Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Fairness Doctrine?


It Isn’t Fair



Editor's note: What follows started out as a reply to a comment to newsmcnabb. Since I’ve already written more than 300 words, it seemed obvious that it was more than a comment. Reflecting on my previous post, “There is Still Hope”, the writer raised the possibility of reinstating the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” repealed by President Ronald Reagan. It basically required broadcasters to provide equal time to opposing views.

Another reader posted an opposing view of the Fairness Doctrine. “I don't care for the idea of a reinstatement of the "Fairness Doctrine", per se... but I am worried that broadcasting has lowered itself to appealing to its viewers/listeners guttural feelings.”


OK. Here’s my take: I am not interested in the Fairness Doctrine at all. I am opposed to government telling the independent media what it can and cannot do. I'm not sure how it ever got on the books in the first place as, to me, it was unconstitutional on its face.


Newspapers are not subject to a "fairness doctrine"--never have been.


In the market place of ideas, the truth should rise to the top. Nowadays, however, one must question what another calls truth. As I said in the most recent post, sometimes I wish I could grab some of these politicians and pundits by the face and force them to look at the truth, and it seeing the truth, require them write and/or tell the truth.


Politics has returned to the strategy of "the big lie" often aided and abetted by the media, unfortunately. Our elected members of Congress will stand in front of the colleagues and cameras and proclaim outlandish lies. Yes, lies, or perhaps half truths which can be even more hurtful sometimes. If someone challenges the liar, the changer is open to a personal attack. This kind of posturing has been going on since Congress was created. What is different now is that we have a multiplicity of means of acquiring information, and the viewing, listening, reading, consuming public can pick and choose their “truth”. Polarization widens.


The American people, beset by these big lies, misinformation, and disinformation, often don't know who to believe. A Rasmussen poll released December 26, 2009 said that only 30-percent believed that the economic stimulus helped while 38-percent did not believe it.


I'm no economist. As a journalist, however, I see that housing sales are up, the economy is growing at around two-percent, and people are making guardedly optimistic statements about a turnaround in the economy.


"The independent panel that oversees the government’s financial bailout program [TARP] concluded in a year-end review that, despite flaws and lingering problems, the program “can be credited with stopping an economic panic,” The New York Times reported December 9, 2009. If you don’t believe the Times because that newspaper is perceived as too “liberal” or whatever, believe the economists who oversaw program. The assessment was based an audit by the panel, chaired by Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, who by all accounts has been even-handed and effective in the job.


It worked, they said. It's the truth, they said. Can you handle it?


Well, that “truth” is then filtered through talk show hosts, bloggers, columnists, comics, and pundits. Then, we, the citizens must cipher the “real truth”. In this age it is the responsibility of the citizenry to read, watch, and listen to all of them to arrive at the truth. I’ve always said that more information is better than less. So, watch more than one newscast. Read more than one newspaper. Listen to more than one columnist. Read more than one blogger. We have the technology.


And, in this technological age, the Fairness Doctrine is an anachronism. It would not work, if it ever did.


© Jim McNabb, 2009


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

There Is Still Hope







Toward 2010



Another talented, top-notch friend is leaving the broadcast news business at the end of the year for a more secure, and possibly a more fulfilling, position in academia. I suppose that means that there may be a job opening at a Texas TV station for somebody else, and that may also be good news. That in a nutshell sort of characterizes 2009 in communications.



Media is in flux. That’s the answer I gave in a discussion during Mass Communications Week at Texas State this fall. Media—all media—are in a state of flux. That’s good and bad news at the same time. For example: NBC’s decision to let Jay Leno have a one-hour show, five days a week right before local news is bad news for local NBC affiliates. It’s good news for other stations in the market, such as KEYE TV (CBS) because, the move forced people to sample other news at 10 O’clock. It also gave viewers an hour to watch programs that had recorded. As I said recently, however, I think that Jay is also in flux. Affiliates won’t put up with this for long.



That leads to another, larger issue. If the NBC Universal/Comcast goes through, it will be the next big step in the migration of network programming away from local TV stations. Lots of programming is already available on NBC.com and Hulu.com. It could also be the beginning of a rebirth of quality programs.



Of course, Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, isn’t operating in the Austin area. Instead, we get the second largest cable company, Time Warner. It will be interesting to see if TW will work out its retransmission deal with Fox or if Fox will disappear from Time Warner January 1, 2010. Time Warner spun-away AOL this year, making their bottom line even better. Will that translate into TW being a better cable company? I doubt it.



Meantime, satellite providers Dish and Direct TV reap the benefits while AT&T’s U-Verse and Grande Cable keep building out their coverage neighborhood by neighborhood. Further, Apple wants to start up subscription TV programming over the Internet. Apple’s idea won’t replace live broadcasts like football games yet, however.



