Want me to pay for local news? Deliver more value

Greg O'BrienThe two recent CRTC hearings about the fee-for-carriage battle between cable companies and conventional broadcasters highlighted the way local TV will (and must) change, writes Greg O’Brien.

I believe in local news. I have been producing it all throughout my career.

From my student paper to the community weekly newspapers I’ve worked at and the various trade magazines and web sites which have employed me, they have all been, in a way, local news.

Friends and acquaintances sometimes think of me as a new media guru of sorts. They believe that because I run a news service which is distributed online only, I know something they don’t. The truth is I’m not doing anything now I wasn’t doing back in 1989 when I was a sports writer for The Ontarion, covering the University of Guelph Gryphons.

I produce niche content for a niche audience. That’s it. That’s what I did for the basketball fans at U of G. It’s what I did for the 4,000 people who lived in Belle River, Ont. and read the Belle River News. It’s what I did for the 7,000 subscribers of Footwear Forum magazine.

It’s what I do now for my company Cartt.ca, which produces “local news” for professionals working in cable, radio, television and telecom in Canada. It’s not local to their town. It’s local to their professions. And it’s distributed on platforms (in e-mail, online and via mobile) they find easiest to use, at times they want to use it.

The two recent CRTC hearings into whether or not Canadian conventional television stations (the over-the-air broadcasters) will be able to solicit a fee for their signal from cable, satellite and telco TV companies (who will then pass it on to consumers) had a lot to do with local television and, in my mind, highlighted the way local TV will (and must) change.

It’s really a return to the roots of local news, but distributed in new ways.

“That’s not local news”

We are awash with international stories, whether you get them from a newspaper or its companion web site, TV or TV site, radio, aggregators like Google News, your RSS feeds, Facebook references, or Twitter. There are millions of places to find out what’s going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, Tiger Woods’ bedroom or the Dallas Cowboys locker room.

That stuff is available anywhere and for free. And yet a huge chunk of valuable time is always spent on these types of stories by local Canadian TV broadcasters.


If local broadcasters are going to expect me to pay for their signal, there needs to be more value there – and believe me, none is added by pulling into the nearest Tim’s and asking locals what they think of Tiger’s troubles. That’s not local news. It’s a lazy way to kill time.

Let me personalize this further for a graph or two: There’s a large park in the west end of my town, Hamilton, and people are squabbling over what’s going to happen to it. Due to a few changes at the park and neighbourhood, further development is possible and different groups want different things. Most options have to do with sports. Some want kids soccer. Others, tennis. And yet my local TV station spends several minutes on highlights from the NFL instead of spotlighting this local sports issue.

NFL fans will go to Sportsnet, TSN, si.com, ESPN.com, nfl.com or so many other places for their NFL fix. I can’t imagine very many pigskin fans are still waiting until 11:20 p.m. to see how their teams fared. But who’s covering what’s going on with this park – something that directly affects the lives thousands of people in this end of town? Nobody.

Think of the value a local reporter could bring to the community, to his or her own brand, or to his or her company by covering this story. Would I pay for a station that covered my news that closely? Damn right. Especially if I could also call up this story on my Blackberry to show other parents while walking my daughter to school or if I bump into them at the library.

The park story is one I would have been all over in my community newspaper days. It was stories like that for which people would pay a buck a week for the little weekly paper – and for which advertisers would pay to have their ads clustered around.

But so-called “local TV” journalists’ default position seems more often to localize big celebrity stories like Tiger Woods or Jon and Kate Plus 8. What a waste of resources when so many other places are already covering every possible angle.

The value a local TV station in Canada can add to that is minimal.

Local TV news is stuck in a rut

I’m not saying the national and international stories have to be abandoned – and sometimes there are incredible stories to be told by localizing “big” stories (such as when a local soldier is toiling away in Afghanistan or if a local boy is drafted by the aforementioned Cowboys, for example). But it seems to me that local TV news is stuck in a rut.

That rut has been dug in large part by corporate cutbacks, I know. It’s very difficult to come up with local investigative pieces when you have news holes to fill with fewer and fewer bodies to do it. But this is the way it is and local newscasters who want to be indispensable should get back to providing original news like the local park stories and drop the ones that are available everywhere.

If broadcasters are going to start charging for local news — depending on the outcome of those CRTC hearings — there has to be more value to it. A lot more.

Local will win

And the payoff is already showing.

CHCH, my local station, switched to an all-news-all-day format, with movies in prime time in September. It’s all local and I have never watched so much CH in my life. While I’d still like to see changes in their sports coverage, the station has returned to its roots and its news ratings are 50 to 100% better now than at the same time last year according to BBM/Nielsen ratings sheets I have seen.

CH is the only place on TV that has so much news about everything west of Toronto. That is their locality. Their focus.

So far, it’s succeeding, because in a globally diverse and diffuse media world, local will win.

Greg O’Brien has been a journalist
for 22 years, the last 12 of which have been spent exclusively covering
the Canadian cable, radio, television and telecom sectors. He is
currently editor and publisher of Cartt.ca, which launched in May, 2005 and provides breaking news, feature stories, analysis and opinion about the radio, television and telecom industries.