What Local TV News Needs to Do to Survive

"Winter may be coming for the business"

The analysis is based on interviews and surveys from hundreds of local TV news leaders across the country.
Headshot of Chris Ariens

Local television news continues to be the dominant source of news for most Americans. Half of all U.S. adults say they “often” get local news from television, according to a study by the Knight Foundation released today. However, that same study warns that if local TV news doesn’t continue to innovate, the future is as fuzzy as an old analog TV in between channels.

The good news: TV stations are profitable and hiring. While newspapers have shed 26,300 newsroom employees — or 46 percent of total employment — TV news employment is up 4.9 percent, despite continued consolidation leaving a handful of corporations owning more TV stations. (See: Sinclair’s proposed $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media, Nexstar’s $4.6 billion acquisition of Media General in 2017 and the 2015 merger of Scripps and Journal Broadcast Group.)

“Survey after survey finds that local TV is still the go-to place for news for many Americans. But winter may be coming for the business,” said Sam Gill, Knight Foundation’s vp for communities and impact. “This research highlights stations that are innovating and challenges others to follow suit.”

The analysis is based on interviews and surveys from hundreds of local TV news leaders across the country. Based on takeaways from the study, here are four recommendations:

  • Diversify programming and focus on digital delivery of content, even though the return on investment isn’t always there—yet.
  • Innovate not just on the digital side, but with the on-air programming as well. Every TV newscast looks like all the other TV newscasts, but executives seem reluctant to try something new.
  • Drop the obsession with crime, carnage and mayhem, instead focusing on ways to connect with local communities through issues such as education, the economy and transportation.
  • Increase enterprise and investigative reporting, which requires hiring more experienced journalists and/or providing more newsroom training.

What the study didn’t tackle are the potential miscues brought on by concentrated ownership, like Sinclair Broadcasting’s decision to craft a promo that was read by dozens of anchors at most of its 193 stations over the weekend. While some local anchors who took part have spoken out against the promos, the company’s head of news said the “corporate news journalistic responsibility promotional campaign” simply represents his company’s high standards “of accuracy and fact checking.”

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@ChrisAriens chris.ariens@adweek.com Chris Ariens is the managing editor and director of video at Adweek.