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Closer look at TV news

Behind the numbers, Pew study finds many stations are sacrificing quality, creativity for high profits 11/26/2000 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Is the commitment to maintain sky-high profit margins causing local television to abandon its commitment to the elements that created those profits-to the industry's own detriment?

In its third annual report on local news, released earlier this month (B & C Nov. 13, p. 21), the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which is affiliated with Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, drew that conclusion. "[T]he business is cutting back on precisely the elements that attract viewers-including enterprise, localism, breadth, innovation and sourcing." The majority of stories studied this year, said the project, "were either feeds or footage aired without an on-scene reporter."

Most of the 50 stations in the 15 markets surveyed were considered mediocre, including Boston, New York City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Chicago, Sioux Falls and Wichita. (The chart does not include survey results for morning newscasts in Birmingham, Ala.; Detroit; and Portland, Ore.)

"If the industry does not begin soon to change," say study leaders Tom Rosenstiel, Carl Gottlieb and Lee Ann Brady, "if it continues to insist on profit margins that can be sustained only by gutting newsrooms, the evidence strongly suggests the biggest loser in the Internet revolution will not be newspapers but local broadcast television news."

And, for the third time in three years, the survey pounded out the notion that quality-as it defines quality: longer, locally focused, more enterprising, better sourced and better balanced stories-leads to greater success in local TV. "Enterprise sells. Depth Sells. Breadth sells. Courage sells," the authors say.

But the authors say some stations are more interested in selling out. A third of the responding news directors reported that they were discouraged from covering stories due to concerns about sponsors.

Since its inception, news directors have suggested that the study takes an ivory-tower view of the news.

In Phoenix, Bob Morford, KNXV-TV news director said that sometimes a newscast has to find its own niche to attract an audience. As KNXV-TV 's is the newest newscast among the five Phoenix stations, he notes, "If you're a heavy TV news viewer, you made your choice 10 or 15 years ago. I believe our product has a specific value in our marketplace: to attract low-use TV news viewers. We've created a newscast that has the goal of broad coverage."

Dennis Leonard, general manager of WBRC-TV Birmingham, Ala., which received an F grade for its morning newscast, said he believed that most of his station's newscasts were following the criteria of the study, but that in the morning, its audience wanted a focus on weather and traffic.

On the other hand, some stations like the results just fine. Tucson emerged as the best market for local news. According to the study, KGUN-TV got the only A given, both KOLD-TV and KVOA-TV earned high Bs and were within a handful of points of A grades.

Under Forrest Carr, KGUN-TV news director, the station has posted a Viewer Bill of Rights on its Web site, which addresses some of PEJ's priorities in its approach to covering crime and investigative reporting, but also promises positive, ethical and solution-oriented newsgathering. "I think the definition of quality should include a dialogue with the community," said Carr.

KTVK(TV) Phoenix, WXIA-TV Atlanta, KCBS-TV Los Angeles, and KTVU(TV) San Francisco also received A grades. In fact, in the three-year history of the study, no station has received higher grades than KTVU-TV , the Cox-owned station in the Bay Area.

News Director Andrew Finlayson passes off most of the credit to his predecessor Fred Zehnder, who led the news department for 20 years. "The people in this newsroom and the job they do reflect Fred's years of thoughtful and concerned leadership, said Finlayson. "I reissue Fred's memos."

Yet, the stability indicated by Zehnder's 20 years, Finlayson's 10 years, anchor Dennis Richmond's 24 years and General Manager Kevin O'Brien's 14 years at the station is rare in the TV business. Finlayson believes that stability has helped the station promote localism. KTVU , Finlayson says, also directs strong effort to speak to all communities in the diverse Bay area.

And it is not the best-equipped station; it has neither a news chopper nor a satellite truck. In the survey, Finlayson joked that "we couldn't cover a car chase even if we wanted to."


What they're doing right-and wrong

Station Grade Comment

Atlanta

WXIA-TV

A

"Very local. Needs better sourcing, more balance, enterprise. News director promoted to WUSA."

WGCL (TV)

B

"From F to B in two years; new ownership. Good on breaking news. Best in town for balance."

WAGA (TV)

C
"Solid in other timeslots. Ratings hurt by declining Fox lead-in.

Too many feeds. Good at ideas/issue stories."


Boston

WBZ-TV

C

"Best in Boston dropped to C from B. Good localism. Ratings on the right track."

WHDH-TV

C

"Racy presentation, but most issues in town. Good at breaking news, sourcing. Could be more local. Up from D to C in a year."

WCVB-TV

D

"A year of change at a station known for stability. Highest story count at 11. Weakest sourcing in town."

Chicago

WBBM-TV

B

"Carol Marin's experiment hasn't matured and may not get the chance to be a survivor." (The experiment was terminated.)

Denver

KUSA-TV

B

"Best in Denver shows ratings weakness. More breaking news, coverage of civic institutions would help."

KMGH-TV

B

"Decent station slipping in ratings. Best in Denver at sourcing, breaking news. Needs more localism."

KCNC-TV

D

"Highest story count, most local coverage in town. Low onideas/issues. Too many unnamed sources."

Los Angeles

KCBS-TV

A

"High on issues and ideas, low on crime. Covers L.A. well, could improve sourcing. Dismal ratings."

KABC-TV

B

"Ratings king at 6. Very local, lots of human interest, breaking news."

KNBC (TV)

D

"Tabloid formula: lots of crime, unusual events, feeds. Poor sourcing, least local coverage"

KCOP (TV)

C

"Best of 10 p.m. in L.A., but loses UPN audience. Good sourcing, issues. Low on crime and high on series."

KCAL (TV)

C

"Decent expert sourcing, poor mix of opinions. Local, good on breaking events."

KTTV (TV)

D

"Just missed a C. Good sourcing, lots of crime. More localism would help. Fox lead-in hurts."

KTLA (TV)

F

"Worst in L.A. Proof that tabloid can succeed. But can you sell Hal Fishman to the Dawson's Creek crowd?"

Minneapolis

KSTP-TV

B

"Best half-hour in town. Lots of crime, investigations. Makes national stories local. Could improve sourcing."

KARE (TV)

C

"Down a grade from last year, ratings follow. Good sourcing, least local coverage."

WCCO-TV

C

"B last year. Best sourcing, investigations at 10. Strong breaking news, could be more local."

KMSP-TV

B

"Second-best prime show in study. Lots of sources, mix of opinions. Low on crime, local institutions." (9-10 p.m.)

KMSP-TV

D

"Is this the same station that airs the one-hour show? Lots of feeds, horse-race politics." (10-10:30 p.m.)

New York

WABC-TV

B

"From worst to first in N.Y. Best half-hour in town for issues, investigations, sources. Light on breaking news.

WNBC (TV)

B

"Solid station. Bouncing back at 11 p.m. Good expert sources, mix of opinions. Could be more local."

WCBS-TV

C

"Improving, but long way to go. No investigations, lots of everyday incidents."

WNYW (TV)

C

"Just missed a B. Big on issues, breaking news, expert sources. Decent localism. Slipping in the ratings."

WPIX (TV)

C

"Beats market/nation for mix of opinions. Most multiple sources. Least coverage of metro area."&

WWOR-TV

C

"Heavy ideas/issues, light on breaking news. Most investigation at 10 p.m. Many feed stories."

Phoenix

KTVK (TV)

A

"Best in Phoenix. Most investigations, expert sources. Half the national average for unnamed sources. Stories really well done."

KPHO-TV

B

"Almost an A. Big on breaking news and horse-race politics. Coverage too one-sided."

KPNX (TV)

B

"Good station in ratings war. Best at breaking news. Makes national news locally relevant."

KNXV-TV

F

"Lowest score in three years. Lots of stories, no depth. Promo: We won't waste your time. 'They do."

SF/Oakland

KTVU (TV)

A

"Best score ever in study. Twice national average for issues, experts, balance and relevance. Proof quality sells."

Sioux Falls

KELO-TV

A

"Ratings slippage despite monster tune-in. Covers state well, but too many stories with no sources."

KSFY-TV

C

"Too many unnamed-sources, one-source stories. Not much breaking news or issues. Ratings loser."

KDLT-TV

D

"Last place but climbing. Lots of news conferences. Best in town for issues. Covers Sioux Falls and its institutions."

Tucson

KGUN (TV)

A

"Does it all. Longest stories. Lots of investigations. Good at breaking news. No unsourced stories. Building ratings."

KOLD-TV

B

"Almost an A. Ratings cold. Needs investigations, more breaking news. Broad coverage of Tucson."

KVOA (TV)

B

"Longtime market leader, good station challenged. 40% news conferences. Many one-source stories."

Wichita

KAKE-TV

B

"Slipping score, decent ratings. Good sourcing. Lots of person-in-the-street interviews. Could improve breaking news."

KSNW (TV)

C

"Superficial, no investigations or tough interviews. Good expert sourcing and regional coverage."

KWCH-TV

D

"Longtime ratings leader halting slide. Only investigation in market. Low on expert sources."

 

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