Professor and Chair, Department of Journalism, Media Studies, and Public Relations
The columnist was calling from the Houston Chronicle: Had cutbacks in staffing at newspapers, radio, and television stations hampered coverage of disasters like Hurricane Ike, he wondered? Earlier that day, a professor in Virginia wanted to know how many fewer stations the big radio conglomerates owned now versus a year ago. The week before, a top 10 television executive wanted to know how much a morning anchor in that market should be paid. The Hartford Business Journal wanted to know whether it made sense for the local Fox affiliate to be expanding its news. The Baltimore Sun wondered about a station dropping its noon news in order to add a morning newscast.
I average a few calls – or e-mails – a week like that. I am the keeper of numbers for almost everything about local radio and television news in the United States. Even when I go on vacation, I carry a flash drive with the last 15 years of statistics. Just before I arrived at Hofstra in summer 2007, we were vacationing in London, England, when a reporter from The Washington Post called about the rise of women anchors in TV news. The resulting article was how many people at Hofstra learned I would be coming.
In the newspaper industry, statistics about employment, circulation and so on are gathered by a variety of organizations. In broadcast, the Radio- Television News Directors Association in Washington, D.C., has collected all the figures beginning in the early 1970s. I’m only the second person to oversee this, and I’ve been doing that research for the last 15 years … now called the RTNDA/Hofstra University Annual Survey.
In the fourth quarter of every year, I mail, fax, call and e-mail every TV news director in the United States and a random sample of radio news directors. The data collected is released in a series of articles that cover station Web sites; salaries; women and minorities; news, staff and profitability – and everything else I may have asked about that year.
From there, the data appears in newspapers, magazines and books. It’s featured prominently in the annual State of the Media report produced by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Google the survey at any given point, and you’ll find 800 to 1,000 references to it online. Sometimes more. Frequently, I’m surprised at where I see the data, and sometimes I’m surprised to see myself quoted by someone I never spoke to. That’s another story.
The State of Radio and Television News
So what does the RTNDA/Hofstra University Annual Survey tell us about the state of radio and TV news in this country?
First, other than both occupying part of the audio spectrum and some common ownership, radio and TV news have little in common. At least as businesses. Radio news has generally been in decline since the beginning of radio deregulation at the end of the Carter administration. The typical radio news operation has one person in news, whose salary has not kept up with inflation. Consolidation has led to consolidated newsrooms serving multiple stations. Outside of large cities, there are comparatively few radio reporters who go out and cover events. Even in large cities, there’s likely to be only one or two stations with reporters who actually go out on the street.
Television news, by contrast, continues to grow and prosper. You may have read about massive layoffs in TV news, but that’s the aberration, not the norm. The typical station has seen no drop in staff. The number of stations originating local news is near an alltime high (774), and those stations run news on another 200 stations. About 95 percent of ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates run local news; about half the Fox stations run local news. Fewer CW and independents do. The fastest growing segment of local TV news is actually Hispanic TV, where more and more stations are adding or adding to local news.
The amount of local news is at all-time high, more than four hours a day for the typical station. For stations that run local news, those four hours a day produce more than 40 percent of total station revenue, a figure that’s been remarkably constant in these changing and challenging times.
Students typically help with mailing, calling and e-mailing news directors to help gather all the information. Graduate students at Hofstra did the data entry and ran a lot of the numbers. More importantly, we bring the results into the classroom so that our students have the most up-to-date information on the state of the industry, sometimes even before the professionals get it.
The Middletown Media Studies
Perhaps my most unusual research project was something called the Middletown Media Studies. The origin of the idea was simple enough. If you track the research data from the Pew Media Research Center and Nielsen Media Research, you find that the data is – and always has been – irreconcilably at odds. Pew, relying on self-reported survey responses, consistently finds about 75 percent of Americans saying they watch TV in a typical day … and that they watch it for approximately two hours per day. Nielsen, which is the standard in the television industry and uses set-top boxes to record viewing, consistently finds that 91 percent of Americans watch TV in a typical day, and they watch more than four and a half hours a day.
Interestingly – at least to me – no one ever questioned how these numbers could be so at odds. Through a variety of unusual circumstances, money became available to fund a major research project, and I suggested a comparative study of media use, using a standard phone survey, a diary method and an observational study. The initial idea was to compare methodologies to see, among other things, how accurately people could recall their media use. We called 401 people and asked the exact same questions as the Pew Media Research Center. We compared those numbers with 359 diaries returned to us, but the most interesting part of the study was the data from 101 people that we observed for one full day each – from as soon after they got up in the morning until as close to bedtime as they would let us stay. As far as we know, there had never been as large an observational study of media use ever conducted.
