New Knight Foundation report: Local TV news is thriving, but needs to innovate to remain relevant

MIAMI – April 5, 2018 – A new Knight Foundation report finds that while local TV news broadcasts continue to be the dominant source Americans go to for news, changing audiences may necessitate change in the industry. To survive, the authors said, stations will have to continue to try new approaches to the kind of content they produce and how it gets to the public.

The report, “Local TV News and the New Media Landscape,” showed that local TV news stations are profitable and benefit from growing staffs and large audiences. And innovation is happening online. Some stations are creating digital-only newscasts, or focusing on online storytelling that extends the reach of their in-depth reporting. Others have put a premium on making niche mobile apps for specific audiences, or on the real-time distribution of content on OTT – or over the top – that can stream anywhere, anytime.

At the same time, the future of the field is filled with challenges. As revenue for online content remains elusive, and young people consume less news, station leaders need to look for new ways to meet the information needs of communities.

The five-part analysis, based on interviews and survey data from hundreds of local TV news leaders across the country, offers broadcast journalists and leaders insights into the future of the industry, in addition to replicable ideas from other news organizations throughout the U.S. The findings also align with Knight Foundation’s recent $2.6 million investment in local TV news, which supports innovation in newsrooms to help them prepare for the future.

“Survey after survey finds that local TV is still the go-to place for news for many Americans. But winter may be coming for the business. This research highlights stations that are innovating, and challenges others to follow suit,” said Sam Gill, Knight Foundation’s vice president for communities and impact, and senior adviser to the president.

The report was written by veteran broadcast journalists Debora Wenger, assistant dean and associate professor at the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media, and Bob Papper, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Journalism at Hofstra University.

Here are some of its main findings, by section:

  • State of the industry: Local TV news enjoys healthy revenues, and is a profit center for many stations thanks in part to political ad buys that increased in the wake of the Citizens United case. But stations are challenged by audiences that increasingly seek out information online, and the fact that younger audiences consume less news. And the number of newsrooms may shrink, as changes to regulations lead to more consolidation among local stations.
  • The local TV audience:  The local TV news audience is slowly – but not consistently – shrinking. While the 55+ audience is actually increasing, the bigger losses are among 35 to 54 year-old viewers. The changes aren’t universal. A dozen local TV markets across the country, however, are bucking the trend and are keeping their younger audiences. 
  • Social media and innovation: While news broadcasts look much like they did 30 years ago, innovation is happening online – with 24-hour newsrooms producing reports for social media and over-the-top (OTT) platforms. A majority (63 percent) of local commercial stations are focused on strategies to find and reach younger audiences. Those efforts have most often involved social media platforms and mobile apps.
  • Future of local news video: Linear TV, or local broadcast from a TV set and viewed in real time, is still an important medium, but may not be so in the coming decades. As a result, stations will increasingly shift to new ways to distribute their video, and look for the revenue models that will support it.
  • Future of local TV news: In order to continue to engage audiences, TV news needs to move away from the crashes and crime stories that dominate their coverage to offer more value for viewers, by producing more enterprise and investigative pieces that are critical to people’s everyday lives.

“We see TV newsrooms from Phoenix to Knoxville accelerating efforts to reach digital audiences. That’s promising, but what about the content? Is it relevant to people’s lives? The industry is wrestling with this question,” said Karen Rundlet, Knight Foundation’s journalism program director.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy. For more, visit knightfoundation.org.

Contact: Anusha Alikhan, 305-908-246, [email protected]