How Local News Can Save Itself (Without Sweeps)

Forward-Looking Managers See Well Beyond the Next Ratings Period

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Nielsen's May sweeps period begins in just a few weeks on April 25, kicking off a month when local news directors all over America will think about just one thing: how to juice the ratings that their sales teams will take to market until the next sweeps comes around.

Never mind that advertisers have long accepted artificially enhanced sweeps programming as the "norm" that sets their prices. They are consenting adults, after all, and I'm hardly the first to question the wisdom of this bizarre quarterly ritual. Being "No. 1" is still important for bragging rights and for the bottom line, of course, and even more important for the job security of general managers, news directors and anchors. But a once-generous pie that used to feed every station in the market is now crumbling around the edges, and smart station executives, even while cooking up special series and assorted stunts for May, are starting to experiment with a new recipe.

That's because they know that the next time any of their kids plan to watch their newscasts is ... never. I started my career at WNEW-TV in New York, which began the nightly newscast with the now-much-parodied catchphrase "It's 10 p.m.: Do you know where your children are?" Well, one place we needn't bother looking for them is in front of the set when the local news comes on. A Pew Research Center study released last fall reports that just 28% of the under-30 set watches local news regularly, down sharply from 42% in 2006.

The new State of the News Media report from Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism, meanwhile, reveals that local-news viewing dropped last year in every time slot, even if a bonanza of political ads kept revenue relatively robust. And while many stations are seeing encouraging growth on their digital platforms, profits are still driven by the legacy business, TV. Seem familiar? It's starting to sound like the newspaper business; Pew calls what's happening to local TV news "shrinking pains."

There's no question that much of the information on local newscasts is easily available on competing digital and mobile platforms, even as in-depth reporting has grown harder to fund and harder to find. But my hunch is that regular viewers of local TV news are still pretty happy with the product. The problem is the generation that comes after them.

The next generation doesn't need ours to organize the world into a tidy package. Ironically, the value of a local newscast to its loyalists -- that it wraps the day in a friendly, familiar, reassuring experience that viewers can sit back and enjoy -- is the very thing that makes the genre seem archaic if not irrelevant to the BuzzFeed and Reddit crowd. "One size fits all" holds little appeal to a generation that has grown up with "one size fits me."

That's why merely making local news coverage available on smartphones and tablets isn't going to do it -- not without customizable tools and services that tie local events and information to the needs of younger consumers and make their lives easier. Over time, especially as more sophisticated audience-measurement and targeting percolate beyond the biggest markets, local advertisers will start demanding these attributes as well.

The good news is that local stations enjoy unique advantages as they confront these challenges:

  • A strong brand awareness in the market, years in the making

  • An active presence in the community, which digital (and especially social) media can significantly enhance

  • A trusted reputation for news. In fact, local TV news consistently comes in first in Pew's annual "believability" survey -- which positions the local station to be a credible curator of crowd-sourced information

  • A valuable role as provider of news and vital information when a crisis hits -- one of the few times that younger users turn to familiar sources for help

  • A well-established relationship with key advertisers, which opens the door to station-driven marketing services aimed not just at current advertisers but smaller businesses that can only afford digital advertising

  • Proficiency in video, increasingly the lingua franca of digital media, giving stations an edge in creating unique video experiences tailored to on-the-go consumption

  • Multiple platforms to drive a social-media strategy built around local news personalities, whose involvement with viewers and users in a true "conversation" (rather than mere promotion) can help build a station's unique value to its audience and advertisers

  • And most of all, there's still nothing like TV to engage the emotions and confer instant celebrity. Even those media-saturated millennials aren't immune to the magic.

    Ad Age's recent scoop on McDonald's new McWrap quoted a company memo describing the rationale: "Our customers are consistently telling us, particularly millennials, they expect variety, more choices, customization and their ability to be able to personalize their food experience."

    Substitute "news" for "food" in that sentence, and you have a pretty good recipe for the digital future of local news. That's why the nation's forward-looking local news managers are looking well beyond the next sweeps period. The ones who succeed have the potential to help create a new golden age of local media. The ones who don't will find that some May down the road, the only customers they have left will be the ones who think the anchorman and the weatherman are actually friends.

    Andrew Heyward is a principal at MarketspaceNext and was president of CBS News from 1996 to 2005.

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