April 5, 2018

A new report from the Knight Foundation shows that local TV news hasn’t yet been hit by the same forces as local newspapers, but a lot of challenges are coming.

“Local TV News and the New Media Landscape,” published today, comes in four parts and is based on surveys and analysis of 705 local stations in the United States. The Knight Foundation recently invested $2.6 million in local TV news innovation. (Disclosure: The Knight Foundation funds my coverage of local news and is a funder of Poynter.)

Karen Rundlet, Knight's director of journalism, told Poynter via email that she was struck by a renewal in investigative journalism among local stations.

"Many top station leaders say they have to get beyond coverage of daily crime and car crashes to produce content that’s relevant to today’s audiences," she said. "There are some great examples in the report. WRAL-TV in Raleigh, North Carolina has increased its enterprise coverage through beat reporting. And there’s innovation here, too. Tegna station WXIA-TV in Atlanta produces episodic investigative reports that they release online before they’re broadcast on air." 

You can read the full report here, and here are some key findings:

As a business, local TV news is thriving …

That’s thanks, in part, to consolidation, which made the news this week in coverage of Sinclair’s network-wide messaging. Seven hundred and three local newsrooms now produce news for 1,072 stations. TV’s making most of its money from advertising (about 55 percent of total revenue), political ad spending and retransmission fees.

But consolidation will continue, leaving fewer independent voices

Several changes by the FCC mean broadcast giants such as Hearst, Cox and, yes, Sinclair, could mean fewer local TV newsrooms in each market. 

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"Sinclair Broadcast Group’s bid for the Tribune television stations could very well be the start of a new round of consolidation," the report says, "with Fox Broadcasting adding stations that must be cast off in the Sinclair purchase of Tribune."

Unlike local newspapers, local TV newsrooms aren’t shrinking …

In the past decade, the report notes, local newspaper staffs have shrunk by nearly 50 percent. In local TV newsrooms, however, staffing is up by 4.9 percent in the past decade “and most TV newsrooms are at their highest level of staffing ever.”

But local newspapers are still dominating online in many places

According to the report: “the primary suppliers of local news online remain newspapers (primarily core city dailies) and television stations (primarily the big four network affiliates). While newspapers have a clear edge in supplying online news in the very largest markets, newspaper websites appear to be running behind TV websites in most of the markets outside of the top 25.”

Most people still turn to local TV …

According to the report, “Nielsen numbers released for first quarter of 2017 put total average TV viewing at 4 hours and 55 minutes per day — per adult. Next closest is the cellphone at 2 hours and 19 minutes a day.”

But they need to change how they present news to reach younger audiences

How local TV news reports and produces the news has to change in order to capture a new generation of viewers, the report says. Local TV news has a big opportunity and is better positioned than other media to survive. But doing what it’s always done won’t get it there.

“Surviving a declining audience isn’t enough,” the report notes. “TV needs to build audience by becoming a more critical part of people’s lives, and that isn’t going to happen by focusing on petty crime stories that affect a handful of people and ignoring business stories that affect thousands – just to give one unfortunate example of TV news’ many shortcomings.”

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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