November 1, 2001

Local TV News Project 2001

Local TV journalism is on dangerous ground.

In a survey of 118 local news directors, more than half report that advertisers try to tell them what to air and not to air – and they say the problem is growing.

To meet profit demands, many news directors report they are having to produce a thinner and cheaper product by adding news programs while cutting their budgets.

News directors say consultants are only providing the most generic solutions. One in five also say their consultants discourage them from covering certain kinds of news.

Gimmicks that once seemed to bump ratings – every story seemed “shocking” – don’t work any more. And stations don’t know what to do in their place.

Everything is up for grabs. Too much is for sale.

Is there a way to succeed in such an environment?

Does Quality Sell?

The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s ongoing content study of local television news suggests there may be. Based on data collected from 189 stations over four years, we have isolated five characteristics that commercially successful stations share.

Adopting these practices won’t guarantee financial success, but statistically they will give a station the highest likelihood of achieving it.

The elements:

  • Cover more of the community
  • Demonstrate more enterprise
  • Source stories better
  • Air more long stories and fewer very short ones
  • Hire more staff and give them more time to develop stories

The problem is that these ideas run counter to the prevailing wisdom in local TV. Some are overrun again and again by short-term budget demands. And some rarely enter the newsroom conversation.

These findings and many others are part of Year Four of the local television news study by PEJ, a think tank affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

In the stories that follow, the Project offers troubling findings about sponsor interference (News for Sale), new evidence of the impact of quality (Quality Sells), the practices that viewers respond to (The Magic Formula), a glimpse at the typical newscast (The Look of Local News), budget problems (Thinner, Cheaper, Longer), a comparison of network versus local TV news (The Patriarch vs. the Family Circle), and more.