Bad News

Posted by David Puner

Let the insiders tell it, and TV news has more to worry about than Katie Couric on prime time. As the old players intersect with new media's cast of characters, the future of network news is more unpredictable than ever.I used to tune in to the network evening news by appointment. I grew up first watching Walter Cronkite, who was on before (and looked rather like) the Muppets, and then Dan Rather every night around dinnertime. With Cronkite, I counted the long days the American hostages were held captive in Iran, and with Rather, just days after he took over Cronkite's chair in 1981, I watched footage of President Reagan getting shot, over and over, while the story developed. It never occurred to me that maybe the world wasn't fully covered in those 22 minutes of CBS Evening News. Cronkite had that legendary, definitive sign-off, after all: "And that's the way it is." And that's … the way it was.Two decades later, with Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather solidly entrenched in the Big Three's anchor chairs, I fickly switched between broadcasts, if I watched at all. Jennings spoke terrific English for a Canadian, while Brokaw occasionally spoke in a tongue foreign to everyone. Dan Rather, it seemed, sometimes just needed my support. Covering his last presidential election as CBS anchor in 2004, Rather was hands-down the most entertaining, though it was unclear how aware he was of his own entertainment value ("This race is hotter than a Times Square Rolex" … "This situation in Ohio would give an aspirin a headache"). I rarely watch an evening newscast now because, as for most people I know, 6:30 isn't a convenient time. And now I can get my news elsewhere, at any time. I still have a TV, connected to a digital video recorder so that I can skip the commercials on the news I do watch-the fake news.Television news now extends way outside the cable box and beyond the satellite dish. Networks have been asking us for years to stop by their silly little websites. Now, to ensure their own futures, mainstream TV-news organizations are pushing full steam ahead to join ranks with those scruffy antiestablishment bloggers. The establishment has taken its tie off, put on some Pumas, and might very well soon be shotgunning Pabst Blue Ribbon.ABC News, for one, is taking steps-it even symbolically removed the "Tonight" from its venerable World News broadcast last July, conveying the idea that world news isn't just for dinnertime anymore. At the helm of the broadcast, and its World News website, is Charles Gibson. Sure, Gibson is a decent Peter Jennings understudy, but at the end of the program, instead of telling me "I hope you had a good day," I want him to say, "Peter will be back tomorrow."

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The [TV news] establishment has taken its tie off, put on some Pumas, and might very well soon be shotgunning Pabst Blue Ribbon.
In September 2005, as part of its push into cyberspace, Disney-ABC promoted Albert Cheng to the brand-new post of executive vice president for digital media. It wasn't long before it started incorporating citizen journalism on its website, with a video blog by Amanda Congdon, the former anchor and a co-founder of Rocketboom, a popular, irreverent, newsy video-blog. Learning about video blogging, says Cheng, who's an MIT graduate with an MBA from Harvard, is what ABC is doing right now; specifically, learning about how it can help secure an old-media company a spot in the future digital media world. ABC, says Cheng, is learning a lot from Amanda Congdon.Congdon is in her mid-20s and is the current prototype of a tech nerd's dream girl who perhaps most tidily brings together the worlds of new and old media. In one of her first ABC video blog entries, Congdon starts her webcast wearing one of the tight T-shirts that became staples during her Rocketboom days. "New media," she says, then ducks offscreen. By digital magic she reenters from the other side, wearing a staid outfit much more appropriate to the prototypical anchorwoman. "Old media," she says, and then dives off screen again only to reappear wearing something between ultra casual and conservative. This is Congdon's new place in cyberspace.The product itself has a way to go, she says. Most networks are a couple of years behind the current technology, and some ABC news insiders are uncomfortable with the bias and opinion that often accompany blogs, not recognizing them as legitimate journalism. Still, says Congdon, an online presence is no longer merely an option for news outlets. "Now if you don't, you're dead," she says.Charles Gibson, for one, writes for "The World Newser," ABCNews.com's blog. Brian Williams, the original anchor-blogger, has his "Daily Nightly" on MSNBC's