Hearst-Argyle to Up Political News

Mar 27, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Hearst-Argyle Television this year is staying true to its policy of the past three election years to devote extra time and resources to covering politics.

All of the company’s stations will air at least 10 minutes per weekday and, where possible, per weekend day of serious locally produced political news coverage, the company’s executives said. The local, state and national coverage will be scheduled in the month before primaries and elections impacting each of the station group’s outlets. The commitment represents 10 daily minutes of real coverage, not free airtime for candidates to run unedited campaign messages.

Hearst-Argyle is the first top 10 station group to make such a commitment. The 10 minutes doubles the five-minute daily commitment that was the cornerstone of Hearst-Argyle’s “Commitment 2000,” “Commitment 2002” and “Commitment 2004,” each of which won the Walter Cronkite Award from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication.

Hearst-Argyle owns 25 stations that present local news. The company also manages three stations, one of which presents local news.

Hearst-Argyle executives said they will carry the political news throughout the broadcast day, especially the early-morning hours, which have been a growth daypart during recent years. Executives also plan to ramp up political coverage on the stations’ Web sites and digital channels.

The group is not the only one that made a commitment to a minimum of five minutes per day of political coverage, a recommendation made in 1998 by the President’s Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters (known as the Gore Commission).

But Hearst-Argyle’s follow-through has been key in setting it apart, said Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School and director of the Norman Lear Center.

Mr. Kaplan said a number of stations have made commitments to five minutes in the past and “On average they did 2½ minutes,” because the political coverage often loses out when there are competing demands on local newsrooms’ resources and time.

“It really is about leadership from the top,” Mr. Kaplan said. Hearst-Argyle “tells everybody from the top that [the ‘Commitment’ pr oject] is not this year’s PR slogan.”

“This isn’t just a campaign to look good to the right people,” said Hearst-Argyle Senior VP for News Fred Young.

Reports will vary by station but in general are expected to include debates, interviews, truth tests of claims in campaign ads and coverage that focuses on issues beyond just the usual horse race stories.

“We really leave it up to the local markets to determine what works best for them, both on the Web and on their air,” said Hearst-Argyle News VP Candy Altman. “We set the parameters for this and give guidance through the process, but our hope is that each station will run with it and will come up with creative ideas.”

Hearst-Argyle President and CEO David Barrett sums up the group’s dedication to “Commitment” simply: It is an essential part of covering local news, he said.

“We want to be the local news leader,” Mr. Barrett said, adding that he doesn’t believe a station can aspire to be No. 1 without covering relevant politics effectively.

The group has stations in markets that will be hosting a collective 15 U.S. Senate races and 18 gubernatorial races that have the potential for broader-than-local impact.

Though the group’s stations receive some resistance to political coverage from viewers-particularly when it pre-empts prime-time fare-the group’s executives are encouraged that their strategy is effective because of their stations’ competitive ratings performance. The majority of Hearst-Argyle stations rank No. 1 or No. 2 in news in their markets.

Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center and former president of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, welcomed Hearst-Argyle’s move. She said the effect of limited coverage of politics on broadcast television is that politics is seen as unimportant and often distasteful because negative ads may get an inordinate amount of attention. She would like stations to devote a minimum of three hours weekly to local civics and electoral affairs.

“Over the last several years, television has told you that whatever happens to Michael Jackson is incredibly important in your life. That’s the message. We all know that anything important happens on television,” Ms. McGehee said. “The government regulators have failed the American people in ensuring that the public interest obligations are met. It’s great that Hearst-Argyle is doing this. It’s also pathetic that they would be seen as a leader on something that should be seen as a natural and in fact a required part of having a free license to use the public airwaves.”