IN WELL-EDUCATED CIRCLES, THE mention of local television news will likely evoke derisive laughter. As U. of Illinois communications professor Robert McChesney put it, one source of mutual agreement across a politically divided U.S. is that everyone thinks their local news must be the country’s worst.
It comes as something of a surprise, then, to see a study suggest the process of renovating local news has already begun — not under the traditional “There’s more to life than news, weather and sports” banner, but rather localized cable news channels and, increasingly, the Internet and broadband.
Of course, this encouraging pattern has somehow skipped over California, but with the weather out here, you can’t have everything.
The assertion that the sky isn’t falling — and might actually be expanding — comes from Adam Clayton Powell III, a senior fellow at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and director of the engineering school’s Integrated Media Systems Center, following a comprehensive examination of local news.
In “Reinventing Local News: Connecting Communities Through New Technologies,” Powell found there are more than two dozen regions where local cable channels are thriving, from New York 1 to News 8 in Austin, Texas.
Powell’s analysis deems 24-hour local cable news “a more serious, detailed, editorially solid alternative to the traditional 6 and 11 p.m. news broadcasts.” And if those channels often amount to a modicum of original reporting and plenty of filler, it’s a no-frills template that mirrors all-news AM radio and the recycling news wheels on stations like WINS in New York and KFWB in Los Angeles. (Even newsradio has taken something of a beating lately, with L.A.’s KNX adopting a goofy news-lite format with happy-talk anchors.)
One of the reasons that improvements in local news have gone mostly unnoticed, Powell suggests, is that the image is tethered to broadcast outlets in U.S. media capitals New York and Los Angeles, where key stations are owned and operated by their parent networks. Many smaller markets, by contrast, are better served.
This isn’t to say that local broadcast news hasn’t done much to warrant its shoddy reputation. McChesney, an outspoken critic of media consolidation and its effects, has called local news appalling, and the inexcusable dearth of political coverage documented in an exhaustive USC-U. of Wisconsin study of news broadcasts preceding the 2002 and 2004 elections remains a national embarrassment.
Some pundits have gone so far as to conjecture that localism itself is on life support, thanks to cost-cutting group owners such as Sinclair Broadcasting, which employs a widely scorned “centralcasting” approach, feeding its stations from a main hub. Even news execs have waved warning flags. In a 2002 Pew Research survey, half of TV news directors polled agreed that their profession is “heading down the wrong track.”
Still, cable news brings a high degree of utility to the local news game, with a tighter focus on government and community matters. Small wonder that the general manager of Orlando’s cable operation refers in the report to serving “customers,” as opposed to viewers.
For whatever reason, Los Angeles remains the largest U.S. market without a 24-hour local channel, after similar ventures in neighboring Orange County and San Francisco failed.
One explanation regarding L.A., where broadcast news frequently seems to consist of an endless series of car chases, is that hodge-podge cable franchising undermined such an enterprise — a dynamic that could change as Comcast and Time Warner parcel up the market after absorbing Adelphia systems.
“If they can make it work in Milwaukee, you’d think they can make it work in even half of Los Angeles,” Powell says.
Another wild card is Fox News Channel CEO Roger Ailes’ expanded oversight of Fox’s TV station group, a profit center that hasn’t exactly been associated with grand innovation in news. Although there’s reason for caution about what “Fox attitude” might mean for local stations, Ailes’ wrinkles couldn’t be worse than the rock ‘n’ roll newscast on UPN’s News Corp.-owned L.A. affiliate KCOP, where the hipster anchors behave as if they’re introducing clips before heading out for a night of clubbing.
As with any cultural excess, critics shouldn’t overlook public complicity in such broadcasts, especially when “weather” invariably tops the list of information for which people tune in. Trend-setting L.A. is again a trailblazer here, as most of its weathercasters now resemble the winners of “America’s Next Top Model.”
Relying upon technology remains an imperfect solution to TV news’ woes, but it’s clear alternative information streams with newer business models are crucial to local news’ future. And while forecasting is always dicey in such a fast-moving sphere, there are at least indications in Powell’s findings that looking ahead, this news might not be all bad.