Research shows that the more money and education people have, the less likely they are to watch local TV news. Here are some suggestions for reversing that trend.
On the face of it, local television news has never been stronger. Studies show that the local newscast is—overwhelmingly—the preferred vehicle for Americans to get their news. According to the RTNDF 2006 Future of News survey, 65.5% say they get most of their news from local TV—double newspapers and more than five times than from the Internet. But, look a little closer at the research and what’s on air, and there’s reason for concern.
For example, deeper in the RTNDF report, you discover that the higher the income, the lower local TV news scored, from 74.4% for those making under $30,000 to 54.1% for those at $100,000 plus. As you would expect from those figures, local TV news viewing drops as education rises, from 71% for those who dropped out of high school to 41.7% for those with post graduate degrees.
Add to this your own anecdotal evidence: Get a group of college-educated, middle-to-high income people together and ask them if they watch local news. They will give you a litany of why they never do: too much crime, too much story-teasing and not enough story-telling, and an over-reliance on hype.
They have tired of the “ask the question then tease the answer” format of “Can your alarm clock kill you? Find out at 11.” They’ve broken the code on this kind of simplistic news, and they seek journalism that engages them more as equals and less as consumers.
They say they get their news from Jon Stewart and cable, from online news sources and even the imperiled newspaper.
Upscale demos are moving away from local news, because of what local news isn’t doing.
As local news budgets have tightened, there are fewer resources to focus on stories that aren’t “day of,” resulting in less investigative journalism and engaging stories of substance.
But there are things stations can do to capture upscale viewers. First, get to know this group. Probe what their lives at home and at work are like and what’s important to them. Lean on your research department to add flesh to this profile. Then create content that appeals to them.
Some of the best ideas are investigative in nature. For example, Scripps’s WEWS in Cleveland produced a piece in February that connected with almost every viewer in the DMA.
One of the station’s photographers got a ticket in the mail, accusing him of speeding through an intersection. He was allegedly caught by a camera attached to a red light, but he firmly believed that he was neither speeding nor rushing the light.
The station took his ticket—along with the sequence of photographs of his car in the intersection—to a mathematician, who went out to the intersection with a tape measure. He calculated that the photographer was not speeding. It was actually another car in the photograph that was guilty.
More digging revealed that thousands of people fight these camera tickets, and most of the time the ticket is dropped. The station put the mayor on the hot seat and asked why the faulty camera system was still in use.
Another recent piece involved returned meat that was rewrapped and put back on the shelf.
News Director Steve Hyvonen, a seasoned journalist who has worked in both local and cable news, says that WEWS has invested heavily in investigative reporting.
“We won our 11 p.m. newscast for the first time in five years thanks in large part to an extremely aggressive investigative push throughout the book.”
Hearst-Argyle’s WTAE in Pittsburgh recently aired an investigation regarding state judges who receive donations from lawyers with cases before them. It was comprehensive, and took awhile to produce, but it was relevant to Western Pennsylvania viewers and was not duplicated anywhere else.
WTAE News Director Bob Longo says this kind of journalism is essential to maintaining his bond with viewers: “It’s a non-traditional TV piece that still hits emotional marks. After all, who wouldn’t care about inequities in the government?
“Newscasts are all about balance,” he says. “This investigation ran in a broadcast that led with weather and then had a story about a Pittsburgh Steeler arrested in a bar fight over the weekend.”
Stations can also use their Web sites to enhance an add depth to their on-air coverage—from putting relevant investigative documents online to streaming longer versions of interviews on important topics. They can also create chat rooms around more substantive topics or offer blogs written by reporters. Sometimes, the most exciting details of story-chasing are only known inside the newsroom.
A third category of stories that appeals to this demo is money: getting and spending wisely. Become the on-air source for news about housing and real estate, mall buzz, finding bargains, avoiding scams. Help your viewers negotiate the pitfalls of the marketplace. For example, is it really worth it to shop at Whole Foods versus a conventional supermarket?
Respected news guru Larry Rickel, president and CEO of The Broadcast Image Group, says that “to bring the fleeing news viewer back to your newscasts, you must make your story selection and treatment more relevant everyday, delivering value for your customer’s time.”
Breaking news and weather coverage is what brings viewers in, but substantive reporting on the issues that viewers care about—told creatively and engagingly—will keep them coming back, regardless of income and education.
Mark Effron is a veteran broadcast news executive, having spent many years at Post-Newsweek Stations. Most recently, he was vice president of daytime programming for MSNBC. He’s currently a consultant as well as finishing up the first in a series of mystery novels with a broadcast news background. He can be reached at [email protected]