Much of what you will read in this book may startle you. If you are a news professional, it may counter what you have been taught in school or learned on the job. It may even seem to contradict what you assume from watching local TV news yourself. Why are our conclusions so dramatically different from the accepted truths about local TV news? It is important to consider from where the received wisdom of local TV news comes. Much of it is supported by anecdotes or practices handed down from bosses. Some of the conventions that are accepted truisms may be correct, but some may just be the way things “always” have been done. So from this point on, take all those things you “know” about TV news and put them aside. What you are reading uses hard data to reach an entirely new set of conclusions about news production and audience response. Among them:
Local stations that take the trouble to produce higher-quality newscasts attract more viewers than other stations, even taking into account other factors that increase ratings, such as the lead-in program, time slot, station size, and network affiliation.
Higher-quality news also attracts the demographic groups that advertisers seek.
Many newsroom decisions that are made in the name of efficiency actually drive viewers away.
Story topic, on which most audience research is based, is a poor indicator of ratings success.
Newscasts that run longer, more detailed lead stories attract larger audiences.
Flashing lights, yellow police tape, and so-called eyeball-grabbing visuals do not by themselves attract viewers.
1998. One coder was designated as the control coder and worked off-site for the duration of the project. At the completion of the general coding process, the three on-site coders, working alone and without access to the control coder's work, recoded one-sixth of the broadcasts completed by the control coder. Daily scores were found to be reliable within ±0.79 points per day, as per the comparative daily broadcast scores.
1999. For this project, the principal coding team comprised six people, who were trained as a group. One coder was designated as the control coder and worked off-site for the duration of the project. At the completion of the general coding process, the on-site coders, working alone and without access to the control coder's work, recoded 40% of the broadcasts completed by the control coder. Daily scores were found to be reliable within ±0.59 points per day, as per the comparative daily broadcast scores of general coders versus the control coder.
2000. For this project, the principal coding team comprised four individuals, who were trained as a group. One coder was designated as the control coder and worked off-site for the duration of the project. At the completion of the general coding process, the on-site coders, working alone and without access to the control coder's work, recoded 40% of the broadcasts completed by the control coder.
The previous chapter showed how a series of demonstrably false myths and conventions about what audiences want from local TV news governs the medium and severely limits its quality. So that's what doesn't work. The obvious question is what does work? If so many of the conventions of the medium are wrong, what is right? We address these questions in this chapter.
Let's start with three assumptions:
Newsrooms want to produce the best-quality news with the resources at hand.
Newscasts have to be commercially successful.
Newsrooms have lots of choices about what to cover in reconciling assumption #1 (quality) with assumption #2 (profit).
Our five-year study of local TV news shows that newsrooms can do good journalism and still build profits. Stations don't have to choose ratings over reporting.
Using a broad measure of commercial success, we have identified a set of practices that are associated with bigger audiences, regardless of the topic of the story. Because these practices can be applied to any kind of story, we call them “The Magic Formula.” This Magic Formula of demonstrably successful journalistic practices consists of six steps. In brief, they are:
Step 1. Cover Important News – and give it resources and emphasis
Step 2. Invest in Enterprise – time and effort pay off
Step 3. Make Sourcing Authoritative – use data and consult experts
Step 4. Provide Perspective – get more sources and viewpoints into stories
Step 5. Look for Local Relevance – viewers watch if they know how stories affect them
Step 6. Make Important Stories Longer – but don't pad shallow ones
Outside of all the findings in this book – all the data, all the suggestions – there is the question of the future of the medium itself. Where is local TV news heading?
The business, along with journalism itself, is already changing. With an explosion of new outlets presenting news, audiences are fragmenting across more places and technologies. Consumers no longer rely primarily on one medium, but increasingly they graze across a range of different media each day, getting their news in pieces.
The audience for most journalism also is aging. This includes local TV. Young people are not acquiring the habit of reading newspapers, watching network news, listening to news on radio, or, indeed, watching local TV news. But the young are not apathetic. They do, it turns out, consume news. They also read. But they are getting their news from Internet sources, podcasts, and even cable news/comedy shows such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. These trends have major implications for local TV journalism. There is no reason, based on what we know about the history of news consumption habits, to believe that with age they will migrate to the older media in significant numbers.
