McAdams On: News is Where the News Is

There’s a slow but steady trend at TV stations across the country to produce more local news. Several TV stations have recently announced bumping morning news start times back to 4:30 a.m. Several more stations added news in the last year.

Investment in high-definition news production gear may be one impetus. The ROI of local news could be better than syndicated programming; that could be another. Stations don’t say why they’re adding news, other than the usual gobbledygook about serving viewers.

Another thing that goes conveniently unmentioned is the impact on personnel. The Pew Center reported earlier this year that TV newsroom staff numbers had fallen by around 1,600 people since 2008.

It’s easy to watch local news and wonder at its occasional inanity. Several Midwestern stations were ridiculed last spring for featuring a guy posing as a yo-yo champ. In the ensuing down-dressing, it was not unusual to see inquiries about station fact checkers, a species cut from the operational expense column when Sumner Redstone was still in knee breeches.

The reality is, fewer people are being asked to do more and more work for no more pay. The quality of that work is bound to be affected, though there seems to prevail an executive-level assumption that audiences won’t notice. As if consumers of news won’t pick up on cut corners. That they’ll completely buy into the marketspeak about being served.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Anyone working on or near the front line of news knows the audience is armed with razors. They notice every little detail that’s out of place, absurd, incorrect, repeated, somewhat unremarkable and everything in between. Such people clearly have more time and resources than, say, those who booked amazing yo-yo guy. But that doesn’t matter.

The paucity of resources and the ever-increasing workloads of TV reporters does not matter a whit to the audience. They expect--and deserve--reliable information. Each and every one of them adds up to the rating points held forth in great servility to advertisers.

The biggest untold news story might very well be the state of news itself. People in TV news are commonly perceived to be making money hand over fist. The majority, however, are getting paid just about enough to maintain a 16-foot Airstream on blocks.

It’s no wonder that when Mike James and Mona Scott launched News Blues in 1998, it quickly went viral, before there was such a thing online. News Blues was a sort of early social network for TV news employees. It was getting 5,000 hits an hour within two months of launching, much of it in the form of spleen-venting.

“The overwhelming response, the open floodgate of anger, speaks volumes to the pent-up frustration and hostility within the industry,” James told the Online Journalism Review.

Ironically, the industry charged with upholding free speech went after James and Scott with cease-and-desist orders. The pair responded by taking the site mainstream and pay-walling it. It would be interesting to see what would turn up if News Blues were launched today, though sadly and likely, it would be more of the same. Much more.