There’s one question visitors from outside the area often ask me — and a question I ask myself on occasion: Why does local TV news suck so much?
You’d think that, in a region with more than a million people, we’d have something better, that there would be room for more voices, more perspectives, more analyses, more deep dives.
You’d be wrong.
There are exceptions, of course. First Coast News (whose newscasts are shared by our local NBC and ABC affiliates) has a nice investigative team, helmed by former Folio Weekly editor extraordinaire Anne Schindler, which can be counted on for interesting stories every now and again.
Beyond that? Lots and lots of weather. The crime blotter. A restaurant report. A day care report. And sports — seemingly the one part of the package that has more resources dedicated to it as the years progress.
There is more so-called local news on TV today than ever before. Morning shows, extended afternoon newscasts, hour-long evening newscasts — all of these would suggest that we would see more critical analyses of things like Mayor Brown’s performance in office. You’d think that, given hours and hours of airtime to fill, local TV journalists would be providing gobs of content indispensable to the people viewing it.
Again, you’d be wrong.
There are many reasons why local news sucks — and a conspiracy theorist would say that the biggest reason is that it’s not local at all.
Action News has been the combined news operation of WAWS and WTEV for the last five years. First Coast News, the infotainment wing of WJXX and WTLV, is owned, along with the stations, by Gannett, and has been a shared operation for 15 years now.
Both these news outfits are owned by powerful holding companies with real agendas and no real interest in anything local, beyond what’s best for business. They share reporters and reportage, editorial perspectives, sponsors and sets, and everything that makes a newscast a newscast.
And The Local Station?
WJXT is the only outfit in town that isn’t part of a duopoly; still, it’s owned and controlled by the gentle folks at the Post-Newsweek Stations. By far, WJXT has the most news programming per day: a five-and-a-half-hour morning show every day, a noon newscast, two hours in the early evening and an hour-and-a-half at night. That’s nine-and-a-half-hours of programming. But what fills it?
A few “if it bleeds, it leads” stories — shootings and such — with national and global stories surrounding them.
Perhaps it’s too much to want more from local TV news, given that most of the presenters we see are passing through — on their way to bigger markets, or working their way back down the ladder.
The FCC can make noise about restricting this kind of shared ownership of assets from big companies outside the area, but to the news operations business, the economy of scale outweighs the importance of providing the best, most relevant newscast imaginable.
I reached out to former Action News reporter Cathi Carson, who now practices law in Orlando, to get her take on what’s wrong with local news.
“The problem with local news is they are hyper-focused on the competition instead of the content,” she says. “The average viewer is not watching all three news outlets at the same time. They don’t care if one station had the story two minutes before the other. Somewhere along the way, the race to beat the other stations became the guiding force in local news.”
What’s more, there’s little interest in shaking things up. Doing so is too costly. “My passion was always investigative work, but stations don’t want to commit the time or resources to those pieces,” she says. “Reporters used to be given time to develop stories. Now they are turning in two to three stories a day. It is impossible to do that and do it well. The only way to get that done is to take shortcuts, and ultimately that means you get a lot of the same old recycled stories.”
Shortcuts throughout the process, and the economy of scale taking precedence over the art of journalism, with ownership concentrated out of state. Is there any wonder why local news is as bad as it is? Or why it is increasingly irrelevant, volume notwithstanding?