Home > Uncategorized > Half a Century of Progress?

Half a Century of Progress?

-first posted at RTDNA.org on August 4, 2009

I have a birthday tomorrow—a BIG birthday.  I’m turning 50, an age that gives one a reason to pause and think about a lot.  All things considered,  I’m better off than I thought I would be at 50.  I remember when my father was that age and I feel so much, well, younger.  I think it comes from the way our times have changed.  It also doesn’t hurt that nearly all my co-workers are between 18 and 22.  That will definitely keep you feeling young.

So with most of my major personal concerns resolved about what the last 50 years have done to me personally, I began to think about my profession.  What has the last half century wrought on the field of journalism?  Of particular interest is the field of television news, not much more than 50 years old itself.  Most people would say everything’s gone downhill over the last five decades (and I suppose they could say the same thing about me).  While there are certainly some prime examples, I’m going to argue that there’s nothing wrong with turning 50—whether you’re a TV news director or just plain old TV news.

So let’s get the bad parts out of the way.  To start with, the business of the news is a lot tougher than it used to be.  Bigger owners—particularly those without deep roots in journalism or television—demand bigger profits from local stations, and that hasn’t been a good change from the local owners who had personal pride in what aired on their stations.  The profit squeeze has basically the same number of employees doing more news than ever before.  And the terrific demand to feed the beast of multiple daily newscast deadlines has made us less of a business of reporters and more of a business of re-packagers.  The fact there’s less money to spend on enterprise reporting is one of the saddest changes.  I can remember, as a 25-year-old photographer at WESH-TV in Orlando in 1985, then-news director Bill Bauman sent reporter Bill Moller and me to France to look at some light rail and bullet train options that might be coming to Florida.  He sent us to France for an enterprise story!  Now we’re pooling news conferences so we don’t have to make the trip to city hall.  I entered the business when TV stations were considered to be licenses to print money.  Now the only ink being dropped off behind the station is red.

Beyond money problems, content worries me.  We’re too focused on crime, too focused on entertainment, and too focused on delivering what we call “breaking news” that seldom lives up to that label.  We need more enterprise reporting, more investigative reporting, and more focus on stories that matter to people.  Public policy stories are my thing, and it would be great if everyone else felt the same way.

So, acknowledging that money woes and content issues aren’t the only problem we have in the business now, I’m going to forge ahead and contend that most of the other problems we have actually come wrapped up with some pretty nice advancements over the years.  Let me through out just a few of the things I think are better now that they were in 1959:

Faster delivery: There’s no doubt this might be the single biggest improvement in broadcast news since the late 1950s.  Here’s an example: just three days after I was born, major flooding hit Taiwan, killing about two thousand people.  News footage from Taiwan (shot on film, of course), would have had to have been flown from there to the United States, where it could be processed and aired on a network newscast.  Total time from the moment the photographer shot it until viewer at home could see it would have been as much as a week, depending on how remote the flooding was in Taiwan.  Today we could have that video live, of course.  The ENG and satellite technology of the 70s and 80s changed the way we cover far away events—and changed the demand from news consumers to want to know more about stories that happen on the other side of the world.

Easier to find: Whether live or recorded, once we get those stories in house to show and tell, it’s a lot easier now to get them to the consumer.  Newscasts used to be fairly formal evening affairs. But the explosion of morning news, 24-hour cable news, web pages, and mobile devices means the work we do gets to consumers wherever they are.  Like many baby boomers, I mourn the loss of when our newscast was an appointment for viewers each night.  But our news, our sports, and especially our weather information now reaches people in ways we could have never imagined in 1959.  I, for one, like the fact that what I report can be consumed at the office, in the car, or just about everywhere.  Appointment evening news has been replaced by the indispensible mobile device—and it never leaves the side of the news junkie.

Better storytelling: Most soon-to-be 50-year-olds in the TV business dealt with film early in their careers.  I recall the film run at KOMU when I was a young reporter here—3:30 and 8:30 pm.  If you missed it, you were stuck.  Even if you didn’t miss it, your creativity might still be stuck.  A package in those days involved breaking apart and gluing strips of film, erasing unwanted audio with a magnet pen, and then recording a voice cart that was supposed to be rolled simultaneously with your film.  If you’re too young to have ever done this, I’m sure it all sounds made up.  But that was how we did it, and I can tell you it did NOT lead to very creative storytelling.  That arrived with the first shipment of ENG gear to the station, and improved greatly with the introduction of nonlinear editing in the last ten years or so.  We can tell our stories now with the same tools Hollywood uses to tell its tales—and the best in our business do so every day on deadline.

Real transparency: A concept no one in the top-down world of 1959 would have ever imagined is transparency—letting the viewer see how we make the news.  Opening the doors to our sometimes-crude sausage factory is still a hard sell for some of you, I know.  It can be ugly while we work out just what’s going to be on the air later.  But the time that’s passed since the early days have brought about a skepticism that’s good for society.  The best media consumers want to know more about where they news they’re getting came from, and letting them see how we do it helps build our credibility.  The days are long gone when we could announce the news and leave it at that.  Our word can still be good, but we need to back it up with some evidence of our diligence.  I’m a skeptical consumer of news myself.  Why wouldn’t I want all of my viewers to be the same way?  I know I can earn their loyalty with my news philosophy and procedures.  Can all of my competitors say the same?

Diverse on-air and behind the scenes: Growing up in St. Louis, we mostly watched Channel 5 KSD-TV (now KSDK-TV).  The NBC affiliate gained its powerhouse position back then.  But the news team looked a lot different from today.  The anchors were white men, as were most of the reporters (though St. Louis had the honor in 1962 of having the first African American female weathercaster in the country, Diane White).  Behind the scenes, the newsrooms were all dens of white men.  But in the 1960s, local news broke the color and the sex barrier—far ahead of the networks—putting diversity in our living rooms long before our neighborhoods.  Fifty years later, our newscasts look a lot more like our communities than before.  Things are not perfect, as last week’s survey of newsroom makeup pointed out.  But on the air and behind the scenes, reporters, anchors, and managers are representing a wider swath of the audience than ever before.  And that means our newscasts are more meaningful to more people than they were in the Eisenhower days.

Smarter bosses: This last one might be hard for a lot of you to buy, but bear with me here.  Some of the greatest broadcast bosses were at the top of their game when I was still in diapers.  Edward R. Murrow, of course, comes to mind at the head of that list.  But the news boss today, harried as he or she is at trying to stay on budget, knows more about managing people than anyone would have even expected back then.  A 1959 newsroom then was like a scene out of “Mad Men”—unfriendly to women and anyone not from the white male establishment.  Things aren’t perfect yet, but the environment today allows a lot more people to work comfortably.  Beyond that, modern bosses value ongoing training from groups like RTNDF.  And as a manager myself, I would claim I have a better view of all that’s going on in our industry—thanks again to the wide availability of news and information these days.

So there you have it, my reflections on the span of broadcast news that parallels the span of my life.  Call me crazy, call me senile, or call me an optimist.  I prefer the last.  Whatever you pick, think about if for yourself.  Are you better off as a news consumer, as a news worker, than you were when you started your career?  I think I am.

Now, with this blog behind me, I think I’ll start contemplating what news in 2059 will be like.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say—it’ll be great.

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