The story in newsrooms is that once again technology is revolutionizing how television professionals prepare local news. There are several clear trends:
- Many newsrooms are being asked to produce more hours of news without adding people to do the work, and in some cases with fewer people.
- This is changing the product people get – in some cases thinning and hollowing out the kind of news that is aired, in other cases creating local news that is less local and more based on “feed” material from other places.
- A few companies are moving toward what is being called “centralcasting,” in which some of the people on local newscasts are not local at all. The weather and some anchors are actually in other cities, though viewers may never be told.
- Many stations also take advantage of “hubbing,” in which they purchase specialized news content from a local provider for things like metro traffic reports, helicopters and other material. A few stations are now experimenting with getting things like sports reporting, including the anchor, from these outside firms, which send out teams of people to shoot local sports events for multiple clients.
- A few companies now own more than one station in a city and sometimes produce news for two stations from one newsroom.
Television stations do not tend to have that much newsgathering muscle, at least when compared with the newspapers in their communities. In 2001, for instance, the last year for which there are data, the average local television newsroom in the country had 30.7 full-time people on the “news staff,” according to survey work from RTNDA.1
Moreover, the number of television news staff members per station has changed little over recent years, despite the fact that most television stations are producing more hours of news.
According to PEJ’s 2002 survey of news directors, three-quarters of local newsrooms have assigned beats. Among those beats, medicine/health reporters were most common (42 percent) followed by crime or court beats (38 percent), education (37 percent), investigative (25 percent), consumer news (24 percent) and government/politics (24 percent). However, many of these positions are not full-time beats, and instead reporters may have responsibility for covering news in a particular field in addition to their “general assignment” coverage of everyday news.
Each year that the Project analyzed television station content, it also surveyed the news directors at those stations about workload. Put together, those surveys show that the average workload per local television reporter is rising rapidly. From 1998 to 2002, the average workload that news directors reported demanding of reporters increased from 1.5 stories a day to 1.8, an increase of 20 percent.
These pressures are hitting news professionals hard. In the Project’s 2002 survey of local television news directors, they were most likely to cite “Not enough staff” as the chief obstacle to producing better newscasts.2
In addition to fewer people, the Project’s news director surveys show that budget cuts have had a substantial effect on television newsrooms as well. The most severe cuts came in 2001, when 49 percent of all news directors reported either budget or staff cuts over the year before, and 60 percent reported unscheduled mid-year budget cuts. In 2002 things were much the same: 59 percent of news directors reported either budget cuts or staff cuts.
Survey of news directors, 1998-2001
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Source: “RTNDA/Ball State University Annual Survey,” 1998 through 2001
Pessimism hangs over newsrooms. As one news director put it in 2001, “People come to work every day wondering if they’re going to be fired.” In our 2002 survey, 45 percent of all news directors felt that local television news was headed on the “wrong track,” while less than a third (31 percent) were optimistic.
Changes in newsgathering technology are also changing the kinds of stories that get on the air. The Project’s content study of local news over five years shows that stations appear to be using more of this out-of-town feed material in their newscasts. In 1998, such feeds accounted for 14 percent of all stories. In 2002, that percentage had grown to 23 percent.
Is the gap simply a result of the Project examining different stations in different years? The answer appears to be no. When we looked at specific stations studied in both 1998 and 2002, the use of feeds had nearly doubled, from 12 to 23 percent.
New technology is also creating tapeless newsrooms, which reduce the need for certain kinds of technical staff. In tapeless newsrooms, all stories are recorded using digital cameras, producing footage that can be stored on computer servers rather than bulky videotape archives. Cameras that are easier and less cumbersome to operate make it possible for reporters to shoot their own stories as they are reporting them rather than using a camera operator. Digitized archives make it easy for stations to call up footage from any story they choose, whether it is from a months-old newscast or the day’s satellite feed. An additional advantage is decreasing the likelihood of technical difficulties during a newscast, since a digitized system allows for better backup and reduces the chance of technical error.3
All this is leading some companies to experiment with the different forms of sharing engineering, synergy and “centralcasting.” By whatever name, they all refer to some version of producing newscasts for more than one station out of a single facility.
In some markets, companies have bought more than one station and are producing two stations’ newscasts from one newsroom. In one such case, in Boston, Viacom owns both the UPN affiliate, WSBK, which produces a one-hour newscast at 10 o’clock, and the CBS station, WBZ, which airs a half-hour news program at 11 o’clock. There, as in many other markets, a great deal of thought was put into how to differentiate the newscasts from each other in hopes of appealing to each station’s desired audience. The solution in Boston was to create a rotating anchor desk that can be shifted in front of two different backgrounds.4
In some other cities, companies are trying to achieve similar cost cutting by producing newscasts that air in more than one city from a single location. This is what is more commonly thought of as centralcasting. Bahakel Communications, for example, owner of WOLO in Columbia, S.C., now produces WOLO’s newscasts from its Charlotte station, WCCB, 90 miles away. Emmis Communications, a television and radio station owner headquartered in Indianapolis, programs its Southeastern stations from a hub in Orlando, Fla.; at those stations, the newscasts are the only locally produced elements.5 In a presentation to investors in August 2003, NBC announced that it had gone from having master control and graphics operations at each of the 29 NBC and Telemundo stations to a system of four hubs scattered around the country doing the same functions, with a resulting $30 million in savings.6
Dallas-based A.H. Belo Co. is using technology to create a slightly different kind of regional news synergy. Belo owns stations in the four biggest markets in Texas and operates a 24-hour Texas news channel, which relies on material from its various properties.
