By Deborah Potter
Superficial reporting, tabloid hype, style over substance: complaints about local television news are nothing new. But now, some of the deepest concern is being expressed inside TV newsrooms, not just by the troops but by their leaders.
In a survey of 103 news directors nationwide, fully half said they felt their profession was heading down the wrong track, while only a third felt that it was on the right track.
The survey, conducted by mail during the summer of 2002, reflects the views of a significant sample of the roughly 800 stations in the country that produce news.
The main reason for the pessimism is pretty simple, according to one news director: "Budget cuts are killing quality."
The financial pressures, which are forcing newsrooms to do more with less, are reflected in one telling statistic. Reporters are now required to produce an average of 1.8 packages a day, the heaviest workload reported in the five years that PEJ has been studying local TV news and surveying news directors.
The news directors are fully aware that the increased productivity comes at a cost. The No. 1 obstacle to producing quality news, they say, is "not enough staff," ranking it well above "not enough money" and "too little time."
More than half the news directors, 55 percent, said the mood in their newsrooms had suffered because of budget constraints or layoffs industry-wide. And in those newsrooms where morale was low, more than twice as many bosses said things in general were going in the wrong direction than said the direction was right. "Low pay, long hours, no raises," one news director wrote, explaining why his employees felt the way they did. Said another, "People come to work every day wondering if they're going to be fired."
News directors who say things are on the right track see the effect of tight budgets differently. They believe they're learning to produce quality news in leaner times by setting new priorities. "If we were good at ten things five years ago, we have to be really good at five things now," wrote one manager. "We'll get better at the things that are really important."
The financial picture overall appears better than last year, when half of all stations faced budget cuts or staff reductions. This year, the figure was 40 percent. The majority said their budgets were flat (30 percent) or had gone up (29 percent). Of the news directors who did have to make cuts, only about a quarter said the reductions hampered their stations' newsgathering ability. "Smaller staff means less coverage at times," one manager wrote. "Some editorial decisions have been based solely on saving money," said another.
Pessimism among news directors appears to be based to some extent on longer-term economic trends. "Wrong track" answers outnumbered "right track" by almost two to one at stations that have lost staff over the past three years, and by about the same margin at stations producing more news than they did three years ago. "We now practice assembly-line journalism in most shops," one news director wrote. "With staff limitations and budget constraints, it is a struggle to 'fill' newscasts, much less look for quality content. We look for easy stories - just add water and stir."
Two-thirds of news directors said they believed that the economic outlook for their stations was improving, but their positive view did not extend to TV news in general. Almost half of those who said their own stations' financial picture looked better for the year to come also said that over all, the industry is on the wrong track.
With a few notable exceptions, the negative attitude cuts across market size and station ownership. "Ratings, style, story-count, pacing, hair and clothes seem more important on a given day than content and issues," wrote a Montana news director. And a news executive from a big city in Texas observed, "Owners even from top media companies . . . have very little interest in the quality of their broadcast product."
In terms of market size, the only category in which news directors split almost evenly on the right track-wrong track question were those in medium-sized markets. News managers were most pessimistic in the smallest markets, where resources are most strained. "Too much news to fill. Too little staff," wrote one news manager. "Too much 'sameness,' for which we can blame consultants. Local news is not what it should be."
Where are the optimists? The survey found a few at network-owned-and-operated stations, where half the respondents said things were on the right track. Only one person said the opposite, while the rest had no opinion. But just ten news directors made up that category, one-tenth of the survey sample. Of the other 90 percent, most felt the industry was on the wrong track. The margin was particularly wide at stations owned by large corporate groups like Tribune and Gannett, where the ratio was more than two to one.
Among the positive thinkers, several appeared to be looking for a silver lining. "We're doing what we can in a changing economic environment," said a small-market news manager. Wrote a news director in a top-50 market, "Still need more time/support for serious in-depth issue pieces, less emphasis on sexy or sensational stories."
Is there any way out? Even some of the pessimists say there is. "Get back to basics and bring back the lost viewers," one wrote. "Strong local content attracts viewers," said another. But many fear those goals will remain out of reach as long as "profits take precedence over quality."
The survey's message is sobering. Despite the improving financial picture, news directors still feel besieged. Things aren't as bad as they were, but there's no reason to believe they'll get much better any time soon.
Deborah Potter is executive director of NewsLab, a non-profit TV research and training center.