"There just has not been a reason to watch local news for a long time."
That sad summary doesn't come from a critic, but from a longtime television news consultant, Don Fitzpatrick, president of Don Fitzpatrick and Associates, a San Francisco-based consulting firm. While local news is still the most popular form of TV news, its numbers are dropping. A survey by the Pew Research Center for The People and The Press found 64% of those polled watched local TV news on a regular basis in 1998, down from 77% in 1993. The reasons? Viewers said they were short of time, but they were also unhappy with the coverage itself. Some in local news blame the ratings slide on the growth of new media. But the news has changed as well. To begin, blame the acceleration of tabloid news, popularized by WSVN in Miami, which blew through the rest of the country like a hurricane. The growing pressure to maximize profits and produce more news with proportionately fewer staffers has added to the problems. But a major reason for audience turn-off is that most local news operations simply stopped reflecting their communities. In part due to the influence of consultants, too many stations relied on easily accessed technology to fill their limited news time with worldwide scandals, sensational video and formulaic coverage of entertainment, lifestyle, and health stories.
Certainly there is no lack of coverage of local crime scenes, local fires and local car wrecks. Yet can anyone really tell if the dramatic night shot of the burning building is in Chicago, Dallas or Des Moines? Yawning viewers see all this as one big blur. A few stations prove there is an alternative to this processed news product – and it can still attract viewers. Over the past three years, each of the four stations profiled here has been trending up in ratings while most of the industry is down. What's going on at WEHT in Evansville, WLKY in Louisville, KARE in Minneapolis and KAKE in Wichita is thoughtful, old fashioned, and emphatically local. The formula is a straight-forward approach to writing and reporting. None of these stations is dumbing-down its news, or hyping it up. Crime is not blown out of proportion, and technology is merely a tool, not an end in itself. Most important, viewers are treated like citizens rather than consumers. It's back-to-basics newscasting, and it's working.
Evansville sits at the bottom of the state of Indiana alongside an industrial stretch of the Ohio River. It's not a place that many of the country's leading broadcasters would look to find a bold approach to local television news. They should. The 94th largest market is producing two of the top five scoring stations in the study – with WEHT No. 1 and WEVV No.3. WEHT is not the market leader, but it is a solid number two in all local news time periods. A CBS affiliate for 42 years, it switched to ABC in early '96, and ratings dipped somewhat. Since then, with one exception in May '98, the ratings have been moving up. The station is successful because it lives by onegospel: local news always comes first. "That's why we're here," says news director Michael Valentine. Two weeks worth of 10 p.m. newscasts in April and May of 1998 found not a single national news story and only a few national sports mentions. WEHT had the highest community relevance score in the market. At least one competitor, Bob Freeman, news director at market leader WFIE, admires the hyper- local approach. "I think they have the right mix for them," he says. But because "you zig where your competitors zag," Freeman says his own newscasts show a broader mix. WEHT's local mission defines the newsroom culture. "We preach to people," says Valentine. Recruits get the lecture, new hires get the lecture and the preaching continues through twice-daily editorial meetings and the nightly post-mortem of the late news.
Chris Goodman is a sports anchor at WEHT. In a refreshing use of resources, he has commandeered the station's helicopter to make "Home Team Friday" one of the best community-based sports segments around. Between the chopper, the satellite truck and news crews, WEHT covers up to 15 local high school games. Such depth about high school sports lends perspective to the whole newscast. A simple presentation is part of the philosophy, too. "We have to do our best to make sure viewers know the difference between tabloid and mainstream, and the way things are packaged can make a big difference," says anchor Brad Byrd. Investigative pieces seek facts rather than villains. When the station went undercover to determine whether Evansville retailers were abiding by new laws about selling cigarettes to minors, hidden cameras found a couple of guilty parties, but the station concluded the problem was not widespread. Things aren't perfect at WEHT. It's heavy on crime coverage and uses more unnamed sources than any station in the market. Many of its young reporters also struggle to weave the words with the pictures into coherent stories. Yet the station has kept enough senior talent to teach them.
Up river from Evansville, is Louisville, Kentucky, local news competition is cutthroat. For years, two stations dominated, WAVE and WHAS. Now, the perennial also-ran, WLKY, has begun to make a mark. The station is No. 2 in ratings in all time slots, has the largest news staff, and produces the most news in town – 37.5 hours a week. It also earned the fourth-highest quality score in the study. "Our philosophy is really simple. We don't cater to specific demographics. We just do the news," says Michael Sipes, WLKY's news director for the past three years. "We cover breaking news, but our main focus is … what we deem the 'big story' of the day." "1998_big Story" is WLKY's signature, at noon, 5, 6 and 11 p.m. Louisville Courier Journal TV critic Tom Dorsey calls "1998_big Story" a USA Today-style "gimmick" to "sell your story by the way you package it," but he adds quickly, "on the whole it's been well done." Sipes admits WLKY "had to shout to even be noticed in this market," and the station has a glitzy, high-energy feel. But he argues – and the study confirms – that the content is solid. WLKY did significantly more issue stories than any stations in town.
