As viewers have left, the network news divisions have shrunk in size. And the priorities about where money goes have shifted. In the process so has the culture of network newsgathering. What once could be described as organizations with large battalions of experienced correspondents, producers, editors and camera crews stationed in bureaus worldwide might better be characterized today as organizations with a small pool of high-priced anchors supported by less experienced, less well-known, correspondents and off-air staffers who can parachute in from afar or assemble satellite footage in New York and cover anything.
- Staff cuts, some severe, have hit all of the big three news divisions, forcing a smaller number of correspondents to produce the same number or more stories.1
- Bureaus, particularly overseas, have been closed, giving the news organizations a smaller global footprint and fewer staff members with the understanding that comes from having correspondents immersed in foreign cultures.
- Many of the correspondents who have left are those with the longest experience and greatest expertise.
- The news hole for both morning and evening newscasts is shrinking as time for advertising grows.2
A look at the average network newsroom is the most fundamental way to understand what has happened to investment in the newsroom. News staffs have shrunk markedly.
The number of correspondents featured on air during the average evening newscast has been cut by more than a third since the peak in 1985, from 76.7 to 50 in 2002, according to Joe Foote, a professor of journalism at Arizona State University. That is a drop of 35 percent.
And that reduction in staff has meant an increase in reporter workload. In 1985, reporters appearing in evening newscasts did an average of 31.4 stories a year. By 2002, that number had climbed to 40.9, according to Foote. Figures for other network staff (producers, cameramen, etc.) were not available, but reductions among them may be even greater due to technological changes.
1983 to 2002
|Design Your Own Chart|
Source: Professor Joe Foote, Arizona State University, unpublished data
The reductions should be understood in context. Some argue that the networks were bloated during the era of oligarchy, when the three nightly newscasts together shared 75 percent of viewers during the dinner hour. Too many people at the networks, critics said, had too little to do. It is almost certain that some bloat existed in such an environment.
Some of these reductions have also come as a result of new technologies that have increased productivity.
Yet cuts of more than one-third probably go beyond the efficiencies created by technology or trimming the unproductive employees. The casualties of these cuts are not just smaller, relatively unknown correspondents, or the underemployed, but some of the networks’ bigger names with the greatest expertise. Often these are people who would be most resistant to being shifted from a foreign bureau or specialized beat to a general assignment, but other times, these are simply people who didn’t want to take sizable pay cuts.
Whatever the reason, they reflect not just cutting costs but also a change in the nature of network coverage. Take away these reporters’ expertise and some diminishment in quality becomes unavoidable, network veterans argue.
Each of the networks has cut back on its beats as it has cut back on its correspondent staff, pushing more people into general assignment work. Most of the networks no longer have Supreme Court correspondents, for instance, but have instead just one correspondent who covers justice.3 Prior to the 2003 war in Iraq, the networks no longer had separate correspondents at the State Department and the Pentagon.4 Instead, they each had a single national security correspondent. Networks usually had both a science correspondent and a health correspondent. Now, it is more common, as is true at NBC, to have a merged science-health reporter, such as NBC’s Robert Bazell.
Some of the effects of these changes are difficult to quantify. Critics, however, suggest that the consequences reach farther than may meet the eye.
Where networks once assigned two or even three reporters to places such as Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department, the job is usually filled by one correspondent and less experienced off-air staffers. On its face, not having duplicate reporters may seem like good sense. Some critics argue that without its bench, network coverage has become thinner. Another consequence, some network veterans say, is that when a major story develops and the networks “go live,” the lone correspondent is often stuck for hours in front of the camera, his or her reporting confined to what can be gotten over the cell phone. Moreover, everything that has happened in front of the camera has occurred in the editorial structure of camera crews, producers, editors and researchers who are unseen.
Such consequences may be an unavoidable effect of declining audience, but they affect the product and may, in a vicious cycle, encourage still more viewers to turn away.
As they have let go of staff, the networks have also shrunken their presence in the world. Each of the networks once had about 15 bureaus abroad. They now have about half a dozen, or less. And in some cases, these bureaus are really just offices or are staffed largely by contract employees or virtually full-time freelancers.5
According to accounting by American Journalism Review, since the peak in the 1980s, ABC has closed seven foreign bureaus and now has six remaining. NBC has locked the doors in seven as well, also leaving six. CBS has done a bit less, closing only four, but that is because they had fewer to begin with. It, too, had six left, according to AJR, as of the summer of 2003.6
Other network veterans cite additional bureaus that have closed, including Johannesburg at ABC and Cairo and Beijing at NBC. Given the fact that bureaus open and close over the years, as changes in the news demand coverage from various regions for periods of time (as in Iraq), an exact accounting is difficult.
