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


Anonymous said...


With lighter-weight, high-definition cameras available and ever-improving technology for editing, all TV stations should cross-train staff in all the existing technologies, including Web writing.

Any reporter, photographer, producer who is cross-trained will be more valuable in the future than a person who is skilled in only one area.

NewsMcNabb said...

Editors note: I know that all of my professional photojournalist friends will castigate me for this, but I agree. The point of the post was that TV news started with a reporter using a camera with good results. There, is no reason why a cross-trained, talented reporter cannot have good results. I hasten to add, however, that a talented photojournalist focused on telling the story with pictures may tell a better story. Also, not all news photographers are created equal, just like reporters. Furture, four eyes are better than two.

With the current climate of the communications media, this is part of the future. Jim

Anonymous said...


Only a fool would castigate you for advocating that a newsroom employee increase his value through cross-training, as media outlets struggle to recover from the economic downturn.
The economy is improving slowly, and with that, TV stations will see their revenue streams begin to improve.
The gradual improvement made it possible for KXAN's parent company, LIN TV, to crawl out of the New York Stock Exchange doghouse.
Last month, LIN TV was notified by the New York Stock Exchange that the company had regained compliance with the NYSE’s continued listing standards. The Company had received a non-compliance notification from the NYSE in early January because the average market capitalization of the firm's Class A common stock over a consecutive 30 trading-day period was less than $75 million. The November 12, 2009 notice from the NYSE was delivered following LIN TV's compliance with the NYSE minimum market capitalization requirements over the prior two consecutive quarters.

If LIN had not met that required, it would have been delisted from the stock exchange. That would have been really bad financial news for LIN TV and KXAN employees.

Now if LIN TV can dump its 20% share in two NBC owned and operated stations, including KXAS in Dallas, then maybe LIN's financial load will be a lot lighter. How about Comcast buying out LIN TV's share?

Anonymous said...

There is a clear and important formality in a well dressed, notebook toting Reporter arriving anywhere, while the Photographer wrangles the gear. Station technical mystique, from a jet helicopter clattering down into an elated small town, to an official reaching for the Bizmol when a live unit is spotted arriving outside, is integral to every organizations prestige, image, and credibility.
In a way the two person crew was/is still the legacy and embodiment of the International Telegraph Union agreement of the Paris conference in 1866. In that agreement, Engineering was completely split from Editorial and Production concerns. Subsequently, technical and Engineering personnel could concentrate on cross border signal concerns, while being completely relieved of editorial or political matters. Meanwhile, the Editors and News Writers could concentrate on what they do best, developing items in all the many ways, and placing them on the wire.
A VJ style single staff deployment will never have the same representational impact of a two person crew. The depth of field investigation of items will
be reduced simply by burdening the Reporter with
the means of signal acquisition. The often invaluable input of the Photographer..i.e. "Two heads are better than one" will be lost. While the VJ concept certainly works well for a static item such as " A look at water quality at Barton Springs" or even a non controversial press conference,
ratings are built on breaking weather and news items that are fluid and ever changing.
A VJ won't have time to set a live shot, edit, feed, and then get back into the thick of a rapidly evolving item. A system approach will be lost, and
possibly key elements will be missed. You just can't ask one person to do it all in any significant
dynamic news situation.
When I shot, I felt well supported. The stations weren't "rich", but new gear or repairs were forthcoming. When I Produced or Wrote, I felt unburdened by the complicated technical concerns the Photographer faced. Your best people will have a foot in both areas and be willing to cross over. However, trying to save money by extolling the virtue of one person staffing is going to limit your quality and credibility overall.
Is this about the public interest, convenience, and necessity or is it about money? The locals still seem packed with breaks, and the digital transmitter switch just cut the Westlake electric bill by 3/4. The newsroom is more important than to just be considered a cash cow, and should be the last place to look for cost cuts.

The Hungry Texan said...

A very thoughtful post sir. Very glad to see it, you've haven't posted in a while.

Joyous Holidays Jim!

NewsMcNabb said...

Editor's Note: Thank you! I wish joyous holidays for you and all too.

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous who said this:

"The newsroom is more important than to just be considered a cash cow, and should be the last place to look for cost cuts."

You should attend a stockholders meeting and see what reaction you would get if you made the above statement to them. Stockholders would tell you their main interest is to make money and that a newsroom is no exception to that thinking.

Federal law also establishes a fiduciary responsibility for executives of a corporation to increase the value of the corporation and its earnings.

Anonymous said...

(did that last not post? good.)

If the stockholders meeting was last March 2nd, I'd tell 'em to sell the stations, give the HD's to Goodwill, and buy TSL, PRSC, GLW, and a dash of F. That is if they are really,really serious about money.

Anonymous said...

For the last anonymous, offer that advice to stockholders and you definitely would be shown the door.