The station often uses smart accompanying "sidebars" to add depth to coverage. A piece about construction of a new casino was accompanied by a report on the larger competition for tourist dollars. Another package on "horse sponging," an illegal method of fixing horse races, was paired with a piece on the criminal background of one suspect. WLKY is as likely to do crime stories as its competitors, but it focuses more on larger issues than everyday occurrences. When Louisville's homicide rate rose in 1997 while national rates fell, the station sent reporters to Boston for an in-depth analysis of what Louisville might learn from that city's anti-crime efforts. It also has a reporter regularly covering the state capitol in Frankfort. And it ranks well above the national average in the study for enterprise and investigative reporting. Even local TV critic Dorsey was impressed when an WLKY story about court proceedings for people arrested for drunk driving followed defendants out of the courthouse and found many went straight to local taverns. The formula, says WLKY General Manager Rabun Matthews, is that viewers have "decided they'd really rather have a straight forward newscast."
Minneapolis, the 14th market, has long been home to good, credible television news. Years of excellence have earned rival WCCO a proud reputation, but recent stumbles have tarnished the CBS owned and operated station. Now, KARE is riding a wave of popular and critical acclaim, the only station in a top-fifteen market to earn a top-ten spot in the study. "We try to do emotional, well-told, visually strong stories that you won't see elsewhere," says KARE's News Director Tom Lindner. A former high-level manager at rival KSTP says the station has "great storytellers and they never forget that the people of this market are the center of the story." KARE's identity is related to the five- to six minute pieces it began airing more than a decade ago in its late news. Viewers have come to rely on these "Extra" segments, which allow storytelling skills to really shine. From public policy (light rail transit) to human interest (a man whose identity was stolen by a criminal) to medicine (acupuncture), and sports (the consequences to the University of Minnesota of making it to postseason play) all are treated with a thoroughness that makes them interesting.
The Extra segment follows the first commercial break. "It creates a sense of excitement. Some of the most emotional pieces we've done were Extras," says lead anchor Paul Magers. "They simply become memorable." Since they run long – as long as 16 minutes – there often isn't much visually strong stories that you room elsewhere in the newscast. Yet KARE doesn't compensate with short headline stories. So pieces are carefully chosen. Everyday crimes won't make it. "Crime has been and is a very easy thing to cover, but when you look at the whole day in history, where does it really fit in," says news director Lindner. Even Brian Lambert, the media critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, says, "I haven't had much cause to go after them for rank, crass car-chasing stuff." Teases are also at a minimum. "There's a cultural change in teases. The sensational ones are gasping their last breath," says Lindner. "Trying to tease and manipulate – that's not what we are all about. If you give a newscast that your family would want to watch, chances are other families want to watch, too."
Not surprisingly, weather is often big news at KAKE, the ABC affiliate in Wichita, in the heart of the tornado belt. In the springtime, when storms can turn deadly, a meteorologist leads the show each night, followed by stories on various aspects of approaching fronts. The comprehensive coverage lasts all night with updates every half-hour until morning. "Weather is the number one thing that we do," says KAKE News Director Jim Turpin. "If it's really severe weather, we just take over the station." KAKE's coverage of fast-changing local weather and its impact on the community is one of the reasons a station in the 63rd market is ranked number two in quality in the study. Its busy consumer unit is another. Consumer reporter Deb Farris isn't doing formula pieces from consultants. Viewers call her with problems and she does her best to solve them. One day it's plumbers falsely claiming to be available 24-hours a day. The next it's helping a family get a refund for a vacation gone awry. She even vacation gone awry. She even tackles local examples of national problems, informing people that those with car insurance can end up paying more for broken windshields than those without it. "If we feel like it's a valid concern or if it affects a lot of people, we'll do it," says Farris. And like other stations profiled here, KAKE tries to find stories that are unique as well as local. To help them, the entire staff is invited to participate in the daily editorial meetings. KAKE reports the local angle on national stories frequently and leads the market in using multiple sources. It also focuses less on everyday crime. "Over the years we've just stopped covering crime," says reporter Farris. We are much more interested in stories that "help more people in their day-to-day lives."