Local newscasts do more with less
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Local TV news operations across the country are cutting jobs and slashing salaries. That hardly makes them unique during this recession, particularly among media organizations.
Yet, stations are adding time to their newscasts -- at the surprising rate, on average, of a half-hour per day.
It's the classic case of doing more with less.
"You don't want tough economic times to make it look like you're giving up or coasting," said Stacey Woelfel, news director at KOMU-TV in Columbus, Mo. Competitors were starting a morning newscast at 5 a.m., so KOMU added an hour to begin every morning at 4:30.
Local stations now average a record 4.6 hours of their own newscasts per weekday, according to a survey of about three-quarters of the nation's TV newsrooms conducted for the Radio and Television News Directors Association.
Sharp cutbacks in ad spending makes these newscasts far less profitable, the same issue bedeviling newspapers and prime-time entertainment. Yet news costs less than alternatives like syndicated newsmagazines or court shows, said Sharri Berg, senior vice president for news operations at the Fox Television Stations.
The 27 Fox-owned stations have been particularly bullish on news, making 33 separate additions or expansions of newscasts since 2006.
"Once you have a news department, the incremental cost of adding news is relatively small," said Bob Papper, a Hofstra University journalism professor who conducts the RTNDA surveys. "It only makes sense to cut news if you can get something that costs less or if you can make more money."
So far, Pittsburgh stations have not added news time to their schedules. The last significant addition of news time locally was in 2002 when KDKA began airing an hour of news at 4 p.m. weekdays.
Three network affiliates -- in Syracuse, N.Y.; Peoria, Ill.; and Wilkes-Barre, Pa. -- dropped their news divisions in the past year, although the Syracuse and Peoria stations run newscasts made by former competitors. Stations in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; and Myrtle Beach, S.C., added news operations.
That contrasts with the newspaper industry, where one big-city daily has closed, and others have either gone online only or are operating under a bankruptcy threat.
Doubling-up is becoming far more frequent for TV news: More than 200 network affiliates now run news programs that are produced by another station, the RTNDA said. In Pittsburgh, Cox-owned WPXI produces a 10 p.m. newscast for Sinclair-owned WPGH; CBS-owned KDKA produces a 10 p.m. newscast for sister-station WPCW.
While news is still on the air, viewers can notice the economy's impact by who is missing. News operations across the country are shedding talent, almost market by market. There's sportscaster Len Berman on New York's WNBC -- gone. Longtime Denver anchor Ernie Bjorkman was let go. Same for anchors Wendy Corona in Houston and Larry Nienhaus in Grand Rapids, Mich. Weathercasters Julie Watts in Sacramento, Calif., and Bob Symon in Louisville, Ky., lost their jobs.
The list keeps growing -- some 1,200 jobs in 2008, at a rate slightly higher than the economy as a whole, the RTNDA said.
"The ones who have the most to be concerned about are the ones who make the high-end salaries," said Tom Petner, who chronicles personnel changes as editor of Shoptalk on the tvspy.com Web site.
A majority of stations -- 56 percent -- said they cut news staff in 2008. Only 16 percent added staff. Salaries for TV news reporters dropped by an average of 13 percent last year, and for news anchors by 12 percent, the RTNDA said.
So far, Pittsburgh stations have escaped comparatively unscathed when it comes to layoffs of on-air talent.
At KOMU there have been two layoffs and a handful of other jobs lost by attrition. The station used to have someone in the morning who would set up assignments and another staffer to update the news Web site; now one person does both jobs, Woelfel said.
Stations that once sent crews of three or four people on location can sometimes make do with only one person because of technological advances, said Jeff Harris, news director at KMGH-TV in Denver, which just won a Peabody Award for stories stemming from the starvation of a 7-year-old boy.
"The notion of adding bodies right now is unthinkable," Harris said. "The bottom line is I don't think any of us know where this is going."
So how do you fill more hours of news with the same or fewer people to do the work? Harris suggested many will begin looking more and more like cable news, with the same stories repeated and repackaged -- the idea being viewers come and go during a two-hour morning news block instead of watching the whole thing through.
At the Fox stations, many of the news hours are becoming more like talk shows. Anchors have been encouraged to loosen up and show more of their personalities, Berg said.
A "Lightning Round" feature was added to a newscast in Tampa's WTVT, where station personalities and local guests kick around observations like the women of "The View" do at the open of their show. Washington's WTTG has "The Five Things You Need to Know Before You Go to Bed" at the end of their newscast, mostly items about things to expect the next day.
The extra time offers a greater chance to experiment with new ideas, as well an opportunity to give stories greater depth, she said.
"I don't sense a deterioration of the product," said veteran news consultant Al Primo. "I think that is generally a compliment to the hard-working news people out there. No one asked them to skimp on their coverage. They're just working harder and longer."
Primo also said some of the local news salaries had escalated beyond reason. "Why should an anchorman in New York be in the million-dollar range?" he asked.
Based on the RTNDA survey, few expect quick changes to the landscape. More than three times as many news directors said they expected to be cutting staff, instead of adding. And while the majority predicted no changes in the amount of news their stations are offering, 24 percent said they'd be adding news and only 4 percent said they'd be cutting back.
First Published May 20, 2009 12:00 am