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State of the News: Read it and Weep!

May 7th, 2008 · 3 Comments

My recent essay, Debating TV News,  answering a Blog reader’s questions about the state of the news, has prompted a most interesting response … from Cameron Bell.

News junkies … and informed newsroom managers right across North America … will know Cameron Bell: as News Director at BCTV, Bell .. along with Assignment Editor Keith Bradbury …  took the Newshour from Number Three spot in Vancouver’s local television news ratings in the 1960s to the Number One rated local news program, in terms of market share, not just in Vancouver or B.C., but by the 1980s throughout North America!

They broke new ground and set new ratings records by emphasizing … not just a competent photogenic anchor … but most of all top quality pictures and top quality stories, told by top quality reporters and top quality story tellers.

It cost a fortune; it was a difficult challenge … raising the jourmalistic bar so high .. but it worked …  and the viewers responded with top ratings numbers and top advertising revenues!

I am so humbled that Bell took the time to respond in great detail to my recent musings about the state of the news in Vancouver, I will post his ENTIRE analysis here (with his permission) … worthy thoughts for those who care: and it no doubt applies in just about every local newsroom across the continent.  Read it …  and weep!

From Cameron Bell:

Hi Harvey

Before I join the chorus decrying the penury being unfairly imposed on network affiliate newsrooms, I’d like to get a couple of things clear in my mind. 

The first concerns the quality and originality of efforts that are being made by the people still employed and with the resources still available in the ‘major’ newsrooms. 

Last week, for example, The Province produced an amusing piece by Damian Inwood on the new warmup suits for Canadian Olympic athletes.  He wore one in public,  solicited and reported the feedback.  It was a good piece.

 That evening at least two news programs seen in this market featured a reporter in the same suit, on similar streets, soliciting comments.  Surprise.  None of the comments  differed significantly from what Inwood reported. 

(To me, the suits looked like great camouflage for a stealthy assault on lawn flamingos) 

But, I wonder why those stations chose to prove they can read a newspaper, rather than choosing to use the reporter/camera/editor resources on an original story?  They didn’t even try to advance silly suit story in any of the several ways they could have explored.   

They just copied. Duh! 

My second question is why any self-respecting reporter would accept an assignment to follow and match the Province?  

 Could it be that those reporters at the beginning of that day were unable to present their Assignment desks with the raw material for any original pieces?    My experience over 20+ years on the inside was that the most exciting thing that could happen in the morning was to receive a call from a staffer with a quality lead on a really good story, an original story.  It was one of the rarer events, too.

 Could it be that we are still afflicted by confusing repeaters with reporters?  

 The former generally arrive from journalism schools with emerging presentation and grooming skills and a keen talent for going anywhere that they are told to go, and, from there, report whatever  they have been instructed to report.  

The repeaters are able to provide a passable version of any story that has been pre-owned (to borrow a phrase from the pre-owned auto world)

  Ask the desk how many times it hears a reporter repeater ask, enroute, ‘what’s the story?’

 There is plenty of evidence that the big conglomerates are cutting their spending on news departments.   But I wonder whether that might be because the news departments are failing, miserably, to grow their audiences with original, relevant stories that are uniquely available to them. 

 My experience, long ago as it was, was that most senior management didn’t care much about the cost of the operation.   They care about the profits. They know that it takes money to make money and they are happy to spend any amount of money that generates a profit significantly larger than the outlay.   They’d be fools not to. 

If the audiences are there in numbers that attract profitable advertising – there is unlikely to be much of a problem with the budgets. 

But, that means that the people in the newsrooms – at all levels – have to know how to create content that attracts.    I believe it is fairly well established that audiences respond to content.   That’s probably why less is being spent on furniture (sets),  graphics,  billboards, anchor babes and the rest.   (CBS recently acknowledged that steadily declining ratings mean that $2 million dollar a year anchors are of no real help and chopped a few of them across their O and O’s.) 

 If you are considering hunts for root causes, consider this. Newspapers and magazines until relatively recently were operated by people with editorial experience.   They knew what made sense, economically.

 In broadcasting, most senior management have never worked in newsrooms.  So they must rely on the advice of their senior news managers to determine how much to spend, on what…and where and when..in pursuit of profit. 

If I had a major investment in a television/radio/newspaper operation these days, I’d be very concerned about the willingness on the front line to produce programs that lack any appreciably unique reason to view or read.  In the long run, they can’t attract audiences with a promise of news that is available a day earlier, in a newspaper (and website)

But they’re doing it every day, apparently oblivious to the options news consumers have. 

(In the even longer run, the conglomerate will devour its own outlets – as the audience realizes that you don’t need newspapers and television to tell you the same story twice.) 

There is, indeed, an opportunity for synergy between related newspapers and television news rooms.   It is not, however,  through supporting managers and front line workers who cannot  demand, identify or produce original stories.

 In my opinion.

 Cheers,

Cameron

Tags: Media

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 J // May 9, 2008 at 2:13 am

    I’d just like to say that I think both you and Mr. Bell bring up excellent points, not only are the resources lacking in todays news, it is also the drive to tell stories that seems to be lacking.

    Please keep up the good work, and hey, maybe you and Cameron should consider doing a podcast!

  • 2 B // May 10, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    I don’t miss T.V. one bit. The few shows I like I can see via web,
    or not at all. Small price to pay if you ask me Harvey. By the
    way. There really isn’t very much news on T.V. as I define it. Just
    a lot a repetition to fill air time and parroting of what is already
    out there. You would think there were no other countries on the
    planet. The type of “news” chosen by who or what is also very flat,
    unoriginal, and very narrow in interest. Always. And why do scary
    segments always end with positive outlook or spin anyway? Just to
    make the watching public feel good so they won’t deal with the real
    issues and look at their own behaviors, and, will keep watching?
    Radio is the same by the way.

    Thanks Harvey….. I feel better.

  • 3 Clayton Perrin // May 18, 2008 at 6:21 am

    In a world where Entertainment Tonight and the Daily Show are considered legitimate news shows, well… Seriously, the recent events here in Cranbrook shows how sad the news shows in BC are. The best news coverage came from the Alberta news stations. As well, my brother in Medicine Hat knew more about what was happening than those of us here in Cranbrook. This is embarassing because it happens on a regular basis more often than not.