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Boston makes the grade

Dec 16, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Three Boston stations got straight A’s for the quality of their 6 p.m. newscasts-the only city out of 17 cities graded this year by the Project for Excellence in Journalism that could claim such an honor.
The three A students were: WHDH-TV (NBC), WCVB-TV (ABC) and WBZ-TV (CBS). WHDH, which earned D’s in previous years, was named the No. 1 newscast in the entire study, while WCVB was named a close No. 2.
So what makes Boston such a great news town?
WHDH station owner Ed Ansin said the competition is stiff in all media and that makes everybody try harder. “You have to keep up with the technology and with the viewers’ expectations,” he said.
Peter Brown, news director at WBZ, agreed. “There is a very intelligent audience in Boston; people who pay attention to the news and who want to know what’s going on,” he said. “Our viewers demand depth.”
Colleen Marren, news director for WCVB-TV, added that because the whole market is so committed to covering news well, experienced journalists see Boston as an attractive and career-enhancing place to work. “We are able to attract the highest-quality people,” she said.
The other thing the stations have in common is a management commitment to enough resources to pay for news staffs larger than 100 people and for the kind of equipment that makes investigative and on-site reporting possible.
From the top
As Mr. Ansin said, “We haven’t been troubled by budget cutbacks-we’re private, not public, and the focus of our company is on news.”
Likewise, Ms. Marren said, “Quality comes from the top. Hearst is a company committed to quality news. We have the great fortune to have a management team in New York and in the building that believes in quality, and quality has been given to me as my mandate; it’s why I work here.”
On top of that, quality requires intelligent newsroom management. “We produce 40 hours of news a week,” Mr. Brown said. “You really have to manage the resources.”
Tom Rosenstiel, a former media critic for the Los Angeles Times, directs the Project for Excellence in Journalism and designed its study, which is in its fifth year. He said one reason Boston appeared to do better this year is that researchers looked at the stations’ 6 p.m. newscasts and not the 11 p.m. newscasts, which had been studied in previous years. The study always looks at the most-watched shows, and this change reflects a shift in audience loyalty.
When you look at the numbers, this isn’t particularly good news, Mr. Rosenstiel said. It reflects a declining number of viewers overall. More than 80 percent of markets have declining numbers. “The news audience for 11 is declining faster than the audience for news at 6,” Mr. Rosenstiel said. “What we saw in Boston is the same trend that we see in other large markets only more pronounced. People aren’t as reliant on TV for news, and Boston is on the leading edge of that.”
Mr. Rosenstiel said stations that weaken their 11 p.m. newscasts in favor of a stronger presentation at 6 p.m. do themselves and their viewers a disservice, and that many viewers are voting with their remotes, abandoning TV news altogether and leaving weaker newscasts faster.
Don’t wait until 11 p.m.
“Conventional thinking is that 11 should be a fast and furious headline service that lacks the kind of serious news and depth that the earlier, signature newscast has,” Mr. Rosenstiel said. “The numbers are starting to show that is a bad idea. There’s no evidence that viewers want different kinds of news at 11 than they want at 6.”
In grading stations, the Project for Excellence looks at whether the stories are focused on important rather than trivial issues. Stations get points for intelligent sourcing, a good balance of opinion, relevance and the station’s commitment to localizing national stories. Highly rated stations are enterprising, and they cover breaking news intelligently with good footage, mixing crime with business, social issues, politics and health.
And the winners take as long to tell the story as is required to do it well. Mr. Rosenstiel said this is particularly important because viewers appear to like this thorough approach as well.
“We’ve found every single year that stations that do more long stories and fewer short stories have better ratings change,” he said. “This notion that people have shorter attention spans and want more stories with eye candy-it is skywriting and it is false. There is no research to support it; there is only research to repudiate it.”