Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Feb. 20, 2019, 1:57 p.m.

Local TV is still the most trusted source of news. So how do you collaborate with a station?

“The idea that you would collaborate with your competitor when you’re fighting for ratings is anathema to broadcasters.” But it may be a key part of how local news remains sustainable.

A squeezed industry, the constant threat of layoffs, a shrinking audience — local news is a tough place to be right now. But sometimes, when everything else feels like it’s falling, teaming up can stretch limited resources a little farther. Collaborations, many argue, will soon be core to the work of local newsrooms — partnering to dig through datasets, sharing resources on specific issues, and amplifying a topic to bring it more attention.

It’s not unusual at this point to hear about collaborations involving public radio stations, daily newspapers, nonprofit newsrooms, and digital news site. But where do local TV news stations — frequently the single most popular source of news in a city — fit in?

While the average audience watching local TV news has dropped (and younger people aren’t eagerly tuning in), local TV is still an important news source for tons of people. Until 2017, it was the single most common source for news in America outpacing the entire Internet. (The Internet did beat out local TV news in 2017, though it still trailed local, network, and cable news combined.) Local newspapers get all the attention, but in many markets it’s a TV station’s website that leads in digital. And by offering a leanback, low-friction experience, local TV news reaches the large slice of people who don’t want their phone buzzing from news alerts all day.

But it feels like we often overlook the part of the industry that employs close to the same number that newspapers do (and far more than local digital news sites do). And amidst all the misinformation, manipulation, and general chaos strewn across the media industry these days, this might be the most important number: 76 percent of Americans cite local TV news as a highly trusted source of news, the most of any medium.

But of the 180 collaborations in the Center for Cooperative Media’s still-in-progress database, only 7 percent involved local TV newsrooms. And many of those are public television stations, encouraged to collaborate by funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

“What’s driving [the growth of collaborations] are business models — papers are smaller and trying to look for ways they can still produce quality journalism,” Stefanie Murray, the center’s director, told me. “Many local TV stations don’t see the value they would get out of collaboration.”

Many local stations and newspapers have relatively small arrangements — you publish our weather forecast in the paper, we’ll share the headlines from tomorrow’s 1A — or band together when it’s time to air a local candidates’ debate. But I’m talking about collaboration that knits together cross-medium newsroom strengths and mitigates the weaknesses in a deeper way — like Broke in Philly’s focus on economic hardship. The Center for Cooperative Media defines collaboration as “executing journalistic endeavors using a cross-entity approach,” including “reporting projects, partnering on audience engagement efforts, co-collecting and sharing data, or even teaming up to build technology that supports multiple organizations working toward a shared journalistic goal.”

Sure, there are easy answers for why collaborations aren’t a high priority for the stations. (Though we’ll get to examples of ones that do prioritize it — not trying to paint local TV newsrooms with a big uncooperative brush here.) News directors haven’t seen the bottom fall out of their budgets as much as print’s editors have. (TV newsrooms have actually added staff since 2008 — a period when newspaper newsrooms shrunk by nearly half.) Many are still driven by ratings, focusing on quick and visual elements for newscasts. And frankly, newspaper and TV reporters sometimes…don’t have the highest opinions of each other. Or at a minimum, they often have different ideas about what’s most newsworthy, and they don’t always trust each others’ editorial instincts. (That last bit came up several times in my interviews for this project.)

“We are stubborn,” C.J. LeMaster, the chief investigative reporter at WLBT in Jackson, Mississippi, said. “Broadcasters in general, we like to stay in our silos but are still fiercely competitive among other stations. I think that sometimes hurts us in ways we could use as opportunities for partnerships with members of the print media and nonprofits.”

TV journalists “are hardworking dedicated reporters just like the rest of us who are trying really hard to fit quality reporting into 90 seconds — that’s really hard — and we have to recognize that audiences still want that,” Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, Broke in Philly’s editor and co-executive director of the parent organization Resolve Philadelphia, told me.

“I think there’s a possibility to do collaboration, but with the understanding that each TV station is going to want to hold onto its competitive edge by being able to brand itself as separate and unique,” said Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. “The idea that you would collaborate with your competitor when you’re fighting for ratings is anathema to broadcasters.”

But local news needs creative answers to the gnawing questions about its future. The real competitors, local outlets know, are the news feeds and social platforms and newsletters and streams that happily draw attention away from the reporting on our own communities and toward either national news or entertainment. And local TV news still has a lot of oomph left in its engine. How can that be harnessed for the good of all local media — including local TV?

So that was the question that I set out to answer. As someone who has worked in the broadcast and digital sides of a local TV newsroom, I’ve seen the pressures of filling a sudden hole in the newscast, fitting complex policy issues into soundbites and B-roll, and clicking through a CMS to upload content that didn’t always seemed meaningful to its community. And I’ve talked with TV journalists about this issue before, like when NBC 10/Telemundo 62’s vice president of news Anzio Williams explained how he got won over for Broke in Philly:

“Initially, we did not participate, because I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to join forces with a lot of organizations when I felt like I was in competition with them,” Williams said, declaring himself “the most competitive guy who you’ve ever talked to or laid your eyes on.” But he’s found a new way to channel his energy: “What makes it work is that everybody shows up with the attitude of: How can I be the better partner?”

This tension is something that local newsrooms (and funders) are aware of and working on. So what works, what doesn’t, and what else should people keep in mind? We’ll have three case studies over the next few days on:

Stay tuned.

A few resources to keep in mind for collaborations, especially with local TV news:

Image of handshakes by Stavros Pavlides used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 20, 2019, 1:57 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Collaborating with local TV
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