Essay

Why local news is no longer appointment TV for me

(originally posted 3/16/15) The drunk police officer plowed his squad car into two motorcycles stopped at a red light. One rider was killed; two others were injured. A bungled and compromised investigation, continued bad behavior by the officer, and the slow wheels of justice kept this story at the top of the news for three years. At last, the officer was convicted of drunk driving, criminal recklessness, and reckless homicide.

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WRTV photo

On the day of the verdict, I turned to local television news for the story. I hoped for reporting and analysis that would help me understand the conviction in the context of the investigation and the trial. Instead, the station I chose led with — and heavily promoted — the emotional reaction of one dead rider’s mother as the verdict was read.

Then the newscast cut to an early weather report, and made no more mention of a top local story of this decade.

It’s not like most viewers didn’t know of this story, which was heavily reported over the three years between accident and conviction. But there was so much more to tell that evening: to recount the story’s timeline, to summarize the trial, to connect the dots that led to the guilty verdict, and to share the day’s courtroom drama. The mother’s tears were rightly part of that story. But they were not the story.

To be fair: a good television news program shows the news as much as it tells it. Without action video, all that’s left is talking heads. When I was a boy 40 years ago, local TV news was balding men in gray suits, sitting at a desk, droning on about city-council meetings. Yecch; who wants to watch that? Unless those council members were throwing punches at each other, there was nothing to see.

Also, many stories would benefit from explanation and analysis that television doesn’t have time for. Even if it did, television news is by its nature a short-attention-span theater. People watch the news while living their lives: getting ready for work, sending kids off to school, making dinner.

But even within these realities, an average TV newscast was once a good enough summary of a day’s events. I don’t find that to be true anymore. Instead, I find TV news trying to keep me on the hook by driving strong emotions.

I’m no industry insider, but here’s what I think is going on. Thanks to hundred-channel cable and the Internet, viewers have more choices and any single news outlet has to compete harder than ever for viewers. Younger viewers favor these other choices so overwhelmingly that the TV newscast viewer’s average age has risen sharply away from the younger viewers advertisers want. And the large corporations that own most television stations today have shareholders to please and/or enormous debt loads to shoulder, so they cut costs to the bone.

It’s driven TV news to rely increasingly on young, pretty, and presumably inexpensive talent, and to focus on dramatic stories they can tell easily and quickly. Bus crashes, police standoffs, drive-by shootings, train derailments, shackled felons shuffling into jail — these stories create compelling video and generate a dramatic, fast-paced news program.

I live in the 27th largest television market in the United States, which I would think would have a glut of experienced reporters to choose from. But in the last ten years or so, I’ve watched many middle-aged, experienced reporters disappear to be replaced by good-looking youngsters. They can’t possibly have their predecessors’ experience or contacts.

I don’t know whether it’s their thin experience or corporate edict, but their reporting often shuns depth and context in favor of immediacy and drama. A reporter stands live at the scene, even when the story happened eight hours ago and the place is empty and quiet now. She reports what she sees and perhaps what a police spokesman told her. She asks a man on the street for his opinion or gets a teary-eyed victim to emote for the camera, and then tosses back to the anchor. I come away knowing only that the thing happened and someone was upset about it.

And then there are the fear-inducing health and safety stories and the ambush-style “tough questions” that masquerade as investigative journalism. It’s all wrapped in a shiny package of needless, endless swoosh sounds and “Breaking News” banners.

Well, I’m repelled by it all. The 6:00 news used to be appointment television for me. But over the past ten years or so I’ve watched less and less of it. I catch it when I happen to, and when the weather is bad.

I’m not suggesting that local TV news return to 40 years ago with the middle-aged men and the droning. The things I mentioned above are not all inherently a problem. The over-reliance on them is.

So TV news: To win me back, dig deeper into your stories and tell them straight up, without only playing on my emotions. And when a mother cries as her son’s killer is convicted, go ahead and show her tears. Just wrap them in the bigger story that shows those tears’ context.

