Gail Ewing: Is local news facing an Ice Age?
What is to become of our local news reporting? Will it dwindle down to insignificance as TV stations and newspapers go through downsizing, bankruptcy, major reorganizations and, for some, go out of business altogether?
Local news reporting has been diminishing for years — long before this financial downturn. A major drop occurred during the recession of the early 1990s and then had a modest rebound afterward, but never came back to the high levels of coverage that existed before then. The steps the media is taking today to cut costs are very similar to those taken back then. The impact, however, has the potential to be much greater, because this recession is much deeper.
In February, WRC-TV Channel 4, the Washington-market NBC affiliate, established a new system to combine the roles of writer and editor into one job, and thereby cut positions and save money. In 1991, that same station combined reporter and writer positions as one job. What effect did it have on local news reporting? An example: When one of WRC's reporters met me in front of the Montgomery County Council Building in Rockville, she asked, "Council member Ewing, what is this story about that I'm supposed to cover?" followed by, "What questions should I ask you?"
The story aired that night, but whose story was it? WRC reporters were not the only ones who showed up unprepared. As I heard over and over, the reporters were totally stressed, having to deal with many more assignments and trying to write, edit, report and sometimes even hold the camera for the interview, as happened with several cable TV stations.
Some TV reporters did very well, however. They were veterans at their news departments or, on a rare occasion, a conscientious new hire. They were reporters who always did their homework, and who were clearly stressed but handled it well. To its credit, WRC has not doubled up its reporter positions, but stress remains for people in the writer-editor positions and whole staffs affected by downsizing in the entire industry.
The actual amount of time on-air of local community news is in fast decline. Since the 1990s, there has been a proliferation of video news feeds from around the country. They are cheaper for TV stations to use, rather than creating the video reports themselves. As a result, national news, not local, has become more prevalent.
Newspapers are hurting big time. We have lost two in Maryland — The Baltimore Examiner and The Dispatch. The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post have gone through major downsizings. To save money, the two papers have established news-sharing arrangements, whereby one will cover a story and make the content available to the other for publication. It's our loss, as fewer reporters will scrutinize stories and events. It also means that reporters will likely need to write stories that cover both the area they come from and the other paper's service area — leaving less space for the more parochial interests of each paper's readership.
News sharing, however, is much better than what we saw during the '90s recession, when most newspapers stopped sending reporters to cover local news except on very special occasions. At least with news sharing, we will know more about what is going on.
Where we go from here
Newspapers and TV news have been struggling to hold on to their audiences, and the blame is often that the public is drifting to Web news.
People love the pictures on big TV screens and a good story with the video — it's hard for compartmentalized Web news to compete. The realignment TV stations are experiencing gives them an excellent opportunity to rethink their content and give us more local community news. Because local news is about us, I think more of us would watch. Once we do, the stations can garner more advertising revenue and become much healthier.
Rumor has it that the newspaper business is dying. Don't believe it. Web news relies heavily on newspapers. It is newspapers that send reporters to local government and community meetings and events, and those reports are what Web news uses. And as much as newspaper readership has declined since the '90s, if the offering from Web news is not highly reflective of local news and does not remain free to consumers, I predict that readership will be even lower than newspapers experience now. Reports of low advertising revenue for free Web news portends that its life without newspapers is questionable.
TV news and newspapers have a hard road ahead through the recession, but have a good chance of growing when it is over. In the meantime, good decisions by management, an emphasis on local news and loyalty from the public will determine which media survive and how much local news we receive. Time will tell.
Gail Ewing of Potomac is a retired at-large Montgomery County Council member. Her
e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.