The future of local TV news is not pretty. Of the 178 stations we have studied, 128, or 72%, have experienced overall ratings declines over three years. Twenty-six percent have added viewers. Two percent are flat.
At the Radio-TV News Directors Association convention this year, news professionals were already saying that young people find little worth watching in local TV news. Those discussions are borne out by data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that show young people abandoning local television news in favor of the Internet. TV is suffering the loss more than other news media.
This year, as part of the project, we co-sponsored a survey with our affiliate NewsLab of people who watch little TV news. Of the many reasons, including being too busy or not home, 70% had to do with substantive complaints about content, particularly that local TV news covered too few topics and was too superficial and too repetitive.
"Avoidance of local news has doubled in the past ten years," the TV news consultant Scott Tallal of Insite Research has found. One reason: "More than half of those surveyed feel that most stations spend too much time covering the same stories over and over again."
Three years of data in our study show viewers are right. Enterprise is vanishing. Programs are getting thinner. Stations are targeting their newscasts at demographic groups based on artificial and frankly insulting stereotypes. A whole range of what people expect from journalism — like helping the disadvantaged or being a watchdog over the powerful — is ignored.
The fact is that many of the conventional ideas about what works in TV news — high story count, flashy production, emotion over substance, targeting — are demonstrably wrong.
These false ideas are driven by outdated beliefs and by following the interests of advertisers rather than viewers. They're reinforced by audience research often based on poorly conceived or even misused surveys and focus groups. And they are institutionalized by short-sighted profit demands that force news directors to cut the very things that build viewership over time — such as enterprise reporting and building staff.
And now those demands are prompting newscasters to sell out their independence to advertisers.
The numbers make clear a frightening prospect: most stations are selling off their future.
But the data also show a way out. Enterprise sells. Depth sells. Breadth sells. Courage sells. The problem is there is not enough of those things in local TV news, and they're getting scarcer.
If the industry does not begin soon to change, if it continues to insist on profit margins that can be sustained only by gutting newsrooms, the evidence strongly suggests the biggest loser in the Internet revolution will not be newspapers but local broadcast television news.
If so, broadcasters will have only themselves to blame.
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, is a former media critic for the Los Angeles Times and Washington correspondent for Newsweek. Carl Gottlieb, the Project's deputy director, is a former broadcast news executive with the Tribune Co. and Fox. Lee Ann Brady is senior project director at Princeton Survey Research Associates, one of the nation's leading news-media research firms.