Sunday nights are my editing shift at the Daily News and one of the rituals is that a reporter watches the 10 o' clock news on Fox-29 -- to make sure we're not totally missing some big local story -- and then the news on other channels at 11. But the reporter who checked in on Fox-29 last night came back with a puzzled look on his face. "It wasn't like regular news -- all they did was talk about the Delaware Senate race for 10 minutes." At midnight, the early edition of today's Inquirer was plopped down on my desk and it turned out that what's been happening on the local Fox affiliate is actually newsworthy, in and of itself.
In a makeover that took shape in late spring, according to head brass, Fox29 has revamped its news approach, with a brighter look, a harder edge (some call it editorializing), ramped-up audience outreach (some call it pandering), and a new stress on commentary and discussion that makes it look somewhat more like 24/7 cable news. But a range of viewers and journalists interviewed for this story say they're uneasy about the degree to which it encourages reporters like Keeley to mix viewpoint with reportage.
Ratings for local news have been slipping everywhere for years. In response, Fox29 - like stations across the country - is changing its approach. The target: viewers abandoning established networks for smaller, edgier cable news channels, shifting allegiance from supposedly centrist, balanced news to opinionation, from the measured voice of Cronkite toward O'Reilly or Olbermann.
Says occasional Fox29 commentator and former Inquirer writer Buzz Bissinger, "They're looking for people with stronger opinions. It signals that they're looking for a harder edge."
The overall tone of the Inquirer story of one of alarm, and I think it would be fair to say that it is also negative. That shouldn't be a shock -- as a newspaper, the Inquirer has worshipped at the altar of the false gods of balance and a contrived interpretation of objectivity even more than most of their counterparts, so it's natural for them to recoil at what's apparently happening here at Fox-29. And I would agree that there are issues. For one thing, more opinion calls out for more transparency, and also it's important for the people over there to understand that good journalism with a point of view still requires you to be a) scrupulously accurate and b) fair, which means still talking with the folks from both, or all, sides of an issue.
That said, I think the story missed the one highly positive development from what I've read now and heard about the experiment: These longer reports, including opinion, seem to be devoting a lot more time to issues that actually matter to people, as opposed to the worthless dreck that has filled up the bulk of local TV news time for the last 30 years -- especially in Philadelphia, where the phrase "if it bleeds, it leads" was literally invented. If they start every newscast talking about a local election or the gross mismanagement at the PHA or DRPA -- all recent topics of reporting and debate on Fox-29 -- that isn't that much, much better than a montage of yellow crime tape that apparently titillates some viewers but informs no one?
While Fox-29 is apparently corrupting viewers with their shocking opinions (is it really going that far out on a limb at this point calling for Carl Greene to take a hike?), there was a revealing story recently on the journalism website Poynter.org about how how bad most local TV news has become in recent years.
The Cincinnati news viewers told us they were growing impatient with journalists who don’t take them seriously. They said they wanted more coverage of serious political issues and they wanted a lot less crime news, unless the crime had real importance to a lot of people.
But their strongest words were focused toward journalists who grandstand and make stories seem bigger than they are. We showed the focus group two stories. One from Detroit, where a reporter confronts the wife of a city councilman who is accused of drunk driving. The focus group said by the end of the story, they felt sorry for the wife and turned their anger toward the reporter. After all, the group said, the wife did nothing wrong, it was her husband who was accused of wrongdoing.
I showed the group a story from Fox 40 TV in Sacramento, California. In the piece, Reporter Rick Boone is covering the story of what he called a “major bust,” at a motel that the station called “a house of sex.” Police arrested three women and one motel manager.
In the story, Boone stuck a microphone in the face of one of the handcuffed women and asked, “what were you doing in there, what were you doing in there, what were you doing in there?”
It's funny -- I know that because of my liberal leanings I'm supposed to recoil at the idea that anything with the word "Fox" in the title is becoming more opinionated, and indeed the Inquirer story discussed whether the new opinion-giving Fox-29 has a conservative slant. Honestly, I would be OK with that, as long as they were fair and accurate and reached out to the other side on issues. (Besides, if the format succeeded in a conservative form it would probably eventually give rise to a local liberal alternative, as has happened nationally with Fox News and now at least a few hours of prime time MSNBC). It would be a treat, however, to see more local stations talk -- and yes, argue and give their opinions -- about the things that really matter to people rather than a bloody string of car crashes interspersed with nice-weather features, night after night after night.