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From AJR,   December 2001  issue

In It for the Money   

Maybe it’s not so bad if some TV stations drop local news.

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

The decision came as a shock to almost everyone in the newsroom. Anchor Rick Edlund said it felt like a kick in the gut when he learned in late September that KDNL-TV in St. Louis would be the latest station to shut down its news operation (see Bylines, November).

General Manager Tom Tipton blamed "the increased competitive landscape and current market conditions." He didn't mention the station's owners, who had expected the ABC affiliate in a top 25 market to produce two newscasts a day with a staff of less than 50. Almost as many people lost their jobs in Evansville, Indiana — market 97 — when CBS affiliate WEVV-TV pulled the plug on news a few months earlier.

At first blush, these were sad days for journalism. Dedicated people lost their jobs. Viewers lost a source of local information. And another corporate owner sacrificed public service for profit. All true enough. But look closer and what comes into focus is the inevitable cost of doing news for the wrong reasons, and trying to do it on the cheap.

KDNL and WEVV were both latecomers to local news. They launched their newscasts less than 10 years ago, when both were Fox affiliates. At the time, news looked like a sure thing — inexpensive to produce and easy to sell to advertisers. But neither station ever made an impression on viewers. When the ax fell, WEVV's news was in last place in the ratings and the station was losing money on its news programs.

KDNL's top competitor drew more than three times as many viewers as it did at 10 p.m.

Why didn't people watch? It doesn't appear to have been a question of quality. Three years ago, WEVV was one of just five stations to earn a grade of A-plus from the Project for Excellence in Journalism in its study of 61 local TV stations. KDNL's newscast won a regional Emmy last fall.

Tim Lynch, chief operating officer of Communications Corp. of America, which owns WEVV, says there just wasn't enough news in Evansville — or enough interest in news — to support four head-to-head newscasts. "Put it this way," he says, "the No. 1 show at 10 p.m." — when the late news is on — "is Andy Griffith."

But Lucy Himstedt, general manager at WFIE-TV in Evansville, says the real issue was money. "The bottom line was their bottom line," she says. "They didn't get the ratings to generate the revenue." The newscast was so weak in ratings, in fact, that its demise may not matter much to viewers or to the competition. There was no huge public outcry when WEVV canceled news, and the other stations in town scarcely noticed. "When you look at the competition and who you're worried about," Himstedt says, "they weren't the one."

This sounds almost sacrilegious, but it may be that viewers with one less choice for local news aren't that much worse off than they were before. Yes, there are good reasons to worry about the future if dozens of stations across the country follow WEVV's lead. Just look at commercial radio for a preview of the bleakest possible outcome. But TV newscasts aren't exactly in short supply. They've multiplied like mushrooms over the past decade, often for reasons that have nothing to do with informing the public.

"I've had general managers tell me that the only reason they're doing news is because they want to be in on the news [advertising] buys," says Dow Smith, a former general manager who now teaches journalism at Syracuse University. Two Nashville stations recently added newscasts in the afternoon opposite Oprah, not because they think viewers need a source of news at that time of day, but because their syndicated programs were being trounced in the ratings by her talk show, according to the Tennessean.

But while money is driving some stations into news, it's clearly driving others out. Two network-owned stations in New York and Los Angeles have been talking about dropping news at 4 p.m., and the shakeout may just be starting. Consider the dismal earnings reports from some major media companies. Hearst-Argyle's net income is down 168 percent in the third quarter compared with the year before. Media General down 109 percent. Cox Communications down 83 percent.

Numbers like those usually mean layoffs. But they have rarely meant a reduction in the amount of news a smaller staff is expected to produce. Several stations have even dealt with the economic slump by cutting staff while adding newscasts. That amounts to watering down the soup — not a recipe for quality journalism.

Under the circumstances, perhaps it's actually better for all concerned — owners, journalists and viewers — if some stations get out of news entirely, especially if the only reason they launched news in the first place was to make money. That's the real bottom line.