My Wish List for a Beleaguered Profession

Like Tiny Tim, Cindy Lou Who, George Bailey and Hermey the Misfit Elf, I too have some Christmas wishes as this Year from Hell for journalists comes to a merciful end.

It is my Christmas wish that media company managers stop laying off the most experienced of their news gatherers, whether they work in print, TV, radio or the Web. This nasty economy is turning into some very handy camouflage for dumping big salaries that not so long ago were viewed as investments. Let’s see; you spend the money to develop and nurture experience so you can build up viewer/reader/listener trust, you mention that trust and credibility in countless promotional materials, then when times get tough, these are the first people to go? How do you expect your audiences to react to all this? Contrary to popular stereotypes, not all of the people being let go are newsroom deadwood, burnout cases, Ron Burgundys squeezing in 30 minutes of work in between three-hour dinners and personal appearances.

Transitioning to the Web

It is my Christmas wish that if news management types do see the need to cut back on staff, those managers give the traditional media layoff victims the option of transferring their experience, institutional memory and storytelling skills to their company’s Web divisions. Talk about investments; retrain these journalists for the new century. Teach them HTML, online editing, audio podcast recording. Let them report/blog, shoot/edit their own video, edit copy, design Web pages, contribute to digital media strategy. Some will say “no thanks” and head for the nearest PR firm or local university. But some might grab the chance to transform into a digital newshound. The cut in pay will no doubt draw blood, but they won’t be hemorrhaging on the street. And you get somebody who knows their way around a story.

It is my Christmas wish that if news managers and the corporations they work for are still floundering around for some kind of Web strategy, then they need to get damn busy working on one. After all, it is the oft-mentioned democratizing forces of the Internet and news-on-demand technology that are helping to tighten the noose around traditional media’s neck. If you’re behind the curve on how to use Web 2.0 tools to help your news divisions tell their stories, then you’re not just missing out on all those online ad dollars that could help fill some of the void — not much right now, granted, but some — left by the absence of car dealership commercials on your 11 p.m. newscasts. You also won’t be able to hear your audience help you do your job.

Twenty-nine years in journalism have left me a tad cynical — even at this time of the year — so I won’t be holding my breath waiting for a Capra-esque ending for my Christmas wish list. Tiny Tim got his Christmas goose and blessings, Cindy Lou Who got the Grinch to serve roast beast, George Bailey got to live again and Rudolph’s buddy Hermey became a member in good standing of the American Dental Association. And me? Well, those bulges in my Christmas stocking are probably just lumps of high-grade anthracite, and I’ll bet Santa won’t even include any carbon offsets.

This Christmas Story Is on the Web

Last week I wrote on this Web site about CNN killing its science/technology unit, just in time for the holidays. This week I read on the TV Newser Web site about more journalistic experience — former colleagues — getting shown the door at Time Warner Center in New York, the network’s Washington D.C. bureau and CNN Center in Atlanta. It also happened to on-air and behind-the-scenes staffers at NBC and CNBC. The last few daily editions of the broadcast news industry gadfly Web site has become a layoff litany of local TV employees getting the axe.

If technology and the Internet are helping to speed up the destruction of traditional media, then maybe there’s some schadenfreude being felt in those newsrooms when they hear of staffers at technology and financial news Web sites being laid off in recent weeks. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make tech bloggers.

I noticed earlier this year that LinkedIn, the social network for professionals (as opposed to the network for professional social networkers) was the place to go to find out what some of my former news colleagues and acquaintances were doing with their post-newsroom lives. A good many were in media relations, but others were taking baby steps into digital media content. A few are getting into digital media relations. Some are also turning up on Facebook. And many are using the social networks to vent.

LinkedIn allows users to join groups focused on various professions, and those users get to ask questions or seek comments from their fellow group members. As a member of the Radio and Television Professionals Network at LinkedIn, I was curious about the discussion thread that developed when someone posted the Nov. 30 New York Times article, “A Generation of Local TV Anchors is Signing Off,” detailing the economic and technological forces at work behind high-priced, experienced talent getting the boot in various markets.

