Local TV Stations: The Money Printing Press is Broken. Can Stations Build a New One?

Will News on the iPhone Save Us?

Will News on the iPhone Save Us?

It’s an accepted truism in TV that local stations, as long as there have been local stations, have been money-making machines.  At least, until recently, when the gears jammed, the networks stopped being station groups’ BFFs, audiences started sampling other sources for news, and even the uber-dependable local advertisers took their Buick dealer dollars and shoved ’em under the mattress.

Scary times.  Local newsers are out of work, wondering if stations will ever field the local news benches that we all grew up expecting.  The financial model that kept local news afloat-and profitable-seems to have fallen apart.  Is that a temporary reaction to the recession, or a sign that things are evolving, as they have been for years in the newspaper biz?

Slate makes a compelling argument that debating the financial model misses the point:  “unlike most businesses, serious journalism has seldom been about the straightforward pursuit of profit. Nearly all of the most important journalistic institutions in the free world are hybrids of one form or another—for-profit but underwritten by generous owners or other profitable businesses; not-for-profit yet entrepreneurial; co-operative; or government-subsidized,” writes Jacob Weisberg.

But hold on there, JW.  What about the reassuring words we’ve been hearing from our news directors, GMs, and station group suits:  “the web will save us!  serve the web!”  (You know, just like weekend morning news did).  Well, Weisberg points to the past:  “In times of yore, the best American newspapers worked like this: Public-spirited families with names like Sulzberger, Bancroft, Chandler, and Graham (the owners of Newsweek, Slate, and the Washington Post) built highly profitable businesses by becoming dominant information sources in major local markets.”

Graham and Bradlee:  Money, Talent and History-Making Journalism

Graham and Bradlee: Money, Talent and History-Making Journalism

Weisberg argues that it was the media barons whose bankrolls made things work, not a successful financial model, and that, for papers at least–and perhaps local tv newsers as well, the magic formula that saves us all may not be there either:  “With the decline of their traditional revenue sources, capitalists in the news business are having to become even more creative. But they won’t find the grail of a new economic model for journalism—because there wasn’t an old one.”

What’s your take, local newsers?  Is the web and all its multi-platform potential a path to profitability?  Was giving news away for free a mistake?  Would anyone pay for the waterskiing squirrels we’ve been feeding them for years anyway?  Will we all end up working for web-based, advertiser supported and charitably-endowed hybrids that let us do worthwhile reporting at moderate, but not princely pay?

Do tell.



Filed under Local News 2.0

6 responses to “Local TV Stations: The Money Printing Press is Broken. Can Stations Build a New One?

  1. Really interesting post. I think there’s a lot to be said about the damage done over the years by not just the waterskiiing squirrels, but also by everything else; the infuriatingly pared-down versions of stories everyone already read in the morning paper; the inability to competently cover either local OR national news; the perennial branding changes.

    I grew up watching the 5, 6, and 11:00 news. Over the years we switched from WNBC to WCBS to WABC. As an adult, I kept watching the 11:00 until sometime over the past year, when I finally decided it just wasn’t worth it any longer. Now I don’t bother unless I know there’s a storm coming — and the little red exclamation point at the bottom of my browser window does that just fine via forecastfox, without any help from a locally branded “weatherbug” application. I’m watching the Rachel Maddow replay at 11, where >90% of the content is of interest and relevant to me, as opposed to the local news, where it was <20%.

  2. Research,

    Thanks for reading the blog–and for sharing your insight. I think all local news managers and station group owners should read what you’ve written, because the old model of “serve it up at 6 and 11, and they’ll come like they always have” clearly isn’t working anymore.

    And yet, I talk to SO MANY people in this business who think content isn’t the problem, that they’ve got to find a way to get the same tired stuff on new screens, in much the same way a huge percentage of local TV websites are as boring as dirt, filled with lame and never-updated “anchor blogs” and advertiser-support “stories” about “health breakthroughs” at the local hospital. It’s not the kind of constant-refresh content that attracts online consumers.

    The other day I was reading someone’s post online about local TV news: he said, essentially, “I just watched the 6 o’clock news…and it’s all the stuff I’ve been reading online since ten this morning.” Nothing new. But you know some of it was sold as “BREAKING NEWS.”

    Thanks again for juicing up what I think will be a lively discussion.


  3. Chris

    The sad paradox is that stations, to derive revenue, may resort to things like ‘product placement’ that actually succeed in doing nothing more than drive viewers away. And that people paying for those product placements will either demand lower rates or give up on the strategy altogether.

    Essentially, we’re discussing a micro issue (TV news troubles) knowing full well that the fix is a macro one. Without getting overtly political, the private sector is getting browbeaten by this administration. The fix is to be found in government, they say. Problem is, Obama and Pelosi aren’t lining up to buy commercials on your local news. Companies in our private sector are counted on to do that, and when that side of our economy is vilified and thrown to the wolves, the ‘unintended consequences’ start becoming apparent. Consumers go from spenders to savers in a heartbeat, and your typical advertisers slash their marketing dollars because of that.

    So the fix isn’t in fancy HD sets or in putting Ken to the left of Barbie at the anchor desk instead of to the right. The fix is to be found in getting consumers to spend again. Get them to feel optimism rather than fear. Obama can point his finger at me and tell me to go eat at Chili’s tonight, or buy a new plasma. But I’ll just laugh at him and tell him to go pound sand, because he hasn’t solidified the basic things that will make me feel confident rather than scared. And until that happens, the spenders will remain savers and the advertisers will remain on the sidelines. And both Ken and Barbie can sip coffee out of nice, big Dunkin Donuts mugs at the anchor desk, and it won’t make a flipping difference. The real change starts far away from the studio.

  4. Patrick

    With the new administration subsidizing every industry — where’s the Journalism bailout? The BBC works fine as a public entity. Every television viewer in the UK pays a license fee as part of their service contract, and the fee goes to the BBC. Let’s nationalize the news and keep us all in a job!

  5. Chris

    Let’s say you’re a Liberal and you realize that media bailout money was going to Fox. Would you be mad? The government’s role in propping up the media financially means that the media then feels ‘obligated’ to prop up the government in its reporting. Everyone (now) knows that these ‘bailouts’ come with ‘strings attached.’ That’s why some banks and some states are saying ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ to bailout money. If Obama’s administration offered bailout money to certain media outlets (print or electronic) I would abandon them in an instant. I’d stop watching and stop reading. Many other people would, too. These bailouts are a slippery slope; once you get them going, you have a whole chorus of ‘What about ME?’

  6. Chris, by that logic, will you stop watching any local affiliates who receive FCC waivers to operate as duopolies?

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