Three Different Takes On Local TV News

 A national Murrow Award-winning investigative report in a large market — from college students; the remaking of an old-school city wire service into a video news source; and scholarly research into who watches local TV news and why; whether sensationalism rules; and studying if, and how, TV news content is influenced by Facebook.

For the first time in memory, a group of college students have knocked out big-league competitors to win one of RTDNA’s prestigious 2014 national RTDNA Edward R. Murrow awards.

A dozen budding journalists from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee won the TV award for continuing coverage in a large market for an investigation that exposed serious flaws in the university’s preparedness for a campus shooting.

In doing so, it beat out 13 commercial TV stations that had won regional Murrows. Among them are WHDH Boston for Boston Marathon bombing coverage, KING Seattle for a series on bringing an NBA team to the city and WRC Washington for an investigation into the nation’s capital’s fire and EMS departments.

Journalist professor Mark Zoromski, who teaches the class that produced the reports,  says that throughout the process the students were concerned that no one would pay attention to what they were discovering, primarily because “we don’t have a very big megaphone.”

The students’ stories aired on UWM Panthervision, a weekly student-produced newscast that airs on a local cable channel that reaches only 300,000 homes. It is co-produced by students from the Milwaukee Area Technical College.

But when the university announced its plans to review safety procedures last December — the same day the students’ last newscast of the semester aired — they knew they has been heard, Zoromski says.


UWM administrators are addressing issues the students exposed, such as the inability to lock doors from inside classrooms, deficient campus public address and text alert systems and a lack of emergency training for staff and students, he says.

“I’m blown away to see all this come to fruition,” says Kali LaCount, a contributor who now works as an associate producer at WISN, Hearst’s ABC affiliate in Milwaukee. “I never expected it to go this far and for this amount of change to happen.”

The series was set into motion in May 2013, when students interviewed a UWM alum now at nearby Beloit College after that school went on lockdown due to a shooting scare. That story exposed flaws in that college’s emergency preparedness, which prompted the students to probe the same issues at their school.

The  students also traveled to other University of Wisconsin campuses to assess their situations.

The class stepped up its coverage after an interview with a former UWM student who was at the Washington Navy Yard during that shooting rampage, who characterized universities’ lack of preparations for such an event “malpractice.”

Fed up after school administrators, police and local politicos refused interview requests, the students camped out in the chancellor’s parking space with a camera until a vice chancellor ultimately agreed to talk.

“Setting the award and all this stuff aside, I think the students have learned the importance of what we can do in journalism. That’s what the Fourth Estate is all about,” Zoromski says. “We will never know for sure, but it’s quite possible that their reporting down the road will save lives.”

“It’s just cool,” he says.

“As we kept reporting and as we kept following the story we just kept noticing more issues and more flaws in the system,” says Erin Nordloh, another contributing reporter. “In journalism you want to hold people accountable.”

Zoromski has established an online fundraising account to help the students attend the Murrow Awards ceremony in October in New York. You can access it here.


Los Angeles’ City News Service, one of the last old-school wire services still cranking out copy, is breaking with its 85-year tradition by offering broadcast-quality video to go some of its stories for the first time.

The CNS, whose turf has expanded over the years to all of Southern California, has formed a new division called Video News West to provide the video service to stations as well as websites, says CNS President Doug Faigin.

But whether there is a market for the service remains to be seen.

Still ramping up, CNS has hired a news director (former CNS reporter and Patch editor Jessica Davis) and two videographers with plans to add more, Faigin says.

Footage will be shot in 16:9 high-def, using JVC 650 cameras. It will be accompanied by a written story, but stations can put together their own packages with their own reporters, he says.

Stations will  download the CNS stories from Bitcentral’s Oasis distribution platform. The pricing plan of the new service — whether stations will, say, pay per piece or by subscription only — is still in the works. But Faigin says offering broadcasters a low-cost means of boosting coverage is a big part of the pitch.

“TV stations, as well as websites, are looking for ways to be as efficient as possible and we want to provide a service that can help them cover more stories in the way they want to do it,” Faigin says.

That the content will be locally focused is another selling point, he says. That’s something Southern California broadcasters — many of which are among CNS’s 150 or so current subscribers — don’t get from other services such as CNN and affiliate news services.

“It’s focusing on video that’s largely not available anywhere else,” he says. “For that reason we’re pretty optimistic.”

TV news managers say they have long subscribed to CNS to supplement in-house reporting, but aren’t convinced they have a need for more video in the age of user-generated content.

“In L.A., there are so many viewers and stringers out there anyway that you can pick and choose what you want,” says Jason Ball, news director at Tribune’s CW affiliate KTLA Los Angeles. “There’s no shortage.”

Ball says he can’t recall a single instance of not being able to find video for a story, regardless of whether staffers were at an event or not.

When a gunman went on a killing spree in Santa Monica last summer, KTLA aired a video taken from the website Vine. A viewer sent video, and was interviewed, from the scene of a house fire the shooter had set, he says.

KUSI San Diego News Director Steve Cohen, a CNS subscriber, echoed Ball’s sentiment.

