|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
In television news divisions, most of the investment in 2006 seemed to be on non-news expenditures, such as marketing costs, set overhauling and converting studios to high-definition. At CBS, for instance, at least $10 million was spent promoting the new evening news anchor, Katie Couric. There was very little evidence in 2006 that the networks were allocating more dollars for actual newsgathering operations. NBC, indeed, announced a reduction of roughly 5 percent of the network’s news division as part of a management strategy to remedy the ongoing struggles of the broadcast segment.
The one content area that suggested growth was the Web. While it is hard to quantify the level of investment in the different network news Web sites, each site now appears to be offering particular online features. That has helped them distinguish themselves not only from other online news sites, but also from each other.
Changes at NBC News
Perhaps the biggest announcement concerning news investment levels came from NBC. In late October, Zucker announced the network was restructuring its management plan branded NBCU 2.0, with its budget and job cuts. (For the financial background of NBC’s restructuring plan, see the Ownership section). The result was as many as 300 fewer bodies in the NBC and MSNBC newsrooms to produce such shows as Today, Nightly News and Meet the Press, all perennial leaders in their respective dayparts, according to data from Nielsen.1
NBC said it expected to cut positions in the newsroom largely through attrition, buyouts and layoffs, with just a few on-air layoffs. Broadcasting & Cable reported that companywide, most cuts were expected to be in “backroom operations, especially jobs duplicated in several divisions, including satellite operations, graphics, and booking.”2 In November, the first round of layoffs was announced, with at least 18 employees losing jobs, mostly at Dateline NBC, the New York Times reported.3 Cuts at Today and Nightly News were more marginal, the Times said, and appeared to be mostly junior-level people.
Initially, industry analysts speculated that the lion’s share of the losses would come from MSNBC, the cable sibling. In October, for instance, Variety magazine reported that as MSNBC was merged into 30 Rock, “insiders expect consolidation of production staffs, meaning probably layoffs of bookers, cameramen and producers.”4 But as of early December, no layoffs at the cable network had been officially announced.
There was also talk that the network might merge some of its existing domestic bureaus with its local stations to cut costs and improve efficiency. Industry analysts offered arguments both for and against trimming newsroom staffing levels. When a congressional page linked to the scandal involving the Florida Congressman Mark Foley was interviewed by the FBI, the network sent producers from Today, Nightly News, Dateline, and MSNBC, according to Variety’s Michael Learmonth, and that was considered an unnecessary overlapping.5
Others, however, contended that consolidating the staff would result in unwanted homogenization of the different news programs that are aired across the network. And still others worried about the quality of news coverage. “Of course it will affect the integrity of the news,” said Bill McLaughlin, a former correspondent for CBS and NBC. “NBC is already cut to the bone. The cuts will be painful. They will weaken NBC.”6
Such debate is hardly new. The networks have been steadily cutting back for two decades now. The debate rages precisely because there is merit to all three points of view.
The new age and new competition require change, and redundant operations are an obvious first place to look for savings. They will also lead to homogenization, and stretching people thinner also hurts quality. The biggest danger for NBC is probably in discounting any one of those concerns. They point to the degree to which the cuts are inevitable, and to the fact that they must be executed with care. They also, of course, point to a bigger dilemma. Calling all this NBCU 2.0 invokes the spirit of the digital age, where 2.0 means a new incarnation or upgrade. But for now it is not clear how much of what NBC is doing involves a digital push, or a redirecting of existing staff to digital operations, or just cutting. That will become clearer in 2007.
Not all the news coming out of NBC on newsroom investment in 2006 involved cuts, however. Since late November 2005, when Steve Capus became president of the news division, NBC has opened three new foreign bureaus, in Beirut, Bangkok and Beijing. Commenting on the decision to open the Beirut bureau in late May 2006, Capus said: “This is a real commitment of resources during an extremely important point in time, especially in that unique part of the world.”7
But insiders at NBC say the reality is more complicated. They tell PEJ privately that NBC has not increased the number of correspondents involved. Beirut will be home base for a correspondent already based in the Middle East. Bangkok got NBC’s Hong Kong correspondent, and Hong Kong no longer has one. Beijing, where there already was a bureau, will get its first resident correspondent, but Moscow has lost its sole correspondent.
