November 1, 2001

Local TV News Project 2001

Thinner, Cheaper, Longer

By Marion Just, Rosalind Levine and Todd Belt

The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington galvanized their local stations and brought into relief the challenge of providing all-out breaking news coverage.

Based on what news directors around the country say about their budgets, it's questionable whether most stations would be able to respond just as quickly and thoroughly.

Even before September 11, stations were being asked to do more and more with less – and that was forcing them to put a cheaper and thinner product on the air, according to a national survey of people who run local television newsrooms.

There's an intensifying "fear-loathing of stock-based companies laying off for profit- only reasons," and a "feeling that their decisions are very short-sighted," reported one news director.

We surveyed news directors at 118 stations around the country between June and August 2001, a significant portion of the 850 stations that do local news. We promised confidentiality to news directors in return for information about their budgets, fiscal decisions, and their comments on the news business. Here is some of what they had to say:

  • Half of all stations had either budget cuts or layoffs in the last year. The average budget cut was 8 percent.

  • Sixty percent of stations had to make unscheduled budget cuts within the course of the last fiscal year.
  • Two-thirds of stations added broadcast hours.
  • Fifty-seven percent had to produce the same or more news despite layoffs, budget freezes or budget cuts.

"Budget cuts, frozen positions, less money and more responsibility," explained one news director, describing the atmosphere at his station. Another news director estimated a "loss of news gathering ability of 10-12 percent due to cuts."

Much of the pressure on broadcasters has come from declining ad revenue as the country slipped into slow growth and near recession. But only seven percent of the news directors surveyed reported that their stations had responded to declining revenue by reducing the number of newscast hours.

Quite the opposite. Producing news is still cheaper than buying syndicated entertainment programming.

Events since September 11 will likely make things worse. An analysis by CMR, a company that tracks ad spending, found that local affiliates lost $93 million in advertising the first week after the terrorist attacks. Major sponsors like airlines and car dealers are pulling back. A new war on terrorism will further tax news budgets. Meanwhile, virtually all stations are facing investments ranging from $3 million to $8 million to convert to digital broadcasting.

Where Budgets Get Cut

The belt-tightening already in place came in various ways. Overall, 68 percent of stations limited overtime, 48 percent imposed hiring freezes, and 21 percent resorted to layoffs. Travel has also been cut severely and capital purchases have been put on hold indefinitely.

While these actions satisfy the short-term demand for maintaining or increasing profit margins, the cuts may backfire.

In 1999, the survey data, when matched with ratings, found that adding staff is the best way for a local news operation to invest resources to build ratings.

With smaller staffs, coverage of breaking news is bound to suffer. Enterprise or in-depth coverage, the kind our studies have shown TV viewers appreciate most, becomes less likely. In the words of one news director, budget cuts mean that "sometimes we don't commit as much resource to certain discretionary stories." Another indicated that budget cuts meant a "major reduction in use of part-timers. Thus full-time staff is stretched, less time for investigative work, special projects."

Not surprisingly, 54 percent of news directors fear that budget cuts have substantially hurt their station's news-gathering ability. As one news director noted, "The cutbacks have made a lean staff malnourished."

Another commented: "Freeze on capital & hiring freeze has us shorthanded…"

Even when there are no staff cuts, quality may be affected, said some news directors. The problem, one noted, is "retaining qualified desk managers and talented producers, attracting skilled persons with the salary we have budgeted."

Small stations are suffering the most. Many had few resources to begin with and the demand for more newscasts puts them in a terrible bind.

One news director in a small-market described the situation as "Tough!… 2.5 hours a day with a 19-person staff." More than 40 percent of stations in small markets rely on their reporters to produce two or more news packages a day. Half of the reporters in small markets routinely shoot or edit their own video, significantly more than those in larger markets.

News directors sounded frustrated, even angry, about their stations' strategies. "We added product (newscasts) then three months later reduced staffing through a hiring freeze and we're still producing the additional newscasts," reported one news manager.

Many news directors echoed the concern about the impact of budget cuts on staff. They responded that the biggest change in the newsroom this year was "Cutbacks in staff due to budget restraints," "staff cuts, early retirements," "layoffs," "cutbacks," "reduced staff," "staff reduction," "lower staffing," "staff turnover," and "shrinking staff."

And no matter what the market size, more than half the stations reporting say that budget cuts have affected morale in the newsroom. One Midwestern news director, calling morale the biggest change in the newsroom this year, declared: "People are no longer kidding themselves about the ethic of business vs. quality journalism. 'Journalism' is now 'commercial journalism.' "

Several news directors described a prevailing anxiety brought about by budget cuts. In response to an open-ended question, more than one used the term "a sense of uncertainty."

"Everyone wonders if, and when, layoffs may happen here," wrote one news director. "It is like a dark cloud looming over the staff," wrote another. "Who is next?" wrote a third.

News directors are worried about the stress on the workforce. One, from a small-market station, ticked off his concerns: "Fewer people – more work for remaining staff. Dip in production quality for daily stories. Inability to get all stories."

In some stations the budget crisis has created, or intensified, tension between the newsroom and the boardroom.

"The news staff has become frustrated with corporate and it has begun to show," explained one manager. Another expressed a "higher level of frustration over high expectations with not enough resources." Said another, slightly more optimistic, "For the most part the staff has pulled together but it still affects how people view our corporation."

One news director described a nexus of problems: "Anxiety about future of business, resentment toward corporate ownership, lack of money for better coverage."

Many news directors indicated that young people were particularly worried about their future prospects in the news business, an ominous sign that the profession may lose some of the most talented members of its next generation. The best young staffers have "worries about career future[s]" or a "sense of discouragement," said one news director.

"Staffers hoping to move up in markets are frustrated and that spills back into their work," said another.

Not all stations believed that budgets affected morale – or at least "not yet." Some said their operations were already trimmed so close to the bone that there was nothing left to cut. One news director noted that because the station made cuts in the non-salary portion of the budget, morale did not suffer.

One news director waxed philosophical. The effect of budget cuts on morale was "what you'd expect, but we soldier on." Another explained: "We're very open with employees, and by choosing a reduction in annual increases over layoffs, it actually boosted morale."

Budget pressures are topmost in the minds of news directors. When we asked them about the obstacles to producing a high-quality newscast, "too little money" was a popular response, second only to "too few staff."

But the linkage between the two problems is clear. "Budget cuts have killed staff morale – no raises, a hiring freeze, no overtime," said one news director.

Luckier ones reported investments in their stations. Some news directors bragged about new equipment ("we went digital!"), new personnel (general managers, news directors, owners, on-air talent), and new newscasts.

And a few remained optimistic by concentrating on the people they work with: "In spite of all the negatives (what we can't do and industry impacts) [we're] maintaining a creative, positive, forward-thinking team," said a news director from a small market. "More positive than ever before."

One thing seems clear. Nearly all news managers are going to have to find creative ways to cope with the people and resources that remain. The question is whether viewers will begin to decide that what is left on the air is not worth their time when they have more choices than ever for news.

Marion Just is a professor of political science at Wellesley College and a research associate at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard. Rosalind Levine is an attorney in Boston. Todd Belt is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Southern California.