Since May 2009, four local stations — CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2, NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5, Fox-owned WFLD-Channel 32 and Tribune Broadcasting WGN-Channel 9 — have been pooling camera crews, assignment editors and other resources in order to share run-of-the-mill news content on the cheap.
Anyone with half a brain could tell it was a bad idea from the start, and now two of the four stations are calling it quits.
Local News Services were first tested in Philadelphia in 2008, when Fox Television Stations and NBC Local Media teamed up to cut costs on news coverage. The idea quickly spread.
In Chicago, the concept was sold as way to cover news conferences and other non-exclusive events, while freeing individual stations to focus on more important stories. With straight faces, station executives claimed the arrangement would actually enhance their reporting. "I think it'll create more differentiation in the market," then-CBS 2 boss Bruno Cohen said.
Critics said it was simply a precursor to staff reductions that would stifle independent newsgathering. To its credit, WLS-Channel 7 was the lone holdout among commercial broadcasters. Emily Barr, then head of the top-rated ABC-owned station, insisted that her news operation remain independent and flexible with its coverage. WTTW-Channel 11, the public television station, also did not participate.
First to pull out of the arrangement was NBC 5, which gave its six-months notice last June and officially will terminate its LNS affiliation at the end of the year.
“We’ve been adding resources in areas that help differentiate us from our competition, including investigative,” said Frank Whittaker, station manager and vice president of news at NBC 5. “Leaving LNS gives us greater control of our stories and additional resources to develop stories that are exclusive to our newscasts.”
WGN followed soon after and formalized its withdrawal notice on Tuesday.
“Our decision was based on how best to use our resources,” said WGN news director Greg Caputo. “We decided to bring the WGN employees who had been assigned to LNS — two photographers and an assignment editor — back into our newsroom to work solely for our newscasts.”
Caputo expressed misgivings about the bang he has been getting for his buck: “As the LNS evolved over the years, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable as its coverage shifted from the original goal to handle ‘routine’ news stories to an operation that often provided resources to cover stories that we were already covering with our own crews,” he told me Wednesday.
That still leaves CBS 2 and Fox 32 in bed together, sharing (among other things) pictures from the same helicopter and the same airborne reporter, Jeanette Hudson. How long Chicago’s two lowest-rated news operations will remain in cahoots is not clear.