For TV News, Sacred Cows Are A Fatal Impediment To Change

If local TV journalism is to have a future, its leaders need to assess the true value of everything it holds sacred and empower the change agents who may have been pushed to the margins.
Sean McLaughlin

Sean McLaughlin

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the importance of transitioning the local news anchor role to a more field-oriented, working-journalist model. I also suggested moving away from the “hire them from anywhere” approach and focusing more on home-grown talent, people deeply rooted in the communities on which they report the news.

Let me say that the amount of negative reaction over the suggestion of changing the current approach is indicative of the problem we face in this industry: Too many people are convinced what we are doing is right, and all local stations need to take the exact same approach. There is only one way to do local news, and anything that deviates from this archaic formula cannot and will not work. Forgive me for thinking that is ludicrous, particularly at a time when audiences are not exactly flocking to today’s rendition of the 6 p.m. news.

When I’ve talked to newspaper leaders over the years, they described the same kind of debates and cultural challenges in the early 2010s. The old guard won out, as they waited too long to make tough changes that could have extended their viability. Similar cultural issues prevented change in radio newsrooms before it was too late. We need to learn from the mistakes of those who were disrupted before us. Denial is the first step in the path to extinction.

Taking big swings right now is a must. As a growing number of live linear newscasts generate a decimal point before any numbers, there is nothing to suggest that the current state is sacred, or even sustainable, for much longer. This is especially true when upwards of a half dozen stations in many markets do the exact same thing every day, only Sally and Bob anchor at one station, while Helen and John are at the helm of another. If you are a station or newsroom leader and find yourself in the never-ending discussions of “well, we have to keep that” or “there’s no way we could even consider that” or “that failed when one station tried it in the ’90s,” let me suggest you need to challenge yourself to think bigger and push harder. Fixing local news won’t be easy or for the faint of heart.

Let me be clear: There are plenty of high performing or major market stations nowhere near the “let’s blow it up” point. But there are also many that are there. If you’ve been a distant, last-place station in the ratings since the Reagan years, it might be time to conclude that taking the same approach as everyone else hasn’t worked to this point, and it isn’t going to magically become successful in year 30 or 40, either.


As I recall saying to a combative general manager once upon the discussion of changing approach, “Why are you fighting so hard to protect an approach where you’re losing so badly?” Winning stations need to change too, but we’ll save that for another time.

Where do you even start when it comes to making significant change? Let me suggest two places: Identify the one thing you’re best known for and empower the disruptive thinkers in your building (these often aren’t department heads).

Every station has some area of meaningful differentiation in the eyes of the community. Forget the tagline; your brand is how your community thinks and feels about you. Finding that one area of traction and differentiation, then expanding on it and dialing it up significantly, can get things moving. If these conversations start centering on breaking news, weather coverage or an anchor, start over. That is almost never the answer inside low-performing news organizations.

On the change and leadership sides, voices of innovation and disruption exist in every budling. You need to find them. Two personality types tend to dominate conversations about significant product change: The negative, no way, 50-reasons-it-will-fail person and the visionary type who can see beyond the obvious short-term obstacles. There are far more of the first group, and they are very vocal.

Station leadership, assuming they are on board with change, need to identify and give voice to these change agents inside the building. Create a culture where real ideas of innovation are discussed, and the naysayers aren’t always silencing them. If conversations about disrupting the approach to local news aren’t uncomfortable, awkward and tense at times, then the right ideas and culture aren’t in place.

Leaders have a mandate in 2024 to tap into the creativity and passion to identify the places to start the challenging process of disrupting ourselves and innovating how we produce and distribute local news. A lack of this change originating from the ground up is what leads to companies legislating it from the top. Which would you rather do?

Up front, discuss the sacred cows. Every company and every station has them. Here are a few: anchors, sports and weather are a start. And how about this one: Does every product for every station need to be executed live? There are many national news programs that are of the highest quality and are not done live (60 Minutes comes to mind). But for some reason, that’s a sacred cow in discussion of local news.

The sacred cows make changing local news very difficult. Almost immediately, the reasons why change can’t or shouldn’t be done take precedence instead of considering a radical possibility: What if these changes make the products better, differentiate the station and offer a quality alternative to younger local news consumers?

Don’t let sacred cows stifle your efforts to build a news operation that is modernized and more connected than many of the ones operating today.

Once ideas are flowing, action plans, deadlines and accountability are everything. How many times have you found yourself in a meeting where great ideas come up and then nothing ever comes of them? Leadership must step up and turn ideas in action. Plan A might not be perfect, but that’s where modifications and revisions keep innovation moving forward.

Creative and innovative people need to see the fruits of their work. There’s one caution here: Avoid the easy and popular temptation to go back to what you were doing before. Changes won’t be perfect the first go around. Changes and revisions also need to be forward looking, which will continue to make people uncomfortable. These discussions need to be the center of every significant meeting daily inside the station from editorial to station leadership. Anything less will be too little.

Some people may read this and see some elements as radical or extreme. Let me push back. I love local news and value its role in society. We are needed more than ever to perpetuate a healthy and functional democracy. But I see our voice and impact shrinking. I see more challenges recruiting people to the craft of storytelling. I hear more people telling me they rarely or never watch local news. I see our brands becoming less connected and our content less relevant.