With the exception of one bureau in Nairobi at ABC, whose correspondent is a freelancer, the networks have no bureaus in Latin America, South America, Africa, India or Pakistan. ABC has no bureau anywhere in Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union.
Asia is covered from Hong Kong. Europe and Eastern Europe is covered from London. Outside of temporary bureaus in Baghdad, the Middle East is covered from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
Current and Former International Network News Bureaus
Source: Lucinda Fleeson, “Bureau of missing bureaus,” American Journalism Review; PEJ research.
|ABC 2003||ABC Closed||CBS 2003||CBS Closed||NBC 2003||NBC Closed|
|Hong Kong||Beirut||Rome||Beijing||Tel Aviv||Johannesburg|
Not all of these bureau closings are purely economic. The closing of ABC’s and NBC’s Beirut bureau can be easily explained as a function of how the news environment has changed. The same argument could be made about the closing of ABC’s and CBS’s Bonn bureaus. However, since closing the Bonn bureaus in the capital of the former country of West Germany, neither network opened a bureau in Berlin, the new capital of unified Germany. NBC, which had bureaus in Bonn and Frankfurt, has also left Germany. And even though the Cold War is over, there is no shortage of news coming out of Russia. Still ABC decided to close its Moscow bureau. At the same time, ABC is the only network to have a bureau anywhere in Africa.
What does this say about the networks’ international coverage? Basically, the nature of the coverage has fundamentally changed. Much of the network international coverage is actually camera work shot by freelancers mixed with voiceover from a correspondent at the nearest bureau. What is more, the content analysis found that little international coverage aired on the nightly newscasts or morning news in 2003 that was not directly related to U.S. policy. To some extent the same thing occurs in domestic coverage. Bureaus are expensive to run and can be difficult to manage. And networks argue that little is lost in the transition. The model still provides news from around the world, just in a different way.
The question is whether something is lost in the change. While freelancers can provide video footage and even reporting, the bureau system provided more than a reporter and a camera in a remote part of the world when news broke. It gave the networks a feel for the cultures and nations where they had correspondents. It gave them an institutional intelligence and an continuing sense of changing events. Even the choice of where to locate bureaus carried with it some intrinsic bias toward where the “important” international news would come from. Nevertheless, the bureaus at least left the networks more prepared cover news as it was bending, not just when it had broken, and to cover certain parts of the world in a sustained way, not just to parachute in and then leave.
Another factor is that the foreign bureaus were set up primarily to service the evening newscasts, not the morning programs. As the news divisions switched emphasis to the mornings, the domestic-to-overseas mix shifted accordingly.
On one hand, it would be a mistake, some network veterans caution, to give the old networks too much credit for the feel they had for distant cultures. The television networks never had as many bureaus as did The New York Times or even The Los Angeles Times, for instance.
Still, the decline in foreign bureaus raises another question that relates to the agenda-setting power of television. Network executives contend that the withdrawal from covering the globe, at least before September 11, was driven by viewer demand. Americans were no longer so interested in international events after the Cold War ended. The networks could cite ratings figures and, privately, suggested they had market research as well, to prove it. Critics of the networks, on the other hand, charge that the American public’s declining interest in international affairs, at least before September 11, was driven in part by the news media, particularly television, pulling back on foreign news to save money. If Americans in the age of globalization were uninterested in events around the world, this sentiment goes, it was only because the news media were failing to make these events as relevant as they really were.
Which argument has more merit? Certainly some decline in interest in foreign affairs was inevitable and logical after the end of the Cold War. Yet the full explanation is probably more complex than that. In most cases, the closing of bureaus was generated by a mandate to cut costs, not simply to redeploy resources. Foreign bureaus are more expensive to run than others, so closing them yields more savings. In addition, it is difficult for journalists to know in advance what audiences want. News by its nature is the unexpected, the unplanned, the new. Journalistic market research by its nature is soft.
