ST. LOUIS — Coming soon to this city’s television screens: more news at 4 in the morning, again at 10, and at 4 in the afternoon.
KSDK, the local NBC affiliate, is adding newscasts to those time slots next month, giving it six and a half hours of local news each weekday, its highest count to date.
As in many other markets, the news is starting earlier than ever in the morning, and replacing “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in the afternoon. To supply it in St. Louis, KSDK is hiring 10 people and buying new cameras and trucks.
This is what the rebound in local television looks like. Three years after the business buckled under the weight of the advertising recession, the more popular stations in markets like St. Louis are adding newscasts and in some cases employees — though not as many as were dismissed during the downturn.
Station economics affect the nation’s news diet because local TV news is consistently identified in surveys as the top news source for most Americans.
A study commissioned by the Federal Communications Commission concluded earlier this year that although there were pockets of excellence in local news, there was still a heavy reliance on thinly stretched staffs and predictable crime and weather coverage.
Three trends have benefited the local station business. First, advertisers have streamed back, especially in the automotive sector that is so important to local media.
Steve Ridge of Frank N. Magid Associates, which consults with local stations nationwide, said local TV ad revenues were up almost 25 percent in 2010 compared with 2009, buttressed by political ad spending. So far this year, even without political ads, the owners of several big groups of stations reported slight upticks in ad revenues versus 2010.
Second, cable and satellite companies have agreed in many cases to pay retransmission fees to stations, and bigger stations in local markets can command bigger fees. Even though stations are splitting those fees with their network partners, like NBC and ABC, they “really have been an infusion of stability,” Mr. Ridge said.
Third, the downturn became a rationale not only to cut costs but to innovate and experiment within news divisions, which have historically been profit centers for stations. The benefit of the industry’s bad times, executives say, is that it forced a hard look at news operations.
“Our view was that local broadcasting had gone on autopilot,” said Dave Lougee, the president of Gannett Broadcasting, which owns KSDK. Industrywide, he said, newscasts had “become sort of commoditized and formulaic — arguably in many cases irrelevant.”
Lynn Beall, the president and general manager of KSDK, said the turbulence “helped us put our focus more on the customer.” KSDK’s anchors and reporters now interact with some of those customers on Facebook and Twitter, making them more aware of community interests. Some of KSDK’s newscasts now include commentary segments. And perhaps most important, many employees have been trained to be what Gannett calls multimedia journalists, also known as one-man bands, able to record, produce and report pieces from start to finish.
“We have more people gathering content than we did a year ago, because more people are trained on more platforms,” Ms. Beall said.
Such arrangements have been a source of grumbling for TV journalists for years, but for those who have never experienced the old way — a reporter, a videographer and sometimes a producer and a sound technician — the new way is more acceptable, and sometimes even preferable.
Some of the changes, Ms. Beall acknowledged, were born out of necessity. During the recession, employees at KSDK were furloughed; at other stations across the country, longtime reporters and anchors were ushered out. Gannett consolidated the graphics and master control operations of its stations to a centralized location, eliminating more workers.
Now, Mr. Lougee said, with “the cost of technology coming down while the quality is going up,” stations have steered a greater percentage of their staffs toward producing content.
It is clear that investments are being made selectively. Because weather is consistently identified as the most important part of local newscasts, KSDK recently hired a fifth full-time member of its weather team and is adding dashboard cameras to its trucks to transmit live video via the Internet during severe weather.
The macroeconomic landscape for stations is still unsettled given the splintering television audience and the emerging Internet sources for news and entertainment that undermine the concept of a one-to-many broadcast. Uncertainty abounds about the reassignment of broadcast spectrum from television to new wireless uses.
But for now, some stations can still draw big audiences, both on TV and increasingly to their Web sites. A period of station buying and selling is anticipated by industry analysts this year, as shown by McGraw-Hill, which put its four full-power stations up for sale earlier this summer.
The rebound has not treated all stations equally. Mr. Ridge said he sensed that the downturn and the measured recovery since then “widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”
“The stronger stations are now poised to really dominate in these markets, and the smaller stations are now less able to compete, because all around, the economics are not working for them,” he said.
That manifests itself in so-called shared-services agreements, in which one station in a market runs part or all of another station. The Communications Workers of America union said last year that it had identified at least 25 local markets where such outsourcing agreements were in place, and criticized them for reducing journalistic competition and “the diversity of local voices in a community.”
In St. Louis, KSDK is now paid to produce two newscasts a day for KDNL, the city’s ABC affiliate, which is owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group. KDNL had stopped producing its own newscasts nearly a decade ago; Ms. Beall characterized the work as a partnership.
Employees at local stations, for the most part, are not getting much breathing room. Bob Papper, a Hofstra University professor who surveys local television staffs, found a gain of 750 jobs in 2010, which made up for the 400 lost jobs in 2009, but made only a small dent in the 1,200 lost jobs in 2008.
At the same time, “the average amount of news went up 18 minutes per weekday in 2010,” he said via e-mail, adding, “I suspect we could see an even bigger jump in 2011.”
That is in part because of the shake-up in the syndication market. Without Ms. Winfrey’s show, KSDK is spending less on syndication, Mr. Lougee said; now it has more to spend on news.