Killing local TV news

Is this a trend? A station in northeast Pennsylvania pulled the plug on its local newscasts this month and gave the entire news staff only a few hours notice that they were all being fired. WYOU-TV’s newscasts were produced by one of its competitors, WBRE-TV, and consistently finished a distant third in the ratings. Killing those newscasts reportedly will save $900,000 a year.

So will other struggling news operations be next on the chopping block? Absolutely, says Broadcasting & Cable:

With local television going through the worst slump of most any broadcasting veteran’s career, station insiders say numerous groups are taking a hard look at underperforming news departments. While local news represents a hefty chunk of revenue, it increasingly doesn’t pay to keep a fourth-place outfit afloat.

Local stations from Washington, DC, to Columbus, Ga., have dropped some of their newscasts this year in an effort to cut costs. Others have shifted newscasts to different time slots to avoid head-to-head competition with more successful newscasts. But getting out of news entirely is rare, because stations typically make about 50% of their revenue from local news.

The prediction that other stations will follow WYOU’s move speaks to the severity of the economic crisis that has swamped the local television business. Who will go next? B&C quotes consultants as saying “the earmarks of a station set to possibly scrap news are a debt-ridden parent company, being part of a duopoly, broadcasting in a small market and ratings in the 1s and 2s.”

If they’re right, people working in news at those kinds of stations should brace themselves. When the axe falls, it will be bad news for them. But what about the audience? I’d argue that it’s not always a bad thing when a station dumps local news–and by the way, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this kind of retrenchment. Lots of stations got into producing local news simply to make money, doing it on the cheap with no concern for quality. If those stations kill their newscasts, the public isn’t likely to be any less well served.


3 comments for “Killing local TV news

  1. Lou Hebert
    April 14, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    Deborah, sorry but I have to disagree with you on your final point that killing off the last place station in a market may be no big deal, after all. Having worked for some of those “lesser” stations in a marketplace, it is apparent to me that they too have people on their staffs who are just as passionate about their role as journalists as anyone else, and are just as inclined to dig out the good or exclusive stories as any other reporters in town. While they do not always get the recognition or follow-up promotion, that doesn’t mean they are not pursuing their profession with passion and a competitive spirit. It should also be noted that the “little guys” are often the only stations these days willing to try alternative methods of storytelling and/or new production techniques, or who are attempting to go after the stories that the “big stations” are not interested in chasing. I’m sure you would agree that the size of the station or its news ratings should never be the yardstick by which we measure a station’s commitment or excellence in journalism.

    Lou Hebert

  2. April 14, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    As a point of clarification, I’m not suggesting that last place stations are all expendable merely because they have the smallest audience. Lou is quite right that stations trailing badly in the ratings can and have produced quality journalism. And yes, they’re more willing to experiment with new approaches since they have the least to lose. But in the boom years, some stations launched newscasts primarily because they wanted a slice of the local advertising market, not because they were committed to providing a trusted source of local news and information. They never invested in the product or the people who put it on the air. With local advertising drying up, it’s no surprise that some of those stations are getting out.

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