Home > Uncategorized > In Praise of Local Newsrooms

In Praise of Local Newsrooms

-first posted at RTDNA.org on November 10, 2009

The big story last week was undoubtedly the terrible violence at Fort Hood in Texas.  Most of us were probably in our newsrooms when we first heard about the shootings that afternoon. As we jumped into action for our own newscasts, we had to keep an eye on the information flowing from the area.  The common practice is to tune to CNN, Fox News Channel, or MSNBC.  In my newsroom we tuned to MSNBC, tracking the details coming from the scene.  It was there I saw one of my former reporters live on the scene outside the base.  Jade Mingus stood right at the front gate, relaying information she was receiving from her own senses — the sights, sounds, and commotion all around her.  Later, she had the chance to tell everyone at once what happened while doing a live talkback with Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News.  It was exciting to see someone I coached and trained doing that job in front of the entire country. At first, I marveled at how a small-market reporter (Jade works at KCEN in Waco-Temple) happened into the right place at the right time to be the main reporter for NBC on this huge story. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that nearly every big story happens someplace local. And local newsrooms, particularly television and radio newsrooms, are often the main source of information for the rest of the country.

For all the talk lately about prime time ratings on Fox News Channel, MSNBC, and CNN, it’s easy to forget that much of the breaking news coverage those networks deliver to their national audiences comes from local affiliates.  Sure, they have their own teams of reporters placed strategically around the country and globe to cover news just for them. But there aren’t nearly enough to be everywhere when needed. So, when a big story breaks in a reasonably out-of-the-way part of Texas, the nearest dedicated MSNBC reporter is still hours away. But the local station is already on the scene doing this story. That, of course, serves local viewers and listeners. But it also serves the rest of us through those cable middlemen. So, last week alone, local stations in central Texas brought us the Fort Hood story, local stations in Orlando brought us the news of a workplace shooting there, and even stations from tiny Bismarck, North Dakota did their part to supply coverage of the tragic drownings of three college softball players in that remote, rural pond.

These are important stories and we wouldn’t know nearly as much as we do — or know it as quickly — if we didn’t rely on local newsrooms to provide the information. Reporters, assignment editors, and producers at those local stations have their ears to the figurative tracks every day, hearing that news train on its way long before they can hear it in Atlanta or New York.  And the quality of local news rings true in more than just breaking stories. Local stations are out finding the stories that matter most — even in a time when staffs have been cut and feet on the street are harder to find.  Too often, people don’t seem to notice.  Columbia University angered more than a few local radio news directors (and those of us who work to represent them) by suggesting in a report last month entitled “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” that commercial radio stations in small and medium markets do little or no local reporting.  For one, Jim Farley, vice president of news for the Bonneville stations and local VP of news at WTOP in Washington, DC, fired off a missive to Howard Kurtz (who reported about the study in his Washington Post media column).  Farley cited half a dozen small-market radio newsrooms that had just received Edward R. Murrow awards at our dinner in New York.  As a judge who listens to dozens of radio entries for the Murrow contest, not to mention just a fan of radio in other markets when I travel, I say Farley is right on the money here.  While quantity of local radio reporting might not be as high as most of us would want, the quality is often better than ever.  With tools that make radio reporting more nimble than ever before, the days of lugging a Marantz recorder around like an anvil in a shoulder bag are over. That’s made radio work the most portable of the electronic media, meaning better access in the field and better production values at the other end before air.

So with local television newsrooms providing quantity through their wide geographic distribution (and often quality through the hard work of reporters and producers who have devoted a lifetime of work staying local and not moving to the network) and local radio newsrooms providing quality through their close-up audio lenses (and often quantity through the tireless output of stories at the truly great news radio stations), viewers and listeners still can count on these old media sources to provide them with much of what they consume each week. Just as the casual online news reader doesn’t understand the role of the print newspaper when he says “I get all my news online,” avid watchers and listeners of cable TV news or network radio miss the source of much of what fills the rundowns of their favorite programs.  One chance to see a young local reporter I happen to know covering a big story on the Texas plains reminded me exactly where the roots lie from which most news coverage sprouts. But it doesn’t take seeing someone you know. Look past the logo in the bottom corner of the screen. Think about how hard that reporter or photographer is working to bring you the story from rural Kentucky or chilly Alaska–and often for how little pay.  Like looking through a microscope, you’re down to the building blocks of news — the atomic level.  For me, that’s where it all begins.

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