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Local news blues

With layoffs, plummeting revenue, and dwindling viewership, TV news departments are getting desperate.
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  June 24, 2009

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THE ANCHORS Cutbacks mean fewer reporters in the field, leaving anchors like Doreen Scanlon and Allison Alexander, of ABC6, to deliver more of the news to camera.

There has been plenty of hand-wringing, in these parts, over the decline of the local broadsheet. The Providence Journal is the paper of record, after all, the agenda setter. And the agenda is decidedly thinner these days. 

But that other mainstay of Rhode Island news — the local television station — is taking a beating, too.

The three major local newscasts – at WJAR (Channel 10), WPRI (Channel 12) and WLNE (ABC6) — have shed dozens of jobs in recent months. Live, on-scene reporting is in decline. Investigative work has taken a hit. And it could get worse. Quickly.

Television advertising revenue, in free-fall across the country as the auto industry cuts back on marketing outlays, is dropping at twice the national average here as Rhode Island continues its headline-grabbing economic implosion.

And WLNE, long the ratings laggard in this market, is looking particularly vulnerable these days. Anchors are printing double-sided scripts to save money. And just last week, CBS Television Distribution filed a $5 million lawsuit against ownership alleging failure to pay for syndicated programming like Dr. Phil and Entertainment Tonight.

"It feels really sad," said Barbara Meagher Smith, a former television reporter who is now an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Rhode Island, commenting on the state of the local newscast. "They just don't have the resources to do what they're supposed to do."

But the shifting fortunes of television journalism are probably more obvious to professors than they are to consumers. The ProJo may be printing fewer pages, but the newscast is still a half-hour long. And local anchors and reporters are, in some respects, more visible than ever.

With audiences for the flagship 6 and 11 o'clock newscasts dwindling for a decade now as viewers migrate to CNN, Yahoo!, and the like, stations in Providence and beyond have been rolling out 5 am, 7 pm, and 10 pm installments in a bid to build their local bona fides, lure mom-and-pop advertisers and hold onto market share.

Stretching out the news product has presented its challenges, of course. But with more air time to fill and smaller staffs in place, the staples of the local newscast — car crashes, health scares, weather reports — seem largely unaffected.

Even a skeleton crew, it seems, can produce ephemera.

But Rhode Island's local news, if often light, has a tradition of substance, too. And that substance is receding — even if the public hasn't noticed yet.

WJAR's Bill Rappleye 


Of course any talk of a golden age is, inevitably, colored by a certain amount of mythology.

Indeed, an honest look at Rhode Island's television history will recognize plenty of the prurient excesses of the "if-it-bleeds-it-leads" model that took root nationwide in the '70s.

Edwin Hart, a retired news executive who worked stints at WPRI and WLNE, recalls a local reporter dipping a turkey leg into acid in the early '90s in a bid to demonstrate how high-profile murderer Christopher Hightower sought to decompose his victims' bodies.

But observers say there was a depth to Rhode Island television news that cannot be ignored. "There were some very good or, in some cases, legendary reporters [on television]," said M. Charles Bakst, retired political columnist for the Journal.

At WPRI, Jack White carved out a niche as a top-notch mafia reporter and collected Emmys for reporting on a fugitive banker and Providence tax officials who evaded the city's residency requirement.

ABC6 had its moments, too. Most recently with former reporter Jim Hummel, who attracted attention with his "You Paid For It" segments focused on government waste.

But WJAR, the local NBC affiliate, has defined television news in Rhode Island for years. And it is the station's recent woes that have been hardest to swallow for many in the industry.

The state's first television station, originally owned by Providence-based department store chain the Outlet Com-pany, signed on-air in July 1949 and has remained the dominant force in local broadcasting ever since.

WJAR owes some of its success to Rhode Island's fervent loyalty to institution. Parents watch Channel 10 and their children follow suit. The joke, in the local TV biz, is that the station could run a test pattern and still top the ratings.

But WJAR also built a formidable news reputation over the years. National television personalities Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira, of the Today show, got started at the station. Political reporters Tom Kole and Dyana Koelsch made the station a presence at the State House in the 1980s and 1990s.

Current political reporter Bill Rappleye said he was struck by Channel 10's drive to be more than a colorful imitation of the morning paper when he took the job seven years ago. "It's the first time in my career I wasn't just given newspaper clippings and told to go report," he said.

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Re: Local news blues
The trade off with Journalism 2.0, of course, is that you can do more in depth reporting than any other medium in history. I just hope the readership recongeals to allow even more of this type of in depth reporting. I've become more and more of an online absorber, partly because of the problem of appointment-based listening, but partly because writers aren't limited by their business departments ability to sell add space or manage the print costs, all of which translates into some of the best journalism out there emerging online.Thanks for bringing some light to the state of television news.
By Ben Jones on 06/26/2009 at 2:32:35

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