Mock the news – it’s the best way to give it a real voice
Monday February 13, 2006
The news must find its new voice. Even Andrew Heyward, until recently the president of CBS News – the house of Murrow, Cronkite, and Rather – knows that. “We have to abandon any claim to omniscience,” Heyward wrote as a guest on the blog Pressthink.org. “We have to break down the tired formulas of television news and find a more authentic way of writing, speaking and interacting with the people and subjects we report on.” In other words, the news has to be human again.
To find that new voice, we first must expand the definition of news to include more of what people want to know that others will tell them, reliably. I saw this when I started community sites online and clicked on a ballet school’s “news” link to see this late-breaking bulletin: “The leotards are in!” Well, that’s news to little ballerinas and they don’t need oracles with journalism degrees to tell them.
And next, we must deconstruct the outmoded, know-it-all voice of the news on broadcast and in print. The best way to do that is to make fun of it. Take, for example, the regular feature Monkey News on Ricky Gervais’s hit podcast for the Guardian. It is a lampoon not just of the round-headed butt of Gervais’ jokes, Karl Pilkington, but also of news itself. Who’s to say what’s real: reports of monkeys revolting in a zoo or Karl’s insistence that monkeys really do pilot spacecraft? And does it really matter? It’s only monkeys. It’s only news.
The production of the Gervais podcast is an important step in finding that new voice for news. I could not imagine a stentorian American newspaper doing this; they’d be too concerned about credibility, about their readers thinking Monkey News could be real – which, of course, is essentially insulting.
Another example of the way ahead is Howard 100 News, a 12-person news staff – journalists, comedians and journalists who want to be comedians – that reports on everything about the radio star Howard Stern, for his American satellite channels. They get to the bottom of reports that Stern’s model-thin girlfriend hardly goes to the bathroom and even interview doctors to report the health impact.
When gangster Henry Hill visits the show, a reporter follows him as he gets drunk and sick on the street, amazing passersby that this lump was the subject of the movie Goodfellas. Hey, to a Stern fan – and a few tabloids – that’s news. But Howard 100 also dispatches a correspondent to Washington to cover senate hearings on broadcast indecency, which few other news outlets did. Whether from DC or the WC, Howard 100 News has to get the story right.
I spent a day at the Howard 100 newsroom and studio and what struck me most was the effort they put into getting the voice right: that is, to mock the voice of real news. The news director, a pro from local TV, lectured the staff on their timing, and the anchors, one of them a veteran of CBS News, rehearsed their baritone delivery. The result is a perfect deadpan sendup of that inauthentic tone Heyward now rejects.
Now hear instead the voice of newsy podcasts produced by amateurs. My teenage son and webmaster (at JakeJarvis.com) introduced me to Diggnation, a podcast in which two guys, with beer in hand, talk about the mostly techy stories the audience recommends and votes on to the front page of the collaborative news site Digg.com. It’s not slick, it’s scruffy and casual and that is its charm and its authority; we know these guys. We downloaded other podcasts about tech from the BBC and America’s National Public Radio and turned them off, not because they weren’t professional but because they were too professional, too packaged. They lacked the real voice of people.
The news has always struggled to find its human voice. That’s why newspapers hire columnists: we token humans with opinions. That’s why TV news in Britain and America is overrun by the faux-friendly banter that even has a technical term in the US; happy talk. Now, thanks to citizens’ media, we can hear the true voice of people. In the future, news will no longer have one voice. News will be carried by the voices of the public.
Â· Jeff Jarvis is a media consultant who blogs at BuzzMachine.com