Deborah Potter, 51, is executive director of Newslab.org, a non-profit resource for television newsrooms, focused on research and training. Before NewsLab, Potter spent 16 years as a network correspondent for CBS and CNN. At CNN, she anchored major news programs and reported on national politics and environmental issues. Potter joined CNN in 1991 after 13 years at CBS News, where she served as White House, State Department and Congressional Correspondent. She spoke with JournalismJobs.com recently about the state of local television news.
Deborah Potter: There are so many I don't know where to start. The truth is local television news is in trouble. One problem, which is not new, is that local television news is beset by sameness. It's very hard to find anything innovative, anything really engaging out there. It exists, but it takes work to find it. What you have is a lot of newsrooms cranking out the same kind of material on a daily basis without a whole lot of thought as to why they are doing it. One of the reasons that happens is that local television newsrooms are woefully understaffed. If you compare them to just about any newspaper in a same-sized town, you'll find that television is grinding out a whole lot of content with a lot fewer folks. The consequence is they tend to do it once over lightly. There's not a lot of depth in coverage.
JournalismJobs.com: Do you think this will continue?
Deborah Potter: The economy isn't making any of us feel particularly optimistic about the near-term future. I do think there are new models being tried that could expand the pool of journalists. For example, the whole idea of equipping every journalist with a camera could increase the number of people out there developing stories and putting them on the air. Obviously that raises concern about quality. But some say it would make for better journalism because you can actually give someone enough time to produce a story with some depth because not everyone would have to do a story every day, which is currently the situation. In most newsrooms, reporters are producing more than one story every day.
JournalismJobs.com: Is this a problem confined to large markets or is it across the board?
Deborah Potter: It's pretty much across the board. In small markets, the personnel issues are even more difficult. One reason is that stations are producing more and more news without adding any personnel. A station will add an hour-long newscast and might increase the staffing by one producer and one anchor. The content has to come from somewhere. It's being put out by people already working there. Or it's being purchased -- syndicated programs, materials about health, for example. That's quite widespread. All over the country, you can see the exact same story because stations have bought it from the same provider. Most people go to local television news to find out what's happening in their own town. The dependence on syndicated feed material isn't going to tell them that.
JournalismJobs.com: Are there any bright spots in local television news? Are there any markets in which stations are doing better than others?
Deborah Potter: Sure. There is good journalism and excellent photography around the country. You could look at a market like Denver or Minneapolis or Dallas and find really inspiring things going on. But I say that with a slight bit of concern. In Minneapolis, you used to be able to turn on the TV at 10 o'clock at night and see a long-form story on all three of the big network affiliates. Now, only one of them is doing it. In those cities, there have been changes, largely driven by the economy. You have stations that have tried this and discovered that it isn't building their audience. You also have stations that can't keep doing it with the personnel they have.
JournalismJobs.com: What kind of profit pressures do local stations face and how has this changed over the years?
Deborah Potter: What contributes greatly to the decline in quality on what gets on the air is the pressure on local stations to crank out what in most industries would be considered an obscene profit. An acceptable annual profit for a local television station is sometimes in the range of 40 to 50 percent. Sometimes it's higher than that. You hear whining at the newspapers when the push is on to get to 20 percent. You ought to try local TV.
The truth is that 50 percent of a local television station's budget comes out of their local news product. That's where they're raising the money. You can imagine why the pressure to get the ratings, which translates into advertising dollars, is so enormous. That's one of the reasons why we've seen an increase in the amount of news on the air. Ten years ago, who would have thought that a local station in a smaller market would be starting its morning news at 5 a.m. But they are because they can sell it. They can find an advertiser willing to pay for the eyeballs they'll get at 5 a.m. And they'll get more eyeballs with news than they'll get with anything else. So, there's enormous pressure. News is without question a profit center at these stations, where it used to be something you did as a community service. That really has changed the entire atmosphere in local TV.
