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Want to See Why We Need to Save Newspapers? Watch TV News.


Want to See Why We Need to Save Newspapers? Watch TV News.
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If ever you need proof of the value of newspapers, just take a look at TV news, especially local TV news.

Local TV news, by and large, consists of a steady diet of crime coverage, shots of building fires from the station's helicopter, mostly hysterical weather forecasts (it's going to rain!) and cheerleading sports coverage.

Mostly missing is coverage of city government (unless there's a scandal), education (unless there's crime involved), labor issues (unless there's a strike) and so on. These are staples of newspaper coverage yet they might as well not exist on your local TV newscast.

And forget about anything even remotely resembling in-depth enterprise reporting. Local TV coverage is almost entirely focused on breaking news, which means giving viewers lots of reports about incidents of inner-city violence, for instance, but nothing about why such violence occurs. There's no big-picture reporting to be found.

Am I generalizing a bit? Maybe. But over the years I've lived in enough places to regularly see TV news from some of the nation's largest markets, including New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. These are markets that should be a showcase for the very best in local news coverage; what I saw, with a few exceptions, was what I've outlined above.

Is network news any better? To a point. The network newscasts paint on a larger canvas, so by necessity they cover events of greater import. But even here there are shocking gaps in what merits coverage (anything that directly affects the U.S.) and what doesn't. Just watch a typical BBC newscast (available on BBC America on cable) and compare it to a typical network newscast and you 'll see what mean.

Even worse, the fluff factor increases on a daily basis. ABC's "World News with Diane Sawyer" has recently taken to airing popular YouTube videos. Isn't that what Facebook is for?

That same network just completed an orgy of coverage of Robin Roberts' return to "Good Morning America" after a long illness. I've nothing but respect for Roberts - she's battled not one but two life-threatening illnesses in recent years with dignity and grace - but was the wall-to-wall coverage, capped off by an interview with Sawyer on "20/20" - really necessary?

Meanwhile, my local ABC affiliate in Philly is featuring a report this week on all the newsroom staffers who have recently had babies. I can hardly wait.

Cable news, meanwhile, serves mostly as a headline service when it's not focusing relentlessly and endlessly on whatever the big breaking news story of the moment happens to be.

One recent example: The hours devoted to the endgame shootout involving rogue LAPD cop Christopher Dorner, with choppercams zeroing in on the cabin where he'd holed up. A dramatic story, to be sure, but in the grand scheme of things was it worth the wall-to-wall coverage it received? Hardly.

And then there are the cable-news shoutfests that dominate prime-time programming at MSNBC and Fox News. Hardly illuminating stuff.

I don't mean to sound like a Scrooge, but when TV news staffs are being slashed, every cute-baby segment, every chopper shot of an abandoned warehouse fire, represents time and resources that could have been better spent on more substantive reporting.

This isn't likely to change. TV news is locked in an eternal struggle for eyeballs at all costs, and TV news people seem to have convinced themselves that shallow, ephemeral coverage will trump more substantive reporting in the ratings.

They may be right, though, given the declining viewership numbers for TV newscasts, it seems worth it to at least question this formula.

In any case, what's increasingly clear is this: If we want to preserve substantive news coverage, we must preserve newspapers.

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