Three former titans of news wrote pieces in the last week that are revealing, I think, of their view of the new media landscape: They whined about the passing of what they thought was their captive mass audience. But they don’t understand that the audience was never mass and never captive, and given a chance at choice, we took it. That is the natural order of media. They blame network executives and even the government for the decline of what they define as quality, important news. But the truth is that the public is going elsewhere to get news and these demititans’ definition of news did not always serve that public.
: Ted Koppel wrote his inaugural guest column in the New York Times (sorry, it’s behind the Select wall) mewling about broadcast companies killing the mass audience by targeting demographics:
What is, ultimately, most confusing about the behavior of the big three networks is why they ever allowed themselves to be drawn onto a battlefield that so favors their cable competitors. At almost any time, the audience of a single network news program on just one broadcast network is greater than the combined audiences of CNN, Fox and MSNBC.
Reaching across the entire spectrum of American television viewers is precisely the broadcast networks’ greatest strength. By focusing only on key demographics, by choosing to ignore their total viewership, they have surrendered their greatest advantage.
Poor fellow still thinks that the networks are in charge of our media lives. The truth is, Ted, that many of us prefer The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Some prefer not to have to wait up for the news. The advertisers prefer targeted audiences. And the large audiences of broadcast are doomed to shrink. The networks aren’t your enemy, Ted. You have seen the enemy and it is us.
: Aaron Brown writes a speech and the Palm Beach Daily News quotes him:
“Truth no longer matters in the context of politics and, sadly, in the context of cable news,” said Aaron Brown….
“Television is the most perfect democracy,” Brown said. “You sit there with your remote control and vote.” The remotes click to another channel when serious news airs, but when the media covers the scandals surrounding Laci Peterson, the Runaway Bride or Michael Jackson, “there are no clicks then,” the journalist said.
With the departure from the screen of the “titans” — Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather — who “resisted the temptations of their bosses to go for the ratings grab, it will be years before an anchorman or anchorwoman will have the clout to fight these battles,” he said.
I think poor Aaron is kicking himself for not fighting against Lacivision but also kicking himself for the shrinking audience that lost him his job. Can’t win for losing.
: The most amazing of these three pieces, to me, is Columbia Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann’s piece on Edward R. Murrow in The New Yorker in which he argues in favor of government regulation of TV news. I find it shocking that any journalist would invite government interference in speech but especially in the news. Even he seems to realize it’s shocking, but he does it anyway:
The structure that encouraged Murrow, uncomfortable as it may be to admit, was federal regulation of broadcasting. CBS, in Murrow’s heyday, felt that its prosperity, even its survival, depended on demonstrating to Washington its deep commitment to public affairs. The price of not doing so could be regulation, breakup, the loss of a part of the spectrum, or license revocation. Those dire possibilities would cause a corporation to err on the side of too much “See It Now” and “CBS Reports.” In parts of the speech which aren’t in the movie, Murrow made it clear that the main pressure on broadcasting to do what he considered the right thing came from the F.C.C. The idea that, in taking on McCarthy, Murrow was “standing up to government” greatly oversimplifies the issue. He was able to stand up to a Senate committee chairman because a federal regulatory agency had pushed CBS and other broadcasters to organize themselves so that Murrow’s doing so was possible.
It isn’t possible anymore–not because timid people have risen to power in journalism but because the government, in steady increments over the past generation, has deregulated broadcasting. The Fairness Doctrine no longer exists. Regulation, license revocation, or reallocation of the spectrum are no longer meaningful possibilities. The advent of cable television brought a new round of debates over government-mandated public-affairs programming, with the result that private companies were granted valuable monopoly franchises in local markets; in return, they were required only to provide channels for public affairs, not to create programming. That’s why cable is home to super-low-cost varieties of broadcast news, such as C-SPAN, local public-access channels, and national cable-news shout-fests, rather than to reincarnations of the elaborately reported Murrow shows from the fifties. The rise of public broadcasting has freed the networks to be even more commercial….
News that makes money is alive and well; the incentive to present news that doesn’t, like all of Murrow’s great work, is gone. It is difficult for journalists to grapple with the idea that outside pressure–from government officials!–could have been responsible for the creation of the superior and memor-able journalism whose passing we all mourn. But look what has happened since it went away.
But, of course, if you’re trying to please Washington you’re in danger of displeasing Washington.
But nevermind. What Lemann, Koppel, and Brown want is some way to get us to eat their veggies. Koppel says it: “Now, television news should not become a sort of intellectual broccoli to be jammed down our viewers’ unwilling throats. We are obliged to make our offerings as palatable as possible….” Brown said it: “Brown said he tried to give viewers a balanced diet of light and serious news with NewsNight. ‘But I always knew when I got to the Brussels sprouts, I was on thin ice,’ he said.” Lemann clearly wants news he thinks is good — which, incredibly, he defines as news that doesn’t make money — to be part of a government-approved food pyramid.
These guys, and oh, so many of their former colleagues, just cannot get out of the notion that they should be lecturing us about what they think we should know, and they think the only way they can do that is if we are forced to watch them thanks to mass media.
Gentlemen: It’s our country. It’s our media now. It’s our time and attention. Sorry if we, the people, disappoint you. But does it occur to you that you disappointed us? Mind you, I’m not criticizing the work of these men. Koppel is a wonderful newsman. Brown could put me to sleep with his doe eyes but he, also, is a good newsman and a nice guy. Lemann certainly earned his journalistic stripes. It’s not their work that’s the issue. It is their attitude toward the public they so badly want to serve. The market is not a bad thing. The market is us.
And it is their definition of success that is the problem. Thanks to the old days of mass media — when we were, indeed, captive, to the products of a few big companies in what was the real age of media consolidation — they still define success as getting one message to the largest possible audience. I think we must redefine that. I see a new measure of success in hearing more voices and more debate, for example. I see an overall explosion of interest in news — but news of many definitions — and I call that a measure of success as well.
I watch my son, Jake, who has nothing short of an addiction to news at Digg.com and I call that a great success. OK, so it’s not a newspaper. Yes, it’s about tech. But it is news. At our session on the new tools of news at CUNY this weekend, Jake gave the professors a tour of Digg and explained why he liked it and trusted it. That was the most controversial moment of the weekend. It brought out a great discussion about new means of defining news and trust. (And Jake held is own most admirably.) I hope the former employers of these gentlemen are having just that kind of discussion and that they leave the tears in beers to these former titans.
There’s more media than ever and that’s good. There’s more news than ever with more ways to gather it and more ways to distribute than ever. And, I argue, there is more interest in news, and that’s great. Redefine news, reacquaint yourself with the audience, and recalibrate success.
: LATER: See this quote from Dave Barry, who used to write for newspapers.
We can no longer compel people to pay attention. We used to be able to say, there’s this really important story in Poland. You should read this. Now people say, I just look up what I’m interested in on the Internet.
It’s a good interview with Barry: “Newspapers,” he said right off the bat, “are dead.” Ready the rest here.