The death knell has been sounded many, many times for local TV news. It’s as out of touch as Ron Burgundy’s three-piece suit, say critics, and the next generation of consumers—raised on the immediacy of the Web—is not about to wait for the news and weather at 5 or 6 or 11 p.m. The number of people who regularly watch local news has dropped at an alarming rate, according to a Pew Research Center study, with young people in particular severing ties to TV.
Yet a closer look at the issue shows that the demand for wholly relevant, truly local local news remains hot as ever, and the savvier stations that invest in producing unmistakably differentiated content will continue to hold a place in the future of the media. As the local broadcast landscape realigns after last year’s torrid tide of consolidation, a fresh crop of group-level news execs is intent on breaking the mold and trying something big and bold—and built to last.
“If we go out and take the same approach that we’ve taken for 20 years, we can assume the results will be modest at best,” says Sean McLaughlin, who became VP of news at Scripps earlier this year and is helping develop a national 4 p.m. show for the group. “The sense of sameness among newscasts is one of the biggest challenges we face—viewers just don’t see the difference from one to the other. The challenge is upon us to innovate and create newscasts that resonate with people. We talk about it, but industry-wide, it’s just not happened.”
While they’re often dismissed as fickle, younger consumers are hungry for rock-solid local content, posits illuminating research from Frank N. Magid Associates, and the phones in their pockets provide stations with an opportunity to deliver it all day long. Nearly two-thirds of “18-to-34-year-olds think TV is a viable platform for [local] news,” reports Magid, and 54% are “certain” they’ll watch local newscasts 10 years from now. It’s an encouraging development for stations. “Television is not dead,” says Laura Clark, senior VP at Magid. “The younger audience is not rejecting local TV news. What it’s saying is, ‘You need to meet my needs better.’”
Relevant, But How?
The percentage of people who regularly watch local news dropped 6% from 2006 to 2012, according to Pew, with those ages 18-29 sliding 14%. The drop is alarming, and figuring how exactly to meet the needs of younger consumers is something station group chiefs think about all the time. The word they come back to repeatedly is relevance: how to be relevant to the local viewer, how to be relevant to the next generation user, how to ensure relevance 10 years from now. Pondering the form and delivery of local news a decade down the road is a distant notion for a news director who’s way more focused on the next sweeps.
Some stations have drastically revamped the concept of local TV news. New Fox O&O WJZY Charlotte started with a blank canvas, debuting a 10 p.m. news in January with no traditional anchor desk and nary a microwave truck in the field. Sister Fox affiliate WWOR New York, meanwhile, features the TMZ-inspired Chasing New Jersey, where a “ringleader” takes the place of a traditional anchor in what creator Dennis Bianchi calls a “rollicking ride” through the day’s issues.
Karen Adams, WJZY VP and general manager, says the model for the fledgling news operation— which adds morning and early evening news this summer—came from she and VP of local content Geoff Roth asking each other which local news conventions they most despised, such as gushy anchor handoffs and reporters live at a site that was newsworthy hours—or days—before.
“We’ve taken away the barriers that seem to exist between viewers and someone telling the stories,” she says of WJZY’s “conversational” approach.
Mark Washburn, influential TV critic at The Charlotte Observer, called it “either the future of local news or an experiment gone boldly awry.”
Last summer, Jack Abernethy, Fox Television Stations CEO, announced the group was “retiring the typical anchorman” in a presentation. If there’s one aspect of local TV news that the news leaders seem intent on not hauling into the future, it’s the Voice of God anchor whose throaty baritone has narrated local news for a half-century. “Viewers want people who are people, not people who were hired out of anchor school,” says Katherine Green, who was named VP of news at Tribune Broadcasting in April. “They want real, smart, credible people.”
Green oversees a whopping 1,400 hours of local news a week at Tribune, which has tried some fresh takes on news with programs such as morning show Eye Opener, and the anchorless and “cinematic” NewsFix; both debuted at KIAH Houston in 2011, while NewsFix comes to Dallas in June. The goal for the many Tribune news outlets is an “emotional connection,” Green says. “The reaction could be happiness, joy or pleasure,” she adds. “It could be anger and outrage. It could be sympathy— as long as you feel something.”
The forward-thinking news chiefs speak of fewer fires and crime stories, and greater context to stories. “Minor crimes and accidents— people have spoken loud and clear with their remotes,” says McLaughlin. “It’s just not relevant in our world.”
A Whole New Enterprise
As much as station chiefs talk about relevancy, they also cite points of differentiation: What is a station doing that truly makes it different from the three or four other news stations in the market? Scripps’ WMAR Baltimore debuted a new 6 p.m. newscast in April, called In Focus, which promised to “slow down a bit, dig deeper and ask more questions.” A segment earlier this month offered a close-up of a prostitution bust.
In New York, where WNYW has been featuring the words “Engaging,” “Relevant” and “Unexpected” in large type as it heads into commercial breaks, the station has vowed to provide enterprise content with Fox Docs, a summer documentary series.
Doing the legwork on enterprise material is difficult in an era when stations are producing more news with fewer bodies. According to a study last year from RTDNA/Hofstra University, over 40% of stations planned to increase local output last year, while total TV staffing was down slightly from the year before.
Forrest Carr, former news director at KGUN Tucson, WFLA Tampa and others, recommends at least one reporter on any given day that’s focused on enterprise stories—signature pieces that take a few days, or weeks, to develop, but ultimately help the station stand out from every other media outlet in the market. “It’s not the stickup at the convenience store that brings people to your station,” says Carr. “Enterprise reporting is the only thing that has any possibility of distinguishing you with all the competing sources of news out there.”
There’s still very much a place for breaking news and weather, say the news vets, but some of the time dedicated to celeb misdeeds and lost airplanes on the other side of the world could be reinvested in the local content rundown. “Breaking news and weather get people in the door,” McLaughlin says. “But you have to go deeper than that.”
The local news vets agree that the time has never been better to take advantage of technological advancements to encourage that connection with users. Whether it’s the Sinclair stations grabbing 70-plus livestreaming JVC ProHD cameras; the ABC owned stations relaunching their websites with “responsive design” that better adjusts to the user’s device; or little WBND South Bend, Ind., hitting the field with a whopping 11 LiveU packs; the smarter groups believe that better gear means better content.
They are also tapping digitally exceptional types to manage social media operations, as opposed to giving such duties to veteran station staffers whose skill sets are retrofitted with digital. Social is an increasingly critical platform. “We can communicate what is happening at that moment,” says Larry Wert, president of broadcast media at Tribune. “More than ever, we are 24/7 news operations.”
If It Ain’t Broke
Making significant changes in local news content is a daunting undertaking. News executives speak of the frustration of trying something new on screen, only to have viewers complain that even cosmetic changes aren’t to their liking.
Moreover, it’s hard to expect a leading news station, swimming in profitability, to upend its winning formula. To be sure, much of the innovation in local TV news these days comes from stations with less to lose. KIAH Houston, Tribune’s testing ground for new concepts, was the No. 6 revenue station in the market in 2012, according to BIA/Kelsey. Chasing New Jersey airs on a MyNetwork-TV station licensed across the Hudson from Manhattan. WJZY debuted news in a market full of tough competitors; trying to beat them at their own game was never going to fly.
And for all the talk of scrapping anchors, some stress that too much attention may be paid to shaking up the conventional local news trappings. “The format is not what’s broken,” believes Bill Lamb, president and general manager of WDRB Louisville. “If you’re getting people the content they want, the format is fine, the delivery system is fine. You just have to give people less fluff.”
Like Adams in Charlotte, Joseph Denk, WFRV Green Bay VP and general manager, had a clean slate in Marquette in which to build a news operation. He grabbed digital HD gear and hired a band of multimedia journalists for sister station WJMN. He also rebranded the station “Local 3” before it debuted local news April 21, making it clear to viewers what the news newcomer’s positioning statement is. “In orientation and training, we put the emphasis at all times on local, local, local,” Denk says. “We offer unique and distinct local content, and we want to be the No. 1 source of it.”
Sticking with the hyper-local sure sounds simple enough, but several news vets say that, somewhere along the line, the local focus fell out of favor in the station world. Fully 80% of consumers want content that “opens your eyes to things you should know about,” according to the Magid study, without much drop off from seniors to Millennials. With feet on the street and decades-old brands in the communities, TV stations are well poised to deliver that.
“We have to step back and look at what we are doing,” says Scripps’ McLaughlin. “At the end of the day, we have to produce relevant content that connects with the audience. If we don’t do that, it’s impossible to succeed.”
FOX’S NEW NEWS IN N.C.: WORK (OF ART?) IN PROGRESS
Mark Washburn, veteran TV critic at The Charlotte Observer, has been keenly watching the fledgling newscast develop at new Fox O&O WJZY. He weighs in, via email, on Fox 46 news’ progress over its first five-plus months:
“You know those spin-art paintings you used to make at the carnival? That’s the 10 p.m. newscast. It keeps whirling and getting new coats.
“There’s clearly lots of experimenting going on. First it was a no-necktie zone, now people are dressing up. First it was enterprise reporting, now they’re trying breaking news.
“One thing they’ve stuck to that makes them different from every other station in Charlotte is the de-emphasis on routine stick-ups and wrecks, which get oh-my-God play on the competition. Charlotte isn’t Miami or Houston—most of our criminals aren’t enterprising enough to rate top-story treatment, though they tend to get it every night.
“I’ve seen some troubling errors at Fox 46 that may go to a lack of experience on a mostly young staff and because of people unfamiliar with the region and the terrain. I hope to see that improve with age.
“Meanwhile, the centrifuge is still spinning. It’s been an interesting experiment to watch, but it’s not art yet.”