If it Bleeds, it Leads | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

If it Bleeds, it Leads 

Are Utah’s TV news organizations scaling back in-depth reporting in an attempt to preserve profits?

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“If it bleeds, it leads” has long been a refrain critics use to describe local TV newscasts. TV’s big advantage over newspaper and radio, of course, is that the medium can offer compelling visual images and bring them into the homes of its audience as dramatic events unfold. But things like avalanches and tornadoes don’t happen every day—in Utah, tornadoes are indeed rare, but when they do occur TV is at its best. For the large balance of TV time, however, that leaves auto accidents, fires and other public-safety related incidents to fill day-to-day coverage with compelling pictures. Issue-oriented stories, meanwhile, usually don’t come with startling images, and get short shrift on TV.

That kind of analysis, however, falls short of capturing what TV brings its large audience in the way of news, weather and sports. TV news organizations in Salt Lake City certainly do argue that they bring a wide variety of breaking stories as well as issue-oriented pieces to a geographically large Western-region audience of 1 million or more viewers. But the salad days of huge profits for local TV news organizations are drawing to a close, if they aren’t already over. Today, there are many things competing for viewers’ attention, including 24-hour cable news networks and even the Internet—there simply are more avenues for information and entertainment, driving advertising revenues down. The squeeze is on for profitability at TV news operations, and that leads, in general, to fewer reporters and less in-depth local news stories, according to a recent study.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism on Local TV News studied 49 stations in 15 cities over a three-year period. The analysis pointed to some troubling trends in the industry: “A major ongoing study of local television news reveals that the business is cutting back on precisely the elements that attract viewers, including enterprise, breadth and innovation. A major reason is that the business is committed to maintaining profit margins it enjoyed in an earlier era.”

The project is affiliated with Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Although Salt Lake City stations weren’t part of the study, the trends outlined do apply here, according to people familiar with our local TV news organizations. But the study also indicated that TV stations that emphasize quality have been able to keep and even build their viewing audience and, therefore, advertising revenues. Quality TV newscasts are defined by the study as those that cover the entire community with longer, rather than shorter stories. Successful stations did fewer traffic accident and crime stories, the study said.

Generally, across the country and here in Utah, local TV news organizations are using more stories generated by the networks to help fill timeslots. In addition, many local stories are covered only by a camera crew without a reporter. “Local news seems to be moving in the wrong direction. In particular, it is getting thinner,” the report states. “The amount of out-of-town feeds and recycled material is growing. The majority of stories studied were either feeds or footage aired without an on-scene reporter.”

One of the chief critics of local TV news in Salt Lake City is James E. Shelledy, the executive editor of The Salt Lake Tribune. He agrees in large part with the criticisms set down in the project’s report. “It’s shallow and petty crime-driven,” he said of TV newscasts in Salt Lake City. “Take a look every Saturday or Sunday night. What you see is the police blotter, things that barely get one paragraph in the Tribune. One of us is wrong,” he said of the coverage.

Shelledy chided local TV operations for shallow coverage, noting that national news programs do go in-depth. Local TV news operations could do the same thing, he argued. The Trib editor noted, however, that there are a number of excellent TV reporters in Salt Lake City. But, he continued, they can’t reach their potential because stations don’t block out much time for individual stories. A relatively long TV news piece is 120 to 180 seconds. A 30-minute newscast is comprised of about 13 minutes of news. The balance is weather and sports, teasers and ads.

“I feel sorry for the John Hollenhorsts, the Rod Deckers and the Chris Vanocurs. They’re excellent reporters, but you don’t see them being turned loose,” Shelledy said. “I think it is the station managers trying to push for profits.”

Rather than tackling issues, Shelledy sees local TV news operations attempting to dramatize coverage by reporting live breaking stories. Beyond the fact that that sort of report may be shallow, Shelledy says it often is less than accurate, pointing to the 1999 shooting at the LDS Family Library. “Somehow, they feel that they have to be live at the scene. So they go to this poor dumb clown out there who doesn’t know what’s going on and stick the mic in front of his face, and what you get are a lot of inaccuracies.”

Some early TV reports of the shooting talked about a conspiracy possibly involving militias. A man was spotted in the area wearing camouflage pants and driving a yellow truck similar to the one used in the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City. In the end, however, the man had no connection with the shooting and was simply moving his furniture.

Further, the Tribune editor wondered why local TV stations don’t do a more thorough job covering things like the courts, state Board of Regents or the Legislature, among other things. “There is no depth. There is no follow-up. There’s no attempt to get past a cheap, quick visual. … It’s not a newscast, it’s a visual cast. Let’s stop calling it news.”

