One of the most disappointing findings is the discovery that the enterprise reporting that stations are so quick to promote is not only a tiny percentage of the work, but is continuing to disappear.
This is especially noticeable in the most popular news time slot, for which we have three years of data. Now, more than half of all news stories (53%) are either feeds from elsewhere or are covered with video but no reporter. That has doubled since 1998, and is up 30% from a year ago.
The percentage of original investigative reporting, already tiny, is vanishing. Out of nearly 4,000 stories studied this year, only 0.9%, just 36 stories, were investigative pieces.
The percentage of tough interviewing on camera, which was also only three percent of all stories in 1998, has dropped to less than one percent over two years. Out of those 4,000 stories we watched this year, we found only 30 that included substantive questioning of sources on camera.
The commitment to covering breaking news, which requires a lesser but still notable level of effort, has leveled off at one in five stations, but it is still down 27% since 1998. This is ironic, given that local TV news considers breaking news its strength. Consider the classic promo, "Live, Local and Late Breaking."
And feed material — stories like, say, the heartwarming rescue of an elk from an ice floe in Latvia — is on the rise. Last year 20% of stories came from out-of-town feeds. This year the figure is up to 24%.
The trend seems to be true across the board — at high-quality stations rising in ratings, at low-quality stations dropping in ratings and everywhere in between.
Why? The most obvious answer is that it's cheaper to down-link, or download, a story from your network or feed service than it is to field a team of your own reporters.
The problem is, the data suggest, that using more out-of-town feeds is a business model that bows to short-term gain rather than building long-term audience loyalty.
Last year we discovered that another likely factor in the decline of enterprise was that newsroom finances were being squeezed, especially by forcing stations to fill more airtime without commensurate budget increases. That pressure is only likely to continue if the industry sees a rash of further mergers, in which companies pay premiums for station groups and then have to increase profitability to service the debt or justify the price. In an environment in which most stations are seeing declining ratings, budget increases are even more unlikely.
If audiences genuinely respond to a station covering more of the community, working harder to source stories well and reporting with balance, the industry's refusal to provide its viewers with well-researched stories will lead it down a suicidal path.