SALT LAKE CITY — A new breed of news hound that has taken a big bite out of the profitability of newspapers and magazines is now gnawing at the market share of local television news, new research shows.
Viewership of local newscasts is declining as 18- to 49-year-olds increasingly consume news and information from their phones, tablets and laptops long before the evening news goes live.
"The day of people turning on the 6 o'clock news to find out what happened during the day is gone," said Mark Toney, senior vice president with Smith Geiger, a consumer market research firm. "Local television news needs to be serving consumers that get their news off of three screens" — a phone, computer and television.
TV executives around the nation and in Utah are responding to the trend of multi-platform news consumption, according to The State of the News Media 2013 report released last week by the Pew Research Center.
Eight out of 10 local TV stations said they routinely fed news to television, Internet and mobile platforms, which Pew said was a substantial jump from the 70 percent that said they took a three-screen approach to news the previous two years.
The Pew report noted KSL.com as an exception to newspapers' dominance of online media. The website of KSL television and radio was the top local media website in the country for the second straight year, according to The Media Audit's annual rankings released last year, with two-thirds of Salt Lake City adults visiting the website at least once over a 30-day period.
In February, KSL.com continued to dwarf all other Utah news sites attracting 12.2 million visits, with 8.6 million visits to the news pages. Second was deseretnews.com with 2.2 million visits, which doubled the next highest website, SLtrib.com of the Salt Lake Tribune, according to Experian Marketing Services and Omniture.
Both KSL.com and deseretnews.com are operated by Deseret Digital Media, under the umbrella of Deseret Management Corp., which owns the Deseret News and KSL.
Utah's oldest broadcaster is leveraging the reach of its website in a strategy to become a 24/7 news source through its television, radio and digital media that carry the KSL brand beyond its current dominant role and position in Utah and into parts of Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming as well.
"Our absolute commitment is to provide news where people want it," Tanya Vea, executive vice president of news and cross-platform development for KSL, said. "We are reaching more consumers than any news provider in this market, period."
According to Scarborough Research, which measures audience engagement across media properties, KSL's TV, radio and internet outlets reached 42.5 percent of Utah's adult population from August 2011 to July 2012. By another measurement in that same time period, Utahns engaged one or more of KSL's news products more than 2.6 million times.
Delivering news through multiple media is a strategy that TV executives, consultants and academics agree is critical for the long-run survival of broadcast news given the changing habits of news consumers.
"Our biggest challenge is to be screen agnostic and provide an opportunity for people to see us not only on TV but on their iPad and iPhone and want to have our brand in those three areas," said Kent Crawford, general manager of KUTV, which currently has the highest TV ratings in the state, but one of the lowest visited news websites.
The Pew report included a 2012 survey that found almost one third (28 percent) of those younger than 30 said they watched local TV news, down from 42 percent in 2006. Viewership in the 30- to 49-year-old age bracket declined 5 percent during that same period.
The survey also showed that nearly the same percentage of younger consumers who got their news from a social networking site (33 percent) viewed a television newscast (34 percent). And among all age groups, news consumption via mobile and online platforms spiked from just below 25 percent in 2006 to 39 percent last year, while consumption of traditional print, radio and television media declined.
Daily news diet
Janet Thaeler in Fruit Heights is among those news consumers KSL and KUTV are targeting. Seconds after her morning alarm goes off, she reaches for her smart phone on the night stand and begins scrolling through her email and Facebook news feed.
"I feel really empty and weird if I don't do that," says the 41-year-old mother of two who works in public relations. "It's my ease into the daytime."
Thaeler looks for headlines that will grab her attention. She may follow those stories, along with others recommended by Facebook friends or those she follows on Twitter, throughout the day via her phone or laptop. She also subscribes to a newspaper on the weekends and listens to the radio while driving.
The steady daily diet of news and information doesn't end until the 10 p.m. television newscasts sign off, which Thaeler and her husband watch from their bed. They have their phones or tablets nearby to jump to websites where the news anchors tell them they can find more information.
Catering to consumers like Thaeler isn't easy for TV managers who have to win the loyalty of a young demographic for the future, while not alienating the faithful older viewers that advertisers, who pay for the newscast, want to target.
A major source of tension between the push to the future and pull to preserve the past is television ratings. The antiquated system of determining advertising rates by tracking viewer preferences four different months out of the year is universally criticized by broadcast executives, consultants and academics for failing to give a true picture of how consumers interact with their local television stations.
