Can the News Be Fixed?
One morning a few years ago, Amanda Patten, 26, invited five strangers into her home in Cincinnati. She cleared the toys off of the couch and offered everyone a seat. For three hours, she answered questions about her childhood, her hopes and fears for her own kids, and her news-consumption habits.
The visitors were from E.W. Scripps, a broadcasting corporation that owns 60 TV stations in 42 markets, and they were doing something unheard-of for a news-media company. They were going into 100 homes in seven cities and trying to listen deeply to their audience—hoping to understand what younger Americans like Patten needed from the news that they weren’t getting. Beneath Scripps’s questions lurked another, larger one, with implications, potentially, for all of us: How can journalists rebuild local TV news, and perhaps even restore trust in the media?
Today, no national news source is trusted by more than half of American adults. We have no common-ground truth, and that fracture runs like a spider crack through the foundation of the country. National news outlets and social media have gotten a lot of attention for contributing to mistrust and disinformation, but local TV news is no less complicit. It is often driven by sensationalism, sound-bite conflict, and false binaries, following the well-worn adage “If it bleeds, it leads.”
These problems matter because local TV news is still the biggest piece of the media puzzle. More Americans get their news from local TV stations than from cable TV, newspapers, or national network TV, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center poll. And when it comes to political news, the local TV audience is particularly diverse—politically, economically, and racially. As a news source, local TV is more popular than online sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.
But the widespread consumption of local TV news also represents a huge opportunity. Overall, Americans trust it more than any other medium, including newspapers and digital media, according to a 2019 Poynter survey. Everyone, white or Black or brown, left or right, knows about the bridge that collapsed across town or the legendary barbecue place that just closed down. They can see it with their own eyes.
In a hyperpolarized country, this kind of shared reality is precious. Americans who turn to local TV, radio, or newspapers for political news tend to have more accurate perceptions of people with different political views than do those who rely mostly on The New York Times or Fox News, according to research by More in Common, a nonprofit that analyzes political divides. And while local newspapers also benefit from proximity, most are not financially viable these days—and TV news is. “Local TV news actually has the potential to lead the way in restoring trust in journalism,” says Andrew Heyward, a former president of CBS News, now at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.
Yet these advantages are precarious. While local TV news is popular, that popularity is waning—especially among young viewers, who are turned off by the medium’s sensationalistic coverage of house fires and crime scenes, and who have access to endless digital competitors for their time and attention. Even many of those who are watching don’t always feel good about what they’re seeing; the trust that remains for local TV news is brittle.
This is why Scripps invested millions of dollars in its listening tour. And it’s why the network has since begun a series of contrarian experiments: increasing the length and complexity of its segments; focusing more on stories about solving problems rather than just documenting them; and even backing away from crime coverage and other cheap thrills. “The goal was to fix TV news,” Sean McLaughlin, the vice president of Scripps’s news division, told me. “It’s on us. We still have tremendous reach. We have a choice: We can fan the flames, or we can help to calm and heal.”
Scripps reaches nearly a third of the national TV-news audience. It is not the largest of the station-ownership groups, nor is it always the most innovative. (Three years ago, Scripps paid me $300 to offer advice on a separate project, related to how best to cover conflict. I was not involved with the people or the project described in this story.) Even if they work, the experiments of a single TV corporation won’t neutralize the sizable streams of propaganda and disinformation that have come to plague American society. But they could suggest that young Americans in particular want something different (and better) from the news today—a conclusion that Scripps is not alone in reaching.
At her home in Cincinnati that day, Patten talked easily and smiled often, offering up snapshots of her life while everyone else took notes. All she knew was that the visitors were from an unnamed media company and she was getting paid $75 an hour for her time. She explained that she usually turned on the TV news when she woke up with her small kids, “just to feel like it was not so quiet.” In those predawn hours, she was looking for intelligent adult company before going to her job at a local church. Her mom had done the same thing when she’d gotten ready for work.
But often, Patten flipped from channel to channel, unsatisfied. She was seeking a sense of community and insights that could help her make her way through her day. But she usually didn’t find that. Having grown up biracial in Cincinnati with a Black father and a white mother, before marrying a white man herself, Patten carried around a lot of complexity. But she didn’t see that on the news. What she did see was a swirl of crime stories, forced banter, and “breaking news” that was not actually particularly urgent. She was looking for connection and understanding, but what she found felt cartoonish and alarmist, which made her distrust it. Sometimes, she felt worse after watching. Where was the Cincinnati she saw in real life?