Further, the so-called “digital revolution” may actually benefit viewers more and more in the year to come if networks and cable companies continue feuding. Some stations, such as KXAN TV (NBC) still haven’t made full use of their side channel. Further, LIN TV’s KBVO TV, formerly KXAM TV in the Hill Country still cannot be seen by most in the Austin area. Until KBVO is available in Austin, the move to make it a separate station, no longer rebroadcasting KXAN, will continue to confound me.



Where radio is concerned, KGSR FM (Emmis) switched frequencies to 93.3 from 107.1. Now, the station is attempting to enhance its coverage area in Austin and improve its numbers while 107.1 has become Spanish language broadcasting.



Recognition of the growing Spanish speaking audience and culture in Austin is another change that will only expand in 2010. Many of the TV digital side channels are now devoted to Spanish programming. KEYE .2 and is also doing local news in Spanish with Fred Cantu as its anchor. Cantu started in Austin doing radio news in Spanish before moving to TV decades ago.



Many, however, for personal and professional reasons, however are leaving “the business” behind. Some are going into retirement. Some are choosing newly created opportunities in cyberspace. Some are being laid-off or, better, bought out. With the loss of these pros we, the audience, lose their perspective along with their talents.



At the same time print publications are still shutting down or cutting back on when they go to press. So far Austin seems to be escaping these sad developments, but I hate to see “Editor and Publisher” magazine go away.



In the national broadcast media this year, we’ve seen increased splintering and polarizing, and it is reflected in the Congress. Sometimes, I just want to grab some of these politicians and pundits by the face and ask them to recognize truth when they see it. The nation has been beaten down by cynicism and negativism—particularly the politics of “No”. Viewers, readers, and users of the media seem to be consuming only those thoughts, positions, and beliefs that reinforce their pre-existing notions.



Mainstream media is in flux too. ABC’s World News Tonight debuted its new main anchor with flashy and fresh opening graphics Monday, December 21st after the retirement of Charles Gibson. Diane Sawyer turned 64 December 22nd. So, one might wonder how long she will warm the chair. For the most part, meantime, the networks continue pursuit of truth, but it’s hard when there are so many voices screaming hyperbole in the marketplace of ideas. I just want to repeat, “Come, let us reason together.” As an idealist in the mid-1960s I majored in Communications believing that it would lead to peace. Call me na├»ve, but I still believe.



I have a sticker that says “Hope” on the back of my truck. It’s not political. It’s an ideal. We must at the interpersonal level communicate hope and turn away from those who sneer. Hope is at the foundation of any economic stimulus. Hope will help heal the hurts. Hope with love and faith can end wars.



Best hopes and wishes for us all in 2010.



© Jim McNabb, 2009




Monday, December 21, 2009

Time Warner vs. Fox




Tough Love






Time Warner wants us to believe them yet again.

This is the same Time Warner that is just about the only programming provider in the Austin area that does not have a deal with the NFL Network. Not that I have any deep and abiding love for the NFL Network, but I did want to see a telecast of the Dallas Cowboys against the New Orleans Saints this past weekend. I could have sought out a friend with Dish, Direct TV, or Grande. I could have gone to a nearby sports bar and watched with a room full of loud people whom I do not know. Instead, I was relegated to NFL.com’s “live” coverage punctuated with its insipid “insights” into the game that was often going on in the background. Once, I could see the replay the sideline reporter was describing in a screen. It was something, but I’d rather have had the game.

This is the same Time Warner that has moved the free over-the-air digital stations, such as public television’s KLRU TV’s two side channels to the digital tier, out of the reach of customers who cannot or wish not to pay for it. There are blank spaces in the basic spectrum where worthy channels used to live. Now, they are gone or out of reach. I’ve wondered why we have blank channels.

This is the same Time Warner that went to war with LIN TV, owner of KXAN TV (NBC) and a couple of dozen other stations around the country over retransmission rights and payments last year. This Time Warner couldn’t make a deal with LIN, so they took KXAN out of the line-up.

Now, this same Time Warner is playing hardball with Fox and KTBC TV (Fox owned and operated) locally. This time the stakes are higher because conditions have changed, and I wouldn’t want to negotiate with Rupert Murdoch and his minions. The contract runs out January 1st.

TW’s tact is much different this time. They emailed all subscribers asking whether subscribers wanted TW to “get tough” with the networks—a pre-emptive strike. They asked for viewers votes. Apparently, viewers said, “Get tough.” Now, TW can say that they have the viewers on their side. It could be interpreted as the old saw, “If you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain.”

