Rethinking TV news, Part I: What’s broken, what’s possible

ron burgandy breaking news

Most TV news sucks. But I don’t want to dwell on that.

I’d like to see TV news be reinvented, yet I’m astounded so little innovation is occurring in the medium. That could be because TV news is in better financial shape than print (for now). It could be because in a highly competitive market, no one wants to leave the pack and risk failure trying something new. Still, network TV’s audience is lurching toward the grave; cable news is struggling; and Pew says that for the once-indomitable local TV news, “future demographics do not bode well.” Like newspapers and magazines before them, broadcasters need to change, to take advantage of opportunities to work in new ways, to fend off the digital competitors who are sure to grasp the chance to disrupt, and simply to improve.

TV news is stuck holding onto its orthodoxy of inanity. It wastes resources trying to fool us with stand-ups at sites where news occurred 12 hours before and where there is nothing left to witness or report. It repeats much, saying little. It adores fires that affect few. It goes overboard on weather. It gives us BREAKING NEWS that isn’t breaking at all but is long over, predictable, obvious, or trivial. It gullibly and dutifully flacks for PR events created just for TV. It presents complex issues with false and simplistic balance. It speaks in the voice of plastic people. It stages reality (no that guy in the b-roll isn’t really typing on his laptop). It has little sense of the utility of what it presents. And did I mention its pyromania?

But I don’t want to dwell on that.

I want to dwell on what TV could do well, on its strengths and opportunities. TV can summarize, sometimes too well perhaps, but delivering a quick overview of what’s happening is a useful function of news. It can curate, bringing together divergent reports and viewpoints. It can explain a complex topic and doesn’t have to dumb it down. It can demonstrate. It can convene the public to action. It can collaborate, having witnesses share what they are seeing and what they know. It can discuss and doesn’t have to shout. It can give voice to countless new perspectives now that everyone has a camera on laptop or phone. It can humanize without cynically patronizing or manufacturing a personality.

There are sprouts of innovation in television (folks I know working in video online object to it being called television but I say they should co-opt the word, the medium, and the form). That innovation is generally not coming from other media companies, for newspapers and magazines have made the mistake of aping broadcast TV when they should exploring new directions. And the innovation that is occurring doesn’t take the form of incremental adjustment to the familiar form of TV news. Instead, true innovation is unrecognizable as television. On one end of the spectrum, there’s the six-second self-parody of viral video shallowness that is Vine as news. On the other, there’s the TWiT Network (of which I am a part), where we geeks can yammer on about single topics — Google, security, Android — for devoted if small audiences for two hours.

When Katie Couric announced that she’d be moving to Yahoo and NPR’s Weekend Edition asked me to yammer about it, I took the opportunity to push my own agenda and wish that Couric and Marissa Mayer would reinvent TV news because they’re both smart; Couric knows the form so well she knows what to break; Mayer is a disruptive innovator; and Yahoo needs to be something *new* not merely something changed.

And so then I started asking some folks what they’d suggest. I asked TWiT’s founder, Leo Laporte, and after more than 10 minutes’ discussion on two shows — hey, we have all the time in the world — he said that instead of giving us the news — we already get that — he’d want to see Couric give us rich interviews with newsmakers. I like that. When Katie was on Howard Stern’s show weeks ago, I called in to ask about him having a pure interview show on TV, since he has had a remarkable run of amazing interviews lately. Besides Charlie Rose, who really does that on TV?

I asked Michael Rosenblum about reinventing TV news. He has reinvented his share of newsrooms, converting the old three-person crews to so-called one-man bands, teaching people how to tell stories with video and without the silly conventions of stand-ups, establishing shots, b-roll, and cotton-candy scripts. He told me about returning from the UK, where he taught a few dozen journalists at the Independent and Evening Standard how to gather video news with their iPhones. If they can do it, anybody can.

I asked Shane Smith, founder of Vice, which just announced the start of a new news channel in 2014 (below), and he talked about the net’s ability to bring many new voices into the news.

Vice was smart enough to hire Tim Pool the guy who broadcast Occupy Wall Street live for 21 hours straight. Pool’s not sure what to call himself — a mobile journalist, a social journalist. Take a look at how he covered protests in Turkey, where he was the first journalist so far as he knows to broadcast live using Google Glass — the true eyewitness.

