The Little Picture: How local news got its groove

Feb 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Newspaper critics love to rag on their local newscasts: the crime reporting, the graphics overkill, the idiotic sweeps stories, etc. Yet 150 million Americans tune in to them every week, far more than watch blue-chip network newscasts and cable news combined. More importantly, they trust local news more than their local newspaper or network news.
How this came to be is the story of Craig Allen’s “News Is People: The Rise of Local TV News and the Fall of News From New York” ($50, Iowa State University Press), the best book I’ve ever read about television news.
Mr. Allen, a journalism professor with two decades of experience as a local TV news director, anchor and producer, spent seven years amassing the trove of historical data found in “News Is People.” The book includes never-before-seen research memos and interviews with the key players behind the sea change in local TV news.
When stations brought in consultants in the 1960s, it was to show the government that they were worthy of license renewals; the unique form of populist news that resulted became the station’s profit center. Ironically, the much-reviled “news doctor” owes his existence to, of all people, Newton Minow. We all remember the “vast wasteland” speech he gave during his term as an FCC commissioner. But as Mr. Allen points out, in that same address Mr. Minow set in motion the process of “community ascertainment,” where broadcasters had to poll the viewing public and determine if the stations were serving their interests.
This was the Golden Age of Pop Sociology, and Mr. Allen provides a lively history of that time, which led to a revolution in all walks of life, including media.
The researchers had discovered the great American-class divide. While corporate leaders, by and large, were college-educated and affluent, their rank-and-file and their customers were of more modest means and education. This class divide played out in TV news as focus groups complained about anchors that talked above viewers’ heads, or acted as though political stories or international news were so important. What everyday viewers-“the people”-wanted, they said, was news about their neighborhoods and anchors who seemed to care about them and their concerns.
“For journalists everywhere, the advent of research was a right-angle turn,” Mr. Allen explained in an e-mail. “It opened a channel of communication between the mass audience and the newsroom. It gave Joe Six Pack a direct voice in the news process.”
“News Is People” is unapologetic in its defense of “the people” vs. “the elites” who, let’s face it, are all of us in the media. Very few journalists these days are without college degrees, compared with less than a quarter of the overall population.
It’s why Mr. Allen has little patience for critics who accuse TV of “dumbing down” the news. “What does that mean anyway?” Mr. Allen asks. “A person with a 200 IQ might tell you that every TV column you’ve written is `dumbed down.’ I guess I would ask: Is the intelligence level of media critics the one that counts?”
Today, however, local news is wracked by a mind-numbing sameness: Stories repeated every sweeps period; high turnover and burnout among the lookalike on-air talent. Mr. Allen does not have a solution, but I think he correctly identifies the root cause. Again, it’s class.
He writes, “What Joe Six Pack really wanted was something the system was not set up to provide: not reporters with college degrees but commoners-turned-reporters.” Rare is the member of the media elite who can pass for Joe Six Pack. One such person is John Drury, who at age 75 is signing off this month after 17 years as the lead anchor at Chicago’s ABC-owned WLS-TV.
What I really like about “News Is People” is that it’s an honest book. There is a bias in the media, but calling it “liberal” is missing the mark. A lot of ordinary Americans are liberal Democrats. They also distrust media elites.
Aaron Barnhart’s column appears monthly in EM. He covers television for the Kansas City Star, and his Web site (www.tvbarn.com) covers TV topics daily.