Local TV News Should Drill Even Deeper

There’s a missed opportunity in local markets for TV stations to capitalize on: Super serve smaller communities within DMAs where competition is scant.

Mary Collins

There seems to be a lot of news — both good and bad — about news. Sinclair is eliminating local news in five U.S. markets. Tucker Carlson’s departure translates to fewer viewer for Fox News’ 8 p.m. ET time slot. Paramount staffing cuts mean the end of MTV’s 36-year-old MTV News. BuzzFeed is dropping its Pulitzer Prize-winning digital news website. Gawker is closing just 18 months after its reboot. Vice is headed into bankruptcy; it closed Vice World News at the of April.

On the plus side and as first announced in TVNewsCheck, Emily Barr, former CEO-president of Graham Media, is part of the Maine Journalism Foundation Board working to purchase a newspaper group in that state. Also on the local front, Axios is now producing daily newsletters for 29 U.S. communities with the 30th planned for San Diego.

However, most of the activity is in national news. The Washington Post launched its FAST (free ad-supported television) channel, Washington Post Television, with coverage of King Charles III’s coronation. Then there’s The Messenger, a digital news startup from Jimmy Finkelstein, formerly an owner of The Hill and of The Hollywood Reporter, which is set for a “May 15 launch in beta with 200 employees.”

News Needs Help

All of this activity masks a fundamental problem. Most Americans don’t trust U.S. media and a majority blame it for our divided nation. Just over a month ago, The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights conducted a survey to measure Americans’ attitudes about news. The researchers report that “nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults say the news media is increasing political polarization in this country.” Barely half of those surveyed believed in “the news media’s ability to report the news fully and fairly.” Worse yet, “only 16% say they are very confident.”


Interestingly, “a majority rate in-depth and investigative reporting as very helpful or extremely helpful for understanding the issues they care about.” Unfortunately, particularly when it comes to local issues, this is the one thing that broadcast news viewers rarely, if ever, get. They won’t even have a chance if what was the local news segment is comprised of a national feed with some added regional news.

About 18 months ago, in my first Managing Media column, I wrote about the importance of local news and how its loss correlates with a lower likelihood to vote, a less politically informed electorate and increases in corruption. At that time, I argued that broadcasters should step in and find ways to increase local reporting before concerned citizens pushed Congress to act. I now realize that this was naïve at best. Congress isn’t going to be dealing with this issue in the foreseeable future and broadcasters are facing the more urgent problems of a downturn in local advertising and the possibility of a recession.

The question becomes, how do broadcasters justify investment in news? There is an answer for those who are willing to consider it. When you look at the bad news/good news examples I outlined above, you will notice that most of the activity seems to be at the national news level. Several companies are finding they cannot make a go of it, while others with deep pockets are announcing new offerings. There’s a whole lot of competition for national news viewers; only a few can be successful.

Where there is minimal competition is at the local level. Most newspapers are cutting back, few are taking the approach of Barr and her colleagues. Axios is slated to be in 30 markets, but they are only scratching the surface and, from what I’ve seen, relying on other local reporting to fill their daily newsletters. The real opportunity seems to be in providing unduplicated and in-depth local content.

Markets and available technology are so different from when broadcasters originally launched their news coverage in the middle of the last century. In those days, stations had one channel with limited slots into which they needed to cram all the day’s regional news of interest along with sports scores and the weather forecast. Fortunately, local newspapers with both morning and evening editions covered the rest. Now, the evening editions and many long-respected newspapers themselves are gone. Those left print many fewer pages and rely heavily on national sources such as AP, The New York Times or sister papers in other markets. On the television side, while there are now websites to support on-air news reporting, the model really hasn’t changed; a lot of local news just doesn’t get reported.

The Opportunity

This is a lot of missed opportunity. Take, for example, the Cincinnati area. A quick search tells me that it encompasses 24 counties in three states — Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. Echo Media reports that 102 newspapers cover the DMA. The list includes USA Today, college newspapers and some special interest newspapers (e.g., Cincinnati Catholic Telegraph). Only 20 of the listed publications include a Sunday edition. There is no way that most residents in the area are getting in-depth reporting of the news that affects them most. My guess is that Cincinnati itself gets the lion’s share of the coverage and the other communities are mentioned when a story could have national interest.

Imagine an experiment in which one of the station group owners in Cincinnati hires a team to cover news in all area municipalities including things such as city council issues, school board meetings and actions taken by the area’s largest employers. Think of the possibilities. Currently available technology means that a station could create individual feeds for each community in its viewership area. Some of the content could be used on the main broadcast channel. Other pieces could be shared on social media sites. The beauty is that all of it would be unduplicated elsewhere.

Cox has put a toe in this water with its NeighborhoodTV initiative. But I’d argue it hasn’t gone far enough. The website shows a total of 10 people responsible for producing and managing content for North Metro Atlanta, Southeast Atlanta and Charlotte.

How To Make It Pay

Such an experiment opens the door to any number of new advertisers or new advertising opportunities. With dedicated feeds for each community, advertisers can easily target customers in their trading area. If the group also has its own ad agency, this provides another opportunity to increase business for that division. This approach also opens to door to local political advertising sales as well as offering a unique opportunity for state and national candidates to target their messages.

To be successful, the effort will require comprehensive strategic planning and implementation. For my Cincinnati example, I’d start by developing a thorough inventory of all the communities in the 24-county area. Such an inventory would include all local government information down to types of elected positions and a calendar of planned meetings for each.

This inventory would also need to include all sources of local news along with the best possible information about numbers of reporters by location. Are there journalism schools in the area? That should be noted. Then comes the interesting exercise of planning how many and what types of feeds are needed to provide the in-depth reporting that will attract audience. Coverage needed will certainly vary by community.

Next comes a realistic estimate of incremental revenue from the new venture. This estimate will then provide a range for investment to achieve the goals. Staffing it will require creative thinking and deep market knowledge. I envision a limited number of full-time employees along with a crew of part-time and contract employees sourced from college journalism programs, partnerships with local print organizations and even luring some former reporters out of retirement to cover stories in their neighborhoods.

This cannot happen overnight and will require strong leadership capable of both seeing the big picture and pitching in to handle details as needed.

My one caveat is that this will only work if the station(s) behind the experiment believe in it and are committed to seeing it through to success. As Hank Price wrote in his March column about CNN’s turnaround, “failure is usually the result of giving up too easily.”

Fortune favors the bold. I look forward to hearing results from the station group or groups bold enough to invest in their future.

Former president and CEO of the Media Financial Management Association and its BCCA subsidiary, Mary M. Collins is a change agent, entrepreneur and senior management executive. She can be reached at [email protected].

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