How Local TV News Can Avoid Papers’ Fate

By Arthur Greenwald

Times are tough for local TV news, but they’re better than you think. That was the conclusion of the 2009 RTNDA/Hofstra University Annual Survey, released today at RTNDA@NAB, the Radio-Television News Directors Association conference-within-a-convention, namely the 2009 NAB Show in Las Vegas.

Among the headlines in the study:

• 2008 employment in TV news fell by 4.3 percent (1,200 jobs).

• While greater than the 3.8 percent drop in overall U.S. employment, TV stations fared far better than newspapers, which suffered job cuts totaling 11.3 percent (5,900 jobs).

• Despite these cuts, the typical station added a half-hour of daily local news in 2008, setting a new record of an average 4.6 hours per weekday (weekends stayed the same).

• The number of stations running news in 2008 dropped from 774 to 770, while 16 daily newspapers and 124 weeklies have ceased publication since Jan. 1, 2008.

The study was directed and reported by the chairman of Hofstra’s Department of Journalism, Professor Bob Papper. His presentation, “Opening Supersession: Leading News Reinvention,” kicked off the RTNDA gathering at NAB.

Sponsored by the McCormick Foundation and moderated by CBS News Early Show anchor Russ Mitchell, other panelists included Kevin Roach, VP and director of U.S. broadcast news for the Associated Press; Terry Heaton, SVP Media 2.0 at Audience Research and Development; Lane Michaelsen, director of the Information Center at Gannett’s WUSA Washington; and Susana Schuler, Raycom Media’s VP of news.

“Compared to the newspaper business, TV still has time to change,” said Papper, “but the day of reckoning will come. If stations want to avoid the same fate as print, they need to act now.”

Buoyed by Papper’s positive take on the Hofstra data, several panelists expressed cautious optimism about the long-term prospects for local TV news. Two panelists were more openly skeptical.

“Frankly, a lot of local news is crap,” said AP’s Kevin Roach, citing an overall drop in the quality of writing and reporting. “Investigative journalism is disappearing, partly due to legal risks. We’re trying to address it at AP by providing stations with video investigations along with suggestions for localizing the stories.”

Roach later elaborated to TVNewsday that the lack of enterprise reporting was no accident, but a deliberate editorial choice. “The problem starts in the morning meetings. They respond to whatever’s on the [police] scanner.”

Gannett’s Lane Michaelsen agreed, adding that “the danger of understaffing is that we only go after the easy stories, the low-hanging fruit. Over time, this disappoints the audience.”

Michaelsen conceded that investigative pieces often lack broad appeal but asserted, “Today stations need to attract a whole series of niche audiences. This is a hard to achieve but an effective strategy.” This view was buttressed by Papper, who cited research that shows that the coveted younger viewers care more about investigative reports than other kinds of stories.

But these views were flatly dismissed by ARD’s Terry Heaton. “I think quality is a red herring. Cell phone video of breaking news may be fine with the audience even if it’s not up to our standards,” said Heaton, adding, “Investigative reporting is also a red herring. Does the audience care the way we as journalists do? No. It’s not relevant to the disruption that’s eating our lunch.”

Heaton attributed that disruption more to commercial considerations than editorial emphasis. “The industry won’t recover to previous levels.

Advertisers already have other means of getting reach and frequency.”

While more upbeat than Roach or Heaton, Raycom’s Schuler dispelled any illusion that survival was certain for local stations. “Those of us who want to still be in this business 10 years from now may well have to generate our own primetime and ‘syndicated’ content.” Schuler advocated using auxiliary digital channels to experiment with new forms of local programming that “cater specifically to the interests of our communities.”

Moderator Russ Mitchell called attention to Schuler’s apparent text messaging during the panel. She explained that she was obeying her own dictum to Raycom news staffers by Twittering the proceedings live. “I’m not good at it,” confessed Schuler, “I don’t always have something to say.”

Papper also shared some highly-encouraging data from a recent Hofstra “video mapping study” funded by Nielsen that revealed that contrary to common perception, viewers aged 18-24 watch over nine times more traditional television than online video — 236.9 minutes per day watching television vs. only 26 minutes spent on the Internet — and over 23 times more time watching TV compared to internet video (10.1 minutes per day.)

In a post-panel discussion with TVNewsday, Papper explained that he developed the “average daily viewing” metric in response to misleading press reports about online video consumption. Often, says Papper, new media writers take the monthly total for internet video viewing, then compare that inflated number to the national rating for a popular prime time series. “When you compare apples to apples,” said Papper,

“television wins hands down.”

Papper agreed that, in the near future, television will be “dealing with ‘audiences’ — plural. The core audience is still going to be TV. I view us as newspapers 10 years ago, but we have 10 years to [evolve] so we can avoid the advertising erosion.”

Papper warned the audience “You’re not just TV news directors, you’re pulling together a series of niche audiences. It’s a more complex job than it’s ever been.”

Mitchell puckishly asked the panel, despite these challenges, are their jobs still fun?

“Yes,” laughed Michaelsen. “But 24 hours a day.”

Password must contain the following:

A lowercase letter

A capital (uppercase) letter

A number

Minimum 8 characters