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The Best Local TV News: KWQC Is Still King, but Surprising WHBF Is an Underdog Worth Watching - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Media
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 28 October 2010 05:21

A Softer Approach at the Expense of News

Going into this project, I had low expectations for WHBF – because, like the vast majority of people, I’d rarely if ever watched its newscasts.

I also thought that WQAD would be competitive with KWQC on the local-news front. What I failed to consider was that the station has made its investments primarily in personalities (Swails and Williams) and positioning (taking over the KLJB news), and this survey suggests that has come at the expense of news-gathering.

I had hoped that running two late-night newscasts would naturally – through additional news-related revenue for WQAD – lead to a larger newsroom. However, it looks to me that the change has thus far only created two new anchor positions and allowed WQAD to spread screen time among its surfeit of meteorologists. That conclusion is supported by the time devoted to weather during a survey period when the weather was stable.

But it also appears that the newscasts of WQAD and KLJB are by choice less newsy. In the four measured newscasts, both WQAD and KLJB used a two-anchor format – one male, one female – while KWQC and WHBF used a single anchor.

That doesn’t have to result in a different sort of newscast, but it reflects the different approach of WQAD and KLJB. The ABC and Fox newscasts were more personable, lighter, chattier, weather-ier, and – to be blunt – dumber than the other two. On Wednesday, both WQAD-produced newscasts closed with an Internet-generated Halloween video featuring news-department personalities – 43 seconds on one station and a minute seven seconds on the other. That doesn’t sound like much time, but it’s a big chunk of newscasts whose content runs less than 20 minutes.

By contrast, the CBS and NBC news were streamlined, business-like, and to-the-point, and they felt tonally newsier as a result in addition to actually being newsier. The lack of soft news on WHBF and KWQC – less than four minutes total for each over four days – reinforces that.

That would be a largely moot point if WQAD’s and KLJB’s coverage was on a par with KWQC’s and WHBF’s, but it’s not.

In four days, I found only a few stories that WQAD and/or KLJB did better than the other two stations: showing actual footage with sound bites from an Illinois gubernatorial debate, and a Wednesday report on the delay in demolition of the old nurses’ school and dorm in Moline. A story on a Citizens Utility Board report about cell-phone usage did a good job directing consumers to a tool they could use. (See the sidebar “Lowlights from a Week of Watching” to see how KLJB botched it, however.)

But beyond those, the highlights came from KWQC and WHBF. Both stations covered the Moline budget crisis fairly well, while WQAD and KLJB didn’t cover it at all during the survey newscasts.

WHBF’s Monday report on a Farmland Foods expansion in Monmouth, Illinois, touched on incentives and the business itself instead of merely jobs. Its local-reaction story Wednesday to the Chilean mine rescue quoted nursing-home residents (rather than the choice by WQAD/KLJB to talk to American TV employees), and a local mine expert provided some context about the differences between this mine disaster and those we’ve had in the United States. A Wednesday story about a new riverfront park in Davenport and veterans’ desire to have a park in their honor included some incisive comments from interview subjects.

WHBF was the only station with interviews for its story on the not-guilty verdict of Freda Williams, including with Rock Island County State’s Attorney Jeff Terronez. It was also the only station that had a local interview in its coverage of the home-foreclosure issue.

KWQC’s Monday story on combine safety provided good background on a relatively obscure problem with a news hook. Reports on the District of Rock Island bar-closing times, violence-related expulsions in Galesburg, Illinois, and a Clinton, Iowa, library referendum were relatively thorough and balanced. KWQC was the only local station on Tuesday with the breaking story of a dead body found in the parking lot of Genesis East.

I’d be lying if I said any of the local newscasts was particularly enlightening. At its rare best, local television news tells stories visually in a way that newspapers can’t. More often, it’s a concise but unilluminating summary of what’s happening in our community and the world. And at its worst, it tells viewers virtually nothing useful.

KWQC and WHBF aren’t television news at its best. But they’re the best we have in the Quad Cities for local news, and they both do well with the task of summary.