So, acting on that TW is taking out full-page ads in the Austin American-Statesman (not cheap) saying, “You told use to get tough. We listened.” Time Warner claims TV networks are demanding price increases as high as 300%...” or “…they’ll pull the plug on their programs.” Time Warner wants you to believe that it, the second largest cable provider in the country, is the victim.

Fox, meantime, responded with its own full page ad (not cheap) of its own shouting, “Time Warner cable isn’t playing fair, and you could lose Fox.” Fox warns of future rate increases. Folks, if you were ready for the “digital revolution”, you will not lose Fox. You can pick it up off the air in full high definition, if you are so equipped.

Both TW and Fox have set up web sites to voice your opinion.

You do have a choice, of course. You can ignore the hullaballoo, have your Fox programming too. You may be able to change programming providers to keep the national programming. You can watch Fox over the air. It’s free.

© Jim McNabb, 2009

Monday, December 14, 2009

There Is Nothing New Under the Sun



Ecclesiastes and the News




For more than a year there has been more than enough change and chatter in Austin media to tickle my imagination. Maybe it’s the holidays, but somehow all of this seems rather hollow, empty, and meaningless right now.




Oh, I could write about change. The end of the year is often the typical time for a television news staff turnover. Yes, there are new reporters in the market. (One of the anchors mangled a newbie’s name on the air. It was the second muff he made in story intro. He might want to read over the scripts first.) One new staffer at KXAN TV (NBC) is Jacqueline Ingles, hired as a multi-platform reporter to cover the Hill Country. She has a nice resume.



None of these seem to matter much to me. To be sure, they matter to the individuals and media involved, but none of them inspire me. I’ve written many times that Austin is a “destination” market because Austin is the center of the universe, all Longhorns long to come home, and it’s still a cool city even though its growth continually amazes me.



These changes aren’t limited to the 48th market. There are continually new faces and assignments at the networks as retirement lures familiar faces away from the anchor desk.




I’m drawn to one of the Wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible, Ecclesiastes, applying a few of the opening verses to media criticism as well as life:


1:8 All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear with hearing.


1:9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.


1:10 There is a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us.


-- The words of the Teacher

I often use these words written around 400 BCE in lectures about “new media”, a term now falling out of favor because, I guess, new media isn’t new anymore. For music media, 78-RPM records, gave way to 45’s. Those were followed by eight-tracks and then cassettes. CD’s are disappearing, but vinyl still lives. Remember to back up your music on your hard drive; you could lose your MP3s.



The point is that what was once “new media” has been adapted or rejected (See eight tracks) but it is also true when applied to cycles in news.




In the 1950s and 1960s TV reporters went out armed with a Bell & Howell 16 mm camera equipped with a three-lens turret. Now, KXAN TV (NBC) reporters continue training on the current standard cameras. The station denies rumors that they are going to one-man/woman-bands after the first of the year.




“KXAN is cross-training its staff so reporters may also be photographers, photographers may also be reporters, etc. but we will not eliminate all two-person crews next year,” a station spokesperson says. “The result will be a more efficient operation with staff that has a variety of skills to leverage.” The key word in that paragraph may be “all”.




One-man crews have been the norm at News 8 for years, and years before that, just like it says in Ecclesiastes, “It has already been, in ages before us.” There is nothing new under the sun. Will there be fewer professional news photographers? No, none known of now. Maybe later? Will photographic quality suffer? Possibly. The reporters who shot their own film in earlier ages thought they were pretty good. I did.




Some see Ecclesiastes filled with futility. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ecclesiastes is about the big picture. Call it High Def. We have more important things before us during this season of the year and a clean slate for 2010.




© Jim McNabb, 2009

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Jay Leno Show and Local Ratings


The Leno Effect




The Austin television market is monitored by constantly by Neilson. So, stations see the results of their labors overnight. Therefore, the results of the November ratings come as no surprise.



There is joy at KEYE-TV (CBS), because Austin has a new #2 station. KEYE has been trapped in the TV cellar until a single programming change made the difference. Make no mistake: KEYE has arguably the most experienced anchor team in town, and they produce a good product. They couldn’t climb the ratings ladder until one thing happened—Jay Leno became the 9 O’clock hour-long lead-in show five nights a week on KXAN TV (NBC), the former number #2 station. KVUE TV (ABC) continues its reign as #1 at 10 p.m.



One change doesn’t usually make an immediate difference. This one did, and everyone in the business knew it would be bad for business.

