Public Journalism and Commercial Local Television News: In Search of a Model
Kurpius, David D., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly
This research examines how commercial local television news operations alter organizational routines by changing coverage expectations. It is a case study of eight top television news organizations in small, medium, and large television markets. This research provides a better understand ing of how news managers can change work routines without upsetting the journalistic normative structure. It looks at how television stations can operate within a profit-driven system to achieve goals of value to the civic community.
Some commercial television news operations around the United States are moving toward a public journalism model of coverage. Public journalism is a model in which media organizations structure coverage in ways that encourage the democratic process and create connections to diverse communities. "It begins with the understanding that journalists have a fundamental responsibility for strengthening civic culture."' It is about making public life go well?
The concept of community is used as it is in social network analysis where community means the interconnected relationships among people who share a common goal, neighborhood, and/or relationship. Communities overlap and individuals may be members of multiple communities. For instance, a person can be an active member in a neighborhood, coach little league baseball, and work as a professor. All of these roles make that person a member of different communities. Thus, diversity of communities can be thought of in racial and ethnic terms, geographically, professionally, and socially. Here communities are developed in the way Fisher studied the network connections among individuals in his book on community structure.3 Fischer's view of communities is important to public journalism because it facilitates journalists within this structure in thinking about the almost endless ways to represent diverse communities in the news.
Local Television News
Underlying the broad goals of public journalism is the desire to improve the marketplace of ideas through dialogue among citizens; government; and media, in this case television news. In Iyengar terms, it is moving the coverage of a community from the episodic toward the thematic.4 This involves changing the professional practices of journalists.
Bernstein and Lacy studied the contributions of local television news to the marketplace of ideas and found a fairly high amount of government coverage, much of it imported from outside the coverage area.' Kaniss found that spot news tended to push government and issues out of coverage patterns.6 Bernstein and Lacy also found smaller television markets tended to provide less contextual information compared to larger markets, though it is not clear what the level of contextual information was for large market stations.7
Kaniss said journalists know where to find stories to meet professional values.8 Tuchman developed the news net metaphor for news coverage to describe how journalists meet professional norms through their routines. She noted that the size and quality of the net determines the size and quality of the stories captured by that net.9 Gans said ideology is generally excluded from news coverage.10 However, Fishman points to ideology as an idealized road map for journalists in their work.11 In many ways, what public journalism attempts to do is improve the quality of this idealized road map.
Money also enters the equation for coverage. McManus found the greater the station's available resources, the more active the journalistic discovery. He noted that even stations with great resources primarily rely on passive means of reporting.12 But money is not the only concern. Journalists also tend to have different concerns about content than citizens. Crane found television journalists focus more on story format than on quality of content,13 Berkowitz also found news judgments based on technology concerns, like having good video, in addition to resource concerns.14 Many of the tenets of public journalism hinge on helping journalists improve active discovery outside of the newsroom and have citizens as the judges of quality work.
One element missing from the television news literature is a discussion of citizens or community within the newsgathering process. Audience is not a replacement for this, since citizens don't have to be viewers of a particular station or even of television news. The basic understanding of audience ignores the individual's role in multiple communities and the value of community connections.
Community connections serve two important purposes for journalists. They allow story ideas to be generated through citizens at the community level (often referred to as bubbling-up from the community) and they help journalism organizations present information more accurately by more accurately reflecting the reality of the community represented in the news story.
These efforts vary across stations by level of commitment, allocation of resources, station market position, and the conditions under which the station conducts public journalism. Even within divergent levels of public journalism adoption, there are important similarities.
Public journalism, as practiced by television stations, is spread along a broad continuum. It is not possible in this study to explain all of the forms it takes. The best way to gain an understanding of public journalism in a television form is to observe newsrooms and interview the managers and journalists about the way they practice it and their vision for its development. This takes advantage of grounded theory techniques as described by Strauss and Corbin.ts Specifically, it allows emergent categories to inform theory building throughout the research process.
This research compares three station types to better understand the origins and consequences of television news organizations implementing public journalism and how this implementation alters journalistic norms and routines. To a certain degree, comparisons of each type are also being made to non-public stations.
