Networks by the Numbers
Analyst Andrew Tyndall makes his living tallying the nightly news reports.
By Dorcas Taylor
Taylor is a former AJR editorial assistant.
Andrew Tyndall may be the only person in the world who tapes the nightly news while he's on vacation so he can watch it when he returns. In fact, he claims to be the only person who hasn't missed a weekday nightly newscast since the summer of 1987.
His boast just might be true.
Tyndall, 50, publishes the Tyndall Report, a newsletter that tracks nightly network news coverage. The report began as a monthly newsletter in the spring of 1988. Now updated weekly online (www.tyndallreport.com), it totals the minutes the "Big Three" broadcast networks devote to news topics ranging from the presidential election to the Iraq war to the Michael Jackson trial.
Media watchers and television writers pay careful attention to the report and its publisher. As media critics bemoan journalism's deteriorating resources, substance and quality, admirers credit Tyndall's data-rich newsletter with informing the dialogue. Numbers, they say, don't lie. Tyndall, once the go-to guy for stats and figures, also is increasingly sought for analysis of industry trends and developments.
"I always try and present in my work that it's an interaction of the world of public affairs on one hand and the institution of journalism on the other," he says. He admires the journalists who assemble network news, calling the quality of network journalism "the highest of any medium."
Perhaps his attraction to the format has something to do with his British roots. Tyndall describes "brevity" as a characteristic the English admire. Packing relevant facts into a short but well-written package is a virtue, he explains, and he lauds graphics and sound bites for creating an easily digestible format that does not condescend or grossly oversimplify. In America, newspapers especially give "the impression that it's better to go on and on and on," he says, but a quality broadcast packs a lot of information into a little time. He prefers it that way.
And U.S. media reporters and critics prefer citing the Tyndall Report to tackling the arduous number-crunching themselves. A Lexis-Nexis search in late February turned up 91 Tyndall quotes in the past six months in newspapers, wire services and magazines, including AJR.
Gail Shister, the Philadelphia Inquirer's television columnist, turns frequently to Tyndall for her daily column. In January, she quoted him on the safety of CBS News President Andrew Heyward's job, in the wake of a report on the network's botched coverage of President Bush's National Guard service. Tyndall talked of Heyward's close relationship with network chief Leslie Moonves: "If management wants him, he stays. It's not the troops, it's Moonves," Tyndall told Shister.
Among Tyndall's most appealing qualities: He understands deadlines and returns calls promptly. "Thank God he does what he does," Shister says, adding, "It's pretty dry stuff." She admires his "wherewithal and patience" in tracking network news day after day.
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, hired Tyndall last year to contribute to his organization's annual State of the News Media report, which analyzes the "health of American journalism." Rosenstiel credits Tyndall's systematic approach with improving media analysis.
Twenty years ago, media critics would contact veteran journalists to solicit their opinions on the state of journalism or the latest scandal, and the vets would distribute words of wisdom as if they were "thunderbolts from Mount Olympus," Rosenstiel says. But Tyndall's numbers are "more effective and make sounder analysis than relying on faulty memories or anecdotes."
Tyndall hails from Nottingham, England, and got his first journalism job in the small industrial town of Luton--General Motors has a factory there--about 40 miles north of London. "I was always interested in news, even as a kid, in current affairs and stuff," he says.
Tyndall worked at the Luton News, a local tabloid weekly, after graduating from high school. In those days, he says, you didn't go to journalism school--you got on-the-job training. He covered police, courts and the town council as a 17-year-old cub reporter.
But Tyndall had unusual tastes for a young reporter: He liked research journalism more than human-interest stories. He preferred sifting through zoning applications to "doing a human interview where I'd have to go out and talk to someone who was the victim of a crime."
His predilection for paperwork won out. Tyndall left England in 1976 for a job at a research-marketing firm in New York City. "People who don't try new things are abnormal," Tyndall says of his cross-continent move at age 21 from journalism to research.
In the early 1980s, Tyndall left the firm and began doing television news analysis on contract for NBC. But after nearly seven years, he became disenchanted with his efforts at coding and analysis because the information was "going to waste.. I felt like I was finding out a lot of interesting stuff," he says, "but I wasn't allowed to disseminate it to people at large. So that was my frustration. It's all very well to find interesting things that you know yourself, but other people ought to know it, too."
So the man who thinks that only abnormal people don't try new things launched his own media research company. Surveying news coverage wasn't a novel idea. Others were doing expensive market research and surveying for broadcasters, but Tyndall says it wasn't systematic.
Over a six-month period, he created a database to track network news and published his first newsletter in March 1988, just in time for the presidential campaign. Tyndall uses the database for other endeavors as well, such as tracking economic and environmental coverage for paying clients.
While Tyndall's numbers lend objectivity to media analysis, some subjectivity is involved in classifying news stories. Tyndall created a Top Ten list to show average minutes devoted to the week's major topics. The week of February 7 included the firing of Hewlett Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina, the upcoming nuptials of Prince Charles and the death of playwright Arthur Miller. Although Fiorina's dismissal was a major business story, Tyndall didn't categorize it that way, noting in his report, "It is a slow news week when personalities attract almost as much attention as events." He characterized the week's list of Top Ten stories as the fourth lightest of the previous 52 weeks.
A one-man operation, Tyndall relies on his VCR and Dell and Mac computers. Without those tools, he says, academics would be the only ones able to amass so much information.
University of Oklahoma journalism professor Joe Foote is a bit chagrined that academics didn't think of a Tyndall-style report first. "It would have made a great university project," he says. "We should be embarrassed we didn't put that kind of effort into it."
Foote is familiar with surveying network news--he produced his annual Network Correspondent Visibility Study, which tracked correspondents' airtime by gender, race and longevity, for 20 years before retiring the report in late 2002. Most academics are guilty of "snapshot" studies, Foote says. Only "when you look at things over several years," as Tyndall does, "can you make statements with any clarity and authority."
Tyndall sends copies of his newsletter to media organizations and trade groups, including the networks. Network executives say Tyndall's report doesn't influence their newscasts, but they're all familiar with his work.
ABC News Vice President Jeffrey Schneider calls the Tyndall Report "an invaluable digest of the landscape of network news" that is "fair and thoughtful." Steve Capus, executive producer of NBC's "Nightly News with Brian Williams," describes it as an "interesting look in the rearview mirror" that helps him monitor the competition. CBS declined to comment.
While the three networks combined still attract a larger audience, cable news is steadily gaining, appealing to a younger demographic the networks find difficult to lure. But Tyndall says he isn't interested in tracking cable. Aside from the difficulties of monitoring 24-hour channels, cable news produces its reports differently from the broadcast networks. Cable reporters do more stand-ups and interviews; the networks rely more on reporter packages, Tyndall says. "Reporters on the nightly news spend their time reporting. Cable spends [its] time live."
But the publisher of Tyndall Report is planning a few changes in coming months. He wants to make his online offering look more like a blog. Tyndall is still unsure what form it will take but is considering more frequent postings to his site.
In the meantime, the red light on his VCR is set to "record." ###