Oh, this sort of parsimonious programming has deep roots in broadcast history and enjoyed great success. The so-called “variety show” was common-place in the 1950s and 1960s. Probably Lawrence Welk was the king. Welk’s “wonderfulla, wonderfulla” shows were re-runs on PBS. There were many others: Red Skelton, Gary Lewis, Carol Burnett, Jackie Gleason, Perry Como, Andy Williams, Diana Shore, Eddie Fisher, Cid Caesar, Jack Benny, Dean Martin, the Smothers Brothers, and even “Laugh-in” to name a few. All were hosted by well-known personalities who featured stars and skits. The concept hatched in the days of network radio worked, and the programming still works. It is entertaining and relatively cheap.


It does not work five nights a week in the same time period! What were they thinking? I know what they were thinking: Saving money.


David Letterman (CBS) immediately benefitted from the Leno Effect, picking up older Leno audience members and others. Letterman shot up to #1. Conan O’Brien, who climbed into the old Leno time slot, is loved by younger audiences, but he is also lagging because of the lingering Leno Effect.


Jay Leno says he’d go back to his old time slot if asked. That isn’t going to happen. The network cast its lot with Conan. What is going to happen is that cable TV giant Comcast is going to buy controlling interest in NBC Universal. That’s the next big thing. It remains to be seen what spins out of that change.


Otherwise, there is little change in the local Austin ratings. KXAN TV remains #1 in the mornings. KVUE TV is #2. KVUE is #1 at 5 and 6, and KXAN is #2 in both time slots. The gyrations in news programming made no difference in ratings. KEYE choice of using Mix 94’s morning crew for a morning show made little headway. Similarly, its 4 p.m. “We Are Austin Live” is near the bottom, and “The Insider” doesn’t seem to work at 5 p.m. KNVA’s CW newscast at 9 barely has an audience, but KTBC TV (Fox) has owned that time slot for years. Still, at #4 KTBC is within three-tenths of a rating point of Jay Leno.


Poor Jay is on the icy, slick downward slope, and he is taking down the late, local news with him here and elsewhere.


© Jim McNabb, 2009

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What's the Frequency, Kenneth?





Change at KGSR FM


“Rolling Stone Magazine” once wrote that Austin’s KGSR FM was one of the “Ten Radio Station in America that Don’t Suck”. Readers of the Austin Chronicle picked the station as Austin’s best this year. So, why change something if it isn’t broken? Ratings is one reason. During the past year, KGSR FM continued its skid toward the bottom of the radio hill here in the Austin market.



The station has broadcast from 107.1 megahertz for the past 19 years. Starting November 20th it will simulcast on 107.7 as it transitions to 93.3 megahertz. That transmitter is licensed to Cedar Park and will provide KGSR with a much better coverage area. The 107.1 transmitter is licensed to Bastrop, and there are places in the Austin metropolitan area where you cannot receive the signal. The simulcast will end after ten days, and 107.1 will become a new, yet-to-be-named regional Spanish language radio station. Why not? KHHL-FM, programmed in Spanish, is tied with KBPA-FM (Bob Radio) for #3.



KGSR FM is way down the list with a 2.2 rating, down during the year from 3.1 this summer. Owner Emmis is obviously hoping the move to a new transmitter will equal a move up in ratings.



According to Arbitron, the #1 Radio station is KLBJ AM, broadcasting news and information, recently in the news for its decision to reinstate the Todd and Don Show. The show had been cancelled earlier this year after Don Pryor used the slur “wetback” repeated for about an hour on the air with no management stepping in to stop it. The station is still #1 with a 7.1 rating. The #2 station is breezy KKMJ FM.



KGSR-FM has used the phrase, “Sounds Like Austin”. Austin sounds a lot different from when the station pioneer the “AAA” (Album Adult Alternative) format 19-years ago. The primary architect was former program director Jody Denberg. Denberg recently announced he is from the station vowing to take a year off from radio. “The time is right for me to take some time off and recharge my creative batteries,” Denberg said.



When Denberg and his colleagues at KGSR FM crafted what became one of the AAA format, you might hear Willie Nelson, Janis Joplin, Bob Marley, and even Frank Sinatra played back-to-back. Even KGSR FM in the so-called “Live Music Capital of the World” has done some content tweaking to stay competitive. “When we first started, we were WAY OUT THERE, and we didn’t succeed enough in revenue and ratings to make our station profitable,” Denberg told The Austin Daze magazine. “It’s a commercial radio station, so it’s a balancing act, and it’s a tightrope act.”



Denberg picked the music with his former music director, Susan Castle. Castle was a victim of budget cuts at the station in mid-March, 2009. Now, Denberg is gone.



My hope is that KGSR continues to sound like Austin. We have too many cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all, sounds like anywhere stations in town—in America.



