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Local TV news takes Gen Z beyond broadcast

Compared to what some might categorize as dire circumstances for print and digital news — plagued by uncertain revenue models and newsrooms that look like shells of what they once were — local TV news shows some promising metrics, especially in revenue. However, its audience is indeed graying, leaving TV newsrooms to ponder how to engage younger audiences and how to entice young professionals to come work in TV news. Can it be done? The answer is maybe — hopefully.

The Reinventing Local News Project
The truth about younger viewers’ relationship with local TV news is that it’s always been thin. “Even when local TV news was more popular, it wasn’t like the younger demo of 18 to 24 was necessarily watching it way back when. They may have caught glimpses of it, but it wasn’t until people started to ‘settle down’ and have kids and bought a house in their late 20s and 30s that they’d watch,” Mike Beaudet explained. “That’s changing now. People are cutting the cord, and the whole idea of having ‘appointment television’ has gone out the window, especially for younger people. That’s the challenge: We can’t rely on this audience to find local TV like you could in years past, as they get older, because they’re not consuming content the same way.”

Beaudet has spent his news career in TV stations and the classroom. He was a general assignment reporter for local news for many years before leaning into investigative journalism. Currently, he’s an investigative journalist for WCVB, the ABC affiliate in Boston. Beaudet is also a professor of practice in video innovation at Northeastern University, where he has led a multi-phase study of TV news audiences — especially Gen Z viewers — and the content that captures their attention. It’s called The Reinventing Local TV News Project, funded by the Stanton Foundation, founded by Frank Stanton, the long-time president of Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS).

The project’s first phase began in 2017 when they partnered with six TV stations nationwide.

“We had them send their best content to us, and then working with the students, we remixed the stories, as we called them, with a lot of different attributes,” Beaudet explained. They tried different approaches, adding more context to the stories, inserting historical videos and animation, and sometimes making the stories longer. Beaudet said it’s a false assumption that today’s audiences won’t tolerate long-form storytelling.

Then, they audience-tested the remixes, and the responses were encouraging. “People found them to be more interesting, more engaging and stories they’d be more likely to watch,” he said.

In the second phase, they placed visual content producers — expert animators — in two newsrooms, one in Boston and one in Chicago, for a year of experimentation.

“They worked with reporters, producers and editors directly, from the story’s conception to the creation of animation to go into the story,” Beaudet said. Audience testing again revealed that stories with animation were deemed more engaging, especially among young people.

What does Gen Z want news programming to be? First and foremost, authentic, Beaudet said. He hears from students at the J-school that they find local TV news to be formulaic and cliché.

“If the content is good [no matter the length], and they feel like it’s honest, thoughtful and authentic, they will watch it and respond to it,” he observed.

At this year’s World News Media Congress, the International People’s College in Denmark — the Global Youth News Lab — presented a study that pointed to “news values for Gen Z.” According to the findings, this generation wants news that’s educational, empowering, human-focused, objective, timely and “G-local” — meaning, broader global events are presented with local context. Beaudet echoed these observations.

The Reinventing Local News Project is now in its third phase. For a year, four fellows — Maggie Cole, Angela Chen, Leanna Scachetti and Gabby Aidam — have been working with cooperating TV stations in Boston, New York and Chicago, with a specific focus on developing Over-the-Top (OTT) streaming content for the stations’ digital platforms.

“Nothing they’re producing is for traditional broadcast; they’re specifically producing content for digital platforms, so it’s either the website, the app or social media — everything from Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, you name it,” Beaudet said. “They’re doing everything from short videos and animation to documentary-style videos.”

That approach — drawing younger audiences to digital platforms if not broadcast TV news itself — tracks with recent stats published in May 2024 by the Pew Research Center. In its report, “Americans’ Changing Relationship with Local News,” Pew found that 32% of people prefer to get local news through a TV, down from 41% in 2018.

“Americans are now more likely to say they prefer to get local news online, either through news websites (26%) or social media (23%). Both of these numbers have increased in recent years,” the Pew study found. The report also cited another noteworthy dip: “While local television stations are still the most common source of local news beyond friends, family or neighbors, the share who often or sometimes get news there has declined from 70% to 64% in recent years.”

Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University conducted a survey of news consumption among 1,004 people in the Chicago area and published the results this spring. Their survey found that “Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed, or 62%, said they use their smartphones to get local news all the time or often, compared to 52% who watch news on television all the time or often.”

After a year of content experimentation for the third phase of Northeastern’s project, they’ll conduct more audience testing.

“But we’re already seeing some results,” Beaudet reported. “WCVB in Boston has a TikTok account that’s already quadrupled since the streaming producer started there. Some of her content has gone viral and gotten over a million views.”

“The plan is to present all this to the industry and make the case that you can’t just take traditional broadcast content and throw it on digital. These are people who are specifically producing content for digital and thinking about younger viewers and their mindset,” Beaudet said.

Building the talent pipeline
“The key to all this is getting younger people to produce content,” Beaudet suggested. “You can’t expect our generation to be producing content that’s going to fully tap into the younger audience. You’ve got to hire younger people. You’ve got to put them in positions where they can influence content, and you’ve got to listen to them.”

The good news for aspiring TV-brand journalists is that this segment of news is making money and its hiring, Beaudet said, citing revenues from retransmission fees, political ad cycles, traditional broadcast advertising and digital ads.

In May 2024, the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) published its 2024 TV News Staffing Report. Authors Bob Papper and Keren Henderson wrote, “The latest RTDNA/Newhouse School at Syracuse University Survey shows the total (full time) local TV news employment up 1% from a year go to 27,880. Following last year’s 5.1% increase, this is particularly impressive considering the total number of local TV newsrooms decreased by 14 compared to a year ago. So, the average and typical TV newsroom is noticeably bigger. The total number working in local TV news is 120 shy of the all-time record of 28,000 set in 2021.”

Pew Research Center published the “Local TV News Fact Sheet” in September 2023, with some important observations about audience and revenue, as well: “In 2022, local TV news audiences remained relatively stable from the previous year. Financially, local TV companies generated more revenue in 2022 than in 2021, consistent with a cyclical pattern in which advertising revenue rises in election years and falls in non-election years.”

That proved out in 2022, an election year, when local TV over-the-air advertising reached $20.5 billion, a 27% increase over 2021, according to Pew’s analysis.

And digital advertising revenues for local TV stations followed the same trend in the 2022 election year, for a total of $2 billion. “Digital advertising revenue accounted for 9% of total ad revenue,” Pew cited.

Retransmission fees continue to be a tremendous source of revenue for broadcast TV. Citing media research group Kagan’s estimates, the Fact Sheet’s authors explained, “In 2021, retransmission revenue reached $14.1 billion, up from $12.7 billion in 2020 and $11.5 billion in 2019. Kagan projects that this figure will reach $15.9 billion by 2027.”

So, the revenue is there — at least for the near future — to support TV news hiring. However, Beaudet said the industry has to think of new ways to create talent pipelines from non-traditional sources. For example, the animators they placed in newsrooms during phase two of the project didn’t come from J-schools. In fact, they weren’t thinking about working in journalism at all. Rather, they’d set their sights on film, gaming, even corporate graphics roles.

“But now they’re both passionate about journalism and were both hired by the companies they were working for,” Beaudet said.

Aspiring Gen Z journalists are keenly interested in doing work that delivers impact. Beaudet knows firsthand that you can do work with impact for TV news, whether it’s broadcast or digital. It was this desire that personally led Beaudet to investigative reporting. “It’s really fulfilling to impact someone’s life by exposing a problem, helping find a solution, or holding people accountable. When you’re not turning out five stories a day, you can go where the story takes you and do follow ups. From a journalistic perspective, that can be really rewarding. … Part of it is opening people’s eyes to the possibilities,” he said.

Beaudet remains passionate about the project and the prospect of inspiring that passion in Millennial and Gen Z viewers and journalists.

“It’s exciting for me to be able to work in the industry but also try to shape the future and keep it relevant for younger people. I don’t think we’re going to get them to tune in to the TV, but if we can get them to appreciate the content we’re producing for digital and get our TV station brand to resonate with them there, I think that’ll be a win for us,” he concluded. Editor & Publisher

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