Friday, March 07, 2008

Anniston Star's 'Compressed Air' series explores decline of small-market broadcast news

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 brought major changes to TV and radio, and to broadcast journalism. Investigating the legislation's impact in northeastern Alabama, The Anniston Star finds that local broadcast news has lost its local flavor, thanks to sharp reductions in the number of reporters since 1996. The Star examines the state of local broadcasting in a series called "Compressed Air," and it is a story that could be told almost anywhere in America.

"The northeast Alabama picture before 1996 was different," John Fleming writes. "Anniston was awash in local news media. As recently as the mid-1990s, the public could find local news across the spectrum, from this daily newspaper to radio stations staffed with journalists to locally produced television newscasts." Since then, things have changed because the law opened the door to the consolidation of broadcast outlets. "Thanks to the 1996 act, some communities saw local media coverage continue and salaries and benefits for local journalists improve, according to media observers," Fleming writes. "Numerous scholars and broadcasting insiders insist, however, that for many other communities the changes have meant that less local news goes on the air and that they now may be served by media interests that are headquartered outside the community." (Read more)

The rest of the four-part series highlights just how much the loss of local news means:

What's on TV?

Fleming explores the changes in local TV news since 1996. Just months after the act became law, Anniston's Channel 40 merged with Tuscaloosa's TV 33 and created ABC 33/40, which is based in Birmingham and has viewers all across northern Alabama, from state line to state line. The station has a small Anniston office and one full-time photographer/reporter who focuses on three east Alabama counties. The shift has meant fewer stories about Anniston, and Fleming's review of the 16 stories filed from January to July found "nearly all of these stories to be negative."

"In our opinion, media consolidation has been a disaster," Jen Howard, of the public-interest group Free Press, a non-partisan organization dedicated to media reform, told Fleming. "In the market we've seen a depletion of news by 25 percent. Communities have less local news and hear fewer local voices." (Read more)

Local radio news a dying art

In radio, the loss of reporters has been even greater. "A local newsman with intimate knowledge of the area often has been replaced by canned programs that never touch on local concerns," Fleming writes, noting that in Calhoun County, there is only one radio station, Alabama 810, with a journalist who reports from outside the studio.

Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University and author of "Fighting for Air," told Fleming that Alabama 810 is delivering what audience members want: local coverage. "Ironically," Klinenberg said, "media executives everywhere now recognize that their audience demands local content, because they can get national and international news and entertainment online. The trouble is that original content is expensive to produce, and too often chains and conglomerates skimp on staff and hope that no one will notice."

When local media aren't there for the public

Consolidation has meant more computers deliver canned programming, and one consequence has been a change in the way stations deliver information in times of emergency. The reality is that many won't, unless the Emergency Alert System takes over, Fleming reports. He notes that on a recent night in Anniston, when sirens sounded weather warnings, listeners of WDNG-AM/1450 got a syndicated talk show but no weather information.

"The storm blew over, causing only heartburn," he writes. "But the incident again raises the question: "If local media no longer is local, how does it fulfill one of its most essential roles: informing the community in times of peril?" (Read more)

This series addresses plenty of important questions for local news media in small markets and rural areas. We challenge other newspapers to do similar stories.

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