On Tuesday, I took part in an on-air discussion at NJ News Commons about the future of local news in New Jersey and beyond.
Exhibit A was Fox Broadcasting Company's decision to replace WWOR's evening newscast with Chasing New Jersey, a TV newsmagazine modeled after the celebrity gossip show TMZ.
Chasing New Jersey is Fox's attempt to reinvent local news. Its format -- young reporters "chasing" events around the state and reporting them back in conversations with colleagues -- is a departure from standard news fare featuring co-anchors seated before a teleprompter.
WWOR's traditional newscast, which broadcast to viewers across northern New Jersey and New York City, was in need of a change. The switch was Fox's attempt to create news that appeals to a younger demographic, especially those 18-to-34-year-olds that advertisers pay top dollar to reach.
While innovation is welcome, the show raises the question, now before the Federal Communications Commission, of whether WWOR is meeting its public-interest obligation to viewers in New Jersey.
In exchange for free access to the public airwaves, local broadcasters are legally bound to serve the "public interest, convenience and necessity."
WWOR's reputation in that regard has been far from stellar. Community groups led by the Voice for New Jersey have asked the FCC to deny the renewal of its broadcast license, claiming that the Secaucus-based station "turns its back on the state," instead focusing on the large New York City audience to the north.
The late Sen. Frank Lautenberg championed Voice for New Jersey's complaint, asserting that WWOR "must devote a specific and substantial amount of airtime each week to New Jersey news stories and events." After Lautenberg's death in June, his Senate colleague Bob Menendez and Rep. Frank Pallone called on the FCC to investigate and act against the Fox-owned station.
While WWOR's previous approach left New Jersey news out of the mix, Chasing New Jersey serves it up like a Jell-O shot: fast, dizzying and targeted at younger audiences.
Reporters, or "chasers" as they're called, gather in a news scrum to recount their daily investigations. They're prompted by show MC and Republican politician Bill Spadea, whose fahgettaboudit affectations are drawn from well-worn New Jersey clichés. The show's opening and closing credits rip off the Sopranos'. And the chasers' comments, like Hank Flynn recounting his youthful pot-smoking obsession, often feel like outtakes from MTV's Jersey Shore.
"It felt like they're trying too hard," Diana Marszalek of TVNewsCheck said on Tuesday. "I don't know how hip you need to be to appeal to hipsters ... This seemed so fast, so furious, so cool, so hip that it took over the program. It did lose some worthy content in the process."
Fox is undaunted and plans to try its chasing-news formula elsewhere. It's already registered the trademarks for titles including Chasing Florida and Chasing Texas, according to Brian Stelter of the New York Times.
The common refrain of media companies promoting infotainment is that they're simply giving the people the news they want -- that forcing viewers to eat news broccoli (or reporting on community affairs, politics and the economy) is a recipe for ratings failure.
But in 2010, American University released a study of the Philadelphia media market that found that residents wanted more public affairs coverage than what local broadcast outlets provided.
If Fox wants to experiment with new formats, it might consider focusing on issues that resonate locally. How about deploying chasers to city halls, where there's been a statewide outbreak of double-dipping public officials? How about exploring the movement to protect the rights of New Jersey's diverse immigrant population, or investigating the money behind Gov. Chris Christie's multimillion-dollar political advertising spree?
Recent FEMA flood maps are redrawing the economics of the real Jersey Shore. There's a story to be chased down there.
The real revolution in news reporting is not the fluff that springs from the minds of Fox execs. It's what you find in the work of local independent news operations. (Just click the links above for proof.)
But decision makers at broadcast conglomerates are too focused on chasing profits to see the potential for hard-hitting journalism in the communities they're supposed to serve.