Once again, a wide range of breaking news stories kept local television news departments busy at home as well as sending them across the country and around the world, in some cases. Other developments this past year included an encouraging increase in jobs and the amount of news being produced. Some experiments didn’t work out and while a survey listed broadcast news among the worst jobs, a growing number of station GMs are coming from news departments. This is the first part of TVNewsCheck’s annual look back at the year. Tomorrow in Part II we'll reprise the major developments in business, regulation, programming, network journalism and new media. Part III, the year’s big stories in technology, will be featured on Thursday at noon and Part IV on Friday will highlight those the industry lost in last year.
Local News 2012: Elections, Storms, Horror
The local TV news business is wrapping up 2012 once again at the forefront of covering a huge national story — and being under scrutiny for what it does right or wrong along the way.
Local television journalists — particularly the affiliates from Hartford-New Haven, Conn. (DMA 30) and New York (DMA 1) — have been in the spotlight since their wall-to-wall coverage of last Friday’s mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school.
The shooting rampage was the second deadliest in U.S. history, but only one of several that local news crews covered this year. Others included similar events at a Denver-area movie theater, a Sikh temple near Milwaukee and a Minneapolis sign manufacturer.
Local TV journalists also led coverage of the year’s wild — and immensely destructive — weather events, most notably Hurricane Sandy.
News teams up and down the East Coast covered the massive storm straight from the heart of it, braving viscous winds and dangerous surges along Northeast waterways as Sandy rolled into the area, destroying homes and portions of the coastline along the way. Teams continued working in overdrive for weeks after, maximizing their use of assets like station websites and mobile platforms to reach the thousands of storm victims who lost power — and therefore access to television — during Sandy.
The elements this year also wreaked havoc on Colorado, where journalists worked in full disaster mode for a month last summer covering the worst wildfire season in a decade. Their challenges didn’t end once the fires were contained. The area around Colorado Springs then faced floods and mudslides.
The NBC-owned stations, as well as the network’s affiliates, went for gold in covering the Summer Olympics in London, producing stories, profiles and packages to boost ratings during the 17-day event.
The NBC O&Os made industry news for other reasons, too. One of the original participants in news sharing agreements, the station group took steps to get out or reduce its involvement in those agreements in several markets.
And a few eyebrows were raised by a company policy requiring individuals who work in their newsrooms to follow the company rules governing social media use, regardless of whether they are using the platform to promote news or their personal lives.
Local TV journalists started covering presidential politics in full swing in August when Tampa, Fla., stations geared up to cover the GOP Convention. The action moved to Charlotte, N.C. less than a week later, when President Obama brought the Democratic National Convention to town.
Stations in hotly contested swing states kept their beefed up coverage of the race going straight through Election Night. Nowhere was that more true than that in Ohio, where stations in the state capital, Columbus, zealously covered the Obama-Romney showdown until the bitter end.
The local TV news industry experienced growth in 2012 — a good sign after all the contraction that occurred during those extraordinarily tough recessionary years. The latest RTDNA/Hofstra University annual survey of television journalism, released in July, found that in 2011 the number of TV news jobs rose to the second highest number on record; TV newsrooms have more employees than ever before; and TV stations are airing record-breaking amounts of news.
Hiring in 2011 rose by 4.3%, or 1,131 jobs, which industry watchers say is “remarkable” for a non-political year; they expect 2012 numbers will be even better.
The stations, primarily Fox affiliates, that are producing more local news than ever before — in some cases, airing 60 hours or more a week — are reporting positive results.
In 2011, the average amount of weekday news rose by 12 minutes, bringing the total to 5.5 hours per day, the study found. That’s up from 4.36 hours four years ago.
And about 31% of the country’s news-producing stations said they planned on adding even more this year.
TV reporters produced some pretty worthy stuff throughout the year.
Four commercial stations — Landmark’s KLAS Las Vegas, E.W. Scripps’ WEWS Cleveland, Meredith’s KPHO Phoenix and Belo’s KING Seattle — were among the 38 Peabody Award winners announced in April.
Desert Underwater, KLAS’s extensive series of investigative reports into Las Vegas’ mushrooming housing crisis, exemplified the best in locally produced broadcast journalism. The series prompted the state to quickly pass laws to ease the suffering of homeowners.
RTDNA recognized two Hearst Television stations — WCVB Boston and KCCI Des Moines, Iowa — with its Edward R. Murrow Award for overall news excellence.
WCVB, an ABC affiliate, won for large market stations; KCCI, a CBS affiliate, for small market stations.
Stations produced a host of other noteworthy stories this year. Stations around the country uncovered scary, dangerous and nasty situations. KARE Minneapolis produced a particularly compelling story on kitchen fires, capturing the danger of them by using 10 cameras to document a grease fire set by a fire inspector.
Other stations got into the investigative news game as well. The past year, for example, has seen an increase in investigative reporting by stations in Washington, D.C. NBC-owned stations continued their partnerships with four nonprofit news organizations, creating an uptick in investigative content.
Under new arrangements with local broadcasters, the fact-checking organization PolitiFact had its greatest presence yet on TV news.
Local news operations tried to distinguish themselves in other ways, too.
For some, that meant going exceedingly local. High school sports coverage, for instance, maintained its stature as a pretty big deal for the stations that back it and the fans that consume it.
In several markets, Tribune tested Eye Opener, its news-entertainment hybrid aimed at offering viewers an alternative to the usual morning fare. It’s a mix of pre-produced pieces that the stations intercut with their own live, local material.
Still others tried to create deeper, more personal connections with viewers through
the assertive use of social media. KENS San Antonio, Texas, is putting a heavy focus on having a website with a separate editorial focus while still supporting and supplementing the station’s on-air content.
Overall, though, 2012 was not a big year for industry innovation — and the few new approaches to local news already on air tanked during the last year.
The social media-driven newscast produced by KOMU, the University of Missouri’s NBC affiliate in the DMA that includes the state capital, Columbia, has bitten the dust. KAUT Oklahoma City’s military-oriented news has never gotten off the ground. The anchorless format of NewsFix on Tribune’s KIAH Houston has failed to lift it out of fifth place in news.
The industry also wrestled with questions of ethics during the last year. Opinions were divided over whether WKBT La Crosse, Wis., anchor Jennifer Livingston’s four-minute rebuttal to a viewer’s email criticizing her weight was an appropriate use of air time. Should WTOC in Savannah, Ga., host military men and women as station interns?
All of which goes to show that TV news is indeed a tough business to navigate — although those who do successfully say there is nothing better.
There are ample producers jobs available for candidates who want responsibility — and can live on $24,000 or so a year.
2012 also showed the promise news people have for moving up the company ranks.
More station GM jobs are going to news directors then ever before.