Prime-Time Ratings Down

Not everyone agrees with Shelledy’s assessment. Con Psarras, the managing editor of KSL TV, says his news operation hasn’t fallen prey to the problems outlined in the study, and is providing in-depth and issue-oriented coverage as well as breaking news. But Psarras noted that the trends outlined in the Project for Excellence in Journalism are real and can be seen elsewhere.

“Local TV has recently gone away from the attitude that this is a venue for issues,” Psarras said. “But [KSL] is one of the last stations that will spend four minutes on an issue story,” he said, citing the station’s recent series on whether Salt Lake Valley municipal law enforcement agencies along with the County Sherriff’s Office should be combined into one large metro force.

KSL has as many or more reporters than it has ever had, the managing editor explained. It allows the station to report in-depth while others are covering car accidents and animal escapades. KSL remains the overall leader in viewers, but may not be as dominant in Utah as it once was, depending on who’s citing the numbers.

“Generally, in larger operations, cost-cutting is important,” Psarras said of TV news organizations owned by large out-of-state corporations. “Some stations fill the airtime with [national] feeds or syndicated productions.”

That said, Psarras, who has been a newspaper reporter, a TV reporter and a news director at both KUTV and KTVX, explained that TV news organizations don’t see themselves as competing with newspapers. “My experience is that in TV, we don’t pay a lot of attention to newspapers.” Rather, local TV news is competing with other local TV operations, as well as national TV news and other programming, he said. “In prime time, ratings are down because people are watching cable or surfing the Net.”

Nonetheless, in this era of on-demand TV news, newspapers do have their place, Psarras noted. “I like a newspaper to see more depth and context. … TV is ‘this is happening now.’… For people who are looking for context, that is what a newspaper should do.”

More Time, Fewer Staff

Another person who has had experience in both TV and print journalism says he sees TV news slipping, including even KSL. Investigative reporter Lynn Packer has written extensively for this newspaper as a non-staff contributor on the Bonneville-Pacific scandal and on the Olympic bid scandal, among other things. Packer was a reporter for KSL TV from 1968 to 1986. He also taught TV news reporting at BYU from 1981 to 1990.

Packer noted that even though there is increased competition and profits aren’t what they once were, local TV news operations are still making money. “Local news remains the big profit-maker at local stations.”

One of the problems faced by local TV news organizations, Packer explained, is that 10 years ago they only had to fill a half-hour slot at 6 p.m. and another at 10 p.m. But now, all of Salt Lake City’s stations have morning news shows that cover a two-and-a-half to three-hour period, sandwiched between national programming. They also offer noon telecasts. And three of the four offer a full hour beginning at 5 p.m., as well as the half-hour at 10 p.m. The exception is KSTU Fox 13, which airs a one-hour newscast at 9 p.m. in addition to its morning show.

“They have increased programming, but the same size staff has to do it,” Packer said. “You have more hours to fill, so there isn’t time for reporters to do in-depth stuff.”

From the time of the Mark Hoffman bombing story in 1985-’86, there has been a steady decline in investigative reporting from local TV news organizations, Packer said. Perhaps one reason for that is the dearth of veteran reporters at local TV news operations.

Packer pointed to a lawsuit in 4th District Court in which a Utah County physician is suing KTVX Channel 4 for an undercover story by reporter Mary Sawyers, using a hidden camera. “This should be Exhibit A of why you don’t want green reporters doing investigative reporting,” he said. (Packer is working as a consultant for the plaintiff in the case against KTVX.) Conversely, it may be why stations shy away from investigative stories.

Packer, who is also a consultant for a number of European TV news stations, believes that although local TV news operations are beyond their prime, they can recapture it easily by getting back to basics. “First, get back to news and stop covering all the bullshit,” he said, referring to fluff pieces that might have entertaining video but not much meaningful content.

“No. 2, you bring in good professionals who are competent,” he said. “You have to have experienced reporters. Half the TV reporters wouldn’t know a news story if it perched on their nose.

“Third, you establish professional standards that you don’t deviate from.”

Packer’s formula is not at odds with the one presented in the report by Project for Excellence. In what it calls the “Magic Formula,” the study’s authors offer this: Cover more of the community; produce longer stories and fewer shorter ones; focus more on major public and private institutions; use fewer anonymous sources; send a reporter, not just a camera crew; do fewer crime stories; do more investigative stories; offer less [national] feed material; air more person-on-the-street interviews.

It’s a formula not difficult to grasp, Packer says, yet there seems to be little dedication to excellence in local TV reporting. “I see a lot of non-news stories. I just get bored with local TV news coverage. It’s just not complete. You can see the producers are just worried about filling the time from the morning, noon, evening and late coverage.”

