Local TV News Project 2000
What Is Quality?
Our definition of quality is the same established by our design team of local TV news professionals three years ago. We stress the basics: A newscast should reflect its entire community, cover a broad range of topics, focus on the significant aspects of stories, be locally relevant, balance stories with multiple points of view, and use authoritative sources.
We continue to use the system developed by separate teams of university scholars and professional researchers to grade newscasts by a point system matched to these criteria (see Who Did the Study). As in years past presentation is a very minor factor. So that grading can be accomplished objectively, stories score well based on an accumulation of the simple journalistic values mentioned above.
In this third year of the Local TV News Project we also continue to correlate a station's quality scores to Nielsen Media Research household ratings that encompass a three-year period beginning in May 1997 and ending in February 2000.
This year, as in years past, we have examined the most watched half-hours of news in a core group of cities randomly selected after ensuring population and geographic balance. We have also looked at early-evening news in Atlanta and Los Angeles, markets where we previously studied late news.
A year ago we found that the six o'clock news programs in New York and Boston scored much better than their 11 P.M. counterparts. The same holds true this year. In Atlanta, the early evening news broadcasts scored an average 144 points higher than the late news broadcasts we studied in 1998. In Los Angeles, the six o'clock broadcasts were 57 points higher.
Over three years we've found that, contrary to newsroom lore and the claims of critics, all local news is not the same. Our best station in the most watched time slot, Tucson's KGUN, scored 291 points more than our worst station, KNXV in Phoenix.
The same is true of the time slots we added this year. The best in the morning, WGME of Portland, Maine, scored 145 points higher than the morning's worst, WBRC of Birmingham. Oakland's KTVU, the best of the primetime hour-long newscasts, earned a whopping 292 points more than Los Angeles's KTLA.
Quality Versus Ratings
How sure are we that quality is the best path to ratings? Eight of the ten best stations we studied this year were either going up in ratings (60%) or at least holding their own (20%). Put in another way, if you practice basic good journalism, as defined by our design team of industry professionals, your station is four times as likely to be gaining or holding ratings as losing. In a television environment that has steadily decreased in viewers, hanging on is not the worst thing in the world.
It's riskier to be a bottom-ten station in this study. While 6 out of 10 stations on the bottom have positive ratings trends, four are clearly failing. Unlike the better stations, there is no holding your ground here. It's either up or down.