Standard

40 thoughts on “Why local news is no longer appointment TV for me

  1. I’m right there with you. I used to say that the newspaper gave me the depth that broadcast news lacked but the papers have been cost-cut to death and often provide no more than what TV gives (if they run the story at all).

    • I pay $20 a year to subscribe digitally to the Indy Star. I never cease to be surprised by how few stories they actually publish. They must be on a skeleton reporting crew.

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    …and now Gannett was bought by Gate-House, so the purchase is all financed by wall street investment funds that are demanding 11% return, look for the Indy Star to have even less stories…all their papers are cut to the bone already, and now this. It’s already announced that they will cut more. These types of investment and consolidation schemes, with poor management, are what killed retail stores, and will kill what’s left of news organizations as well.

    My brother works for a Gannett paper and I tell him all the time that the paper doesn’t do “chase” on important stories, and he just says “sometimes” and shrugs.

    • In my career I worked for one company owned by “Wall Street investment funds” and it was no fun. Every last thing was about cost. But when that kind of ownership happens to an industry, you know it’s dying and they’re just milking what they can out of it.

  3. Roger Meade says:

    I can only concur Jim, and I suppose I am in the demographic nich that still watches the news on TV, except that I don’t. We have two guys that have been at our local station for quite awhile, plus the sports guy and a really professional weather guy. The rest are all young, inexperienced men and women who do their best to keep a straight face while telling you about some local trash or perhaps a thinly disguised advertisement for one of their sponsors. I see them lugging their camera and tripod around town quite often. Not much of a glamor job in my opinion. But this being a very small market with only one real station means they are still important to a substantial part of the population.

    We have an older guy who left a local news organization to start his own online news feed. It has interesting stories that cover real news. I hope he can expand the operation and make a go of it.

    • I see that a lot on TV news now: the anchor or two who’ve been there for ages and a bunch of ever-changing youngsters backing them up. And they’re all lugging their own gear these days.

      I long for a useful local news organization where I live.

  4. Jim,
    The news, whether TV, radio, print, and electronic, for the most part is a reflection of the society it reports on. Regardless of the actual reality, I think we’ve slide into culture which shuns depth and context in favor of immediacy and drama. We both could expound on the examples we see all around us on all levels. No, Jim, it’s not the news tellers and talking heads who are the problem. They have a degenerate substrate to report on and so of course to buy their product.
    Civil humans will strive for higher standards, to rise above the other animals. To learn to emphasize something other than personal convenience of immediate comfort. To develop, not deconstruct, a Culture of higher being. Why do we pretend to celebrate the rare examples of true human achievement – if even recognized – rather than regarding Civilization as the expected norm?

    • Andy Umbo says:

      Interesting, it opens another can of worms. I worked on the East and West coasts, and ended up back in the Mid-west to care for family. I certainly see and think that the Mid-west has far less ‘classically educated’ than it did before the 70’s oil embargo, even tho it has more college educated. I think the events of the 70’s that started the brain-drain to the coasts and the abandonment of the rust-belt by people that worked in ancillary white collar jobs in many Mid-west cities prior to that (and who’s families promoted excelling in culture and the arts), has certainly impacted the sociology. I’ve never been an elitist, but I certainly feel I am now living among the ‘great unwashed’ compared to my college years here 40 years ago. I can’t spend a second listening to the antics of those people as reported by local news media.

    • I’m not sure I fully agree. I think that nobody ever went broke pandering to the lowest common denominator, and that news started its race to the bottom 2-3 decades ago. The audience for news programming has shrunk not only because of the fragmentation of media, but also because this “race to the bottom” programming has alienated people who won’t tolerate much dross.

      And I’m not sure civilization is normal. I think barbarism is. It takes tremendous energy and persistence to develop and maintain civilization.

