Hank Price is always interesting … and frequently provocative. But I’m going to disagree with him on a few points made in his NewsLab article “Winning news no longer TV station’s #1 goal” from October 7.
The number of independent TV newsrooms actually peaked in 2004/2005 at 778. That’s when the number of independent newsrooms started a slow descent — accompanied by, initially, a skyrocketing number of dependent TV news operations. By that, I mean stations that air newscasts produced by another station — thus the term dependent.
As the number of independent newsrooms fell, the total number of stations running local news continued to rise. The largest loss of independent newsrooms came in 2010/2011 (down 17) and 2011/2012 (down 20).
Dependent newsrooms held steady in 2010/2011 but rose substantially in 2011/2012 (up 19). From the peak in 2005 to today, we’ve lost an average of 4.8 independent newsrooms per year — although we’ve been surprisingly stable since 2016.
I agree that winning the news battle doesn’t necessarily correlate with station value, but I’m not sure it ever has. From a business standpoint, it’s about profitability — not simply audience. It would be possible for the No. 2 or even No. 3 news operation in a city to have higher net revenues than the market leader.
Here’s where we do agree: There’s no question that retransmission leverage is about the networks — and mostly, it seems about the NFL. On retransmission, I agree that it’s become the holy grail in local TV — sometimes to the detriment of the operation.
As retransmission revenue has soared, stations have not done enough to invest in the people and technology needed to explore new initiatives or emphasize the digital side. Stations’ digital revenues are way below what they should be as a result. Today, relatively few stations sell anything on their websites. Lots of them used to generate sales income in the earlier days of the web. Instead, TV companies sacrificed medium and long term dollars because they were blinded by retrans gold. This inability to walk and chew gum has and will cost them in the long run. And while Nexstar brought in more retrans money than advertising in one quarter, that’s not what its year will look like. (Plus, I hear that reverse compensation is more like 60 to 65% rather than 85%.)
What the next recession does will depend on its severity, but I’m not convinced that it will knock many players out. It’s more likely to speed up the consolidation that’s already taking place, if there’s even much more room for consolidation by the time we hit a recession.
Bob Papper is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Journalism at Hofstra University. For 23 years, he has overseen the RTDNA/Hofstra University Annual Survey on the state of local radio and television news. His “Broadcast News and Writing Stylebook” is in its sixth edition, and he’s the founder and co-editor of Electronic News, the official journal of the Electronic News Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. He’s worked at television stations in Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Columbus, Ohio, and is a past president of the Maine Association of Broadcasters. He has won more than 100 state, regional and national awards, including more than a dozen regional Edward R. Murrow Awards and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for “Excellence in Broadcast Journalism.” In 2012, he received the Ed Bliss Award, the highest honor from the Electronic News Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.