|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
News continued to be an important element of programming at the local television level, and while news directors erred on the side of caution in planning for 2005, the year began with healthy newsrooms, in both size and money.
Among the notable developments,
Amount of News on Local TV
One of the major issues in local TV news in recent years has been the trend toward stations’ producing more news without increasing their staff to do it. That amounted to a kind of stretching of resources that translated into a thinning of the product. Stations did fewer reporter packages and less original reporting and enterprise, relying more on second-hand material. (See Annual Report 2004 and 2005). What is happening now, according to the latest data (from 2004)?
The most important source of data on newsroom investment is the annual survey conducted for the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) by Bob Papper of Ball State University , in which news directors report and comment on the state of the local newsrooms.
The amount of news on local TV stayed the same as the year before, and the evidence suggests that that will continue. Perhaps stations have come to fill all the time they can.
When asked how much news they planned to air in 2005, about two thirds of news directors said they would keep the same level. A quarter of stations said they planned to increase their programming. About 1 in 10 of the news directors planned to reduce the amount of news on air.1
The average amount of local TV news each day in 2004 remained about the same as the year before — 3.6 hours. The stations affiliated with the four top networks averaged 3.8 hours, with the most at CBS stations (4.2 hours) and the least at Fox affiliates (3.1 hours).2 Independent stations weren’t far behind, with an average 3.5 hours.
TV News Budgets
With the amount of news on local TV relatively stable, what about the news budgets used to produce it?
Looking at all stations — affiliate and independent combined — most, 44%, had increased their budgets, as opposed to 51% in 2003. Another 26% percent said budgets remained the same.
Here, though, network affiliation made a difference. Among network affiliates, 49% of news directors increased their news budgets, with more than a fourth saying the budget had not changed (27.5%).
At independent stations, however, over a third (37%) reported cutting their news budgets from the year before, and nearly as many (34%) said they couldn’t comment on or did not know whether budgets had gone up or down.3
The data suggest that if there are winners and losers coming in local news, independents, which had been a growth area in an earlier era, are facing trouble ahead.
Like news budgets overall, newsroom staffing seems to differ depending on whether the stations are affiliated with one of the four major networks.
When asked their plans for 2005, more than half (53.5%) of the news directors at network affiliates said they would keep newsrooms staff sizes the same as 2004. News directors of independent stations, on the other hand, were pessimistic about 2005. Most of them (54.3%) said they didn’t know what changes they would see in the newsroom staff, and more than 20% said they would decrease employees.
A worrisome figure, though, may be the disparity between the predictions in late 2003 for staff cuts over the next year and the percent actually reporting cuts in the most recent survey. Heading into 2004, just under 4% of news directors had predicted that they would cut their staffs in 2004, but almost five times that many reported doing so at the close of the year.
With that in mind, the 9% that predicted cutting staff in 2005 could prove to be a much greater percentage in the end.4
Changes in Staff Size: ‘Big 4’ Affiliates
Source: RTNDA/Ball State University Surveys
The number of people employed in the average newsroom (including both full-time and part-time employees) has been steadily increasing.
At the network affiliates, the average number of full-time staff people was 37, up from approximately 36 in 2003 and 35 in 2002. For both the network affiliates and other commercial stations together, the pattern is similar — full-time staffs have grown to an average of 35 from 34 in 2003 and 33 in 2002. On the other hand, part-time staff has shown a decline.5
But the averages may mask what is really going on. It is possible that most of the growth is occurring in a few newsrooms, and that their expansion is skewing the averages.
If we look at growth in 2004 in terms of market size, it occurred mainly in the largest markets. Graphing the full-time staff over time shows that it’s the largest markets that have seen the most fluctuation in the newsroom, as well. The average newsroom in the top 25 markets was particularly large in 2000, but the number of employees went down sharply in the next few years. In 2004, it seems, those stations were re-staffing their newsrooms again, though whether that is a trend is uncertain.
