March 26, 2014

A Boom in Acquisitions and Content Sharing Shapes Local TV News in 2013

Local News Services

A type of resource sharing that is more common in the largest markets involves local news service, or LNS, arrangements that sprang up when the economy nosedived in 2008. To cut expenses during the recession, network-affiliated but separately owned stations in about a dozen top 20 markets agreed to jointly operate helicopters to cover breaking news and in many cases they also set up a formal process for sharing video of events.65(For more on Local TV Stations in Cooperative Ventures see the Media & News Indicators Database)

Here, too, there are divergent views on the impact of LNS agreements on the quality of newscasts. Proponents say that the sharing frees up newsroom resources to do more enterprise and independent reporting. Critics say it can produce more homogenized, less differentiated newscasts among competitors.

The Fox Television Stations group was a spearhead of the LNS movement and remains involved in these arrangements, both in the air and on the ground. “I could never understand why someone would want to spend resources getting the same picture that someone else was getting,” said Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy.  “To me, the idea that you need to send four people to cover a press conference where the only difference between one station’s view and the other is about two feet is crazy. It’s allowed us to go out and do more independent reporting.”66

Scripps has LNS agreements with Fox in three markets where they both own stations: Detroit, Phoenix and Tampa. The LNS operates independently, according to Lana Durban Scott, director of news strategy for Scripps. Each participating station assigns an editorial staffer and photojournalists to the LNS. Stations make daily requests for LNS coverage of events everybody would be at, like news conferences or court hearings.  “The [local news services] get the nuts and bolts so we can send another crew to do a side story to differentiate us,” Scott said. “It fits our strategy of having more feet on the street.”

As an example, Scott cited a story about a break-in at a gun shop in Phoenix. While the LNS shot video of a local ATF agent making a statement about the crime, the Scripps station shot its own interview with the gun shop owner and used both interviews in its report.67 Critics feared that cost savings would lead to staff cuts at stations participating in LNS agreements. Scott says no positions were eliminated at Scripps stations.

NBC was an early partner in LNS arrangements, but by the end of 2013 it had dropped out of all but one. “The one reason that [the NBC stations] got into it was because their news resources had been cut so much (by former owner GE), so as we increased their news resources then their needs changed,” said NBC’s Valari Staab. “I just feel that you’re conceding your competitive position by sharing a lot with other local newsrooms.”68

Media General’s Reed says sharing gives her competitors an economic advantage that she sometimes wishes she had. “If I had a choice between sharing an asset like a helicopter or not having it, I would share it,” she said. “If that translates into saving money on one end so I could hire another reporter, sure.”

On the other hand, Reed said, stations that don’t share with others in the same market may be able to provide more distinctive coverage. “If you’re really focused on original reporting and they’re sharing everything,” she said, “how original is that? If we’re the only ones in the market that aren’t in that arrangement and we are unique and differentiated, then it’s to our advantage.”

  1. Marszalek, Diana. “News Sharing: Fox Holds Firm, NBC Rethinks.” TVNewsCheck. Oct. 2, 2012.
  2. Jessell, Harry. “Chasing the Next Big Thing in Local TV News.” TVNewsCheck. Oct. 8, 2013.
  3. Stocks, Deborah. “$6,000 Reward Offered for Leads Into North Phoenix Gun Shop Theft.” Oct. 10, 2013.
  4. Interview with author Deborah Potter. Nov. 6, 2013.