There’s more local TV news on the air than ever, and more is on the way. That’s the headline from the latest RTDNA research conducted by Bob Papper. The median amount of news aired on weekdays, 5.5 hours, broke the old record by half an hour. More than a third of stations surveyed said they added a newscast last year, and a third said they planned to add news this year. But the number of stations producing that news continues to slide, which raises this question: How much of what viewers see on many of local TV stations is diluted or duplicated content?
The report found 714 stations producing local TV news, down just slightly from last year’s 717. Another 339 stations–a record high–air news produced by someone else, up from 328 a year ago. Put another way, one-third of all stations airing local news don’t produce it themselves.
A look at long-term trends tells the story more clearly. Ten years ago, there were 778 news producing stations. That number shrank dramatically during the recession, and hasn’t recovered. But the number of stations carrying news they don’t produce has grown substantially in just the last few years. Three years ago, 235 stations fit that description. The new record of 339 is an increase of 44 percent. Let that sink in for a minute. Three years ago, one in four local TV stations aired news from someone else. Today, it’s one in three.
What does this new local TV landscape mean for viewers and journalists? My chapter on local TV news in the 2014 State of the News Media report lays it out. “You can argue that every time you add an outlet, that unless you add a commensurate number of staff people then you’re just spreading yourself thinner and thinner,” Papper said at the time (emphasis mine).
We won’t know the results of the annual RTDNA staffing survey for another month or two. Papper tells me it’s up. But my guess is the numbers won’t show anything like a proportional increase in the number of people employed in TV newsrooms. The conclusion is inevitable: producing more TV news with a higher airtime-to-staff ratio affects the quality of the product, and not in a good way.
—A version of this column was previously posted at Advancing the Story