A number of television executives and observers say news sharing agreements, driven largely by the wave of station consolidation, offer real benefits for local viewers. For one thing, they say, these agreements make local news available to more viewers by giving them a choice of how it is presented and when to watch it. But critics say that convenience comes at the cost of competition and diversity in news content.
The overall impact of news sharing is difficult to assess. In some cases, these agreements have reduced the variety of voices and news content available to local viewers; in other cases, they have strengthened quality and enabled underfunded or smaller stations to continue providing news.
“TV stations don’t have some of the sources of revenue that they’ve had in the past, like network compensation,” said David Oxenford, an attorney with the law firm Wilkinson Barker Knauer, who represents broadcasters before the FCC. “A local operator, if you’re not one of the big stations in the market, may not be very successful and may not be able to afford to do very much in the way of news except for some of these arrangements.”
Media watchdog groups and consumer advocates, however, argue that in many markets, content sharing results in a diluted and duplicated news product. They dismiss the contention that airing similar newscasts at different times is a net gain for consumers. “If news comes on at 9 o’clock instead of at 10 o’clock, the public interest benefit of that I think is marginal at best,” said S. Derek Turner of Free Press, one of those advocacy groups. “It’s not adding another voice.”
The size and complexity of the local TV news industry makes it challenging to get a definitive sense of the impact of the various sharing arrangements. Here, we examine three different elements that can speak to impact: the number of television stations originating local news; the level of repurposed content, which requires a station-by-station comparison; and the level of reporting power present.
For most of the last decade, the total number of stations that carry local news remained relatively steady. Bob Papper’s data show that on average about eight stations a year stop producing local news and about the same number begin airing it, leaving the total number of news-carrying stations about the same.
What has changed is the number of stations originating their own local news, down 8% from a peak of 778 in 2005. That amounts to a net loss of 61 stations that used to produce their own newscasts. The most recent Radio Television Digital News Association survey shows 717 stations producing news for their own viewers and for an additional 235 stations. An update of that survey, now in progress, is expected to show that the number of stations carrying news produced by someone else is now over 300. That looks like a sharp increase in just one year, but Papper cautions that it may be due largely to undercounting in the past. The bottom line: More than one out of four U.S. television stations that run local news get it from someone else.48 But the majority of those stations, 175 from the 2012 analysis, never produced their own news. That list includes stations affiliated with networks like CW and MyNetworkTV, and about 60% of all Fox affiliates that carry local news. If not for shared service agreements, these stations would air no local news.49
Beyond the numbers is the question of the content itself. These arrangements do give viewers a new option—the chance to watch local news at different times on different channels. But in some markets, where stations stopped producing their own local newscasts to carry news from another station, viewers have lost independent sources of news. To help get a sense of the impact of these arrangements, the lead author of this report examined 18 newscasts on six stations in three mid-level markets where combined newsrooms are most common. The findings suggest that the impact can be significant, but varies substantially from market to market.
In Little Rock, Ark. (the 56th-largest TV market in the country ), where Nexstar runs a virtual duopoly, the company’s director of local content, Jerry Walsh, says the audience still gets a real choice. “The viewer sees a distinct brand on both television stations,” he said. “There are separate anchors, separate graphics packages. You’re seeing stories specific for an NBC station that might be a little bit longer, a little bit more in depth, where the Fox station is probably a little bit more fast-paced, more live shots. I would say the core story would be the same; there would be some treatments that would be a little bit different.”
On one night in December, the two stations’ early evening newscasts were noticeably different. Fox station KLRT, which bills itself as “Arkansas’ breaking news leader,” led its 5:30 p.m. newscast with a live report on a murder trial. At 6 p.m., NBC station KARK, whose tag line is “local news that matters,” led with a reporter package on health insurance. Each station covered the other station’s lead story later in their newscasts. Two reporters appeared on both newscasts — David Goines covered the health insurance story for both stations while Josh Berry covered the costs of holiday lights for NBC and a story about stolen checks for Fox. Each station reported several stories that the other station did not cover.
The same pattern held true on a January evening. The top story at 5:30 on the Fox station was a report by Maxine Ridling on a murder case; the NBC station ran the story sixth in its lineup as an anchor “tell,” with no reporter package. On another December night, we screened the stations’ late newscasts. KLRT’s 9 p.m. program runs an hour, so it can cover far more stories than KARK’s half-hour news at 10. But the later, shorter newscast still included stories not covered at all on KLRT, including a lead story on child abuse.
In Syracuse, N.Y. (market No. 84), though, where CBS affiliate WTVH shares a newsroom with NBC affiliate WSTM, the content viewers get is much the same on both stations. Their late newscasts often have the same lead story and run identical reporter packages, video and sound bites. Reporters do not mention either station’s call letters in their sign-offs, so their stories can run on either channel. The newscasts differ primarily in presentation and style. The CBS affiliate begins with a check on the weather and a “top 5 on 5” summary of the major stories, but covers fewer stories over all and at greater length than the NBC affiliate. One night in December, for example, the NBC station’s late newscast included 14 stories, just one of which was a local reporter package, while the CBS station covered nine stories, with three local reporter packages and one network package (on the death of South African President Nelson Mandela). On another night, each station’s 6 p.m. newscast mentioned just two brief stories that were not covered by the other station, and both stations aired two identical reporter packages. On the late news on a January night, both stations not only ran identical packages on the same lead story, but they also ran the same package from a reporter in Washington, D.C., who works for Sinclair, the company that owns WSTM.
