The Body Count  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   July/August 2002

The Body Count   

Want to know why local TV news is thin? Just look at the number of staffers.

By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (potter@newslab.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     


When Dan Rosenheim was managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, he oversaw a staff of 375, including 225 reporters. Now, as news director at KPIX-TV in San Francisco, Rosenheim has a full-time staff of 90, with 16 reporters. Sixteen reporters--to cover the same territory the newspaper covers with more than 200.

That statistic alone explains more about the state of local television news than any diatribe about deregulation or media mergers. It's all you really need to know to understand why there is so little enterprise, so much cheap-to-cover crime and so little depth on the air. Most television reporters have a simple mission every day: Get out there and scratch the surface. How can they do anything more?

The industry in general "could be so much better with five or 10 more discretionary employees" per station, Rosenheim says, longing for a world where more researchers and field producers supplement overworked reporters. The extra bodies wouldn't cost much, but stations can't afford them. Huge anchor salaries and expensive equipment eat up most of their budgets.

It's not a new problem. For several years, newsrooms around the country have been forced to make do with fewer and fewer people. Corporate owners have demanded layoffs, hiring freezes or budget cuts to increase profits.

WEEK in Peoria, Illinois, has lost 20 percent of its full-time staff since 1997, and News Director Jim Garrott says he doesn't expect any additional resources in the near future. Part of his problem is success: His station is No. 1 in the ratings. "It is hard to make a case to corporate that we will suffer immediately without more people," Garrott says.

Oddly enough, most TV managers would be happy to be in his position. At least WEEK is not being forced to produce more news with a smaller staff or to add news without adding enough people to do the job right. Consider the case of KRON in San Francisco. When the station lost its NBC affiliation after being sold to Young Broadcasting, the new owners decided to increase locally produced news programming by 40 percent, while increasing staff by just 15 percent. It hardly seems adequate.

The biggest gap is in newsgathering. "No TV station in America has enough reporters," says Philip Balboni, president of New England Cable News in Boston. If you add news time without adding people, he says, it amounts to "turning up the sausage factory to grind out more stuff." NECN has 14 reporters. Balboni says he needs twice as many. And he's serving just one master.

Across town, ABC affiliate WBZ has about the same number of reporters, but they're cranking out stories for newscasts on two different stations--WBZ and the Boston UPN affiliate, WSBK. Both stations are owned by Viacom, and their news-sharing arrangement is becoming almost commonplace as the number of such duopolies expands. In Memphis, the same staff produces news for two Clear Channel stations, although they do have separate anchor teams.

So while there's more news on the air, it's basically the same news, often produced by the same people. Al Tompkins, a former news director now at the Poynter Institute, created a novel formula to put the numbers in perspective. Take the number of hours of news a station produces each weekday and divide it by the number of reporters available. In Jacksonville, Florida, he found, a station had one reporter for every 45 minutes of news on the air. In Kansas City, it was one for every 53 minutes. Even if you subtract time for commercials, these stations still have just one reporter for 30 minutes or more of program content.

No wonder newscasts are packed with stories from feeds and syndicated services, with weather, sports and happy chat. How else could you fill all that time?

Research by the Project for Excellence in Journalism suggests that by spreading their staffs so thin, stations may pay a price. The PEJ study of local television newscasts has found a strong correlation between investment in staff and improving ratings. "It's the clearest conclusion we can draw," says director Tom Rosenstiel. According to last year's study of 43 local stations, those that hired more staff and also gave them more time to report did significantly better in attracting and holding audiences.

In most places, however, the trend is in the opposite direction. Fewer people given less time won't produce quality journalism. How long will it take stations to notice what viewers already have?

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