In a makeover that took shape in late spring, according to head brass, Fox29 has revamped its news approach, with a brighter look, a harder edge (some call it editorializing), ramped-up audience outreach (some call it pandering), and a new stress on commentary and discussion that makes it look somewhat more like 24/7 cable news. But a range of viewers and journalists interviewed for this story say they're uneasy about the degree to which it encourages reporters like Keeley to mix viewpoint with reportage.
Ratings for local news have been slipping everywhere for years. In response, Fox29 - like stations across the country - is changing its approach. The target: viewers abandoning established networks for smaller, edgier cable news channels, shifting allegiance from supposedly centrist, balanced news to opinionation, from the measured voice of Cronkite toward O'Reilly or Olbermann.
Says occasional Fox29 commentator and former Inquirer writer Buzz Bissinger, "They're looking for people with stronger opinions. It signals that they're looking for a harder edge."
Patrick Paolini, vice president and general manager of Fox29, says: "We want to provoke thought, give many sides of each issue, break out of the tired, inflexible local-news format."
Plus, they looked at the ratings, and what they saw was not good. "We went back four-five years," Paolini says, "and it was startling. Local news viewership, all stations, in Philly is down 30, 40 percent versus four, five years ago. Part of it is the DVR, the Internet, and changing viewer habits."
The tweaks at Fox29 may be working, at least initially. In the May "sweeps," the number of viewers aged 25-54 for Fox29's 10 o'clock newscast was down 20 percent from that of May 2009, according to the Nielsen Co. But, although summer ratings are notoriously volatile, July numbers indicate a 9 percent improvement over July 2009.
The news directors of Channels 3, 6, and 10 were contacted regarding the changes at Fox29, but no calls were returned.
Some critics think Fox29 is trying too hard to buddy up to viewers. "I call it populist boosterism," says Richard Goedkoop, associate professor of communication at La Salle University. "They seem to be taking popular positions - most of them, pretty easy calls - very aggressively, carefully selecting and espousing man-on-the-street opinions on the issues, and saying, 'We're for you, citizen of Philadelphia. We're reflecting your views in the newscast.' I call that pandering."
A case study in Greene. Back on Fox29, Keeley has achieved white heat: "Why isn't [Greene] resigning? . . . At least take a leave, reach a settlement where you're still going to get your money, and maybe go away, and see what happens, and let's get an investigation, let's get all the answers, because we are far from all the answers in Carl Greene and any of the other scandals we've been covering, and I'm sick of it, I don't know about you guys."
Anchor Mike Jerrick: "Steve, just come back to the station and lay down."
But they don't let Steve go. First, they must discuss the "2,000 e-mails and only one negative" Keeley says he has received. "We have some wonderful viewers," he adds, "and I think we're picking up some new viewers." That, too, is part of the story.
News reports often include commentators or dueling experts. Libertarian Aaron Proctor on a proposed "bloggers tax," educator Chad Dion Lassiter on school dropout rates, Anthony Gargano or Mike Missanelli on sports.
Competing with "pocket news." Larry Kane, host of Voice of Reason on TCN and now a consultant for the Comcast Programming Group, says: "Most local television stations around the nation have suffered a decline in total audience over the years, so it's natural that local news operations try to find different ways to bring the viewers in." He adds that "many people today get their news from their iPhones and other devices. How do you compete with pocket news? That's the big question."
It's not your imagination, says Fox29 news director Kingsley Smith: We're more aggressive. "Local news in itself has become very polite, and the way it's mostly done, it doesn't take a lot of effort," he says. "We're saying if you're going to report a story, you had better know that story inside and out, and push back when people aren't telling you the truth.
"We'll stick with stories longer," Smith says. "We'll do fewer of them but report them in greater detail."
Several journalists interviewed for this story declined to speak on the record, but all expressed concern about the line between reporting and editorializing on Fox29's 10 o'clock show. One said, "It goes way beyond a reporter just asking questions."
Goedkoop made no bones about his feelings: "Personally, I have problems with that, moving beyond news. It's appropriate if you want to have a separate editorial, and make that clear." (Paolini does do clearly marked editorials, on the city's DROP pension benefit, texting while driving, and other issues.) But Goedkoop wonders whether the line hasn't blurred too much: "Opinions should be clearly labeled and news should be presented as clearly as possible. But that's not what seems to be happening here."
Fox29 is owned and operated by Fox Television Stations Inc. in New York. The parent Fox is famously owned by News Corp., whose chief executive, Rupert Murdoch, is a vocal conservative. News Corp. drew fire in August when it donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association. Some add all this up and wonder aloud whether Fox29 is moving rightward.
With some topics, such as education, that suspicion might find support. A report on dropout rates in local schools is strenuously hyped ("a crisis . . . and as if that number isn't troubling . . . and worse yet," etc.), and then, on at least two news programs, CEOs of charter schools come on to talk about how well their schools are working.
But there's little evidence of some right-turn directive from New York to the 27 owned-and-operated Fox stations throughout the land. A couple of Fox locals, such as KMSP in Minneapolis-St. Paul, seem to be ratcheting up much like Fox29, but not so elsewhere. Calls to stations in Minneapolis, Tampa, Orlando, and Dallas - markets of size similar to Philadelphia's - suggest they operate fairly independently, eyes firmly on local viewership.
As for commentators, they are apparently let loose to be who they are. Bissinger says, "No one has ever asked me to fashion a commentary one way or the other."
Boosterism, cable and competition. Although Fox29 does lash "enabler" Rendell, celebrate "hard-charging Chris Christie," and send valentines to Joey Vento, the aggression isn't notably partisan.
Neither Paolini nor Kingsley objected to the idea that changes at WTXF mirror 24/7 cable newsies such as Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. Certainly, the Fox29 screen, with its bright, busy labels and crawlers, recalls cable. As does the tone. "You've seen use of populist boosterism, in different degrees, with Nancy Grace, Lou Dobbs, and Glenn Beck," Goedkoop says.
Cable news is the flipper that wags the whale. Even the biggest cable news shows draw fewer viewers than does national network news. But cable channels do make money, in at least two streams (ads and fees from cable operators). Audiences prove more loyal than those for network news. So, little by little, cable newsies have reshaped the look and feel of TV news.
What is happening here is competition, an attempt to break away, be different, and grow an audience in a shrinking market. But, as Kane points out, the ledge Fox29 walks is narrow: "The biggest challenge is that if viewers see something that's too dramatically different and don't get it, they won't stay around."
Smith says that for him it's simple: "We want to create our own space and own it and dominate it."
Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, firstname.lastname@example.org, or twitter.com/jtimpane.
Inquirer staff writers Jonathan Storm and Michael Klein contributed to this article.
Audience ratings provided by CBS3.