Stations must also distinguish themselves when the forecast is clear and sunny and there is no gunman running amok downtown. Too few do. With the recession behind and a strong 2012 ahead, my hope is that every station owner and manager sets aside more money this year for enterprise reporting and that it pays off in great stories that bring honors to the station, the group and to broadcasting. I also hope they pay off in higher ratings and revenue.
Local News Must Be More Than Weather
As reported here and elsewhere, TV broadcasters have once again distinguished themselves during this season of deadly tornadoes, warning of approaching storms, disseminating critical emergency information in the immediate aftermath and later raising funds for the victims.
It’s a role and responsibility that stations have taken on without any lawmaker or bureaucrat telling them they had to — and often without any thanks from lawmakers or bureaucrats.
Stations on the severe weather fronts deserve everybody’s thanks. The broadcasters perform admirably in these crises, even when their own families and homes are in harm’s way. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: broadcasters save lives and property.
That’s a lot, but it’s not enough.
Severe weather and other emergency reporting should not define local TV journalism. Stations must also distinguish themselves when the forecast is clear and sunny and there is no gunman running amok downtown. Too few do.
What I’m saying is that there needs to be a rebirth of serious in-depth or investigative reporting at TV stations. Critics of local TV news contend that it’s just one crime or fire story after another with a few feel-good pieces thrown in, and too often they are right.
Every station should have a couple of reporters and perhaps a photographer if not dedicated to long-form news then at least relieved from day-to-day duties for long spells a few times a year so that they can chase down important, hard-to-get stories. With profit margins still exceeding 30% at most stations, it’s not too much to ask.
Some station owners grumble that there are still too many stations chasing too few dollars in most markets. If only stations were allowed to merge, they say, then there would be more money for better journalism. Nonsense.
Many markets, even small ones, have already been consolidated through shared services agreements and other contractual means. To say you need further relief from the ownership rules to step up the quality of journalism is simply an excuse.
By the way, whatever happened to all that great journalism that was going to flow from the NBC and Fox stations after they began sharing helicopters and pooling coverage of routine news events a couple of years ago. That was supposed to free up resources so reporters could really dig into stories. I’ve yet to see it happen here in New York or hear about it elsewhere.
It’s not just the manpower cost that discourages enterprise reporting. By its nature, it tends to upset people, some of whom will cause trouble for stations by pulling advertising or filing lawsuits. It’s not a good way to make friends.
“News is what someone, somewhere wants to suppress; everything else is just advertising,” said Alfred Lord Northcliffe, the British press magnate from the early part of the last century. And the someone doing the suppressing is often a powerful person.
But any newsroom that isn’t prepared to confront the powerful and bear the costs of lost advertising and lawyers ought to shut its doors and leave the field to the real newsrooms in town.
Investing in in-depth journalism comes with no guarantee. Stations can throw a lot of time and money and energy into a story that falls far short of expectations in appeal to viewers, impact or both. The folks who push numbers around on spreadsheets hate that kind of uncertainty.
But I know stations can step up their game. For five years, I sat on the Peabody board and judged hundreds of TV and radio programs. Among them were many examples of great journalism by commercial TV stations, and by others with even fewer resources — independent documentarians and reporters from noncommercial radio stations and NPR.
It begins at the top. When the Peabody winners from stations pick up their awards in New York each spring, they invariably thank their bosses and station owners for providing the resources needed for serious reporting.
I spoke to the station winners at the Waldorf=Astoria this year, and they all acknowledged that they were privileged to be working where they did (stations owned by Hubbard, Belo and Dispatch) and lamented that there were not more stations fostering Peabody excellence. “There’s no getting around just giving [reporters] the time and making it a priority,” Bob Segall, of WTHR Indianapolis told me.
I just resigned from the Peabody board. It’s a lot of work — three multi-day judging sessions in three cities and hour after hour of watching DVDs at home, too much for me as my workload here mounts. But it was an invaluable experience. Among other things, I learned what excellence in news takes, and that it’s not beyond the reach of any station.
With the recession behind and a strong 2012 ahead, my hope is that every station owner and manager sets aside more money this year for enterprise reporting and that it pays off in great stories that bring honors to the station, the group and to broadcasting. I also hope they pay off in higher ratings and revenue at the same time.
This year, TV stations copped three Peabodys for work aired in 2010. Next year, let’s make it six for 2011.