Breaking News

From where Gregg Kelley sits, everything is fine. Wonderful, even. And why not? Kelley is the general manager of WFXT-TV, Fox 25—has been for the past seven years. He's in his office, a nice wide space with black leather chairs and a dark wooden desk. Ten plasma televisions—eight small and two large—hang on the wall like artwork, tuned to all manner of programming. A glass partition lets him peer down from his second-floor digs into the Fox newsroom, an ultramodern setup with supersophisticated hardware. Fox 25 completed the multimillion-dollar, 80,000-square-foot studio two years ago. It looks like something out of a sci-fi movie, only hip—lots of computers and television monitors, lots of glass and lights. Lots of cool.

Kelley gets to kick around here every day and call it work. Puts a grin on a man's face. More to the point, Fox 25, which didn't even have a late news show until 1996, is doing pretty well in the local news department. Its morning show is hot, and its ratings are solid at 10 p.m. What's not to be happy about, right?

“We're in a position of strength in all three key demographics,” Kelley tells me. “We've been pretty successful with all three groups: 18 to 34, 18 to 49, and 25 to 54. These are the demos that are important in our business.”

That's what this is all about: demographics. That's why a lot of people think things could be better for the local news industry—or at least, for its prospects. That's why I came to speak with Kelley—to talk about one demographic in particular. Specifically, the youth demo, the 18-to-34 camp, and why it's more important for all local stations, including Fox 25, to court them now than it's ever been. Because if the local news is going to be part of our community fabric, if it's going to be as important as it was 20 or 30 years ago, when it was one of the loudest (not to mention one of the only) voices in town—if it doesn't want to go the way of the increasingly irrelevant network TV news and the daily newspapers that are hemorrhaging circulation (and staff)—it needs to do a better job of getting young people to tune in.

Right now, they're tuning out. When you combine the viewers of both of Boston's 10 p.m. and all three 11 p.m. broadcasts over a one-month stretch, only about one in six is under 35, according to the Nielsen Media Research ratings company.

“Television news has always skewed older. Always,” says WHDH-TV, Channel 7 general manager Mike Carson. “It's never been watched heavily by young people. But that's even truer today. I attribute that to the Internet and information age. There are just so many ways for people to get their news now.

“It is a very gradual siphoning of viewers from the universe. There's not too much we can do about it except try to do the best
newscast we can and try to attract viewers however we can. But even with some erosion going on, it's still the best medium, the most dynamic and compelling, to reach people. You can still reach more than print or radio—it's just getting smaller.”

There is any number of reasons why the local news has never been a favorite among young people, not the least of which is that they don't tend to be home at 6 or 11 or, if they are, they're not watching the local news—they're tuned to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or something equally fresh. Still, general managers and news directors always assumed that their ratings and demographics would remain constant because as the 18-to-34s got older, they'd begin to tune in. After all, you can't stay 18 to 34 forever. It made sense for a long time because it always had worked out that way. It made sense because,
for decades, the local stations were the biggest players around. It made sense until now.

What Carson and some others fear is happening today—what has them worried—is that fewer and fewer young people are graduating to becoming viewers. Much like the tobacco companies, the local news needs to hook people while they're young. But maybe the old conventional thinking isn't logical any longer. Maybe, because there are so many other means of getting news, from the Internet to cable, they won't ever watch the locals. And if they don't graduate, if they don't watch, what will that mean for traditional newscasts?

“I think a concern that all broadcasting has is, how do we emerge as
the landscape changes?” Kelley says. “I think we have to create a
product that is uniquely local. That's what we've tried to do here.”

It might not be that simple anymore.

Everyone has numbers, and everyone has spin. But none of the local stations can claim a huge percentage of late-news viewers under 35. Not one can consistently declare that even 35 percent of its late-news viewers are in that group. According to Nielsen, Fox 25 does the best, at just under 30 percent of viewers who are 34 or younger. At the other end of the spectrum, WHDH-TV, Channel 7; WBZ-TV, Channel 4; WLVI-TV, Channel 56; and WCVB-TV, Channel 5 have all fallen below 20 percent. Worse: More than half of the late-news viewers of Channels 4, 5, and 7 are 50 or older.