© Jim McNabb, 2009




Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Austin Post “Real-Time Report”



Awkward and Scary


“Austin Post aims to be a newspaper ‘of the people, by the people, for the people," fostering a living conversation about issues of particular relevance to the people of Austin,’ concludes the “Austin Post” (www.austinpost.org) news release about an “app” for real-time reporting. Just go to the app store.



There are problems here.



There are a lot of people who don’t have iPhones or any other so-called “smart phones” for that matter, and there is no app for that. So, the concept isn’t really of all of the people, by the people…”



Cellular telephones are ubiquitous nowadays. Some people even still use the bar phones. You know, the ones that are shaped sort of like a fudge-icicle. They don’t take pictures. Some may access the Internet, but not very well. They may text, but not very well. Older flip-phones aren’t much better. I have a 3G phone, but texting is a pain.



Bottom line: The real time reports touted by Austin Post are only f0r the elite, those who can afford and iPhone and its Austin Post app. If these Post readers and writers are not elite, they aren’t into the Apple nation.



Austin Post seems to be working hard to improve the usefulness of the real-time reporting. When it started, it was used by people updating scores of local high school football games—a rather limited audience, certainly not encompassing all of the people. So, the post with its new app is running contests November 17-December 2 in the next encouraging real-time posts for traffic, city issues, fitness, and Thanksgiving cheer. Hmmmm. I just realized that texting about traffic could constitute texting while driving. That would be illegal in Austin now.



Another problem with the real-time traffic posts is that the people who really need them are in their vehicles parked on MOPAC. Yes, the contests are probably meant to encourage posts, but it is analogous to the old question: “If the tree falls in the forest and there is no on there to hear it, did it make a sound?” If there is useful, real-time information there, we will hear the tree. If there are only posts like, “I just smoked the best turkey ever” nobody will care.



Also, obviously you need to be into texting to be part of this new feature. This goes back to one of the original issues with this feature on Austin Post. There may be a lot of people who want useful content, but they aren’t into punching buttons on their phones repeatedly to create 105 characters of “content”.



To be fair, the concept has value. “We think this a potentially huge way to take what has become a news outlet--Twitter--and streamline it. Anyone who submits a Real Time Report has the intention of sharing news, which makes our widget really valuable for someone looking for quick-hit news updates. You can see immediate traffic updates, sports scores, crime reports, events, and more," says Lyssa Myska Allen, Austin Post editor-in-chief. True. If Austinites discover and use the medium, it has journalism potential.



What I fear is what I have posted about in recent days: These real-time posts could be harmful. If, God forbid, there is a big news story, these posts could be the source of rumors, not truth. They need to be vetted. They must be vetted.



© Jim McNabb, 2009



Monday, November 16, 2009

The Media and the Fort Hood Shootings



Final Report


All that is left is the grieving at Fort Hood and the suffering in surrounding communities. The “satellite city” set up by the mass media at the front gate has gone home, leaving behind some gut tearing pictures of sadness, loss, and grief—the aftermath of the horrific shootings there almost two weeks ago.


I rewind those images and know that I really don’t want to see them again. I feel like I’m violating the private moments of the families still struggling to get a grip on why their loved one was lost in an instant in a secure building on a gun-free Army post.


I know that no complete critique of the coverage of the Fort Hood shootings is possible. I was watching as much media as I could, not for the purposes of a critique, but for information. Of course, I found that since facts were few, reporting gave way to speculation, as I said in an earlier post. I return to it, because the wild speculation fuelled by the early texts and posts from inside Fort Hood and the unbelievable rush to the cameras by politicians are the most journalistically egregious flaws in coverage from local media to the networks and cable.


The media must rethink how to handle early reports of events. While social media had a meaningful contribution to the coverage, the early reports should be given no more, and possibly less, credibility than scanner traffic from emergency services radio. At least the emergency services have a clue about their emergency call. Tweets may be hearsay, rumor or even false from inside the closed post.


Nevertheless, the Austin American-Statesman made an early and smart decision to create an aggregate Twitter site, enabling readers to see the flow of messages and collate which ones seemed to be true and which ones weren’t. The Statesman also assigned top reporters with specific stories in mind. Even former or part time writers were part of their coverage. The newspaper has the biggest newsroom in town, and it really helps when all hell breaks loose. News managers at the Statesman also kept control of the story, not allowing reporting to go off on tangents. If Congressman Michael McCaul wanted to call the crimes an act of terrorism, the writers put the words in the Congressman’s mouth. If Congressman John Carter wanted to quote second-hand impressions of an aide who was somewhere on post at the time and inferred there was more than one shooter, the newspaper let those words come from him. Attribution is the way we do it. Even with the attrition at the Austin American-Statesman, there are still excellent journalists and photojournalists in the building.


