Broadcast journalists recently were encouraged when one of the largest and most comprehensive studies of local television news proclaimed that quality sells. The study was produced by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and a group of TV news journalists, university scholars, and professional researchers. It concluded that the best stations, as defined by local news professionals, were more likely to succeed commercially than fail. No matter that the study also found that the worst news stations were just as likely to succeed in the ratings as the best stations. Apparently, there are two key local TV news audiences out there--the one that embraces news popularly referred to as tabloid journalism (stories featuring scandal, celebrity, and revelation) and one that prefers information and serious content. Stations that tried to do both serious and sensational news fared worst in the study.
These broadcast journalists were encouraged because the study pointed out that stations which did more long stories, had better sourcing, showed more enterprise, and did more stories about big ideas and issues were doing as well as stations that went tabloid. The old problems, of course, still surfaced. Local TV news is superficial and reactive. The study called it "journalism on the run" and concluded that economic demands that force stations to increasingly produce more with less were the main culprit. Local TV news reporters cover more than a story a day, a demand that makes depth and care difficult, if not impossible.
So what did the study say had to be done to improve local TV news? Stations need to be consistent, patient, and really deliver quality throughout the newscast. Halfway won't do it. The study said the high road is not necessarily expensive. And it emphasized that one way to improve quality and ratings is to do longer stories. Story length is the factor that affects quality more than any other. The study's best stations averaged 79 seconds a story; the worst, 48 seconds.
The solution? Stations might benefit from experimenting with 45- to 60-second stories, a length largely ignored, the study found. That time frame could allow for one more source or more depth. The study suggested that stations also encourage and provide time for correspondents to do more research. Simply adding more time to stories won't improve quality. The study also concludes: "Successful quality is not a mystery. It is providing people with real information about...