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A Centralcasting Postmortem and a News-Share Projection:
Using Market Theory to Assess Alternative Local Television News Strategies
AEJMC Annual Convention
Radio-Television Journalism Division
August 2-6, 2006
San Francisco, CA
In the wake of decisions by two television station groups to end
centralcasting experiments, this paper employed market theory to
compare both the centralcasting and contracted newscast products with
the traditional newscast products. A total of 22 newscasts were
recorded and analyzed between 2004 and 2005 in three Southern
markets. Results showed in the 2,583 stories analyzed more
similarities than differences between the traditionally-staffed local
news operations and the operations produced with alternative staffing.
Like a postmortem, the meeting held after a newscast is over about
the positives and negatives of the news program, a similar discussion
can now be held about the much-publicized newscast strategy known as
centralcasting. Recently, officials at the Sinclair Broadcast Group
acknowledged the lack of success of their highly controversial
centralized new operation as they eliminated newscasts on all of
their WB stations and killed jobs for dozens of employees in at least
a half-dozen markets (Romano, 2006). At nearly the same time, a
Charlotte-based station group that three years ago tried to
centralize the production of the news for its Columbia, South
Carolina station nixed the idea of broadcasting from Charlotte and
inaugurated a downtown newsroom in Columbia with the South Carolina
Statehouse in the backdrop. This latter case of centralcasting by
Bahakel Communications along with the Sinclair's failed NewsCentral
experiment suggest the importance of local news being really
local. But, a closer analysis of the content of these shows
suggested even more about the practice of local television journalism.
In several markets, Sinclair Broadcast Group has replaced its
centralcasts with newscasts that are "contracted out" in so-called
"news share" agreements where a competing station produces its local
news. According to recent industry reports, such partnerships allow
a station to maintain a news "presence" and reap the advertising
revenue without shouldering the costs of staffing, equipment and
production (Romano, 2006). While Sinclair has converted its
centralcasts to contracted newscasts in its Birmingham, Pittsburgh
and Las Vegas markets, it's already using contracted newscasts on its
station in Richmond, Virginia. Other station groups have been using
news-share agreements for years.
Rather than simply repeating the "I told you so" comments of those
naysayers of centralcasting or the criticisms of those wary of lack
of independent voices producing local news, this paper employed
market theory to compare both the centralcasting and contracted
newscast products with the traditional newscast products. Even before
the most recent announcements signaling the "death" of
centralcasting, there were opportunities to examine whether true
differences lie between the newscasts produced with alternative
strategies( i.e. centralcasting and news-share agreements) and news
programs where a traditional, independent staff of local reporters
and editors was used.
In its evaluation of these local news products, this study
centered on attributes other than ratings, which speak more to the
public interest value of the program. Among them are the local news
and information contained in the program, the degree to which the
information is unique among local news offerings in the market and
the potential role the information might play in helping consumers be
wise spenders and more informed citizens. Grounded in market theory,
these attributes have been applied more to the stations not
practicing what is known as market-driven journalism, where news
departments compete with each other to offer the least expensive mix
of news content. The ultimate question that this study sought to
answer is whether there was a relationship between the less expensive
alternative news product and public interest value of the product.
Because they were a relatively new way of doing local news, these
alternative news strategies have yet to receive much scholarly
attention. Rare as they were, the centralcasts aired in at least 13
markets across the U.S. while the number of television stations
contracting with other stations in their market to produce a news
program for them continues to grow. This study focused on three
southern markets where at least one station employed an alternative
strategy. In one of the markets, TWO stations employed such
alternative strategies as one aired a centralcast while the news at a
competing station was produced by another station in the market.
Stations using the centralcasting alternative news staffing
strategy were heavily dependent on new technologies to produce their
programming. Therefore, literature examining the influence of new
technology on local news is relevant to this investigation. Likewise
are research articles and studies on the quality of local news
content and the level of consonance (or sameness) in local
television. Thus the literature review is organized around these
three themes: new technology, news quality, and consonance.
Two academic studies focused on the promises of television
news technology for creating more differentiation in news product. A
study of more than 1,335 stories from nine Texas television stations
found consonance, or duplication of stories, was greater in stories
generated from electronic news gathering (ENG) and network satellite
news gathering (SNG) (Davie & Lee, 1993). In other words, the
satellite or live truck (ENG) technologies encouraged stations to do
what other stations were doing. Network SNG stories contributed
substantially more to consonance than diversity of news stories
(Davie & Lee, 1993).
Another study focused on the impact of "imported news" via satellite
news feeds and other forms of what McManus called "passive" means of
discovery. An analysis of 117 newscasts in 24 markets found the
largest markets devoted a higher percentage of their news hole to
sensational and human interest news while smaller markets imported
(via the satellite feed technology) a greater proportion of their
sensational news than large markets (Carroll & Tuggle, 1997). Even
as these academic studies examined the effects of technological
capabilities on television newscast content, the trade and popular
press continue to report on new ways technology is changing the way
local stations do news.
Among those mentioned in these reports, Maryland-based Sinclair
Broadcast Group whose centralcast model was at one time dubbed the
"poster child for the benefits of I.T.-based news production on the
station group level." With the new technology, Sinclair stations
gathered news video and send it back to a centralized facility via a
Wide Area Network (WAN) where it was edited and packaged and sent
back to the stations as finished pieces for their newscast. Weather
segments were also produced at the centralized facility and sent via
the WAN. Use of the centralized facility to produce what amounts to
60 percent of news material for its local stations, Sinclair cut its
news production costs in half (Cashing In On the News, 2003;
Kerschbaumer, 2003b). As the practice of automating on-air operation
through a "hub," where a small pool of employees controls several
stations at a single location (Luff, 2003), centralcasting was really
not new. It was just that up until late 2002, the hub-based
content-sharing consortiums had not included the local news
operation. A year later, at least a half-dozen television stations
around the country were using the new technology for its
newscasts. In an era of shrinking post-9/11 advertising revenue, a
slowing economy and increased program acquisition costs, local
television stations or station groups turned to centralcasting to
help reduce labor expenses (Kerschbaumer, 2003a; Luff, 2003).
One of the most difficult concepts in broadcast news research
to operationalize is newscast quality. The assumption, of course, is
that quality is synonymous with serving the "public service" needs of
a community. One of the first attempts of this involved the coding of
content from network owned-and-operated affiliates in the nation's
largest market, New York City. News stories were coded as hard news,
feature stories and human interest. The study found all the stations
emphasized news that was violent, stories that were humorous and ones
that were emotional (Dominick, Wurtzel, & Lometti, 1975). Another
study of San Diego local newscasts showed stations spent an average
of 25 percent of time on "issues" and 13 percent of their time on
"unexpected events" and 12 percent of time on "entertainment"
(Wulfemeyer, 1982). A study of local news on network-affiliated
stations in Houston showed 46 percent of the time was devoted to
sensational news coverage while three-quarters of newscast time
involved stories that provided background and consequences of events,
issues or problems (Hofstetter & Dozier, 1986). These studies
succeeded in empirically examining newscast quality in terms of
More recently, the Columbia University Graduate School of
Journalism's Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) conducted a
five-year study that used empirical data to measure the quality of
local TV news, which was then compared with ratings (Rosenstiel,
Gottlieb, & Brady, 1999b). Among their measure of quality of, as
they termed it, "what is a good newscast" were topic range, story
focus, enterprise level, number of sources, viewpoints, source
expertise and local relevance. Based on a ranking of quality of 59
stations in 19 cities, the study found that while serious, proactive
journalism is less common in local news, enterprise reporting was
still effective in building viewer loyalty and ratings. The
top-scoring station in the Evansville, Indiana market did more
stories on local schools, the environment, and business than its
competitors and saw its ratings rise. Based on the analysis of 8,000
stories from 590 newscasts, the PEJ study was the largest
investigation of local news ever (Rosenstiel, Gottlieb, & Brady, 1999a).
As a sidebar to the PEJ study, which measured the most popular time
slot in 19 markets, another article explained local news can be
different depending on whether it airs in the early evening or the
late evening. News directors who participated in the study objected
to their most popular newscast, which was the late news in many
markets being judged for quality. That is because shorter stories,
breaking news, and stories chosen because of their video appeal are
more likely to appear in those newscasts, thus making them of lower
quality than shows where more in-depth pieces aired (Carr, 1999). An
analysis of both six and 11 p.m. newscasts in the Boston and New York
City markets proved inconclusive as the market neither rewarded nor
punished a different style (lower or higher quality) of late news
A third take-away element of research from the PEJ study, which also
included a survey of television stations' policies, pressures and
profit margin, was that staff size is the most important ingredient
in winning viewers (Just, 1999). Out of the 46 news directors who
returned the PEJ survey, nearly three quarters had added broadcast
hours in the three years prior to the 1999 study, thus putting a
greater strain on budgets. While it was not clear whether those
added hours were all newscasts, 30 percent of the news managers
indicated they required reporters to produce more than one story per
day (Just, 1999). According to those 46 managers, the lack of
staffing was cited as the biggest barrier to quality news (Just, 1999).
The Project for Excellence in Journalism's ground-breaking 1999
study has been updated in a chapter of the recently released "State
of the News Media: 2006." The component of this report that focused
on local broadcast journalism included a content analysis of 24
newscasts from 8 stations in three cities (Houston, Milwaukee, and
Bend, Oregon) on May 11, 2005 showed roughly half of the newshole not
devoted to weather, traffic and sports was devoted to crime and
accidents. Stories about local institutions, infrastructure,
government and education were only short "anchor reads" in the middle
of the newscasts (Hitlin et al., 2006).
Another fairly recent survey of news directors by RTNDA shows
television news employment at its second highest level ever (Papper,
2004). At the same time, while television news staffing was just
short of its all-time high, the amount of television news rose to its
highest level ever, 3.7 hours per weekday. The total number of
stations running news rose from 751 in 2003 to 759 last year (Papper, 2004)
Comprising a third area of local television news research
relevant for this paper are those studies focused on consonance, or
the tendency of news outlets to exhibit uniformity in reporting
(Noelle-Neumann & Mathes, 1987). An analysis of stories from three
Midwestern markets found that one of every two local stories
broadcast was duplicated in each market and more than half of the
local news time was consumed by duplicated stories (Atwater, 1986).
Likewise, the same study mentioned earlier for its findings on ENG
and SNG technologies also found duplication of local stories in the
Texas markets to be about 50 percent (Davie & Lee, 1993). Stories
tended to have a higher degree of duplication depending on upon their
location and technical source Stations in the largest of the three
markets had the highest percentage of unique news items (Davie & Lee,
1993). While not focused on television news specifically, a study of
radio programs found duplication of program content is more likely to
occur the fewer the stations in a market and the smaller the
disparity between the audience shares of competing stations (Steiner,
1952). A later study found new television entrants into a market
will tend to duplicate their incumbent rivals' programming so long as
the market share they can command will exceed what they could obtain
with a new program type (Levin, 1971).
The previous research in these areas suggests several things
to look for in analyzing news products of alternative and traditional
news staffing. If consonance, or duplication of stories, was found
to be greater in stories generated from electronic news gathering
(ENG) and network satellite news gathering (SNG) (Davie & Lee, 1993),
one would expect consonance to be higher in national news or
international news than local news (H1). Since news directors cited
the lack of staffing as the biggest barrier to quality news (Just,
1999) and news quality is characterized by such things as topic range
and local relevance (Rosenstiel et al., 1999a), it is reasonable to
expect stories from the fully-staffed traditional news operations to
cover a wider range of news topics than the products produced by
staffs of the centralcasts that use a skeleton staff (H2). And, if
earlier research found new television entrants tended to duplicate
their incumbent rivals' programming (Levin, 1971), the newer news
programs developed through alternative staffing strategies would most
likely duplicate newscast structure and strategies of traditional
local news programs (H3). While the literature suggests three
expectations one would have of the alternative news programs, market
theory allows one to go even further in examining the market and
market positions of these newer news products.
To apply market theory as McManus (1994) has in his
ground-breaking work, Market-Driven Journalism, one must place market
theory on the opposite end of a spectrum where journalism theory and
market theory are polar extremes. News operations operating under
purely market theory treat news like any other commodity used to
generate profits. On the other hand, those operating under purely
journalism theory treat news as a means through which an organization
serves the public interest. Money is no object In journalism theory,
while minimizing expense is a major objective in market
theory. Underpinning the market theory is a market structure that
economists have termed oligopolistic competition, where there are a
few major competitors and high barriers to entry.
McManus (1994) suggested one of the solutions to market-driven
journalism was the notion of change in the public demand for market
journalism through consumer education. Along those lines, he offered
a survey for consumers to rate newscast "nutrition." While not fully
giving an operational or conceptual definition of newscast nutrition,
McManus does state the primary purpose of news is to explain how
one's environment is working so that a person can make good
decisions, particularly civic decisions. Thus, a more nutritious
newscast would aid viewers in fulfilling this purpose. A less
nutritious program would be less helpful or not helpful at all in
fulfilling this purpose.
High quality news is generally associated with nutrition while lack
of quality is associated with malnutrition. One may extend this
notion to the use of national and international news via technologies
such as satellite news feed or satellite news gatherings. In
addition to consonance, which has already been described in the
literature, with these broader ideas in mind, McManus' ideas can be
examined by seeing the news product through at least three dimensions
of evaluation: level of discovery, audience appeal, level of
consonance with other stations and volume of local news.
Level of News Story Discovery
Market Theory says if a station seeks to maximize profit, the
newsroom will be organized to allocate greater resources through a
more passive means of discovery than minimally active or highly
active discovery. If a station compromises between market and
journalistic norm (or journalism theory), the outcome should be
roughly equal time to all categories of discovery or more airtime in
the middle category than either of the others. Since the alternative
newscast strategies were used chiefly to maximize profit, stations
using these strategies would likely have a higher percentage of
stories developed through passive means of discovery than
fully-staffed news operations (H4).
There are two dimensions of appeal of news content. People
watch the news for informational reasons—to learn who won an
election, the level of danger in certain parts of town and for
reasons of entertainment or emotional reward. The former McManus
calls orientation or information that is close to home, affects one's
job, neighborhood or child's school. Profit-minded stations would be
expected to emphasize stories that are high in entertainment, but low
in orientation. On the other hand, stations seeking to maximize
public understanding would choose stories that high in orientation
and entertainment. Assuming stories about state and local politics
or government are high in orientation and low in entertainment, one
would expect the traditionally-staffed stations that are less
concerned about maximized profits than covering stories in a
community to cover more stories related to state and local politics
or government (H5).
Volume of Local News
While the dimensions of appeal deal more with what topics are most
of value to those producing news products, the way stations use their
local news time is also reflective of the station's
values. According to McManus, if airtime devoted to local news is
considered the most important use of that time, a rough measure of
that commitment would be the proportion of time devoted to local
news. In other words, the volume of locally originated content speaks
to how a station apportions its human resources in order to generate
a news product. Based on these ideas, the traditional news stations
would be expected to have a higher volume of local news than the news
programs generated by the alternative staffing strategies (H6)
The literature review and the market theory suggest a total of
six hypotheses described above. Three hypotheses come from previous
studies while three were formed based on the McManus' market theory
of news. Here again are those hypotheses that were tested in this study:
H1: Consonance will be higher in national news or
international news than local
H2: Stories from the fully-staffed traditional news operations cover
a wider range of news topics than the products produced by staffs of
H3: Newer news programs developed through alternative staffing
strategies would most likely duplicate newscast structure and
strategies of traditional local news programs.
H4: Stations using alternative staffing strategies would likely have
a higher percentage of stories developed through passive means of
discovery than fully-staffed news operations.
H5: Traditionally-staffed stations that are less concerned about
maximized profits than covering stories in a community to cover more
stories related to state and local politics or government.
H6: Traditional news stations would be expected to have a higher
volume of local news than the news programs generated by the
alternative staffing strategies.
Traditional and Alternative Local News In Three Markets
Traditionally local news has been the major element of a
broadcast station's content that establishes a sense of localism with
both audiences and advertisers (Albarran, 2002). Not only do the
people in the audience identify with the local news personalities,
but those same people will identify with a definable brand, such as
"Coverage You Can Count On" or "Eyewitness News." At the same time,
as a form of local programming, news carries with it four main
liabilities: labor intensity, cost intensity, advertising
considerations, and promotion (Eastman & Ferguson, 2002).
In the nation's 83rd largest designated market area (DMA), two
Columbia, South Carolina stations have tried to off-set two of those
liabilities by using alternative newscast strategies. In 1996,
Raycom Media reached an agreement with Liberty Broadcasting, the
owner of NBC affiliate, WIS-TV, to produce a half-hour newscast for
Raycom's FOX affiliate, WACH-TV. Eight years later even as many FOX
affiliates have hired their own small news staffs, "WACH FOX News at
10" is still produced by WIS-TV and claims to be among the
highest-rated newscasts of all FOX affiliates in the country. Ten
years after reaching their original agreement, Raycom Media in
February 2006 completed the purchase of Liberty Broadcasting
stations, which would mean it now owns both WOLO and WIS. Since the
combination of two stations would not permitted under the FCC's
duopoly rule, Raycom has announced it plans to sell
WACH-TV. Meanwhile, instead of abandoning local news for its ABC
affiliate in Columbia, WOLO-TV, Charlotte-based Bahakel
Communications in 2002 moved its technical operation from an aging
analog facility with a digital transmitter in Columbia to new digital
studios (and transmitter) in Charlotte, which is 90 miles from
Columbia. In Charlotte, WOLO shares news anchors and technical staff
with WCCB, while a skeleton WOLO news team remains in
Columbia. Videotapes were transmitted to Charlotte via fiber optic
technology and one reporter continues to do live reports in each
newscast from the Columbia newsroom. The Columbia audience is said
to have been less than enthusiastic with the change as newscast
ratings in the November 2002 "sweeps" declined (Nye, 2002). This is
perhaps what prompted Bahakel in January 2006 to re-brand itself "ABC
Columbia" and re-launch its newscast from a downtown Columbia studio
with the South Carolina State Capitol in the background. The
traditional news stations are WIS-TV, the perennial market leader and
WLTX, a Gannett-owned CBS affiliate. It is interesting to note that
WACH FOX's contracted newscast predates the rather recent news
investment and development at WLTX making the 10pm show older than
some of the news programs at traditional news station, WLTX.
One of the stations featured in the March 2005 edition of RTNDA
Communicator as a new startup was WBMA-TV in Birmingham, AL, the
nation's 40th largest market. Because it actually broadcasts on
three frequencies in nearby Tuscaloosa, Ala (WCFT-TV40), and
Anniston, Ala (WJSU-TV33), the station was branded "ABC 33/40." It
is one of four traditional news operations. The others are WVTM-TV,
an NBC owned-and-operated station and WIAT-TV, a Media General-owned
CBS affiliate. WBRC-TV underwent an affiliation switch from ABC to
FOX in 1995 (creating the room for ABC 33/40). Prior to the
affiliation switch, WBRC-TV was one of the top ABC affiliates in the
country. Since the big switch on September 1, 1996, WBRC had
maintained its prominence as the leader in TV news in the 39th
largest market. Unlike many stations that switched newscasts
schedules, WBRC chose to continue in the late news race at 10 p.m.
while adding a half-hour primetime newscast to fit the FOX television
network schedule. For first time since the affiliation switch, WBRC
fell to second place behind WBMA in both November 2004 (Cavender,
2005) and most recently in the November 2005 sweeps periods. In
September 2003 when WTTO-TV officials announced the launch of "WB21
News at Nine," they said they had a goal of not only making money,
but also serving the community (Nicholson, 2003). Owned by Sinclair
Broadcast Group, WTTO-TV was one of the 12 stations utilizing the
centralcasting alternative newscast strategy. Two years later in
August 2005, Sinclair reduced the one-hour centralcast to a 30-minute
format. Six weeks later, it reached an agreement with the Media
General for the CBS affiliate WIAT-TV to produce WTTO's half-hour
"WB21 News at Nine." Some 20 employees of the centralcast were left
to find other jobs (Carlton, 2005).
For more than 10 years, Richmond, Va. the nation's 60th largest
designated market area has been dominated by Jefferson-Pilot-owned
NBC affiliated, WWBT-TV. Less than five years ago, WWBT-TV was
contracted by Sinclair Broadcast Group to produce an hour-long 10pm
news, "FOX 35 News at Ten" to fill the 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. time
slot. Like Columbia, FOX 35 News at 10 p.m. is the only primetime
news in the market. Besides the FOX-contracted newscast, there are
traditional newscasts on the CBS affiliate, WTVR-TV, which is owned
by Raycom Media and WRIC-TV, a Young Broadcasting-owned ABC affiliate.
The Columbia, Richmond, and Birmingham markets are ideal for this
study design because they illustrate three different scenarios where
alternative newscasts are available to consumers. In Richmond, one
contracted newscast airs nightly while in Birmingham one centralcast
has recently become a contracted newscast. In Columbia, both a
centralcast and a contracted newscast were (during the time of these
data were collected) available to viewers.
While much of the previous research using television newscasts have
utilized purposive samples such as consecutive-unit sampling (Carroll
& Tuggle, 1997; Carroll et al., 1997; Davie & Lee, 1993), the focus
is often on coverage of types of stories or events that necessitated
that type of reporting. In this study of a relatively new phenomenon
of centralcasting and contracted newscasts, giving as many days of
the week representation in the sample was thought to provide a
broader view of the new trend or strategy. A type of stratified
sample, the constructed week sample, has been found to adequately
predict the population mean in a newspaper sample (Riffe, Aust, &
Lacy, 1993). It is considered appropriate, in particular, for
populations where newsholes vary somewhat by the day of the
week. While studies show that two constructed weeks were more
effective than one (Riffe et al., 1993), this study was restricted by
resources from recording 10 days of newscasts. The logistics of
gaining complete recordings in three markets on three days hindered a
full execution of the constructed week sample.
The result is a convenience sample of nine days of recordings in the
Birmingham, five days of Columbia, and eight days of recordings in
the Richmond, Va. market. Based on a decision beforehand among those
recording newscasts simultaneous recordings were made in Birmingham
and Columbia on April 29, May 7, May 25 and June 2 of 2004. Except
for June 2, These days were randomly selected from four weeks of what
are traditionally known as "sweeps" periods when audiences are
measured with diaries and demographic data from those audiences are
used to set advertising rates. June 2 was arbitrarily selected as a
non-sweeps day for the sake of comparison. A fifth day of recordings
was made in Birmingham on May 5 (during sweeps) and in Columbia on
May 12 (during sweeps). All stations' primetime and late evening
newscasts were recorded. After Sinclair Broadcast Group converted
its Birmingham centralcast to a contracted newscast prepared by WIAT
in October 2005, the first four days of the new news program were
also recorded on October 3-6, 2005. Primetime and late evening
newscasts were also recorded in Richmond, Va., on March 31, April1,
and April 2 of 2004 and December 23, December 26-29 of 2005. All
Richmond recordings were done during non-sweeps periods.
All newscasts were analyzed by the author for objective categories
where there was a true code. In other words, the few codes used were
either right or wrong. Stories were timed and assigned a slug as
well as given a code number. Notation was also made of the story
presentation format. In an effort to provide a precise location of
the story and to examine the extent to which stations went to gather
news and define "local," a six-category scheme used previously by
Bernstein & Lacy (1992) in their study on how local TV news caters to
the marketplace of ideas, was employed. Stories were either coded as
occurring within the "Central City of Area Dominant Influence (ADI)"
or "Central County of ADI" Stories not contained in those two
categories were coded as either "ADI outside Central County,"
"State," "Regional," "National" or "International." Definitions of
counties in the Area of Dominant Influence were taken from the
2002-2003 Broadcasting and Cable Yearbook. Stories from any of the
border states to the state in which the news content was analyzed
were coded as "regional."
A consonant story was defined as any item aired on two or more
newscasts at a particular time during the sample period (Davie & Lee,
1993). Stories that were not consonant were assumed to be coded as
unique. In other words, if fewer than two stations aired the story,
it was considered unique to that station, a measure of a station's
independence from norms as exhibited by competitors. Additionally, a
station's consonance was defined as the ratio of duplicated stories
to the total number of stories aired by the station (Atwater, 1986).
In the second round of coding, two coders, one a former local
broadcast news producer and the other a journalism graduate student
coded all stories for the TYPE OF NEWS. Stories were either breaking
news, soft news or situational stories. A situational story focused
on circumstances that were part of an on-going process or policy
consideration. If underlying implications, policy debate,
examination of issues, controversy over how to resolve the thing or
history were made a part of the report, it would be
situational. Whereas breaking news dealt with the facts of the
moment, a situational story provided background and
context. Secondly, stories were coded for the TYPE OF EVENT as
either spontaneous, pre-arranged, anticipated or enterprise.
Spontaneous stories came with virtually no notice Pre-arranged
stories included Press conferences, opening nights, ceremonial
appearances or other (pseudo) events planned with news media coverage
in mind Anticipated events were those that the news organization
may schedule but CANNOT control such as court hearings, trial
decisions and legislative action. Finally, enterprise stories
resulted from initiative in identifying topics that otherwise would
not be included in the newscast. Stories done because the news
organization judges the items to be important or newsworthy, not
because news people were reacting to ongoing events.
This study employed McManus' "nutrition" rating for 12 NEWS TOPICS.
1. Crime, police investigation or court action
2. Accident Fire or disaster
3. Heart-warming event or people's emotion
4. Unusual, Unexpected or Ironic
5. Amusing or Entertaining
6. Lives of Rich, Famous or Notorious
7. How Schools Performed
8. Business/Economic Conditions or Trends
9. Social Trends
10. State and local politics or government
11. "How to" do something practical
12. Wise purchasing
13. OTHER topics
Contained within the 22 newscasts that were recorded and
analyzed between 2004 and 2005 were 2,583 news stories. As Table 1
shows, of those 2,583 stories, 985 or 38.2 percent were national and
international stories while slightly more than half of the stories
(53.7 percent) were either local or state and 43 stories were from
states that bordered the state in which the television was located
(regional). Of the local stories, the largest number of stories,
505, in the overall sample was those from the central city. The next
largest number was stories from the area of dominant influence
(ADI). Finally, there were almost as many stories in the central
county as in the area of dominant influence (Table 1).
While the average length of the news stories was 44 seconds,
the most frequently-occurring format was voiceover, which made up
nearly half of the sample (46.8 percent). As Table 2 shows,
one-fifth of the stories or 20.8 percent, were presented with sound
bites (vosots). Only about 17 percent of the stories were full-blown,
self-contained news packages or live reports with packages included.
The data in this sample provide some support for Hypothesis 1
in that the level of consonance is higher for national stories (31.5
percent of all stories) compared to stories in the central city (x2=
131.17, p< .001). This was not the case, however, for international
news stories, which only made up 3.8 percent of consonant
stories. It was also not the case when the definition of "local
news" is expanded to include stories in the central county and
ADI. When those stories are added, the consonance level is much
higher for local news than national news.
In terms of the news topics covered, the alternative staffing
strategies yielded about the same percentage of stories (27.8
percent) on crime, police investigations or court actions as the
traditional newscasts (30 percent). Both staffing strategies also had
about the same percentage of stories on state and local politics or
government, 12 percent. These were the two highest categories of
news story nutrition. At the same time, there was a statistically
significant relationship between level of consonance and story topic
(x2= 23.73, p <.05). So while the range of topics was different, the
differences on the most important topics (i.e. the nutrition vs.
mal-nutrition) was non-existent. This suggests a lack of support for
the second hypothesis.
The newer centralcasts and contracted newscasts were formatted
in similar fashion to the traditional newscasts. The contracted
newscasts had weather segments at roughly the same point in the news
program and emphasis local, breaking news in the first
segments. National news wrap-ups were presented in later segments of
the program. These findings provide support for Hypothesis 3.
There was also no support for Hypothesis 4, which suggested
stations with alternative news staffing would pursue stories
developed through passive means of discovery. The data show both
operations – those with alternative staffing and traditional
newscasts had the same 34 percent of stories from spontaneous events
and 34 percent of stories from anticipated events. Likewise, as
mentioned earlier, the alternative staffing strategies showed no less
commitment than traditionally-staffed operations to stories related
to state and local politics or government. Thus the fifth hypothesis
was also not supported.
