Nobody in “Local News,” a revealing documentary portrait of a local news station in Charlotte, N.C., ever utters the phrase “If it bleeds, it leads,” but some executives come close to that, especially toward the end of a yearlong effort to drag the news programs out of third place in its market. The struggle between doing quality news and getting higher ratings provides the fundamental tension in this intelligent, low-key five-hour docu series, which raises some intriguing questions but occasionally seems to be avoiding, rather than confronting, the real issue.
Docu followed the staff of the WCNC newsroom throughout 1999, soon after the station had been acquired by media company A.H. Belo. The scroll at the start of each hourlong segment reads, “This series chronicles one newsroom’s struggle to succeed by doing quality news.” But that’s an awfully vague goal, and the docu never gives us much of a context to determine what “quality news” really means. Executive producers David Van Taylor and Calvin Skaggs avoid any outside commentary, preferring to choose a more objective approach, allowing its subjects to speak for themselves.
What we are expected to believe is that everyone’s intentions here are admirable, which certainly seems true enough. The recently hired news director, Keith Connors, clearly wants to inform the public and increase viewership, and the first two episodes focus on the changes in personnel he engineers, in one case generating controversy and charges of racial insensitivity. Sometimes, his management style grates on the employees, who can feel underappreciated, judged as they are by market research and ratings more than by how effectively they do the job.
Often they don’t seem to do their jobs particularly well, and “Local News” is at its very best when we see this. In one sequence, a very important court ruling on school desegregation comes down, and the newsroom goes into team coverage mode, even though only one reporter — Sterlin Benson Webber, who consistently comes off as the cream of this crop — is really informed on the issue. The result is even amusing: An anchor puts together a panel of community members to discuss the very divisive issue and ends up with six people all with the same point of view. Another reporter obviously hasn’t even been watching his own news station’s reporting on the issue and ends up having to ask other journalists about the major players.
This same reporter proves excellent at standing out in a hurricane and looking severely wind-blown (is that quality news, or just good television?), but what he really wants to do are “people” stories in the vein of Charles Kuralt. He manages to be likable in this docu in part because he admits he doesn’t have anywhere near that kind of talent.
This is a team that wants to do quality news, but could they, even if all obstacles were removed? That’s a question this documentary raises but doesn’t come close to answering, which seems strange. When we hear at the end that this team won some Emmys for their work, it’s hard not to feel that the docu has left out more than just the sports coverage. We’re told they’re seeking quality news, but we don’t really see much of it.
Never do we see this newsroom discuss producing a single internally generated investigation, or anything that would be considered especially thoughtful. Most of the figures here claim that part of the problem is they don’t have enough time to do the full story, but the way “Local News” comes across, the opposite seems to be true: They don’t seem to find enough news to fill the programming, and they end up repeating themselves over and over. That’s the local news as we know it, and “Local News” is worthy because it shows us that this is not a very pretty picture.