Jack Wiegman emailed me this most gracious note:
"In addition to criticism of the (dead/dying) journalistic machine, I would enjoy seeing hints of what journalistic entrepreneurs might create as new possibilities. CBS will never come back so what should we build in its stead? Will we ever have small teams of journalists contracted to regional newspapers and broadcasters?
You speak of career as finding positions on large teams. Is that all there is? Is there no hope for the solitary journalistic entrepreneur? How does an individual in a small town write for the international market? Who (if anyone) is succeeding at this? Is stringing dead?
Do you have comments on Herd Effect? You know the scenario: Emerging reporters feel they must limit themselves to rewriting their competitors. Is it reasonable to encourage newbies to research and write their own darn stories for a change?
There once was a journalistic concept of writing the truth no matter what. Is this a bad career choice?
Thanks again. Your newsletter is magnificent!"
Thank you, sir. I wish I had taken assignments from you years ago.
I am going to try to respond to these issues while keeping the focus on what it means to you, as a working stiff in the media jungle (including you freelancers).
Jack refers to my commentary on the death of Larry Tisch when he writes "CBS will never come back". That's right. The CBS News of just 15 years ago will never come back. Broadcast network evening newscasts may fade away, but Av Westin was telling me that in 1980. They're still not gone. And they won't be gone for a long time. More people watch them than cable news, and I'm sure Brian Williams will do well, as will Peter Jennings' and Dan Rather's successors. There still are qualified candidates for those cherished chairs. What's gone is the duty GE, Viacom and Disney have to act as responsible parties in the American process.
In our democratic republic, the "fourth estate", our free press, exists to supply the citizenry with information that will enable them to run the nation through our elected representatives.
What that means is, King of Pop Michael Jackson's arrest is not the lead story on a network newscast. Not on the same day we lose valiant soldiers not even on an Iraqi battlefield, but as shooting ducks in choppers our military is unable to defend. On the day Michael Jackson got booked, I would have liked to lead with an investigative report explaining exactly why our troops are moving around undefended. What kind of war is this, and what kind of military do we have?
But when a 9/11 occurs, there must be the three network news divisions. That's where America will always turn. And that's why Michael Eisner, Sumner Redstone and Jeffrey Immelt need to get on the America train, not the Wall Street express. Eisner's near merging ABC News with CNN was an obscenity.
So I say, the news divisions will remain, defanged, under budgeted, and just a bit too caught up in hiring cute girls. For you, this means the jobs will be there. The affiliate news feeds will only become more critical as the networks buy up every television station in the country, which they will as long as there are Republican administrations to allow further consolidation (networks can now own 39 TV stations each), and to hand people like Rupert Murdoch two TV stations and one newspaper in New York. Does Murdoch really need two TV stations in New York? These duopolies--we have one in LA with two broadcast stations owned by Viacom, both with newscasts coming out of the same newsroom--have no effect on your career, but it's plain wrong.
I don't need to say much about local news as produced by network-affiliated broadcast stations. Local news will remain the financial powerhouse it is for the foreseeable future. Do they cover news? Yes and no. They're all utterly irresponsible with regard to keeping the public informed of local politics and the traditional newspaper beats. But there they are, and they're going nowhere.
At this point it's important to mention Gen Y. I have lots of conversations with people who tell me Gen Y wants this, they want that, and all the blather you know as well as I. Well, I'm a baby boomer, and when I was 35, I was very different from when I was 25. Same when I was 45. I was nothing like that 25 year old. Nobody seems to think about this. They're going to grow up, and soon. They'll remember those good old mp3 players, and text messaging, can you imagine? Plan for that in 10 years. You think you know what they're going to want? Nobody in the media knows what any of us want now! But they sure have a lot to say about Gen Y.
So, the network news divisions will still be here, but probably still tabloid-driven; broadcast station local news too.
Jack wants to know what we should build in its stead.
I think the answer is simple. What we need to build is a federal government that wants to do everything possible to force the networks into a position where the evening news and other news programs are not ratings-driven, but exist to enhance the "good will" of the network owners. This means legislation demanding, in some manner to be determined, that dire consequences will be imposed on GE, Viacom and Disney, or their successors, if they do not deliver on their constitutional responsibility. Who monitors this? I don't know. But I'll tell you what. We have a monstrous federal debt. The networks are crying that they don't make money, but if you believe that I'll be happy take a donation for my father, the king of Nigeria.
Why don't we slap some taxes on the networks? What are they good for? Nothing. All they do is make shows, most of which stink. They're anti-trade, destroying production companies by producing their own prime time shows, and that means people out of work, even rich ones like Stephen J. Cannell who just writes books now. The networks have to believe, even if they are forced into believing it, that in order to make big money producing fiction and American Idol, they have to take pride in their news divisions. They have to battle each other to be the best again, like they did in the old days when the people who founded the networks ran them. If they don't go along, the FCC, which should be a panel of Neos from The Matrix, beat their businesses up until they do. That's what we need to build.
