The demise of smaller papers in the region has left the Los Angeles Times pretty much on its own to cover 88 municipalities and 10 million citizens. Metro editor David Lauter laments that his staff is “spread thinner and there are fewer people on any given area…. We’re not there every day, or even every week or every month. Unfortunately, nobody else is either.”
While the Times has a policy against disclosing specifics, Lauter wrote in an email that “the metro staff is just slightly less than half the size it was in September 2000 and about 30 percent smaller than in January 2008…. largely as a result of eliminating separate staffs in our far-flung suburban regions.” Times reporters Jeff Gottlieb, Ruben Vives, and Catherine Salliant learned about the unusually high salaries of Bell officials while investigating possible wrongdoing in the nearby community of Maywood. Gottlieb says Bell residents have been effusive in their thanks.
“They come to newspapers to have their wrongs overturned.”
“Information Needs of Communities,” page 13:
Topics like local education, health care, and government get minimal coverage. In a 2010 study of Los Angeles TV news by the Annenberg School of Communications, such topics took up just a little over one minute of the 30 minute broadcast. Only one out of 100 lead stories was about the ongoing budget crisis. In another study—of local broadcasters in 175 cities—coverage of city government was found to be about one-third as common as crime stories. Other studies have discovered the same pattern.
More stations are increasingly relying on “one-man bands”—reporters who interview, shoot, and edit. In some cases, this is a powerful and sensible efficiency that stations could use to increase the number of reporters in the field. But in many communities, that is not what has happened. “Let’s face it—it is what it is, and it is economic,” says Con Psarras, former news director at KSL in Salt Lake City. “It is an ability to cut heads and it is a full-time equivalent- reduction campaign. It does not make the pictures better, it does not make the stories better—it does not make the coverage on the web better. That’s a mythology—it just saves money.”48 One typical TV reporter said that while he was one-man banding, he was so busy tweeting, shooting, and editing, he had less time for interviews. “It’s the research. When I was one-man-banding, if I had interviewed one or two people, I’d say, hey, that’s enough to get on the air.”
Perhaps most disturbing is the persistence of cases in which local TV news programs have allowed advertisers to determine on-air content. In Wisconsin, a news director resigned over the station’s “pay-for-play” arrangement with a local hospital that had agreed to advertise in exchange for a commitment from the station to air health stories twice a week—from a list of ideas provided by the hospital. A hospital in Ohio paid local TV stations $100,000 or more to air “medical breakthrough” segments that benefited the hospital. A Florida morning show was soliciting $2,500 fees in exchange for guest slots. In other cases, stations are airing video press releases as if they were news stories created by news staff. Though we have no way of knowing how many stations have adopted these egregious practices, the trend-line is worrisome: “The evidence we’ve seen suggests that this is much more widespread than a few years ago,” says Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Pew Project on Excellence in Journalism.
This is not meant to be a blanket indictment of local TV news. Some stations have done more than maintain their reporting capacity; they have improved it. But the evidence indicates that in many communities if local TV news continues on its current path, it will not fill the gaps in accountability reporting left by newspapers. In fact, 64 percent of broadcast news executives believe that their profession is headed in the wrong direction; they are even more pessimistic than newspaper editors. We emphasize the word “current” because local TV news has the capacity to play a different—more journalistically significant—role in the new ecosystem. The question is whether the industry will seize that opportunity.” (Also, see the Pew report’s chapter on TV news, starting on page 72.)
“Information Needs of Communities,” page 52: