Can we reimagine TV news (please)?

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:

  • tv is part of the distraction industry … it must be ignored, for human evolution to speed up.

    • TV news lifer

      Comedy doesn’t work too well next to a fatal ten car pile up. I rather liked what Jeff said about anchoring without a knowledge net. Local anchors are too often chosen for good looks and youth. More people would watch if they believed the anchor was credible, not just cute. I wouldn’t promote someone to anchor until they’ve broken a few big stories as a reporter. Then I’d put them in charge of an investigative team. All the other reporters would have beats and be expected to compete with newspaper beat reporters.
      Then I’d put responsible beat bloggers on the air (via uplinks, not skype) to make that connection with the internet that broadcast news execs talk about but never do anything about.
      To get the air time, I’d whittle weather and sports down to about one minute each and allow one good yuk each with the anchors. Then I’d can the fluff like entertainment and YOUTUBE quirky video of the day.

    • Jamie Diamond

      But nobody will. It’s too powerful a medium with too much good to offer. Now if only we’d start using it more effectively.

    • Cheyanne Smith

      Chris Hedges calls it “the Triumph of Spectacle” and it seems to be an American thing on Planet America Hollywood.

  • James Kotecki

    Love it. This post aligns with something I’ve been thinking
    a lot about recently: the blending of news and entertainment. In a world where
    anybody can choose to watch anything, I believe that news outlets actually have
    an obligation to be entertaining. Making
    a dry, boring newscast (which some media critics are apparently nostalgic for)
    just assures that everybody will go watch The Jersey Shore instead.

    Most outlets know this but they go about it
    entirely wrong.
    Shiny sets, holograms, and pitched battles of pundits ad nauseum are not really
    that entertaining because the content still sucks. Stewart and Colbert have best (and truthiest)
    content, but they often insist that their goal is not to deliver the news and
    that their goal is nothing more than a comedy show.

    But what if there were a TV news station with comedic sensibilities that was still
    nonetheless dedicated to delivering the news? An explicit blend of Jon Stewart
    and NPR-style analysis? That’s the kind of news I’d like to watch. And that’s
    the kind of organization I’d like to work for.

  • Sixo

    What is the distance and the difference between findings of fact held as evidence admissible in a court of law and what a news editor can broadcast? Is bridging that distance perceived to be a threat to the revenue stream of a news organization? If so, then why do they not charge a premium for such *real* news?

  • Redeye

    Why is TV called a medium? Because its neither rare nor well done. An old joke but still true: TV continually dumbs down to the availability of moving pictures. A story about water?Here’s a tap (faucet). Story about pollution? Here’s a generic smokestack. Feeble. Want great global news? Tune into the BBC World Service radio — actual news and insight well researched. No pointless generic footage.

    • Nigel Cory

      Well said Redeye. TV is by and large pap while the BBC WS is knowledge.


  • MirandaN

    I wouldn’t dismiss Sorkin entirely, I think if you go deeper, beyond the social media criticism that has taken on a life of its own, many of the issues/questions he raises are quite similar to your concerns: Moving away from sensational, superficial TV news focused on B-level celebrities and reality TV starts to something more substantial and explanatory. I think the first episode of the Newsroom, much more than about “operating without a net of knowledge, ad libbing while staying one step ahead of what’s known” was about how do you decide what will be a meaningful story in the early stages, what does it mean to not follow the pack and cover something in a different way than other people are, or in a different framing. Yes, it might have been been realistically hard for the Newsroom team to frame the BP oil spill in that way given the knowledge they would have had, but I think the way it was framed with a focus on the young well Inspector makes a good point about unique ways to frame news stories, and even as someone who followed the BP oil spill to some degree, newsjunkie that I am, the episode helped me see the confluence of events that led to the spill from a somewhat new point of view. In the second episode, Emily Mortimer’s character lists the following guidelines for the show’s news coverage: ” Is this information we need in the voting booth?
    — Is this the best possible form of the argument?
    — Is the story in historical context?
    Then yet another question is added:
    — Are there really two sides of this story?” and argues against false equivalency. Isn’t this exactly what so many people today criticize about TV news (and media in general)?

  • Jamie Diamond

    I think TV nets need to have some honest conversations with ourselves about what role they want to play (without ego) in people’s lives. Depending on who you ask, TV news is either made to run to keep you watching, or made to run in the background and distract you every now and then from, lets say doing the dishes. But, there are tons of people who still sit down for the evening news, devoting it full attention. Gee, it’s too bad there’s no room for both kinds of TV since the great television rationing began. ;) Honestly, if networks are devoting resources to web updates, podcasts, and more, there must be room enough for a market to serve both sorts of audiences, and distinguish themselves clearly in a way that keeps up their name and honor (I say this living in Atlanta. Maybe other markets are already doing this…but nobody ever says “We’re the guys for when you’re doing other stuff. You’ll get it by osmosis.”…everyone has too much of an ego or fears they’ll lose too much if they do. That’s the problem to me).

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  • I would love it if TV network news in the evening was really news. But they all lead with the same thing and most of it I’ve already heard on the web. Plus I have to sit through awful medical ads targeting people my age — awful!

  • Sarah Hill is mentioned in this post. Here’s what she wrote at Google Plus .. We’ve also produced a show called How to Host a Hangout On Air ..

