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For local TV newscasts, a new idea: Quality

There may be hope for local-television-news viewers who’ve been turned off by a never-ending cavalcade of crime, meaningless live shots, and video of tornado damage from places they’ve never heard of.

Because according to Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the most surefire way to success is to offer — get this — a quality newscast. By a variety of measures, based on a five-year study of 242 stations in about 60 different markets, the best local newscasts also have the highest ratings and the most desirable demographics for advertisers.

"Quality sells ... and it sells to a statistically significant degree," Rosenstiel said Tuesday at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The study, whose findings were presented by Rosenstiel and Wellesley College political-science professor Marion Just, is part of the Local TV News Project, which has been studying newscasts since 1998.

The bad news, Rosenstiel said, is that the second-most-effective way to boost ratings is to go downscale, with a tabloid, flash-and-trash approach. With news budgets being cut, newsrooms shrinking, and skepticism over the quality approach widespread, he lamented that it is far easier for a television station to go tabloid than it is to invest in a better product.

The project’s analysis of newscasts is not without controversy. A complex formula is used to measure such seemingly subjective factors as whether a newscast covers the whole community, reports news that is "significant and informative," and is enterprising, accurate, and balanced.

Emily Rooney, the host of Greater Boston, on WGBH-TV (Channels 2 and 44), and a former news director of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), says the formula just doesn’t work, since it doesn’t take into account such intangibles as the talent of the reporters. She says she once watched a newscast from a small market to which Rosenstiel’s organization had given high marks, and that it was laugh-out-loud bad.

Another example she cites is a Chicago newscast from several years ago, which deliberately touted itself as a high-quality alternative. "It was a total bust," Rooney recalls. "It wasn’t flashy, it wasn’t exciting, and nobody watched it." These days, she adds, WBZ-TV (Channel 4) is "probably the most credible" of Boston’s newscasts — yet it has serious ratings problems because of poor lead-ins from CBS. (Disclosure: I’m a paid contributor to Greater Boston.)

Rooney also questions Rosenstiel’s method of comparing the top-rated newscast in each market — say, 11 p.m. in one city versus 6 p.m. in another. The problem, she says, is that different time slots are used for different purposes, with the late newscast being more of a headline service. "If you’re watching the 11-o’clock news, you’re going to get what you deserve," she says.

Rosenstiel and Rooney do agree on one thing: the so-called WHDH effect in Boston finally seems to be wearing off. Early on in the study, Rosenstiel said after his presentation, both WBZ and WCVB went down-market in an attempt to emulate the success of WHDH-TV (Channel 7) — which, under then-new ownership, had dramatically boosted its ratings with flashy graphics, short stories, and lots of crime.

More recently, the pendulum has apparently swung back, with all three affiliates improving their newscasts. "Even ’HDH has become less racy than it had been," Rosenstiel said.

Says Rooney: "I do think that’s fair. That’s a good assessment."

Issue Date: October 24 - 30, 2003
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