JESSELL AT LARGE

Jessell | Local TV Won’t Be Felled By Coronavirus

A barrage of recent headlines has bemoaned the coronavirus-induced death of local news. But let’s not conflate newspapers’ endangerment with the robust television stations tirelessly tackling the pandemic.

As this pandemic has heated up, I’ve been seeing alarming headlines about the damage it is doing to local news. “Local News Outlets Dealt a Crippling Blow by This Biggest of Stories,” shouted the New York Times. “The Coronavirus is Killing Local News,” screamed The Atlantic.

As someone who has been following local broadcasting for 40 years, such headlines grabbed my attention. They didn’t jibe with what I know about TV broadcasting, a major player in local news throughout the country. The virus wasn’t crippling broadcasting and it surely wasn’t killing it.

When I poked into the stories, I quickly discovered the disconnect. They weren’t about local news — not in its entirety. They were focused on newspapers and other local publications.

In the Times article cited above, it was OK, if we can forgive a somewhat misleading headline, but in others it was journalistically negligent, especially so in those that ponder what can be done to save newspapers. They are based on the faulty notion that the loss of newspapers will immediately cast the citizenry into darkness with nowhere to turn for local news and information.

To write about saving local journalism without factoring in the role of television is absurd. It’s like writing about energy policy and forgetting about, say, natural gas.

Ben Smith is the new media columnist for the New York Times. He comes from the digital media world and still apparently has much to learn about the local media world.

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In his March 29 piece, he quotes Elizabeth Green, founder of a nonprofit that is trying to cover local schools, to undergird his premise. “We need to accept that what local news is today is already dying,” she says.

No, we don’t. Some of what local news is today may be dying, but not all. Smith and Green need to wake up and turn on their TVs.

Here are some things they may learn.

There are more than 700 news-producing TV stations in the U.S., each cranking out several hours of news every day. Collectively, they cover virtually every TV home.

Over the past few weeks, thousands from those stations — producers, reporters and photographers — have been on the street, putting their health, if not their lives, on the line to keep their communities up to speed on the pandemic.

It’s what they always do in the face of national and man-made disasters. They may not always be first responders, but they are close second responders. And they don’t go away. The also tend to stick around to report on and sometime participate in recovery and relief efforts.

And local TV news is not struggling financially or being crippled by the pandemic. In fact, ratings are up for local TV news as they are for the broadcast network evening news. People are watching.

And as I reported here last week, the biennial windfall of political advertising and the steady stream of retrans money should allow most stations to grow revenue this year and avoid layoffs in the newsroom.

Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Craig Aaron of the liberal Free Press, proposed the federal government set aside $5 billion “to sustain journalism over the long term,” including $2 billion in grants for local newspapers and alt-weeklies.

In the Atlantic article I referenced above, Steve Waldman and Charles Sennott had a less drastic (and costly) idea for rescuing local news. The federal government, they said, should make a point of directing large portions of its advertising spending to local media. They didn’t say what kind of local media, but from the context it was clear they meant newspapers.

Both prescriptions failed to take notice of TV stations and their important role in local journalism.

I understand that the loss of newspapers is a terrible thing and should be mourned. In their best days, they provided a depth and breadth of reporting that TV stations never have.

They routinely covered municipal government in all its manifestations and by so doing kept elected officials, administrators and the cops in line. No politician wanted to be on the wrong side of a paper’s editorial board or publisher.

They didn’t just report the crimes, fires and accidents, they looked into why they were happening. They had columnists who wrote with pathos and power. They had sports writers who doubled the fun of following a team with their coverage, stats and colorful commentary. A newspaper was where fans could savor the wins and share grief at the losses.

Over the years, newspaper and TV stations nicely complemented each other editorially, even as they viciously competed for the local advertising dollars. The stations supplied the immediacy and the video, while newspapers supplied the details, the dramatic stills and insight.

Last year, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the shooting deaths of 11 people at a synagogue the prior fall. But I can tell you as a Pittsburgher that on the day of the shooting it was local TV that people turned to follow the evolving story, not the paper’s website.

If this pandemic is, indeed, the last straw for beleaguered papers in many cities and towns, I hope that TV stations step up and become more like newspapers. That will not be easy. Stations have historically been resistant to change and most are now owned by giant public companies that will be reluctant to make the necessary heavy editorial investments.

