Local TV news and the new media landscape

Publication Date April 5, 2018

Overview summary

Local television news would seem to be in an enviable position. The average local TV station now has more news employees than the average American newspaper, profits are strong and local TV news remains the dominant news source for Americans.

At the same time, the future of television is replete with challenges. There has been a slow but steady loss of audience, especially among younger demographics. And yet, television news is produced in much the same way that it has been for 60 or more years, even as audience habits have changed dramatically. The future of local television as a vital source of news and information likely depends on the medium’s ability to transcend media fragmentation.

This four-part Knight Foundation report looks at the state of the industry, how newsrooms are innovating, and what the future may hold for both TV local news and streamed video.

  • State of the Industry explores the strong position local TV news is in today, providing a profit center for stations and remaining the go-to news source for Americans. And unlike newspapers, staffing has actually increased.
  • Innovation and Social Media focuses on the innovation taking place online in local TV news across the country, even as local news broadcasts look much the same as they have for more than 30 years. Facebook is the dominant platform for Local TV, with many experimenting with Facebook Live.
  • Future of Local News Video shows that Local TV News has a significant advantage in a digital world hungry for video, though revenue from online distribution remains elusive.
  • Future of Local TV News offers recommendations from the project’s authors on how Local TV News might improve – dig deeper, do more enterprise and investigative reporting and be more relevant to communities.

State of the Industry 

Local TV news has some enviable advantages over its competitors – particularly local newspapers and local radio stations. Revenue remains strong, costs are dropping and the regulatory environment is likely to allow consolidation. 

In some ways, local TV news benefits because its competitors are so troubled. Newspapers have been losing circulation since long before the internet, revenues are plummeting, and many newspapers might not survive beyond the next few years. Radio is neither growing nor shrinking. And local TV news is profitable and the deluge of political money every two years, along with retransmission fees, provides strong revenue streams.

Social media platforms remain an important distribution platform, but challenges remain in how local TV stations can monetize their social media efforts.

No other existing news medium appears to have more advantages right now than local TV news. But the looming question is whether industry leaders can take advantage of that strong position – or will they squander their opportunities.

Innovation and Social Media summary

Most local TV news reports haven’t changed in decades, and it’s clear that innovation is taking place – rapidly – on digital platforms, not in regular programming.

While local TV news is clearly winning the social media war, news directors and executives remain concerned because of the difficulty of monetizing social efforts.  Still, social media analysis seems to indicate that these strategies can pay off in terms of reach and, if used well, increase audience engagement.

There’s a love/hate relationship with Facebook, which is helping drive a lot of traffic to TV news websites. Stations aren’t making much money on it, but it’s clear that social media is driving viewers. On days when social media engagement is higher, newscast ratings are also higher.

Future of Local TV News Video

Local TV news operations have a significant advantage in a world hungry for video storytelling.  They have expertise in the medium, and they still control a broadcast distribution system that tens of millions of Americans use every day to get their news.  

Traditional broadcasters are responsible for a significant portion of the news video published on social media, especially on Facebook.  In June 2017, five of the top 10 news video publishers on the platform were traditional TV networks. Only one newspaper made the list – the Daily Mail, which is based in the U.K.

While Facebook is important, YouTube is also an important player for news video. It’s owned by Google, is a powerful search engine and is well known by consumers. In 2017, YouTube began offering subscription-based access to ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and other networks.

Much future growth may come from mobile: 26 percent of people surveyed in the United States had used a news app to access news. And more than two-thirds of TV news directors said they were doing something new in mobile. TV stations are creating their own apps – including niche apps for topics such as weather – to capture the mobile audience.

Future of Local TV News

Local TV news shines in crisis. But it must be better and more relevant day in and day out, say industry analysts. Some newsroom leaders are embracing enterprise and investigative strategies and trying to develop innovative approaches to daily newscasts, but those efforts are not yet permeating the industry.

Among the authors’ recommendations:

  • Diversify programming (no one is betting on the 6 p.m. news being around forever) and focus on digital delivery of content, even though the return on investment isn’t always there – yet.
  • Innovate, not just on the digital side but with the on-air programming as well. Every TV newscast looks like all the other TV newscasts, but executives seem reluctant to try something new. That needs to change.
  • Drop the obsession with crime, carnage and mayhem. And focus on ways to connect with local communities through a focus on issues such as education, the economy and transportation. 
  • Those efforts alone won’t be enough, and news leaders acknowledge the need for increased enterprise and investigative reporting. That requires hiring more experienced journalists and/or providing more newsroom training.

About Our Focus Areas

We fund ideas from people with the vision, tenacity, courage, know-how, and commitment to discovery to see them through.