I guess some steam has built up over the last year. Some of the comments:

“Maybe they should hire bloggers instead of experienced anchors. The new folks will simply read their blogs aloud on the air.”

“As viewership is eroding and fewer younger viewers are trading appointment television for VOD and news on their phones when they want it, the anchors are taking the fall, for management’s lack of foresight. Know of anyone in broadcast management deciding to reduce their pay to $1?”

“Always amazes me on how corporations crunch numbers over experience.”

“Blogs have already killed radio news and critically wounded newspapers. If they take out TV next what are we left with? Enough to sustain a democracy?”

Then there was this from a TV producer in Chicago, who subscribes to the “anchors as talking heads” school of thought:

“TV news is wayyyyy behind the times. Get those websites more active, create presence in social networking sites, get involved with mobile and other personal data services, hire more savy (sic) reporters who understand the lifestyle, and realize that the days of different mediums is almost gone. It’s all about reaching across multiple platforms with one brand.”

And this from a radio reporter in San Francisco, who also disses on “blowhards with nice hair” but wonders how bloggers came to be so influential in journalism:

“Most smart people are a fan of CREDENTIALS … reporters who’ve done the job a while and know what they’re talking about. Most bloggers use logic approaching ‘Hey, I’m a journalist too. See? I say so, therefore I’m a journalist.'”

All of this constitutes a snapshot, I know, but it’s easy to conclude that the current climate has news people warring with themselves over the future of their business. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good fight.

A New Year, a Fresh Start

A reporter friend of mine, a former competitor from local TV a decade ago, became my personal hero this year. She was fired, but now she’s fired up, and the Web has provided the spark. She’s just completed classes in video editing and is freelancing for various Web sites. “The Internet is where it’s at,” she told me in a Facebook message.

Like me, she worked election night on the Web. “We had a set up that looked just as professional as the local television stations. Folks were standing in line to get interviewed. What I liked about doing lives for a Web site is that I was able to do what I wanted. I didn’t have a producer saying I had two minutes or whatever. I didn’t have to stand with the army of other reporters, and we could pack and leave when we wanted. It was perfect, and great experience.”

I don’t know if she’s tried to find traditional TV work, or if she’s even able to in this economy, or if she even wants to. But she’s prompted me to make some last-minute additions to my Christmas wish list. (Hey, if my 4-year-old daughter can get away with it, why can’t I?)

I wish my laid-off journalist colleagues would take my friends’ words to heart and consider a digital shift in their careers. I wish for more financially viable digital opportunities for those on-the-beach journalists — hopefully within their own companies. And I wish media corporations would try to get on Santa’s Nice List by thinking twice before gutting all the experience out of their newsrooms this holiday season.

1 Comment

  • Web 2.0 may be democratic and all that, but beyond specialized services like Tech News World, E-Commerce Times and Computerworld, it’s a tough place to find objective news written by pros who know and respect classical journalism. In the vast ocean of blogs you find the message in a bottle only if you get lucky.

    During the past few weeks, while Barack Obama announced his cabinet appointments, the Real News I hungered for was well-researched profiles of those individuals who will be running the country next year. Lotsa luck. The best sources for that information turned out to be Google and Wikipedia.

    In blogs I found mostly rants. On cable TV I found only hyper-opinionated guest panelists screaming at each other across anchor desks.

    CNN, Fox, CNBC, and MSNBC squandered most of their air time re-running that shot of a guy throwing his shoes at President Bush. I lost count of the number of slo-mo replays of that scene — almost certainly it was in the tens of thousands.

    But there were no biographical profiles.

    I have a suggestion: Arise, ye unemployed journalists, and create a forum where facts are in fashion once more. Kinda like Who, What, Where, When and How. Maybe Bill Gates and Warren Buffett could fund a "Really Real News" service both on cable and the Web. Right now it’s a black hole.

    While speculatin’ and opinionatin’ are having their field day, if there is good news it is this: Because the likes of Time-Warner and Rupert Murdoch have mismanaged their empires, they’ve created a journalistic vacuum that needs to be filled. Somewhere, somehow, that represents an opportunity. There is a great need for factual reporting. Now more than ever.

    -Bill Warriner (Opinion)

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