The unbearable weight of infrastructure

After returning from the National Association of Broadcasters/Radio Television News Directors Association convention in Vegas, I have been haunted by the size of the infrastructure of the industry. The convention center was packed — blimp hangar after blimp hangar and the lots inbetween and meeting rooms all around — with salaries and equipment devoted just to filling a little screen a few minutes a day. Look at the video below — not yet; wait until I tell you — and you will see thousands of salaries walking around — and, of course, they represent a tiny fraction of a percent of the people who work in TV, just those who are sent to conventions in Vegas. There are thousands more like them at home. That will be the death of TV: the unbearable weight of its infrastructure. (I talked about the media infrastructure implosion here and I calculated the savings of a new world of TV practically free of infrastructure here.)

At an RTNDA panel, my pal, panel star Michael Rosenblum, lectured executives and stars of local TV news about this implosion. There was no lighting and so my video of him sucked even more than my usual video (proving the point of the pros, I suppose, and making them smug in their belief that better pixels equal lifetime jobs). And so I put his words on top of random images from the floor of the convention, just to show the number of people, the salaries, the weight of it. Over to you, Michael:

But, of course, it’s not just about the infrastructure of staff and equipment but of culture. Now see a San Francisco anchorman from WPIX TV complain, predictably, about quality and hear Michael’s response (again there was no lighting — as the anchorman pointed out — and my video sucks, but you can get the substance of it; think of this as a transcript with sound, a podcast with wallpaper):

Now go to Michael’s blog as he reacts to my wishful and surely and sadly wrong suggestion that the end of the age of the anchor may be at hand — anchors like that guy. He calculates the real cost of Katie Couric’s $14-million-per-year salary:

The whole concept of ‘anchor’ is a complete waste of time and money.

Where did this come from, this notion of the ‘anchor’?

People seem to believe that the ‘anchor’ gives the newscast some kind of credibility.

After all, we call it, The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.



We don’t call it, The New York Times with Tom Friedman, but the New York Times still seems to be pretty credible. And we certainly don’t pay Tom Friedman $14 million a year!

That is a nice sum, $14 million (let the number roll around your tongue for a minute), a year, to work 22 minutes a night, reading what someone else has written for you. By the way, in every other journalistic endeavor we would call that plagiarism. Only in television do we deign to call it ‘journalism’.

There is a rationale that these people somehow earn their pornographic salaries.


What they do instead is strip the true journalistic assets of any newsroom, whether it is local news or network, because that $14 million has to come from somewhere, and it comes from the budget of the news division. How many local news operations work with old equipment, broken vans, ancient editing decks and a skeleton staff so that they can pay the ‘anchors’ their insane salaries?

In short, Katie is infrastructure. Along with all that equipment and those executives and those studios. Michael suggests a better use for the money that buys all that infrastructure: reporting.

Newspapers are fairly simple. You get a bunch of reporters. Pay them a decent salary. You give them pads and pencils. You say, ‘here’s your pencil, there’s the door, see you at 6′and they go off and find stories. Works pretty well. (That is why TV news gets its stories from the newspapers, and not the other way round).

We could build a TV newsroom based on a newspaper. We could, for argument’s sake, take 100 great journalists, give them small HD camcorders and laptops and say ‘here’s your camera, there’s the door, see you at 6, and send them all over the world. They could upload their stories and feed them to a web site, 24 hours a day. Refreshing all the time. With text and video and sound… Live and podcast and VOD.

Pretty cool.

Really kind of a digital model for journalism for the future, don’t you think?

And it would not cost all that much.

Let’s say we paid each of our 100 reporters, $140,000 a year. That’s a pretty good salary. You would attract a lot of talent. Real reporting talent.

Where would you get the money from?

Well, let’s take the $14 million you’re paying Katie Couric and guess what… you’re there.

What, really, do you think gives you better journalism?

And then get rid of some of that unnecessary equipment and layers of production and management and imagine how much more you could spend on journalism. Of course, it wouldn’t all fit in 22 minutes a day. But to hell with those 22 minutes. Feed the web with reporting.

If you get rid of the presses and the trucks and the broadcast towers and the headquarters buildings and the fancy equipment and the old-time stars, if you kill the infrastructure, you are left with more resources for journalism — and savings in the face of reduced revenue in a suddenly competitive marketplace — and the bottom line is a and more efficient and sustainable business.

Infrastructure is the enemy of journalism.

Ah, but you say, what about editors and correspondents? If they’re vital, they’re not infrastructure. If they are not vital, then they are merely expenses and you must get rid of them.

Infrastructure is the enemy.

  • Jeff
    Needless to say I found the above fascinating reading! But your video does need technical work. Why don’t you come down to my 4-day VJ course in Miami in May. (Its on me). I think you’ll find that with a few lessons your shots will be as good as the pros! (perhaps even better).