Organizationally, the stations have a commitment to the communities they serve. The stations promote themselves as community leaders with a local focus. Organizations attempting public journalism tend to be among the stations in the ratings race for top position. This may be a function of the resources solid ratings can provide for a station. Thus, the availability of resources is another commonality.
Station market position may also determine the form of public journalism coverage a station adopts. Market position is the focus the station takes in developing its products, in this case news, and promoting those products. Market position may be a key element in understanding the form of public journalism a station is willing to develop. This seems plausible since it takes into account the institutional history at the station. It also acknowledges that dramatic changes in how the station presents its chosen image to the audience is unlikely, since images are generally developed more gradually and purposefully.
Four basic market positions were evident in this research. A public affairs position is one where the station focuses on government processes and civic issues. Community service stations create an image of being helpful and friendly in the community, often sponsoring charity events and giving news coverage to these events and groups. Crime and disaster stations promote their ability to capture hard news quickly and without a lot of extraneous material. Often crime and disaster stories are imported from other areas outside the station's viewing area to fill the newscast with sufficient death and destruction. Stories also tend to be shorter and faster paced, often earning these stations the title "flash and trash" in the industry.
A fourth market position is emerging, though is not fully developed. It is a public journalism market position. These stations focus on enterprise reporting and knowledge of the communities in the coverage area. Stations moving toward the public journalism position pull elements from the issues focus of the public affairs image and the community connections from the community service image. Both of these adopted elements are modified to fit public journalism ideals.
Television markets also may help determine the type of market positions the audience finds acceptable. Certainly, some markets, like Minneapolis, Minnesota, have a stronger civic character that might cause news organizations to more seriously consider a public journalism market position. Other markets may be more parochial, lacking that strong civic culture and thus making it more difficult for a public journalism market position to take hold.
Expected Types of Television Public Journalism
Early in the research process, I observed television newsrooms and conducted preliminary interviews. This exploratory research led to the development of three expected types of public journalism television organizations. The types are integrated station, special projects station, and publicity station. These types categorize the different station approaches to implementing public journalism. These are mutually exclusive types. A station cannot be in more than one category, but a station can conceivably be in a state of transition. These types are not necessarily exhaustive categories, because new types may emerge as visionary news managers further develop public journalism. However, it is significant that these stations chose to move toward a public journalism form of coverage. The value of this research is the development of a model for analyzing how work is accomplished.
The organization and practice of public journalism coverage is important because each model provides a view into the structure of the station, particularly the way newsrooms are organized. Organizational structure and public journalism are not automatically linked, because non-public journalism stations can be organized to gather high quality news, and poor quality stations can do public journalism.
The integrated station incorporates public journalism coverage into its normal daily routines. A current trend in broadcast journalism is for managers to say public journalism is being incorporated into daily coverage. However, this is difficult to accomplish and few stations have any proof of successfully accomplishing that goal.16 Though elements of public journalism are developed at the individual level, the organizational structure is what makes this development possible.
Organizationally, public journalism is incorporated into daily news in different ways. Sometimes it might be part of a special report or series; on other days it might involve taking a public journalism tack on coverage of a planned news event. Taking advantage of enterprise ideas at daily editorial meetings is the most common method for incorporation of public journalism into the daily mix of news.
The special project station handles public journalism on a project-byproject basis. This category is a wide-ranging continuum. Some stations do a single project and abandon public journalism, while others make long-term commitments to the principles of public journalism. Like the integrated station, there is a commitment to public journalism. However, the level of commitment among project-focused stations varies. During the project there is a well-defined role for public journalism in the news operation.
Organizationally, special project stations have a more structured management style. Station managers often dictate the direction of the project work, creating a more formal organizational structure than was found at the integrated stations. At project stations, the work is done on the periphery or even outside the newsroom and is rarely included in any daily work, except for promotional pieces on the day of an event. The focus is trained on a single topic area, which limits the opportunities for crossing over into daily news coverage. The projects are generally conducted over longer periods of time, often several months or even an entire year. Managers are responsible for developing and implementing the project, and there is generally a limited number of news staff involved in the project. Community outreach is strong, much like at the integrated station; however, many project stations limit the majority of outreach to the project topic. Issues and values discussions are often relegated to the project meetings, limiting the debates to a smaller group within the station. Project stations also tend to have strong station manager support, but fewer middle managers are involved in the process, thus limiting the communication among news staff. This organizational structure limits the opportunity for spillover of public journalism into daily news coverage.