website. Over at CBS, the focus on Katie Couric, the $15-million-a-year, 50-year-old anchor, and her hugely hyped and supposed youthful revamp of the Evening News, has overshadowed her online offerings, "First Look" and "Reporter's Notebook.""First Look" is actually a telling daily glimpse behind the scenes of the CBS Evening News. It is at first interesting for the reasons it is supposed to be: Couric or a producer tells viewers what's coming up on the big broadcast and sometimes gives a behind-the-scenes look at how the program comes together. The video blog invites outsiders inside. Arguably, though, the more notable aspect of "First Look" is how Couric doesn't seem to think anyone is actually watching. In one installment, she says to her producer with sarcastic punch, "Hey Andy, let's show folks how we track a piece, because I think this might be interesting to two people in our audience." In another segment, Couric begs a group in the newsroom: "Come on, is there some life in this newsroom, people?"In yet another installment, Couric skips through the newsroom, microphone in hand, and plays an impromptu game of duck duck goose, patting a couple of pale staffers on the head as she whizzes by. It's a scene that could be on The Office-The Daily Show, even. Her video blog, then, is the occasional outlet for the morning-show silliness that Couric checks outside the studio before her television broadcast, where she assumes a demeanor that is, for the most part, traditional straight anchor. Straight-ish is a bit more like it.In 2006, NBC Nightly News' Brian Williams incorporated viewer mail on his program, a way for the number one–rated anchor to connect his TV program with cyberspace. When I caught up with Williams on the phone just before Christmas, he was fighting a cold and, he told me, sitting on the floor of his cluttered office wrapping presents. Besides doing Nightly and wrapping gifts, Williams also writes regularly for his "Daily Nightly" blog and sits in front of an office cam for "Early Nightly," a video blog that serves a similar purpose to CBS News' "First Look." Williams says that it is incumbent upon Nightly to stay relevant and be on every screen people turn to, and in fact he really enjoys blogging. "If it's going to be refrigerator doors, by God, we'll be all over the refrigerator door. If it's going to be iPod screens, we're there now. If it's going to be cell phones, we're there now." He also relies on consultants. "I am forever seeing what's big on places like YouTube, and I've got a college freshman and a high school sophomore, so I'm dipping into their lives constantly, trying to figure out where it's all going."Tom Brokaw did not have a blog, and Williams says he has joked with his predecessor about the new duties of the job. "It's hard," says Williams of his blogging. "[It's] not like I had an hour that I didn't know what to do with." Incidentally, he calls the act of writing an occasional blog entry on his BlackBerry "deadline feature writing by thumb."While Williams welcomes digital media, he's not so quick to predict a future without a nightly television broadcast, which, he points out, on any given night still averages about 25 million viewers between the three 6:30 programs (with about nine million typically tuning in to NBC). "Predictability is part of our stock-in-trade," he says. "You're going to get a thorough, reasoned recitation of the events of the day when you land on NBC at whatever time Nightly News airs in your market, and I think that's one of the great things we have going for us."If you've got a way to hook up to the internet, you can blog. Of the roughly 57 million blogs floating in cyberspace, those that filter specialty links-"aggregators," as they are called in industry jargon-are the ones that, at least in theory, compete with more traditional news sources. The TV industry's most popular is without a doubt TVNewser, written by a 21-year-old college kid who lives in Baltimore.Towson University senior Brian Stelter's story is how one citizen journalist can make an impact with a tool that allows anyone the ability to publish instantly, worldwide: College freshman obsessed with news starts blogging about the inner workings of cable news; the self-obsessed industry takes notice and starts sending him anonymous tips; he soon adds traditional network news into the mix; he starts getting paid by Mediabistro, a media networking company; he gets the cell number of the president of CNN, among others, all of whom are reading the blog-and refreshing often. Stelter, empowered by his million-hits-a-month blog, visits newsrooms and gets invited to the White House Press Corps dinner. Now his friends try to steal his cell phone at parties, presumably to drunk-dial someone like John Seigenthaler.
