News You Can’t Use
The Unwatchable State of Local Television News
BY MARK SAXENMEYER
Do you watch TV news? The local stations? Do you tune in for the weather and the headlines in your area? Do you have a favorite channel and favorite anchor? I ask these questions as if it’s 1995, when it seemed everybody had definitive preferences. But in 2022, when news is available 24/7 at our fingertips, catching “Live at Five” and relying on “Coverage You Can Count On” aren’t “Must-See-TV” for Americans glued instead to their phones and iPads.
Joel Cheatwood, the co-founder and managing partner at Cheatwood Media Group, a media consulting firm that specializes in everything from program creation and development to talent recruitment and marketing strategy, asked if I’d be willing to answer a few questions about the state of local TV news. Seeing as I worked as a TV news reporter for about 25 years (between 1987 and 2013, in five different cities, for CBS, ABC and FOX affiliates), I responded, “Of course, I’d be happy to! But beware, my take on local news isn’t particularly bright or cheery.”
Undeterred, Cheatwood published my answers—yet prefaced them by writing, “As you’ll see below, Mark’s take on the world we live and work in is unabashed and refreshingly blunt.”
Yep, that’s me.
Here’s what he asked me, and here’s what I said:
As you look at state of local news today what do you see?
I grew up in Minneapolis and part of my desire to become a TV news reporter was due to my fascination with WCCO’s (the CBS affiliate here) I-Team. In the 1980s, it was blowing the lid off huge, scandalous stories and I was riveted. I returned to live in Minneapolis in 2011, after nearly three decades away, and the TV newscasts here look markedly different. For one thing, WCCO no longer has an I-Team and its most prominent regular feature instead is something called “Good Question” in which it poses some random or obscure query (one that can usually be answered via a Google search) and puts together a several-minute package about it. Here are some of the actual, mind-numbing “good questions” WCCO has explored recently: “How do we know if spring has sprung,” “Why are there so many Boxelder Bugs this season,” “How do street sweepers work,” and “What’s good to buy in bulk.” Now, there’s obviously an audience for this because they’ve been producing these pieces for years. But that audience is most definitely not me.
What do you think the future looks like?
I’m not an expert on trends and demographics but I can’t imagine that anyone under age 50 watches local TV newscasts regularly. If they do, it’s on as background noise. There’s simply not a lot of relevant news content in them. There is, however, a lot of weather. I mean, loads. The local ABC affiliate STARTS its 10 pm newscast with weather. Before you even see a news anchor, there’s the meteorologist filling the first two to three minutes. The problem with that, for me at least, is that when I want to know the weather, I look at my iPhone. That’s all I need. I don’t care about, or want to know about, barometric readings and wind gusts and whatever else it is the weather folks on TV ramble on about. The temp, and whether it’s gonna rain or snow, is right at my fingertips, at my convenience. Now, I do know that the Nielsen ratings and consultant surveys show that, historically at least, people do indeed love watching weather. So, hey, more power to them.
(Oh, and don’t get me started on those traffic reports. If I want to know where the delays are, my GPS will re-route me.)
Now, I admit, when I was reporting, previous generations of TV newsies would moan about the “current state” of local news, just as I am now. And I admit, I didn’t watch weather or traffic when I was in the biz then, either. Also, the same vapid crap that “fed the beast” 20 years ago is still taking up way too much time in local TV newscasts today – especially random shootings. So many random shootings with crime scene tape and cops wandering around. And so little context. So very little context. Compare the front page of a newspaper with the first block of a newscast. The random shootings are often in the back of the Metro section. But on TV, they’re still front and center because they’re easy. Assignment editors everywhere love their police scanners because they never know when something truly big will cross. But most police calls don’t affect the average viewer, there’s little to no follow-up on the news about most of them, and one violent act just blends into another, leaving the audience to simply think, “That neighborhood is bad.” Or worse, “Those people are bad.”
At my last TV news job the station employed one of the country’s leading “consultants” who was trying to define “the newscast of the future.” We had many, many meetings about this – and ultimately the “newscast of the future” ended up looking exactly like the “newscast of the past.” My favorite memories of these meetings (sarcasm alert) were the ones devoted to how many times the two main anchors should appear together on screen—the long-held belief that anchors must be seated side by side at all times was apparently passé. Unfortunately, separating them then made the newscasts look like disjointed messes and some viewers perceived the change to mean that the anchors didn’t like each other or refused to share screen time. What a complete waste of time.
With all this said, to answer the question more clearly: the future looks bleak.
What should it look like?
I keep waiting for the drop-down menus. I want to be able to turn to a channel on my TV and be able to click the story I want to watch, kind of like one does on a station’s website.
I envision a side menu of click-able choices, while the main screen focuses on the first of those stories in real time, but in a far more in-depth way. And if I don’t want to hear that particular story, I can click on the next one and jump ahead.
Now, I don’t know if or when this Saxenmeyer-imagined-technology might be do-able, as it’s above my pay grade, education, experience, and IQ, but interactivity, I believe, is the key to future relevancy. Forcing me to sit still through some producer’s idea of what I should be watching, in what order, and for how long, is outdated and untenable. No more teases! No more imbecilic anchor chit chat with the weather folk and sports team (“Those Vikings were really throwing the ball well today!”). Ugh.
But again, that’s just me.
Another way to ask it would be, if you could build a local news operation from scratch today what would it look like?