Publicity stations tend to be organizationally structured with a strong centralized management style. Decisions are made at the upper management levels with limited input from workers. The focus in editorial meetings is on logistics of coverage rather than content issues, which were likely to have been decided in earlier management meetings. Meeting involvement is limited to journalists and often only news managers. Community outreach may be significant through the station's community affairs office, but is limited in the newsroom. These stations may conduct some town hall meetings. However, the structure of these meetings was promotionally based and lacked strong attempts to better understand community viewpoints.
Publicity stations focus time and resources on promoting connections to communities. Little effort is placed on actually creating opportunities for journalists to spend time in various communities or creation of meaningful connections. Resources are allocated in such a way that the coverage decisions are made and then, almost as an afterthought, the community labels are put on the elements to promote a non-existent connection. These are the stations that give public journalism a bad name. They use a few of the tenets of public journalism to attract an audience, often pandering to the audience to accomplish higher ratings. While none of the stations examined in this were publicity stations, one station did appear to be moving toward this category. Publicity stations are not likely to continue as publicity focused public journalism stations for long. Either they will choose to allocate resources to solidify their public journalism work or, more likely, will move on to another quick fix to avoid a loss of viewers and ratings.
Stations selected for this project cover large, medium, and small markets; included both old-timers and relative newcomers to public journalism work; and cut across a variety of issues from elections to crime to economic problems. This variety is important in thinking about the ways in which public journalism is created and applied by television stations. Most important in the selection of these stations was that they are exemplars of public journalism.
This project is the extension of evaluative work done for the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. Five of the stations, WISC (CBS affiliate in Madison, Wisconsin), KRON (NBC affiliate in San Francisco, California), WSOC and WBTV (ABC and CBS affiliates respectively in Charlotte, North Carolina), WBNG (CBS affiliate in Binghamton, New York) were selected by the Pew Center for analysis as varied examples of successful public journalism efforts. I was the researcher who conducted the television data gathering for the Pew project. KVUE and KARE were added for this study because the original sample lacked examples of integrated forms of public journalism.
WISC was included in the sample because it is one of the oldest public journalism projects in the nation. KRON was chosen because it had just completed a successful election project and was beginning to consider extending its effort beyond elections to a project on transportation. That eventually did occur. WSOC was picked because it had completed a strong project with the Charlotte Observer, but was not interested in continuing their efforts at that time. WBTV had just begun to work with the Observer on a new public journalism project on elections, which is why it was included. WBNG might be one of the more interesting stations in this study. While the stations selected include small, medium, and large market sizes, WBNG faced one of the largest challenges in the smallest market doing public journalism successfully at that time. This station was chosen partially because of the parochial nature of the communities it covered.
Field Work Structure
This research uses comparative methods to study the patterns across cases. The comparative method has a long tradition in sociological analyses where the number of cases is small but the explanatory value of each case is high. This method stresses the logic of cases instead of the ability to generalize from the data. The comparative method is particularly good for studying emergent phenomenon, like public journalism. Ragin (1987) described the comparative method in his seminal book on the subject as the study of how conditions work together in one setting compared and contrasted to how they fit in a different setting. This method is accepted in the broader social sciences. Though extremely valuable, it has yet to find wide adoption within communications research.
The ethnographic fieldwork extended the data in the following ways. First, it provided a sense of the larger organizational structure of the newsroom, specifically on where power lies within the newsroom. Second, it allowed a view into the daily inner workings of the newsroom, a view of processes of completing work on deadline. Third, it provided the opportunity to watch the inter-relationship of employees as they conducted their work. The ethnographic data often helped identify particular employees as important interview subjects or helped develop additional questions for particular interviews. It also provided the basis for understanding the content of the interviews, as well as a general perspective of the overall news operation.
