A good friend, and a smart one at that, and I were having a drink at a pub on a beautiful afternoon discussing the state of the world in general and media in particular. He’s a guy who has kicked around successfully in radio, TV and newspapers. At one point he blurted out the fact that all news is local. On the face of it, the statement sounds wrong. What about the earthquake in Haiti and the riots in Bangkok? These events lead newscasts, make the front pages and take place far from Canada.
The real truth though, is that he is absolutely right and the TV networks and newspaper chains have been missing the boat for years in their attempts to maximize profits by minimizing staff and sharing content across broad swaths of the country.
I have several points to make that point out the truth of his bold statement. The first brings me back to an audience study done by the CBC in the mid-80s. The audience was asked to list from first to last what is most important to them: local, national and international news. The study said Canadians want international most, national second most and local least. I was a news executive at the time and I was forced to go along with the poll results. A funny thing happened however, the more international news we ran, the lower the ratings went. The more local news we aired, the more the viewership grew. So much for polls. So much for international news.
My second point is about local versus national newscasts. Most viewers, heck most TV people, don’t realize that local supper hour newscasts get higher ratings than the national newscasts. The problem for local is that CTV’s Calgary newscast might get 100,000 viewers but that’s compared to the over 1 million CTV National News gets across the country. But add up all of the local newscasts aired by CTV and they total well over 1.5 million on most days. Global’s numbers are harder to compare because they run their national newscast as part of the supper hour package. At CBC local news doesn’t get much audience but that has more to do with the catastrophic dismantling of local news and the poor product that’s being delivered. In the mid-80s, before local news was plundered, The National averaged about 1 million viewers on 14 “O and Os” (owned and operated stations) plus 14 affiliates. Local supper hour newscasts were getting close to 2 million viewers on just the 14 “O and Os.” The myopic look at national numbers while ignoring local numbers has done a great deal of harm to local television and local viewership from coast to coast.
In all the bull manure that was spread by CTV especially, and Global about saving local TV they somehow forgot to tell us, the viewers, that in fact they have been dismantling the engines of local coverage for years. Some execs call it consolidation. CTV used to have full newsrooms across Northern Ontario in cities like Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay and Timmins. Now, after massive cuts they have small bureaus in most of these cities to feed a larger newscast that covers an area bigger than France. If you are sitting in front of your TV in Thunder Bay are you interested in a car crash just outside Sudbury, thousands of kilometers away? I bet not. So guess what, numbers dropped and local interest waned. What followed was fewer local ads. It has become a vicious cycle. Cut local stations staff to save money. Local coverage drops. Viewership dips further. The network makes even less money and wants or needs to cut more. It seems obvious but the network execs can’t figure it out.
The same has happened to newspapers. The Canwest papers thought they had a great idea. Why should the Calgary Herald and The Montreal Gazette both send reporters to the Stanley Cup finals? Hey, they will both report on the same game. So to save a few bucks only one reporter covers the games and reports to all of the Canwest newspapers. Nobody at Canwest head office bothered to understand that if the reporter covering the event was from Toronto, he might focus on different players and might have more interest in the eastern team and that doesn’t play so well in Alberta and B.C. Perhaps at the G8 summit a B.C. reporter might focus on offshore drilling and a Montreal reporter might be more interested in abortion rights. In Canada the fact that fewer and fewer conglomerates own more and more of the media has meant that local coverage is disappearing and interest in traditional media, especially news, is dropping.
The same is true for newspapers in the U.S. The conglomerates are cutting newsrooms and asking the local papers to share content across the country. The results have been obvious. Papers are closing and even The New York Times and Washington Post are having trouble making ends meet. Sure consolidation is not the only problem, but I am convinced, that it was the chicken that laid the first egg.
To prove my point, local TV news in the U.S., where it is still mostly community run and community based has maintained strong audience numbers even when the networks were losing viewers and the economy tanked. The local stations in places like Buffalo, Minneapolis and Dallas have remained strong local observers who serve their communities well and thus they have been able to remain economically viable when all around them are suffering.
Local sells. Local works. It is high time that the people who run the media understand this point. This won’t happen though as long as the shareholders are more important than the audience and the decisions are all made in Toronto boardrooms. Diverse ownership, local ownership or at least local management free from interference could be the biggest boon to traditional media, maybe the only thing that can save TV and newspapers as they exist today. Can it happen? It looks grim. All indications are that we are moving in the opposite direction.