The results were fascinating. The telephone survey results mirrored the Pew Media Research Center numbers – almost exactly. But the media use recorded by diaries was almost double what people said on the phone. And the observation study results were 14 percent higher than that. In fact, we found that not only were people pretty far off about how much they used the media, but they also weren’t even terribly accurate about whether they used a given medium at all. Unfortunately, there was no “correction” that we could calculate. People were off by differing amounts and in differing directions, overestimating their use of newspapers, for example, while dramatically underestimating their use of TV. In fact, we found that TV viewing is even higher than Nielsen reports because Nielsen didn’t include out-of-home viewing.
We followed up that 2003 study with Middletown Media Studies II in 2005. Having proven what we set out to do (TV Week called the first study the most ground-breaking study of audience in more than 20 years), the follow-up just involved observation. We developed our own computer software in order to collect more data, collect it faster, and analyze it more thoroughly. This time, we observed almost 400 people, looking at 15 different media along with 15 different life activities. All told, we catalogued more than 5,000 hours of observation – nearly 1.2 million data records.
From that, we were able to get an amazingly detailed picture of the media day and an amazingly sophisticated look at what we called concurrent media exposure: the use of two or more media at the same time. Although the prevailing media use theory had been that as new media came along, it displaced the use of old media, we were able to reconcile the growing use of new media along with steady or increasing use of at least some old media. Commonly, we found that people were not displacing old media; they were piling new media on top of it.
The Future of News
I also supervise periodic national research on the future of news funded by the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Although that research focuses on broadcast and new media, it also takes a look at the larger media marketplace. One of the interesting findings in those nationwide surveys is that people have a remarkably similar definition of what news is.
The question was to what extent adults (18+) understood the difference between opinion programs like The O’Reilly Factor or The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or Entertainment Tonight as opposed to the evening news. Using a 5-point scale, where 5 meant a program was definitely news and 1 meant that a program was definitely not news, we found that people really do perceive clear differences in the various programs. At the top were the programs that people identified as definitely news:
- Local evening news on TV………..4.4
- Newscasts on cable like CNN, Fox, MSNBC …………………4.4
- Network news on ABC, CBS and NBC …………………………4.4
- Local radio news ……………………..4.0
Then we drop to a second tier that may be news:
- Programs like 60 Minutes and Dateline ………………………………….3.7
- Sunday morning interview shows like Face the Nation …………………3.5
- Morning shows like Today and GMA ………………………………..3.4
And the bottom group that, overall, people said was not news:
- Cable shows like The O’Reilly Factor, etc……………2.9
- Radio programs like Rush Limbaugh, etc………………….2.4
- Programs like Inside Edition, etc. …………………..2.3
- The Daily Show with Jon Stewart ……………………………..2.1
- Talk shows like Oprah and Ellen…………………………………2.1
Keep in mind that the data doesn’t tell us what people like or watch or listen to … only how they define news.
Interestingly, there was absolutely no difference in how young people or older people scored Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. Young people are more familiar with it and are far more likely to watch it, but both groups know it isn’t news.
So as we try to figure out the future of news – and media in general for that matter – what do we know and what don’t we know?
When I asked a national sample of adults (2006) where they got most of their news, this was their answer (respondents could pick up to three choices):
- Local TV news……………………65.5%
- Local newspaper ………………..28.4%
- National network TV news …..28.3%
- Local radio new ………………….14.7%
- On the Internet ……………………11.2%
- National newspaper……………….3.8%
- Someplace else……………………..1.3%
One of the most interesting things to me about those numbers is how similar they were to the same question I asked of a national sample three years earlier. Here are some of the critical points that I would argue that we don’t know. We don’t have a good handle on TV news viewing. While many people have noted that viewing for the network evening newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC is down substantially over the last 10 to 15 years, that’s really more meaningful to ABC, CBS and NBC than to society. The bigger question is to what extent people get national and international news from recognized national/international news organizations. When we include such upstarts as CNN, Fox and MSNBC, we find that the national/international TV news audience hasn’t dropped at all. What about local TV news? We don’t know. Whenever the figures have been run, they’ve been so flawed with omissions that we really don’t know whether the local TV news audience is going up, down or holding steady. I’ve been working with the Project for Excellence in Journalism on this, and I’m hoping that we have the answer sometime in spring 2009.
