Amid Local News Death Narratives, There’s An Opportunity For TV
Last week a friend sent me a story about the decline of local news in Raleigh, N.C. Raleigh is a great news market with robust television, web, social and other media, so the headline made no sense until I read the story. It was about the decline of the local newspaper.
You may have noticed that the latest fad among journalism and academic sites has been to bemoan what many call “the end of local news.” Just Google “loss of local news” and you will find dozens of stories. The common theme is that local news is only legitimate if one searches through a wet shrub to find it. I wonder if news is even more legitimate if the paper has a plastic wrapper?
The self-destruction of metro newspapers over the past 15 years has been a sad thing to watch. Chained to an arrogant culture that refused to recognize the future, papers long ago declared not just supremacy, but actual ownership of local information. That is why the rise of competitors, beginning with television, was seen an intrusion into their divine rights.
Sadly, arrogance continues to be on full display. How else do you explain the industry’s adulation over a Kansas City paper’s recent decision to print a blank front page, thus showing those unappreciative readers what they were in danger of losing? I’m reminded of the time our eight-year-old threatened to leave home. We offered to pack a lunch and drop him off at the bus station.
Things have gotten so bad that many of the same publishers who seven years ago decried the failed FCC plan to send monitors into television newsrooms have now gone to Congress with hat in hand asking for government funding of their fading enterprises. Having failed in that, they are now asking for tax credits. As a believer in the First Amendment, I am too stunned to say more.
Of course, the loss of newspapers is more complex than just the rise of competitors. Consumers have taken control of the conversation, rejecting the gatekeeper mentality that news is only what authorities say it is. This broadening definition of what constitutes news, and traditional media’s failure to understand what that means to younger consumers, is a cultural barrier to newspaper survival. It is also a red flag to those of us in television.
So, is local news dying? Old mentalities are certainly dying, but only because new ones are being born. Consumer control through technological choice means we are transitioning to a videocentric, on-demand world. This gives television stations a natural advantage, which is why the better ones are producing record levels of local news, including investigative, enterprise and political coverage, available not just on television and the web, but instantly on every consumer’s personal phone.
All forms of citizen journalism, from local websites to Facebook pages, are growing faster than you can say “does anyone remember Want Ads?” Specialized and cohort news, which used to be exclusive to print magazines, are among the fastest growing forms of local journalism. Most importantly, immediate video is now available on almost anything and everything, and we haven’t even talked about the promise of NextGen TV and 5G.
There is, in fact, so much information now being created that consumers are well-aware of their need for a trusted source, some place they can count on to always tell the unbiased truth. In this need lies the future for many — but not all — television stations. Research indicates we already have a leg up, but to take advantage of this opportunity we must stop thinking of ourselves as gatekeepers. Facilitators who also curate and produce might be a better descriptor.
The arrogance that killed newspapers is still present in the many television newsrooms that continue to see themselves as exclusive producers and disseminators rather than trusted partners. I’ve written a book on that subject, so I won’t go into detail here. Just let me say the future is ours for the taking — including serving younger news consumers — providing we are willing to change our own culture.
Let us never forget the lessons of newspapers, lest we make the same mistakes and come to the same end.
Hank Price is a media consultant and leadership coach. He is the author of Leading Local Television, a guide to leadership for television general managers, as well as those who aspire to top leadership. Price spent 30 years managing TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago and KARE Minneapolis, as well as three other stations. Earlier, he was a consultant for Frank N. Magid Associates. Price also served as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center and is currently director of leadership development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss. He is the author of two other books.