The 12 o’clock news came on just then, and she watched it with her visitors. First came a series of crime stories, all of which featured Black suspects. Then came a segment about mostly white schoolchildren donating books to the needy. “Look!” Patten said, ‘That’s what I mean! When it’s good news, it’s white people, and when it’s bad news, it’s Black people.”
The Scripps executives heard different versions of Patten’s feedback all over America. People complained about the psychological toll that TV news took on them, even as they continued to watch it. Many said the news made them feel sick with its relentless negativity. They also said that it was inaccurate, particularly when it came to crime coverage. The local news overrepresented the amount of mayhem in communities, missing the full picture. Despite the fact that people generally trust local TV news, those Scripps surveyed also said the neighborhoods on the news did not resemble the places where they lived in real life.
Again and again, people said they wanted something else. Their needs were not being met elsewhere, despite all of their digital options. “People were not feeling connected to each other or to their community,” says Sara Fahim, who led the home visits with colleagues from Seek, a market-research firm.
People craved a deeper look, one that captured their community in full, not just in shards. They wanted longer stories with more context. They made fun of phony news anchors. “All the tricks we used to do, they saw right through it,” said McLaughlin, who personally went to about 60 homes. “There was no way you left these homes without the feeling of Man, we’re off base, and we have to do something about it.”
A lifelong newsman, McLaughlin wears thick black glasses, shaves his head, and talks fast. He’d known he wanted to work in the business since eighth grade, when he shadowed a Minneapolis TV-news reporter for a school project. Gradually, he worked his way up from reporter to anchor to news director at stations across the Midwest.
But sitting in all those people’s homes was a humbling experience. McLaughlin had to let go of a lot of his old ideas about what the news should look like. “We’ve been getting it wrong for a long time,” he told me.
Still, the solutions were not obvious, even if the problems were. Just because people say they want higher-quality TV news doesn’t mean they will really watch it, McLaughlin knew. So he decided to build a sort of test kitchen for TV news. He asked his boss for a couple of million dollars to set up a new digital-news outlet in Fort Myers, Florida. This time, he decided to hire people who knew how to be entertaining, above all—attractive, young people without a lot of journalism experience.
The outlet was called Hello SWFL (an abbreviation for “Southwest Florida”), and its tagline was “A new approach to local news focused on connection, balance, and depth.” The concept was frothy: no crime stories, lots of community events, upbeat conversations. To measure its success, the outlet held focus groups with local residents and monitored engagement online.
“It was a disaster,” McLaughlin said. The focus groups hated the bubbly anchors and the vapid infotainment. McLaughlin hated it too. “I was like, Holy cow, we’re nowhere,” he said. He started hiring journalists again.
In the second year, he began to see a path forward. The problem “wasn’t the way the news was presented,” McLaughlin told me. “It was what the news is. The traditional format was still pretty desirable: the idea of a man and a woman at a desk and a weather segment halfway through. The work that needed to be done was in story selection and production.”
The focus groups seemed to appreciate reporters who had deep knowledge of the community and the subject matter. And, to McLaughlin’s surprise, the groups didn’t just say they wanted more in-depth stories. They actually behaved that way. When Scripps tested Hello SWFL stories that were seven or eight minutes long—an eternity in the business—audiences watched them to the end, as long as they were well told.
Fear, meanwhile, wasn’t working as well. Since the 1980s, TV news stations have inundated people with shocking coverage of crime and other spectacles. “The rule used to be: If you can scare the hell out of people, you can probably get them to watch five more minutes,” McLaughlin said. But across a dozen focus groups, the Hello SWFL test station discovered that younger people were put off by hysterical coverage of petty crimes—or of crimes happening far away.
Scripps began making changes, based on these findings, nationwide. Every station was told to move away from gratuitous crime coverage and pick one signature issue that mattered deeply to the community. WCPO, the station Patten watched in her living room, chose to focus on growth and development in Cincinnati. At the same time, the station stopped using mugshots online and on TV. It also stopped covering nonfatal shootings and vacant-house fires—stories that did not reflect meaningful trends but did generate dread. Since these changes, implemented in 2020, audiences have responded well, Mike Canan, WCPO’s senior director of local content, told me. Younger viewers in particular loved the change. “We heard from a lot of people who said, ‘Oh my gosh, thank you! Now I can watch the news with my kids around!’” Canan said.
Older viewers were less excited, however. Some complained that the station was no longer covering the news. “One of the most glaring things people don’t understand is that, every day, we make a million news judgments,” Canan said. “It’s gotten entangled in people’s minds: the news as we cover it and what the news actually is.” But so far, the blowback has been confined to email and Facebook. According to Canan, ratings haven’t had a corresponding decline—although the changes haven’t yielded a surge yet, either. The station still reliably places third or fourth (out of four major local stations) in most time slots.
