Behind the cameras

Here’s a story behind the story of Friday’s CBS Evening News report on the state of the media (to see the video, go here and scroll down).

When the producer called, it’s clear they had an angle in mind: citizens’ journalism vs. professional journalism. They asked for stories in which I’d gone up against big media. I told him that’s not the story now. I said the real story is how, with citizens’ help, journalism can and must expand with new ways to gather and share news. I said I’d seen a change in the last year, with professional and amateur journalists coming closer together to this realization.

They came to do the interview and we talked about a lot of the stuff you read here, like this, and this. But they didn’t use that, apart from one line about news not being finished when we print it, which is actually a line about Dan Rather.

Then we changed the setting to shoot the b-roll, the stuff that makes the pros pros in old-style news. Diggnation doesn’t have no stinking b-roll.

We stood in a colleague’s office and, with my laptop in hand, they asked me what I wrote about. I listed a bunch of posts, including this one, where I take Ted Koppel and Aaron Brown to task and I said that.

That ended up in the finished piece: me v. the big guys, it seemed. That fit the story they wanted to do, the one they started with: citizens v. professionals.

And the correspondent asked whether I got mad at the big-media folks with whom I so recently worked. I mocked the question and gave him a look you can’t see as I said, no, I merely get disappointed sometimes.

That, too ended up in the finished piece. That, too, fit the story they wanted to do rather than the one they got from me.

Now, of course, this happens all the time. This is what sours sources on the news. It’s no surprise to me. It’s no big deal, either. I’ve seen the sausage made. But I’ll say what I said to that correspondent: It disappoints me. I don’t care if they used more or different quotes from me. But I care about getting a story that’s not as shallow as videotape.

But evening news is the shallowest of news: Give us 22 minutes and we can’t possibly give you the world. And so this made me wonder what the proper role of the evening news should be in a new media world. Now I know that some will argue that the evening news still has a huge audience, compared with other individual outlets, and so why rock that boat. But that audience is getting ever-smaller and ever-older and the news universe around it is only exploding.

So what to do? There was a time when I said that CBS News should be sold. The Murrowites would burn me at the stake, but I could also argue that we just don’t need three shallow evening newscasts and it’s OK to kill one. And I could argue that the evening news should be a summary of other news: The Week magazine as a daily TV show telling me what the rest of the world is saying.

But now that CBS and my long-lost colleague Larry Kramer have embarked on their “cable bypass” strategy to make the web the news channel they never had, I think the CBS Evening News should become value-added to the web: It summarizes and promotes and follows the bigger stories that are online. The evening news stories don’t need to be simplistic, obvious, confrontational, condescending; they can be smarter. But they do need to be shallow, for there’s only so much you can say in 2:30. Yet that becomes more forgivable when their reason to exist shifts to being a gateway to the news.

So take a story like the state of the media. They can still go do their interviews, but they can put those interviews online and let us see — and remix — them. They can pose their question about a story and give us the tools to help report that story. They can follow the story as it grows and improves online. And from a business perspective, they can drive people to the future: to online. If newspapers must do that, then so must TV. Yes, the revenue isn’t there yet, but the audience is and the revenue will catch up when advertisers do.

Or they can keep making simplistic stories like the one about the state of the media that inspired this post. The real story about the state of the media isn’t what CBS aired, but what it didn’t air: The story of how broadcast TV without the web and without the public’s help there will continue to be shallow and shrinking and outmoded. The irony is that CBS News’ story about the state of the media is the best illustration of the state of old media.

: LATER: Andrew Tyndall, who watches TV news for a living, takes me a bit to task in the comments and I reply.

  • afsvfan

    the news needs to be done by tv show actors. the cast of friends reading the news or CSI or many other sitcoms / dramas. people trust fake tv actors more.

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  • They can still go do their interviews, but they can put those interviews online and let us see — and remix — them.

    This is what I’m doing with The Echo Chamber Project, but I’m taking it one step further.

    Open Source Journalism should be both transparent and collaborative. Remixing is the transparent part, but it doesn’t solve the problem of challenging the strategic framing of the story — in this case “the citizens v. professionals.”

