March 1, 2000

Local TV News Project 1999

This study was produced by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an affiliate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The study uses empirical data to measure the quality of local TV news and compare those results with ratings.

By Tom Rosenstiel, Carl Gottlieb and Lee Ann Brady

Who needs a dog when you’ve got local TV news? No matter where you live, it seems news teams are your best friend, on the streets “Working 4 You,” “On Your Side,” or doing “Whatever It Takes.”

Unfortunately, there is less and less substance behind the slogans, a major new study of local television finds. For all the “I-Team” graphics and driving music, enterprise reporting — the serious, proactive journalism that local TV so heavily promotes — is dropping precipitously.

Ironically, the study also finds that enterprise reporting is one of the few staples that can still build viewer loyalty and ratings.

These are some of the findings in year two of a multi-year study of local television news — the largest ever undertaken — which continues to repudiate many of the commonly held conceptions about the most popular news medium in America.

The 1999 study, produced by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) and a team of local TV journalists, university scholars and professional researchers, confirms last year’s finding that quality sells.

The top-scoring station in the study, WEHT in Evansville, Indiana, covers more of its own community, including the local schools, the environment and business, than any other station examined and is steadily gaining viewers.

In Miami, WTVJ does nearly twice as many in-depth series as the average station in the country and is rising in the ratings. In Boston, WBZ covers local institutions more than the competition, features a talented political reporter, and has begun to turn around its fortunes. These stations are not the exception. The study, which ranked the quality of 59 stations in 19 cities and compared those results with ratings, found that the very best-scoring stations were more than twice as likely to be succeeding commercially as failing.

Does Quality Sell?More generally, any stations with above-average scores were more likely to be rising in ratings than falling.

A year ago we found that stations could succeed commercially nearly as well by filling their newscasts with crime, scandal and celebrity — in short, a classic tabloid approach. This year that did not hold true: stations at the very lowest end of the quality scale were twice as likely to be failing commercially as succeeding.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, an affiliate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism that is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, also found:

  • There may be a formula to make quality sell — two years running. Cover less crime, be more enterprising, source stories better, and above all be local. This year it helped to cover core local institutions and concerns — from infrastructure to education to trends.
  • There is less crime on TV than a year ago. Coverage of crime, courts and law dropped from 28% of all stories last year to 22%. Everyday crime stories are down from 22% to 15%. Crime is still, however, the No. 1 story topic.
  • The notion that people want shorter stories is again debunked. Unlike last year, it is not so clear that longer is better, but it is no negative.
  • Local TV is not all the same. It is often superficial, reactive and thinly sourced, but the best stations this year again scored twice as well as the worst.

The study examined the top-rated half hour of news in each city during a February sweeps week and an April non-sweeps week.

A single team of experienced professional coders analyzed 8,000 stories from 590 broadcasts, or some 295 hours of news. The results were then put through computer analysis by scholars at Wellesley College and Princeton Survey Research Associates and assessed by a team of journalists.

A smaller study of two major cities also reveals that stations consistently produced better newscasts at 6 p.m. than at 11 p.m. — in some cases dramatically so. WNBC in New York, a C” station at 11 p.m., would have been the best newscast in the study at 6 p.m. Why do newscasters produce such different products for different time slots? (See Six O’Clock Rocks.)

Perhaps the most startling finding — and unequivocal — is the drop across the board in how much enterprise reporting stations do versus a year ago. More than 80% of stations received “D” or “F” grades for enterprise — such things as the number of investigative stories, special series or tough interviews they do. Last year, only 25% of stations received these low grades. Among repeat stations, 17 of 19 saw their enterprise grades fall. Over all, scores on three key enterprise categories dropped by a quarter from last year. Coverage of breaking news, a staple of local TV that requires a lesser but still notable level of effort, is also dropping. Meanwhile, stations aired 25% more out-of-town feeds than they did the year before.

Top Five Local News TopicsEvidence suggests that the drop may be due in part to ever- increasing pressure on newsroom finances, particularly from having to fill more air time without getting commensurate staff and budget increases. (See The Budget Game.)
Although the second year confirms the notion that quality is a powerful strategy for financial success, local news is still in need of a thoughtful fix. Over all, the face of local TV news again appears one-sided and reactive. More than nine in ten stories come from either the police scanner or planned news events. Less than one in ten come from journalists’ own initiative. Among those stories involving controversy, once again a troubling 55% give only one point of view. There are, however, some signs of improvement. Fewer stories focus around commonplace incidents — such as car accidents and everyday crime — though the number is still high, 40% versus 46% a year ago.

In 1998, some critics wondered whether what the study identified as good journalism had a bias toward smaller cities. Nine of the 10 best stations last year were in smaller cities, those with fewer than 910,000 TV households. This year the opposite is true: seven of the top ten stations are in cities with more than 1.3 million TV households. Although our top station is again WEHT in Evansville, the 96th largest market in the country, the second- and third-highest scoring stations were WTVJ in Miami and KRON in San Francisco.

Perhaps the best explanation for why local news looks the way it does is money. News executives responding to a PEJ survey about resources say the biggest obstacle to quality is a “lack of staff” at a time when they are being asked to fill an expanding news hole. Indeed, those station executives who provided an answer acknowledged that they require reporters to produce at least one story a day, a demand that precludes most in-depth or enterprise reporting. The reason for these intense demands has to do with the extraordinary profit expectations that permeate local news organizations and Wall Street. Of those stations that provided answers to the question, the average pre-tax profit margin expected of local news was 40%.

This suggests it is a misconception to assume that local TV news merely reflects what viewers want. Local TV news gives viewers what the resources allow.

In focus groups we conducted in two cities, viewers who regularly watched local TV news overwhelmingly said they wanted news that was more meaningful, more varied, more in-depth and “hit closer to home.”

“Community interests are not being served,” said a viewer in Atlanta. Another, in Tucson, said, “It’s not important to be first. Get the story straight.”

The audience for local news is declining, as has the audience for network news. An orientation toward meeting immediate profit demands, which fails to invest in the content that viewers really want, is likely to fuel that decline.

Local News is...

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, is a former media critic for the Los Angeles Times and Washington correspondent for Newsweek. Carl Gottlieb, the Project’s deputy director, is a former broadcast news executive with the Tribune Co. and Fox. Lee Ann Brady is senior project director at Princeton Survey Research Associates, one of the nation*s leading news media research firms.