In Denver, the Scripps station launched a new franchise called “360,” which tackles a complicated controversy from multiple angles. The idea is to curate deeper, meaningful points of view so audiences can make up their own minds about issues.
The first “360” was about a local coffee shop that had put out a sign that said Happily Gentrifying the Neighborhood Since 2014, sparking a social-media backlash and a boycott. That “360” segment was almost five minutes long, about three times the length of a typical news story. It started with a Denver7 anchor, Anne Trujillo, explaining the purpose: “We understand a lot of people don’t trust journalists these days,” she said. “It is our commitment to you to give you all sides of the story so you can form your own opinions.”
The segment then defined the word gentrification, cut to a Black woman complaining about regular folks being pushed out of the neighborhood, and moved on to a white man who had grown up in the neighborhood lamenting how expensive it had gotten. Then came the mayor, who talked about the need to balance compassion with economic growth. Finally, Shannon Ogden, another Denver7 anchor, closed with an invitation: “Listen, I know there are a lot of opinions on this story, in your community, in your city,” he said. “Let us know if you have a point of view we didn’t cover here.”
To me, the segment felt familiar and yet different, kind of like visiting a renovated house: The bones are the same, but something feels more welcoming. It’s not a radical change—unless you’re in the local-TV-news business, in which case it’s terrifying. “It’s really hard to keep people in front of a TV for over four minutes,” Holly Gauntt, the Denver7 news director, told me. “One of my biggest fears is that people would tune out.” But when she got the full ratings report from that first “360” show, that’s not what she found. “People weren’t leaving.”
The station has now done about a hundred “360” news stories, and it’s the most popular franchise. These segments have to be done thoughtfully, so that they don’t create a false equivalence between arguments that don’t in fact merit equal weight. But the ones I saw felt more true to life than traditional, two-sided stories. Since January 2021, Scripps has asked all of its stations to do in-depth segments along these lines in all three time blocks (morning, evening, and late-night) each day.
Pinpointing why ratings go up or down is always hard, but ratings started to steadily increase in Denver in the months after the launch of “360,” Gauntt said. And while everyone I interviewed at Scripps groused about the unreliability of Nielsen ratings (especially during the pandemic), McLaughlin said that Scripps had seen a correlation between the stations that had adopted these reforms and higher ratings. Looking at a recent snapshot, ratings for March 2021 showed that 13 Scripps stations (in the 21 markets monitored by Nielsen) were up over February ratings for at least two of the three daily newscasts. “I no longer believe that there’s any chance we’re wrong on this,” McLaughlin said.
If American audiences are losing their taste for reductive “he said, she said” coverage, and for litanies of problems and risks without solutions, that would be a good development. Scripps’s findings aside, some evidence in support of that proposition is accumulating, though it is hardly dispositive. Univision’s New York City station redesigned its late-night newscast to feature longer, more substantive stories. A year later, it won the ratings race for adults ages 18 to 49, beating out all competitors, regardless of language. Meanwhile, in a 2020 SmithGeiger study commissioned by the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network, consumers of all ages preferred rigorously reported TV-news stories about efforts to solve problems over more traditional stories, regardless of their political leanings.
During March 2020, audiences for local TV news spiked nationwide, with eight out of 10 Americans watching on a weekly basis, SmithGeiger found. But the more time people spent consuming traditional news, the more mental distress they experienced. Two months into the pandemic, trying to counteract this doom loop, Scripps directed all stations to produce a daily feature called “The Rebound,” designed to connect viewers to resources and offer original stories about locals responding to the crisis. Scripps executives now routinely talk among themselves about the psychological impact of their work, something they almost never did before. A training video featuring Amanda Patten and other people interviewed in their homes has now been shown to a couple thousand Scripps employees, to drive home the ways that conventional TV news can alienate people.
Whether these and other changes will be enough to affect the way people feel about the news—or their willingness to keep watching it—remains an open question. When I spoke with Patten at the end of 2020, she was about to have a third child. I mentioned all the changes made at her local TV-news station, and she was thrilled to hear about them. “That’s awesome! I kind of want to talk to them again and hear more.” But, she admitted, she hadn’t been watching the station lately. Her kids are old enough that she doesn’t want them exposed to too much news. So she and her husband now keep the TV in a closet. Every so often, they pull it out and put it on their dresser to stream Netflix.