Despite facing revenue shortfalls, budget cuts and unprecedented operational challenges, local TV stations aired more news in 2020 than ever recorded by a recent Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) newsroom survey.
2020 saw a record amount of local TV news for the second year in a row. In addition, a record number of stations are running local news. COVID was the hot topic as audiences sought up to date local information, but the pandemic also undermined news rooms in TV and radio across the country,
The RTDNA/Newhouse School at Syracuse University Survey was conducted in the fourth quarter of 2020 among all 1,762 operating, non-satellite television stations and a random sample of 3,379 radio stations.
READ MORE: Research: More stations produced more local news than ever during 2020 (RTDNA)
A new record of 1,116 TV stations aired local news in 2020, a rise of 18 from 2019. Stations also aired another record amount, in hours, of local news. Increases in weekday news offset slight decreases in weekend news for an overall net gain in average hours of local TV news, per the report.
On average, stations in all market sizes and all staff sizes of 21 or more increased the amount of news in minutes. Among network affiliates, news time on air increased for all except Fox. CBS stations were most likely to increase the amount of news from 2019. These increases aren’t expected to lead to further increases in 2021.
2020’s growth in the amount of news produced came amid a year of cutbacks for news budgets. Just 16.3% of TV stations report budget increases in 2020 versus 36.8% that did in 2019. Nearly 30% report experiencing budget cuts in 2020 versus the 9.1% that did in 2019.
As news profitability decreased, the percentage of station revenue generated by the news department remained steady, though most news directors (77.7%) didn’t know their station’s revenue breakdown.
However, to look at the bigger picture of the business of TV news during 2020, the Pew Research Center reports that, for local TV news, the loss of ad revenue in the pandemic’s early days didn’t exceed gains in retransmission revenue.
READ MORE: Coronavirus-Driven Downturn Hits Newspapers Hard as TV News Thrives | Pew Research Center (journalism.org)
Several groups set record revenues, with gains of 25 to 40 percent, with some significant exceptions such as Sinclair, which laid off more than 550 employees as the pandemic slowed economic growth.
READ MORE: Sinclair Broadcast Group Lays Off Staff, Citing “Profound” Pandemic Impact (The Hollywood Reporter)
Indeed, the report says COVID “has had a stark and lasting impression” on local TV newsrooms, with more than 90% of TV news directors reporting their newsrooms were still feeling significant impacts as 2020 ended. More than 80% report at least some staff remain remote, a move that may in some cases be permanent. Stations with more staff and those in bigger markets were most likely to have staff continuing to work remotely.
Radio News Check
Radio stations also report running more minutes of news in 2020. Some 27.1% of radio stations report an increase in the amount of news they aired, up by more than 10 percentage points from 2019, per the report. Larger stations, stations in larger markets and public stations were most likely to produce more news.
While more than half of radio news managers report their budgets did not change in 2020, the percent saying their budgets decreased doubled to 18.2%. More radio departments reported cuts across market and staff sizes.
The Tow Center COVID-19 Newsroom Cutback Tracker reports budget-related cutbacks in more than 700 radio newsrooms, including company-wide cuts to staffing, programming or hours for at least 8 major station groups.
READ MORE: The Tow Center COVID-19 Newsroom Cutback Tracker (Columbia Journalism Review)
The RTDNA concludes that COVID had noticeably different and mixed impacts in local radio news compared to TV. Eight percent of radio respondents report coronavirus or the associated economic disruption ended their local news programs altogether. In contrast, just over 40% of radio respondents report no ongoing significant impacts to their stations. Among those that do, maintaining remote staff was the most reported impact.