    This will only come with the collaborative generation of media, and would require some peer review before the finished product is released. In order to do this, then you have to publish the audio and transcripts of interview material so that you can incorporate the citizen and professional feedback into the generation of the final piece.

    Figuring out the mechanisms to optimize the efficiency of this process as well as accomplishing it in a scalable and profitable way is what I’m trying to figure out through this collaborative schema.

  • Marina Architect

    Stop referring to established media as Big Time or Big Media. We need to start eroding their credibility and building our own brands. That’s change when you gain credibility by citing blogs. We need to expand cachet from a few to many. How about a MeetUp for media/art/tech every Thursday at an art gallery. We need vitality and risk takers and renegades in idea development.

    Citizen journalist needs to be recontextualize as “someone with something to say” and ultimately into action.

    It’s time to start focusing on the edge and under the radar action rather than “old versus new” or “is print dead”.

    What is emerging on the edge is what is compelling. Get high. Okay, time to go to the studio, I’m working on a sculpture at Grad School. Cheers.

  • Gibbons

    {“..The real story about the state of the media isn’t what CBS aired, but what it didn’t air…”}



    That is the core basis of “media bias” in the MSM.

    The highly subjective selection/non-selection of ‘news’ items is the center of that widespread bias.

    MSM news-producers also operate from standard, but highly subjective ‘templates’ to ‘frame’ news reports from a biased perspectives — you call it the
    ‘Sausage Model’…. the subjective Good-Guys/Bad-Guys, Top-Dog/Under-Dog, Hero/Villain, Good/Evil templates can be seen every night on the TV news.

    The objective truth of relevant facts is considered much too dull for MSM news.

    It’s not an MSM conspiracy or deliberate propagandizing — it’s just the way most people in MSM jobs instinctively see the world. They are so confident in their world-view that they automatically take it for granted as ‘true’ and objective… and are honestly surprised that other reasonable people would discern any bias in their MSM products.

  • Old media (snail media) is history. I think the biggest story is that big media doesn’t realize it and too many people don’t. Including lots of bloggers who are at the forefront of making it happen.

    Just think about it, how many years did it take the computer to replace the typewriter in the typical office? Blogs will take a shorter time, mark my words.

  • Well said, Jeff.

    You could also title the post “Behind the Curtain.” When you pull the curtain aside, you see there is no wizard at all. All you see is small-minded people pulling levers and pushing buttons to make a show they think people will admire and believel

  • Jeff–

    I am sorry to disappoint you: the CBS Evening News is not the shallowest of news. Compare a broadcast produced 2:30 package with the standard fare one would find on any of the cable news networks and you will see that the broadcast networks’ content is more densely sourced, more tightly edited, has more visual variety and is buttressed by more factual data. The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s State of the News Media report has demonstrated these differences conclusively.

    However, you are right that the particular segment in which you were featured was below par. The newscast has just acquired a new Executive Producer and has not found its sealegs yet. Last week CBS routinely shortchanged major headline stories, a core responsibility of a half-hour nightly newscast.

    To address your general point, there is every evidence that all three broadcast news divisions have learned the lesson you mentioned. ABC, CBS and NBC all no longer think of their half hour newscasts as standing alone and are all developing ways to tie their broadcasts to online content. This is a realization that they have come to late–in the past year or 18 months–yet it is palpable. So far it is still a work in progress.

    As for your criticisms of Anthony Mason’s feature, I suggest you are too harsh…

    Consider this assertion about the trend towards interactivity: “In e-mail and on the Internet today everyone is a media critic.”

    Consider his characterization of Jarvis’ viewpoint: “News is not a lecture any more.”

    Consider his closing conclusion: “The era of trust-me journalism has passed. The era of show-me journalism has begun.”

    These ideas are, surely, friendly to BuzzMachine’s precepts. They would not belong in a story whose message can be dismissed as “me vs the big guys.”

