New news

I spent half a day hanging out at Howard 100 News recently. Why? A few reasons: First, I’m fascinated by efforts to both mock and reinvent the stilted voice of news. Second, I’ve been arguing and PowerPointing that we need to broaden the definition of news — and Howard 100 certainly does that: It doesn’t get much broader. Third, I wanted to include H100 in today’s Guardian column, which is up here (also here). Fourth, I’m a Stern fan, whether you like it or not. Fifth, I had nothing better to do. Sixth, they’re nice people. Seventh, I gotta like any news organization that has the balls to have the mission every other news organization should have: “No more bullshit.” Did I make up enough reasons? I’ll get to all those haughty, high-minded points in a minute. But first, the Howard 100 News….

: Just the elevator rides in the combined headquarters of Sirius and McGraw-Hill are a cross-cultural hoot: Business Week executives and rap stars and wack-packers, movin’ on up. I sit in the Sirius lobby and there goes Henry Hill, Goodfellas mobster, looking like a two-legged lizard. There goes the newest member of the Wack Pack with his handler.

Liz Aiello, the news director of H100 and a veteran of local TV news in New York, invites me to sit in on their morning news meeting. Only there is no room for it. Sirius wasn’t built with Howard in mind and their two floors are jammed already; every conference room is taken. So we sit in the lobby with a guy who seems to be there for a job interview as the staff streams in. They are a collection of journalists, comedians, and journalists who want to be comedians. In a now-famous moment, when Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes toured H100, he ran into one of the anchors, Ralph Howard, shocked to see a distinguished veteran of CBS News there. Ralph said he’s having fun. So is fellow anchor George Flowers, who told me he used to be a comedian and so this gig is kismet for him. Steve Langford is a sincere reporter’s reporter who relishes this job. Shuli is the comedian, who’s learning how to report and doing a good job of it. Some on the staff use a nom de satellite; they tell me that this is what freelancing radio people with many gigs do (though I, too, wonder whether it has something to do with being on H100). Penny Crone, a veteran of more TV stations over more years than I’d bet she’d be willing to admit — best known for having a voice like a quarry on a busy day — is using her own well-known name and is clearly having a ball. Except for Liz, the rest of them all work together in a tiny room about the size of my bathroom producing two hour-long newscasts a day. Yet they all seem to get along. Most newsrooms should be this much fun.

The news meeting begins and Liz tells the staff that they have to do a better job tightening up the timing of their shows, getting rid of dead air between segments and speeding up the pace. They want to sound realer than real news. They talk about their radio models: CKLW in its heyday, the RKO stations, 1010 WINS. They want to pepper us with the news. They talk with the technical directors about problems firing segments from their new digital system and they talk about moving monitors so they can be sure to see cues. They take this seriously. Stern’s program director, Tim Sabian — the boss — joins the meeting to emphasize the importance of getting the pace right. But then his cell phone rings and he has to run off for a crisis in the studio.

They talk about stories. Crone’s reacting to Howard’s promise to fire anybody who messes up his studio; she plans to interview the cleaning crew. Michele Gerson is talking to doctors about Howard’s girlfriend’s infrequent bathroom visits. Langford has a secret Project X they don’t talk about until they get the facts confirmed.

Sabian returns. His crisis has something to do with Henry Hill and finding a place for him to say that night. Crone says she likes Henry. Sabian says he wouldn’t do that to her. He shakes his head and mutters with a smile, “Show business.”

I hang out in the studio during the noon news, down the hall from the Martha channel and the gay and lesbian channel and the hiphop channels. Flowers and noon coanchor Erica Phillips rehearse their pieces to get the tone just right. They interview DJs from Shade 45, Eminem’s channel, who supposedly were having a feud with Howard (but in the presence of Stern, they turned into puddytats). And then comes breaking news: Henry Hill’s handlers let him loose for a few minutes on the street, when he said he wanted to get something to eat, and the supposedly on-the-wagon Hill came back in no time drunk as hell and throwing up on himself as he was held by Rockefeller Center guards. The Howard 100 News team was there and they come for a live report. Liz Aeillo comes by at the end asking whether the reporter, Lisa G, had tape of the amazed ritzy lunch patrons when they found out that this pathetic lump used to be a murdering mobster. That is a lesson in news gathering.

Later, Lisa G appears on Stern’s show to talk about this incident and she says, with much hesitation and embarrassment — being a journalist, after all — that Hill had told her in a drunken fit of lust that, “I want to ____ on your face.” And the first time, through Hill’s gross drunken slur, it did sound like that. But Stern producer Gary Dell’Abate went to get the tape of Hill and they played it a few times. Turns out Hill was really slurring, “I want a Caramel Macchiato.” Like I said, accuracy matters. And at Howard, so does a good laugh.

I hang out a little while longer in the newsroom. Erica gets a soundbite from me, the media critic who happened by, about the Oprah/Frey mess (I say that I wish the next Oprah creation to fall would be Dr. Phil). I talk with George Langford — who’d just returned from Washington covering the Senate “decency” hearings — about story angles. I watch a newsroom hum. And there was my day at Howard 100.

: So now back to the high-fallutin’ points I raised earlier and made in the Guardian column (which I’ll repeat in different form here).

Is this news? Sure, it is. This is stuff that matters to Stern fans — and much of it would matter to any number of gossip pages run by outfits you’d easily call news organizations. If somebody wants to know what’s happening and somebody tells them, reliably, then that’s news. The H100 News team has to get their stories right or else they will lose credibility.

Want a safer example? When we started community sites at Advance Internet, one of the first was made by a local ballet school. Under the “news” tab, they reported that “the leotards are in.” That’s news. It’s not news because a journalist says it is. A journalist may not think that it matters, but if it matters in the life of a budding ballerina or Howard Stern fan, it is news. The same goes for news about the latest products from Apple, or a kerfuffle about blog comments at the Washington Post, or the top headlines at Digg, or the price my neighbor’s house sells for. News.

Is it journalism? Well, I’m not sure exactly what the definition of journalism should be today; I’ll punt that to another day. I just know it’s news. And I know that broadening the definition of news is a good and inevitable result of the internet shifting control of media to the edges: The people — even Howard Stern fans and ballerinas and Mac addicts — get to define what news is now.

: What fascinates me even more about Howard 100 is that — like Jon Stewart, Ricky Gervais’ Monkey News, and The Onion — they lampoon the voice of news. Note how hard the Howard 100 News team works to sound authentic: fast-paced, stentorian, sincere. They deliver the perfect deadpan sendup. They end up mocking the old voice of news and that mockery, from all these sources, eventually invalidates the old voice by turning it into a laughingstock.

The news needs to find a new voice. Even Andrew Heyward, the former president of CBS News, knows that. He said at a Museum of Television & Radio Media Center event and repeated on Pressthink:

We have to abandon any claim to omniscience…. 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.

To old news folks, this is counterintuitive, but I believe that the voice of news must become more human to be credibible. We don’t believe that voice now because it is so separate, so staged and packaged. But when we get to know the person, we can decide whether to trust him or her. That, I argue, is why I trust the guys on Diggnation. It’s not slick, it’s scruffy and casual and that is its charm and its authority; we know these guys. The news makes plenty of artificial attempts to inject humanity. That’s why newspapers hire columnists: we token humans with opinions. That’s why TV news is overrun with happy talk. But we see through that.

Now, thanks to control shifting to the edge, thanks to the citizens taking charge, 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.
Even Penny Crone’s voice.