|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
The evidence takes some assembling, and there are contradictions, but signs have emerged of some change in the attitude that has led to the thinning-out of local TV newsrooms in recent years — a trend that has bedeviled the industry and, many news directors believe, accelerated the decline in audience.
For the latest years for which there is data, staffing appears to be up, and budgets appear not to be pressed.
There are also signals that independent stations may be getting away from news, leaving it to the networks and their affiliates, which could concentrate the audience to a few newsrooms.
It would be wrong to overstate the case. The number of hours of news produced is also at a record high. And there is more pressure than ever to produce news for the Web, as well.
Still, taken together, the evidence points to a growing sense that for the stations that do news, it increasingly will be the franchise that will define their stations.
Amount of News on Local TV
What is the average amount of news being aired on local TV? On any weekday in 2005, local stations aired 3.8 hours of news. That was up from 3.6 hours reported in 2004 and represented a record high.1 Those are the results from the latest annual survey conducted for the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) by Bob Papper of Ball State University.2
The amount of news a station produces is a difficult matter to weigh. While more news content means more journalism, it can also stretch news operations thin, give journalists less time to work on stories, and lead to more drive-by coverage of stories that are easy to get but less informative than more difficult enterprise reporting.
Many stations seemed, for now, to feel they had reached their limit. The survey reveals that more than half the news directors surveyed (55.9%) had no plans to change the amount of news on their stations.
But the growth in news content is hardly over. More than a third of news directors, 36.3%, said their stations were planning to add to the amount of news that was already airing on their station.3 Hardly any — just 1.4% — said they planned to scale back.
And the evidence suggests they will go forward with their plans. Looking at 2005, expectations, if anything, were more cautious than the reality turned out to be.4 In 2005, 36% of all news directors said they had increased the amount of news on their station. Yet only about a quarter (24.9%) had planned, in 2004, to make those increases.
Similarly, three-fourths of news directors surveyed in 2006 reported running the same amount of news in 2005 —mirroring the percent that a year earlier planned on producing the same amount.5 But more significantly, a greater number increased the amount of news and fewer reduced it than had been planning to. Only 1.8% of news directors reported reducing the amount, but 8.8% had planned on doing so.
There are also significant differences in who is adding news.
Viewers will find much more news on network-affiliated stations, which averaged 4 hours of news each weekday in 2005. The nonaffiliated stations averaged just 1.8 hours of news on a weekday — a big change from 2004, when the average for such stations was 3.5 hours.
For now, the numbers suggest that the era of every station trying to get into the news business may have eased off, and that news may be increasingly a province of network affiliation (and Spanish-language stations, which are seeing growth and success in their newscasts). A half-dozen years ago, as stations began to see audiences shrink, some were predicting a shakeout in news, with only one or two stations in each market staying in the news business in a significant way. For a while the opposite happened. The current shift may be a natural response to the declining ratings and share numbers of recent years. In time, it could be a significant change — a shakeout in news after all.
The other trend, in the counter direction, is for network affiliates to produce more newscasts for independent stations from a central newsroom. That is what is occurring (as noted in Audience) in markets like Boston where the NBC affiliate WHDH-TV is producing a newscast for the CW affiliate (WLVI-TV) in the same market. Both stations are owned by the same group, Sunbeam Television Corp.
Indeed, the RTNDA surveys show that a fair number of news directors report providing their news content to another TV station. In 2005, 21% of news directors reported doing so. That is slightly lower than the year before (23%), but higher than 2003 (18%). The survey’s author, Bob Papper, estimates that more than 150 newsrooms are now producing news for multiple stations, a significant trend in the industry. According to the survey, stations are more likely to provide news to other stations if they are in a larger market and if they have a large staff.
In one sense, the practice represents stations giving consumers what they want — the choice of news when and where they want it. It also, no doubt, saves stations money to amortize the costs of their newsrooms and create more revenue opportunities. But the pressures on news people and newsrooms as they have to produce more newscasts are unmistakable.
News for Other Platforms
In addition to producing news for other stations, news directors have a host of other platforms they must think about as well. Those include the station’s own Web site, other Web sites, cable TV channels or local radio (for more on the ways local TV is moving beyond the television screen, see Digital).
Of all the platforms, the station’s Web site commands the lion’s share. In the RTNDA Survey released in October 2006, 80% of all news directors surveyed said they provided content to the station Web site. That figure has risen every year (it was 70% in 2004 and 66% the year before).
Local radio stations are the other big outlet for content — 44% of all news directors share their content with radio stations (roughly the same level as the past two years). Radio is followed, respectively, by other televisions stations and cable TV channels.
TV News Budgets
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 stretching of resources 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?
Stations seem to have realized that their product was suffering, and for the latest year available, 2005, don’t report any reduction in their news budgets.
That year, news directors either increased their budgets (46%) or kept them the same (35%). Only about 1 in 10 (12%) said that they had cut their budgets.
