Notes on News War

I just finished watching Frontline’s News War online.

This isn’t exactly live blogging — in fact, many people have already commented on Part III and I’m late to the party — but I took some notes while I watched.

I found it interesting to watch Lowell Bergman lecture Dave Westin on what news is. Bergman is so sure of himself as he inserts himself into the story, which is something a true traditional journalist would never do. Ironic, isn’t it?

There’s a great deal of discussion about the importance of hard news. Ted Koppel talks about the Radio Act of 1927 that requires license holders to operate in a manner that serves the “public interest, convenience and necessityâ€? and concludes from that only hard news can meet that charge.

It seems to me that there is more hard news available now than ever before – most of it supplied by newspapers online. There’s a greater demand for substantial news, fueled in no small part by bloggers. But there’s also a wide swath of the American public that doesn’t care about hard news, and even more people who drift in and out of interest. Is it really the job of a news organization to say, “you shall only get hard news�? Can we really force people to care? If we just say it loud enough and long enough, if we keep pushing hard news out the door with no consideration for what people really want, will we get our way? Will people start caring just because we want them to? And what if that one-way dictate is a turn off to the reading and viewing public? How is a news organization to survive without an audience?

At one point, Ted Koppel says, “simply passing on rumors is not journalism.� I agree. Somebody should tell that to the political staffs of the Washington Post and New York Times.

Eric Schmidt: “Being online is the future. Many, many organizations have talked and talked about these changes but the fact of the matter is the time is now. People who bet against the internet, who believe somehow this change is just a generational shift or something miss that it is a fundamental reorganizing of the power of the end user.”


I laughed when they cut to Gary Brolsma’s “Numa Numa Dance.â€? A few years ago, I used the same video in my presentations to make much the same point about why newspapers should get into video. (i.e., if this video has become so hugely popular, there must be a demand for video made for online that isn’t being met — this was before there was a YouTube.)

Frontline notes that Rocketboom used to get as many viewers as some cable news shows. Note to all the video advocates who think you can only do video with a lot of expense: Rocketboom started with one camera, one light and a pair scissors and tape. That’s called disruption.

John Carroll notes that 85 percent of the original reporting committed in this country today is done by print journalists. I bet he’s right. He says, “I don’t think we can turn this whole thing over to bloggers and citizen journalists. They’re valuable, but there’s things they can’t do.� In part, he’s right. I think it’s more a matter of won’t do, or won’t do in sufficient numbers to fully protect the public interest. They won’t do it either from lack of sustainable interest, or lack of financial resources. But I think Carroll strikes the right balance in finding value in any non-professional journalism that contributes to the civic discourse.

I’ve noted before that the Los Angeles Times has seen significant circulation drops even as it wins awards. This would seem to indicate that award-winning journalism doesn’t necessarily translate into solid readership. Frontline, however, tells me something I didn’t know before: Prior to making newsroom cuts, the Tribune Co. made budget cuts to its printing and circulation departments.

Back in the mid 1990s, I was the weekend editor for The Daily Californian in El Cajon, Calif. When I came in on a Saturday or Sunday at 1 or 2 p.m., I was usually the only person in the building for an hour or two. Almost every weekend, I would get a call from a customer who didn’t get his or her paper. I found it so frustrating that our circulation department closed down at noon. That seemed like bad customer service to me. I was frustrated enough that I would personally deliver a paper to the reader.

You can’t cheap out on customer service operations, like circulation, and expect to retain subscribers.

For me, this puts the Times’ circulation declines in a whole new light.

Not coincidentally, I think, The Daily Californian is out of business.

Eli Broad says he’ll accept a 6 percent profit margin. The magical thinking for journalists, then, is confirmed: If only publishers would accept lower profit margins, then all would be right with the world.

But newspaper’s profits have been falling for a couple of decades. What makes anybody, especially Eli Broad, think those declines won’t continue. There may come a day when the only way to get a six percent profit margin is to make significant cuts to newsroom budgets. If Broad were to succeed in buying the Times, he might consider himself lucky to even squeeze out six percent.
This isn’t about profit margins or ownership. It’s about developing sustainable business models.

And it’s important, because as John Carroll notes, if we don’t do the kind of journalism we do, who will?

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2 thoughts on “Notes on News War

  1. About Eli Broad, on top of being satisfied with 6 percent profits he added that he “probably” would like to have some say in the editorial content, esp when it comes to cultural projects, ie, his pet interests. When Lowell went back to the LA former editor I was surprised he didn’t ask if that was a tolerable tradeoff. With all the talk of benevolent foundations saving print from itself, are print outlets willing to trade objectivity/editorial control just so they can keep doing things the same way they always have?

  2. >>I found it interesting to watch Lowell Bergman lecture Dave Westin on what news is. Bergman is so sure of himself as he inserts himself into the story, which is something a true traditional journalist would never do.

    I’m not sur that’s ever been true of TV journalism. And i don’t mean that as a slight at all. I just think of 60 Minutes and so forth and all the correspondents seem to be an integral part of the story. They are on screen, they are askig the questions and they are dogn so in styles they know will be better to watch. They become a part of the story, in almost always good ways. I think it’s different form “true, traditional newspaper” journalism.

    There are times when that wall is broken by print ut it is far more effective when done sparingly.

    This is something i’m going to have to find a way to watch , however.

    – temple

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