Local TV’s online presence has more content than ever


For years, many local TV websites were just promotional vehicles, featuring smiling anchor photos and broadcast schedules. No more. The latest RTDNA/Hofstra survey finds local news is now front and center on TV sites, including the websites of many stations that don’t even have news on the air. But while there’s been progress on the content side, the research suggests local TV still has a long way to go when it comes to the business side of the Web.

More than 90% of stations now have video as well as text and photos on their sites, although as we’ve noted before many are not using video to best advantage. Podcasts and “assemble your own newscasts” are less common than they used to be, suggesting a lack of interest on the part of users, reports former RTNDF executive director/NewsLab’s Deborah Potter.

The most popular content on TV sites, as you might expect, is local weather followed by local news. What is surprising is the “other information” that comes in third: Photo galleries, school closings, video, user generated content, contests and promotions, among other things. Researcher Bob Papper says “other” is a write-in category and has never ranked that high.

Stations are managing their sites with fewer than three full-time staffers, on average, plus about four part-timers. Those numbers don’t vary much by market size, Papper says. But in smaller markets, more stations report that everyone in the newsroom works on the Web. Overall, 71% of stations say feeding the website is everyone’s job.

On the management side, just 22% of news directors are in charge of their websites. That may indicate that a large number of stations are still contracting out their Web operations or that responsibility lies with a corporate executive.

Traffic is up from a year ago on local TV sites to an average of 4.5 million page views a month but the number of unique visitors hasn’t increased much, according to Papper. The reliability of that data is questionable, however, because almost half the news directors surveyed said they didn’t know their site’s metrics. That could explain why 43% had no idea if they were making a profit or losing money online–a level of ignorance that Papper found stunning.

The number of managers who said their sites did make money was up again in 2009 to 35%, continuing to grow despite the recession. But stations use very different accounting methods, Papper says, so it’s hard to know how profits are being assigned. “We don’t ask: if your website were a company and got nothing from your core business” did you make a profit, “because we know the answer would be that they don’t make a penny.”

“Three things make money on the web,” Papper told attendees at the 2010 RTDNA convention. “Commerce, search and pornography. If you’re not doing two of the three, you’ll be in trouble.” But most stations are giving away search-related ad dollars to Google, Papper says. What they should be doing, he argues, is packaging information that comes up when people search their sites with local ads, discounts on movie tickets, restaurants and the like.

Papper sees a great opportunity for local stations at a time when many newspapers are considering pay walls as a revenue source. Newspaper sites may lose traffic if they impose a subscription fee, as Newsday’s experience suggests. So TV stations could profit, but only if they invest in their sites.  ”Long term, if broadcasters don’t step up their newsgathering ability to replace what’s being lost at local papers they are making a terrible decision,” Papper says. “Those outlets that see the opportunity and are willing to invest can come out big winners.”