JournalismJobs.com: In the face of these profit pressures, do advertisers have more influence on content these days?
Deborah Potter: My sense is that newsrooms do get a lot more direct pressure than they ever used to from advertisers, to both put stories on the air and keep them off. Sometimes that pressure succeeds. There are certainly plenty of stories of stations that have been threatened with the loss of advertising and have said, "Too bad. We're doing that story anyways." Stations have been known to stand up to this, but it's also true the pressure itself is quite widespread.
JournalismJobs.com: How has the quality of local television news changed in the past 25 years?
Deborah Potter: I actually think in many ways it's better. Television news today is much more engaging, much more interesting to watch. The medium has come of age and good journalists know what television does well. It takes people places they can't go. Because we have videotape and small cameras, we can get closer in ways we could not with film. In the early days, television was white guys standing in front of buildings talking. This was not the best use of the medium. In a lot of ways, it's better. The problem is what we choose to spend those resources on, the stories we choose to tell with this new storytelling that we've developed. In many cases today, the medium falls short. About a quarter of the content is crime. There's a lot of fluff. There's a lot of marginally useful information. There's not a lot of coverage of serious and important issues. You can look at local television news in one of two ways. In terms of production and presentation, it's a lot better than it used to be. In terms of content, I'm not sure. What I'd love to see and what I spend a lot of my time encouraging is using the production techniques on stories that matter.
JournalismJobs.com: Are viewers demanding more of local television news?
Deborah Potter: I think viewers are very smart. Very savvy. They understand why stations do what they do. They really do know when they're being manipulated and they don't like it. Local television has lost a lot of viewers over the years. Fifty-seven percent of Americans say they watch local TV news regularly. That figure used to be 77 percent. That's a pretty big drop. In most industries, that would be cause for great alarm and restructuring. What's happened is stations are working harder to keep the viewers they have rather than to bring back those customers they lost. That is unfortunate because almost half the country is not watching anymore.
JournalismJobs.com: What's next for local television news?
Deborah Potter: I think we're going to see more stations get out of the news business altogether. If you're number four in a market where four stations are doing news, there comes a point of diminishing returns. Yes it can be a profit center, but if everybody else has carved up the profit and you're not getting any, you might actually be better off economically not doing news. It appears that the CBS station in Detroit is going to quit doing news. This would follow the ABC station in St. Louis and a variety of others. I think those stations getting out of news, by and large, are the stations that got into it late -- in the nineties -- and that got into it purely because they wanted to make money. The consequence was that their product was generally substandard and the viewers understood that. So, is it a long-term loss in many of these communities? Maybe not. If a viewer has a choice of three good stations, why would a fourth bad one improve things? It might sound sacreligious, but sometimes more is not always better when it comes to sources of news.
JournalismJobs.com: What about the long-term future of local TV news?
Deborah Potter: I think we're going through another transition that's going to make a dramatic difference. The first transition was from film to video. Now we're in the throes of the digital revolution. We're going to be tapeless in a lot of newsrooms. What does this mean? Ultimately, I think we'll see more journalists who do it all - shoot, edit, write stories and do that for multiple outlets. For example, you'll have one person do a story for TV and the website. Just as there was with video, there will probably be a shake-out time with people leaving the business. But a whole new generation of folks will come in and think this is how we do news and they'll have the skills to do it. I don't know if we'll see a huge shrinkage in staffing overall. What we will see is a substantially different workload.
One of the strengths of television was the fact that it's a team sport. You can't really do it all by yourself. You do it with colleagues and the stories get stronger if more people have something to say about them. I think that we're going to be moving toward a point in which TV will look more like radio, in that one person can go out with miniaturized equipment and do it all. I'm not sure if that's entirely a good thing. We can produce more stories. My concern is about the quality of those stories. I'm ready to be proved wrong and probably over time will be. But I think in the near term, we may see some really rocky quality stuff on the air because it is just one person's work.
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