Four hundred seventy eight pages… that’s what it took to conclude that the state of local news in the digital age is in a serious state o’ crisis, with apologies to O’Casey.

This is the latest from the FCC on the sorry state of local news in the digital age. Not only did the FCC prepare the report at taxpayer expense but additionally paid for a commissioned news piece on paidcontent.org FCC Report Cites Lack Of Local News, But Has No Ideas To Fill The Gap.

The findings are not surprising, “There’s a big gap in local news reporting. There are fewer newspaper reporters covering “essential beats” like courts, schools, local affairs. The number of reporters in key places of government has dropped considerably. In New Jersey, for example, the number of statehouse reportesr (sic) dropped from 35 to 15 between 2003 and 2008. In the same time period, California went from 40 to 29; in Texas from 28 to 18; in Georgia, from 14 to 5.
Daily newspapers cut their editorial spending by $1.6 billion per year from 2006 to 2009; staff has shrunk more than 25 percent since 2006…
The report describes local TV as a kind of news wasteland. The stations are generally pumping up the volume of news while reducing staff, and give short shrift to serious topics like education, health care, and government. The report cites a TV news study by the Annenberg School of Communications that found such hard news topics took up a little over one minute in a 30-minute news broadcast. While coverage of city government withers, crime news proliferates. And the report notes the disturbing trend of “pay-for-play” arrangements, as well as the airing of “video press releases” masquerading as news.
Cable news is thriving on a national level but remains stunted at a local level. Only about 25 to 30 percent of the population can watch a local news show on cable.”

The Annenberg Lear Center study which came out in May 2010 Lear Center Report: sports & weather, crime, fluff dominate L.A. TV news makes a frightening case for the diminishing amount of substantive news and the value placed on important stories by news managers.

Look – it’s no secret that consultants have ruined local news – as well as the lack of commitment from station owners, managers, news directors and others of fiscal ilk. News was never profitable and for the vast majority of the 20th century, news was not profitable. In the late 1980s when it became essential to stations that news make money, all semblance of reality was lost. Now shows that proclaim to be news programs are dominated by traffic and weather – because that’s what consultants say the public cares most about… This is the most ephemeral of all substance… the least consequential… and yet it dominates in terms of new devices, maps and computer animations and a significant commitment of the total time of each news program.

Is it any wonder why so few audience surveys find that audiences treat news programs seriously, or make the evening news appointment television night after night, or where loyalty to a program or presenter was once a staple and is now a mater of convenience or happenstance? We’ve polluted the audience by offering features and soft stories as early as 5 or 7 minutes into the programs…. features which once would have been relegated to the end of the news show as a ‘kicker’ but which now appear earlier and earlier each show in order to give the audience something ‘light’ and ‘entertaining’ and ‘enjoyable’ as opposed to something which the editors felt was necessary and important and consequential.

This isn’t just a situation (problem) with local news. Watch many of the network programs and you can see the same symptoms about story selection and placement – an erosive degredation of what news ought to be presented contrasted with what is presented in the guise of news so that the audience will stay tuned.

We wonder why at a time when audiences say they’ve never been better informed thanks to digital content when in fact it appears that they have never known as little or less about so many stories, in spite of digital technology and delivery.

Perhaps the problem isn’t that audiences do not believe their news providers, as one recent poll would have us believe, maybe we just don’t want a diet of facts we disagree with or truths that disturb us?  Maybe it is that we are becoming largely a nation of self-righteous, opinionated zealots who disagree with any voice other than our own?

There has been a lot of coverage about the recent survey that Americans do not trust their news sources.  It’s prompted many news managers to assert their coverage is absolutely grounded in fact, rooted in the inherent bedrock of journalism and the larger audience’s problem stems from reading, watching and listening to other organizations who clearly, evidently don’t respect or even value news, truth, and fairness in the same high degree or standard.

But I haven’t read any one yet who has laid some of the blame on the audience.  What, blame the audience?  Are they the victims of poor reporting or to blame for failing to demand better?  What?  Wait!   Could not a compelling argument be offered that over the past 20 years the audiences have demanded less and worse, they have appeared to be satiated on a measly diet of incomplete news mush.

Audiences today seem to be divided in Foxes or Hedgehogs, those who find a web source and burrow down (foxes) or those who behave like hedgehogs nestling among many stories or sites picking up tidbits of information that they associativity relate into a  pastiche.