A total of ninety-three interviews were conducted over the course of ten months. Interviews averaged thirty minutes each. All interviews used the same interview protocol and the same approach to data collection. However, the protocol was tailored to address the specific focus of each station.
Only one station, WSOC, refused to provide a list of news workers or to allow observation of the newsroom. Some observations were conducted while waiting for journalists and managers I was scheduled to interview who were late for their appointments. These journalists and managers gave examples and information that supported my limited observations of the newsroom in their comments.
The interviews were structured as the "nonscheduled standardized interview" or the "focused interview." 17 The questions were open-ended and offered the ability to leave the interview schedule to explore interesting veins of discussion during the interview.
The interviews were recorded and professionally transcribed. The transcribed interviews were analyzed using QSR*Nudist 4.0 qualitative analysis software.
Four basic working hypotheses were developed for this project. Each addresses a specific area within the larger research question of how implementation of public journalism affects the journalistic and organizational structures within the television station. It is important to remember that in this form of comparative work, hypotheses are developed as expectations of findings rather than quantitatively testable elements. Thus, it is best to think of these working hypotheses as units that focus the research and the areas of analysis.
H1: The station's market position prior to attempting public journalism will affect the form of public journalism selected at the station. Stations with a community service or public affairs market position are expected to engage in higher levels of commitment to public journalism.
H2: The organizational structure at the station will dictate the level of acceptance of public journalism at the station. Stations with more decentralized newsrooms are expected to more readily adapt to public journalism forms of coverage.
H3: Managers who can lead through providing a vision of what they are developing for the future will implement public journalism forms of news coverage without disruption of traditional journalistic norms and routines.
H4: Over time, the level of station commitment, both in prioritizing coverage efforts and allocating resources to public journalism, will determine the type and format of public journalism undertaken by the station. Note that commitment and execution of public journalism operate to a certain level of independence. Thus, it is possible to have a high level of commitment to a basic format of public journalism. It is also possible for a station to have a limited commitment to a complex public journalism project. However, neither of these scenarios is expected to last long, since the lack of balance of resources to complexity of endeavor is likely to kill the effort.
Site visits and resulting interview and ethnographic data supported two of the three main types. The only type not found was the publicity station and that is likely due to the selection criteria focus on the most successful stations conducting various forms of public journalism. However, one station and possibly another may be moving toward this third type. The following, section describes the types of stations and the public journalism they do based on the data.
Special Project Stations. By far the largest group in this study was the project station. Six stations fit in this category. The greatest range of public journalism is also within this category. Some project stations had a long-term commitment to public journalism, while others were simply testing the waters. The greatest transition of stations in this study was found in the group that showed a limited-term commitment to public journalism. There is no clear predictor as to the direction a station might go after the initial test project. Some stations stopped doing public journalism after the initial project, while at other stations managers decided to make a longer-term commitment.
Three stations, Charlotte's WSOC-TV and WBTV-TV, and WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, were categorized as a limited-term project stations for this research.
Both Charlotte stations partnered with the Charlotte Observer newspaper for different projects, at slightly different times. WSOC-TV called the project "Carolina Crime Solutions," while the newspaper used the title, "Taking Back Our Neighborhoods." The newspaper carried the larger share of the burden, but recognized the greater reach a partnership offered into the communities involved in the project. WSOC's news director made it clear that they would consider other projects, but that this was a selfcontained effort. The majority of the news staff was not involved in the project. This station has since moved away from public journalism and might be moving toward a publicity station, if anything at all.
WBTV worked on election coverage with the Charlotte Observer. The station's involvement was largely limited to the acting news director and the station's political reporter. Other stations from across the state were also part of this project, but were not included in this research study. Primarily the acting news director, who was committed to the public journalism goals, orchestrated WBTV's effort. It was apparent during the research visit that the commitment would wane if the acting news director were not involved. She has since left the station.
WCCO-TV has a historically strong commitment to conducting town hall meetings with citizens, which is one of the tenets of public journalism work. The data collected from those sessions by the station show some elements of publicity-focused stations, in addition to the civic-minded work. During the course of this fieldwork, WCCO abandoned the "Feedback 4" community meeting sessions and moved toward strictly image-building efforts in the newscasts, with one exception. The station continued to compete in long-form journalism, which the station promoted as the "Dimension" report. This news product continued to develop elements to public journalism in the coverage routines, though the community connections built during previous town hall meetings appeared to be diminished.
