Peering Into the Future of News
Professor and Chair, Department of Journalism, Media Studies, and Public Relations
The columnist was calling from the Houston Chronicle: Had cutbacks in staffing at newspapers, radio, and television stations hampered coverage of disasters like Hurricane Ike, he wondered? Earlier that day, a professor in Virginia wanted to know how many fewer stations the big radio conglomerates owned now versus a year ago. The week before, a top 10 television executive wanted to know how much a morning anchor in that market should be paid. The Hartford Business Journal wanted to know whether it made sense for the local Fox affiliate to be expanding its news. The Baltimore Sun wondered about a station dropping its noon news in order to add a morning newscast.
I average a few calls – or e-mails – a week like that. I am the keeper of numbers for almost everything about local radio and television news in the United States. Even when I go on vacation, I carry a flash drive with the last 15 years of statistics. Just before I arrived at Hofstra in summer 2007, we were vacationing in London, England, when a reporter from The Washington Post called about the rise of women anchors in TV news. The resulting article was how many people at Hofstra learned I would be coming.
In the newspaper industry, statistics about employment, circulation and so on are gathered by a variety of organizations. In broadcast, the Radio- Television News Directors Association in Washington, D.C., has collected all the figures beginning in the early 1970s. I’m only the second person to oversee this, and I’ve been doing that research for the last 15 years ... now called the RTNDA/Hofstra University Annual Survey.
In the fourth quarter of every year, I mail, fax, call and e-mail every TV news director in the United States and a random sample of radio news directors. The data collected is released in a series of articles that cover station Web sites; salaries; women and minorities; news, staff and profitability – and everything else I may have asked about that year.
From there, the data appears in newspapers, magazines and books. It’s featured prominently in the annual State of the Media report produced by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Google the survey at any given point, and you’ll find 800 to 1,000 references to it online. Sometimes more. Frequently, I’m surprised at where I see the data, and sometimes I’m surprised to see myself quoted by someone I never spoke to. That’s another story.
The State of Radio and Television News
So what does the RTNDA/Hofstra University Annual Survey tell us about the state of radio and TV news in this country?
First, other than both occupying part of the audio spectrum and some common ownership, radio and TV news have little in common. At least as businesses. Radio news has generally been in decline since the beginning of radio deregulation at the end of the Carter administration. The typical radio news operation has one person in news, whose salary has not kept up with inflation. Consolidation has led to consolidated newsrooms serving multiple stations. Outside of large cities, there are comparatively few radio reporters who go out and cover events. Even in large cities, there’s likely to be only one or two stations with reporters who actually go out on the street.
Television news, by contrast, continues to grow and prosper. You may have read about massive layoffs in TV news, but that’s the aberration, not the norm. The typical station has seen no drop in staff. The number of stations originating local news is near an alltime high (774), and those stations run news on another 200 stations. About 95 percent of ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates run local news; about half the Fox stations run local news. Fewer CW and independents do. The fastest growing segment of local TV news is actually Hispanic TV, where more and more stations are adding or adding to local news.
The amount of local news is at all-time high, more than four hours a day for the typical station. For stations that run local news, those four hours a day produce more than 40 percent of total station revenue, a figure that’s been remarkably constant in these changing and challenging times.
Students typically help with mailing, calling and e-mailing news directors to help gather all the information. Graduate students at Hofstra did the data entry and ran a lot of the numbers. More importantly, we bring the results into the classroom so that our students have the most up-to-date information on the state of the industry, sometimes even before the professionals get it.
The Middletown Media Studies
Perhaps my most unusual research project was something called the Middletown Media Studies. The origin of the idea was simple enough. If you track the research data from the Pew Media Research Center and Nielsen Media Research, you find that the data is – and always has been – irreconcilably at odds. Pew, relying on self-reported survey responses, consistently finds about 75 percent of Americans saying they watch TV in a typical day ... and that they watch it for approximately two hours per day. Nielsen, which is the standard in the television industry and uses set-top boxes to record viewing, consistently finds that 91 percent of Americans watch TV in a typical day, and they watch more than four and a half hours a day.
Interestingly – at least to me – no one ever questioned how these numbers could be so at odds. Through a variety of unusual circumstances, money became available to fund a major research project, and I suggested a comparative study of media use, using a standard phone survey, a diary method and an observational study. The initial idea was to compare methodologies to see, among other things, how accurately people could recall their media use. We called 401 people and asked the exact same questions as the Pew Media Research Center. We compared those numbers with 359 diaries returned to us, but the most interesting part of the study was the data from 101 people that we observed for one full day each – from as soon after they got up in the morning until as close to bedtime as they would let us stay. As far as we know, there had never been as large an observational study of media use ever conducted.
The results were fascinating. The telephone survey results mirrored the Pew Media Research Center numbers – almost exactly. But the media use recorded by diaries was almost double what people said on the phone. And the observation study results were 14 percent higher than that. In fact, we found that not only were people pretty far off about how much they used the media, but they also weren’t even terribly accurate about whether they used a given medium at all. Unfortunately, there was no “correction” that we could calculate. People were off by differing amounts and in differing directions, overestimating their use of newspapers, for example, while dramatically underestimating their use of TV. In fact, we found that TV viewing is even higher than Nielsen reports because Nielsen didn’t include out-of-home viewing.
We followed up that 2003 study with Middletown Media Studies II in 2005. Having proven what we set out to do (TV Week called the first study the most ground-breaking study of audience in more than 20 years), the follow-up just involved observation. We developed our own computer software in order to collect more data, collect it faster, and analyze it more thoroughly. This time, we observed almost 400 people, looking at 15 different media along with 15 different life activities. All told, we catalogued more than 5,000 hours of observation – nearly 1.2 million data records.
From that, we were able to get an amazingly detailed picture of the media day and an amazingly sophisticated look at what we called concurrent media exposure: the use of two or more media at the same time. Although the prevailing media use theory had been that as new media came along, it displaced the use of old media, we were able to reconcile the growing use of new media along with steady or increasing use of at least some old media. Commonly, we found that people were not displacing old media; they were piling new media on top of it.