So Long  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   January/February 2003

So Long   

Two Twin Cities TV stations drop daily in-depth segments.

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


Local television news is all about branding. Action News. Crime Tracker. On Your Side. The catchphrases come and go as easily as stations change consultants, and once they're gone they're not often missed. After all, what's in a name?

Sometimes, it turns out, plenty. Consider what's happened in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

As the average story length at stations around the country shrank to less than 90 seconds, Twin Cities viewers could look forward to nightly TV reports with depth, no matter which station they watched. For years, all three major network affiliates aired long-form stories in their late newscasts, stories that regularly ran more than four minutes and occasionally up to 10.

The topics ranged from hard-hitting investigations to softer features, but the reports shared common elements: strong, well-developed characters; top-notch writing; and excellent photojournalism and editing. They stood out from the sameness that permeates local TV news. They were worth watching. And now, they're harder to find.

Only KARE has kept its signature long-form feature, "Extra!" Last year, within weeks of each other, KSTP canceled its showcase "Focus 5" segments, and WCCO unceremoniously dropped its "Dimension" franchise, the one that started the trend 15 years ago.

KSTP News Director Scott Libin says he threw in the towel after three years because "it wasn't working." The station had hoped that adding longer reports at 10 p.m. would improve ratings. Instead, Libin says, "We often saw unacceptable erosion in our second-quarter-hour numbers." According to station research, viewers tuned out "Focus 5" because they saw it as a signal that the news of the day was over. Libin says he was sad to see the segment go, but adds, "Our job isn't to produce newscasts to our own tastes, but to serve the needs and interests of viewers--who often have a very different idea of what matters."

WCCO spokeswoman Bronwyn Schaefer Pope says her station now airs longer stories about four times a week. "We are doing these kinds of pieces all the time," she says. "Really, truly, the only change has been that we don't call them 'Dimension' anymore."

But insiders say the stories are shorter and produced more quickly. Although both WCCO and KSTP retain active investigative units, a reporter at one of the stations says, "They've minimized our ability to do great things. Now they want us to do good things really fast."

That's what drove award-winning reporter Trish Van Pilsum to leave WCCO for the Fox station across town, KMSP, where she has been promised that she can keep producing "meaty and satisfying" stories. Van Pilsum believes those kinds of stories can change the way people look at the world and, not coincidentally, the way TV journalists look at their jobs. "Daily news is critical to what a newsroom does, but eventually it sucks the life out of everybody," Van Pilsum says. "It's good to have work for people to aspire to."

"Dimension" didn't start out that way. Former WCCO News Director John Lansing says it was born of a marketing need--to produce promotable stories that could draw and hold an audience--and it worked. Lansing says "Dimension" disproved the widely held notion that local stations can't succeed by airing long stories. "The point is that quality works," he says. "But news directors confuse short and fast with compelling and interesting."

That's a mistake, says KARE News Director Tom Lindner, who believes viewers are willing to stay tuned for well-produced, long-form storytelling. "People not only sit still for it, they sort of crave it."

Lansing is now senior vice president, broadcasting, for E.W. Scripps Co., whose television stations in Detroit, Cleveland, West Palm Beach and Cincinnati all showcase long-form reports and draw ratings, Lansing says. One station he's particularly proud of is WCPO in Cincinnati, which is producing one-hour documentaries on local issues that have garnered a bigger audience than the programs they've replaced on the prime-time schedule.

In Minneapolis, the changes seem to have benefited the station that stayed the same. According to Lindner, KARE's numbers were up at 10 p.m. in November from a year ago. The two stations that dropped their long-form franchises were flat.

Which makes me wonder: Is anyone in Minneapolis hearing the refrain from that old Joni Mitchell song? You know the one. "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone."

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