Three longer-term project stations included WISC-TV in Madison, Wisconsin, KRON-TV in San Francisco, California, and WBNG-TV in Binghamton, New York. While this research was being conducted, these stations were continuing their commitments to public journalism projects.
WISC is one of the grandfathers of television public journalism. Its "We The People, Wisconsin" project is a partnership with the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper, WHA public radio and public television, and Wood Communications, a public relations firm. WISC is committed to conducting quarterly public journalism projects with this large partnership well into the future. The station is also involved in a second project called "Schools of Hope."
KRON differed slightly from WISC. Like WISC, the first project the station did was election focused and involved a partnership with the Salt Francisco Chronicle and KQED public radio and public television. At the time, KRON was not sure whether it would continue doing public journalism work, so it began as a short-term project station. During the course of the fieldwork on this project, KRON decided to take on a new public journalism project on transportation issues. Now the station's incoming news director says the station plans to continue this type of work, making it a good fit in the long-term project category. The station's most recent project, "About Race," not only won the time period when it aired, but is also receiving national attention and awards.
WBNG is in the smallest market studied for this research, but the station is a heavyweight in the market, garnering larger ratings than its competitors combined. The station has wonderful resources and facilities and has played a significant role in its partnership with The Press & Sun Bulletin in the project "Facing Our Future." This multi-year project is part of the station's identity according to the general manager. Like the other longterm project stations, the project remains encapsulated as special projects with little or no crossover into the daily news coverage routines.
Integrated Stations. KVUE-TV in Austin, Texas, and KARE-TV in Minneapolis, both owned by Gannett, fit the integrated station category. Neither of these stations see public journalism as a moniker for their newscasts, yet both stations have strong community affairs departments that work closely with the news department in developing citizen sources in a wide range of communities. It is also interesting to note that the news directors at both stations are supportive of the ideals of public journalism and believe their stations are conducting that type of community-connected work. Still the majority of news workers do not know much about public journalism and do not believe their station does that sort of work. This belief changes when public journalism is described to them as citizen-based, community-focused coverage.
KVUE-TV was chosen for this research study because of the policy news managers developed to assess the meaningfulness of crime stories before allotting time in the newscast for those stories. The crime guidelines, though limited to a specific category of stories, fit the context, depth, and enterprise elements of coverage that are indicative of public journalism work. When asked if the guidelines had spilled over into other coverage, news workers responded that crime coverage is now held to the same, tougher standards of the other categories of coverage.
KARE-TV was chosen for this study because of the public journalism types of stories it broadcasts, particularly in its long-format news stories segment called "Extras." This is in direct competition with WCCO's "Dimension" reports. It is interesting to note that unlike WCCO, the type of coverage created in the Extra's unit does spillover into the daily coverage. This may be due in part to the fact that KARE reporters and photographers are allowed, and even encouraged, to develop stories to work on in the Extras unit. Though there is an Extra's unit staff, general assignment staff can and do move in and out of the Extra's unit when stories warrant extra airtime and preparation time.
Organizationally, these integrated stations have decentralized management structures with most decisions made by teams. Editorial meetings are open to anyone who cares to participate; however, the final decisions remain with the journalists. These meetings are often the place where issues and values discussions occur in the newsroom. Integrated stations place a greater value on these principled debates than other stations. There is a clear reward system for enterprise reporting, which reinforces the value managers say they place on enterprise story ideas. There is also a concerted, stationwide effort to reach into the community, particularly areas not normally covered by the news department. This would include neighborhoods that receive little or no coverage, minority groups and organizations, and issues that journalists have yet to discover in their coverage area (but are known within the community). This broadens the scope and reach of the station's newsgathering efforts.
Both stations tend toward consensus building techniques in daily decision-making. The result is overall coverage that is citizen and community focused. At these stations, public journalism norms and routines are part of the continual process of creating the news product and the managers at these stations are actively engaged in further developing these norms and routines within the station.