Whether that audience finds the right blend of news and facts and information seems irrelevant for they feel informed, and based on a wide array of bits of information they are as assertive as they believe themselves to be well self-informed.  But audience surveys show how poorly informed they truly are.  USC’s Annenberg School did a survey – both print and TV side by side – of the Los Angeles market and found “A composite half-hour of LA local TV news contains 8:25 of ads; 2:10 of teasers (“stay with us – there’s a story you won’t want to miss”); 3:36 of sports and weather; and 15:44 for everything else. So besides sports and weather, only about half of a half-hour of news is news. How much of that 15:44 is about events that happened in the Los Angeles media market? Local news takes up 8:17; non-local news gets 7:27″  The full document can be found as a link from there.

So what has gone wrong?  How do we dissect the road we took that has led to our own dismay and destruction as a trusted source of information and news?

TV News is an industry which became a playground for consultants invited by general managers and news directors in pursuit of dollars.  The professionals were often co-conspirators in the rush to expand audiences and achieve higher ad revenue as news became a business instead of a responsibility.

This slippery slope dates back generations.  In the 1970s consultant-inspired thinking gave life to happy talk and eyewitness news which were innovative at the time but became feeding grounds for wasted time, irrelevant comments, and ersatz displays of emotion.  In the 1980′s live trucks enabled reporters to use technology – some of which were over by the time the newscast began but by-God they had presence.  They were there LIVE and again precious air time was sacrificed for glitz.

Stories that were complex were deemed to be too difficult for TV or were said to be “too depressing” for the audience that might be watching at meal time, and the consequence is an entire generation was fed a buffet of crime and chaos.  The ‘if it bleeds it leads” style of news still predominates in  even the largest markets.

News is partially to blame for creating an audience which has been stuffed on the candy of irrelevance at the expense of substance.  A friend says television news doesn’t handle complex carbohydrates well and that’s true.  It doesn’t because anything serious or chewy is skipped over with the conviction that the audience either doesn’t care to be bothered with the facts or wouldn’t understand those complexities or the nuance.

Consultants told news managers the only things the audiences care about was weather and traffic, witness the boom in high dollar technology and promotions for super duper Doppler and accurate at all costs weather and traffic graphics that proliferate in all media markets today.

It is easier to watch weather… it is certainly easier for anchors to engage with banalities about the weather in lieu of risking showing ones true ignorance of substantial news matters.

I recently watched the NBC affiliate in San Jose take more than 30 seconds to announce and illustrate a set of 4 new stamps about cowboys on their evening news.  The fact that none of them stemmed from the bay area, the artist was a not local resident, nor was there any editorial linkage to the story that made it relevant was, in itself, irrelevant.  On any night when there is substantive news to report, the producers chose this story as more important, and it became the subsequent subject of an engaged dialogue between the anchors, as if 30 seconds wasted on the story itself wasn’t indulgent enough.

If the education system has done a poor job teaching civics it is a lesson that has not been lost on reporters who are assigned to important stories without the proper grounding.  Just before opening arguments in the 2005 Michael Jackson molestation trial in Santa Maria, California a reporter from the Los Angeles market asked me, “Which side goes first?”  They truly had no idea; clearly they had not even watched enough episodes of “Law and Order”.  It is a simple thing, and they should have known – but they didn’t – and the amount of other, missing information was daunting.  This was a person who would go on to report the trial, assumed to be some one with knowledge, and yet they were vastly out of their league reporting anything but a fender bender.  Or new stamps.

Should we be surprised that we have created a generation of idiots?  Hardly.  In entertainment this is an audience who watches programs such as “Are you smarter than a 5th grader?”  Why we set the bar so low, not even at the junior high school level, is probably because we have little conviction the adults in the audience would be competitive if the curriculum was more challenging.

News today is in an economic crisis.  Networks are closing their overseas bureaus preferring to simplify and voice over material from bases in London.  Former CBS correspondent Tom Fenton warned of the consequences of this in his book Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All.  What was bad then (2005) as overseas bureaus were closed and reporters on the ground in distant lands were fired is being replicated today by ABC News in the United States.  One cannot cover news as if it is an exercise in distance learning.  Nothing can be substituted for feet on the ground, eyes on the scene local knowledge of the people and institutions making important decisions and creating news.

The point is this — when confronted by a survey that the audience doesn’t trust its sources of news is really not that unexpected.  Distressing to professional news people – yes, it should be.  Distressing to any one who cares about an educated public, yes!  it should be too.  But is it the fault of news, per se?  Partially of course.  The blame or responsibility for this is at the feet of a society which doesn’t really seem to value its news, or any one that gives lip service to news instead of really understanding and wanting to be taxed with serious substance, instead of the pabulum that has passed as news for so long?

There is blame for many – for education systems that don’t teach the value of news and information; for individuals who shun anything but infotainment, and then participate in surveys to say they don’t trust news.

It prompts me to wonder, just who do they trust?  Who do you trust?  Comment or email… let me know what you think?

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