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Access and third parties remain concerns as local news goes OTT

June 27, 2019 | By Bryson Masse – Independent Journalist @Bryson_M

Local television news enjoys a somewhat unique vantage point among audiences: It’s America’s most trusted source of news according to the 2018 Poynter Media Trust Survey. Just over three quarters of respondents said that they either trust local TV news “a great deal” or “a fair amount,” beating out network news at 55% and online news at 47%. (Though local newspapers weren’t far behind broadcast at 73%).

But local news is not without its challenges, as younger generations change their viewing habits and cord cutting becomes more common. In fact, bridging those gaps are the stated goals of CBS’ new local news streaming services. Earlier this month, CBS announced the launch of CBSN Los Angeles. It’s the second local news over-the-top service offered by the Eye Network after a version in New York started streaming last December. Available 24/7, the service offers viewers access to not only the regularly scheduled one-hour news broadcasts, but also exclusive news and weather content produced by a dedicated team. 

A local stream

The effort is built on the experience and infrastructure of the CBSN streaming service launched in 2014, according to Executive Vice President and General Manager of CBS Local Digital Media, Adam Wiener. “It’s an investment in innovation. We want to be wherever our consumers are and we’re creating product to meet that need.”

While bringing local news to an online streaming might feel like the natural next step in news delivery, there could be reasons it ends up more complex than that. “I love the idea of experimenting with local news,” said Christopher Ali, associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. “I’m a huge fan of it, we need to find different ways to keep local news going.” 

Ali also points out that the corollary of the fact that younger people not watching the news, is that the main audiences are older adults, Unfortunately, at least at present, this demographic is the least inclined to adopt new viewing habits. He thinks the audience for local news could remain older as there are unique properties of the local news viewership. 

Youthful news

For example, to combat declining audiences, a February 2019 report from the Shorenstein Centre and Northeastern University suggested that local news needs to look at online outlets like Vox for inspiration. But that might not be enough to change local news’ fortunes among the young, says Ali. “We tend not to settle down until we’re in our 30s, which means that local politics, local zoning issues don’t tend to matter, really, until we have kids or we buy a house,” he says. 

Another factor that marks the CBSN services are their locations in major hubs. With LA and New York online as well as planned expansions to Boston and the Bay Area, there’s not yet talk for movement to smaller markets. “Places that are hurting for local news are the mid sized cities, your Kansas City or St. Louis. These are the ones where we’re seeing the collapse of the newspaper, and also the kind of a less robust television ecosystem,” says Ali. “So how do we scale what CBS is trying to do to make sure that these other markets, which are quickly becoming local news deserts, are going to be served as well.”

Since not all small towns and remote areas have fast internet, that could also stratify the potential audiences for digital local news broadcasts, Ali says. 

Consider the source

Valerie Belair-Gagnon, assistant professor of journalism studies at the University of Minnesota, agrees that any move to digital will favor those with better internet access. However, she also says that local news’ move to OTT is “part of a larger trend of news organizations to rely on third party platforms to produce news, reduce costs and a reaction to the diversification and segmentation of audiences.”

While CBS certainly has control over its distribution offering stream access through a website, it also has apps located on the App Store, Google Play Store, Amazon’s Fire TV, and Roku’s streaming platforms. For (relatively) smaller companies, these relationships have also proven to be a challenge to navigate. Apple has been accused of anti-competitive behavior by Spotify, and the music streaming service has filed a legal complaint in the E.U. It alleges that the 30% cut Apple takes from digital purchases grants an unfair preference for their own product. 

Belair-Gagnon also worries about the ultimate responsibility of creating journalism could be rendered ambiguous. “In a world where news organizations are increasingly relying on third party outside of regulated channels and where there is increasing opportunities for different forms of storytelling, whose responsibility is it to produce news? Who is liable when journalists relinquish their control over third parties?”

The bottom line is that the need for local news is great and experimentation with ways to serve this market is critical. However, there also remain important unanswered questions in the path to modernize the evening news broadcast. 

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