KXAN TV (NBC) flooded Fort Hood, Killeen, and surrounding towns with staff members. Award-winning feature writer Jim Swift put on a sport coat and made solid contributions to their coverage through the eyes of experience. David Scott, Shannon Wolfson, and Jenny Hoff did superior live reporting. Erin Cargile found some fine back stories. Anchors Leslie Rhode and Robert Hadlock, who did field reporting in days following the shootings, were solid after a shaky start when they had little to go on. KXAN was the first station on the air with the unfolding story, and they stayed with it. Also, veteran producer John Thomas was at Fort Hood coordinating coverage. Many say that KXAN did the best job. If I were to say it, I’d been accused of playing favorites, so I’m going to source the comments made to my first post on this subject last week.


As I posted before, the best live shot the evening of the shootings was by an experienced journalist who is usually behind the camera, KEYE TV (CBS) chief photographer John Salazar was succinct, accurate, and informative. KEYE’s Gregg Watson was also an iron man, he may have been one of the first Austin reporters at Fort Hood.


Unfortunately, KEYE did not scrap its 4 O’clock lifestyle show the afternoon of the shootings. They had a live broadcast from 4-5 p.m. It was truly an odd juxtaposition going from fluff to death and back to fluff. Awkward. Viewers noticed too. KEYE must be ready to do news when the situation warrants. They must.


As usual, KVUE –TV (ABC) was rock steady. Seeing the magnitude of the story, news managers (probably News Director Frank Volpicella himself) sent co-anchor Tyler Sieswerda to the Fort Hood gates as a field anchor the first day. The veterans like Clara Tuma and Jim Bergamo were solid.


It seemed that KTBC TV (Fox 7)’s Rudy Koski was everywhere. He did several live shots for Fox News.


News 8’s video popped up on the national level many times.


No, this isn’t a comprehensive list of the reporters who worked the story. There were dozens more. I don’t mean to slight them; they worked their tails off as evidenced by the fact that some were losing their voices and others were downright sick after constant coverage.


This event proves to me once again the importance of local news. MSNBC was so wrong so many times in the first hours. CNN was into speculation. I love Campbell Brown, but she kept trying to get people to say things that they didn’t want to say. Fox actually did the best work the afternoon and evening of the shootings. For the most part, however, all of them were getting their information and some of their video (Scene video came from the Department of Defense!) from local stations. The networks and cable channels opened the doors to the politicians who shed more heat than light in most cases.


It was the local news that kept the constant camera on the front gates with quality reporters waiting to tell the story. It was an incredibly sad story.It was also a story of valor and courage. It was a day we wish we could forget, but we shouldn’t forget it and the lessons learned.

© Jim McNabb, 2009



Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Critiquing Coverage of the Fort Hood Shootings



This Stuff Isn’t Easy





Critiquing local television coverage of the horrific rampage at Fort Hood is tricky. Nobody. Nobody can truthfully prepare fully for an event such as this. Also, reporters, photojournalists, and news managers have worked their tails off, all with pure intentions of doing the best job of reporting truth. As a former reporter who has been sent into such hells, I understand, and I would take it personally if somebody sitting on the sidelines proffered an unfair critique.


So, my opinions will be general. Some observations may be seen by some as station-specific. That’s hard to avoid. Knowing that some reporters spent the weekend worn-out and ill and others worked the weekend with weak and hoarse voices, what I write is not meant to hurt. It is meant to help. God forbid something similar to this should happen again, but journalistic lessons that may be learned from the tragic event at Fort Hood.



It is true that spot news coverage in this age is different because social media is an important tool, but there are dangers. Twitter and Facebook notwithstanding watching local coverage of the Fort Hood shooter this week, I came to the conclusion that there has been very little progress in the past ten years, the Internet and social media notwithstanding.



The main thing that bothered me was some of the outlandish speculation from the local level all of the way up to the cable and networks. Tweets and FB are useful, but they are close kin to emergency radio scanner traffic in a fluid, spot-news situation. Scanner broadcasts indicate that law enforcement and emergency services are on the way, but they may not know the full story. So, what one hears on a scanner may or may not be fact. The same can be said for social media.



There were some tweets and Facebook messages coming from inside the post. Some were very useful, including the name of the suspect, but others were antidotal and mostly hearsay. The media had so few hard facts since the scene was secured on post. (The Department of Defense did supply scene video relatively soon after the shootings.) Even the commanding general had to correct himself later. So, reporters and anchors were asked to find something, even if it meant doing stories about the “media city” set up at the front gate.



Predictably, politicians rushed to the cameras. Only one, Senator John Cornyn (R.) had the presence of mind to say that he was “not going to be a source” until he had the facts. Novel idea. He’s a former Texas attorney general and Supreme Court justice. So, the media from local to national had trouble finding credible sources. “Facts” provided by some politicians also proved wrong. What’s a reporter or anchor to do?



