Woe is Local TV News

Sixth PEJ study shows how financial pressures cut coverage

WASHINGTON: Local TV news is on the decline, the Project for Excellence in Journalism reports. The PEJ’s sixth annual “State of the News Media” study shows that news budgets and resources leveled off in 2007 and began to shrink last year.

“In local television, news staffs, already too small to adequately cover their communities, are being cut at unprecedented rates; revenues fell by 7 percent in an election year--something unheard of--and ratings are now falling or are flat across the schedule. In network news, even the rare programs increasing their ratings are seeing revenues fall,” the PEJ study intro states.

TV stations are under financial pressure from all sides--the death rattle from Detroit, the closed up capital markets, the expense of the extended digital transition and network demands.

“One other potentially worrisome development for local news operations is that networks are increasingly demanding money from their affiliates for programming, while in previous years the payments moved in the other direction,” the PEJ said.

Fox began the trend 10 years ago, and last year, NBC did the same. CBS is seeking to get apiece of retrans from its affiliates, using lucrative National League Football games as leverage. PEJ said small-market stations are affected disproportionately.

“Should the reverse-compensation model become the norm, many small-market stations fear they will have to cut back on local programming, including news, to make up for the higher costs,” PEJ said.

News budgets were essentially flat in 2007, the most recent year of available data, and before the economy caved in. Staff sizes started shrinking last year and are expected to keep doing so this year.

“The staffing in local television newsrooms was not large to begin with. For 2007, in the biggest markets, those one to 25, the median newsroom size in the latest survey available was 58. The next biggest market--25 to 50--was 56. And markets 100 and below averaged 28 people,” PEJ said, citing data from the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

The PEJ study also noted how stations used to add news to boost revenues, but no more. By the end of 2007, the average amount of weekday news reached 4.1 hours, the same as 2006. Last year’s average was unavailable, but the trend of pooling coverage and sharing newscast was highlighted.

The Internet is the major factor affecting all news outlets. The good news is that traditional sources were most often sought out on the Web. The bad news is that advertising revenues on the Web aren’t sufficient to support traditional news operations.