Local TV

Cover Story: Stations Search for Gold In a Post-Newspaper Landscape

As major dailies fold, local TV tries to deliver all the news once fit to print 5/02/2009 02:00:00 AM Eastern

WJBK did not wait for Detroit's two major daily papers to start cutting back distribution. On March 9, a full three weeks before the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News went from daily delivery to delivering a few days a week, the Fox O&O sent out its inaugural “My Fox Morning News” e-newsletter—a 6 a.m. online blast of news, weather and traffic in the No. 11 DMA.

A month after launch, the free newsletter featured ads from Chevrolet, a local hospital and a tire retailer. WJBK VP/General Manager Jeff Murri says subscribers number around 5,000, and the base is growing significantly every day. “It's an easy way for former newspaper readers to get their morning news,” says Murri, who also reports a 20% boost in morning news ratings since the papers scaled back distribution. “Clearly these people are looking for alternative sources of information.”

Few could have predicted how swiftly newspapers would go from being an integral part of people's daily routines to tottering toward obsolescence. As major markets such as Seattle and Denver have said goodbye to well-established dailies, and the likes of San Francisco and Boston ponder a future without papers that are almost as much a part of the regional landscape as the Golden Gate Bridge and Fenway Park, local television executives are studying what new prospects await them in a paper-free world. There's lucrative opportunity to reach out to former newspaper advertisers and, perhaps even more significant, there's a chance to become a more trusted source of local news.

“Where there's a void, a well-branded TV station will fill in as a news source,” says Hearst-Argyle VP of News Brian Bracco. “We have tremendous brand loyalty, and have to follow up and make sure we're covering news the way we should in our communities.”

As newspapers continue to ring up giant losses—Gannett, for one, saw its publishing revenue plummet 27% in the first quarter—it's the perfect time for stations to grab market share from their beleaguered print brethren. Some station sales staffs have been working local papers' demise into their sales pitches. “America's Newspapers Face Uncertain Future,” reads the marketing material at one Norfolk station, quoting a Pew study showing that Americans won't miss their daily paper as much as one might think.

“It's early to forecast, but we're already experiencing a revenue increase in broadcast,” says Murri of Detroit's newspaper retrenchment. Retail outlets that relied on papers to promote date-specific sales, he says, still need to get the word out in a timely fashion.

Some CBS-owned stations have reorganized their creative services departments to help lure advertisers from newspapers. The departments pre-produce commercials featuring a potential advertiser to show the client how its goods look on television. “With newspapers shrinking, it's a good time to dig deeper in terms of where you get your accounts,” says WCBS New York President/General Manager Peter Dunn. “It's really helped us a lot.”

Hearst-Argyle was heartened by a study it conducted with Frank N. Magid Associates that showed 57% of news viewers consumed between one and five hours of local news a day—compared to 41% who spent that amount of time with a newspaper. “Stations are going to be filling an even more important role as newspapers disappear,” says VP of Sales Kathleen Keefe. “There's a huge opportunity from a business point of view.”

Media watchers express concern that as the newspaper industry craters, a market is left with that many fewer newshounds shining a light on governmental malfeasance and the voiceless underclass. While multiple veterans of TV newsrooms acknowledge the role a newspaper plays in breaking a large share of the local news, many insist they don't need to rely on print to find compelling stories for the evening news.

“There are any number of markets where newspapers don't set the news agenda,” says Bob Papper, professor and chair of journalism at Hofstra University and a veteran of newsrooms at WCCO Minneapolis and WRC Washington. “The days of broadcast reporters sitting back and drinking coffee while waiting for story ideas to come to them are over.”

Some in TV news speak of increasingly borrowing elements from the newspaper industry, such as supplementing online video with written sidebars offering depth and texture. Others are eager to grab recently unemployed newspaper reporters from their markets and retrain them for a role in broadcast news.

SO LONG LONGFORM REPORTING?

Yet it appears unlikely that many stations will assume much of the in-depth enterprise reporting that has long defined newspapers. Most general managers say they're already filling that role adequately, suggesting that longform reportage in the community may disappear or be relegated to obscure Websites. “We've tried to do [strong investigative] all along,” says KOMO Seattle VP/General Manager Jim Clayton, who employs a three-person I-team. “I don't know that we'd do more of it with the Post-Intelligencer [now Web-only].”

Several station managers express frustration that, at an ideal time to win hearts and minds from longtime newspaper readers, there is no money to capitalize on the opportunity. With thousands of reporters with deep Rolodexes out on the street, few stations have the resources to bring them on board. “There's a new pool of people available with real skill sets who were making the transition to video,” says KMGH Denver VP/General Manager Byron Grandy of the scores of former Rocky Mountain News reporters in his market. “The flip side is, it's not the best environment to be hiring.”

Indeed, it's a tricky time for stations to boost their news reach. Local television slashed some 1,200 positions in 2008, according to a recent study from the RTNDA and Hofstra University, a 4.3% decrease in head count. Moreover, reporters saw a 13% average salary reduction, and anchors' pay dropped 11.5%. One manager at a Belo station said simply retaining all of the station's newscasts was a “badge of courage.”

Stations are also making tougher decisions about investing time and money into the sort of major investigative series that bring home Peabodys. “Such reporting takes a lot of time and resources, and a lot of money in terms of legally vetting stuff,” says former WPBF West Palm Beach News Director Joe Coscia. “You really need your corporation's backing.”

Others believe the fundamental differences between television and newspapers are just too wide for local TV to assume that larger news role. While a station's Website might be a logical forum for a longform exposé, some wonder how equipped TV reporters are to deliver thoroughly sourced 3,000-word features on Board of Ed misdeeds and the like. “Translating the brand in the minds of readers that it's an acceptable substitute for newspapers is a bit of a stretch,” says Bruce Northcott, co-founder of media research firm Crawford Johnson & Northcott. “Can [local TV] emotionally fill a gap? Perhaps. Can it practically fill a gap? That's a real stretch of the imagination on our part, and the minds of viewers.”

THE FUTURE OF LOCAL MEDIA

Time will tell how the local media landscape shakes out. Perhaps stations will partner with local journalism Websites like the Twin Cities' MinnPost.com and InDenverTimes.com, and with hyper-local community sites like those at Patch.com. “Partnership is the word of the day,” Papper says.

Stations will rely more on the wide range of digital options, such as 24/7 subchannels, Twitter and mobile applications to deliver timelier content to the community. While some at the station level say the demise of newspapers has little impact on TV news, others believe it's prime time for local television to elevate its game.

“We're going to have to step up and make sure we're providing hyper-local coverage,” says Bracco, citing Hearst-Argyle's recession-themed Project Economy campaign as an example. “There may not be as many voices speaking in our communities, so we need to be the trusted source.”

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