Finally, to deny that the media have any agenda-setting power – that it merely reflects viewer interest and does not shape it – flies in the face of nearly all the social science research on the influence of television. The truth, in other words, is probably some combination of these factors. Television’s pullback from covering the world before September 11 may have reflected an American impulse. But it doubtless over time reinforced and intensified that impulse. And it had the advantage of helping the bottom line.
One last note: each of the networks lists Baghdad as the site of one of its bureaus. If and when the situation stabilizes in Iraq, one would expect those bureaus to close as well. If they close and no other new bureaus are created, the networks could each be left with five foreign bureaus apiece.
As staffs get smaller and bureaus close, another change occurring in network news is that there is less of it. In both the morning and evening news time slots, the evidence suggests there are fewer minutes devoted to news in the newscasts.
Data from the researcher Andrew Tyndall show that the amount of time devoted to news — as opposed to ads, promos and teasers — on the half-hour network nightly news has shrunk 11 percent in 12 years, from 21 minutes in 1991, after the first Gulf War, to 18.7 minutes in 2002, on the eve of the second Gulf War. Extra time devoted to coverage of the September 11 attacks in 2001 accounts for the only anomaly in the downward trend.
Average Time Devoted to News
on Evening Newscasts
1988 to 2002
|Year||Time (in Minutes)|
Source: Andrew Tyndall, unpublished data
More limited data also suggest a similarly pronounced shrinkage in the news hole of the morning news, where every hour contains on average two fewer minutes of programming over 10 years — 44 minutes 10 seconds in 1992 versus 41 minutes 57 seconds in 2001, according to a study from the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers. These figures are softer than the Tyndall data since the advertisers study tracks just one week of programming each year, rather than being a census of every broadcast, and there are fluctuations week to week. Still, it mirrors what has happened in the evening news and suggests that more than a minute of it went to commercials with another minute going to commercials, promos and public service announcements, or PSAs.
Average Division of Time on Morning News
1992 to 2001
Source: American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) and the Association of National Advertisers, Inc., “Television Commercial Monitoring Report,” 2001, p. 18.
The pros and cons of these changes are interesting to ponder. Giving up more of the news hole for promotions and ads clearly has an impact on the program, shrinking it and perhaps making it more irritating to the audience since it has more commercials and promos.
Yet that extra minute of ads per hour can mean extra money for the news divisions and the salaries of the stars who populate them. The decision to sell off more of the newscast, in other words, is probably one that involves weighing short-term gain versus long-term cost and estimating the marginal impact on audiences. Will they notice? Will they care?
The changes add up fairly simply. Fewer people, based in fewer places, are filling more hours of news, although the size of the news hole in each of those programs is actually somewhat smaller.
The net effect is seen in the content. The networks have a harder time sustaining coverage of complex events. There are fewer specialists and beats. For instance, while the news agenda of network news changed sharply after September 11, 2001, that shift was not sustained in the first six months of 2002, when the nightly news returned partly to the same news topic agenda it had before the terrorist attacks. (see content). Even in the weeks following September 11, network executives said, the networks felt that they had excelled, but they had become exhausted. As one then-retired executive with close ties to one of the networks put it at the time, “they no longer had the bench” to do this kind of coverage for more than a few weeks.
A comparison of the size of the news hole with the average number of correspondents per newsroom shows that the number of on-air reporters per minute of news has basically remained constant. But as the charts show, the number of reporters is smaller than it was in 1988, but there is less time available for those correspondents’ stories.
On the one hand, with fewer viewers watching the traditional evening newscasts, one can argue that it makes sense for news divisions to shift resources away from nightly news and the areas of expertise needed for those programs, such as foreign bureaus.
On the other hand, one can also argue there is a question of chicken and egg. A smaller news hole, and thus a smaller and perhaps more limited program, may be one of the reasons viewership has declined.
1. Professor Joe Foote, Arizona State University (Tempe, Az.), unpublished data.
2. Andrew Tyndall, unpublished data, www.tyndallreport.com; American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers, “Television Commercial Monitoring Report,” p. 18.
3. Leadership Directories, News Media Yellow Book, 2003.
4. Leadership Directories, News Media Yellow Book, 2003.
5. Lucinda Fleeson, “Bureau of Missing Bureaus,” American Journalism Review, October/November 2003. Online: http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=3409.
6. Lucinda Fleeson, “Bureau of Missing Bureaus.,” American Journalism Review, October/November 2003. Online: http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=3409.