Journalistic Norms and Routines within Types
Journalistic norms and routines are well documented, as noted earlier. The normative structures include objectivity, professionalism, typifications of news, and source selection. The journalistic routines include editorial meetings, the allotment of resources (both air time and newsgathering resources), the daily expectations placed on news workers (submission of enterprise story ideas or beat checks), and the daily news management expectations that develop the newscast structure. Some stations have less traditional routines, such as regular company awards meetings or scheduled internal teaching and critique sessions. These routines channel the way news work is done.
Challenges to norms or routines are often the rallying point for journaltists who are resisting change. It is important to note that the resistance to the change toward public journalism varied by station type. The stations moving toward a publicity mode were looking for a short-term ratings fix and tended to have poor internal communication between staff and managers. Project stations saw more resistance to change toward public journalism based on normative challenges. Part of this resistance resulted from a lack of communication with the news staff not involved in the project. This communication void created two sets of news workers, with one group left out of the process. This was followed by a perception of disproportionate resource allocation. However, as individuals were brought into the project, their challenges diminished or even disappeared based on their new understanding of public journalism. Integrated station managers met with the least resistance in moving toward public journalism. Solid internal communication, involvement of every news worker in the process, solid encouragement, and rewards helped minimize resistance.
The Role of News Meetings
News meetings are an important part of most local news operations. Generally, news departments hold two major news meetings each day. The morning meeting is the largest in terms of attendance, potential stories on the station's "day sheet," and the amount of resources to be allocated for coverage. The afternoon meeting generally addresses assignments for the night crew and any developments on stories since the morning meeting.
Integrated Stations. Traditionally, newsrooms start editorial meetings with a "day sheet," a list of all the news items the assignment desk is aware of for that day. These are usually planned or scheduled news events and news conferences, items called into the station's news tip line, stories to follow up from the morning newspaper, or stories from the station's own follow-up file.
Integrated station news meetings tended to be open, enterprise-focused and decision-making by consensus. As a result the meetings were also the longest of the stations studied and tended to have a decentralized system of discussing issues instead of logistics.
One key component of news meetings at integrated stations was their inclusiveness. Anyone who wanted to attend was welcomed and even encouraged. Unlike the traditional separation of news from the rest of the station, the integrated stations' news meetings included people from sales, promotions, community affairs, interns, and anyone else who wanted to sit in on the meeting. At KVUE and to a lesser degree at KARE, news workers are expected to attend.
Integrated station meetings tend to begin with the enterprise ideas first. One news manager says, "In the morning meeting, the staff knows that they like to be heard from and so that's a good time to said, 'Hey, I heard this thing yesterday, and we can do something on this because it's a good forum for that."' News workers say they expect the daily discussion of stories at this meeting, not logistics so much as issues.
The news selection process is also different. The integrated stations based decision making on democratic group consensus. Ideas are bantered about until someone says they want it or the group discards the story. KARE's news director says, "The hardest thing in our morning meeting is we all want to talk about the issues. You know, everybody has an opinion. And everyone gets really charged. And that's why our morning meetings sometimes go so long, is because everybody wants to talk." This system is important because it covers a larger range of ideas and communities in the coverage area simply by having a wider range of individuals included in the meeting. News workers say managers encourage participation and because of that encouragement the news staff is not intimidated about speaking their mind. In fact managers tend to have less say in these meetings than their counterparts at other stations studied.
Special Project Stations. The meetings at long-term project stations tended to focus more on research results and the logistics of coverage than on issues discussions. Managers' input carried a lot more weight in the morning meeting at these stations. Also, the preparation for morning meetings is not as thorough as at the integrated stations. Not everyone contributes to the meeting. After one meeting, a WISC reporter said, "Some people don't much seem to be interested in anything and it seems that a lot of people come into meetings with hardly anything, which to me seems strange."
These stations tended to mention research results as a reason for choosing certain stories for coverage. A news manager at a long-term project station said, "...even though we're driven by research, we decide things by democracy."
Long-term project stations had a greater reliance on the assignment desk for both story assignments and for managing coverage logistics. Integrated stations also used the assignment desk for logistics, but the assignment desk played a much smaller role in story development.
