November 6, 2007

On Media: A new formula for TV news

Here’s what Andrew Hayward, former president of CBS News, had to say about local TV news during a visit to Louisville. Local stations focus too much on crime and murder, but the reason is that it’s easier to do. It’s one sign of laziness in local newsrooms, he said, because reporters don’t need much local knowledge to show up at a crime scene and tell you what happened. One big reason viewership is shrinking, he said, is that these stories aren’t relevant to their audience. Stories should make people say, “I didn’t know that,” or “That was interesting,” and Hayward said that’s what is missing when local newscasts focus on crime.What it may take to be relevant again, Hayward said, is for stations to risk changing the formula for local news. The “Breaking News” phenomenon, he said, is a consultant-driven craze that sensationalizes events that aren’t really news. “It’s a risk to move in a different direction. It takes courage, because you lose people before you get them,” he said. “You risk losing the viewers you had before.”Hayward wasn’t talking about a specific station here. But he knows Louisville is similar to everywhere else — local newscasts are becoming less relevant in a world in which consumers have more choices. They’re turning off viewers. And they’re not attracting anybody under 40 to watch.There are 25 million to 30 million people watching the national news programs every night on NBC, CBS and ABC, but Hayward couldn’t find one in the class he spoke to at Bellarmine. Hayward said his 20-something son and daughter find nothing on the nightly news that compels them to watch. I’ve checked with my two teenage sons, along with some of their friends, and none could tell me the name of the main network anchors — unless you count Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.Hayward suggested hiring journalists with a different look who have roots in the community. He said the next generation of viewers won’t buy into the formulaic local approach now best left to situation comedies and Will Ferrell movies. No, young viewers are MUCH more likely to get news from Comedy Central. Maybe they should scout comedy clubs for talent. Instead, imagine that rather than hiring a fresh-faced Boston native with a master’s degree in broadcast journalism from Northwestern as the newest member of its reporting staff, WLKY-TV had hired a less-qualified local with a less-polished look, and allowed the new hire the freedom to find humor in news stories.Maybe even someone with a local accent, or who might be a better fit walking down Bardstown Road in the Highlands than in a corporate boardroom. It is, after all, entertainment. Why not a Lewis Black-style rant from a regularly appearing local personality?Those are the sorts of radical moves Hayward suggests might fly with the next generation.That’s not to pick on WLKY. Hailee Lampert, the new reporter mentioned above, is typical of the modern TV reporter that stations bring to town. She did a fine job covering a murder in PRP last week — a story all local stations jumped on. It’s likely she’s making a stop here on a journey to brighter lights in a bigger market a few years down the road. WLKY’s slogan is “Live. Local. Late Breaking.” And in the big picture, on this story, that is irrelevant to 99 percent of the audience.It’s worth noting that one station, WDRB (Fox 41), is making an effort to stand out based on journalistic values. There’s a new billboard in Spaghetti Junction with a simple message: “In-Depth Journalism.”News director Barry Fulmer said “good journalism” is the brand the station is pitching to viewers. It’s certainly a different approach. He said the station gives its reporters more time to do in-depth work, resulting in long-form pieces like a Dick Irby story that aired recently on rules-breaking by developers in the East End.“We take reporters and photographers out of the daily grind to work on stories that deserve more time,” Fulmer said.Fox GM Bill Lamb (who was just named VP of WDRB’s parent company), recently orchestrated a series of personnel moves designed to strengthen that reporting focus, including moving long-time local personality Bill Francis out of the anchor chair and back to reporting. Lamb, whose commentaries on local issues evoke strong responses, seems to have a focus on the “hyper-local” coverage that modern news critics say is so important. Rick Redding, Louisville’s Media Critic, writes frequently about news and media on his blog, thevillevoice.com