I see the data about cord cutting accelerating and more MVPDs finding ways around paying broadcasters for their products. The ad market continues to shift to streaming and other growing platforms. All signs point to a current state that cannot sustain us into the future. This is the time to be realistic about that future, inclusive of new perspectives in discussions about evolving the business model and courageous in developing plans that change the foundation of local news to put it on better financial footing with products that captivate people and change communities for the better.

Veteran local TV news executive Sean McLaughlin most recently was SVP, local news, for the E.W. Scripps Co.

Comments (7)

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Former Producer says:

April 5, 2024 at 9:25 am

You forgot the biggest sacred cow that’s holding back local TV news: money.

Broadcasters love to make money. They hate to spend money unless it’s absolutely necessary. I understand that! You’ve made clear in various posts that money matters, and sometimes, tough decisions must be made because money matters.

However, reinvention costs money. I believe most broadcasters acknowledge this. I also believe a majority of those broadcasters are unwilling to invest the money needed for reinvention, because “such-and-such station is still delivering an acceptable revenue stream so who cares if they’re in fourth place.”

The result? You have TV stations that are still doing the same thing because that’s all they can afford. Or, you have TV stations that are trying new things, but to the detriment of other things that are necessary — i.e. “We’ll increase salaries for some people by firing other people to free up money, and those people with the pay raises can pick up the slack.” These aren’t local decisions either. These are decisions made in corner offices in places like Irving, Texas, Atlanta, Georgia, Hunt Valley, Maryland, and Cincinnati, Ohio.

To paraphrase the old saying, if you want to make an omelet, you’ve got to break a few eggs. The TV news business largely chooses to leave the frying pan empty.

Cosmo says:

April 5, 2024 at 9:48 am

It’s obvious why Former Producer is “former.” Last time we checked TV is a business and not a charitable enterprise. But FP is a reader giving his opinion; why does TV NewsCheck foist upon us in the first place someone who’s concepts so obviously failed at Scripps?

Former Producer says:

April 5, 2024 at 10:10 am

Oh Cosmo, it’s clearly not obvious to you why I am a former producer. But keep guessing. It amuses me!

I am well aware that TV news is a business. Any business needs to spend money in order to stay relevant and stay in business. Don’t believe me? Look at what happened to newspapers. Or even Sears and K-Mart. What happened to newspapers will happen to TV at this point.

AIMTV says:

April 5, 2024 at 10:49 am

Massive, vocal resistance to innovation is one clue that innovation is needed in the first place. What, again, is the definition of insanity? But it’s usually tougher for a big industry that once was a dominant player to innovate, despite the apparent need, than for a new, leaner, smaller industry player to emerge. There are still some great minds left in broadcast TV, and the audience, though declining rapidly, is still available. Perhaps if GMs, NDs, and PDs weren’t stretched so thin by doing jobs meant for five people by the consolidated ownership, they might be able to innovate their way out of this cycle of doom or, at the very least, have the time to curate content to a minimum standard of watchable quality (Allen Media, I’m talking to you, but not ONLY you). But as the former producer says so eloquently in his comments, money is all that matters, or, in this case, a third or fourth vacation home for those at the itsy-bitsy tippy-top and little money left over to run things properly with enough personnel, creativity, and brain power. Cosmo (his real name? – joke) seems to be happy with the cycle of doom the broadcast industry is embarking upon. Now, what’s the definition of insanity again?

Hopeyoumakeit says:

April 5, 2024 at 11:19 am

it does not matter where the anchor is sitting when all newscasts start with shootings and car wrecks. The biggest problem is that corporate is far more focused on retrans fees and political ads. It feels like corporate considers their local news product a place holder for boosted “dark money-issue” advertising. I know becasue I spent 30+ years monetizing major local news. How about you reconnect with your audience reporting on the issues that affect their lives.

tvn-member-1331791 says:

April 5, 2024 at 12:31 pm

Sean: I found your comments mostly right on target. I’ve always been amazed that our industry which has so many very creative people is often so resistant to change. This resistance often exists not only within stations, but within corporate leadership as well. Decades ago when there were plenty of audience and money to be shared by basically three stations, judging our products by the same standards may have worked. Today sameness clearly isn’t working in most markets With shrinking dollars and viewership, its essential that news organizations go beyond simply doing a good job of covering news and clearly define their products with a clear, consistent brand identity. We have reached a critical tipping point. Now is the time for innovation!
Jay Newman – Baltimore, Maryland

[email protected] says:

April 6, 2024 at 10:04 pm

Local news will always be if it bleeds it leads I don’t ever think that will change in my opinion. Those lifestyle programs are nothing but pay to play 8 West which gets 3 airings 11AM on Wood TV, 3PM on WOTV, & 5PM on The CW WMI, Fox17 Morning Mix at 10AM. WZZM use to have a pay to play show but since COVID they haven’t aired it got cancelled as I don’t see it coming back.

Those other programs that Scripps & TEGNA have created were very low budget and very cheap I can’t stand Daily Blast Live which isn’t live when WZZM airs it at 7:30PM since it’s debut in fall of 2017 replacing The Insider which I wouldn’t be surprised it is dead last in 7:30PM half hour. The List surprised that lasted for a little over a decade although was only on for 2 an half years on Fox17 aired it on the weekend only in winter of 2021 and was on 5 days a week Sep 2021 to June 2023 was on 12PM in 2021 and 2PM in 2022 to the end. Only watched it a few times on the weekends.