  • The problem with TV news is that it requires pictures. Stories which don’t have a visual component don’t get much coverage on TV. This is why we hardly ever see stories about white collar crime until there is a perp walk and/or a trial.

    Last week NY Times columnist Floyd Norris wrote about IBM borrowing money to finance buying back its stock. This is an important story for investors since it shows the degree of folly firms will participate in to boost their stock price.

    I doubt that this will be covered by the TV news, not because it is too wonky, but because there is no visual hook.

    Even when non-event stories are covered, they are illustrated with superfluous graphics. A story of gasoline prices will always show someone filling up their car. The underling of what the narration says (every noun gets a picture) weakens the impact of the narration since the viewer is concentrating on the more captivating visual instead of the spoken material.

    Now with divided screens it is even harder to focus on a story. Bill Moyers provided a stark contrast the other night on his new series. He spent half the show talking to Jon Stewart and half talking to Josh Marshall. The only graphics were video clips which acted as quoted material to put the discussion in context. Giving people enough time to discuss their points seems to be a lost art on TV.

  • Greg0658

    Equipment, production workers, and management makes commerce.

    Without commerce theres no jobs.

    End of cycle.

    Its a matter of Balance.

    IMO Wall Street and corporate raiders don’t get. I guess they do, its their game. Its Us who don’t get it.

  • Over the years, with some exceptions such as Moyer perhaps, the anchor’s position has gravitated toward personality, not credibility. It’s increasingly an entertainment job. That’s why ugly TV anchors are a rare breed.

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  • SteveSgt

    You wrote: “Of course, it wouldn’t all fit in 22 minutes a day. But to hell with those 22 minutes. Feed the web with reporting.”

    We already have that — it’s called CSPAN. You can get all of the raw news you want, if you’re willing to devote days and days to sift through the boredom.

    I think Jeff’s battle cry should be, “let them watch (eat?) CSPAN!”

  • There is an alternative to the ‘anchor syndrom’ that has driven the bulk of Network news for decades. It’s already in practice, at THE NEWS HOUR (a name you’ll recognize, I’m sure, Jeff…)

    Admittedly, Jim Lehrer is ‘the’ main anchor…however, it’s one of the few shows I know where other contributing reporters – Margaret Warner, Gwen Ifel, Ray Suarez, Judy Woodruff…take TURNS anchoring, depending on when Jim’s away. Gwen, of course, has her own show (Washington Week in Review), but I never fail to find it refreshing to see one of the other members of the show’s staff filling Jim’s chair. This has a very levelling effect to the whole anchor-chair thing – and somehow, for me at least, enhances the level of trust I place in the show.

    Instead of one ‘anchor,’ it would seem the solution would be to enable any of the reporting staff to assume control, depending on the story being reported. A very egalitarian and neat solution to the whole ‘supersized salary’ issue, too…

  • zak822

    Interesting post. Except it’s not journalism anymore, it’s about “entertainment”. Heaven forfend we should challenge viewers with the stuff they really ought to know. I mean, that stuff boring, right? Besides, we all know bin Laden and Hussein were cozy buddies, right? We don’t need Katie to tell us that!

    “Giving people enough time to discuss their points seems to be a lost art on TV.” is directly related to that boring thing. Sadly, it was the only good thing about the Don Imus show, and it will be missed.

    Last, the anchor is a holdover from the early days of TV, when that person in your living room actually was a trusted soul who might even tell you the truth. Try to find that in an anchor now! The lies of omission are crushing.

  • hey

    ok it’s not anything like brilliant journalism, but the City-TV operation in Canada, along with some of the cable nets in the Chum family that owns city and is currently being sold to CTV/BellGlobemedia, have run on this model for decades. They were the 4th station and poor, so the reporter carried his own camera, shooting, interviewing, editing, etc. They do a decent job and its a great way to stretch resources. Just try getting that through the infinite unions at a major net – another reason why being a D is an idiotic idea for anyone that wants to innovate.

    As for leveraging – Robert Feinman displays his complete ignorance and utter lack of intellect. Companies should endeavour to minimise their cost of capital – raising equity when debt is expensive or risky, raising debt when it can manage the payments and it costs less than equity. IBM is simply re-arranging its balance sheet to something closer to the optimum for its current situation and the prevailing rates. To despair over a simple act of raising money betrays ones total, abject ignorance and indicates that you should be ignored on all political questions, since they are all inherently economic questions and you have demonstrated that you don’t even have a basic grasp of micro-economics. Further, you’re relying on a columnist, in the NYT no less, and not an actually competent business paper, to give you information about a company that you presumably have invested in. An actually competent investor would be following his companies of interest in EDGAR, the investor relations section of the IBM site, and the various financial news sites (free like Yahoo or Google, or subscription such as WSJ). Raising debt or equity is an activity that must be announced publicly and forms filed with the SEC (even with shelf registrations), so the columnist was just being a crotchety ignoramus like yourself.

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