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Where national is a local story

In Washington, D.C., where every other citizen seems to be either a politician or a journalist, the biggest story last week was the coaching change at the Redskins. Local stations carried live not only the new coach's press conference but also the exiting one's farewell.

It's a tough balance in a unique market. "What's local news, what's national, what's international—the line is clear in other cities. Here, it's much more blurred," observes Linda Sullivan, general manager of NBC-owned market leader WRC-TV. "We cover national government here more than in other markets. For us, it's really a local story."

As a result, says Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism and a former news director at WTTG(TV), "it's one of the most competitive markets I've seen. The nature of news here is unique: It's local and national" and covers not only Washington but significant parts of Maryland and Virginia.

WRC-TV has won local ratings wars for several years, beating out a still-competitive CBS affiliate WUSA(TV). But WTTG, now in a duopoly with former Viacom-owned WDCA(TV), is seen as one of the nation's strongest Fox stations, with a slightly higher November late-news rating than other market stations', competing against network prime but not against affil news in the 10 p.m. slot. While WJLA-TV hasn't its competitors' ratings, its newscast has one of the highest grades nationally—the only "A" in the market—from Project for Excellence.

But, locals assert, D.C. is more than just government. Even in 2001, it was an upscale market, with per capita income at $23,015. Automotive is a major advertiser. "We got into that whole dot-com sector before other markets did," Sullivan notes. "At one point, we had more high-technology workers than government workers." As a result, "we fell harder than other markets."