Insights Reinventing Local TV News

Old dogs and new tricks: Tom Rosenstiel on reinventing local TV news

As “We Interrupt This Newscast,” one of the largest research projects about local television news, was on the eve of landing on bookshelves nearly a decade ago, Tom Rosenstiel, one of the book’s authors, wanted two things to happen. First: Get the book in the hands of people who are working in the local TV news business. Second: Ensure journalism teachers and academics were “keenly aware of the book.”

“You can have a significant impact on changing the course of the way news is produced by aiming at people in college and graduate school,” Rosenstiel said in a recent interview (listen below). “Sometimes it’s easier to teach new dogs new tricks than old dogs.” 



Among the research project’s findings, the authors of the book said that as important as the topic of a story is, quality storytelling wins ratings.

“[Our findings] show how good journalism means more ratings points that can translate into tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to local stations,” Rosenstiel and co-author Dante Chinni wrote in the book’s prologue. “They are practical and bottom-line in an industry that demands bottom-line results.”

“Sometimes it’s easier to teach new dogs new tricks than old dogs.”

In the book’s fifth chapter, the authors outlined a six-step “Magic Formula” to good journalism that wins ratings: Cover important news, invest in enterprise, make sourcing authoritative, provide perspective, look for local relevance, make important stories longer.

“Our study makes it clear that it’s not what you cover, it’s how you cover it that matters,” the authors wrote.

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The research also found that the hook-and-hold structure, in which newscasts grab the audience’s attention with a “development” and try to tease them to stay tuned with the prospect of a softer story, dominated local news. Sixty-one percent of newscasts the researchers reviewed started with a crime, accident or disaster story. This then leaves little room for other stories to make it into the rundown, let alone the top of the newscast.

“The obvious consequence of having less time for a story is that it must be told in shorthand,” the authors wrote in the book’s third chapter. “Sourcing usually deteriorates dramatically as the newscast progresses and stories become progressively shorter.”

Even though the book did get into the hands of people in newsrooms and scholars readying the next generation, Rosenstiel said the future of local TV news is still uncertain. The book’s offerings may still hold true, he said, as local stations gear up for the looming battle similar to the one that hit print newsrooms at the turn of the century.


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