You don't need numbers to believe that losing younger viewers could be a problem for the local news; a rudimentary sociological observation reaches the same conclusion. Precious few of my friends—a group that is almost exclusively in its late 20s or early 30s—watch the local news. Neither do I. We're not indifferent or distracted; the opposite is true, actually. We're news junkies, constantly in need. And like any good junkies, we don't like when it's hard to score. Who needs a dealer with availability issues, who only peddles his wares at 5, 6, 10, and 11? No need to wait when you can get your fix right now, on
your BlackBerry, podcasts, blogs, and omnipresent cable news. That's what local newscasts are up against: quicker delivery systems. Before too long, someone is going to invent a gadget that will mainline breaking news into your eyeball, and I'll probably buy it.

Just like newspapers and magazines and radio before it, traditional television is coming to understand a cold reality: New technology is a bitch.

“Older viewers are creatures of habit; I was always used to getting my local news at 6, network at 6:30, and the evening news at 11,” says Cathy Perron, director of Boston University's television management program. “Younger viewers aren't into that habit. Since they've started viewing, they've had so many other choices. The information has been disseminated to them in a much different way. If they want to get news, whenever they want it, they know how to get it.”

This isn't to say that local news is dead. No one—not Perron or Kelley or Carson—no one thinks that local news will fade away completely. Still, the myriad news distribution options now available could very well loosen the communal grip that local news has long had on Boston. (To some extent, that's already happened. Ten years ago, Channel 5 could claim that 21 percent of all Bostonians watching television at 11 p.m. in a given month were tuned to its newscast. In the same month a decade later, its share had dropped to 13 percent. Channel 4 and Channel 7 have also seen their shares drop.) All of which means the local news is going to have to do something it's never done. It's going to have to change.

“The challenge is definitely breathing some life into a format that's become somewhat moribund,” says Alan Schroeder, an associate professor at Northeastern who teaches a television news course. “The basic structure of the half-hour newscast hasn't changed in 20 or 30 years. It's still two segments of news, a segment of sports, a segment of weather, and a feature segment at the end. The format itself hasn't kept up with the demand of the audience. It seems to me that there's a big opportunity for someone who can figure out what the next incarnation of the news will be in terms of formatting. But I think that they're a little reluctant to innovate because they're comfortable with the current structure, and the current structure is so entrenched
that it will take some fairly radical thinking.”

The issue, then, is really one of evolution and significance. How do the local news broadcasts get younger viewers? How do they deliver the news in a way that isn't homogenous, that doesn't invite comparisons to caricatures like Ron Burgundy or Kent Brockman?

“I do believe you can attract younger viewers if you are promoting your newscast during programs when a younger audience is available,” Perron says. “If you're promoting, in particular, a feature that's of importance to a younger viewer, that can attract them and keep them interested in the news.”

The local stations are moving toward that. They are all, to one extent or another, still dependent upon lead-in network prime-time
programs. But general managers and news directors can fool with the age and charisma of their anchors and reporters, the length of stories, and what those stories are about. It's why Fox 25 will run a package about iPods in the newscast that follows The OC (or, alternatively, a medical story after House).

It's why Channel 5 has a feature called “The Click”—a spot about what's happening on the Internet, delivered by an attractive, young female reporter named Jamy Pombo. It's why Channel 4 redesigned its website to offer live five-minute broadcasts, streaming video, and real-time weather and traffic information. They're all trying to appeal to
younger viewers.

A good deal of attention is now paid not only to producing the local newscasts, but to promoting them. Marketing the programs has become almost as important as the programs themselves.

“The amount of promotion is constant,” says Jim Thistle, a former news director at Channels 4, 5, and 7 who is now director of the broadcast journalism program at BU. “It's 'When we come back—this, this, this, and this.' Promotion is way, way up from what it was 10 or 15 years ago. It's all weather and breaking news now. I joke, but if someone falls down, an old lady, and there's a helicopter around, it'll be breaking news on someone's channel. Quick stuff. The amount of time given to news promotion is almost as long as the package itself now.”

More time promoting, more selling, but less meat. It's the fast-food approach to the news: cheap and familiar, but not entirely palatable. Which means—as Schroeder says—that there's a big opportunity out there for someone with an original thought. “Right now, if they didn't the little number on the screen, you really wouldn't know which was which in terms of stories, what they lead with, how they present it,” Schroeder says. “This thing of, just add more graphics or build a new set or hire a new anchorperson, those seem to be stopgap measures that address symptoms instead of the root cause. The reality is, you can't
just keep doing the same thing night after night after night, ad infinitum, and expect the audience to stay with you.”