And if WQAD’s second- and third-place news operations won’t push KWQC to do even better, my hope is that WHBF – that scrappy underdog – will continue to, and gather the audience it deserves.

Sidebar: Lowlights from a Week of Watching

(Return to main story.)

It’s fun to make fun of local television news. Here’s a sampling of the worst of the week I watched, probably skewed to early in the week because documenting the flubs proved exhausting.

• The WQAD news operation remains strangely fond of live remotes at locations where nothing is presently happening.

• The top teased story on KLJB on Monday was about a new report on cell-phone usage that suggested people were wasting money with their contracts. There were technical problems with the story, however, and it was aborted 50 seconds in with a promise to return to it. The full story or its remainder never aired on KLJB. But a self-promotional, one-minute-40-second piece on awards for anchor Chris Williams and late WQAD (!) broadcaster Jim King did, along with a 40-second closer on a guy who plays piano with his feet. (The full cell-phone story ran on WQAD.)

• On Monday, the WQAD story about King – who worked for the station – included a graphic with a Fox background.

• In a report aired on WQAD and KLJB on Monday, the reporter claimed that the federal government is “cutting Social Security,” when the reality is that there will be no cost-of-living increase.

• All four stations on Monday dealt with the Social Security news, with negative local reactions from senior citizens. However, none articulated why the lack of a cost-of-living adjustment is a problem, especially considering that the decision was based on a lack of inflation. (KWQC was best at explaining why there would be no cost-of-living adjustment.) Three of the stations – KWQC, WQAD, and KLJB – also claimed, with similar phrasing and without a source, that the administrative decision might be a factor in the November election. I smell a press release or wire report.

• WQAD on Monday had three grossly overstated anchor claims: “The EPA says: Let it burn”; “Everyone fell in love with Drew Brees’ son”; and a statement about a “packed” Brady Street stadium directly contradicted by the video.

• On Monday, KWQC led with a two-minute-30-second story on an Iowa City ordinance on bar-entry age. Its relevance to the Quad Cities was never articulated.

• On Wednesday on KWQC, a reporter repeatedly said “libary” ... in a story about a referendum on Clinton, Iowa’s library.

• A Wednesday KWQC story about a coroner’s jury ruling on two teens killed by a train claimed the boys had a blood-alcohol content above the legal limit. They weren’t driving and weren’t of legal drinking age.

• On Thursday, WQAD’s normally insufferable “The Quad Cities According to Jim” segment effectively (if not exactly logically) argued for the death penalty. Except that Jim Albracht alluded to “unspeakable violence” – which he then proceeded to speak about quite explicitly.

• Aside from Jay Kidwell’s bizarre “The Rangers!” interruption of an anchor, WHBF was remarkably gaffe-free. The only other seriously embarrassing thing was the absurd Thursday “Puppy Picks” segment in which a dog “chooses” a winner in the Hawkeyes game by selecting a dish of food. And slightly embarrassing was an anchor’s word choice and syllabic emphasis Monday that a man was shot in the be-hind.

• Somewhat surprisingly, KLJB’s anchors had few glaring mistakes or cringe-worthy moments ... aside from that whole newscast-staff “monster mash” video.

(Return to main story.)

Sidebar: Methodology

This analysis was drawn from the 10 p.m. news broadcasts of KWQC (NBC), WQAD (ABC), and WHBF (CBS) and the 9 p.m. news broadcasts of KJLB (Fox) from Monday, October 11, through Thursday, October 14.

Stories were timed and placed in one of the following categories: local/state news, national/international news, entertainment/soft news (including technology and health pieces and human-interest feature stories), weather, and sports. Stories could only be put in one category, so there’s no overlap. While there were some judgment calls, they were infrequent and wouldn’t have affected rankings.

In addition, identified, on-camera interviews for local and state news were counted as a measure of how much actual reporting stations did.

While this analysis represents only a snapshot, the content patterns varied little day-to-day. This suggests that the stations each work within a relatively rigid template – especially in the time allocations to weather, sports, and soft news – that dictates the amount of time available for hard news.

(Return to main story.)

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