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Home > Reading Room > Death of a Newscast?

SPJ Reading Room

Death of a Newscast?

By Debora H. Wenger
Associate professor, School of Mass Communications, Virginia Commonwealth University

The headline of a Jan. 5 Gallup poll release reads, “Local TV Is No. 1 Source of News for Americans.”

In its annual Lifestyle survey, conducted Dec. 11-14, Gallup found that 55 percent of people get their news from local television stations every day. That number is consistent with results from the first time Gallup measured this in 1995. In contrast 44 percent get their news from newspapers every day and 22 percent get theirs from the Internet.

‘All of our efforts are directed at a shrinking universe; news organizations cannot succeed if they’re devoting all their efforts here.’


However, not everyone is sure this is cause for local television news executives to rejoice. Terry Heaton is a senior vice president for Audience Research & Development, a Texas-based media-consulting firm. He points out that local news viewing has not grown one bit since 1995, despite all the efforts of broadcast journalists to bring in more viewers.

“It’s pretty clear, news on the Internet is going up; every other medium is not,” Heaton said.

In terms of Internet news consumption, the Gallup survey did show an increase of two percentage points from 2004 to 2006, but that’s a slow down in the growth rate. Between 2002 and 2004, the number of daily Internet news consumers increased by 5 percent.

Heaton believes the real story lies in the demographic breakdown of the survey. Only 46 percent of people aged 18-49 are getting their news daily from local newscasts; 28 percent of those in this age group are getting their daily news on the Internet.

Heaton says those numbers are a signal that the traditional local newscast will eventually go away, that the passive mass audience is disappearing.

“Overall, the amount of local news people are viewing has gone down about one-third in the past 10 years. All of our efforts are directed at a shrinking universe; news organizations cannot succeed if they’re devoting all their efforts here,” Heaton said.

Instead, Heaton says what many of us call “local news stations” need to redefine themselves as local media companies, with an eye firmly on the Internet and the future.

“It’s a land grab right now, especially at the local level. The money right now is in the aggregation world, rather than in the role of content creator.”

What Heaton is suggesting is that local news organizations beat companies such as Google at their own game. He’s pushing his clients to find opportunities to be a primary source of relevant local content in certain categories — using some of what the news organization has produced itself and aggregating some of what others have produced.

Heaton used the example of a realtor hired to report on the local market whose stories could be part of an advertising-supported online real estate site.

But Heaton admits that local television stations are still making big money with their newscasts, and they can’t afford to stop producing broadcasts while they look for online solutions. So, how do educators prepare student journalists for both the jobs that are out there now and the jobs that may be created in the future?

“Stop separating print and broadcast journalism. Professional journalism is multimedia journalism,” Heaton said.

Heaton points to what washingtonpost.com is doing with its video journalists and what Gannett is doing with mobile journalists.

“It’s the idea of the mobile journalist equipped with everything you need to do multimedia news,” said Heaton. “The industry specialist is going away and the versatile generalist will command the big salaries down the road.”

Heaton said schools could help students understand multimedia by teaching PhotoShop, HTML and PowerPoint.

“PowerPoint can do a lot more than people give it credit for. It can be used to help teach students many of the basics they’ll need to work on the Web,” said Heaton.

Heaton even joked that instructors could create a Web class based on MySpace.

“Working in MySpace, you could teach students all about cascading style sheets. You could have them create a MySpace page and customize it. In the process they’re learning how the Web works,” Heaton said.

So, what’s the bottom line for Heaton?

“You cannot make the assumption that the future holds a broadcast audience.”

Related links
Gallup Poll Results
Terry Heaton’s Blog
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