      • Andy Umbo says:

        As an interesting aside, one of the eye-opening books I’ve read in the last few years is “White Trash: The 400 year untold struggle of class in America”. Interesting to note that the construct of the blessed pilgrim emigrating to Plymouth Rock for noble freedom in America was really no where near as prevalent as the British rounding up the drunken Scots-Irish, literally off the streets, and dumping them as indentured servants in Virginia and the Carolina’s (much like Australia), thus laying the groundwork for the modern listless and unmotivated working class from those areas. To your point, Barbarism has always been with us, it’s just in the last 40 years, to me at least, it’s permeated the areas like Chicago North-side, Minneapolis and Milwaukee, that used to have a greater number of auto-didactic and educated European emigre trades people. They all sent their kids to college,in the 70’s and then the kids, looking for work. all left for the coasts.

        My local media fills their news hole with criminal antics of the most reduced in society; or semi-uplifting stories about programs and non-profits helping those people to stay employed. I never have stories about the educated and interesting; I have to buy the NYT to get that!

        • You do realize I’m Scotch-Irish on my dad’s side? That these listless and unmotivated people are my family?

          I know that the people from which I come can be coarse but there is a depth of connection in them that I do not find in politer society.

          That said I do also wish more of the people from which I come would aspire to more.

        • Andy,
          Like Jim I grew up and lived nearly a half century in a tiny farmtown in the eastern Midwest. The past decade and a half have been in the largest cities in the country, and the past decade on the east coast. The coastal elite hardly has a monopoly on Civilization. Yes, it’s much easier for me to go hear world-renowned performers and see world-class art here than in Farm Country. But those things are only the side effects of civilization. The NYT is a presumptious distraction. Jim hits it on the head when he addresses the depth of connection. The frank honesty that can come only among civilized animals is not rare in the middle states, but it’s hard to find at least on this coast. It’s how people behave towards one another and themselves, and the genuine satisfaction with their place in a civil world, not the trappings of money, education, and culture, that is the essence. I agree that the fourth estate has sold out to the tawdry and lost that sense – if it ever really had it.

      • Jim,
        I agree, Civilization is not normal to the hominin (the living world is by and large barbaric), but it is unique to our particular species. The fact that it happened is remarkable, and I buy the idea that it happened because it was an evolutionary advantage. I’m no religious scholar but I can easily imagine that the primary documents of the main religions are in fact the manuals of civilization. Having read the Bible a couple of times, one way to see it as a text of how to stop being just another animal (Old Testament) and rise to a civilized status (New Testament). Without the struggle to advance civilization, what’s the point of being alive as a human?

        • You make a really valuable point. I suppose I’m a little cynical, as I’ve seen society whether large or small revert to barbaristic behaviors time and again. It really does take continuous energy to maintain civilization — even if it is an evolutionary advantage.

  5. Hi Jim,
    Good observation. I have worked as a news photographer in the NY metro area newspapers from 1984 till my buyout in 2000. I grew up with my dad as a news photographer his whole life. This was my dream job. It was after I left when I was able to look back on those years and clearly see the news industry always had an agenda. We did not know it but “Fake News” has been around for ever.
    In my early years I remember seasoned reporters telling me “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story”.
    I was assigned to President Clinton’s first inauguration, One assignment wast the parade, and I was responsible for getting photos of a local high schools float. Never made the photo, they never came past me. Well the next day the story in the paper said the kids looked good going down Pennsylvania Ave. and they had a great day. Well to say the least Poop hit the fan, that I did not get the photo. After a little “real” investigation, it turned out that their float had a flat tire and never made one block of the parade and the students were very upset. Well the editors apologized and found out that this well known seasoned reporter wrote his story from the hotel room and never hit the street.
    Joe Gigli, photographer

    • That’s hilarious about the parade float story!

      Sure the news industry always has an agenda. It’s just that it’s out in the open now!

  6. -N- says:

    I don’t have TV, so any news I get is via internet. I read selectively from national and local, each with varying degrees of liberal or conservative. I dislike listening to people talk, so the only radio I listen to is NPR when I am in the car. I am tired of racket, sensationalism, lack of content and depth, and “news as entertainment.” You nailed it.