So, the repetition was numbing at all levels from local to national with contradictions in “facts” during the same news segment from Austin to New York City. At the local level I asked myself, “Where are the fact-checkers, producers, and executive producers? Isn’t somebody watching the flow?” Yes, I know that all hell had broken loose, but somebody at the TV station needs to have a cool head. I don’t know if the local stations had the luxury of a field producer to coordinate coverage at the scene. It didn’t look like it if they did.



I also think that many local stations lack mature and experienced reporters nowadays since so many of them have been laid-off, run-off, retired, or ran screaming from the room and out of the news business. Each local station had at least one experience reporter at the scene, some more experienced than others. The best live shot I saw the evening of the shootings, however, was by a chief photographer for an Austin station here. He was calm, succinct, cogent, and informative. He also has more experienced than most of the reporters.



There were bright spots. A few young reporters also kept their heads and did some really good stuff—mostly on the day after the shootings. One station, in particular, seemed send more people to Fort Hood than any other. My philosophy is much the same as fighting a fire: Send lots of people and then, back off as needed. In this case all were needed.



Finally, it seems to me that few stations if any had procedures in place for covering a story of this magnitude. Often, these plans and procedures were informal in that news managers had worked together for a long time and knew what the other ones were going to do. Now, many of those news managers are gone, and with them those synergies also left the building. So, now, stations might need to debrief and rethink how to handle big breaking news. Thankfully, these things don’t happen often.



Without a doubt, all did the best they could, not for themselves or their stations, but this time in particular for the public interest. We all can always do better.



© Jim McNabb, 2009


Thursday, November 5, 2009

Newspaper Revolution at Hand?









The Digital Drumbeat


The revolution is coming. I can sense it. Will it arrive in time to save the newspapers as we know them? There are several factors at work in the information marketplace, but it just might be the answer. Maybe. The digital revolution already makes a huge difference in how we get our news, it may become the next big thing for newspapers in the not-too-distant future. Or, it may not.



Luddites may miss making the walk on a cold, wet morning to pick the soggy newspaper off of the driveway. When the revolution comes they will be won over by the sparkling technology of the next generation of e-readers.



First of all, I should admit that even though I have MP3s in my computer, even though my own music is on iTunes, MyTexasMusic, and dozens of other download sites, even though the focus of my graduate studies has been on the effects of digital media—I still do not own an iPod. I do have an MP3 player that I don’t use. I still subscribe to the printed newspaper. All of this notwithstanding, I know that change is coming.



The products predicting this change may be the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader. Analysts say one of the main obstacles is the product prices topping $200, but look at the prices paid for iPods and good MP3 players? They are in the same league. The iPods and MP3 players left stacks of unsold CDs on stores shelves. Stores eliminated the inventory, and others that relied on CD sales alone, went out of business. All of this happened over a span of years you can count on one hand. When the revolution comes, something similar may happen to newspapers.



The digital revelation also has all but done away with the fun-filled film camera. I still maintain that the art of photography with film is unmatched. For every-day use, however, digital cameras and cellphone cameras plus your computer have taken their place. Arguably, it took a little longer for digital cameras to become standard than it did the MP3, but not much longer.



The Washington Post reports that the revolution may begin sooner than later. “This holiday season will be a crucial test of whether e-books can cross over from geeky novelty to mass-market must-have. Major retailers are pushing the format -- and, of course, the gadgets they've developed to display it.” Sara Rotman Epps, senior analyst for Forrester Research tells the Post it may take a decade for e-books to catch on. E-books must evolve to start the revolution where newspapers are concerned.



The printed page is still valued because you can read it anywhere. You can clip it. You can save it. You can wrap fish in it. USA Today was a game-changer in its day with color and lots of photos. Is there much content in USA Today? No, but USA Today isn’t about deep content. The USA Today look forced local newspapers to change their layout and look along with their ways of gathering news. Now, newspapers like the Austin American-Statesman may send only a photographer to a story. The pictures with a cut line will tell it all, like a well-crafted TV story. You barely need a reporter’s words.



Right now, when somebody says talks about their Kindle, you think books. Yes, that’s the main market. You’re talking about books with words and no pictures. Scores of newspapers, including the Austin American-Statesman offer e-reader versions of the daily paper for your computer or Kindle. However, for newspapers it’s the pictures that are the problem. The e-readers now on the market don’t handle pictures well.



“You will find many limitations with the Kindle experience, however if a reader only wants news text it works,” says Michael Vivio, publisher, Austin American-Statesman. “Later versions of e-readers from other vendors promise a much better user experience.”



