With his bizarro news network, Aaron Sorkin thinks he is reimagining TV news, but he is only reminiscing, wishing for the return of the mythical Uncle Walter who’ll tell us all what’s what. Truth is, the process we saw at work in the premier of The Newsroom — operating without a net of knowledge, ad libbing while staying one step ahead of what’s known — was precisely the prescription for what CNN and Fox did only a few days later, screwing up the announcement of the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision because they knew too little and said too much too soon.
Let’s not rely on Sorkin to reinvent TV news. But let’s reinvent it, please. Because TV news does suck in so many ways: repeating what we already know; standing on its silly orthodoxies (the stand-up “report” in front of a location where nothing has happened in 12 hours); happy talk and those silly verbal fillips during handovers that add no information or value (“…a very troubling report this evening”); weather über alles; fluff from flacks; FIRE! and crime; militant banality; and most important, virtually no original reporting and even less investigation.
But I don’t want to act like a print snob, because print’s dying and TV’s not. And I don’t want to be an internet snob, because my real fear is that internet news is becoming all too much like TV news, making easy and obvious use of technologies instead of adding true value to the flow of information: blog posts that repeat and rewrite when a link to the source would better serve the public and journalists who do the real reporting; comment for the sake of comment; slideshows for the sake of slideshows (and pageviews); glomming onto the latest cool thing (TV has helicopters; we have aggregation, Wordles, Twitter feeds, infographics that spend an acre to say what a paragraph could, exercises in dataviz that all look like the same supernova, and — God help us — videos made to mimic TV news … NO!).
I have been arguing here that we need to reinvent news — its forms, relationships, and business models — given the new opportunities that technology provides. But I don’t want us to fall into the shiny-thing trap of TV or the priesthood of the broadcaster. I want to reimagine the possibilities and the value of news. One challenge is that we don’t yet know what the internet is and what all it can and will do. But we do know what TV is and can do. And we know that TV news makes sad use of its opportunities. So how do we reinvent it? I’d like your thoughts. Here are some of mine:
* Go ahead: summarize. We know that TV is good at repeating the news, so why not start by doing that better and more efficiently? Don’t waste money and journalistic “talent” on stand-ups before long-dormant crime scenes. Don’t assume you need one person to read the news and another the sports when it’s all just reading. One person reading in a studio can tell us most everything that the current crew does. The next question is how that one person’s script could add value: by summarizing stories cogently and precisely; by adding context; by cramming lots of information into our busy hour; by taking the effort to find the very best reports out there and curating and integrating them. Make those 22 minutes truly worthwhile. There’s nothing to stop one or a few smart people from making this newscast now. But it doesn’t really push the peanut down the road, it only makes better peanut butter.
* Explain. Open secret: The great strength of public radio in the U.S. isn’t so much reporting or investigation but explanation. Take Adam Davidson & Co.’s brilliant work at Planet Money and on This American Life teaching us about economics. Now imagine they had visuals in front of them, even just a whiteboard to diagram the flow of money, a la the Khan Academy. Imagine having experts on-call with webcams to untie particular knots. Video is an excellent medium for explanation; that’s why it is being used for education. Sadly, public television has not taken up the opportunity to create a show that explains the news. Neither has cable news. Instead of a screwed-up newsflash over the Supreme Court’s ACA ruling, how much better it would be to have a real explanation of the impact of the legislation and how it will work (as Reddit did). It’s an opportunity out there for the taking.
* Convene. So long as TV is still a mass medium, much of its power lies in gathering and organizing people or action. The Tea Party is the proof of that. Why not use this power for good? Oh, I know, that’s advocacy; it violates the Star Trek Prime Directive against interfering with the populous. To hell with that. TV could bring people together not to shout at each other but to find common ground and action. Jon Stewart, again, tried to do that with his Rally to Restore Sanity.
Sadly, it didn’t accomplish much; sanity has not been restored. Perhaps the goal was just too ambitious. Could local TV convene people to clean up a park or tutor kids or start a FOIA club. Can we start there?
* Create. CNN and much of mainstream media blew it because they thought cameras in the hands of the public were an opportunity to give them free content, rather than to empower that public. Al Gore’s Current blew it (long before it hired Keith Olbermann). It had the chance to be an open platform for the creation and distribution of vox vid by millions. I even had this argument with Gore’s cofounder: open up and make this the first truly network of the net. But they were tradition- and revenue-bound, favoring instead the cable companies and their demands. Current could have been YouTube. It’s now a has-been. Perhaps Cory Booker’s #waywire will see a new opportunity, which I think is to add value to the public’s video by finding the best, making it better, adding context, and so on.
Video will soon be coming from everywhere. Imagine a street scene in which, say, a tenth, even a hundredth of the people are wearing Google Glass, constantly and instantly able to capture and share what they see (the other 99 percent will have “phones” able to do the same): thousands, millions of cameras in a city. What should TV news look like then? The key skill is no longer sending out a crew; it’s finding people near news or finding news from the people who are sharing it — in other words, asking and listening.
* Discuss. Charlie Rose is wonderful but he doesn’t scale. Online comments are in theory wonderful but they still tend to bring out the worst. TV could find a middle ground, opening up the dialog beyond the booked-and-flacked guest on a show while also giving some form, structure, and civility to the conversation. See what local TV news anchor Sarah Hill is doing using Google+ Hangouts to open up TV. A decade ago, I envisioned a show or network that would rely on the then-new network of webcams growing to bring new expertise and new voices to TV. Now it exists. Use it.
Imagine, too, how TV could make better use of the back-channel discussion that is already occurring around it on Twitter, on Facebook, and on Google+. Reading the random tweet on air doesn’t cut it. How could TV use these feeds to inform questions and answer them, to gauge reaction, to fact-check, and more?
Note that these notions — making TV a device for creation and conversation — transform TV from a one-way medium into a two-way platform. That’s where it should head, because it finally can.
* Joke. There’s a lot to be learned from the success of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I want to teach a journalism course in humor and truth. Humor is a perfect way to call bullshit, which should be the mission of every news organization there is (instead, it’s the motto of Howard Stern’s Howard 100 News: “No more bullshit!”). Humor punctures pomposity. It engages the public. It adds perspective. TV does humor well.
* Fact-check. Want to add value to the flow of news? Fact-check it. Add annotations to video from sources.
* Share. It has been argued that the BBC and other state-owned TV networks should make all the video they shoot available for remixing by the public since, after all, the public already paid for it. It’s a good idea. Take all that a network shoots plus all that C-SPAN captures and create tools to let the public make their own shows around it, finding the gems that wouldn’t fit in 1:30 on the air, making TV from a mass medium into a far more targeted venue.
* Report. Oh, yes, there’s no better way to add value than to report. There’s nothing stopping TV from reporting. Yes, sometimes, cameras get in the way, but sometimes they also make it possible to get more information because they can show instead of just tell and because, as The Daily Show proves regularly, people will do anything to be on TV, even make fools of themselves. Besides, cameras are getting so small we’re wearing them, losing their power of intimidation.
I’ll be the first to say (so you don’t need to) that that’s a crappy, incomplete list, not nearly imaginative enough. So beat me. Inspire us. Reimagine the possibilities. Remake TV. Just please don’t make it this: