Local News Escapes the Ax

One year ago, Mission Broadcasting’s WYOU Wilkes- Barre/Scranton announced that it was scrapping local news. With the nation—and local television in general—mired in a crippling recession, many industry insiders thought the CBS affi liate would be the first of many low-rated news outfi ts to shutter their newsrooms (see WYOU's Disbanded News Operation May Be the First of Many ).

But a year later, that’s hardly been the case. If anything, with network-affiliate relations becoming increasingly creaky, syndication giants like Oprah Winfrey preparing their exit from broadcast TV, and a blockbuster political season just around the corner, local news is looking more robust than it has in years.

Instead of disbanding news, numerous stations are taking significant strides to be 24/7 news outlets across all means of digital devices. “Local news plays on all platforms, and it’s repurposeable,” says Frank N. Magid Senior VP Bill Hague. “And if the networks come up with a different model, local programming is all you’ve got.”

While just about every station in America is featuring a slimmer, cheaper newsroom than it did a few years ago, several industry insiders were unable to name one that has entirely scrapped news since WYOU did so last spring. One dramatic news reduction did occur at KOHD Bend, Ore., which announced last month that it was replacing its newscasts with shorter news “updates” and cutting 14 newsroom staffers. KOHD, which Chambers Communications launched as a fully digital ABC affiliate in 2007, features multiple quick morning and evening updates, along with a 10-minute mini-newscast at 11 p.m. that’s produced by the five remaining newsroom personnel.

Viewers in DMA No. 189 have made their dissatisfaction known. “The new format of short break-ins is not working,” posted “mathus7” on KOHD.com. “You had an excellent and talented team. You still have key players. Please try to come back to at least a half-hour.”

General Manager Jerry Upham says KOHD has lost very few advertisers in the overhaul. He believes viewers understand the decision in light of the particularly rough economic spell all Bend residents have experienced. “There’s not as much news as they might like to see,” he points out. “Nevertheless, they’re glad to see we’re still doing some news.”

The past few years’ dismal advertising picture has resulted in all sorts of station content pools—six Denver stations, for example, are involved in a content share, and two are set to join the pair that’s already sharing a helicopter. News outsourcing agreements, such as Nexstar’s deal to manage the Four Points stations and Gray TV’s plans to run seven Young Broadcasting outlets, are also increasing in popularity.

While the recession claimed countless anchors, reporters and producers, some industry watchers are surprised it did not swallow up entire newsrooms. “I expected a real wave to sweep through the business, and I just haven’t seen it,” says RTDNA Chairman Stacey Woelfel. “Stations that were teetering on the edge appear to have said, if we can make it through this year, we’ll have made it through the worst.”

And station executives are now licking their chops at the prospects of the midterm election season, as health-care reform and other divisive issues have turned numerous high-profi le elected seats into jump balls. Several stations are adding local news both to strengthen their connection with viewers and create more inventory for free-spending politicians.

Hearst’s WESH Orlando debuted a 4:30 a.m. news last week. Media General’s WCMH Columbus kicks off the Sunday political show The Spectrum on April 11, and Hearst’s KITV Honolulu, which extended its 10 p.m. news to an hour in November, adds a 6 p.m. Saturday newscast on May 1. KITV President/General Manager Michael Rosenberg says Hawaii’s tsunami scare, which occurred on Saturday, Feb. 27, was a reminder that breaking news doesn’t take weekends off.

And the extra avails should pay off come election season. “News is the most salable thing in this and other markets,” Rosenberg says.

While a year has passed since Mission Broadcasting scrapped WYOU’s news (Nexstar produces news for several Mission stations and fi gured into the decision, too), Executive VP/COO Dennis Thatcher remains profoundly saddened by the decision—especially with the election season beckoning and big-ticket events like the Super Bowl, the Olympics and March Madness posting crackerjack ratings. He says there’s no talk of killing news at the other Mission stations, and would love to somehow, someday get news back on at WYOU.

“I hate to give up on anything,” Thatcher says. “I hate to ever say uncle.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.