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SPJ Ethics Week salon

Bottom-line pressures erode local print and broadcast journalism

By John McManus
Posted May 1, 2005
Greg Lyon, formerly of KRON Channel 4

What happens when media companies squeeze newsrooms to improve the bottom line?

What's cheap to report and sensational to read or watch increasingly displaces what's expensive to cover -- or uncover -- but may advance public understanding.

More experienced reporters are replaced by fresher faces who work for cheap but may not know the difference between a lawyer's allegation and a court's verdict.

As reporters struggle to meet increased story production quotas, the thought and research going into each story falls.

Last Wednesday night two of the Bay Area's most distinguished reporters described conditions in their newsrooms at a salon in San Francisco organized by the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

What I object to is calling what we're doing in local TV news 'news'

-- Greg Lyon

"What I object to is calling what we're doing in local TV news 'news,'" said Greg Lyon, one of the most familiar faces on Bay Area television news. Mr. Lyon quit KRON Channel 4 several months ago. In 27 years with the station, he won local, national and international prizes for his reporting, including a duPont-Columbia award, considered equal to a Pulitzer Prize in print journalism.

Sean Holstege, who covers regional transportation and terrorism for the Oakland Tribune and Alameda Newspaper Group, said the paper no longer routinely covers Alameda County government because editors fear boring readers with "process" stories. Reporters are written up if they don't meet story quotas, he said. And unpaid interns are now covering the kind of stories staff members used to.

Despite those hardships, Mr. Holstege pointed out, over the past two years managing editor Kevin Keane has managed to free reporters to produce prize-winning stories.

Sean Holstege of ANG Newspapers

Mr. Holstege has won several of those prizes, including a James Madison Award from the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists this year and the California Newspaper Publishers Association's First Amendment Award in 2003. (For example, items #2 and #8 in our bouquets.)

Entertaining news more profitable

As television news budgets are cut, said Mr. Lyon, "the contract with the public has changed fundamentally." Now "entertainment is more important than journalism.

At KRON "Scott Peterson rated a full-time reporter for months," he said, "but there was no one to cover the environment."

In the 1980's, he recalled, KRON was among the most respected stations for news in America. The station had a special projects team and an investigative unit, he said. Even general assignment reporters -- who cover "spot" news like fires and shootings -- could devote an entire day to reporting one story. Ad sales people were banned from the newsroom.

Now the teams are gone and reporters are expected to produce as many as three stories a day, Mr. Lyon noted. The emphasis on investigation and depth has given way to "quick hit" stories that are cheap to produce, but much less informative.

Hiring younger, cheaper journalists

I don't know of one journalist who thinks that's a news story.

-- Sean Holstege speaking of the Scott Peterson coverage

Experienced journalists, Mr. Lyon said, are not having their contracts renewed in favor of younger, cheaper staff. Editors are being replaced by technology. As a result, he said, one young KRON newswoman recently reported as fact a lawyer's allegation that a bicycle was unsafe. She then tried to demonstrate that when the bicycle's front wheel was improperly secured, it fell off.

The role of consultants has also increased, he said, ordering reporters to walk while on camera to satisfy younger audience's desire for movement. He has covered stories, he said, that were included in the newscast simply because they appealed to a certain demographic, such as "18 to 35 year-old women in Contra Costa County."

KRON, he said, may be facing greater economic pressures than other local stations, largely because it lost its network affiliation (with NBC) in 2000. But he believes what's happening now at Channel 4 will befall other San Francisco stations in coming years as they lose audience to alternative media on cable and the Internet.

Going for the easy story

Describing his experience at MediaNews' Alameda Newspaper Group (ANG), Mr. Holstege also decried the emphasis on what's easy to report and dramatic. Of the Scott Peterson trial, he said: "I don't know one journalist who thinks that's a news story." But it got repeated play, he said, "because it's easy."

ANG discourages stories about the process of government, he added, because surveys and focus groups tell them people prefer lighter news. He cited a recent series on "Best bathrooms in the East Bay." In contrast, he noted, some of the best stories come from digging through the process of government.

Layoffs two years ago have hurt the already thinly staffed ANG papers, he said. "Can we do without," he said, has become the mantra of the newsroom. As a result, he added, the paper relies more on stories from wire services than it used to.

Salaries at ANG are so low, he complained, that "I could triple my salary as a flack [spokesperson] for the school district." As a result, he estimated, 30% of the staff has left and been replaced in each of the last six years.

The SPJ salon was held at the London Wine Bar in observance of Journalism Ethics Week.

KRON News Director Chris Lee responds

I concur with Greg that local news has changed enormously over the last twenty years. Twenty years ago, cable channels weren't a major force. Today, they take half the audience. Clearly, that's a significant change in the economics of the business. We feel those changes at KRON 4, as do news departments across the country. I think Greg is lamenting that KRON 4 now needs to run like a business. While I understand that sentiment, I don't think it's particularly realistic to expect otherwise.

We now have no outside consultants. I bet we're the only station in the market who can say that.

I don't remember the bicycle story specifically, but I don't take on-air errors lightly. I'll put our reporting staff up against anybody in the market.

ANG Newspapers VP/Executive Editor Kevin Keane responds

Claim: Turnover is about 30% annually in the ANG newsroom, largely because salaries are so low.
Response: "Turnover at ANG this year was 15 percent, which I consider average for papers our size. People leave for many reasons -- and certainly salaries play into the mix, particularly when the cost of living in the Bay Area is so high. But we're making strides bringing salaries up at all levels of the newsroom."

Claim: Increasingly stories are chosen because they are easy to do, not because they are important to do.
Response: " [I'm] not sure in what context this was said, but I don't know how you could look at our papers over the past year and believe it. Our Homeland Security series, which recently won a national SPJ award for investigative journalism, involved the FOIA and review of literally thousands of government documents over the course of nine months. Reporter Doug Fischer spent a year developing and reporting on our growing chemical legacy for his Body Burden series. We broke ground on that story, spending more than $17,000 to conduct highly specific blood tests on an average Bay Area family, and as part of the investigation we sent Doug to visit Dupont plants on the East Coast for a week. And most recently, Sean and reporter Jill Tucker spent nine months investigating allegations of faulty welds on the new Bay Bridge. That story is perhaps the most important Bay Area story of the year. We don't settle for easy here…."

Claim: Government "process" stories are being discouraged, but are valuable to citizens who want to participate in government.
Response: "We've been encouraging our reporters to write about the IMPACT of government and not the process of government. Every action taken in Sacramento has an impact on the streets and in the homes of Oakland and Fremont. People want to know what it means; it's the media that's obsessed with the process. So yeah, I plead guilty to putting real people in our government stories. We still cover our share of meetings, though."

Claim: Layoffs have hurt the quality of the product.
Response: "Layoffs never make life easier and I regret having to let anyone go, but I think we do a pretty damn good job with the people we have."

Claim: Focus groups tell editors people prefer lighter news.
Response: "Steve Duke from the Readership Institute visited in the fall and conducted a number of hands-on seminars about the RI findings and what they mean. As a result, we've been writing more narrative stories and stories that are relevant to readers, not just the journalists who write them. I've given my editors an opportunity to try different things; some would see the public bathroom survey as a reader service."

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.

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