    • Andy Umbo says:

      Ha, Marc, I knew a lot of news guys in the Wash DC area since the 80’s, mostly the photographers and vid people, and they all used to get together surreptitiously and put together a reel of news people and anchors melting down from all their stations, stuff that never made the air, and yep, you guessed it, the first year “Dirty Laundry” was out, it was the sound-track for the reel…

  7. Amen, Jim.

    I turned my back on broadcast television in 2009 for this very reason. If I want entertainment or in depth reporting, I can get both from Netflix (and other streaming services). Sure, I don’t get any local news, but given the false sensationalism of it, I have no need of it anyway. Still, I miss the likes of Tom Brokaw and some of the local reporters of my childhood, all replaced by pretty young hacks who can pantomime emotion better than most Hollywood actors. It’s a shame.

  8. DougD says:

    I don’t miss it, when we bought our house 22 years ago we never bothered to hook up the cable.

    As I’ve said on JPC’s blog the problem with profit driven media is that they do what’s most profitable which apparently is get folks outraged and tell them the weather. I’m kind of happy that we have a credible public broadcasting organization but Peter Mansbridge, our best middle aged balding guy retired from CBC in 2017.

    Although he wasn’t replaced by a crew of beautiful people, but a pretty diverse and competent group.

  9. analogphotobug says:

    I only watch the local morning news for the weather. Here in Colorado, the winter morning commute can be sketchy. I almost never watch the evening news…where “If it Bleeds, it Leads”

  10. Andy Umbo says:

    Sorry about the Scots-Irish reference, Jim, but Nancy Isenberg is a well regarded author, and in “White Trash” the data and correlations are hers and her research. My mothers side of the family are also Scots-Irish out of the Carolina’s, but unfortunately that doesn’t mean that the information isn’t correct or shouldn’t be counted. People can acknowledge that the general information in a situation might be correct, but not an accurate portrayal of individuals that they know. My mothers family fled to Chicago to get out of the South and away from ‘those people’, and get decent jobs. My mother certainly bristled at the word “hill-billy”, but I heard her throw the term “white trash” around fairly often, and growing up, we were banned from having non-running vehicles around the house or junking up the yard in any way!

    To Retrocranks point, (BTW, love your moniker/avatar), I lived a lot of my life on the coasts, and along with him, I was happy to see the cultural entertainment, etc.; but that wasn’t the reason for living there: the reason for living there was that was were others that wanted to work and interact on the highest level of their professions were located there. The cultural aspects were there because those people were there and could support them. While I currently live in a mid-west city of over 1.5 million, I’ve never felt the community I felt growing up in Chicago, even tho I searched them out for years. BTW, due to brain-drain, I’m not sure they exist in Chicago anymore as well. One f the things I learned as an “arm-chair” sociologist, is that everything is in constant change, and I can tell people from my experience, even cities in the same state can have radically different “feels” community flavor.

    • I think we are to some degree talking at cross purposes; we probably agree on some points, on some points we can respectfully disagree. Without question the absolute number of “civilized” humans is greater in cities than in rural communities, but that doesn’t imply the concentration is greater. Larger numbers means there is more likely to be clustering (e.g. Evanston vs. the south side, Mid-town vs. the Bronx) of the outward evidence of civilization. But that’s just the outward evidence….
      I disagree with the “highest levels” argument. Joshua Bell doesn’t practice an art that is useful in a Farm Town, so Farm Town doesn’t have people like him. Same with other cultural highlights. But within the needs of the Farm Town community, there are plenty of people who hold their lives and work to the highest standards. I knew many rural tradesmen, business owners, and farmers who strived (strove?) for excellence in both their work and their approach to others (in at least one situation, I’m unable to find a tradesman/professional here who will do the level of work I could easily find in Farm Town). In the 90’s, Ohio had at least three public radio stations with full-time classical music (not “popular classics” but the real stuff) – WGUC (Cinti), WOSU (Col’s), and WGTE (Toledo) – Cleveland might have also, I wouldn’t be surprised with the Symphony there-, A big part of rural Ohio could listen to the true classics any time, in many cases (including mine) being able to choose between two of these. In Houston there was one station (KUHF) that ran full time classical programming. There are none where I am now (<100 miles as the crow flies from Mid-town Manhattan and Boston).
      Cincinnati, Columbus,Cleveland – three completely different towns. All three have undergone tremendous evolution over the past 50 years. But then the political boundaries of the states were drawn up by politicians, not by cultural anthropologists and sociologists working with economists!
      Back to Jim’s original point – – – – regardless of scale, the pandering of the public conversation to the lowest common denominator is corrosive, and tests one’s ability to be optimistic for our childrens’ futures.

