Thursday, January 29, 2009

Looking for an Edge

Why Does All the Media Look Alike?

Where does the local “news” come from? Does it come from the police scanner? Does it come from a story in some other media? Is it a national news story localized? Is it a page or email from the police department? Is it a news release from a public information officer or a public relations flack? Or, does it come from curiosity perhaps pricked by one of the above sources or, even better, elsewhere? In other words is it an “enterprise” story? If it is an enterprise story, does a TV station sit on it and save it for sweeps only to be swept by another TV station doing it first?

The answer for a given medium may be all of the above.

Viewers and readers complain that all of the stations and media “look alike”. They have the same stories. Sometimes, the TV stations coincidentally stack the same stories in the same order. The stations were all listening to the same scanners, getting the same news releases, receiving the same pages and emails, and acting on them in the same way. You know what that says to me? There is not much enterprise going on here. So-called enterprise stories are saved for contest days or sweeps. No wonder many users/consumers/viewers/listeners/readers think the media is all part of a conspiracy, or they all work for the government. No wonder they perceive what they see is biased. The audience thinks that they’re being fed the party line, whatever the party is, and the “real news” is on the Internet, in blogs, or, perhaps, on AM talk radio.
I’ve been watching. Particularly, on what may be termed “slow” news days, the stations do often all look the same. There are the same “spot news” stories (fires, fatalities, and homicides), news conferences, and (particularly if it is a weekend) fluff news events.

Some Austin TV reporters also seem to end up doing the same type stories all of the time, not because the stories may be on their “beat”, if they have one, but because these reporters are the type who hang around the newsroom waiting for something to happen. More often than not, it is these reporters who get the late-breaking stories. Why? Because they are good reporters? No, not necessarily. It’s really because they are lazy or lack curiosity and creativity. The aggressive reporters who came to work with a cool idea are long ago out the door leaving the lazy reporters at their desks, on the phone, or surfing the net. The reporters who remain are the reporters who are available. Therefore, the assignments desk sends them.

Besides, “spot news” stories are easy. Everything is right in front of them. Get the video and a few bites, and you’re done. If it’s a news release-generated story, the lack of challenge may be much the same. The news notice is about a late afternoon news conference. Great! Show up. Get the sound. Maybe the Public Information Officer or PR person has a “throw-down” interview opportunity with a “real” person. Get a few cutaways and some “b-roll” and you’re done. No sweat.

Why not be that person? Somebody’s needs to be that person, right?

No, not really. Not in this day of layoffs and cutbacks. That person who is just hanging around may also be viewed by management as “dead wood” that can be sawed off with a minimum of mess.

News managers nowadays may choose to ask the aggressive reporter to hold that enterprise story until tomorrow and cover the breaking news. Or, the story may be “busted down” to a VO/SOT, or just a few column-inches or a cutline on a photo, and the creative reporter gets the plum, late-breaking package or front page piece. Why? Because the news manager knows that this reporter will be looking for an edge—some different to set the story apart from the competition.

The goal of the news manager is to have the best people doing the right stories. Most of the time the curious, aggressive, energetic reporter will get to stay on the story. Further, it’s not just a slogan: Every day is contest day, and every day is sweeps. You don’t just do good stories four months out of the year and maintain or build an audience.

Just as important, it rewards those good journalists. It keeps them happy and satisfied with their very unusual jobs. It cuts down on the cliques and complaining in the newsrooms.

Most important: It puts the best product before the viewing or reading public. On those days, everyone leaves the newsroom tired, but happy—satisfied. Those are the days that stick in my mind. Good memories of good stories done well.

Meanwhile, the lazy reporter is putting together a portfolio, resume tape, or DVD, knowing it won’t be long before moving on.

© Jim McNabb, 2009

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