Recession Reporting Hits Home

Stations offer job fairs, budget tips and a pat on the back for cash-strapped viewers

KCNC Denver gathered 200 viewers at a local high school March 16 for its first-ever “Beating the Recession” town-hall meeting. Anchors Jim Benemann and Karen Leigh were joined by a clutch of financial planners, answering questions from those in attendance and from viewers who submitted money-saving queries online.

It's the latest chapter of KCNC's broad effort to help viewers deal with the down economy. Besides simply reporting on the Dow slipping a few hundred points again and another area employer laying off workers, KCNC VP/General Manager Walt DeHaven says the CBS O&O aims to add big-picture context—and perhaps a little positive news—to the daily buzzkill that is the economy.

“Part of our brand is to see the story from all sides,” he says. “We're saying, 'This is what communities are doing to beat the recession, what they're doing to win.'”

America's financial doldrums are, of course, a lead story in newscasts all over the country. But stations nationwide are increasingly putting their local spin on the recession—helping viewers get through the lean period with job fairs and resume workshops, and combating the bad-news fatigue with stories meant to inspire and empower.

Hearst-Argyle has launched Project Economy, which sees stations offer money-saving tips and employment assistance. The Scripps stations are offering locally flavored Financial Survival Guides on their Websites (WPTV, for one, has a Foreclosure Finder for the West Palm Beach market). LIN TV's WISH Indianapolis kicked off segments in its late news last week that focus on area families attempting to right their fiscal ship, and will launch economy-themed microsites as well.

WISH President/General Manager Jeff White says there's more to reporting on the economy than simply telling viewers how miserable their lives are. “There are some other things we can do to help people control their own destiny a bit more,” he says. “We want to be the resource for that.”

As stations strive to play a bigger role in their communities, many are using their reach to pass along timely recession advice, news and assistance that often dig a little deeper than the typical “Your Money” segments. WISH has bits called Bright Spot that highlight positive developments like Nestlé hiring in Indianapolis, and will gather economy-related tidbits on its soon-to-launch Hoosiers-HelpingHoosiers.org microsite. It will also unveil the Web program Job Track, where people can advertise their employment skills for free.

The Hearst-Argyle stations come up with local stories under the Project Economy banner, and supplement their content with reportage from the group's Washington bureau and stories from other markets that may have local relevance. “It's a way to bring a huge national story down to where it really matters to people on a local level,” says Hearst-Argyle VP of News Candy Altman.

KCNC, meanwhile, has borrowed a page from the reality TV world with its weekly Money Makeover bits, where the station sends a financial planner to budget-challenged viewers' homes. News Director Tim Wieland says the segments have struck a chord with viewers. “There are elements of what these people are going through that everyone can relate to,” he says.

The recession-related content goes beyond news. KCNC has sponsored help centers along with Colorado's Department of Regulatory Agencies where people can call with questions about unemployment benefits, their job search or other recession-era trappings. Hearst-Argyle has taken it a step further with job fairs its stations host in conjunction with state unemployment offices. By the end of April, all 26 stations will have hosted one. Next up is WYFF Greenville, S.C., on March 21; KETV Omaha's and KCCI Des Moines' wingdings have seen more than 1,000 attendees apiece. “Television has tremendous power to bring people together,” Altman says. “We're using the power of the medium to help people in this difficult time.”

Stations are also finding that such efforts can make good business sense. Nexstar's KARK Little Rock, for one, has teamed with local auto dealers for live Webcasts and on-air specials that help users master the nuances of auto financing. “We want to do everything we possibly can to help [auto dealers] get through these uncertain times,” says KARK General Manager Gayle Kiger.

Over in Indianapolis, White says it's the Hoosier way to go into fiscal lockdown when rough times hit. Helping viewers effectively manage their money might help free up a little cash for a meal out, a new appliance—or perhaps even an automobile. “We're trying to ease some of the economic anxiety,” says White, who emphasizes that WISH's hard-news profile has not changed. “What we're advocating is, get a handle on your finances so you can enjoy your lifestyle a bit more.”