Outside Voices: Valerie Hyman On Wall Street's Squeeze Of Local TV News

(Valerie Hyman)
Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week, we turned to Valerie Hyman, program director for the Carole Kneeland Project for Responsible Television Journalism and former television reporter, newsroom manager and news executive. Below,Valerie argues that Wall Street is squeezing local television stations too much, and news consumers are paying the price. As always, the opinions expressed and factual assertions made in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices. Here's Valerie:

Wall Street is undermining democracy in America. It is doing this by demanding ever higher profit margins from local television stations that have little more to give. The result is that more Americans are getting less news.

In the process, Wall Street also diminishes the democratic vision of journalism. Now, in addition to gathering and presenting news, stations must be on the lookout for ways to get more advertising money out of their newscasts.

The Ford Foundation and the Radio Television News Directors Foundation just released a study that shows that two-thirds of Americans choose local television as their top source of news compared to any other traditional or new media.

No matter how dismissive you may be of local TV news, most of your neighbors rely on it. Like it or not, this is a story that concerns us all.

Here's what happens: election years make local TV stations happy. Dueling candidates bring in hundreds of thousands - if not millions - of advertising dollars to local stations. The problem is, when the "off" year rolls around, as it will in 2007, Wall Street demands higher profits than it got during the election year.

So 2007 is supposed to be better than 2006.

It can't happen.

But the corporations that own those stations will do their best to satisfy Wall Street anyway. Rather than fight the notion that news is a commodity like corn and pork bellies, CEOs of those media corporations keep figuring ways to get Wall Street the profit it wants.

This desperate game of catch-up is unfolding as the Internet gnaws at television's revenue base. It's a small nibble now. It will get bigger. Meanwhile, TV stations get a smaller piece of that advertising pie with each passing year.

One local TV executive said recently, "In the history of television, there have been only four years when profits did not grow. Three of those years have been since 2001."

When local television stations are squeezed, so are citizens who rely on them for the information they need to make decisions in a democracy.

We need to tell Wall Street, and the CEOs of the media companies that are slaves to stock prices, to look for something else to squeeze.

Democracy demands it.