What is innovation in local TV news? Andrew Heyward’s new mission is to find out

This post is by Christine Schmidt from Nieman Lab

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News flash: A lot of people still watch — and trust — the local TV news. TV is still the No. 1 source of news for Americans, ahead of the entire Internet. And of those TV watchers, nearly 3 in 4 are regular local TV news watchers. But the trendlines are moving in the wrong direction. In 2016, TV had a 19 percentage point lead over online as a frequent source of news for Americans (57 percent to 38 percent). A year later, that lead had been cut to 7 percentage points (50 percent to 43 percent). Cord-cutters and cord-nevers have moved from edge cases to mainstream; young people ages 18 to 24 have cut their TV viewing by abotu eight hours a week just in the past six years. It’s time for an update. Resources for innovation have, generally speaking, flowed more to local newspapers and digital-native publishers to local TV, which has retained a mostly intact business model. Those stand-in-the-hurricane meteorologists, high school sports analysts, cheery morning broadcasters, and more are still truckin’ along — but they’re at a crossroads. FCC’s repeal of the main studio rule means a station no longer has to maintain a presence in the local geographic area of broadcasting; there’s a new wave of consolidation led by the controversial Sinclair; and an increasing share of non-retirees are checking out of TV altogether. Announced earlier this year, a $2.6 million initiative from the Knight Foundation will aims to give a jolt to the local TV news world, which has to figure out how to reinvent the newscast for digital. The ambition is divided into three parts: research on best practices for local TV news, a leadership program for diversity and collaboration, and a hub to test out these ideas and guidance for broadcast formats and digital storytelling. Andrew Heyward, the former president of CBS News — who started out in local TV in New York and now a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab — is tasked with the research component at Arizona State’s Cronkite School of Journalism. So what does innovation in local TV news mean in 2018? When do we stop calling it “local TV news”? I spoke with Heyward about these questions and more; our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Schmidt: At Nieman Lab, we’ve reported on the FCC’s main studio rule change, consolidation, pressure from Sinclair, and other issues facing local TV news. But a lot of people in the industry still seem to be surprised that local TV news is doing relatively well. What else are we missing in these conversation about local TV news?
Heyward: TV news has been dismissed by the people who cover journalism, and by the academy, and by the foundation world up to now. One of the great things about this project is we are shining a light on a source of news that’s really important. It has great potential to be a very important part of journalism in the future. I give the Knight Foundation credit for seeing the potential there. [Disclosure: Knight has also funded Nieman Lab in the past.] I think what we have been missing is that local TV news is such a familiar part of our lives, but it’s so easy to ignore because it’s sort of always there and it’s fairly similar around the country. It’s not the next bright shiny object. It’s really important and it’s going to have to make itself a bright shiny object. But what we’re missing is how important it is to regular people and how influential it can be.
Schmidt: What do you see as the greatest opportunity in some of these challenges?
Heyward: The fundamental challenge is how to attract new generations of consumers who value the news. I think innovation is not an opportunity, it’s a necessity. The implications of consolidation is probably another topic for another day. In a nutshell, what I would say is if consolidation contributes to more homogenization and standardization, that’s another problem that local TV news already has. The people who run these stations know that. I’d love to do more of a discussion about consolidation after we dig into this project.
Schmidt: What’s the timeline going forward for your role in the project?
Heyward: We’ll start making progress very quickly. Over the summer, we’ll start finding examples and the other parts of the projects will start taking place. The grant runs through the next couple of years [through 2020]. I would certainly think that we have a very good idea of the shape of the project very quickly over the summer, for sure. By the time we define innovation broadly and have a sense of which of those areas is the richest, we’ll start getting some interesting findings right away. Now we have a comprehensive picture of the entire innovation landscape. That’s where I’m hoping the consolidation will be a boon to us: We’ll have the station groups to help steer us to the most innovative stories rather than piecing through the haystack and trying to find the needles ourselves. We’re not just going to start randomly — it’s a journalism job, we’re going to have to follow a lead, develop sources. As you know, a dauntingly blank canvas starts filling up pretty quickly. There’s been a lot of focus in the newspaper world and hyperlocal and digital native, so it’s really exciting to focus on local TV too.
Image by Alex Antropov used under a Creative Commons license.

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