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Until people understand the difference between what's been vetted and what hasn't …In some instances, we're just cross-pollinating ignorance.
Status doesn't seem like something Stelter cares much about-he says he has fun blogging about TV news. Stelter is professional, but not over the top; he's not the kid who's carried a briefcase to school since elementary school. As we speak, the TVNewser blogs inside the Towson University student newspaper office, dressed in a short-sleeved polo shirt, olive cargo pants, and flip-flops. Stelter looks sleep- and sun-deprived-there's no anchorman sheen to him.If it weren't for the rise of TVNewser, chances are that Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News from January 1996 to November 2005 (and the executive producer of Evening News before that), would not know Brian Stelter. "He's a great example of where I think journalism is going to go," Heyward says. "I think he's a huge success story. To me, the metric is: ‘Is he making a difference in the dialogue about television news and within the news community?' And I think the answer is, he is."When the graphic where's obama? mistakenly ran on Wolf Blitzer's program earlier this year, as a teaser for a story about the search for Osama bin Laden, the Newser received an email from a viewer about the embarrassing CNN mistake. Stelter posted the image, and soon thereafter, CNN emailed TVNewser its formal apology statement. In turn, Blitzer apologized on the air and called Senator Barack Obama, who accepted the apology. Obama's spokesperson told the AP that the senator appreciated the bloggers who had brought the error to light.Ironically, most of the news Stelter actually consumes is online, he says. Stelter agrees that people his age don't watch network newscasts. While Stelter talks, an instant message from a friend pops onto his screen: So no Saddam killing on TV, huh?"I don't mean to be mean, but I don't think he knows why Saddam is being executed," Stelter says.Unless news becomes personalized, he says, "I don't think people care."After Saddam's execution at 6:10 a.m. (10:10 p.m. EST), on December 30, Stelter posted the big three results: "Saddam: NBC Reports News At 10:14 p.m.; CBS At 10:18 p.m.; ABC at 10:25 p.m."What makes a story newsworthy? Sometimes it's obvious: terrorism, natural disaster, war, major politics, disease. When there's a catastrophic event, like 9/11, news networks will devote the majority of their broadcasts to that one event. Gary Condit can speak to that. Remember him? He was a story du jour just before 9/11.When an event of great national importance fades, news channels return to their tried-and-true formulas-reporting on stories that are not news at all, but appeal to the masses. With all the internet choices awaiting attention, the masses can spread out and head for specific points of interest within a particular story. I, for one, go for the Gruesome & Titillating; someone else heads right for the Unbridled Speculation & Fabrication. Will the tabloid news stories that have thrived on cable since O.J. find a petri dish in expanding internet video and further dilute the collective attention paid to hard news? Chances are, yes.For a special-interest story to have widespread appeal, it will have drama, a good guy and a bad guy, some sort of scandal (preferably sex-related), and celebrity.It also helps if a story is based somewhere where it doesn't require a lot of time and resources to send a network truck-like the Trump Tower in Manhattan.NEWS BULLETIN: SHOULD TARA KEEP HER TIARA?MISS USA - WILL TRUMP HAVE TO FIRE HER?Chances are you saw the Miss USA-gone-wild story. The cable news networks in particular treated it as a major news event. It had sex appeal: a 21-year-old woman famous for her hotness; drama; alleged bad behavior with implied bad people and suspected bad substances; and it had a bigger-than-life hero. The director wrote himself into the script! … It continued to unfold on cable news like this:Miss USA is at a podium within the Great Trump Factory. She's not drinking, snorting drugs, or having any sex. There are tense moments as we await her fate.MISS USA - NOT FIRED!The beauty queen has problems, just like everyone else and she has been given a second chance. Don't we all deserve second chances?BULLETIN: MISS USA: TARA CONNOR GOING INTO REHAP TO KEEP CROWNWait, why's she going into rehab? When her fellow 12-steppers bravely admit they are addicts and alcoholics, will she say she wants to keep her crown?MISS USA: I DID DRINK WHEN I WAS UNDERAGE, I AM SORRYOh, my bad-rehab it will be, then. She cries tears next to the positively Henry Higgins-esque Trump. … [flashes flash] …Somewhere within the 5-o'clock hour, with vultures gnawing at the carcass of the Miss