A few weeks ago, Pool came to my class and then sat in my office and so I asked him about the future of TV news. Speculating together — having nothing to do with Vice’s future plans — he didn’t start talking about video. He started talking about people — witnesses and commentators and how to find the best of them and connect them — and about technology and about user interfaces. There I started to hear the beginnings of a new vision for TV and news in which video is just one tool to use.

So how would you reinvent TV news? What advice would you give Katie Couric? What advice would you give the next Tim Pool? At CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center, I’d like to embark on projects to rethink the form of TV news, its relationship with the public, and its business models. What would you like to see us do? Try not to dwell on mocking the form and its weaknesses — Ron Burgundy has done enough of that for a lifetime (plus a sequel). Try instead to imagine you are a young (reincarnated) William Paley with all these tools and all these possibilities at hand. What do you invent? In Part II, I’ll add my own wishes and speculation.

  • Dokisdoc

    Good one Mr Jarvis, got the old gray matter working… Where will we be in 20?

  • Martin Nisenholtz

    The character of TV news is largely a function of its economics, its “business model.” TV chases eyeballs to sell to advertisers. The way to change TV is to change the business model. PBS did this a long time ago with the MacNeil Lehrer Newshour, now just the Newshour. Lots of people call it the “snooze hour” but it has a lot of the characteristics you’ve identified as being right for TV. It can do this because it’s not subject to the law of large numbers, the lowest common denominator crap.

    In most things, you get what you pay for. You may disagree with this, but for 20 years the Internet culture of “free” has driven institutional journalism into the ground. Lots of good stuff – including this blog – have arisen as a result, and TV may be no different. Good stuff will come from empowered individuals. But that doesn’t obviate the need for great institutional journalism on television and that will cost money if you want high quality.

    Personally, I’d love to take a piece of the obscene price I way for “bundled” cable services and devote a chunk to great television news. In a way, that’s what I do when I support the PBS Newshour. But one isn’t enough — we need more, and even better, news programming for an IP-empowered world. Some of it will come from individuals, but I’d love to see the HBO of news as well.

    • True, Martin. Though I hate to see a world in which good news is available only to those with disposable income. I hope there are other models.
      You are right about the business model of mass media seeking eyeballs for tonnage. That model has been carried over to the net and has resulted in Buzzfeed and Upworthy and such.
      I think TV has an entirely new opportunity to serve people more individually and less as a mass — thus at higher value. It never could before. But online, it can create relationships of value based on signals from users with relevance in return — the Google model.
      I also think that TV can become a resource in addition to merely being wallpaper and that will increase its value.
      More speculation on how to implement this in the next parts…

  • steve

    dwydbalttr- aka actively engage in an effort to send people away in an effort to get them to return.

    let “the local voice” tell the story rather than some distant anchorperson.

    glam and google model- gloogle model.

  • Jeff, I encourage you and your class to think “small-to-big” in your reinvention discussions. The new “TV” is mobile, and the new TV news will begin there. Good luck and let me know if I can help.

  • Bill “Danger” Robinson

    The problem (with local news anyway) is that it’s hard to do what VICE does at a city council budget meeting. Plenty of important stories that should lead the news will never lend themselves to visually compelling, TV-friendly presentation. Local news is very important but it’s not as sexy as first-person embeds in a war zone. The decline of newspapers and local TV news means corrupt politicians operating without checks and balances.

  • I’ve long said that TV news is more fucked than newspapers ever were – it’s just a matter of time when televisions and computers become indistinguishable and then local tv news has to compete with the entire web. Most websites for local tv channels are OFFENSIVELY bad.

    There is of course Newsy (recently acquired) and NowThisNews – both take the video format into the summarizing/curation/explanation space instead of the lame standups that are nothing short of patronizing. They also work great in mobile settings.

    I still think Current TV was way ahead of its time (moreso when it launched).

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  • bbabbo1

    Jeff, the “business model” of much tv news also has CELEBRITY (of on-air folks) as a key component. So long as there are big companies investing in the selling of this celebrity, I think there will be a sustainable business model for tv news. I’m not saying that’s a good thing; i’m just saying, it’s part of the picture. that you didn’t address.

