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Local TV news suffers declines on several fronts

Last year was a difficult one for local TV news, and 2009 may be even bleaker as stations scramble to respond to economic, technological and budgetary challenges, according to the latest annual report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) on the state of the news media.

By most yardsticks, PEJ’s “The State of the News Media” annual report finds local TV news in general to be in a state of decline. Station revenue, viewership, newsroom staffing and newsgathering budgets last year slipped and look to accelerate their decline in 2009, according to the report.

Local TV news isn’t suffering alone, however. All traditional media, with the exception of cable TV news, are experiencing serious challenges, ranging from stagnant or declining advertising revenue to changing news consumption patterns favoring online sources. The newspaper industry, while not at death’s door, is struggling with these tectonic shifts in news consumption behavior and how that is affecting ad revenue, the report said.

Even the brightest spot on the horizon for local TV news, according to the report, is tarnished by shifting news consumption patterns. While the report points out that local TV news remains atop the heap of sources news consumers turn to, viewership of local news was flat or in decline in most newscasts regardless of the time slot.

According to the new PEJ report, ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC affiliates “saw sharp audience declines” in evening and late-night news last year. Morning news did somewhat better with ratings remaining “steady throughout the four sweeps months,” although they experienced share declines, it said.

Commercial revenue at local TV stations also declined in 2008 when compared to the previous year, which was particularly surprising because 2007 was not an election year. A significant factor pushing revenues lower in 2008 was how the nation’s declining economy affected automakers, which have pulled back on their car ads — the single largest source of revenue for most stations, the report said. “By some estimates,” according to the PEJ report, revenues “were cut in half” in the last year.

According to the report, cost-cutting “touched nearly everything and everyone,” including on-air talent by the fourth quarter of last year. Not only did stations find themselves under pressure from declining revenues last year, but the federal government’s decision to postpone the DTV transition until June means many local stations have unbudgeted technological expenses associated with maintaining their analog over-the-air TV service.

Financial stresses began touching local newsrooms in 2007, when 46 percent of news directors increased their budgets — down from 54 percent the preceding year, the report said quoting a survey conducted by researcher Bob Papper for the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

Findings from an updated survey polling fewer news directors in the second quarter of 2008 revealed news directors were less likely than before to be confident that they could maintain newsgathering resources or expand staff in the future. That sentiment likely deepened among news directors as the year wore on, PEJ reported, quoting Papper.

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.