Once the definitive voice on current events, network news fights to be heard over new media cacophony.
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."
|The [TV news] establishment has taken its tie off, put on some Pumas, and might very well soon be shotgunning Pabst Blue Ribbon.|
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.
|Until people understand the difference between what's been vetted and what hasn't …In some instances, we're just cross-pollinating ignorance.|
|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.|
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.