KRON’s Former News Director Looks Back

 

What’s Right and Wrong with Local TV News

And Some Ideas for Reform

by Al Goldstein

 

 

Before I begin, here are a few qualifiers. I don’t know every general manager or news director; don’t know the workings of every newsroom; haven’t worked in a newsroom in ten years; don’t know every company that owns a station.

 

My comments are based on my experience, and I still stay pretty much in touch.  There will be exceptions to most everything I say and what I see as reality is my own reality and not intended to represent all realities. Now you have full disclosure.

 

TV news is as its best during disasters, such as earthquakes, major fires that threaten communities, and the recent acts of terrorism at the World Trade Center.

 

TV news can be educational.  We all received lessons in civics during the Clinton impeachment and even the OJ Simpson trial. Broadcasters, in their coverage, set aside revenue concerns for several days in order to serve the public. For most of the time, however, public service and quality journalism take a back seat to revenue and ratings.

 

The issue of ratings versus quality news first surfaced in earnest about forty years ago.  Former CBS News President Fred Friendly quit, when CBS refused to air Senate hearings on the Vietnam

War, substituting re-runs of “I Love Lucy” instead.

 

The documentary “Local News,” which aired recently on public television, set the issue before the viewer, asking if ratings and quality news can co-exist.  In a broad sense the issue was portrayed realistically, exposing the viewer to the dilemma with its attendant problems and pressures.

 

In my experience the number one pressure mitigating against quality journalism is the ratings. That pressure is exerted by the company owning the station on the station general manager who exerts it on the news director. As a result, news directors operate within a very narrow box that is drawn and enforced from higher up.

 

Within that box there may be a journalistic and public service component of news. But to a GM, news is mainly about the money.

 

I have never had a discussion outside the newsroom with any GM or any other department head about how to improve journalism. I have been told the journalism is too serious.  I have been told on numerous occasions that a particular story may be good journalism, but that it was not the kind of story that helps attract viewers. A GM or sales manager never walked into my office and said “Goldstein you’ve got to do more substantive journalism.”  The same goes for public service.  It was never discussed as an obligation or responsibility, but only as a strategy.

 

Outside the newsroom, it’s about money.  Corporate profits are tied to the ratings. Manager bonuses are tied to meeting corporate-dictated profit goals. TV stations are a business and have a right to make money, but how much is enough?

 

A major market anchor recently wrote of his company hitting profit margin numbers and adding to 5 billion dollars in gross revenues and then added: “The television business in this country is completely out of control.  If the public were to ever see the amount of money being taken out of these cities and stations, they’d be amazed.”

 

Much of that profit is expected from newsrooms.

 

Here’s a part of a recent ad for an ND in a major market. “…Other key duties include ...  strategic planning and positioning for audience growth, recruitment and retention issues.”

 

That, quietly, has been part of the ND’s job description for the last 15-20 years, but it’s the first time I’d seen it in a public ad.

 

A newsroom can win awards, do substantive journalism, and fulfill its public service obligation, but if the audience does not grow, is not recruited and retained, the ND is looking [for a job] elsewhere.

 

A newsroom in Philadelphia recently lost a ratings lead it had held for a decade.  The pressure was so great to recapture it, that the ND violated a court order not to follow jurors for interviews.  Her explanation was that she had to break some news.

 

 The president of TV People, the only firm representing ND’s and TV managers, said, “the economic pressures are so great and beyond a news director’s control, but they are the first to get

pink-slipped.” Well, an anchor or two may go first, but you get the idea.

 

To maintain profit margins, newsroom staffs are reduced, but ND’s are asked to provide more news...some of it on their own stations, some of it on others, some of it on cable.  All are what’s

known as alternative revenue streams.  You can make an argument that reduced staffing inhibits substantive news. Additional newscasts without increased staffing is self-explanatory.

 

The emphasis on ratings and profit results in journalistic compromise after journalistic compromise and marginalizes a newsroom’s efforts to provide the community with the quality information it needs to keep its freedoms, to be self-governing to make informed choices and to make sense of the world.

 

Is it possible to bring profit and quality news more in line? Scores of journalistic watchdog and non-profit organizations are trying. Most appeal to the journalist, to journalism educators, and to some extent, the viewer.

 

Grade the News hopes to educate viewers as to what they should expect and demand from local TV news and steer them to the station that best provides it. Under the GTN scenario, stations failing to provide quality news will suffer both a ratings and revenue loss.

 

Stations respond to loss of revenue.  They don’t respond to a logic that says invest in more people in order to provide quality news or to idealistic arguments that say do it because it’s your obligation.

 

Many critics describe TV news as in a state of crisis and the only way to solve it is by applying crisis solutions.

 

One way is by challenging a station’s license.  Under the Communications Act of 1934, the airways are public property. Commercial broadcasters are licensed to use the airways.  Use is based on whether the broadcaster serves “the public interest, convenience, and necessity.”

 

The last major successful challenge of a station’s license involved The United Church of Christ, a Jackson, Mississippi TV station, and the Federal Communications Commission. 

 

The Church argued that the Jackson station failed to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity of its large African-American community.  In a struggle that began in the late fifties and lasted twenty years, the church won out and in the process forced the Federal Communications Commission to write equal opportunity regulations requiring broadcasters to recruit and hire minorities and women or face the loss of their licenses.

 

Most critics agree that it would be difficult today to challenge a station license.  They say the Communications Act of 1934 was rendered toothless by the Nixon and Reagan administrations. They also say the FCC, created to act as a regulator for the public, acts on behalf of the broadcaster instead.

 

So, other critics see a need to reform the broadcast industry entirely.

 

An article titled “15 Steps Toward Media Reform” can be found on the internet at www.thirdworldtraveler.com.

 

That same web site contains excerpts from the book Take the Rich Off Welfare, which lays out arguments for why broadcasters should pay for the licenses they now get for free.  The book suggests the money go into the national treasury. This approach may not improve the news, but it does pay the public for use of its airwaves.

 

Ralph Nader makes similar arguments in an interview published on www.zmag.org/zmag/ articles/feb95barsamian.htm

 

License challenges and other attempts at broadcast reform can be arduous, complex, and last for decades.  Are they worth it?  Consider what’s at stake: Reputable surveys conclude that seventy to eighty per cent of the public gets its news from television news and only television news.

 

Alan S. Goldstein has been news director at KRON, assistant news director at KPIX, NBC network news bureau chief in Tel Aviv, Israel and has won numerous awards including the Columbia University Golden Baton for Best Documentary. He made the remarks above at a salon held at KQED on December 10, 2001.