Over all, salaries rose across the board, although not everyone shared equally in the increases. The news director emerged as the CEO of the newsroom not only in influence but also of pay.
Newsroom salaries in 2004 increased 3.6% over 2003. That was a smaller increase than the previous year (10%), but represented a second straight year of increases. In 2004, for example, news managers saw their salaries rise 4.8% while other off-air positions received pay increases of 6.6%.
Over time, however, TV news managers (News Producers, Executive Producers, Managing Editors and Assistant News Directors) have seen a much greater increase in real wages than anyone else in their shops. Using the RTNDA data to compare median salaries, the average on-air positions have seen an increase of about 26% in salaries over the past 10 years (1994 to 2004). That group includes news anchors, weathercasters and sports anchors. On the other hand, the increase among management positions was nearly double that, at about 45%.6
Among News Directors, the difference is even more pronounced. They have seen a median salary jump of 60% in the past 10 years, the most substantial increase of all. That clearly reflects the premium that managers now command. News directors now earn on average 30% more than the average anchor. In the age of multiple newscasts, though, there are now many more anchors than just the main evening anchor. The term “anchor” no longer refers to just that marquee figure, who may still have a higher salary than the news director.
Median TV News Salary Comparisons Over Time
Source: RTNDA/BSU Salary Survey, June 2005
To a lesser extent, what has happened to the salaries of news directors is also happening to other behind-the-scenes people. Over the past decade, the percentage of wage increases for off-air jobs was significantly higher for every newsroom job category surveyed.
Another interesting point is the rise in the position of the internet specialist. The job was nonexistent or negligible enough not to be measured 10 years ago, but now earns a salary almost as high as an average sports anchor. One reason may be that these positions are more likely to exist in larger markets.
As reported last year, stations are increasingly spreading their content across a wide variety of outlets. The most popular type of sharing continued to be the providing of content to station Web sites, followed by local radio outlets. That was followed by the sharing of content with another broadcast station, and lastly, with a local cable channel.
The percentage of content shared with all four kinds of outlets rose by a small amount from the year before.
Investment in the local news market was more or less steady in 2005. Strong stations got slightly stronger. Weak stations appeared to become even weaker. And the largest group of middle-market operations essentially held the line. Changes, if any, were most visible in markets 26 to 50. Those, in contrast to the others, projected some amount of growth for 2005 in the amount of news on the air, in news budgets, and to some extent in newsroom staff.
Another area that bears watching is the smaller independents and Hispanic stations in the top markets. While the market group looked steady overall, there was significant growth in the station types, perhaps masking what’s happening at the top of the food chain.
1. Bob Papper, “News, Staffing and Profitability Survey,” Supplementary Charts, RTNDA Communicator, October 2005. The survey found that 60.8% of news directors of all television stations (top-four affiliates and other commercial) said they planned to keep the same amount of news in 2005; 24.9% said they would increase the amount, and 8.8% said they would decrease.
2. Bob Papper, “News, Staffing and Profitability Survey,” Supplementary Charts, RTNDA Communicator, October 2005. In terms of size, markets 26 to 50 aired the most news, 4.3 hours on an average on weekdays. One other interesting note is that the amount of news on the weekends, once the backwaters of local news, increased more than the weekday average in 2004; the Sunday average went up by six minutes. That may be a sign that stations are looking for yet more places to increase news revenues.
5. Bob Papper, “News, Staffing and Profitability Survey,” RTNDA Communicator, October 2005. Part-time staff was down to an average of 3 for all television stations, from 4.8 in 2003. The drop was seen in both affiliated networks, where the average went down from 4.5 to 3, and among other commercial stations, which saw a drop from 3.7 to 3.5.
6. Bob Papper, “Salary Survey”, Median TV News Salary Comparisons Over Time, RTNDA Communicator, June 2005. Management Positions refer to Assistant News Director, Managing Editor, Executive Producer and News Producer.