Veteran Journalist: Local TV News Is a Waste of Your Time

"Local television news landscape is populated by bubble-heads."

Charleston Gazette editorial about local TV news has created a stir in newsrooms around the country—not because it was written by respected veteran network news correspondent Ed Rabel, but because it was vicious and unrelenting.

Ed Rabel is a newsman’s newsman. Based out of Atlanta for CBS News, he interviewed Martin Luther King and would often appear on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite reporting on the southern unrest of the civil rights movement. When he moved to NBC, he reported from Israel and Cuba. He has journalistic street cred.

Rabel certainly isn’t the first scribe to lament the demise of local news, and he won’t be the last. Local TV news hangs in the airways like a pathetically stubborn piñata begging to be hit over and over again. I’ve even given it a few whacks right here on the Philly Post. However Rabel’s disdain hits a whole new level.

As you read some of Rabel’s major complaints, think of Philadelphia’s TV news; you’ll see he could have been writing this from West Philly instead of West Virginia.

If you’re satisfied to simply see the day’s digest of house fires, fender benders and high school reunions, fine. Otherwise, the regional boob-tube newscasts are nothing more than a “vast wasteland” …

Rabel, of course, is right. Often, the minor house fires and fender benders are videotaped by a photographer or a helicopter before the assignment desk knows that it isn’t newsworthy. The problem is that once it makes it on to a disc, it is going to make it on the air to get the story count up. Often a worthwhile report will be cut down or eliminated to make room for a garage fire or minor accident. This is a problem that can be easily fixed.

… the weather, most of the time, is not news. Most of the time, it’s a drip. Yet the weather is very big on the local stations. They even lead their newscasts with the forecast, like, “Very sunny today, but that could change.” Holy headline!

This can be infuriating. I have heard managers say in Philadelphia newsrooms, “If you don’t have a better lead, lead with weather.” That means lead with weather, even if it is not significant. This mantra is born from misreading news research that 87 percent of viewers watch local news for the weather. Yes, they want the forecast, but they don’t want to have their intelligence insulted at the beginning of a newscast. This again can be easily fixed.

Instead of focusing on original reporting, the local stations are focused on cosmetics. Not a country for old men and women, the local television “news” landscape is populated by bubble-heads and glib, young, sometimes pretty know-nothings.

Philadelphia TV stations are hiring the young and inexperienced more now than at any time in the relatively short history of TV news. There are two reasons for this. First, hiring a young reporter out of Chapip, Kentucky with one year of experience is a lot cheaper. Second, most general managers come from a sales background, not news. I have seen them watch reporter and anchor reels. You would think they were watching a video from an online dating service. There’s no evidence that hiring young and attractive reporters and anchors gets ratings. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary. Women between the ages of 25-54, the prime news viewers, can’t connect with the beauty pageant reporters and are often offended by the hires.

Everything Rabel pointed out is blatantly obvious and immensely fixable. What’s lacking is the desire and thus the ability to change. There are smart people in local news, both on the air and behind the scenes. But they are overwhelmed and overruled by consultants and corporate types with no news background who stubbornly insist they know best.  The choice for local managers is conform to a standard they know is self-destructive or be unemployed.

So despite the honest rants of Ed Rabel, myself and others, nothing will change—except the ratings and revenue that will continue to decline. As they do, the quality of local news will continue to decline.