  • I love where you’re going with this. I see things through the content eyes of education- which is even harder to keep in the public eye lately.

    I noticed a lot of websites, and now even Techcrunch are following Upworthy and Buzzfeed’s example of Using Titles With Every World Capitalized.

    So now- here’s an ethical dilemma: should reputable news sites follow suit, in order to gather more eyeballs, or continue using “proper” grammar for their headlines?

    I’m really stuck on this, because I want real news to get more eyeballs, but do they somehow lose credibility by following this trend? Is it a trend- or is it the evolution of media grammar?

  • My students in Digital Media Entrepreneurship at ASU wanted to re-think TV news without b-roll, with on-the-ground local sources that were contractors, and with no standup at the beginning and the end. Cronkite still teaches “packages,” but they would like to see the information just stream, with some interpretive commentary to answer the questions who, what, where, when and why. They had amazing good ideas.

  • David Bryan

    We must move away from reporters interviewing reporters as “experts” and reach out to the community resources, the real experts. Working in the Midwest, we still have the interview with the city manager or the guys digging to find the broken water main. They don’t just grab the “interested bystander” but instead hasten to contact people who can give real answers to real questions.

    Large networks need to reach out to stringers, local reporters (dailies, weeklies, even blogosphere) to get the local angle. This would reduce costs and increase coverage with most of our ‘local’ community reporters understanding the need for both visuals and news stream content.

    Finally, keep the story the size that it should be. Breaking news and 24-hour coverage of an extremely local “small” event should match the size of the story. Focus on the human interest rather than the dollar interest. If you want packages, have them done in the field by the locals.

  • Barbara Markman

    Local news gets so much painfully wrong in language, demeanor, and content. The term “lame stream media” applies to local news “reading” as it does to the networks. I’d love more real information from a variety of viewpoints on a single topic. There is little investigative reporting anymore.

  • I’ve been trying to think of a new name and focus for my Mobile Journalism class since that seems obvious and redundant now, and all of our classes do mobile journalism. Reinventing TV news is just where we should be. I’ve always wondered about the video work that is online and seemed like TV news to me, but was usually labeled art or documentary. But why not TV? I’m not going to pretend to be a young William Paley, but who know what my students will come up with. Great post.

  • Steve

    Investigative reporting has been lost! Now news is simply a media scrum at some crazy event, each one of the reporters saying, essentially, the same thing with the News Anchor acting as the ringmaster for this three-ring circus. Instead, television news should be seeking-out the stories that matter in their local communities and striving to present a concise perspective of events that are taking place. Don’t focus on the latest murder or drug crime….go seek out the larger picture, find out why these crimes are taking place and who’s behind them. There’s always “more than meets the eye” in every story.

  • I don’t want to dwell on why TV news sucks either. It’s sucked for a long time, and there is no reason to think it will change. It doesn’t even reach people’s radars when they weigh the decision to dump cable.

    I know you know at least some of the decision makers in the business, Jeff. Do them a favor and make sure they watch this. Maybe even once a week:

    Do they realize they’re just as much a joke as most of the celebrities they cover?

  • Larry Nista

    1) Break the storyform. News pieces should be more like mini-documentaries that use many tools (third-person video, interviews, animated renderings, charts/maps, text, still photography, natural sounds, voice-over). News should be less about on-air talent, more about telling stories in the most impactful way. Words and pictures should be more than adjacent channels of info; they should work together.
    2) Expand the brand. Right now TV news generally comes in one flavor, which serves its audience well. There is also an audience at a local level for more thoughtful journalism.
    3) Stretch the platform. Produced pieces should be created as individual, sharable units that can be posted in a feed and then reused in a traditional, anchored news show.

  • Carrie Brown-Smith

    I think local TV news has a potential advantage in a social, networked world in that its people are visible, recognized “personalities” in a community. I think it can do a better job of leveraging and building on that on social channels.

  • Caleb Tennenbaum

    Good Article. I like to think how it’s Interesting how we have already seen a fundamental shift in how breaking news is reported. It’s all User Generated Content now with brekaing news like sites via Twittter. The public is the breaking news now.

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  • Good one Mr Jarvis, got the old gray matter working.

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