But even as they are, TV stations fill a vital role in their communities, never more so than now with COVID-19 on the loose. They are also a vital force. There may be an existential crisis in newspaper publishing, but not in local news.

N.b. Former Obama-era FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was back at it last month with a piece on the Brookings Institution website. It is primarily an indictment of social media, which he says divides rather than unites the population by feeding us messages that “reinforce our tribal traits.” He says this will become even more alarming if, because of the pandemic, political campaigns have to rely more heavily on social media this year. That will be bad news for the Republic because there is no legal mechanism to regulate social media and temper its harmful effects.

Then Wheeler’s argument takes a weird turn. Since you can’t regulate social media, what can you do? Wheeler answer: Force TV broadcasters to give free airtime to candidates because they have the ability to “deliver a common message on a broad scale.”

It’s a dumb old idea that is being resurrected at the worst possible time. As I just said above, broadcasters are counting on billions of political dollars to stay in the black this year. According to BIA, it will be their No. 1 ad category this year. Take those dollars away and it won’t just be newspapers grasping for breath.

Harry A. Jessell is editor at large of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or here. You can read earlier columns here.


Comments (5)

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RustbeltAlumnus2 says:

April 6, 2020 at 9:51 am

I could not agree more, that local TV journalism can replace news coverage that could be lost by the earlier, (and it’s just a matter of time, even had there been no pandemic) demise of newspapers. On the other hand, stations have been “borrowing” local stories from newspapers for years. These same news teams will need to step up and dig harder. And pay a living wage. All journalists, print or electronic are woefully underpaid.

Terry says:

April 6, 2020 at 3:03 pm

Harry:

I couldn’t agree more with your premise that Local TV won’t be “pulled under” by the Coronavirus pandemic, but I think it highly unlikely that local commercial television stations will ever “step up and become more like newspapers”. Local TV news has been a cash cow for the industry for a long time now, and I just can’t see the ownership groups whose priority is profit over service ever making the investments required to pull it off. That’s not to diminish the service provided by local television – their role in the journalistic ecosystem is exceedingly important, but (to your point) it is more about “immediacy and the video” than about detail and context. But the days of local owners who put community service before profits are all but gone.

I would suggest that a likely replacement for a diminished (or deceased) local print newspaper is an amalgam of the journalism provided by local noncommercial broadcasters and their counterparts on digital platforms. Public radio’s investment in independent, fact-based local news coverage continues to grow in many markets – here in Pittsburgh, for example, our NPR News Station (90.5 WESA) now operates the largest radio newsroom in the city and focuses specifically on those aspects of news coverage that you see communities losing with the demise of the local newspaper: details and insight. Add “context” and “independence from commercial influences” to that list and you’ve defined the vision for public radio journalism.

It seems to me that the efforts of noncommercial public media journalists aligned with those of journalists on nascent digital platforms stand a far better chance of succeeding print newspapers as the place to go for depth, context and perspective in local journalism.

But that’s just one longtime (formerly local television) journalist’s perspective.

Terry O’Reilly
President and CEO
Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting
(operators of WESA-FM and WYEP-FM)

2018bstyrevr says:

April 7, 2020 at 8:50 am

No it’s just going to be the lynchpin to make it impossible for local and network TV to recover..People now have more time to see how worthless these news organizations are..You are such a homer for television stations

videographer says:

April 7, 2020 at 11:57 am

I agree wholeheartedly on the essential nature of local TV news, but while times like these can absolutely be their time to shine, consumer technology is making it easier and easier for viewers to run away from broadcasting. And add to that the fact that the younger generation rarely owns any TV set of any type. (Side note: I worked at a TV station that had a large number of *employees* that were inveterately proud of the fact that they didn’t own a TV set.)

While early attempts at Web-based news orgs were met with yawns, that record isn’t a guarantee of failure in the future. I will still be watching my local news – over the air, on an antenna – for as long as it lasts. But I don’t see that same level of interest in anyone younger than about 40.

tvn-member-3112458 says:

April 7, 2020 at 3:25 pm

You’re right about the money. I have always hoped that when the industry was sufficiently consolidated, it would invest more in news. Well, the industry is sufficiently consolidated. Where is the investment?


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