AJR  Columns
From AJR,   July/August 2000

Behind the Curve   

Local TV stations aren't posting much real news on the Internet.

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

SPEND EVEN A LITTLE time browsing local television Web sites and it's hard to escape the impression that you've found a new definition for the term "digital divide." The phrase doesn't just describe the split between the haves and have-nots when it comes to Internet access. It's just as fitting a description of Internet sites when it comes to news. Most newspapers, it seems, are haves. Most TV stations are have-nots.
What most television Web sites don't have is current, locally produced news. According to a survey released last October of broadcast media in cyberspace, less than 15 percent of local TV stations with Web sites publish any real news. The Middleberg/Ross study considered "real news" to be information developed by the station from a lead or a press release. By that definition, the researchers were looking for local news‹supposedly the strong suit of local television--and they found hardly any.
If you think this shortcoming is just a small-market phenomenon, think again. A few weeks ago, I checked the Web site of WWJ-TV, the CBS owned and operated station in Detroit. The station's homepage (www.wwjtv.com) had no local news at all. It was a near-clone of cbsnews.com, an embarrassment in the country's ninth-largest market.
To be fair, most local stations' sites have moved beyond the pretty postcard, meet-our-anchors stage that so many were stuck in for so long. But too many haven't moved far enough. What's a viewer to think when a station's homepage touts its slogan, "Where the News Comes First," but offers no video of news? My guess is that any viewers who visit that WLKY-TV homepage, at www.wlky.com in Louisville, won't bother to come back. And what's worse, they might leave with a jaundiced view of that CBS affiliate's overall commitment to news.
The stories that do show up on television Web sites are often stale or shallow--sometimes both. What's the point of offering a link to "more" on a story, when all you provide is a paragraph or two that may be a day old? What's the point of posting your scripts online, complete with phonetic spellings, unidentified sound bites and cryptic cues? None of that helps to boost a station's credibility. Quite the opposite, says Assistant News Director Jennifer Sullivan of WMTW-TV in Portland, Maine. "It can damage your brand."
What is most perplexing is that stations on the Web haven't even figured out how to take advantage of one of television's greatest strengths--the use of sound and pictures in telling stories. Even those sites that do provide news rarely include any video, aside from the occasional weather or traffic shot. According to the Web site TVJobs.com, about 60 local station sites offer streaming video of their entire newscasts. That was once seen as a technological marvel, but Web developer Mark Zagorski now calls it "overhyped." Turns out most Internet users aren't interested in a site that offers them only what they could get on the air with far better quality. What people want is the ability to pick and choose the information that interests them. But in perusing local station sites, I found only a handful that both provide video of stories and make it easy for viewers to search for what they'd like to see.
Scott Atkinson, news director at WWNY-TV in Watertown, New York, believes that local television's failure to use the Web to best advantage is evidence of an inherent weakness in TV newsrooms. For years, he says, a key factor in hiring television reporters has been their ability to perform on the air. "The Web values other things more," Atkinson says. "Facts, graceful writing, context."
The unpleasant truth is that most television newsrooms have too few people doing too much already. The Web site, for many stations, is an afterthought at best, updated by overworked and undertrained producers. According to a survey completed in January by Frank N. Magid Associates for the technology firm WorldNow, the average TV site is run by just 2.6 full-time employees, compared with nine for the average newspaper site.
For broadcast journalists, the Internet holds tremendous promise as a place where reporters can provide background, documentation and resources that they don't have time to mention on the air. But most television sites haven't begun to tap that promise. Zagorski, a strategic development executive for the New York-based WorldNow, says stations had better start, and soon. "If TV stations don't fulfill the need, somebody else will," he says.
Admittedly, Zagorski has a financial interest in seeing stations get serious about their Web sites. Then again, so do they.