June 1, 1999
KAKE-TV, an independently owned ABC affiliate in Wichita, Kansas, has come come up with a novel way to increase its ratings: good journalism. Media correspondent Terence Smith reports.
A sexual predator is at large tonight, and we'll show you where.
CORRESPONDENT: Tonight, new at 6:00, A bizarre shooting in one neighborhood sends two people to the hospital and lands a 20-year-old in court -- (Sirens wailing)
|"If it bleeds, it leads."|
TERENCE SMITH: If it bleeds, it leads.
CORRESPONDENT: The latest murder happened in that apartment building. It's the second murder in McKeys Court this year --
TERENCE SMITH: For years, that's been the operating principal of many
local television newscasts.
SMITH: Murder and mayhem frequently get top billing on local news nationwide.
TERENCE SMITH: Tom Rosenstiel heads the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The Project compiled another study earlier this year that rated 61 local news stations nationwide on the quality of their newscasts. The survey produced a surprising result.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Quality sells. The stations that earned the very best grades in the study - more than 60 percent of them - were rising in ratings.
SMITH: Rosenstiel conceded that local stations still can make money
by emphasizing the seamy side of life, but that is not the only way
news departments can be successful.
|Setting a high standard for local news.|
SMITH: KAKE, an independently-owned ABC affiliate in Wichita, Kansas,
was cited in Rosensteil's study as one example of a local station that
is doing well by doing good journalism. Long mired in third place in
its competitive, statewide market, KAKE has moved up to second in the
ratings by downplaying crime coverage in favor of more substantive fare.
Jim Turpin, the station's news director, says that's what his audience
CORRESPONDENT: The most popular stolen car for thieves --
TERENCE SMITH: KAKE was singled out in the Project for Excellence study as a prime example of a station that has improved its ratings by improving its product. The study graded all the stations and KAKE got an A+. We decided to visit to see what they were doing.
|Connecting with the viewers.|
TURPIN: What's in it for me? "Me" is the viewer.
TERENCE SMITH: In the early morning meeting at KAKE, they talk about the "WIIFM" factor, or "What's in it for me." This morning, the staff weighed in on what stories they thought were important.
KEN PETERSON, Reporter, KAKE-TV: Also up in Topeka where we were supposed to go, we've got the transportation bill.
TERENCE SMITH: A transportation bill is slated for the top of the 6 o'clock show. A local hospital that had a new medical procedure was the 5 o'clock lead, and a candidate running for both city council and mayor was in the news.
JIM TURPIN: The point is, is he running for both of these offices just because he's a weirdo or is he running because he really thinks he can make a community difference?
KAKE-TV REPORTER: I think he thinks he can make a community difference, but he doesn't realize that he can't.
TERENCE SMITH: KAKE reporter Ken Peterson is covering the transportation
bill that's expected to be voted on in the state legislature.
|News you can use.|
|TERENCE SMITH: Another new addition at KAKE is consumer
reporter Deb Farris. Consumer news is popular with Wichita audiences and
its local relevance is a major reason the station fared so well in the
study. The consumer segments are labeled "KAKE on Your Side".
DEB FARRIS, Consumer Reporter, KAKE: Usually in a market this size you don't have an investigative reporter that gets a lot more time to work on the story.
TERENCE SMITH: Farris was featured on the 10 o'clock news that night with a special investigative series on companies in Wichita that she reported were polluting the environment.
FARRIS: Of the families who sued, 12 of them reached an undisclosed
settlement with the companies named. Part of the settlement was to agree
never to talk to the media about the lawsuit.
TERENCE SMITH: KAKE's most formidable competitor, CBS station KWCH, has been number one for several years now. On the day we visited, it lead its 5 o'clock show with a story on the police department's drunk driving force.
KWCH-TV CORRESPONDENT: There's a buzz in the air tonight that big changes are on the way for Wichita's drunk driving enforcement unit.
TERENCE SMITH: It started its 10 o'clock broadcast with a lighthearted story about a celestial happening.
KWCH-TV CORRESPONDENT: For the first time in 25 years the two brightest planets - unusually close together.
TERENCE SMITH: Bob Curtright is the TV critic for the Wichita Eagle.
|The pressures of profitability.|
|TERENCE SMITH: Anchorwoman Susan Peters has been in local
news for over 26 years. She has worked in a variety of different markets.
Before joining KAKE, she was in San Diego. Peters says she's watched a
sea change occur in local news over the past 15 years.
PETERS, Anchorwoman, KAKE-TV: When I got into this business, most television
stations, and radio stations for that matter, were owned by broadcasters,
people who grew up either in the news department or even engineering
or sales department. They were broadcasters at heart. In the 80's, all
of a sudden, these business people started looking at television stations
saying, "Wow, these things make a lot of money." For business
people who owned television stations, the bottom line is simply the
bottom line, making money, and they don't care as much about the product.
TURPIN: We make a lot of money, as local news departments do all over
the country, for their owners. We bring in about half the revenue for
the station - but I think it's about 40 percent of the net profit -
something like that -- which is pretty good considering we don't do
40 percent of the programming in the day.
SUSAN PETERS: A lot of people would think it was a death wish to put on longer stories, but slow, but sure, our ratings are going up. Now, if we would have done that exact opposite, here is this crash and here is this and here is this, and given you your news like that, our ratings probably would have gone up faster, I think, but this way they're going up and they're going up with quality.
|An independent way of thinking?|
TERENCE SMITH: Unlike many other local stations, KAKE is not owned by a larger conglomerate. It's one of two stations owned by the Chronicle Publishing Company, which also runs KRON-TV in San Francisco, another station that has won praise from critics. Despite its enormous profitability, local news like the national broadcast networks has seen audiences begin to decline in the past few years. Competition for ratings is intense, and not even KAKE is above resorting to gimmicks.
KAKE-TV CORRESPONDENT: Well, it looks great. Let's take a look at the before and after right now. There you have the before; there you have the big smile afterwards.
TERENCE SMITH: On Mondays, you can tune in and see a regular feature, "The Monday Makeover." Anchorwoman Susan Peters:
SUSAN PETERS: This market is not immune, and KAKE TV is not immune
to that at all because the makeover, we do because people like seeing
people made over. It has no news value whatsoever, but we do it because
people like seeing it.
TERENCE SMITH: But most of the time, KAKE's newscasts deal with actual news, straight, practical news of interest to its audience. It's a revolutionary concept for many local markets, but - here - it works.