USA story, guest Danny Bonaduce tells Fox News' John Gibson, "Everybody won here." Trump, Miss USA, and the cable TV networks. MSNBC's Tucker Carlson, whose program benefited from the woes of Miss USA, sums it up for me a couple of days later: "Whenever you've got a story that includes pretty women, cocaine, and recreational bisexuality, people want to know more," he says, then pauses. "Don't you?"Unlike some cable news, there is an expectation within traditional network news to provide hard news in proportion to importance. Heyward, who is now a senior advisor to Marketspace LLC, which helps companies use digital media to interact effectively with consumers, says it's always a balancing act for the evening newscasts. "I used to actually say this at CBS out loud: ‘Our job is to make the important news interesting and the interesting news important.'" Most people who choose to work in news, he says, "do so because they believe passionately in an informed citizenry as a cornerstone of our democracy. All the tabloid and titillating distractions from this ideal represent a cynical use of journalism just to make money, but the best news organizations, and I would include the broadcast networks on that list for sure, strive to meet their essential responsibility to society, even while trying to maximize ratings and revenues."
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You're going to see traditional news-content creators and editors bumping up against nontraditional ones.… It's going to be wild and woolly for a while.
But no matter the tinkering, network newscasts are not likely to draw younger viewers. As the core audience diminishes, network-news divisions lose advertising revenue and face difficult choices in coverage: what to cover, how to cover it, for whom to cover it, and where to present the coverage. Regardless of the intent of public service-minded individuals within television news, if younger people only gravitate toward stories they relate to, regardless of where they go online, chances are they won't know much about what's going on in the world. If people choose to consume news solely according to taste, we're facing the possibility of becoming an especially uninformed society.It's a sunny weekday morning in December, and Steve Kroft sits at his desk inside his 60 Minutes office. Emmys stand bunched together on the windowsill-statues with Hudson River views. "I'll give you ‘It's more democratic,'" Kroft says of the digital explosion and all the choice in cyberspace. "But in terms of getting and providing the American people with reliable information-until people understand the difference between what's been vetted and what hasn't …" He pauses for a moment. "In some instances, we're just cross-pollinating ignorance."Kroft is concerned that Americans possess less shared information than they used to. As news division revenues decline, he says, newsroom resources decline and actual reporting may become a luxury. "My main concern is that it's going to get to a point with all the audience fragmentation that the media companies are not going to be able to afford to tell people what the hell is going on."On the day Miss USA gripped the cable-news world, Brian Williams told me, the story was discussed in Nightly News' afternoon editorial meeting and ultimately Nightly opted for a global-warming story instead. On that night, of the three programs, only the CBS Evening News ran a Miss USA story, complete with a clip of Trump from NBC's The Apprentice.Tucker Carlson says what other television newsers may think but won't (or can't) say outright. It's kind of taboo to talk about how news stories rate within the business, admits Carlson, but minute-to-minute Nielsen ratings don't lie, and with the exception of dramatic moments in Iraq, such as a presidential address on the topic, there appears to be a startling lack of interest in the war. "You watch TV, you have no idea what's going on in Iraq or on the war on terror-you have no idea, none. Ratings tell you what people are interested in and we know, for certain, that people are not interested in Iraq. Well, that puts us in a pretty tough position because we're under more economic pressure than we have been and we're under a lot of pressure to provide what people want-and they don't want Iraq."When I repeat this to Brian Williams, he doesn't miss a beat. "If that's true, we're in big trouble," he says. "That is our lead story more often than not. It has dominated our newscast since the start of the war. So we don't make decisions based on that, God knows. … When people see a piece by Richard Engel out of Baghdad, what they don't see is a three-car armored armada, and a security detail, and the dry-run that his security detail has to do the day before he goes out on a story. That is news