Local news blues

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  June 24, 2009

And Jay Howell, vice president and general manager at WPRI and WNAC, sees an opportunity for his relatively robust news operation to make some gains on Channel 10. "It's apparent to a viewer and a competitor that their commitment to local news has changed," he said, of WJAR.

Management seems to be placing some stock in-depth reporting — particularly its investigative reporting brand, Target 12.

Tim White, who replaced his father Jack White as the station's lead investigative reporter after a heart attack claimed the WPRI icon in 2005, has boosted his profile in recent months with a series of stories on public employees engaged in all manner of fraud.

His "Down the Drain" series exposed Providence municipal workers doing errands on the public dime and stealing city materials for personal use. A more recent story focused on a fire department employee siphoning city gas.

White says he is heartened by the stations' tight-times commitment to his four-person investigative unit. "Quite frankly," he said. "I'm better staffed than my father ever was."

But WPRI, even with its investigative work and emphasis on the live field report, still lags behind WJAR in the ratings.

WPRI's Tim White 


That would come as little surprise to Geoff Klapisch, professor of media studies at Boston University. Investigative pieces, he said, just don't drive viewership. "People aren't looking for that," he said. "People want to know, especially at 11 o'clock, what's the weather tomorrow, who won the game, what's happening in my market?"

Combine that prescription with a firm belief in the highly visual, highly visceral lead story — pull in the viewer early — and you've got the world view shared by most local television news directors across the country.

But Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, says the approach is deeply flawed. He is a co-author of We Interrupt This Newscast: How to Improve Local News and Win Ratings, Too, an exhaustive study of local television broadcasts from the late nineties and early part of this decade which found that substance — contrary to newsroom mythology — actually drives ratings.

Viewers don't just want the nasty car crash at the top of the newscast, he said. They want to know that it was the fourth crash at that intersection in a month, that experts think there's a way to fix the problem. In short, they want depth.

"In the end, it's not the topic that matters as to whether viewers will come to your newscast, it's the treatment of the topic," he said.

That may explain, in part, why Channel 10 has been so dominant for so long. And why Channel 12 might have a chance to pick up ground, over time, if it is able to keep a solid staff in place.

Of course, pursuing a robust newscast requires resources. And there is confidence, in the industry, that the resources will resurface — that the troubles afflicting local television are more cyclical than those plaguing newspapers.

The ProJo's classified advertising may be forever lost to Craigslist, but the local car dealer will probably pay for a spot on the 6 o'clock news, again, when the economy picks up.

Still, there are broader forces at work — cable continues to fragment the television audience, the political campaigns that provide a major advertising boost every other year have begun to explore options outside the local news, and the Internet is a growing threat to all mainstream media.

The substantive newscast, such as it was, may not be coming back. At least not in full.

The question is, will anyone notice?

David Scharfenberg can be reached at dscharfenberg@phx.com.

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Related: News worth paying for?, The Journal gets a facelift, Fourth-estate follies, 2009 edition, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Media, University of Rhode Island, Tom Rosenstiel,  More more >
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