  • Andrew,
    I can always count on you for the provocative, fair, and balanced response. Fair points, all. My primary complaint is that they wanted to citizens-at-war-with-professionals narrative and would not drop it. So we are still portrayed as protestors at the gates when, indeed, we are partners in quest. Though protesting outside the gates of Helen Thomas’ castle still remains a noble quest.
    So you’re right that the essential moral is there.
    And you’re also right that evening news casts aren’t the shallowest when compared with the worst of cable. Hyperbole on my part to say that they cannot help but be shallow in 22 minutes and so that weakness needs to be turned into a strength.

  • Score one for Jeff:
    The Gonzales hearings are currently being blogged live at dailyKos.
    Here is the link to the latest segment:

    The important thing to notice is that the bloggers have picked up on a few carefully worded evasions by Gonzales as to the scope of, and number of, secret surveillance programs. The senators, in their eagerness to get their points across did not notice the nuances.

    So not only is the blogosphere doing better than the traditional media, but it is doing better than the congressional staffers. Bloggers have been calling senator’s offices to alert them to discrepancies in the testimony.

    Perhaps staffers should be watching the bloggers for insights during the questioning. There is something about the intelligence of crowds which typically yields better results than from a small group of “experts”.

  • Roger W. Wiggs

    Jeff, met the new boss, same as the old boss. The “new” media is already “old mainstream media” by the time the blogs get a hold of it! Something new has already taken hold. It’s media at the sound of thought. Nobody has time to analyse anything anymore.

    Friday Western Union’s telegrams died. In a few years it will be the internet they’re burying.

  • Rick

    Just occurred to me, prompted by your observation of bloggers calling senate offices, the “wiki” effect in action could somewhat offset the distortion of the corporate media lens – assuming venues such as C-SPAN and content-neutral internet (neutral?) remain available at mass-market cost or less.

    Assuming anyone is listening.

  • I always get the impression that many have decided what the story is before they leave the office. In the case of “citizen journalism,” I can’t tell you how many times I have seen the same story — upstart, scary bloggers vs. traditional newsmedia — again, and again.

    Now part of me is okay with that, because there are still many, many people who have never heard of citizen journalism, so repeating the same story a lot might not be so bad.

    Another part of me thinks, sourly, that they’ve already decided what the story is going to be before they left the office, and they’re going to shoot that story pretty much no matter what you say or do.

    As a practicioner of citizen journalism, I note that when I talk to many journalists, no surprise, they wanna talk journalism. What are my newsgathering techniques? Do I verify things and if so, how? Do I issue corrections? How can I possibly cover enough, won’t I get bored? Well, OK, I am happy to talk about these things, I’m interested in them too. I’m happy to tell them about RSS and my TiVo slurping up local access cable of city meetings and my police scanner.

    But what they don’t understand is that I spend 80% of my time thinking about community management, not writing and publishing stories. To me the big challenge is transmitting “the rules” to the rest of the community that’s gathered around the site — not to restrict them, but to show them the ropes so that they can get in the game and play too. It’s not about Lisa Williams with a bagful of stuff from Best Buy; it’s about all the people on the site who are not me, saying what they have to say about their neighborhood, their organization, their kid’s Little League game without an intermediary to the rest of the “people formerly known as the audience.”

    I still get plenty of press releases and I guess what you could call “pitches” from local activist and arts organizations, and the first thing I do is say, you know, you can open an account and talk to everybody directly, you don’t have to go through me, or wait for me to get around to doing it. The self-service line is right over there. Get ye a blog and start posting away and see what happens.

  • I had a different experience with newspeople deciding what the news is. I was in an 18-wheeler during the fuel shortages in 80’s. We joined a convoy moving at about 30 miles an hour. As we approached Memphis, we had been gathering trucks and cars into the convoy for about 200 miles and had quite a few. When we got close, the police came out to escort us through town (very much appreciated and necessary) and the tv stations sent helicopters to film it. Many of us stopped across the river to fuel up and there were dozens of reporters wanting to talk to us. I watched them interview quite a few people. In the first news broadcasts, they aired all the interviews. After about an hour, there were only one or two interviews being broadcast. Those were the ones where the interviewee was calm and logical and spoke convincingly of their purpose. It seemed to me that, for the newspeople, the news had to make sense whereas reality doesn’t always.