Young: Local TV News Not Second-Rate

By Harry A. Jessell

Fred Young has had it with critics of local TV news. In accepting the 2009 RTNDA Paul White Award at the association convention in Las Vegas yesterday, the just retired Hearst-Argyle Television news executive called on other local news managers to answer those critics and then showed just how.

“We are not in the junk news business and we are not inferior to other media, locally or nationally,” he said. “Nothing is more offensive to me than those stereotyped comments about local news like blood-and-guts coverage, blow-dried anchors and hype-driven weather coverage.

“I submit that even though the competitive environment is changing dramatically, local news is still the prime source of news and information for the majority of news viewers.

“Our content is solid. Our anchors are using two hands and spending little if any time in the makeup room. And our weather presentation and technology are among each station’s most valuable assets.”

If local news managers speak up for their service everywhere they can, he said, they can improve attitudes about local news. “We can move the needle in a positive direction.”

Young went after one local news critic by name: ABC News anchor Charles Gibson.

When Gibson accepted the Paul White Award in 2006, Young said, he scolded stations for leading newscasts with fires and crimes and urged them to concentrate less on ratings and more on serving the community.

“Not all of Gibson’s characterizations of local newscasts were accurate,” Young said. “Unfortunately, some of those stereotypes help to perpetuate a negative image of TV news.”

Young acknowledged that local newscasts go for ratings and made no apology for it.

“Strong ratings are not a violation of journalistic law,” he said. “More eyeballs watching our programs are a good thing and will not get us banished from the National Press Club. If ratings are higher when the advertisers return, we could be on the road back to a fresh expansion of news programs and a recommitment of resources.”

Young also said he was troubled by a comment by Google CEO Eric Schmidt: “Incumbents very seldom invent the future.”

“We have a roomful of incumbents here this evening,” said Young. “Let’s take that challenge and show Mr. Schmidt that a group of experienced news broadcasters can upgrade our destiny and pull together the folks who will perpetuate local news for at least another 53 years.”

And showing that he could counterpunch, Young dismissed Google as “a company with a news presence that is generated by a minimum of people and a maximum of technology.”

Young said it is a mistake to write off local news, despite the rise of the Internet and other so-called news media.

“I cannot imagine an American city without local television and radio playing a key role in the flow of critical information to its residents.”

Young also suggested that local news may not be getting the respect it deserves from RTNDA itself, noting that he was only the second local news person to win a Paul White Award out of the 53 given. The others went to national and network news people.