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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.)

Comments (5)Add Comment
written by C Michaels, October 28, 2010
You must be watching different newscasts than I am. I find KWQC to be more "hey-you-guys-guess-what" than News. Lead stories often pander to demographics. It seems for two weeks on either side of an Honor Flight KWQC will lead with it as a 'top story.' Many pieces may be local, but are fluff at best. I find WQAD to be much stronger as far as quality of content that can be defined as actual News. Love KWQC's new set though.
written by R Joseph, October 28, 2010
The headline for this story really brought me in, expecting an in-depth analysis on the strength of each station from weeks if not months of exhaustive research. Instead, your analysis is based on only 4 days of newscasts.
Attempting to perform statistical analysis on a sample set that small is ridiculous, and that is being kind. Given that small a sample over the next 16 weeks, you may get 16 different results. It was your bullet point of "patterns" that really got to me. It isn't honest to present something as science when you aren't following proper methods, and that is what really got me.
I could completely understand if you were looking to write a story about the various personalities, as 4 days would be the bare minimum time to get a sense of someone's demeanor. And that would be both an interesting and subjectively defensible story.
The word objective shouldn't be anywhere near this article because you just didn't do enough research to make your assertions on a statistically valid sample set.
written by Devin Hansen, November 04, 2010
R joseph: statistically, yes that's true. But anecdotally, I think they are right because there is very little divergence from their formulas day in and day out. ha ha :) Personally, over the years, I've found more local news stories on whbf and wqad as well. --- And way to much dang weather on all three. I mean, do we really need 15 minute forecasts? Just tell me if its gonna freaking rain tomorrow and get on with some news. Local news. Not this AP stuff. ------------ Anyway, KWQC TOTALLY screwed up on the election coverage. It may be a small thing, but indiciative of a larger problem. They seem to do very little fact checking beyond Wikipedia. They said that Bobby Schilling was the first repub since George Obrien to hold the local congressional seat in IL. When everyone knows it was Tom Railsback who had the seat for 20+ years before Lane Evans did! And the reporter said it like three times. Ugh. And they made it seem like it was the first repub to ever hld the seat, when Lane Evans was the first dem since the CIVIL WAR to be elected to this district. It makes you wonder what other facts these local stations and news readers screw up.
written by Brad Vidmar, November 05, 2010
I thought this was probably the best Reader article I've read in a while.

A couple things:

1) WHBF's Chloe Morroni talks with her hands. Watch enough of her newscasts and, on a regular basis, you'll see her hands flapping about like she's trying to wave down a tow truck.

2) Calling Jim Albracht and his horses**t editorial segment "insufferable" seems pretty kind. Albracht's "According to Jim" rants, to me, are like some kind of weird affirmative action gig for clueless, paranoid, middle-aged, blue-eyed, white males struggling to have their voices heard no matter how irrelevant their observations might be to whatever topic they're jamming their 2 cents into. I've never heard that guy take anything other than a middle-of-the-road/mainstream opinion on anything and half the time he can barely able to articulate the points he's trying to make or, like Jeff points out, he just plain contradicts himself. To me, he's the perfect microcosm of those that voted the GOP back into power the other day: just another uninformed, stupid a**h*** who feels entitled to have his opinion heard no matter how little it contributes to the debate or how lite it is on substance or solutions. And above all, it's a waste of 2-3 minutes of news segment that could be easily dedicated towards something more viewers would rather see (like YouTube videos or dogs in funny hats).

written by Brad Vidmar, November 05, 2010
3) I like the soft news/human-interest features. You could somewhat consider them as "local news." Plus, I think WQAD should be given a little extra credit for their "8 on Your Side" stories and other investigative reports.Maybe I'm wrong, but they seem to do investigative reporting more often than the other stations.

4) I also enjoy WQAD's 6:30pm newscast. They cover a lot more world/national/political news during that half hour and it also allows them to air more in-depth local stories that might get passed over in favor of more urgent breaking news. And even if they're just airing network news packages, it's still refreshing to viewers that get sick of seeing all the local newscasts airing the same stories at the same time in the same order, and I'm sure viewers that don't have cable or satellite service appreciate the extra news coverage that's somewhat similar to what they would be getting if they had CNN or whatever.

5) Nothing on Paula Sands and her horrible show? Maybe next time...

6) KLJB's news is stale. I knew having WQAD take over production of that newscast would be a major improvement (the newscast had been marred by sloppy production at the hands of INN for years), but if I didn't know any better, I'd swear the regular newscasts on WQAD seemed a good 5-7 minutes longer than what they're airing on KLJB and I guess Jeff's numbers confirm that we're getting less news coverage than I assumed we would when I first heard of the partnership. I was hoping they'd be providing more news content and instead it just seems about the same as before(just produced more gracefully)...

7) I think we should give INN some credit for the work they did on KLJB these past 10 years. They really made an effort to present different angles of local news stories. Mostly out of necessity, because they never had the staff or the budget to cover local news like the other stations, nor the ability to do live-on-location shots. But there were plenty of times they failed miserably by doing things this way. They used to air a lot of stories that seemed extremely irrelevant or just plain uninteresting. And a lot of them would have been fine news stories to include in the broadcast if there hadn't been a shooting in Rock Island or the City of Davenport wasn't up to something crazy. But when you're only broadcasting an average of two feature stories a night, packing your opening segment with stories covering events that might only interest rural viewers just doesnt't cut it and I don't think INN was ever really taken seriously as a local news source.

8) I think the one thing I would have really been interested in seeing in this story are the effects advertising has on our local news stations. I'd like to see some hard numbers on the time length of commercial blocks during local newscasts and what type of ad revenue each station is bringing in during these newscasts. Obviously, the more viewers a station gets on average, the more they can charge their clients to run their spots. But I'm curious as to which stations could afford to air less commercials during their newscasts in favor of more news. Is WQAD able to give us more news than their KLJB broadcast because they air less commercials? If so, what are they charging the clients whose spots they do air? If WHBF is as worthy of everyone's viewship as Jeff suggests and this lead to more viewers, would this lead to higher ad rates or more commercials during their newscasts (meaning less news)? Same with KLJB. They're the only station airing a newscast at 9pm, but it seems like we're getting the least amount of news content from their broadcasts. Are they in a position to air less commercial spots or charge more from their clients? Or are they just trying to squeeze every penny they can from their advertisers with an obviously inferior newscast by using an earlier time-slot-gimmick? I guess this topic alone would make for an interesting article all by itself, but I'd be interested to see how ad money influences the length of these newscasts...

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