I would also argue that it’s still unclear how the Internet figures into our news consumption patterns. We know that the vast preponderance of Internet news consumption takes place between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. I can confirm from my own research that most of Internet news consumption takes place at work, during the work day. If employers start to clamp down on non-business Internet use, will that change the pattern or just move the location? Since TV news still dominates in the home, does the fact that the Internet news usage is from work rather than home make the usage secondary, or is that irrelevant? Even if that usage is secondary, does its existence mean that people will consume (view, read or listen) less news at home? Too early to tell.
So what do we know?
- As I noted above, there is a surprisingly consistent view of what news is … across all demographics.
- People want their news right up to the minute.
- Almost three-quarters of adults say it’s very or somewhat important to be able to watch TV news when they want.
- People want anchors for the news, especially 18-to 34-year-olds (which was a surprise to me). That’s relevant because on demand and assemble your own are harder to accomplish with anchors.
- People are slow to connect with small screen news. That could change as it becomes more widely available, but the reality is that people want to watch video on the largest screen available.
- More than 40 percent of adults say they would like to assemble their own newscasts. The results break down based on education. The more highly educated, the more likely people are to say they want to assemble their own newscasts.
- More than 60 percent of adults say they would like to interact with TV news. That breaks down by age. Younger adults are far more likely to say they want to interact … a carryover from video games, I suspect.
The bottom line question I asked (2006) was simple:
If you could get exactly the same news – whenever you wanted – in a traditional newspaper, on the television, on the radio, online or on a handheld electronic device … which would be your first choice?
- TV news…………………………….63.3%
- Computer online …………………11.1%
- Radio news…………………………..5.8%
- Handheld electronic device…….2.0%
Notice how similar the results are to the results for where people say they now get most of their news. I think that’s a critical point as we figure out where – and how quickly – we’re going.
So here’s some of what I see:
- There’s a huge appetite for news and information. There are no credible numbers out that suggest otherwise.
- The Internet has clearly led to a greater demand for greater user control and convenience.
- The Internet’s force as a news vehicle is less clear. We can hypothesize all we want, but we’re just going to have to let it play out for a while yet.
- Just because a technology is new doesn’t mean people will care. It’s easy to get caught up in the latest whatever, but over time, we see widespread technological adoption not based on the invention itself, but on the invention’s ability to let us do what we already do (or want to do) cheaper, easier, faster and more conveniently.
- Look for an ever-increasing number of niche markets developing in news and information. Many of those won’t be financially viable – at least not on a stand-alone basis – but will be adjuncts of established media companies and brands. That’s where things like small screen news are likely to reside.
- There’s a lot of loyalty and attachment to traditional media, including newspapers. But newspapers face three related, very real problems: 1) Young people aren’t reading newspapers; 2) Newspaper circulation is dropping and penetration per population is plummeting; and 3) The drop in classified advertising is devastating. Without changes, I think we’ll start to see some dailies become less than daily; others will become boutique subsets of their Web sites; others may disappear.
- People love TV, and I think it will continue to dominate the media landscape for the foreseeable future … as will TV news, which will develop its own semi-niche markets in part via one or more digital channels aside from the main channel.
- As TV and the computer merge – as they surely will – audience will follow established local brands. That means local stations will have an advantage in surviving a changing media landscape – if they can adjust how they structure the business side.
- The biggest threat to traditional media isn’t declining readership or audience; it’s an outdated business model. Companies that insist on having content people on the cutting edge of technology need to get their sales and marketing people into this century. The mass circulation magazines didn’t go out of business because of declining readership; they were actually at peak readership when they went under. They folded because they lost their advertising base. That’s the biggest threat to newspapers right now, and it’ll be a growing threat to TV soon enough.
- Progress and change always happen faster when looking back than when you’re living it. The fact that people identify current media consumption patterns as their preferred media consumption patterns suggest that we’re not dealing with a vast pool of dissatisfied consumers, desperately searching for something new. That doesn’t mean they won’t change. But they won’t unless and until the alternatives allow them to do what they want to do better, faster, cheaper or more conveniently. And while our children’s children’s children will look back in awe at how communication and media changed in the 20th and 21st centuries, those of us actually living it will be surprised at what seems like a slow but steady pace.