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Local TV Newscasts Expanding by Brian Stelter

Aug 21, 2011

Source: New York Times

ST. LOUIS — Coming soon to this city’s television screens: more news at 4 in the morning, again at 10, and at 4 in the afternoon.

KSDK, the local NBC affiliate, is adding newscasts to those time slots next month, giving it six and a half hours of local news each weekday, its highest count to date.

As in many other markets, the news is starting earlier than ever in the morning, and replacing “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in the afternoon. To supply it in St. Louis, KSDK is hiring 10 people and buying new cameras and trucks.

This is what the rebound in local television looks like. Three years after the business buckled under the weight of the advertising recession, the more popular stations in markets like St. Louis are adding newscasts and in some cases employees — though not as many as were dismissed during the downturn.

Station economics affect the nation’s news diet because local TV news is consistently identified in surveys as the top news source for most Americans.

A study commissioned by the Federal Communications Commission concluded earlier this year that although there were pockets of excellence in local news, there was still a heavy reliance on thinly stretched staffs and predictable crime and weather coverage.

Three trends have benefited the local station business. First, advertisers have streamed back, especially in the automotive sector that is so important to local media.

Steve Ridge of Frank N. Magid Associates, which consults with local stations nationwide, said local TV ad revenues were up almost 25 percent in 2010 compared with 2009, buttressed by political ad spending. So far this year, even without political ads, the owners of several big groups of stations reported slight upticks in ad revenues versus 2010.

Second, cable and satellite companies have agreed in many cases to pay retransmission fees to stations, and bigger stations in local markets can command bigger fees. Even though stations are splitting those fees with their network partners, like NBC and ABC, they “really have been an infusion of stability,” Mr. Ridge said.

Third, the downturn became a rationale not only to cut costs but to innovate and experiment within news divisions, which have historically been profit centers for stations. The benefit of the industry’s bad times, executives say, is that it forced a hard look at news operations.

“Our view was that local broadcasting had gone on autopilot,” said Dave Lougee, the president of Gannett Broadcasting, which owns KSDK. Industrywide, he said, newscasts had “become sort of commoditized and formulaic — arguably in many cases irrelevant.”

Lynn Beall, the president and general manager of KSDK, said the turbulence “helped us put our focus more on the customer.” KSDK’s anchors and reporters now interact with some of those customers on Facebook and Twitter, making them more aware of community interests. Some of KSDK’s newscasts now include commentary segments. And perhaps most important, many employees have been trained to be what Gannett calls multimedia journalists, also known as one-man bands, able to record, produce and report pieces from start to finish.

“We have more people gathering content than we did a year ago, because more people are trained on more platforms,” Ms. Beall said.

Such arrangements have been a source of grumbling for TV journalists for years, but for those who have never experienced the old way — a reporter, a videographer and sometimes a producer and a sound technician — the new way is more acceptable, and sometimes even preferable.

Some of the changes, Ms. Beall acknowledged, were born out of necessity. During the recession, employees at KSDK were furloughed; at other stations across the country, longtime reporters and anchors were ushered out. Gannett consolidated the graphics and master control operations of its stations to a centralized location, eliminating more workers.

Now, Mr. Lougee said, with “the cost of technology coming down while the quality is going up,” stations have steered a greater percentage of their staffs toward producing content.

© New York Times