When the revolution comes, no longer must newspapers order up one-ton rolls of paper that is bound for the recycling bin after one use. Vivio says Amazon keeps 70-percent of the subscription revenue, but it is bound to result in production printing costs savings reflected in subscription rates. “The E-edition price for a month is $4.99, for Monday-Friday and $5.99 for Monday-Sunday. Kindle is $5.99 a month with a 14 day free trial,” says Harry Davis, vice president for circulation at the American-Statesman. “The print copy which contains all pre-prints is set up on a weekly basis, but calculated out and paying in advance, the price is $22.96 per month.”



When the revolution comes, no, it won’t be the same. Will it be better?



© Jim McNabb, 2009



Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Will Content Equal Contributions?









The Texas Tribune



The Texas Tribune (www.texastribune.org) went “live” yesterday (Tuesday, November 3, 2009), the newest online, nonprofit, non-partisan journalism effort. There are different ways of thinking about this model.



Think of The Texas Tribune in the same way that you might think of Austin’s nonprofit, classical music radio station, KMFA-FM, 89.5. Both are superior products of the Austin community with great content (How can KMFA FM miss with Mozart?) Both have paid professional staff which can ensure continued quality. Both are supported by donations. True, The Texas Tribune is also backed by a big foundation, but they are actively soliciting sustaining members and corporate sponsors, much like KMFA. The KMFA model has been successful for more than 40 years. It is noteworthy that KMFA also has a streaming web presence (www.kmfa.org) and forward-thinking folks.



Similarly, you might think of The Texas Tribune in the same stream of consciousness with Austin Post (www.austinpost.org). Both are nonprofit. Both are backed by donations. (Austin Post is a product of the Trilogy Employee Foundation.) “Our pitch is simple: Like clean air and clean water—undeniable public goods—journalism in the public interest is too vital to a civilized society, to a functioning democracy, to be left to the vagaries of the free market. Philanthropy must and will become a bigger part of the equation,” says the Texas Tribune site.



Both sites see themselves as possible new models for how we get news in the future. That is where the similarities end. The Texas Tribune assembled an enviable professional staff led by former “Texas Monthly” editor Evan Smith. Austin Post, on the other hand, relies on basic bloggers. “Our contributors include hundreds of people that are living and breathing what’s happening in Austin. They are engaged in the action and part of the story, not watching from the sidelines. Citizen journalists or “bloggers”? We reject the derisive associations attached to each,” the site says.



That distinction, with all due respect, makes Texas Tribune compared to Austin Post like Nordstrom’s compared to Big Lots. Yes, I post to Austin Post, because I write about local Austin, Texas media, not politics and public policy, the fare found in The Texas Tribune, but the record will show that I don’t believe that the words “citizen” and “journalists” should be coupled together. Citizens can play a role in the Journalism process—their tips and feedback are important. I still submit that journalism is a profession which is practiced. It takes training and experience to be a journalist. Posting a blog does not make one a journalist.



The Texas Tribune has the look and feel of a news medium. Its layout is clean and orderly, giving readers a sample of the top stories. The Tribune debuted with a new political poll conducted with The University of Texas. The Tribune wants to share its content with other media, and most local television stations and the Austin American-Statesman picked up the poll. The second day’s Tribune coverage focused on the meaning of various elections across the state. It is a site for all of Texas.



On Austin Post, you may find some politics, but you’re just as likely to find the latest on Leslie Cochran or a new location for Christmas shopping. Austin Post does have some editorial oversight, and they boast of big plans. The layout right now is rather cluttered. A new feature introduced before the Austin City Limits festival, “Austin in Real Time”, takes up a chunk out of the middle of the “Home” page. While it may have potential, most of the time it contains dated comments from last week’s high school football games. Austin Post is evolving.



The Texas Tribune is rolling the dice hoping for a winner. The Tribune wants to prove up my theory that compelling content is king, and people will contribute cash for the content. Cynics say that people will not pay for content, but will they contribute? Will they see value in the product just as they might if they were contributing to KMFA FM or the local National Public Radio station, KUT-FM?



And a final question, can The Texas Tribune model sustain a high level of quality content? Austin Post can and will attract local writers. I’m one. Content is not a problem. The Texas Tribune on the other hand set the bar high at the beginning, even before the launch. Some days in the news business, the bar looks higher and higher when the strong stories are fewer and fewer.



Bookmark The Texas Tribute along with Austin Post. I hope the model works.



© Jim McNabb, 2009



Editor’s Note: Several readers were expecting my take on The Texas Tribune yesterday. I wanted to see what they did with their second day, and I wanted to take a little time to settle my thoughts.