“I’m glad to see CNS finally adapt to the changing landscape of newsgathering by providing video to its affiliates. But the viability of the service will rest upon the inherent news value of that which they elect to cover,” Cohen says. “We already have an extensive force of stringers and also receive video daily from user-generated content.”

But Bitcentral CEO Fred Fourcher, whose platform serves big-league news organizations like CNN as well as smaller clients, says he sees the potential for the video news service to pick up where earlier news sharing arrangements leave off, particularly when it comes to covering non-breaking news events like press conferences.

NBC O&O KNBC Los Angeles pulled out of a news sharing arrangement with Fox’s KTTV in 2011, after getting its own helicopter. KTTV now shares a chopper with the CBS duopoly KCBS and KCAL, but doesn’t pool resources on the ground.

“One of the things this service has the potential of doing is saving a lot of people a lot of time sending multiple crews to stories,” Fourcher says.

Having a “reliable” third party covering scheduled events eliminates competitive concerns  that make news sharing arrangements among TV stations somewhat fraught, he says.

Fourcher says he believes independent wire services like CNS could be a boon to news outlets in other major markets as well.  “There is enough they could be covering that would make [newsgathering] more efficient,” he says.


While those of us in the trenches have been focusing on mundane stuff like getting people to watch local news, our friends in academia have spent the last year or so on far more highbrow pursuits like researching who watches local TV news and why; whether sensationalism rules; and if content is influenced by Facebook.

However esoteric some seem, there are takeaways useful in the real world. Here are some of them:

Information seekers are likely to watch local news. People looking for entertainment or opinion? Not so much.

With the enormous number of news sources out there competing for consumers, the University of Pennsylvania’s Angela Lee decided to take a look at who is using what type of news and why. Her survey asked 1,143 adults whether their news consumption is driven by the desire for information, entertainment or opinion — or social reasons, like being able to carry on a conversation with others. She then asked which of 30 news outlets they favored — from Sunday TV talk shows and local and network newscasts to The Daily Show, The Onion and Facebook.

Lee found that most news consumers are looking for information first and foremost, and that local TV news is that group’s second favorite way to get it. Cable Sunday talk shows are their favorite source of news; Network Sunday talk shows their third. However, Twitter and Facebook are the least preferred news sources for people who are information hungry, who tend to be older than those motivated by other factors.

On the other hand, local TV news ranks near bottom with consumers looking for entertainment, opinion or a social boost from their news source – basically all others included in the survey. Although people in those groups favor outlets from Sunday talk shows to latenight TV, they are about as likely to tune into local news as they are to read Yahoo News and the local newspapers.

Shootings, tornados and KKK rallies rule.

Researchers from the University of Missouri, Cornell and Temple have found that when it comes to getting viewers to stay tuned in, the more sensational the TV news story the better.

Wanting to get a grasp on what drives news grazing, the researchers set up participants with four news channels (each of which had varying degrees of “sensational” content and presentation), a remote control and a contraption to measure their physiological responses to what they’d be watching and let them go for it. 

The study found that the 64 participants stuck with the most sensationalized stories — both in terms of subject matter and packaging — the longest.  The winning news channel featured stories on a drive-by shooting, tornado, children killed in a fire, a KKK rally, a flag burning and abortion protests, all packaged with heart-pumping bells and whistles like music, sound effects and flashing frames. Another one of the channels aired those same stories without the sensational packaging. Calmer stories — a drug patent lawsuit, sewer repairs and standardized school testing – aired on the other two channels. They were sensationally packaged on one of those channels and not on the other.

The study found that the hyped up stories rated highest with both “high sensation seekers” as well as “low sensation seekers,” who are the viewers who would usually avoid that kind of content. And that, the study says, shows that everything from viewer preference to biology plays a role in whether viewers stay tuned in.

Facebook may break the media’s monopoly on setting the news agenda.

Move over, news directors. Florida International University’s Susan Jacobson has found that the public may be having a greater influence over which stories are covered in the news, primarily thanks to Facebook.

Jacobson’s case study explored whether conversation on The Rachel Maddow Show’s Facebook page influenced the selection of stories covered in broadcasts. She says it very well may have. “Results show a positive correlation between stories discussed on Facebook and the subsequent airing of similar stories on TV. The evidence also suggests that social media may enable many factors that influence both the media and public agenda,” the study says.  Jacobson tracked the show’s Facebook page and broadcasts over a three-week period.

Broadcast news still too mainstream for rebels, even in a digital age.

A University of Washington and Florida State study shows that dissident types haven’t warmed up to traditional broadcast and print media sources, even as they’ve expanded online, meaning TV news still attracts a mainstream audience.

The study found that “dissidents,” loosely defined as government protesters, are shunning traditional news outlets’ websites, much in the same way they have snubbed the original media that came before. “Dissidents avoid online newspapers and broadcast news sites and instead turn to more polarizing sources such as radio talk shows and political blogs,” the study found. More conventional types, “the ones who embody the characteristics needed for a democracy to run smoothly,” rely on broadcast TV and newspapers and more politicized outlets, it showed.

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