaries were down for nearly every job type.22

In contrast with 2007, salaries for on-air positions were down the most in 2008. Reporters’ salaries were down 13.3% to a median of $26,000. News anchors’ median salaries fell 11.5%, to $57,500. Weathercasters had an 8.9% drop to $50,000.

Median Salaries, TV News
2007 vs. 2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: RTDNA/Hofstra University Surveys
Based on survey responses of news directors

Amount of News Increases

Widespread layoffs in 2008 raised concerns among industry observers about whether stations could produce the same amount of news with reduced staffs.

But the amount of news on local television actually increased in 2008. Further, even with the apparent financial pressures news directors were under in late 2008, 8 in 10 said the amount of news would stay the same (60.2%) or increase (23.9%) in 2009.

Average Hours of News per Weekday
2003-2008

Year Number of Hours
2008 4.6
2007 4.1
2006 4.1
2005 3.8
2004 3.6
2003 3.7

Source: RTNDA/Hofstra University Surveys
Based on survey responses of news directors

Reports suggest stations continued to add to the time allotted to news in 2009. Stations expanded newscasts in several different timeslots. For example:

  • The CBS affiliate in Houston, KHOU, added one half-hour of news at 4:30 a.m.
  • The Fox affiliate in Salt Lake City, KSTU, added a noon newscast.
  • KDFX, the Fox affiliate in Palm Springs, Calif., added a 5:30 p.m. newscast.
  • WZVN, the ABC affiliate in Fort Myers, Fla., added a half-hour of news at 7 p.m.

In other cases, added programming from news departments spread into nontraditional subject areas.

The Meredith-owned Fox affiliate in Las Vegas, KVVU, for example, launched More at 4, an afternoon version of its morning celebrity, fashion and lifestyle program. The new program comes from KVVU’s news department.

LIN TV announced plans to add morning lifestyle programming to its stations in late 2009.23 And WXIX, the Raycom-owned Fox affiliate in Cincinnati, launched a high school sports program in the fall of 2009.24

In the nation’s largest local market, New York City, WNBC reduced its news programming. It canceled its Live at Five newscast and replaced it with a lifestyle-driven news show, LX New York, produced by WNBC and LX.TV, a lifestyle television production company.

In February 2010, a Chicago station, WBBM, launched a morning talk show for the 5-to-7 a.m. timeslot called Monsters and Money in the Morning, mixing discussion of sports, business, personal finance and more traditional news fare such as headlines, weather and traffic.25

How are stations increasing news programming at the same time they reduced staffing?

For most stations, it means repackaging news from previous local broadcasts and adding national and international news from parent networks and other affiliate partners.

It comes down to a simple cost-benefit analysis. For most stations, producing more local content is cheaper than paying the fees stations for some syndication programming.

“The big picture is, there’s going to be carnage, and the ones who are not doing [lots of] local news are vulnerable,” KSTU president and general manager Tim Ermish told Broadcasting and Cable. “You’ve got to be a dominant news player to survive.”26


Footnotes

1. Michael Malone, “WPTV Outsources Sports to ESPN Radio,” Broadcasting and Cable, December 4, 2009.

2. Michael Schneider, “No news is bad news,” Variety, October 23, 2009.

3. Formerly the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

4. Data for 2009 will be released in spring of 2010.

5. PEJ’s estimate is derived from three steps. We conducted a close analysis of reports on the Broadcasting & Cable website, including a blog called Fates and Fortunes that details announced and reported job cuts in the local TV industry. These reports were then tallied. And we consulted in refining that estimate with Robert Papper of Hofstra University, who conducts the annual survey of local news stations for the Radio Television Digital News Association.

6. Eggerton, John, “RTDNA: 400 Local Newspeople Lost Jobs In 2009,” Broadcasting and Cable, April 14, 2010.

7. News Corp., the parent of Fox and MyNetworkTV stations, own more than one station in some markets. The ownership of two stations in a common market is referred to as a duopoly.

8. Michael Malone, “KTTV Source: Fox L.A. to Cut 117 Sept. 10,” Broadcasting & Cable, September 8, 2009.

9. Michael Malone, “Fox’s NY Duop Cuts 20,” Broadcasting & Cable, June 22, 2009.

10. Page Albiniak, Page, “Station Layoffs Continue Apace,” Broadcasting & Cable, July 1, 2009.

11. Michael Malone, “NBC Restructures Creative Services at O&Os,” Broadcasting & Cable, August 7, 2009.

12. Page Albiniak, “Station Layoffs Continue Apace,” Broadcasting & Cable, July 1, 2009.

13. Michael Malone, “Newport TV Mandates Furloughs,” Broadcasting & Cable, June 8, 2009.

14. Michael Malone, “Granite-Barrington Partnership Hits Stations Hard,” Broadcasting & Cable, March 3, 2009.

15. Michael Malone, “Freedom Communications Implements Furloughs,” Broadcasting & Cable, March 23, 2009.

16. Rich Kirchen, “Journal employees taking 6% wage cut,” Business Journal of Milwaukee,” April 2, 2009.

17. Michael Malone, “Newport TV Mandates Furloughs,” Broadcasting & Cable, June 8, 2009.

18. Michael Malone, “Media General Furthers Furloughs,” Broadcasting & Cable, September 18, 2009.

19. Michael Malone, “Gannett Mandates Round 2 of Furloughs,” Broadcasting & Cable, March 23, 2009.

20. Robert Papper, “TV and Radio Staffing and News Profitability Survey 2009,” RTNDA/Hofstra University Survey, RTNDA Communicator, April 2009.

21. Papper told PEJ that local television saw major revenue declines and resulting staff reductions after the dot-com bubble burst in 2000. Internet startup companies were major advertisers on local television. When many of those companies went out business, a main source of ad revenue dried up and some invoices for spots went unpaid by the defunct websites.

22. Because the largest, highest-paying stations can raise the average salaries out of proportion, the median—or midpoint—is usually considered a better gauge of typical salaries.

23. Malone, Michael, “Stations Come Out Swinging,” Broadcasting and Cable, August 24, 2009.

24. Malone, Michael, “Stations Come Out Swinging,” Broadcasting and Cable, August 24, 2009.

25. Phil Rosenthal, “ ‘Monsters and Money in the Morning’ to Debut on WBBM-Ch. 2 in February,” Chicago Tribune, December 3, 2009.

26. Michael Malone, “Stations Come Out Swinging,” Broadcasting and Cable, August 24, 2009.