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Local news blues

With layoffs, plummeting revenue, and dwindling viewership, TV news departments are getting desperate.
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  June 24, 2009

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THE ANCHORS Cutbacks mean fewer reporters in the field, leaving anchors like Doreen Scanlon and Allison Alexander, of ABC6, to deliver more of the news to camera.

There has been plenty of hand-wringing, in these parts, over the decline of the local broadsheet. The Providence Journal is the paper of record, after all, the agenda setter. And the agenda is decidedly thinner these days. 

But that other mainstay of Rhode Island news — the local television station — is taking a beating, too.

The three major local newscasts – at WJAR (Channel 10), WPRI (Channel 12) and WLNE (ABC6) — have shed dozens of jobs in recent months. Live, on-scene reporting is in decline. Investigative work has taken a hit. And it could get worse. Quickly.

Television advertising revenue, in free-fall across the country as the auto industry cuts back on marketing outlays, is dropping at twice the national average here as Rhode Island continues its headline-grabbing economic implosion.

And WLNE, long the ratings laggard in this market, is looking particularly vulnerable these days. Anchors are printing double-sided scripts to save money. And just last week, CBS Television Distribution filed a $5 million lawsuit against ownership alleging failure to pay for syndicated programming like Dr. Phil and Entertainment Tonight.

"It feels really sad," said Barbara Meagher Smith, a former television reporter who is now an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Rhode Island, commenting on the state of the local newscast. "They just don't have the resources to do what they're supposed to do."

But the shifting fortunes of television journalism are probably more obvious to professors than they are to consumers. The ProJo may be printing fewer pages, but the newscast is still a half-hour long. And local anchors and reporters are, in some respects, more visible than ever.

With audiences for the flagship 6 and 11 o'clock newscasts dwindling for a decade now as viewers migrate to CNN, Yahoo!, and the like, stations in Providence and beyond have been rolling out 5 am, 7 pm, and 10 pm installments in a bid to build their local bona fides, lure mom-and-pop advertisers and hold onto market share.

Stretching out the news product has presented its challenges, of course. But with more air time to fill and smaller staffs in place, the staples of the local newscast — car crashes, health scares, weather reports — seem largely unaffected.

Even a skeleton crew, it seems, can produce ephemera.

But Rhode Island's local news, if often light, has a tradition of substance, too. And that substance is receding — even if the public hasn't noticed yet.

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WJAR's Bill Rappleye 


THE DECLINE

Of course any talk of a golden age is, inevitably, colored by a certain amount of mythology.

Indeed, an honest look at Rhode Island's television history will recognize plenty of the prurient excesses of the "if-it-bleeds-it-leads" model that took root nationwide in the '70s.

Edwin Hart, a retired news executive who worked stints at WPRI and WLNE, recalls a local reporter dipping a turkey leg into acid in the early '90s in a bid to demonstrate how high-profile murderer Christopher Hightower sought to decompose his victims' bodies.

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  Topics: News Features , Media, Allison Alexander, Jay Howell,  More more >
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