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Is there any hope for quality in local TV news?

There’s more news on local TV than ever–more than five hours every day, on average–but is it any good? It depends on where you look and whom you ask.

On some stations, serious reporting is hard to find, squeezed out by crime and fluff. And even at stations where good journalism is valued, there’s no let-up in the pressure from managers to do more with less.

“Less time, less resources to work with and yet the demand for more and more product causes stress and causes people to burn out,” says Mike Donahue, a veteran reporter and anchor at KOIN in Portland, Ore.

Donahue’s is just one of the voices in a new documentary, “Running on Empty: The Brain Drain in Local TV News,” produced by two Quinnipiac University journalism professors, Karin and Bill Schwanbeck.

If it sounds like an unrelievedly gloomy look at local television news, that’s about half right. Former reporters and news directors paint a grim picture of a business content to replace experienced journalists with cheaper, less capable rookies–a business that largely refuses to invest in quality. According to the Schwanbecks, only four of 40 stations in the top ten markets give investigative journalists time to cover stories in depth: WFAA and KDFW in Dallas, and KHOU and KTRK in Houston.

The film doesn’t stop there. It also examines some efforts to change the paradigm, including non-profit journalism centers and online sites. But it’s clear that those efforts alone won’t fill the gap.

Producer Karin Schwanbeck says she hopes the documentary will spur some change, possibly an effort by the FCC to hold stations more accountable. But she admits she’s not optimistic. “I’m not sure if it’s too late,” she says. “The genie is out of the bottle and I’m not sure if we can put the genie back.”

Given that assessment, why is she still preparing young would-be journalists for jobs that might not exist? Because, Schwanbeck says, she hopes they’ll be the ones who might be able to make a difference. “As Dan Rather would say, ‘You have to learn to write and you have to learn to fight.’”

Deborah Potter is a veteran journalism trainer, reporter and writer. She founded NewsLab, a non-profit journalism resource center, in 1998. She is a contributing correspondent to Religion and Ethics Newsweekly on PBS and a columnist for American Journalism Review.

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