gathering. That's journalism, in the modern context, in wartime. And we do that every day because that's what we do and we won't stop.""I'm not sure I would call 80 percent of the stuff on the cable channels ‘news' by my definition," says Kroft, who has covered wars in Beirut and El Salvador, among other places, and spent years as a CBS News foreign correspondent covering international terrorism. "I'm a traditionalist in the sense that I consider news something that's been gathered, either from wire service reports, or put together by journalists who go out and try to determine what the facts of the situation are and come back and report the facts after having done some research and talked to a number of people."It is true that the top evening newscast story of 2006, according to the Tyndall Report, was Iraq, with almost double the total minutes on the three 6:30 broadcasts than that of the second top story of the year, Israel's war with Hezbollah. Then again, these are newscasts watched by a group reaching Grand Marquis-driving age-so Williams' potential "big trouble," at least as far as the evening television programs go, could be prophetic.Do a majority of 18-to-34-year-old Americans, the most coveted demographic market, care more about Lindsay Lohan's drunken pole dancing than Iraq? Is hard news being consumed by an ever-shrinking market? If TomKat and Brangelina decided to get married or adopt children or announce they're not gay in North Korea, maybe we'd watch a clip portraying the problems humankind faces in that neck of the woods-and maybe we'd care. If Paris Hilton would just bring her vagina to Iraq, the war's coverage would get much better ratings. The Simple Life: Baghdad would be a huge hit and Pat O'Brien might even drag his mustache over to the war zone. It could be a win-win for everyone; the kids might actually get fired up about what's going on over there."The pessimistic view is that the standards will go out the window," says Andrew Heyward. "The pessimists will say, ‘Well, forget it-there's no way to maintain standards if everybody and his brother and her sisters are journalists.'" On the other hand, he says, "The optimists would say that the wisdom of the crowd will ‘wikify' journalism"-he pauses, momentarily-"can I … I just made up that verb … and that the checks and balances will be provided by the users."So, when's the future going to happen? ABC's Albert Cheng has one predictive formula: "You have a bimodal curve essentially with the way our nation is built," he says. Okay, I'm not lost yet. There are the baby boomers, he says, who aren't quite on top of technology (if you've ever tried to teach someone over 50 to transfer digital picture files from a camera to a computer, you can probably attest to this); then, there are millennials, who are digital-savvy. So, says Cheng, "when you see that curve start to evolve and change over time, project out over the next 10 years-that'll give you an indication at what point you'll see that change." This, it would seem, is a formulaic way of saying: when older people, who watch TV news, die, there will be new older people getting their news in a different way.In the immediate future, Heyward says, "I think you're going to see brands old and new bumping up against one another. You're going to see traditional news-content creators and editors bumping up against nontraditional ones; see traditional distribution models, like the evening news, bumping up against nontraditional disaggregated ones. And, you know what, it's going to be wild and woolly for a while."I just found Walter Cronkite's final CBS Evening News sign-off on YouTube. I vaguely remember watching it live when I was 7. Just preceding the signoff, Cronkite reads a story about the upcoming first launch of the space shuttle Columbia and a new age of space travel. Everyone will watch coverage of the launch on the Big Three. Cronkite speaks to his audience with an occasional glance down at his script pages: there appears to be no teleprompter. There is none of the extraneous audio or video that we have come to expect with our news; it's just Cronkite and his renowned voice with a still image of the future of space exploration serving as that small traditional backdrop over his left shoulder. It strikes me now how cheerful Cronkite seems in his country-club green blazer as he signs off on an almost 20-year anchor career. "Old anchormen, you see, don't fade away; they keep coming back for more. And that's the way it is. …"Tomorrow, maybe I'll try to read the entire front page of The New York Times and maybe even a bit of the first section. Maybe I'll DVR an evening newscast. Then again, maybe I'll just DVR the fake news and never get around to watching it and put the paper under the dog's bowl. And that will be the way it will be.