All Politics Is Local– Especially in News

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As the 24-hour local cable news business gets ready to celebrate its 25th anniversary on Dec. 15, many such channels are already gearing up for next year’s elections by changing the way they report the news.

That evolution is no surprise: local cable news channels have long put a premium on political coverage as a way to differentiate themselves from broadcast stations.

“These channels developed a strong position in politics at a time when local stations were getting away from covering politics,” says Elliott Wiser, corporate VP of news and local programming for Bright House Networks. “I know politics will be a big focus for us and the other channels in 2012.”

Election coverage will be particularly important for Bright House, which operates local news channels in Florida’s Tampa Bay market (where the Republican National Convention will be held next August); and Time Warner Cable, which runs the News 14 channel in Charlotte N.C. (where the Democrats will hail President Obama at their convention at Time Warner Cable Arena in September).

News 12 Networks, which has seven local cable news channels, aired 57 debates leading up to local elections last week.

“We were able to drill down and offer a level of coverage of their communities that is simply not available from other outlets in the New York area,” says Patrick Dolan, president of News 12 Networks and news director for News 12 Long Island, the first such station, launched by Cablevision in December 1986.

A number of these channels boast considerable newsgathering resources set to be deployed for election coverage. Time Warner Cable, for example, has 14 local news channels that employ about 800 people; News 12 Networks has some 500.

Staying top of mind with viewers seeking political and other news stories, however, continues to get harder and more competitive, local cable news executives admit.

“When we started, local cable news was the 24/7 instant news fix for people,” says Wayne Lynch, news director of Belo-owned NWCN, which is available in several states in the Pacific Northwest. “Now that instant news fix is in the palm of your hand, and we aren’t the only 24/7 provider out there.”

As a result, NWCN and other regional cable news channels are devoting more resources to online and mobile efforts.

Pioneering news channel News 12 made that shift early on, launching a Website in 1997 and adding a live audio feed for mobile phones in 2007, Dolan notes.

News 12 is now aggressively expanding its mobile Web efforts, which got nearly 3 million page views during August. In late October, it launched an iPhone app that includes live feed of the channels to authenticated subscribers of the cable systems— Cablevision, Time Warner Cable, Comcast and Service Electric—that carry its channels.

News 12 has also aggressively embraced social media, with more than 204,000 likes on Facebook.

“That is more than twice the number of any other local news organization in New York,” says Norm Fein, senior vice president for news development at News 12 Networks.

Cablevision’s Newsday newspaper and the News 12 networks maintain separate editorial operations, but they are working much closer together. “We are cooperating on a lot of election coverage and throwing resources into covering political issues,” Dolan says.

Sharing resources is also a major priority for the 14 local cable news operations run by Time Warner Cable, according to Bernie Han, vice president of news and local programming.

As part of that effort, the group has set up a Washington, D.C., bureau, which supplies stories of local political interest to its channels. TWC also is expanding its political programming, with the aim of having all its news channels offering a daily political show on weekdays.

“This will be the first year that we approach the coverage of the conventions as one news group,” says Han, who oversees the news operations at all of the Time Warner Cable local news channels.

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