Nonetheless, these insiders find it noteworthy that Asia will now have two resident correspondents.
Staffing and Workload
When audiences began to drop sharply in the 1980s with the emergence of cable, network news divisions repeatedly cut staff when revenues and profits declined. With the rise of the Internet in the late 1990s, the trend toward fewer bodies and a heavier workload appears only to have continued.
To quantify these trends, Joe Foote at Arizona State University counted how many different correspondents appeared on the network news programs over 20 years. According to the data, the number fell by more than a third (34.8%) from its peak in 1985, dropping from 76.7 to 50 in 2002.
At the same time there were fewer correspondents on the air, the ones who were left appeared to be working more. Foote’s research shows that in 1985, reporters appearing in evening newscasts performed an average of 31.4 stories a year. By 2002, that number had risen to 40.9, an increase of 30%. Foote ended his research in 2002, and similar data from the researcher Andrew Tyndall from 2002 on suggest that some of the cutting of on-air correspondents may have eased.
In 2006, there was also some indication that at least one network was starting to rely more heavily on its anchor to deliver the news. A study by Tyndall of Katie Couric’s first six weeks on the air found that stories filed by correspondents accounted for 69% of all news, compared to 85% under her predecessor, Bob Schieffer.8
But the data on correspondents and airtime did nothing to account for what was happening to personnel behind the camera, a group that most people in network TV felt had suffered even larger cutbacks.
To try and asses this, PEJ examined the journalist staffing levels for the three networks, as they themselves reported them to the News Media Yellow Book, a quarterly publication the names of over 33,000 journalists at the leading news media organizations.9 According to that examination network news staff, including the number of on-air journalists, fell at all three networks from 2002 to 2006. And indeed, the off-air reductions were greater.
The analysis included staffing for all newscasts — morning, evening, news magazines, Sunday talk shows, and all other news division positions — and divided them into three categories. The first group consisted of all network news staff listed (including executives, producers, editors, researchers, correspondents, reporters, and anchors). The second group was a subset of just the production (off-air) staff. The third group was made up of just the on-air journalists — correspondents, reporters, anchors, and contributors.
Over all, according to the count, total staff size has declined 10% since 2002, the year Joe Foote concluded his research. Meanwhile, the number of producers dropped 12%. The number of on-air journalists fell 7%.
Across the networks, there were interesting differences. They were similar when it came to the overall declines of all staff or producers in particular. But when it came to on-air personnel, ABC had cut more, down 11% from 2002-2006. At CBS the decline was roughly half that, 6%, and NBC it was just 1%.
A word of caution about those figures: An inventory based on the self-reported Yellow Book personnel listings is hardly official. People who contribute to the network news programs may be housed in another department owned by the same parent company, as may be case with NBC’s pooling resources with MSNBC. Also, personnel could be moved to other operations not listed in the book, including from TV to Web.
But the exercise has some value. The networks themselves do not release personnel data on a regular basis. And this analysis augments and updates the work of researchers like Foote and Tyndall who have counted on-air correspondents who appear in stories but cannot account for the many technicians, video tape editors, photo-journalists, producers and assistants who make up so much of television news.
Coverage from Abroad
Another way to measure the level of newsroom investment is to evaluate how much coverage is devoted to events from abroad.
As we have outlined in previous reports, the number of overseas bureaus has been reduced by roughly half since the an all-time high in the 1980s, during the Cold War.
There is some debate about how much the number of bureaus influences the quality or even quantity of network television’s international coverage. Some argue that technology has rendered some fully staffed bureaus unnecessary. Others counter that there is no substitute for living in the region to understand the context in which events unfold.
Does the decline in bureaus translate into a decline in foreign coverage? The Tyndall Report uses three different methods to track network coverage about events abroad. The first records the time each network devotes to stories filed by reporters with a foreign dateline. By that measure, network news in 2006 had just slightly more than half (54%) as many foreign stories as it did in the late 1980s — tracking almost exactly with the decline in the number of bureaus.
