Wither news? (or news withers)

I think I wanted to be a journalist (TV reporter actually), since seeing Peter Jennings anchoring the news on WTVN-TV in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. And I mean the first time he anchored on ABC in 1965 when I was 9 years old.

It seemed glamourous and exciting to go places and see things and turn around and get to tell stories about those experiences.

On the way to TV, I had the opportunity to work in the sports department of a major American daily (Columbus Dispatch) as well as cover news for a big AM station. Once I got into television (1986, Casper, Wyoming), I had a pretty good ride until I left CNN in early 2007.

I never covered a war, didn’t report from the White House lawn or anchor in a major market.  Still, I learned how to get people to tell me things. I also told people things that actually helped them from time to time. More important, I learned how to write well (a skill not always found in TV). CNN was a nice place, but once Time Warner took over and began moving more of the operation to New York, it got a lot tougher to bear things in Atlanta.

Even with that, until I got an offer from the private sector that allowed me to use all my broadcast journalism training, I thought I’d be in the news business until they put me in a home.  Now that I’ve been involuntarily separated from the private sector, I wonder about going back to where I’ve spent most of my working life.

The collapse of the news business amazes me. Because of my interest in the business, I read Shoptalk, News Blues and FTVLive pretty much every day. And every day, it seems as if another local station is dumping news or another newspaper is on the edge of collapse. Even the New York Times looks as if it might shutter the Boston Globe. The changes are evident watching the drama surrounding the local newspaper.  The Commercial Appeal has laid off staff, cut back its delivery area and raised its prices. Since I’m looking for work, I picked up the Sunday edition with the intention of going through the classifieds.  There were hardly any to go through! Amazing.

The risk we face is if none of the traditional providers of news and information can continue in their traditional form, we lose ability to know what’s actually going on around us. I know a lot of people find it easy to depend on electronic sources for information – they don’t seem to realize that news aggregates have to have something aggregate from. Blogs can provide excellent analysis and good niche reportage, but there doesn’t seem to be an existing business model to support the type of staffing necessary to cover entire communities.

When I was a kid watching Peter Jennings and Walter Cronkite (sorry, never was too big of an NBC fan), I also went through both the daily papers. A two-newspaper town will soon be as distant a memory as black and white TV and cloth diapers, but there’s still a need for the kind of coverage driven by the competition of multiple news providers. Banner ads won’t be enough to support Internet news coverage. Media companies have to be creative enough to create new system, rather than merely try to find ways to appropriate what currently exists (And it seems they know that. See this link from the New York Times).

Did you know that when Western Union was one of the biggest companies in America, it had the chance to invest heavily in the telephone?  The bosses dismissed it as a fad and assumed the telegraph would remain the dominant form of near-immediate communication. If the company hadn’t lucked into the role of providing electronic money transfers to people without bank accounts, it’d most likely gone the way of the Pony Express.

I say all that to say I don’t know whether I’ll have another chance to practice my chosen profession, but if I do, I hope my profession is still around if I make that choice.

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About Doug Johnson

I spent 25 years in the news business, working in print, radio and television. After a steady rise to the middle, I made the leap to the private sector, which chewed and then tried spitting me out after 2 years. I zigged (instead of zagging) into a position in television production.
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