Short-term project station news managers tended to have pre-editorial meetings. The editorial meeting was strongly influenced by the news managers. In many ways the coverage was set before the editorial meeting even began. The morning meetings had low attendance, except at WSOC where the news director instituted mandatory attendance a few weeks before the research visit. Managers at all three stations said they welcomed reporter input, but little was forthcoming. Since the story coverage decisions were already finalized, these meetings tended to be almost entirely logistics focused. These stations had the strongest assignment desks of the stations studied, with little outside input.
WCCO was the only station visited twice during the research period. The first visit was at the beginning of this research and the last was near the end of the project. The time between visits was a little more than a year. During this time, the station underwent significant change, moving away from public journalism. At the first visit, this station held editorial meetings that mirrored, or were even more issue focused, than the integrated stations in this research. By the time of the second visit, the editorial meeting was completely dominated by a new executive producer, a position the station had previously left unfilled. Most notably missing from this newsroom after the change were the in-depth issues discussions.
Marketing of Television News
Today marketing is a key component of television news. What used to be considered a four-letter word in newsrooms is now gaining acceptance as the way the system works. Marketing is now an accepted element in television news production. Stories are often planned out in advance to allow time for the promotions department to create promotions and attract an audience.
Each station has a moniker it uses to present its image to the public on a regular basis. A change in that moniker often signals a change in the focus in the news department. During this study, only one station went through an image change. WCCO changed from "Your News Station" to "The Home Town Team." The difference in the two images is significant. "Your News Station" fit the traditional station-of-record role the station arguably still maintains. "Home Town Team" is a softer image, presenting a stronger sense of connection to the community.
At integrated stations, community service is a key component in the station market image. Integrated stations go to great lengths to connect with citizens and community leaders. This is important because it shows a depth of commitment toward including a wide range of perspectives in the creation of the news product. A strong emphasis is also placed on listening to citizens' criticisms, ideas, and opinions as a way to improve news.
Special project stations tend to use community forums as a form of marketing and positioning. These stations have a commitment to bringing community leaders from all levels into the station to talk about issues and coverage. WISC's news director says the key is listening to what citizens have to say.
Enterprise reporting is one of the keys to conducting public journalism in daily news. It is also the point of crossover from project-focused coverage to daily coverage using public journalism techniques. Integrated stations, by definition, are already doing public journalism on a regular basis. The norms and routines at these stations are deeply rooted in the enterprise reporting tradition. News workers are expected to contribute enterprise story ideas on a regular basis, if not daily. The enterprise stories are highly regarded and are rewarded at these stations. Employees are encouraged to consider coverage of neighborhoods and communities not normally captured on the news radar. The norms and routines of coverage at these stations focus on the solicitation of story ideas from all parts of the community and all departments of the station (including sales) and on the discussion and deliberation of these ideas in an open and continuing forum.
The hope for greater use of public journalism practices in daily coverage is found in the long-term project stations. Though none of the long-term project stations showed much change in daily coverage routines as the result of the public journalism projects, this may change. News directors at both WISC and KRON indicated an interest in achieving greater implementation of public journalism ideals in the daily news product.
Managers at the special project stations said they valued enterprise reporting, but the submission levels were lower than at the integrated stations. A common theme among reporters at these stations was the lack of weight their ideas carried in the meetings. Some news workers have said they don't submit ideas because their ideas do not get used. To some degree this may be a resource issue, though it would be wrong to say that a lack of resources is the main cause.
News workers appear to feel free to voice their opinions, even when those opinions are unpopular. This indicates a level of autonomy within the newsroom that is important for the development of even a low level of enterprise story ideas. Still the reporters seem to rely on the assignment editor for stories.
At short-term project stations the routines of enterprise reporting appeared to be limited or missing. This was particularly noticeable in the editorial meetings, where managers control most of the discussion.
One other place in which enterprise reporting is firmly situated is long-- format news. The two Minneapolis stations in this study present long-form news stories in their late newscast. KARE's "Extra" and WCCO's "Dimension" both buck the trend toward shorter stories with less depth. These stories can range upward of five minutes, depending on the night. Both stations have separate units within their newsrooms responsible for producing the long-form stories that use a more enterprise-focused structure. KARE regularly allows general assignment reporters and photographers to rotate into the Extra's Unit when they present a good enterprise story idea and simply need longer preparation time or greater airtime to complete the work. WCCO was less likely to allow such a rotation. Thus at the integrated station, there was an additional incentive for developing enterprise reporting.