Make no mistake, video on demand will be very important for news, and the new technologies that haven't happened yet, but you'd better believe Big Media will swallow and control whatever it is. They have to be inspired, get it? Even if that means using Soprano tactics.
Jack wants to know what about "small teams of journalists contracted to regional newspapers and broadcasters?"
Anybody who thinks newspapers are going away is an idiot. Sorry. Don't throw your focus groups and statistics at me. Tell me when Bill Gates is going to deliver to your virtual doorstep a comprehensive collection of the day's news so it's lightweight, foldable, you can take it to Starbuck's and put a cup of coffee on it and wipe the stain off, and then stick it in your handbag for reading later at home? 25 years? Maybe? And it'll keep crashing while you read, and you'll have to reboot it. I never once in my life rebooted The New York Times.
Small local papers are thriving. It's still great training, but there's no money in it for the editorial staff. When Jack talks about regional broadcasters, let's use that to talk about local cable news channels.
Cablevision started it with News 12 Long Island in the New York metro region. But the national model is Time Warner's NY1. NY1 is 24/7, and while it's low budget, it's a class act. NY1 is a real news organization. They go heavy on New York City politics, they're beat-driven, and while most of the staff is young and/or untrained as they would be were they at a network news organization, the channel is very popular with viewers and ratings are respectable.
There are baby versions of NY1 all over the country. Sadly, they're not going to last. You heard it here first.
First of all, the primary reasons the MSO's create these neighborhood news channels is 1) to offer subscribers something satellite providers like DirecTV can't do. 2) MSO's also create these micro news channels because it's politically expedient. MSO's are subject to franchise renewal, and city governments aren't the pushovers the Big Boys in Washington have become when it comes time to review the license of a broadcast station, all the big ones of which are owned by the networks, all of which suck up to the administration.
NY1 is financially viable because it's in the #1 market and Time Warner and Cablevision hold the franchises in the city. Time Warner owns Manhattan. But these other channels aren't going to make it financially. You're going to see the ones that exist scaling back, some vanishing, some going virtual once fake people can read news, and they're not going to be 24/7, except in the major markets, where MSO consolidation allows for them.
So while NY1 has served as somewhat of a launch pad for its low-paid reporters, and it truly does provide a service to the city, this will not be the case in smaller clusters of head-ends.
Small teams of reporters working locally on papers and cable news? Papers yes, cable news no.
Jack goes on: "You speak of career as finding positions on large teams. Is that all there is? Is there no hope for the solitary journalistic entrepreneur? How does an individual in a small town write for the international market? Who (if anyone) is succeeding at this? Is stringing dead?"
As far as print journalists go, of course individuals in small towns write for the international market, and I'm not talking about web logs. Mediabistro.com is a good place for print writers to check out, as is the freelance writing area of About.com.
Most quality magazines have highly paid contract writers, and making a living writing freelance is very difficult.
I want to turn this to TV, because there's lots of buzz about video journalist stringers as the wave of the future--TV stringers all over the place who shoot and cut news pieces on their PC's and feed them to Goliath, who buys them.
This hypothesis springs from Michael Rosenblum, who has good credentials, and had more to do with launching NY1 than Bob Pittman, who is always credited with having created it.
But it's hopelessly wrong. Not understanding centralized media control because he's never worked in it, Rosenblum can think whatever he wants. Which of course is good. But I'm really worried that there are lots of young aspiring TV journalists who think this is the true vision of the future. Decentralized newsgathering by stringers. Never happen. Media is about corporate control. The idea of a morning meeting that features input from hundreds of stringers with stories that can't be checked out, could be staged, can't be re-edited -- fuhgeddaboudit.
Jack has two other questions, but this has gone on long enough. I'll answer them in the next issue.
I haven't talked about cable news channels intentionally. I've written too much about them already. Suffice to say that Fox News and CNN aren't going to be changing radically. Fox News after Roger Ailes will be a totally different channel, but it's well-established and based on positioning strategy. CNN will continue to flounder, perhaps for as long as three more years. Eventually they'll bounce back. By the way, CNN and MSNBC, as I keep writing about, can't seem to remember that the current US population is 50-50 Democrat-Republican. There's no hot trend for conservative news. It's all marketing.
MSNBC is doing so poorly, and is run so poorly, and is so deep in third place, that it's hard to predict its future. On the one hand, if it actually went off the air for one month, and came back as an entirely new news channel, it could get traction and move ahead of CNN. But NBC will have to pay me to tell them what to do. Otherwise, GE is going to get really impatient, and that could mean anything.
This is why I tell you MSNBC folks, get your irons in the fire. Less so CNN.
As we used to joke back in my Channel 2 New York days, parodying content-free standup closes, "Only the future lies ahead."
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