Network affiliates invested much more in news than the other commercial stations (just as they were also producing more news). Only about 1 in 10 (11.4%) of network-affiliated news directors reported cutting their budgets in 2005. Most of them (47.6%) instead had increased the budgets. About a third (34.6%) kept to the same level as the previous year.
As an indicator of quality, the number of people in newsrooms is often even more telling than money. Over all, average newsroom staff size increased in 2005. On average 36.4 people were employed in the participating newsrooms, the second-highest level of full-time staff since the survey began in 1993. It also represents a fourth consecutive year of growth in average full-time staff, and the second-highest staffing level since Papper began his research.
If we add in part-time staff, the total average staff size (41 people) is the highest recorded in the RTNDA survey. Indeed, 2005 saw an increase in part-time staff across all stations, unlike the decline in 2004.6
The growth wasn’t very even, however. While the number increased among affiliated stations, it plummeted at other commercial stations.
In 2005, the average newsroom staff size at an affiliated station was 38 people (up from 37 in 2004). Unlike previous years, staffing at affiliate stations was stronger than predicted in 2005. More than a third of news directors reported increasing their staff (39%) versus 24% that had planned to do so when asked a year earlier. Only 13% reported reducing their staff size.
At other commercial stations, the figure was 20 — down from 34 in 2004.
That drop in staff levels might be a reflection on non-affiliates eliminating newscasts or contracting other local stations to provide news for them. The arrangement in Boston, where Sunbeam Television added a newscast on its CW affiliate WLVI using the resources of its NBC affiliate WHDH, is one example. It consolidated operations so that one studio was used for all news programming. The new 10 p.m. newscast on the CW affiliate, an early version of WHDH’s 11 p.m. program, was produced at a fraction of the typical cost and by adding fewer than usual employees.7
And if the news directors stuck to their plans, the disparity between the affiliates and others would continue in 2006.
Of the news directors surveyed at the network affiliates, more than half (56%) planned to keep their staff size the same and one third (34%) hoped to hire more people. Less than 1 in 10 planned to cut staff or didn’t respond to the question.8
Changes in Staff Size: Big 4 Affiliates
Source: RTNDA/Ball State University Surveys
The responses were very different from news directors at the other commercial stations. A full 75% did not plan on any changes to their staffs. Of the rest, an equal amount planned to reduce or increase staff size (12.5% each)
One interesting wrinkle to newsroom resources was that increases appear for the moment to be more in bodies than in salaries. Even though the size of the newsroom increased, and news directors invested in more news on the air, TV news salaries barely changed in 2005. They increased just two-tenths of a percent, according to the RTNDA/BSU Salary Survey (June 2006). Things weren’t helped by inflation rates, which were 3.4% for the year. That meant real wages in TV news fell by 3.2%.
News directors themselves, however, continued to fare much better than their newsrooms. Using the RTNDA data to compare median salaries, the average on-air positions (news anchors, weathercasters and sports anchors) have seen an increase of about 33% in salaries over the past 10 years (1995 to 2005). The increase among all management positions was just slightly more at about 37%. Compared to those two groups, however, news directors have seen an increase of 56% over the past 10 years (1995 to 2005).
In other findings, an average new hire with no full-time experience would earn about $21,400. Tape editors were at the low end of the totem pole. They would join at the lowest average salary, $20,500.
Women in the Local Newsroom
In what was said to be a sign that women were finally getting their due in the newsroom, Katie Couric became the first solo female broadcast anchor in September 2006, for CBS (see Network TV Audience).
But that ‘breakthrough’ holds only for national network news. In local news, women have for long been the face of the newsroom. According to the RTNDA, women accounted for more than half of all anchor positions in 2005 — 57%. Even a decade ago, in 1996, 54% of anchors were women.9 Indeed, the most recent survey of news directors in July 2006, commissioned for the RTNDA, does show that virtually all newsrooms now employ women (97%) and that they made up 40% of the TV news workforce as of 2005.10
Women are also increasing their ranks behind the scenes. There are now more women executive producers, reporters, news producers and writers. Indeed, in 2005, the number of women TV news directors heading their own newsrooms rose by 25%, reversing a two-year drop. And, according to Bob Papper, their salaries are at par with their male (news director) colleagues.
Such women, though, are generally found in smaller newsrooms (with staffs of up to 10 people). The biggest newsrooms have the lowest incidence of women news directors.
Further, the percentage of women in the total television workforce over time has remained essentially stagnant. According to RTNDA data, the share of women in the TV newsroom has fluctuated by less than two percentage points between 1999 and 2005. They make up less than half — 40% — of the newsroom staff.
Women in the Newsroom
Source: RTNDA/Ball State University Annual Surveys on Women and Minorites
Nonetheless, women journalists are increasing their ranks. According to surveys conducted by Profs. David Weaver and G. Cleveland Wihoit for their book “The American Journalist in the 21st Century,” which were conducted over three decades, women made up 33% of all journalists in 2002, up from 20% in 1971, the year of their first survey.11
The journalistic trend reflects the broader trend of an increasing number of women in the general labor force. In 2006, approximately 60% of women were in the labor force, a significant increase over the 41% of 1970.12