By Karen Rundlet and Sam Gill

Some would argue the local television news industry sits in an enviable position. It still reaches large audiences and brings in considerable revenue, thanks to political advertising and the retransmission fees that cable and satellite systems pay to carry local channels. But television news leaders are well aware of the shifting landscape.

Broadcast ratings have declined and TV news leaders, like those working in other media, know, that in the digital age, audiences find their news on mobile devices and social streams. That’s led to television newsrooms accelerating their efforts to serve viewers across websites, social and next generation platforms that promise to deliver ultra-high definition TV anywhere, anytime. TV now means much more than producing stories for the 5 o’clock news.

Knight Foundation is supporting television news journalists and leadership by investing $2.6 million into efforts around digital transformation, diversity, audience engagement and investigative reporting. Today, we are complementing that effort by publishing new research on the state of the industry and its future.

Here are some key findings from the study, “Local TV News and the New Media Landscape”:

1. TV is a key source of news, but audiences are slowly shrinking

Though ratings have declined, 50 percent of all U.S. adults say they “often” get local news from television. Television still outranks digital as the top source for news in the U.S., but when it comes to millennials, the numbers show they consume less news than previous generations, but when they do, they turn to digital, mobile and social content most often. Another key point from the Nielsen data is that the shrinking local television news audience is less a function of fewer 18 to 34-year-old viewers than it is a loss of 35 to 54-year-old viewers.

Interestingly, the loss is not across the board. A dozen stations across the country have kept their youngest audiences. The key is learning what those stations are — or aren’t — doing to attract them.

2. TV newsroom staffs have increased

While newspapers have shed 26,300 newsroom employees — or 46 percent of total employment — TV news employment is up 4.9 percent. It’s worth noting that some local television stations have hired journalists from legacy print newsrooms for their investigative, digital or social media skills. Raycom Media, for instance, hired award-winning reporters from traditional newspaper companies, to build out its national investigative unit.

3. In local markets, the experiments are online

Innovation at local TV stations often means experimentation across digital properties like websites, apps or social feeds, rather than with the on-air broadcast. In fact, most local newscasts still look like they have for the last 30 years, with anchors on studio sets, 90-second reporter stories, live scenes, sports, weather and traffic. But with television’s digital properties, journalists are testing new tools, storytelling models and distribution channels. A number of stations are now running digital-only “snackable” newscasts, like KGMB-TV in Honolulu. WXIA-TV in Atlanta has published investigative, episodic video stories on their websites, before airing them on TV. And in Tyler, Texas, KLTV-TV streams content all day. Other stations shared examples of how they served social audiences across multiple platforms, like Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube, though Facebook is the dominant component of most local TV newsrooms’ social media strategies.

4. Social media gets audiences watching more TV

For local television stations, social boosts the performance of their core product, the newscast. In other words, on days when social engagement is higher, newscast ratings are also higher, further proving that mobile and laptop devices end up being a supportive second screen to the television monitor. News managers interviewed are consistent about another theme: Until television stations figure out how to monetize their social content, they will have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. They recognize Facebook’s power as a marketing and distribution tool, but they struggle with giving away their content for free.

5. TV news leaders ask if their content is still relevant in the digital age

In a digital/social-first world, viewers often come to broadcasts already knowing the day’s headlines. Local television news leaders say they’re deeply concerned about the relevance of the news and journalism they’re producing today. They ask existential questions about the value their newsrooms can bring to audiences, and some are tackling the disparaging critique that local news covers an absurd amount of crashes, fires and crime.

“Our expertise in local communities is really significant,” says Sean McLaughlin, vice president of news at the E.W. Scripps Company. “But we haven’t been as strong in context and perspective.”

The study’s authors argued that newsrooms need to focus more on investigative work that people rely on in their day to day lives. Many are. In 2015, the RTDNA/Hofstra University Survey found that investigative reporting was the number one change in news content at local TV stations, with 60 percent of stations reporting that they were placing more emphasis on investigative work. Since then, stations like WLS-TV in Chicago, KWCH-TV in Wichita, Kan. and WBTV-TV in Charlotte, N.C. say they’ve increased focus on investigations.

You can also see it at Investigative Reporters and Editors conferences. Almost a third of attendees at the 2017 conference in Phoenix were local TV journalists, and IRE’s board is now led president Matt Goldberg, assistant news director at KNBC-TV in Los Angeles.

WRAL-TV in Raleigh-Durham has taken a different approach. There, leadership has stressed deep coverage of specific topics — a beat reporting model — around education, the legislature and business news.

6. Is OTT the answer? Is digital?

According to station group leaders, one of the bright spots might be over-the-top (OTT) delivery of video news content. OTT is the distribution of video content via the internet that doesn’t require users to purchase traditional cable, satellite or pay-TV services. Audience growth there is considerable. While linear local television, the kind broadcast through a TV set in real time, will remain an important medium, it is not expected to be the dominant force it once was. The research forecasts newsrooms increasingly embracing newer video distribution options like OTT delivery, along with content they’ve never had on their own airwaves.

In the meantime, digital ad revenue for local TV stations increased in 2016 (reaching a total of about $2.12 billion, according to SNL/Kagan). Digital dollars make up a small portion of any local station’s overall revenue, but those are earnings stations are happy to see, as they work to diversify the revenue pie. According to Easycounter, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, WBAY-TV is the top website, with almost 50 percent more daily visitors than the local newspaper website.

With staffs of local newspaper websites shrinking, the questions remain: Will local TV newsrooms be the ones left standing to fill news and information gaps in their communities? And what will that content look like? While local television newsrooms do have competition for audience from digital, non-profit newsrooms, public radio, commercial digital startups and traditional newspaper companies making gains with digital audiences, they are currently the news operations with the largest revenues and audiences.

A number of today’s TV news leaders say, in the future, they don’t expect every community to have three or four competing news stations. A decrease in ratings has already shifted the marketplace for TV news. The winners will be the ones who develop new products and models or who leverage the new distribution tools most effectively.

Karen Rundlet, a former TV news producer, is Knight Foundation’s journalism program director.

Sam Gill is Knight Foundation’s vice president for communities and impact, and special adviser to the president.

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