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Stonewalling Jackson

-first posted at RTDNA.org on July 7, 2009

The title of this blog may lead you to believe I’m about to let loose on all the media hype surrounding the Michael Jackson death coverage.  Well, I am, sort of, and I’m not.  I’m really quite ambivalent about it all.  This coverage connects the old ways we used to do everything with the new ways coming down the road.  It’s at the nexus of broadcasting and narrowcasting, new media and old media, youthful and aging audiences, and a whole lot else.  Forget Iran, forget swine flu, this issue may be the most complex we have to deal with as news managers.  If that sounds like a joke, read on.  There’s nothing funny about what’s at stake here.

I was actually in that news no man’s land of international air travel when the Jackson story broke.  On my way to Toronto for the RTNDA Canada conference, I wasn’t aware of the story even after we landed.  My phone had no service and I wasn’t near any traditional media for a while.  When I did finally learn of the story, it was through Canadian media—local television in Toronto, to be exact.  That filter was slightly different than if I had seen it break back home, so I feel like I started a bit outside the madness.  And I think I’ve been able to stay there to consider what I’m writing today.

I’ll start by telling you something that’s as obvious from the inside as it is from the outside—there’s been a LOT of coverage.  Does Michael Jackson deserve a lot of coverage?  Yes. His impact on music pop culture has been among the most significant of the last 100 years or more.  Does he deserve THIS much coverage?  That question takes us deeper into the nexus.

The Jackson story is both too much and not enough all at the same time—at least seen through the prism of traditional media. Those of us in the “all things to all people” business of local newscasts had it easy for a long time.  Our evening shows were the newscasts of record in our communities, seemingly providing all our viewers really needed to know about the world around them.  It was a tidy package in days gone by.  Our news at six would provide the local stories—city parks, county schools, state lawmakers—all on parade each night with their important acts that would affect us the next day.  At ten, as our viewer prepared for bed, we’d repeat those stories and sprinkle in a sampling of the news from around the rest of the nation and the world.  Morning news was an afterthought at best back then, and noon newscasts were the stuff of flower shows and cooking segments.  If a significant person from the entertainment world died, we’d dollop out a small helping of coverage, probably at ten, and that was that.  We had done our job and our viewers were satisfied with it.

Cable news cranking around the clock changed that.  All national and international news, there was no mission to cover important local issues.  The world was local to CNN’s early producers.  And the news day was not so regimented as on local stations.  A story like the Jackson death could pre-empt anything else and run for as long as it liked.  In fact, when competitors MSNBC and Fox News Channel arrived on the scene, it was a contest to see who could break a story and stick with it.  Local news operations could sit back in those early days and leave it to the cable news channels to go hog wild over the big national story.  Our viewers would still come back for the important local stories, right?  They still needed their school board fix before they go to bed.

If you laughed nervously at the last line, you’re not alone.  There was a lot of nervous laughter out there as the cable news folks changed the game on us.  And before we even began to learn the rules of that new game, the playing field shifted again.  Enter Entertainment Tonight, E!, The Insider, and TMZ.  While news gluttons could gorge themselves on the triple cable news buffet all day long, entertainment junkies could get near-fatal fixes of all things Hollywood from these specialty “news”casts.  Soon, the stories were such guilty pleasures, who could resist?  Britney Spears seemed made for these programs—a sweet disaster played out in front of the cameras literally for years.

Suddenly, there was no laughter with the nervousness anymore.  Our 45 shares were gone, a thing of the past.  The audience was fragmenting more and more each year, leaving smaller and smaller pieces for local news to pick up.  Narrow interests were stacking up some wide appeal—entertainment news, conservative news, liberal news, animal news—you name it.  And the important—local—public policy stories weren’t bringing anyone to the TV at night anymore.  They were no less important than in the big share days—they were just lost among too many choices.

What could local news do?  We fought back in two completely opposite ways—both sharing great promise and peril to our core mission.  First, we went even more local, riding the narrowcasting wave to deliver what only we could deliver.  While CNN, ET, and TMZ have the advantage on their turf, they can’t perform at all on ours.  Local stations do amazing local reporting.  I get to see it every year as a judge for the Edward R. Murrow competition.  I view literally dozens of terrific local investigations, series, features, and more.  Local television can truly be a shared experience in our communities, bringing people together to solve problems and improve lives.  But local stations are also responsible for shallow content that hurts far more than it helps.  When that local coverage focuses on meaningless crime coverage that looks like news but delivers nothing but baseless fear and racial divisiveness, it’s worse than not covering anything at all.  Stations chasing this format often claim ratings victory, but it comes at the cost of driving away thinking viewers and leaving nothing but the lowest common denominator to call a victory.  There’s no victory there, neither in ratings not in serving our local news mission.

Aside from getting more local, the other fight came doing what we did before—being all things to all people.  You’re seeing it now with the Jackson story.  Counter to our logical notion to go local because it’s the one place we always beat the national media, suddenly everyone wants to have the most Jackson coverage.  What should probably be the daily realm of E! and The Insider now fills local newscasts across the country.  Threatened by the chance of losing viewers temporarily to the media that cover entertainment exclusively, the rest of us have run away to join the Jackson circus, hoping to find some viewers along the way.

Again, I’m not saying this story isn’t worth covering.  Jackson’s mark on music will last a very long time.  And his personal demons will—should, at least—serve as cautionary tales to stage parents and music industry executives for years to come.  And this obsession is far more deserved than the mainstream media fiasco it saved us from—the endless, undeserved coverage of two of the most despicable and insignificant people on the planet, Jon and Kate Gosselin (I feel bad just about even naming them in one of my blogs).  But just like with the pointless crime coverage, what real damage are we doing with this drive to smother our audiences with this story?  They don’t care any longer that we think we can be all things to all people—because it isn’t true. My iPhone can be all things to all people—my television never really could and certainly never will.  So we’re losing those who do appreciate what we do for them—cover local news well.

My wish is this.  Finish the Jackson coverage as you have it planned.  The memorial service is today.  What a great place to start winding down the coverage.  Sure, there are still parts of this story to report and tell.  I want to know as much as anyone else the circumstances of Jackson’s death.  But it’s not ALL I want to know.  Tell me when there’s news.  Or better yet local stations, point me in the direction of getting that news when it happens.  Include it as a part—a small part—of your news mix.  The new media world needs trusted aggregators to help put some order to the madness.  We’re as likely to be good at that as any other news sources out there.  Think about it.  Our old ten o’clock casts were the aggregators of the linear world.

But amongst the aggregation and redirection we’ll provide, be sure the mix remains mostly local, focuses more on policy than police, and connects me with the place where I live.  We’re not all things to all people.  We’re local things to local people.

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