Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Time Warner Cable Channels Freeze

News 8, MSNBC, and ESPN 2 and possibly others disappeared for at least a day from Time Warner Cable. Where did they go and why?

If you tuned in to MSNBC yesterday (Monday, 7-26-10) to channel 49 on the Time Warner Cable Standard tier, you found a frozen picture some awful wreck or explosion. ESPN 2 was frozen on a NASCAR whizzing by the camera. News 8 was also static.

By this today, (Tuesday, 7-27-10), the frozen images had turned to “color bars”, an industry term for tuning cameras and equipment and a clear indication that TWC knew that there was something wrong.

Only the TWC “Standard” package channels were affected. Digital and HD channels were fine.

The channels returned to the Standard tier of channels shortly before 4 p.m. Tuesday for those who keep News 8 on all day long and other fans of Rachel Maddow or alt sports on MSNBC.

I was toward the end of an online “chat” with a TWC representative, when the channels were restored.

No, it didn’t just happen to you or your neighbors. This outage was across all of the Austin area, according to Stacy Schmidt, TWC communications. I thought it have impacted a lot of people because of the half-hour wait for customer service Monday evening.

Where did these channels go?

“It was a part of a technology upgrade in the standard tiers [gone bad],” Schmidt said. Engineers were still testing all portions of the market “area by area” to ensure that the channels were up Tuesday evening.

Schmidt promised more information. So, there will be more information, and there will be another customer service aspect of this story later.

© Jim McNabb, 2010

Monday, July 26, 2010

Are You Happy

Is Your Journalist Happy?

Most journalists have muted satisfaction with their chosen profession, according to a short survey I conducted over the past couple of weeks. There is a striking difference in happiness when you break it down into job categories. Bosses are the happiest. No surprise there, but levels of satisfaction seem to go down each wrung of the ladder.

While some are trudging along, many of their colleagues are taking the necessary steps to be happy in journalism. “Some people are just not happy people,” one Austin news director commented to me a few years ago. That is true. I think it is also true that talented and motivated people can be beaten down by “the business” when they are not rewarded, supported, and encouraged by those happy bosses.

I cannot claim this is a totally “scientific” survey of journalists’ feelings for their jobs. I cannot claim to know all journalists. I don’t even know everybody in the business in Austin. This, therefore, is drawn from a sample consisting of my many friends working in news and choosing to participate. All were promised anonymity, unless they chose to speak out. These things said, I think that the findings are valid and representative of job satisfaction in the news business. Further, they may be applicable to many other lines of work nowadays.

I asked only five questions—questions which would be applicable to almost any profession:

1. Are you as happy in your job as you were three years ago?
2. Are you as happy in your job as you were 10 years ago?
3. Are you as happy in your job as you were when you started in the business?
4. Are you doing more with less support?
5. Are you confident about your future in journalism?

I got responses from journalists working in both broadcasting and print. Strangely, none of my friends working in Internet journalism replied. I divided the respondents into five categories: news managers, mid-managers (editors and producers), “talent” (on-camera anchors, etc.), reporters, and photographers.

News managers are the most satisfied and happy in their jobs. It’s apparent that the longer that they stay in “the business”, the happier they are, maybe because of money. As with any profession, your longevity and loyalty is often rewarded with raises. Many also find satisfaction in mentoring young, recently-graduated and talented minds.

“Most importantly, I’m ‘happy’ because we produce quality, multimedia Journalists,” said Henry Chu, a former news director at KXAN TV (NBC). Chu is now at WBKO in South Central Kentucky. “We hire a number of people straight out of college. We teach them about good storytelling, getting facts right, being fair and ethical. Our young Journalists learn every facet of the news gathering business.”

WBKO is in the 128th market. Austin is 48th. By the time journalists arrive here, they should be pros and they should be happy to be here. Austin is a coveted destination often equated with personal and professional happiness.

The news managers scored a “Perfect 10” in happiness. “I have the best ND [news director] job in the country, in my opinion,” said Frank Volpicella, news director at Austin’s #1 ranked KVUE TV (ABC). Being #1 may have something to do with it. One is never happy with being last.