Tyndall’s research shows that network foreign reportage reached a peak in 1989 — the end of the Cold War — and then declined until 2001. It began to rebound after September 11, but at levels only barely over half of what they were in the late 1980s.
Number of Minutes Devoted to Stories Filed by Reporters with a Foreign Dateline, 1988-2006
Source: Andrew Tyndall
Tyndall also measures the amount of time devoted to stories that addressed the foreign policy of the U.S. filed either from the U.S. or overseas. By that measure, foreign-policy coverage has actually dropped since 2003 after the invasion of Iraq. It fell 41% in 2004 alone. Such coverage rose in 2006, but only marginally (4%). Yet even that number, an average of about 3 minutes per newscast per night, was still down 40% from 2003.10
The pattern of high coverage during followed quickly by a falling-off is not unusual. According to Tyndall’s analysis, the amount of coverage of U.S. foreign policy was heavy in 1990 and 1991, during the Gulf War, but subsequently plunged in the mid-1990s. Coverage soared again in late 2001, and particularly in 2003 when the Iraq War began.
There are several explanations for the drop in coverage since 2003. The war has become a fact of daily life rather than a sudden news event. What’s more, anecdotal evidence suggests that the lion’s share of reporters had left Iraq by the fall of 2003, and that number has continued to fall in the years since.11 There are also financial considerations in keeping a TV news crew in Iraq.12 And reporting has become increasingly dangerous in there. As of early February 2007, the number of journalists killed in Iraq since the conflict began stood at 93.13
Number of Minutes Devoted to Stories on U.S. Foreign Policy, 1988-2006
Source: Andrew Tyndall
Finally, Tyndall tracks how much time is given to international stories in which American foreign policy is not the central focus. By that measure, coverage of international events has grown some. After falling from 2003 to 2004, it increased 17% in 2005, and then was up slightly in 2006 (1%). The bump last year, according to Tyndall, can largely be attributed to the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer.
Number of Minutes Devoted to All International Stories, 1988-2006
Source: Andrew Tyndall
For PBS, the nonprofit public broadcasting television operation, investment decisions are not on the amount of ad dollars or subscriber fees but on fund-raising and federal grants. Roughly 13% of its funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and other federal grants, but as the New York Times reported, Congress has “long pressured the company to be more entrepreneurial in finding additional sources of funding.”14
But as David Sit, vice president of operations and technology at the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, told PEJ, PBS does not always meet its fund-raising targets . Indeed, financial reports from the CPB show that overall revenues for public broadcasting increased less than 1% from fiscal year 2004 to fiscal year 2005, considerably less than the annual rate of inflation in the U.S. over that span. The data also show that funding from the CPB now accounts for a higher percentage of the overall budget than it has since 1995, outpacing other revenue streams, most notably private donations.15
Nevertheless, the NewsHour is increasing its investment in a few key areas over the next year. First, it has earmarked $600,000 over two years to produce more overseas coverage, Sit told PEJ in early December. In the past, international coverage had been sporadic. So far, the news program has sent correspondents to Iran and Turkey. At the same time as the commercial broadcasts and newspapers have reduced their overseas bureaus, the NewsHour, and National Public Radio, have been increasing their coverage from abroad.
“While most commercial news organizations, especially those in television, have responded to economic pressure by cutting back on their international reporting,” David Sit of NewsHour told PEJ in February 2007, “the NewsHour made a concerted effort a year ago to seek separate foundation funding to send our correspondents to not only the world’s hot spots, but also to places in the under-developed world that do not get the attention they merit.”
The NewsHour also augmented the size of its news staff in 2006. With the return of Judy Woodruff to the broadcast on February 5, the NewsHour now has five full-time senior correspondents. The others are Jeffrey Brown, Gwen Ifill, Ray Suarez and Margaret Warner, according to a spokesman from the NewsHour.16 The news program also told PEJ it would increase the number of Web site staff people by a third, from 9 to 12.17
And finally, the NewsHour plans to be fully high-definition by the fall of 2007, as is the case with much of the commercial networks’ news programming. A technology that was first introduced in the U.S. back in the early 1990s, high-definition television is broadcast digitally and generates a considerably higher resolution than older television formats.