In West Palm Beach, Fla, the 34th-largest market, one combined newsroom produces 57 hours of news each week for the separately owned NBC and Fox stations. “We’ve been very strategic, with separate stories for the Fox station at 10, different from 11,” said Lana Durban Scott, director of news strategy for Scripps, which owns the NBC affiliate, WPTV. “There’s so much going on we need to not minimize what we’re covering and not repurpose it.”
But West Palm Beach viewers who happened to watch both of the stations’ late newscasts on one December evening would have seen the same reports by Dan Corcoran and Evan Axelbank within the first five minutes of each program. A feature Axelbank reported for the Raycom-owned Fox station turned up on the NBC station as well, with the same video and sound bites, having been re-voiced by the Fox anchor. In all, nine of the 14 stories in the half-hour WPTV newscast at 11 p.m. had already been covered by WFLX in its one-hour program at 10. There was somewhat less repetition on the stations’ early evening newscasts on another night. The two newscasts had a dozen stories in common but not in the same order or at the same length. Also, WFLX’s 4 p.m. newscast had 14 stories that were not carried on WPTV an hour later, and the later newscast had 12 stories that were not mentioned on the earlier program. But the one reporter package that aired on both stations might have left some viewers confused. The taped story included the sign off “WPTV, NewsChannel 5” on both stations.
On a January evening, however, the first half hour of the two early newscasts had almost all of the same content, just in a different order. And on the 5 p.m. newscast, WPTV reported “just into our newsroom” information that had already aired on WFLX an hour earlier.
Danilo Yanich of the University of Delaware says his research has determined that consolidation, in general, has had a negative effect on local content in television news. In a comparative analysis of TV news in eight markets, Yanich, director of the Local Television News Media Project, found that stations with news sharing agreements presented significantly less local content than other stations in those same markets.50 “You have viewing choices across these local stations but you really don’t have alternatives if they are presenting the same thing,” Yanich said. “That’s what’s wrong with it.”
Another question connected to the mix of content is the level of reporting power present in a market. In some cases, joint operating agreements and station sales lead to the closure or shrinkage of television newsrooms. At least 65 staffers, from both in and outside the newsroom, lost their jobs as a result of the TV consolidation in Hawaii, fully a third of the total employed by the stations before the merger.51
Some other examples of cutbacks in 2013 include:
- Albany, N.Y.: Fox affiliate WXXA, owned by Shield Media, dismantled its newsroom and began running newscasts produced by ABC affiliate WTEN, owned at the time by New Young Broadcasting. About thirty people were let go.52
- Little Rock, Ark.: After Mission bought Fox affiliate KLRT, it signed a shared services deal to carry news produced by Nexstar’s NBC affiliate, KARK. Within a few months, about 28 people were laid off at the two stations.53
- Eugene, Ore.: NBC affiliate KMTR let 31 people go after it was bought by Fisher and the newsroom was merged with that of CBS affiliate KVAL, then operated by Fisher.54
- Fresno, Calif.: At least two anchors at KSEE were forced out after Nexstar bought the station and merged its news operations with co-owned KGPE.55 KGPE also shed a long-time anchor, and four photographers and editors after the merger.56
Over all, however, total employment in TV news has been at a near-record level for the past two years, according to researcher Bob Papper, and the average TV news staff is the biggest it has ever been. “It’s clear that all the jobs lost have been picked up elsewhere,” he said. (For more on Local TV Newsroom Staff Levels see the Media & News Indicators Database)
Raycom Vice President of News Susana Schuler says the quality of the news produced by the consolidated Honolulu newsroom is better than either of the two stations could have produced on its own. “We have a larger newsgathering force than either station had all by itself,” she said. “We have been able to bring a much stronger level of news coverage to the market than either station was able to produce by itself before.”
Sinclair says it has made substantial investments in the newsrooms it operates, adding 72 overall positions since 2012. In a written statement, the company’s executive vice president Barry Farber said that Sinclair stations added 81 hours of news over that same time period.57
And some industry observers say that in a few markets, consolidation has helped weak stations improve. In Peoria, Ill., the Granite-owned NBC station, WEEK, produces news for the ABC affiliate, owned by Sinclair. “The ABC affiliate was in dire straits financially,” says former WEEK news director Jim Garrott, who left before the stations combined their news operations in 2009. “Now it’s stronger. They hired some people and the news has improved.” The two stations share news content and some on-air staff but maintain separate anchor teams. “People in the community have gotten used to it,” Garrott said. “I think they still pick their favorite program based on timing and who is on it.”
In Fresno, Nexstar now owns two network affiliates—the CBS and NBC stations—both of which were struggling financially and ranked no better than fourth in the ratings, according to Fresno Bee media writer Rick Bentley, who has covered the market for 25 years. Nexstar built new studios for both stations in a shared building. “They’re the first people in a long time to come into either of those two stations and put in money,” Bentley said. Although some long-time employees were let go, “you now have a pretty decent sized staff that’s reporting to one news director, so to that end they have more feet on the ground.”58