Real People, Real Emotions

The formula offered up by the Project for Excellence may be fine, but it isn’t necessarily the one used at KUTV Channel 2, said veteran reporter Rod Decker. Decker worked as a newspaper reporter and columnist at the Deseret News for eight years before joining Channel 2 in 1980. He’s seen a lot of changes at the station.

“What’s changed is the kind of news we want,” he explained. “In the old days, we had to be more like the news you’d read in the Deseret News or Tribune. Now we do less of that and instead do more human-interest news. We want real people, people who normally wouldn’t be on TV, people who feel emotion about the topic.”

Back in the salad days of the late ’70s and early ’80s, both KSL and KUTV spent a lot of money, Decker recalled. “When the Hatch family owned the station, we had lots of money and lots of time. They sent Lucky Severson to the South Pacific for a two-hour special on radioactive fallout. … I went to California to interview Linus Pauling. And that was a normal kind of thing.”

But in the mid-’80s, about the time of the Hoffman bombings, Salt Lake City TV stations suddenly lost one-third of their value. The Hatch family sold the station, and eventually it became the property of CBS. During the period that followed, KUTV lost its longtime grip on the No. 2 ratings spot in the Salt Lake City market, and slipped to third position behind KSL and KTVX. Advertising revenues are tied directly to ratings, so the station’s profit margin slumped. At that point, news directors and station managers were fired, Decker recalls.

Now that KUTV is back in the second spot in overall ratings, things have settled down at the station. “The people at CBS want good ratings and profitability. If we deliver ratings and money, they leave us alone. If we have poor ratings, they come and fire people. … You have to stay focused on ratings and getting people to watch.”

To that end, station managers not only watch the ratings for the quarterly “books” from Nielsen and Arbitron, but also watch daily ratings of their news programs compared to the other local TV stations.

Decker concedes that visuals are very important to TV news. Consequently, KUTV recently acquired a helicopter and uses it for dramatic video as often as possible. Still, good visuals aren’t necessarily blood and guts. “‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ is too strong. The bosses here don’t like anything as much as good pictures, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a [car] wreck,” Decker said.

High Standards

None of Salt Lake City’s four major TV news stations has backed away from high journalistic standards, says Steve Cohen, station manager at KTVX Channel 4. “This is still a marketplace wrapped around the traditional values of TV journalism.”

Cohen has been around. He headed up the KCOP TV news organization in Los Angeles, one that the Project for Excellence named as being among the best in its study. He also steered KCBS, also in L.A., in the late ’80s, and WCBS in New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s. More recently, Cohen was one of the creators of Court TV.

While it’s true there are new financial pressures on local TV news organizations, Salt Lake City boasts excellence as though it were a much larger city. “Although we’re the 36th largest market, the newscasts in Salt Lake City have more depth and community service than much larger markets like Detroit, Philadelphia or Boston,” Cohen explained. “The reason for it comes from a fundamental value system that is part of the Salt Lake City culture. It requires a no-nonsense approach to community journalism.”

Cohen agrees that profit margins in local TV news aren’t what they once were, but that has allowed KTVX, as well as KUTV, to challenge KSL, he noted. “KSL used to be No. 1 in every single time period. Now, we’re No. 1 at 5:30 and 6.”

There is little investigative reporting on local TV news in Salt Lake City, Cohen conceded. Most local news organizations can’t afford investigative teams, and in Salt Lake City, it really isn’t necessary, he said. “Investigative work is expensive. … It’s much more episodic than it is constant [in Salt Lake City]. This isn’t L.A. or New York where there are so many things that need uncovering.”

“Get Gephardt” is an exception, Cohen said, although Gephardt focuses on consumer issues rather than politics or crime. At KTVX reporters are asked to investigate deeper when it is warranted, the station manager noted, pointing to Chris Vanocur, who broke the Olympic bid scandal story as part of his regular Olympics coverage.

The “if it bleeds, it leads” aspect of accident and crime reporting does not define Salt Lake City stations, Cohen contended. “Our measure of crime and accidents or spot news is only 20 percent. It can be important. Yesterday, we had a 20-car pileup. But it doesn’t tell you much about the community other than that there was an accident.”

Local TV news has changed and must continue to change, Cohen said. “The future of local TV news is much more about what is happening at the medical center in genetic mapping, rather than a guy who drove his car into the ditch. The product has to mature or it will continue to lose viewers. … Viewers are smart. Our job is to take them to the next level, not tell them something they already know.” u

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