Monday, January 9, 2012

The Real Eyewitness News

The television news industry has been changed forever. It began back in the 70's with Roger Grimsby, co-anchor on the ABC network news show Eyewitness News. The show aired nightly on channel 7 in New York and broke away from the longstanding talking head format of television news delivery.

Overnight it seemed we transitioned from the serious, somber and deliberate style of an Edward Murrow or a Walter Cronkite to the casual fun-loving demeanor of Grimsby. It was the beginning of a long slide down a slippery slope where the entertainment value of the newscast began to carry more importance than traditional values such as accuracy, integrity and objectivity.

Other networks and "news" shows were quick to adopt the more casual look and feel, where gaffs and technical errors were no longer embarrassing but fodder for jovial banter among the on air personalities. The truth is content on television is driven by viewer ratings which in turn drive the advertising costs that ultimately determine revenue. News shows were no longer exempt from the need to attract the most viewers. Sadly, it seemed most viewers were more interested in being entertained than informed. At least the networks cannot be blamed for that.

With the advent of social networks, people are increasingly getting more timely and accurate news from the web. There are numerous sources where one can simply track events all day long and not have to wait for the six o'clock broadcast with its catchy sound bites and glib commentary. I've recently met a young man who at the delicate age of 14 started to monitor various social networks and news feeds, and who today curates a web site called UpfrontNewsWire.com. In thirty minutes each morning he puts out news from around the world and then heads off to high school.

The long term effect has been a loss of viewers creating a need to reduce costs.  We wind up with a smaller newsroom staff, fewer deep thinkers and instead rely on pretty faces that are adept at reading their lines from a teleprompter.

This is not to suggest they are all bad. Many television news programs still have serious journalists at the helm but they often wind up on public channels or pay networks. 

The internet and social networks have nearly destroyed the newspaper industry. The question is how will the major networks armed with their revenue pressures, rigid schedule, skeleton crews and pretty faces compete? We live in a a world where technology allows virtually anyone to have the resources to replace the television station.

The answer lies in embracing the enemy. When stations become enlightened like KOMU in Missouri, KOMO in Seattle and Fox in LA, welcoming the new "back" channels and incorporating them into the news gathering process, the audience will respond in kind. News delivery will be a two way street, a lively dialogue among all the participants inside and outside the studio, including the real eyewitnesses.

A new breed of journalists will emerge. Those who can multitask and engage intelligently with the citizens delivering the raw news. The ones who can separate the wheat from the chaff, put the pieces together and deliver a cohesive report from it all. The ones who are nimble and adept at using the new technologies will be the winners.

They are not going to need the tall antenna, powerful transmitters or cable delivery services. They are simply going to want a microphone, a quiet keyboard, an HD web cam, a big monitor and loads of bandwidth.

And they will have more fun with the audience than Grimsby would ever have imagined.

Captain Joe

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