Skip to main content

Local TV news struggles amid revenue, audience, personnel declines, Pew says

The latest annual report on where the news media stand from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism paints a gloomy picture for local TV news.

A sharp decline in local ad revenue, shrinking audience size and projections for anemic revenue growth in the near term leave local TV news “facing a structural challenge” in how news is gathered, disseminated and paid for, according to the Pew report.

The assessment, part of Pew’s “The State of the News Media” annual report on journalism in America released March 15, points out that local TV news operations continue to do more with less. In 2009, local TV newsrooms cut 450 positions — in addition to 1200 positions eliminated in 2008 — while increasing the average time devoted to local newscasts from 4.1 hours per day in 2008 to 4.6 hours daily in 2009.

The need to produce more news with fewer resources has led some stations to experiment with their approach to newsgathering in the form of cooperating with local competitive stations in the form of shared content, equipment and personnel as well as cooperation with newspapers.

The annual assessment found some positive news for local stations in the areas of the Internet and mobile media. Local TV station Web site revenue was expected to climb 26 percent in 2009 to $1.3 billion; however, that growth won’t offset the long-term decline in local TV news commercial revenue.

“Stations are expected to see brisk revenue growth from their online properties — Web sites and mobile — for years to come,” the report said. “But online only amounted to 8 percent of station revenues in 2009, and there is little prospect of it significantly buoying them anytime soon.”

A significant contributor to the problems faced by local TV news is a falloff in audience. A Pew analysis of data from Nielsen Media Research found that local affiliates of the four major networks experienced a drop in viewers for every timeslot in 2009. The review also suggests the declines are worsening.

According to the assessment, “the rate of decline for early evening and late news appeared to be much steeper than the year before (2008). On average, local TV newscasts lost twice as many viewers in 2009 (4.1 million viewers) across the three sweeps periods compared to the 2008 loss (2 million viewers).”

Still, the report held out hope for modest revenue growth this year due largely to political campaign spending and the Olympics. The Pew assessment forecasts revenue growth this year of between 3 percent and 5 percent.

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.