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American Journalism Review
Local News, from 600 Miles Away  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    BROADCAST VIEWS    
From AJR,   April 2003

Local News, from 600 Miles Away   

“Centralcasting” saves money but could impair coverage.

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


It's 10 o'clock. Do you know where your local TV news is coming from?

Sounds like a dumb question, but it's not. It depends on where you live and what channel you watch.

In Michigan and South Carolina, stations are airing local newscasts that are not exactly local. And soon, the practice could be coming to a station near you. The Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group is pioneering what's known in the trade as centralcasting. Their guinea pig is WSMH in Flint, Michigan, where the newscast was launched last October.

Tune in to the 10 p.m. news on WSMH and you get a hybrid: local news blocks produced and anchored in Flint, with national news and local weather inserted from Sinclair headquarters in suburban Baltimore. Company officials call the end result "seamless."

Viewers are never told that some of the content originates from 600 miles away. "We don't say where it is [coming from], but we won't ever leave the impression that it's local," says Sinclair Managing Editor Carl Gottlieb. But the newscast seems designed to leave exactly that impression, with sets that are virtually identical, and the same graphic look throughout the broadcast.

Sinclair isn't the only company in the business of centralcasting. Bahakel produces two daily newscasts for WOLO in Columbia, South Carolina, at WCCB in Charlotte. A skeleton staff in Columbia shoots and reports stories, then feeds them to Charlotte, where the news is produced, anchored and fed back to Columbia.

The news director of WCCB, Ken White, says there's no indication on the air that the shows aren't local. But he admits that truth-in-labeling might turn off Columbia viewers. "I think it would hurt if we continued to harp on it," White says. "I think it's just more confusion if we do it."

One could argue that not being up front about the origin of a newscast is just bad journalism. But centralcasting isn't about journalism, it's about money. Sinclair, you may recall, is the company that, in order to cut costs, killed local news two years ago at several of its stations, including the ABC affiliate in St. Louis (see Bylines, November 2001).

Now the company is touting this new arrangement as an affordable way to get news to stations that don't currently have local news while--not coincidentally--raising more revenue. "Without news, we could get only 70 percent of the advertising market," a Sinclair vice president told TVTechnology.com. Says Sinclair CEO David Smith: It's expensive to produce local news, but centralcasting "reduces or eliminates repetitive efforts and resources."

In other words, it saves them a bundle--by some estimates, about half the cost of a locally produced newscast. Because the local station has to fill only 18 minutes of an hour-long news program, it can operate with a much smaller staff.

Sinclair plans to begin centralcasting at several more of its 62 television stations this year, and Gottlieb says bluntly, "Some people will lose their jobs." But he says it's better than the alternative. "If we continued to allow these stations to continue bleeding [money], we would have to do away with news altogether."

White says Bahakel faced the same alternative at WOLO. Without centralcasting, the station "would have completely dropped news," he says. As it was, a news staff of about 35 was cut to just seven. "I'm glad we're still keeping news at one of our sister stations," White says.

But consider the potential downside of centralcasting. What would a station do if local news breaks on deadline and the downsized staff couldn't cover it? And how would a Midwestern station handle severe weather from a studio on the East Coast? Gottlieb insists that with high-powered computers and help from AccuWeather "we are able to basically do the same weather they do in-market."

But Sinclair's weather segments, airing in Dayton, Pittsburgh and Rochester, New York, as well as Flint, are not even live. They're pre-taped and fed before the newscast. "They're living on borrowed time," says Kevin Wilson, assignment editor at WJRT, one of Sinclair's competitors in Flint, where weather is often big news. "The first time there's a 24-hour weather story, they're going to be out in the cold."

It's already happened in South Carolina. WOLO's coverage of a January snowstorm consisted of a crawl at the bottom of the screen while other local stations were on the air live. Maybe that's what it will take for viewers who've been none the wiser about the source of their "local" newscast to finally wise up.

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