The Sinclair Broadcast Group, outside Baltimore, is trying the best-known example of such integration. The Sinclair group’s “News Central” beams “localized” weather and sports segments from its Maryland headquarters to stations around the country, along with national and international news reports and even editorials. According to a company executive interviewed by the trade magazine TV Week, full implementation of “News Central,” it is hoped, will halve the company’s local news costs.7 At the same time, Sinclair’s technology is also bringing news to some stations that were not producing it before.
Survey of news directors
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Source: “RTNDA/Ball State University Annual Survey,” 2001.
* Multiple responses accepted; totals do not equal 100.
A station continues to have incentives to keep local newscasts as part of a station’s offerings. Station managers believe that providing a news program boosts a station’s prestige and makes it more attractive to advertisers.
Companies will surely make arguments about the journalistic benefit of these moves, but the immediate cost effectiveness is the driving incentive. In the current climate, there are companies that believe quality will win out, and there are companies that do not. But the financial markets are not rewarding risky investments that do not promise cost savings.
Meanwhile, news directors are trying to figure out how to move forward. According to PEJ’s 2002 survey of local television news directors, most believe that the cutbacks have stopped, but they are not sure what the future holds.
1. Radio-Television News Directors Association, “RTNDA/Ball State University Annual Survey,” 2001, chart “TV Staff Size,” available at http://www.rtnda.org/research/staff.shtml. The RTNDA surveys define news staff as all individuals who report to the news director (usually including reporters, assignment editors, producers, photographers, camera operators, etc.).
RTNDA is the world’s largest professional organization devoted exclusively to electronic journalism. RTNDA represents local and network news executives in broadcasting, cable and other electronic media in more than 30 countries. RTNDF promotes excellence in electronic journalism through research, education and training for news professionals and journalism students. The Foundation’s work is supported by contributions from foundations, corporations, members of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, and other individuals. Its code of ethics can be found here: http://www.rtnda.org/ethics/coe.shtml.
2. “On the road to irrelevance,” Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 2002, online at http://www.journalism.org/resources/research/reports/localTV/2002/irrelevance.asp.
3. See Kal Hassan, “WLS-TV’s tapeless news upgrade,” Broadcast Engineering, April 1, 2003, which describes the process of digitizing the newsroom of WLS in Chicago, available at http://broadcastengineering.com/ar/broadcasting_wlstvs_tapeless_news/.
4. See James Careless, “News sets on a budget,” Digital TV, January 2003, online at http://digitaltelevision.com/articles/article_145.shtml.
5. See Dwight Crumb, “Centralcasting at WALA-TV,” Broadcast Engineering, March 1, 2003. The changes at WALA, in Mobile, Ala., have included the installation of robotic cameras on the station’s news set in order to eliminate the need for human camera operators. Available at: http://broadcastengineering.com/ar/broadcasting_centralcasting_walatv/.
6. Randy Falco, group president, NBC television network, “NBC overview,” presentation, September 19, 2003. Online: http://www.ge.com/files/usa/company/investor/downloads/091903_nbc_handout.pdf.
7. See Daisy Whitney, “Centralcasting on the move,” Electronic Media, January 27, 2003, available at http://www.tvweek.com/newspro/012703centralcasting.html.
8. Digital television is not the same thing as high-definition television. High-definition television sets have the ability to display digital-quality content (such as DVDs), but they require special tuners in order to receive digital broadcast signals. According to industry estimates only 1 in 4 high-definition television sets is being sold with a digital tuner.
9. See Brad Schultz, “Digital TV conversion still mired in uncertainty,” RTNDA Communicator, April 2003, online at http://www.rtndf.org/technology/dtcsmiu.pdf.
10. For example, see John Heilemann, “The digital TV giveaway,” Wired, April 25, 1997, online at http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,3399,00.html.
11. The plan to auction analog spectrum, drawn up in 1997, was intended to be one of the ways in which Congress balanced the budget. See Brad King, “If DTV’s busted, so is the budget,” Wired, August 6, 2002, online at http://www.wired.com/news/digiwood/0,1412,54332,00.html.
12. See Stephen Chiger, “FCC throws its weight behind DTV,” Medill News Service, August 8, 2002.
13. See Paul Davidson, “Local stations multicast multishows,” USA Today, January 28, 2004, online at http://www.usatoday.com/money/media/2004-01-28-multicast_x.htm.
14. Cable boxes have the technological capacity to block subscribers from seeing more than one local newscast, which is impossible with over-the-air signals.
15. See GAO Reports, “Additional Federal Efforts Could Help Advance Digital Television Transition,” November 8, 2002, p. 15, online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d037.pdf.