When it comes to the volume of local news (Hypothesis 6), the
news programs produced with traditional news station staffing did
have a significantly higher number of stories from either the central
city, central county of the ADI. While only one-third (33.7
percent) of stories on the alternative newscast were from these
areas, 44.4 percent of the stories on the traditional newscasts were
local. This statistically-significant difference (x2= 52.67, p
<.01) provides support for Hypothesis 6. On the flip-side, 43.6
percent of the stories from the alternative newscasts were national
stories while only 35.5 of the stories from traditional news staffs
When one moves beyond the ratings to look at these alternative
newscasts, the data here suggest the differences between them and the
traditional newscasts are minimal. The analysis of these shows in
the types of stories, the degree of repetition (i.e. consonance)
between the other stations in story selection is greatest in national
news. This is consistent with previous research on the level of
satellite-generated news content in a news program. The fact that
only two hypotheses (H3 and H6) were supported suggests that market
theory may not be as helpful in examining these alternative
strategies such as centralcasting and contracted newscasts.
As far as the centralcasts are concerned, imitation may be the
name of the game as these newscasts produced from a centralized
facility provide a similarly-formatted program. On the other hand,
when it comes to contracted newscasts, because the content is
produced by a traditionally-staffed operation, it is logical that one
might not see a dramatically different news-coverage strategy. The
"news share" or partnership agreements reached between station owners
are, in fact, developed for the purpose of taking advantage of the
fully-staffed traditional news operation.
What is, perhaps, most valuable in this study is what it says
about local broadcast news, in general. While managers employing
these alternative staffing strategies were apparently successful in
producing a newscast that was very much like the
traditionally-staffed newscast products, this does not bode well for
those advocating public interest goals in local news. Broadcasters
operate based on the assumption that they're operating in the public
interest. Is the public's interest served by having two newscasts
providing virtually the same product? Or, is it primarily the
public interest to have access to the information about products that
are advertised on these news programs? In the latter case, both the
public and the station owner would reap benefits.
On the other hand, the kind of journalism that McManus (1994)
was referring to that explained how one's environment is working so
he or she can make good decisions, particularly civic decisions, is
not only harder to find, but no more frequent today in the
traditionally-staffed local newsrooms than in these alternative
arrangements. The results in this study are consistent with the data
in the most recent "State of the News Media 2006" report that found a
heavy emphasis on crime and accidents (Hitlin et al., 2006). Such
stories, McManus (1994) rated as low in nutrition more than a decade ago.
What's perhaps most troubling is as the number of news share
agreements increase with managers deciding to let their competitors
make the local news programming for them, if those managers are not
providing much of the public information or the stories that promote
civic knowledge that McManus rated as nutritious, where might
citizens get that information? The line between the
traditionally-staffed news operations and these alternative
arrangements has apparently become very thin. It is no wonder
companies operating from a "market-driven" journalism perspective
have turned to news share agreements as a viable alternative to the
costs of staffing, equipment and production.
While some might celebrate the end of centralcasting as a
victory in their ongoing argument that local news requires people to
be in their local communities, the data from this study would suggest
a serious question has to be asked about what these stations that are
local are really doing? If the quality of they're producing in terms
of local information that citizens need (beyond weather and sports)
is low, do these operations really make that much of difference?
This postmortem is only a first step in examining alternative
newscast strategies. Rather than focusing on centralcasting, future
research should address what is lost in a market where news share
agreements are in operation and the number of stations doing local
news decreases. This is especially important as stations form
duopolies where one company is allowed to own two stations and one
staff produces news programming for both outlets. The true
consequences of both news share agreements and duopolies on the
number of "local voices" has yet to be explored. Perhaps that is the
focus for the next research study in this area.
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Table 1 Stories Broadcast By Geographic Location
Central City of ADI
Central County of ADI
ADI Outside Central County
Regional (Border States)
Table 2 Stories Broadcast By Story Format
sound-on-tape with vo/sot only
Straight Live (no tape)
1 It is worth noting that besides traditional journalism values (i.e.
sources, balance, background), news broadcast quality has also been
examined in terms of viewer needs and desires (Lind, 1995) and level
of sensationalism in presentation of content and form (Grabe, Zhou, &