There is a major financial implication to the new technology and the explosion in outlets it has spawned. Generally it has meant that most local TV stations are losing audience, which in turn is putting pressure on revenues.
A series of myths dominates the world of local TV news. These myths are among the most influential forces in local TV. They are a set of long-held beliefs so ingrained that nearly every station operates by them unquestioningly. They explain why local TV is so similar from city to city, and why the “hook-and-hold” mentality and the X-Structure permeate local TV news. And they are manifestly, and provably, false.
Myth No. 1: It is more important not to lose audience than to attract one.
Myth No. 2: A newscast should emphasize stories that shock or amaze.
Myth No. 3: Immediacy is the most important value in local TV news.
Myth No. 4: Flashing police lights, yellow tape, and other “hot” visuals are “eyeball magnets.”
Myth No. 5: TV is an emotional medium in which pictures are more important than words (or ideas).
Myth No. 6: Every lead story must have a live shot from the scene.
Myth No. 7: Viewers are voyeuristic and like to be titillated.
Myth No. 8: Viewers care only about local news.
Myth No. 9: Some stories are more important as promotion than as news.
Myth No. 10: Viewers won't watch long stories about issues.
In our five-year study of local TV news, we statistically catalogued the impact these myths have on the medium, as outlined in the previous chapter. In this chapter we will look at these 10 myths more closely – where they come from, how endemic they are – and take them apart.
Chicago is the broad-shouldered, bustling capital of the Midwest. It's an ethnically diverse metropolis of nearly three million people and the nation's third largest city. And its grand skyline rising high above the shores of Lake Michigan serves notice that it is a major center for commerce. By day its commodity markets draw the attention and money of investors from around the world. And by night its clubs play host to some of the best blues and jazz musicians in the country.
Of course, not everything is perfect in the Windy City. Traffic can be a nightmare, and the streets can be mean. More than 10% of the population lives in poverty. And in 2004 there were more than 400 murders, placing the city in the top 25 in terms of per-capita murder rates in the United States.
All these things, good and bad, make Chicago what it is. They define the city's image and its reality. They make it unlikely that people would confuse Chicago with, say, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
With a population of about 130,000 that is 90% white, Sioux Falls doesn't make the list of the 150 largest cities in the United States. Its hilly skyline on the banks of the Big Sioux River is defined more by church steeples than skyscrapers. Two Interstate highways run through the area, but traffic is not a great concern. And although violent crime happens there as it does everywhere, it's not common.
Designates the extent to which the story focuses on in-depth issues.
Designates the method used in gathering the news story.
Designates number of sources provided in story.
Designates number of viewpoints provided in story.
Designates the credibility of each story via inclusion of relevant and expert sources.
Designates the effort of the news organization to present story as relevant to the audience.
Designates type of use of video or still visuals in the story. Note: Higher values indicate less sensationalism.
Many local television news stations could do a better job in their coverage by taking the path already traveled by successful stations. How can reports about serious issues such as politics, health, education, and crime draw viewers? In this chapter we explain by looking at how the “typical” story is crafted in each topic area and then offering ways that stations can improve on those stories. Most importantly, we show that this kind of coverage will not lose viewers and can actually increase audience and ultimately revenues.
COVERAGE OF CRIME
If there is one area where a station might want to alter its coverage it is crime. Crime stories make up nearly one-quarter (24%) of all stories broadcast. Moreover, crime stories are most likely to be first in a newscast. Whether this kind of attention is warranted is a valid question. In terms of audience appeal, crime stories get nearly identical ratings as noncrime stories. And this is true whether or not the story is local or national. But because of local TV's focus on crime, learning to cover the topic successfully may help stations to better build and hold their audiences.
The Typical Crime News Story
The typical crime story is highly local. Of all the topics we studied, crime is the second most likely to be local in nature (social issue topics are first). This may not be surprising given the fact that audiences are more concerned with crime in their immediate communities rather than crimes elsewhere.
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