Some community-conscious television stations around the country are making concerted efforts to develop a television version of public journalism. It is already apparent that there are some conditions under which public journalism is more likely to flourish in television. The key elements are the station's market position, organizational structure, the norms and routines of journalistic work, and the depth of commitment to public journalism. This development in television news is taking several forms.
Integrated stations tended to develop out of the community service market position. Managers at integrated stations tended to see public journalism as an extension of the station's collective understanding of the communities served. They have issues-focused editorial meetings and place a high value on enterprise reporting with a connection to a variety of communities. This does not mean all of the coverage at these stations is civic-- based, but that there is a growing effort and a system of support for creation of community-based enterprise reporting. The commitment to the ideals of public journalism is strong because it is an engrained part of the station structure. It appears that stations using the community service market position see public journalism as a way to extend that brand and to add a harder edge to their newsgathering. Many of the connections to the community are already present at the station, but those connections are maintained outside of the newsroom. It is a simple process to expand the community connections beyond the community service office and into the newsroom.
Special project stations tended to have developed out of the now disappearing public affairs market position. Traditionally, these stations have focused heavily on politics, government, and big business in a beat reporting structure. For these stations the move toward public journalism signals a move away from traditional beats and toward more community sources in their reporting. The problem is that very little crossover occurs between the project and daily reporting. Some of this structure is created by the designation of certain employees as the public journalism staff. This creates a barrier between the project and daily news coverage. However, stations with a long-term commitment to public journalism projects still encased public journalism within a special projects unit on the periphery of the newsroom.
The short-term project stations tended to come out of a crime-focused market position. Though these stations do solid public journalism work within the project, the work tends to be even more isolated from the newsroom. Often a single person coordinates the entire effort.
For public journalism to thrive and succeed in television, it must become part of the daily news process. This is not to say that the integrated station type is an ideal in its current form. There is a lot to be learned from the project focus, including depth of coverage and greater focus on specific civic issues of importance to the community. Market position plays an important role in the development of public journalism.
Community service stations and public affairs stations tend to be the organizations working to capture the developing public journalism market position. The station's roots appear to determine the format of public journalism chosen, with public affairs stations tending toward project status and community service stations choosing a more integrated form. These choices affect the structures of journalistic practice within the news organization.
Integrated stations tend toward more issues discussions within the editorial meetings and place a higher value on enterprise reporting. The focus on enterprise story development and the placement of value, and in some cases rewards, on meetings with a true dialogue among equals helps improve the level of issue discussions at the editorial meetings. This also encourages more informal discussions of key issues within the newsroom.
Project stations mix logistics and issues discussions within the editorial meetings. These stations appear to value enterprise reporting, but do not have high expectations or a rewards system for developing enterprise pieces. Shorter-term project stations tended to use editorial meetings for logistics discussions, with almost no value placed on enterprise reporting.
Ultimately, all of these elements point to a level of commitment to public journalism, a commitment that requires time to develop and cover enterprise stories, a value placed on connecting to communities and citizens to hear their voices, resources to allow more coverage time and/or greater airtime to tell a story that is issues oriented and meaningful, a story in which the members of the community see themselves and their views accurately reflected.
No station has developed a perfect model. However, it is apparent that far-sighted news managers hold the key to changing routines within the organization to address challenges to journalistic norms. The data collected at these stations suggest journalistic routines are more important than journalistic norms in determining coverage patterns. Most of the criticisms of public journalism by journalists in this study were based on challenges to routines rather than norms. This means managers, not individual news workers are the key to the success or failure of the public journalism effort.
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David D. Kurpius is an assistant professor in the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University.…
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Publication information: Article title: Public Journalism and Commercial Local Television News: In Search of a Model. Contributors: Kurpius, David D. - Author. Journal title: Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly. Volume: 77. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 2000. Page number: 340+. © Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Winter 2007. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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