      Jim – you really opened a can of worms with this one!!

      • Andy Umbo says:

        That I can agree to “respectfully disagree” is something I can agree on!

        I think you bring up a lot of good examples, of which I have many myself for Milwaukee and Minneapolis, but that doesn’t mean the trend is making those grow, and there are limited jobs going forward. Once the Cleveland or Milwaukee Symphony are fully staffed, they won’t need anyone else for 30+ years! In my area of expertise, there were jobs pre-Arab Oil Embargo in my area, and within the last 30 years virtually none, which is why I went to and worked in Washington DC. That skilled craftsmen and women exist in “Farmville” is most accurate, but that doesn’t mean I want to live under their political influence, or their opinions that haven’t been influenced by seeing a broad spectrum of other sociologies!

        I think one of the things I wanted to say was where-ever you live, you are under the tyranny of the masses! Thank modern marketing! I fled Indianapolis because it was NOT as professional a city as Milwaukee or Chicago or Minneapolis, but also I couldn’t get the goods and services I was used to in other places, even of the same population, because the majority of the people that lived there did not demand it. I can tell you from 40+ years in retail advertising, that because of limited shelf space, retail organizations constantly run programs to decide what to place in the stores. Even new stores, after 18 months or so, you are held captive to the wants of the sociology around you. I’ve decided I cannot run my life ordering everything from Amazon.

        To Jim’s original premise I agree, BUT, I can tell you that I do a lot of business in San Francisco, and when I’m there, I’m amazed that many of the stations there, have much better local news reporting and news readers. It’ not unusual to see stand-up street reporters older than 50, and ditto for desk-staff. Again, because the people in their market demand it! Your (and my) local news in terrible because you (and I) are living in an area where the majority of people do NOT demand better!

        Whew, Jim I’m done…this is a nine hour and two bottle of Bourbon conversation!

    • I think people should feel free to move to where they find the lifestyle that suits them, of course. But people everywhere, regardless of their roots, behaviors, and attitudes, are good and valuable. There are bad apples in any bunch.

  11. I’m not sure TV news was ever all that in-depth, but I too have mostly eschewed TV news, both national and local.

    One thing I have realized in the last 5 years or so, living in a smaller market: Back in “the day” you had TV newscasters who got into the business in order to service a community they cared about. I think about Tom McClannahan who worked at WTWO in Terre Haute for so many years. Today, Terre Haute is merely a stepping stone for a bunch of young reporters who want to get out of dodge as quickly as they can.

    That’s good for them (better pay) but sad for the community.

    • I lived in Terre Haute 1985-1994 and watched Tom McClanahan and, before him, Johnny Palmer. I grew up in South Bend, where a man named Mike Collins anchored at one station in town for probably 20 years, and at a competing station for another 10. People stayed for years at these stations then, even regular reporters. Not anymore, and I think the ever changing parade of youngsters who pass through even the stations at markets the size of Indianapolis, where I live now.

  12. berniespina says:

    This is why I gave up on the news a long time ago. I remember the days when the news was the news. To quote Colin Quinn, the reporters of today are us…the news belongs to the fastest typist. The only real news you get is the crawl underneath the reporter.

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