In the battleground of television news, differentiation is a thing of the past. Local news operations mirror each other by and large. The number 2 station in any given market will try to outdo the strategy employed by the number 1 market and so on. Staking out a different approach, a different path to success, has disappeared for the most part.
So it is in the Fort Myers news market. The two long time news leaders used to take starkly different approaches to their newscasts. WBBH took an in your face, aggressive approach, if it bleeds it leads approach to its story selection. WINK was a little more thoughtful, a lot more conservative, more interested in the story than in sensationalism.
The FOX station, where I currently work, was an also ran. The station lacked the staff and a clear vision of what it should try and be to be a real competitor. I think I can speak to all three news operations because I've actually worked in all three.
The economic downturn which strangled newsroom budgets hit Southwest Florida in 2007, a full year before it would hit the nation. It marked two changes in the direction of WINK and WFTX. Forrest Carr brought the In Your Corner concept to WFTX. The FOX station now had a clear mission to advocate for the little guy and to hold public officials and institutions accountable.
WINK became less thoughtful and conservative and began to mirror WBBH. As the years have passed WINK has become an exact imitation of their competitor at NBC, right down to the promotions. About six months ago or so WBBH started running a promo showing their lead anchors on the street, walking to various offices, making pronouncements about what it takes to dig up a story. Not long ago WINK started running a similar promo, the anchors on a walk to nowhere, spouting platitudes about what it takes to find a news story. The anchor women look like their ready to go to a cocktail party, rather than dig up a news story.
FOX has stuck to its course of In Your Corner. It works, and it differentiates us from the other guys. And despite the fact that we have about half the staff of our competitors, we break our fair share of the stories. I don't mean to imply that WINK and WBBH don't do good journalism, they do. The point of this missive is to point out the lack of real choice for viewers. I haven't mentioned the ABC station, WZVN, because it's part of a duopoly with WBBH and simply takes the scraps given it from their NBC brethern.
News managers wonder why audiences have slipped away from their newscasts and the answer is simple. The answer is dare to be different. In this day and age, personalities are not enough to draw viewers into the tent. Content remains king, but if it all looks the same than there really isn't a choice. I don't have a simple answer as to what different would be, but I can say that copying your top competitor in terms of approach to coverage and even their promos isn't a way to do that.