Strife in the area's news media market has centered mostly on the faltering Richmond Times-Dispatch, but the region's three major television news stations are struggling with their own set of economic challenges.
Slack advertising has hit TV stations hard. While layoffs are nowhere on the level of the daily newspaper's 82 lost jobs so far this year, they still threaten. Top-rated WWBT-12 (NBC) went through a round late last year, laying off 15 percent of its staff, including anchor Gene Lepley and sports director Ben Hamlin, station veterans. Young Broadcasting, the New York-based parent of WRIC-8 (ABC), is in bankruptcy. WTVR-6 (CBS) says it's made no significant staff cuts, although it has instituted a number of cost-cutting measures including some pay cuts and furloughs.
It's the same storm of problems plaguing stations throughout the country, says Deborah Potter, a broadcast analyst and director of the Washington-based Newslab.org, a nonprofit group that monitors the broadcast media. Tight money has forced news operations to reorganize their troops and have some of them double-up on tasks such as shooting video and reporting. Nationally and in Richmond, there's also talk of pooling resources such as having one station shoot breaking news video for others.
For decades, television stations were typically cash cows with productive udders. Profit margins from 40 percent to 50 percent — levels unheard of in other businesses — were not uncommon. That's hardly the case today. The blame can be placed in large part on the faltering automobile business, typically a station's No. 1 source of advertising revenue. The shuttering of hundreds of car dealerships by bankrupt Chrysler and General Motors has made matters worse.
In addition, the recent switch to digital broadcast as mandated by the Federal Communications Commission has been “hugely expensive,” Potter says. There's competition from cable, radio, the Internet and new-media ventures. And, as with businesses everywhere, getting financing has been like pulling teeth.
Is the turmoil affecting news coverage? So far, Potter says, television stations tend to run about the same number of stories, but require reporters to handle additional responsibilities such as filing for broadcast news shows and the stations' Web sites. “That's bound to affect the coverage,” she says.
One hurdle is that traditional local TV news doesn't always translate as well online, and there are only so many ambulance-chasing stories. “Crime is always the No. 1 item,” Potter says, because such reports are simple to put together. Traffic wrecks and weather likewise are standard fare because they're popular and lend themselves to video.
“We're still covering major stories but [the economic downturn] affects how we cover it,” says Don Richards, general manager of NBC 12. “Our news and production departments were separate and now they are merged.” The station has cut its staff by about 15 percent late last year to a staff of about 100 — some directly related to the economy, others through attrition.
Ownership changes have also created some instability. Long held by North Carolina insurance company Jefferson Pilot, NBC 12 was taken over by Lincoln Financial when it bought the Tar Heel insurer in 2005. Then in November 2007, Lincoln Financial sold the station to Raycom of Montgomery, Ala., in a multi-station deal worth $583 million.
But Raycom also owned CBS 6 here, which went against FCC rules prohibiting a single owner from owning more than one station in the same market. The Justice Department denied the sale to Raycom. The issue was resolved several months ago when Local TV, a new company near Cincinnati, bought CBS 6.
Station officials with WRIC-TV 8, whose New York-based parent Young Broadcasting filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February, did not return Style's requests for comment.
Even as stations face tight times, they must reconsider how to allocate resources and stand out from competitors. In some cases, this has led to new approaches in covering Richmond news.
At CBS 6, officials say they began emphasizing stronger local coverage and investigative reports three years ago and try to go beyond the run-of-the-mill murder story. “We do more enterprise reporting than any TV station in the market,” its general manager, Peter Maroney, says. In a rare break with trends, the station's adding a 7 p.m. half-hour news program that will launch in September, drawing in part from CBS affiliates across the state.
NBC 12 says it's also focusing more on longer, investigative reporting, and has been particularly savvy in connecting with viewers through blogs by newsroom staffers and through social media. Weekend anchor and reporter Ryan Nobles, who writes the political blog Decision Virginia, has taken to running live Twitter chat rooms during his evening news broadcasts.
“No other Richmond TV station provides local news and weather over more platforms to more viewers than NBC 12 News,” says its marketing director, Paula Hersh. The station just won an Emmy for the region's best newscast.
There may be a window of opportunity for local television if traditional sources of news such as daily newspapers continue to shrink.
There's already been some crossover. In 2007 CBS 6 hired former longtime Times-Dispatch columnist Mark Holmberg, who has a reputation as a gritty street reporter. Last year, for example, Holmberg scooped the daily and other media outlets, including Style, on perhaps the biggest story of the summer: former Police Chief Rodney Monroe's inadequate bachelor's degree from Virginia Commonwealth University.
There had been partnerships between the daily newspaper and NBC 12 to double up on coverage, but that idea came to an end. The station still teams up with the newspaper on the business end. Both CBS 6 and NBC 12 have had similar partnerships with Style. When the Times-Dispatch touched off howls of reader protest by dropping free television listings, for example, NBC 12 offered to help pay for a partial listing in the paper.
Maroney says that the weakened Times-Dispatch means that TV stations have a public service obligation to keep up coverage. That's no small task because television stations face tremendous competition for viewers' time and attention. Even so, surveys show that TV is the primary source of news for most Americans.
What could emerge, Holmberg says, is a new kind of news model that merges the best of print, television and the Web. “As newspaper staffs across the country shrink exponentially,” he says, “it's going to come down to a race to see which one has the best Web site, the best reporting, writing, video sound, hustle and presentation.”
Holmberg's idea isn't entirely new. Media General, owner of the Times-Dispatch, attracted much attention in the late 1990s by being a pioneer in merging newspaper, television and Internet news desks at its Tampa, Fla., operations. Recently, however, the company's stock prices have slipped from about $65 a share a few years ago to about $2 a share, reflecting dramatic downturns faced by other media companies.
The industry upheaval also offers an opportunity for doing better journalism if the magic bullet can be found — and if local television stations are willing to risk playing with their traditional formats and approaches.
At NBC 12, reporter Rachel DePompa broke a story about a possible $18 million Ponzi investment scheme allegedly operated by Don Lacey, a resident of Hanover County who is a former Henrico County police officer and real estate agent. She used her blog and social media to help unravel the story. NBC 12 took the unusual step of canning its routine programming during an 11 p.m. newscast and giving DePompa 15 minutes to recap her series — giving viewers a fuller understanding of the story.
One reason NBC 12 was able to cut her loose, DePompa says, is that the station has more reporters than the other two contenders. (Station execs did not reveal their newsroom staffing levels, but one gauge of the stations' Web sites has NBC 12 featuring 36 news personnel compared with 21 at CBS 6 and 20 at Channel 8.)
“Viewers are more sophisticated now and are expecting that extra depth — especially since newspapers have become more like TV news with shorter and fewer stories,” CBS 6's Holmberg says. “It's a great opportunity for video news.” S