I used to work with a guy at CNN. He’s a journalism professor now, shaping the young minds of the next generation of newsgatherers. The way things are going, he could probably give them a FlipCam and a blog site and they’d be ready.
Journalism has often seemed, at the rank-and-file level anyway, a craft that doesn’t always require a lot of training or skill. Just look at some of the stuff that passes for “journalism” and try telling me I’m wrong. Still, there’s a lot of money in the MSM (mainstream media), so publications, stations and networks are going to do whatever they can to build and retain audiences.
The concept of gathering information can be considering a proud and lofty tradition. As mentioned in Ed Bark’s blog, the new news director at the CBS station in Dallas puts it like this: “We need people who are advocates for the voiceless, for the downtrodden. That is what being a journalist means; to give voice to the voiceless; to fight for what’s right; to be an advocate for the people. This all may sound corny. But it’s what I believe, and what I live every day.”
Yes, but the primary purpose of news is for companies to sell advertising. Entertainment and information are swell, but people usually won’t pay enough for them alone. It’s necessary to make up the different with words from our sponsors.
That’s why there’s so much effort to affect the packaging of news. If it’s not something that draws viewers, or doesn’t draw as many as it used to, expect it to change. In some cases, it seems like nothing some organizations do can turn around a decline in fortunes. Just ask the folks who used to make buggy whips. When everybody had a horse and wagon, those guys were in clover. Now? Not so much.
That’s the way it feels when I read about my old employer. For a long time, CNN was the end-all and be-all in cable news. Hour after hour of straight news reporting, occasionally interrupted by serial marrier Larry King, talking to a faded celeb (although he would occasionally make a little news with his interviews). That hasn’t been the case for a while. I read yesterday that the Fox News Channel has been #1 in cable news for 100 months now. That’s over 8 years.
CNN has tried a lot of different things, talent, good looks, odd behavior, the tabloid approach, huge honkin’ wrap-around TV screens… but nothing seems to be able to turn the tide. Just ask Aaron Brown, Paula Zahn, Lou Dobbs or Connie Chung. The current crop of folks who are still there, including Anderson Cooper, John King and Campbell Brown… and serial marrier Larry King, aren’t doing much better.
That brings me back to my friend the college professor. Every time they rolled out a new graphic or style note or made an anchor change at CNN, he’d always trot out a comment about how the execs were “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” He didn’t see the point to trying to spruce up a rapidly sinking ship, even if one of those efforts might be the one thing that could turn everything around.
I read several months ago that CNN was undergoing a major rebuild in Atlanta, getting rid of the old set that overlooked the newsroom on the 5th floor of CNN Center. I remember how awed I was when was walking around the newsroom when I went in for an interview back in May of 2000. The bloom came off that rose pretty quickly once I started working there and realized how incredibly dirty some news people are. The mice didn’t seem to mind. Anyway, the newsroom design was a few years old by that time, and here it is, 10 years later, and they’re still using it. Oh, they’ve rolled in some flat screen TVs, but it’s the same old room.
When Ted Turner started CNN, he was content to staff the production of most of the programs in Atlanta. After all, that’s where he was, and labor and space costs were less there than in New York. Time Warner has spent a lot on their Columbus Circle location and seem to want their flagship CNN programs produced there. But, it seems that daytime and weekends aren’t high-profile enough to shut Atlanta down. Which is good, because I’ve got a lot of friends who need the work.
(EDIT: Because I’m all about breaking in when news breaks out) I do have updated art at this point, courtesy of the All Things CNN blog. Looks like my old pal Kyra Phillips got to take the first ride on the HD set. I haven’t had the chance to see it in action, but I’m hoping it went better than I heard the rehearsals went. As I mentioned in the first edition of this blog; if you still know where CNN is on your cable system, take a look. I still don’t know that updated graphics translates into viewership. If it did, news directors would never get fired.