In It for the Money
Maybe its not so bad if some TV stations drop local news.
By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.
The decision came as a shock to almost everyone in the newsroom. Anchor
Rick Edlund said it felt like a kick in the gut when he learned in late
September that KDNL-TV in St. Louis would be the latest station to shut
down its news operation (see Bylines, November).
General Manager Tom Tipton blamed "the increased competitive landscape
and current market conditions." He didn't mention the station's owners,
who had expected the ABC affiliate in a top 25 market to produce two
newscasts a day with a staff of less than 50. Almost as many people lost
their jobs in Evansville, Indiana market 97 when CBS affiliate WEVV-TV
pulled the plug on news a few months earlier.
At first blush, these were sad days for journalism. Dedicated people
lost their jobs. Viewers lost a source of local information. And another
corporate owner sacrificed public service for profit. All true enough.
But look closer and what comes into focus is the inevitable cost of
doing news for the wrong reasons, and trying to do it on the cheap.
KDNL and WEVV were both latecomers to local news. They launched their
newscasts less than 10 years ago, when both were Fox affiliates. At the
time, news looked like a sure thing inexpensive to produce and easy to
sell to advertisers. But neither station ever made an impression on
viewers. When the ax fell, WEVV's news was in last place in the ratings
and the station was losing money on its news programs.
KDNL's top competitor drew more than three times as many viewers as it
did at 10 p.m.
Why didn't people watch? It doesn't appear to have been a question of
quality. Three years ago, WEVV was one of just five stations to earn a
grade of A-plus from the Project for Excellence in Journalism in its
study of 61 local TV stations. KDNL's newscast won a regional Emmy last
Tim Lynch, chief operating officer of Communications Corp. of America,
which owns WEVV, says there just wasn't enough news in Evansville or
enough interest in news to support four head-to-head newscasts. "Put it
this way," he says, "the No. 1 show at 10 p.m." when the late news is
on "is Andy Griffith."
But Lucy Himstedt, general manager at WFIE-TV in Evansville, says the
real issue was money. "The bottom line was their bottom line," she says.
"They didn't get the ratings to generate the revenue."
The newscast was so weak in ratings, in fact, that its demise may not
matter much to viewers or to the competition. There was no huge public
outcry when WEVV canceled news, and the other stations in town scarcely
noticed. "When you look at the competition and who you're worried
about," Himstedt says, "they weren't the one."
This sounds almost sacrilegious, but it may be that viewers with one
less choice for local news aren't that much worse off than they were
before. Yes, there are good reasons to worry about the future if dozens
of stations across the country follow WEVV's lead. Just look at
commercial radio for a preview of the bleakest possible outcome. But TV
newscasts aren't exactly in short supply. They've multiplied like
mushrooms over the past decade, often for reasons that have nothing to
do with informing the public.
"I've had general managers tell me that the only reason they're doing
news is because they want to be in on the news [advertising] buys," says
Dow Smith, a former general manager who now teaches journalism at
Syracuse University. Two Nashville stations recently added newscasts in
the afternoon opposite Oprah, not because they think viewers need a
source of news at that time of day, but because their syndicated
programs were being trounced in the ratings by her talk show, according
to the Tennessean.
But while money is driving some stations into news, it's clearly driving
others out. Two network-owned stations in New York and Los Angeles have
been talking about dropping news at 4 p.m., and the shakeout may just be
starting. Consider the dismal earnings reports from some major media
companies. Hearst-Argyle's net income is down 168 percent in the third
quarter compared with the year before. Media General down 109 percent.
Cox Communications down 83 percent.
Numbers like those usually mean layoffs. But they have rarely meant a
reduction in the amount of news a smaller staff is expected to produce.
Several stations have even dealt with the economic slump by cutting
staff while adding newscasts. That amounts to watering down the soup not
a recipe for quality journalism.
Under the circumstances, perhaps it's actually better for all
concerned owners, journalists and viewers if some stations get out of
news entirely, especially if the only reason they launched news in the
first place was to make money. That's the real bottom line.