What Happens to Your Local News Between 6 and 11?
By Forrest Carr
The good news is we news directors were right. That's also the bad news.
When the Project for Excellence in Journalism set out last year to study the effect of quality on ratings, it measured the most popular time slot in 20 cities. In some markets that meant the late news.
Many news directors, myself included, objected to being judged by our late newscasts alone. We insisted our earlier newscasts would do better. To see if that's true, the Project this year studied both the 6 and 11 p.m. news in Boston and New York.
The results are telling; every 11 p.m. newscast scored lower than the same station's 6 p.m. news — on average, nearly 20% lower.
WNBC had the highest 6 p.m. quality score, a striking 439 points, which would have made it the best newscast in the study. But the station's late news scored 88 points lower, giving it precisely the average "quality gap" of 20%.
Other stations fared even worse. WHDH in Boston scored 28% lower at 11 p.m.
The best station score at 11 p.m. in these two cities was WBZ in Boston, and it was still 28 points lower than at 6 p.m., a nearly 7% quality gap.
This, of course, raises the question: why is there this quality gap at all? Does the market demand it?
After talking with news managers and scholars, it is clear that three major factors are at play. The first is a conventional belief that viewers want a quick headline service at bedtime. The second is a tendency for producers to cherry-pick from an array of eye-catching video amassed through the day. The third is an orientation toward late-breaking news.
A Different News Philosophy
At Boston's WCVB, where the 11 p.m. newscast scored 102 points lower than the 6 p.m., assistant news director Neil Ungerleider believes it's harder to keep viewers at 11 p.m. "The in-depth kind of journalistic qualities that might play well on an early evening newscast do not work as successfully in a late newscast," he said.
People are tired, ready for bed, and they've already heard the news earlier in the day.
That is why, like many news directors, Paula Madison at WNBC in New York considers her 6 p.m. show to be her "newscast of record." As a result, she said, "We tend to focus on what's going on just here in our market" at 6 p.m.
At 11 p.m., in contrast, many stations tend to pick up the tempo to keep viewer attention. All six stations studied had higher story counts at 11 p.m., on average, 50% higher, (15.6 stories versus 10.5).
But more stories can come at a cost. Higher story counts can mean lower quality scores. WHDH, with the highest story count at 11 p.m., had the lowest score. (WHDH News Director Mark Berryhill declined to be interviewed for this article.)
It's no surprise. Producers shortening stories for the late news often cut out important content. In one instance, when WNBC shortened a medical story for the late news, sourcing became completely generic.
They're All Newscasts of Record
In contrast, WBZ in Boston had the lowest story count at 11 p.m., the highest score, and the lowest quality gap between its two newscasts. Does WBZ have a different philosophy about 11 p.m.? Station managers say yes.
While most of the stations studied were different in nearly every category at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m., WBZ's two newscasts retain certain similarities. Their story counts were similar. Unlike most stations, it ran about the same proportion of short stories to long stories in both newscasts.
According to WBZ's news director, Peter Brown, it's no accident. "We put a lot of emphasis on our 11 p.m. newscast. All of our special reports first air in their entirety at 11 p.m." Assistant news director John Davidow adds that the station deliberately treats its 11 p.m. news much like its 6 p.m.: "Every newscast is the local news of record." Jim Thistle, director of broadcast journalism at Boston University, thinks they're pulling it off. "They've tried to get away from the old mindset that six is the end all and be all."
The Cherry-Pick Effect
In general, 11 p.m. newscasts tend to run more national and international news. But it's not necessarily because all late news producers feel a deep journalistic commitment to world news. Rather, the typical 11 p.m. producer cherry-picks the "best" stories — usually those that are the most interesting, remarkable or cute, without regard to local relevance or even significance. It's easier to do that at 11 p.m; an entire day's run of news feeds presents a cornucopia of news goodies. The temptation to take just the dessert and ignore the meat often can be irresistible.
WNBC news director Paula Madison is particularly vocal about this habit. "I am not a fan of the water skiing squirrel, or the sons and daughters of the squirrel, and for some reason, we think the public just has to have it." David Klatell, Associate Dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, agrees. He says a car running off a bridge in Paris "has no local relevance to the New York audience. It's not news. It's America's Craziest Videos."
The Problem with Breaking News
Another big difference at 11 p.m. is the tremendous emphasis on breaking news. "The 11 p.m. news has to bring people news that is new," says WCVB's Ungerleider. "So if you're going to set as criteria a thoughtful reflection on the news of the day, then we are not going by definition to fare as well." By its nature, breaking news tends to be event-driven and, more significantly, late-breaking, leaving less opportunity for reporter enterprise.
Late-breaking also means that more recent but more mundane stories air at the expense of significant stories from earlier in the day. Thistle, of Boston University, points out that many of these breaking spot news stories "may or may not matter two hoots in the scheme of things a day from now."
What Does the Market Say?
So which theory about the market is right, WBZ's notion that all newscasts are those of record, or WCVB's view that 11 p.m. is a different animal? Does the market really demand a faster, jazzier, thinner news at bedtime?
The data are inconclusive. Among the six stations, there is no clear reward for a more pulsating 11 p.m. newscast, or for a relatively serious one. Of the two stations with the highest quality gap, one has a better ratings trend at 11 p.m. than at 6 p.m. (WHDH), one fares worse (WCBS).
Among those stations with the lowest quality gap, one fares better at 11 p.m. than at 6 (WABC), one fares the same (WBZ).
According to this limited sample at least, the market neither rewards nor punishes a different style of late news. Interestingly, none of the stations with a low quality gap does worse at 11p.m.
What Must We Do?
As journalists, shouldn't we place our best newscasts in the time slot where most people can see them?
"It's just not a presumption that works in the real world," says Ungerleider, "because 11 p.m. news viewers do not generally have the patience or the interest to watch an in-depth story."
But not everyone is willing to concede that point. "Viewers are not as concerned as we think they are about the brevity of a story," says WNBC's Madison. WNBC often runs in-depth stories at 11 p.m., and Madison says she will re-examine the overall quality of WNBC's newscasts in light of the study.
Speaking personally, I agree with Madison. I've never bought the argument that a late newscast has to set viewers' hair on fire with a blazing hot pace and a breathtaking story count. To my way of thinking, one compelling, relevant story is worth 50 short "pacers." At KGUN9 in Tucson, as at many other stations, our 10 p.m. newscast is not the same as our earlier shows. But in our newsroom the watchwords for all newscasts are "relevance" and "community values," not story count. (Coincidentally, in May we tied the long-time Tucson market leader at 10 p.m. for the first time. We did it again in July.)
Columbia's Klatell is not optimistic that the industry will do what it takes to improve late newscasts. "I don't see very many brave news directors around here," he says. "In fact I don't see any."
But look at how long a typical news director gets to keep the job. If you've decided to be a news director, you're already brave. If you have made the decision to be to be in local TV news and have paid a price in job security and peace of mind for the opportunity, why not do something with it? This study suggests quality has at least an even shot at success against "garbola." If you're going to take a stand for something, and perhaps be fired for it, why not take a stand for quality?
Forrest Carr is news director at KGUN-TV in Tucson, Ariz.