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.