"It's an increasingly irrelevant statistic," said Gabriel Kahn, co-director of the University of Southern California's Media, Economics and Entrepreneurship program. "The problem is so much effort spent in the newsroom is still based around trying to please a measurement standard that has less and less relevance to the audience. The longer that goes on the bigger the disconnect becomes between the audience and the products that are produced."
In the Salt Lake market, advertisers prefer the Nielsen TV ratings because it's what they have relied on for decades. But local station managers complain that Nielsen's sample of viewers is too small, the responses unreliable and the resulting ratings don't measure viewer interaction with websites, mobile apps or social media pages.
"It's not the best measurement but it is the currency that we have to work with," said Tim Ermish, president and general manager of KSTU, the local market's FOX affiliate.
Crawford said KUTV's owner, Sinclair Broadcasting Group, dropped Nielsen late last year for about three months. He scrambled to sign up with Rentrak, which has a sample of 50,000 viewers compared to Nielsen's 400, but he struggled to get ad buyers to accept a different database.
"Those 90 days (without Nielsen) were very challenging," Crawford recalled. "Rentrak is a very good research company and I would say their database is larger and research is better. But they are not accepted by the buying community. Buyers said, 'If you can’t use Neilsen I can’t do business with you.'"
Sinclair has since allowed KUTV to use Nielsen again.
Peggy Conway, an advertising buyer with Love Communications, said Nielsen provides good demographic data and that advertisers judge its usefulness by how much business television advertising generates.
But she agrees the broadcast media market has changed drastically in the 30 years she's been in the business and advertisers are coming around to realizing they too need a multi-platform strategy.
"It used to be that you could put all of your budget on TV and didn’t have to do anything else," she said. "Now it’s all about a good mix of TV, digital and whatever other media. But ... the number of hours and people reached by TV is still number one."
Television captured 43 percent of advertising purchased in 2011, according to data collected by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, with the Internet a distant second at 26 percent.
But that same data show the greatest opportunities for advertising are in the Internet and mobile space, where there was a combined $20 billion opportunity gap between consumer time spent and advertising dollars spent on those platforms.
The Pew report concluded that so far technology giants like Google and Facebook have "outflanked" the local news industry in the digital space with their ability to target even national advertising in local markets.
In February ratings, KSL radio's news and information programming was No. 1 from morning drive to its afternoon "The Browser" and evening "Nightside" shows. And that performance is in a market with the highest number of radio signals per capita in the country, said Program Director Kevin LaRue.
But while KSL leads the market in both radio and internet reach, it has experienced a steady decline in TV viewership and ratings since 2003, hitting its lowest ratings point in February. Part of the drop can be attributed to the retirement of its news anchor teams at KSL and on-air stability at KUTV and that station's affiliation with the country's strongest network, CBS, said news executives at both stations.
KSL executives said what has taken the most direct hit on its ratings is the decline of its network affiliate. In February, NBC became the first to ever finish fifth in a sweeps month, ranking behind the Spanish-language Univision. And primetime network programming can either deliver or drive away a local audience for the 10 p.m. newscast, a station's most lucrative time slot.
"We don’t have an audience delivered from prime time," Vea said.
While the ratings decline has been painful, it has also revealed KSL has a loyal viewership that tunes in despite a weak lead-in from NBC, she said. In February, KSL's ratings grew an average 80 percent from 9:45 p.m. to the time its 10 p.m. newscast began.
"That’s a win for us," she said. "That’s a good thing that we are able to convert that much of audience from nothing."
How much of the loyal TV audience comes from KSL's digital users or radio listeners is anybody's guess since the current ratings systems don't measure that.
Thaeler's habits illustrate how unpredictable today's news consumer can be. While she follows KSL.com for breaking news throughout the day and "loves The Browser" on KSL radio, she switched to KTVX, the third-ranked ABC affiliate.
"We used to watch KSL religiously ... but now I can get my news in so many different ways I don't feel any loyalty to anyone," Thaeler said.
Making the 10 p.m. newscast relevant to viewers who have been "swimming in news all day" is another challenge local news stations must solve, said Deborah Potter, founder and executive director of the nonprofit journalism training and development initiative NewsLab and a coauthor of the Pew study.
She said what sets TV apart from other media is its ability to tell stories visually on the biggest of the three screens people use to consume their news. And she believes local TV news should play to that strength.
"They need to be taking advantage of what video can do in telling strong visual stories and not just stringing together soundbites."
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