I have cable news on in the background most of the day when I’m working at my desk, switching between MSNBC and CNN. (If I put on FOX, I last about two minutes. The lies and the vitriol are intolerable.) There’s a lot I don’t like about it (the reliance on one-sided live interviews, without context and immediate reaction from an opposing viewpoint) but what I do like is that most of their reporters are experts on the subjects they cover. In fact, their journalism degrees and experience are sometimes secondary to their governmental or foreign policy knowhow. This makes them far more trustworthy that your average “general assignment reporter.”
If I could do it all over again I would have majored in political science in college and minored in journalism. Instead, I went all in on the BIG J. I figured the rest would fall into place. But in the end, I became a journalist who knew a little about a lot, covering so many different stories and subjects in a rather superficial manner. There was never time to become an expert in anything specific.
At one of my news gigs, we had a defined political reporter, a defined consumer reporter, a defined health reporter, etc. They had regular segments, though not daily, and that cultivated trust and familiarity with the viewer. They could be promoted as such.
If I were the TV news kingmaker, I’d hire qualified and experienced people specifically for the beats we needed covered. No TV experience? No problem. I’d rather have a former City Hall chief of staff, who’s charismatic and confident, covering politics than a green broadcast major who’s more interested in the TelePrompTer-reading anchor route. I’d also make sure that each newscast focused on what mattered to the most people. Here in Minneapolis, the stations too often grab the low-hanging fruit and cover small, easy stories that are far too hyper-local. No one in the southern suburb of Bloomington gives a rat’s ass about the northern suburb of Maple Grove’s sewer clog. Leave that to the hyper-local papers and websites and blogs.
Case in point, in preparation for answering these questions, I DVR-ed all the local newscasts on Monday, May 9. This was the evening when the U.S. Supreme Court’s draft ruling to overturn Roe V. Wade was leaked. This was/is huge, from legal, cultural and health care standpoints to name a few. To their credit, three of the four 10 pm newscasts led with this undeniable lead story. But the fourth, the NBC affiliate, inexplicably began with the “mystery illness” of a local toddler. There were “a handful” of other similar cases in other states. I’m not saying this isn’t news, but it’s an obscure story that impacts and affects very few. Just because it’s exclusive and original doesn’t mean it should be the lead. Then, one of the anchors, in the cross-talk with the reporter, said “we’ll all be praying” for the child. No, no, no, no, no. No praying on the news. Keep your religion to yourself. The abortion story wasn’t even in the newscast’s pre-produced series of headlines. They ran it as a 20-second anchor voice-over as the show’s second story. Completely tone deaf. Truly astounding.
Bottom line: “Local news” doesn’t mean that the news has to take place locally. It means it’s produced locally, but it should still reflect what the majority of people in the ADI (the geographic area or market reached by a television station) are talking/thinking/worrying/wondering about. That’s how you make and keep it relevant.
It seems like we need investigative journalism now more than ever and yet I don’t see a lot of stations dedicating a lot of resources to it. Why do you think that is?
Well, this is easy to answer. Because it’s too hard, too time consuming, too expensive and too legally problematic. Stations also don’t see it always paying off in the ratings.
When I was the special projects reporter at WFLD in Chicago (between 1994 and 2011) I would spend weeks if not months on some stories. These were carefully vetted legally, and we had discussions about them with attorneys at all stages of production to avoid potential problems. Lots of these stories won Emmys but many of them were underperformers in the Nielsens. Awards are nice, but they don’t pay the bills.
Why is it so hard to find context and perspective in all news, but local in particular?
You get what you pay for. TV news salaries are down because TV revenues are down. Smart people want to be paid their worth. They don’t stay long in TV news when they see their peers/friends/siblings/neighbors in corporate America climbing the ladder to the American Dream far faster. Plus, you can’t expect 20-somethings to offer context and perspective when context and perspective come from age and experience.
I was hired out of college, at 22, to work in Sacramento, then the 19th largest media market. I had no idea what I was doing a lot of the time at first, and they called me “Boy Reporter.” I’d be assigned stories each morning on subjects I knew nothing about. It was sometimes agonizingly stressful. But the news directors saw potential and I’ll always be extremely grateful to them.
I tell you this because most all the other reporters at this station WERE experienced. They were assigned the stories that needed more context and perspective. It was manageable to have one or two rookies, but these days, you see entire staffs of “kids” with only a couple older reporters/anchors to carry the heavy loads. The result is often an unwatchable newscast that lacks credibility, resonance and heft.
What are your thoughts on the hyper local news organizations, most non-profit, popping up around the country?
I’m all for it. The Reporters Inc. is a member of INN, the Institute for Nonprofit News, and most of the 300+ news organization members are local, or focused solely on very specific themes or subject areas. In this fractured media universe, these sites are providing the in-depth coverage that old-school, legacy media can’t or won’t.
What advice would you give to aspiring journalists today?
Run! The other way! There’s no money in it! Seriously, though, there isn’t! For the most part, or at least in comparison what we made in the 1990s and 2000s. I tell my interns interested in pursuing this career that they need to really, really, really LOVE being a journalist, being a writer, being a reporter, and have a deep curiosity about people and subjects, and getting to the TRUTH. Always getting to the truth. Because if you LOVE what you do, then money takes a back seat. (Yes, up to a point).
I LOVE being a journalist and have loved it ever since I was a kid, when I created a neighborhood newspaper called The Drew Tribune (I lived on Drew Avenue). I’d go door to door interviewing families about their “news” for the paper. Then I’d write it up, make Xerox copies, and sell it to the neighbors for a nickel (later a dime). I have never lost that love or that curiosity, regardless of my paycheck.
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