    Jeff, You are welcome to join Sarah and me anytime to discuss your ideas. Why not let’s hold a HOA and get cracking .. Mike
    Sarah writes..I’ll bite. Redefine the news anchor to be a news buoy who floats on multiple platforms during a ‘broadcast’ not just TV. Use group video chat as a back channel and a front channel. Make the news buoy wear an ear piece so they can actually listen to their viewers/colleagues and get real time information/correction/feedback. Human media > text based social media. Redefine the 30 second spot. “Uncle Walter” needs to be redefined and ambidextrous. One hand =independent journalists. Other hand =traditional journalists. Hangouts On Air are bringing both of these hands together in a face to face virtual handshake with developers and it’s exciting to think about what kind of Journalism Renaissance this real time collaboration could foster. HOA are enabling everyone (in most countries) to have their own free “TV station” with a built in satellite truck in the middle of a crowd sourcing tool. Could group video chat and the ability to broadcast in a social stream be Murrow’s _new_”wires and lights in a box?”

    This face to face human media is enabling people from different countries to share on a deeper level and we as newsrooms should pay close attention to the spread of this international pixie dust.

    “If you stay in your room all day you’ll never meet anyone and never know whom you’ve missed. It’s Tinker Bell in reverse: Each time you don’t share, a relationship loses its wings. That is a tangible loss.”
    –Jeff Jarvis/Public Parts

    I often wonder how many more lost relationships it will take for us TV types to realize we need to be more transparent…warts and all.
    Ode to Peter Pan, we may never grow up….

    • Agree with Sarah and Mike here – whether it’s google plus – spreecast – ustream – this two way conversation with viewers, in social space on or off cam has sped up the journalism process to warp speed – and half the newsroom is still waiting for the wires to tell them something happened. People who keep their heads in the sand and continue to wait for a news service alert to guide our gameplan are dooming the industry. We need to be embracing all the new options and taking risks like KOMU does. We can’t wait for focus groups to tell us what to do. People don’t know what they want when it comes to innovation – until you show it to them. Just do it!

    • Lex

      Agree with Sarah, with one technical caveat gleaned from my own time in broadcast: The anchor needs one, and only one, voice in his ear, particularly while speaking live. Two or more is a recipe for confusion, if not error. So whoever owns that voice needs to be adept at analyzing and synthesizing info from many sources, in many formats, deciding what’s credible and what’s not, and feeding the best of the best to the anchor, pretty much in real time.

      • Sarah Hill

        Lex: If an anchor really wants to curate real time information/feedback, she needs to be able to listen to more than one voice in her ear. It’s a lot easier than it sounds. There is a volume control so if it becomes too much stimuli, I can turn down the Hangout viewers’ volume. Most anchors are trained to be able to read and listen to a producer’s voice at the same time. One might argue the audience’s voice is just as important as the producers. I’m not saying all anchors need to pipe a Hangout into their IFBs like we do but I am saying there’s a lot of down time during the commercial breaks that an anchor could be using to talk face to face to their audience. Anchors tweet during a newscast….so why not talk to your audience via a Hangout? Text based social media conversations can only get us so far. Group video chat is human media. It’s a newscaster’s coffee shop…except instead of reading the newspaper, patrons watch the news. Would love to talk more shop with you in a Hangout. :-)

        • Sarah, I spent seven years in broadcasting. I watched a lot of air talent try to listen to two or more people at once, and I never once saw one who did it well. And this was in a Top 30 market. Your mileage might well vary, but that was my experience.

        • I too enjoy the exchange in commercials. I keep focused on one IFB during the top news segments – meaning I take out my audience earpiece, but when
          that commerical break rolls – I too enjoy the exchange – and in the age of robots
          in the studio running cameras instead of people – it’s really nice to have
          company :)

  • AlbertAlberto

    I would like to see TV news have a list of citations for there stories. One thing that really makes me mad is when a news report talks about a “new study” and they don’t give the name of the journal that it was published in, only the name of the institution that conducted the research is given. Citations!!!!

    • I agree. I have no idea why News people seem to get away with this when a student a school cannot write a word without showing a (Author, Year) reference. Some in print/web are getting better like the

      In addition, leaving out Where an event happened until the 8 paragraph seems to happen all the time in the UK – do they teach this at JSchool?

  • News only made it to TV because someone decided it might be a way to sell more TV sets to a demographic not all that swayed by live football coverage coast to coast via coax. It was believed the same demo that watched Westerns (5 of the top 20 TV series in 1962 being a Western) would sit still for a whole 15 minutes of Cronkite. Playhouse 90 and its ilk was yanked off the air years ago yet still we have the Flonase Network News. Maybe news is just not something TV should be responsible for doing anymore. Once there was wall to wall coverage of the conventions on the 3 nets. Once news on TV was relevant.
    And don’t knock Newsroom, Sam Waterson makes a great Fred Friendly.

  • Deke

    Totally agree. My pet peeves are the reporter filing a report “live from the newsroom” at the station and Scott Pelley’s on-screen ID (“Broadcast Center”) during The CBS Evening News when speaking with a field reporter … who’s standing in front of news location where nothing has happened in the last 12 hours.

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  • Mark A. Castillo

    Here’s a great little video that perfectly illustrates the essence of commercial TV news. It’s called “What You Pay For”.

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