Local news: Alive, changing

RTNDA panel says Sept. 11 and tough economy are transforming the industry
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Local news will survive, even thrive, despite current challenges, say news leaders, but not without changes—some of them fundamental.

A panel of local-news leaders addressing the state of their industry at the Radio-Television News Directors Association/NAB convention last week sought to counter notions that local news is in trouble. But they acknowledged that tough economic times, increasing competition, and even the current emphasis on international news have taken their toll.

"We have allowed navel-gazers and newspaper reporters—who secretly wish they were working in television—to set an agenda," said Post-Newsweek Vice President for News Mark Effron. Local news, he said, is better and smarter than ever.

Fred Young, Effron's counterpart at the Hearst-Argyle station group, said recent closings of news departments in markets as large as St. Louis still do not point to an industry in serious trouble. "TV news is alive and well. Even Wal-Mart closes a bad store from time to time."

But, clearly, economic hard times have hurt the business, he acknowledged, particularly in the number of practitioners. "I'm unsure if we'll ever be back at prior industry levels. But people are being hired. It will come back slowly."

For small, independent TV stations, said Cox Television President Andrew Fisher, "it will be difficult to survive with local news." The strong will survive, he predicted. "If you're good, you're fine. If you're mediocre, you're not. We're getting back to 60-hour weeks. The people who see this as a nine-to-five [job] are going to have a tough time."

Prodded by moderator John Siegenthaler, of NBC News, Fisher suggested that, while the Sept. 11 catastrophe was devastating to television's collective bottom line, there was a sense that it prompted an increase in interest not only in international news but in news overall. Watching the evening news as a family unit, he noted, "had ceased to be a habit." The recent surge of interest in news "has brought that back somewhat."

Panelists Jim Yager, head of Benedek Broadcasting; Deb McDermott, of Young Broadcasting; John Lansing, of Scripps Broadcasting; and Effron all said there is flexibility in local TV news' future. Young's KRON-TV was forced to build on its news presence when it gave up its NBC affiliation this year, and Post-Newsweek's WJXT-TV Jacksonville, Fla., will do the same when it surrenders its CBS affiliation (B&C, 4/8).

"We're hiring in Jacksonville," said Effron, whose station will double its news output.

Media General news chief Dan Bradley noted, though, that not all news expansion means an expansion of resources. Many stations add news, he said, but don't want to add staff: They want more product without added support.

Gary Wordlaw, a veteran newsman who is now general manager at Granite's WTVH(TV) Syracuse, N.Y., added that, while there is more overall news programming, there is frequently little additional content and that repetition is a way to drive viewers away. Phil Balboni, head of New England Cable News, however, pointed out that, while that might be true for local broadcasters, repetition is part of 24-hour cable news.

Although many people and stations will leave the news business in the next five years, said Benedek Broadcasting President/CEO Jim Yager, "those who remain have to continue investing."

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