A chance to invest in television news
If you live in a swing state you might be wondering, what happened to all the money television stations got for airing the nonstop spew of political ads right up until Election Day?
You'd think television stations, whose news departments at least try to lay claim to an aura of public responsibility, would take a bit of their campaign windfall and give back.
The most obvious way to do this would be to beef up their political reporting on the news, as an excellent article in the current issue of Columbia Journalism Review points out.
After all, local television stations rake in millions of dollars in swing states across the country with poisonous ads that are at best horribly deceptive and at worst outright false. TV reporters themselves acknowledge how sick-and-tired they are of the ads, and some stations actually fact-check some of the ads and document the deception.
So how about taking a little bit of the money from the ads and spending it on more local journalism, year-round, to help equip citizens with information needed to sort through political fact and fiction?
What would this look like? Could a station afford, or even benefit from, investing more in journalism?
Denver stations, for example, earned a total of $67 million from election-related ads last year, according to an analysis by The Denver Post. Meanwhile, the average yearly salary of a TV news reporter is now about $40,000.
Let's assume that the average TV reporter earns $50,000, including benefits.
If you do the math, $67 million buys you 1,340 well-paid reporters to inform the public about politics.
As it is, Shaun Boyd, the political reporter at one of Denver's top TV stations, has acknowledged that she is essentially the only staffer who covered the 2012 campaign at her station, KCNC. And she alone covers the vast majority of political stories for the outlet.
What if the top news executives at Boyd's station set an example for the country, stood up, and told Denverites that they were going to do things just a little bit differently and invest in political journalism?
What if they told their audience, and the community, that, hey, as journalists, we think political ads are despicable, and we're as sick as you are of gross political ads manipulating our elections?
Just imagine them announcing that to give back to the community we're going to add one new reporter with the mission of helping people be less vulnerable to manipulation by political ads.
They could afford this. If you assume Boyd's station's share of the election-year ad spending spree to be about $15 million (there are four stations in the market and hers is No. 3), then we're talking about giving back just one one-thousand-three-hundred-and-fortieth of local industry's revenue, leaving plenty of money to pay for other company priorities.
If they have to view it through their usual profit-driven lens, which is how local TV news operates, they could easily justify the decision based on bottom-line PR value alone. It would almost certainly be a local and national story, separating the station a bit from the bottom-feeding (and weather-hyping) TV news pack.
At a press conference, station executives could emphasize the public-interest aspects: As a very small gesture toward healing our political culture, they could say, we're taking a small portion of our obscenely huge election haul and hiring an extra political reporter to hold public officials accountable and to help you sort through the political spin.
How great would that be? Who knows, it might also boost their ratings.
A former media critic for the Rocky Mountain News, Jason Salzman is board chair of Rocky Mountain Media Watch.