The least happy group predictably is the mid-managers. As it is in any business, it is the mid-manager who is often caught in the crunch—in the middle between the generals and those working in the trenches. Every newsroom is different. Some are quite happy, but many others long for days a decade or so ago or more when the business was far less frenzied and more fun. As the pressure increases, so does their level of dissatisfaction. Since it is their job to “make it happen”, they, more than any other group, feel the pinch of “doing more with less support,” followed closely by reporters.

The reporters are a mixed bag. It appears that the biggest factor in many reporters’ growing dissatisfaction over the years is being asked to do more and more with less support. Reporters don’t just come up with story ideas, cover them, and write them, you know. Some TV reporters have to shoot their own stories. Some have to send their stories via broadband. They all have to tweet about their stories and post them on Facebook. They all have to contribute to their respective medium’s web site—stories and possibly blogs. This is not your father’s newsroom. I remember reporters whining about having to do different stories for different news casts. That would be a walk in the park nowadays.

“Are you doing more with less support?” resulted in almost universal answers like, “Isn’t everybody?” regardless of job category. One respondent discounted the pressure saying that one gets used to all of the extra stuff.

Perhaps because of these demands, these stresses, and these worries, many reporters, mid-managers, and even on-air “talent” are less than optimistic about their futures in journalism. News managers to a person were extremely confident (All scored “10s” again.), but that confidence isn’t always shared by their staffs.

While the anchors and other talent tend to love their jobs visiting Austin homes every day. Gone are the days when the anchors may have waited around for the next newscast. In all fairness, over the years, most anchors did help write for their shows, but their duties are greatly expanded now. They are the “face” of the TV stations. They also tweet, blog, and post to Facebook. They have some apprehension about their future in journalism. Given the dependence on Nielsen ratings, it is no wonder that some in this group would have some concerns.

Surprisingly, too few photojournalists responded to the survey to draw conclusions. One who did, Kenny Kaplan, formerly of Austin’s KVUE was extremely upbeat. “I am very happy with my job now, but I think that I enjoyed the TV business much more back then in 1978/79,” Kaplan said. Kaplan is now working in New York City. Many unhappy photographers have left TV news over the years, and they are very happy freelancing or shooting video for government or industry.

What conclusions can be drawn from these results? News managers may need to be more attentive to mid-managers and reporters. Mid-managers may need to be more assertive and upbeat. Reporters need may need to be creative and assertive too, choosing to be happy or choosing to, well, get out of “the business”!

© Jim McNabb, 2010

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Future?

Free News

Skeptics scoffed at the notion that online Austin-based news sites could succeed without ads. So far, the skeptics are being proven wrong as two sites are still going strong. Perhaps this is indeed the model for news in the future.

AustinPost.org and TexasTribune.org are very different organs in structure, but their models are similar. Austin Post celebrated its one-year anniversary. The Post has one full-time paid staffer, its editor-in-chief, Karie Meltzer. Meanwhile, the Texas Tribune has a highly paid staff headed by former Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith. Both sites are supported by foundations. The Texas Tribune actively seeks contributions. Remember that “highly paid staff”.

On the other hand, the Austin Post’s content comes from unpaid contributors, many of whom are bloggers like me. Most of the content is original, and some stories are contributed by “local celebrities”, according to Meltzer.

“We’re trying to become more newsier. The topics are much more current and edgy now,” says Meltzer. A year ago, there was more opinion than there is now. “And, we’re following the stories, not just writing stories and forgetting them.”

Meltzer oversaw a remake of the look of the site within the past few months, cleaning up some of the clutter. “Traffic is up 100-percent month-to-month,” Meltzer says. More and more people are discovering the site.
The Austin Post will never be the source of day-to-day current events coverage. Meltzer says readers will come to the site looking for something else—a different take on a topic. The 2011 legislative session will be the Post’s first, and Meltzer is working on plans for coverage. The Post will also have a special section for the November election with bios of the candidates.

Of course, politics is much of what makes the Texas Tribune tick. The ticking has been loud enough to catch the attention of the respected Columbia Journalism Review. “Lone Star Trailblazer/Will the Texas Tribune Transform Texas Journalism?”, is the headline of a CJR study of the project published in the July/August edition.

“Eight months into a deep-pocketed, high-profile experiment in online journalism, the Tribune is still searching for its journalistic identity—even as it has emerged as a buzzworthy brand on the Texas political scene. The startup ambitiously aims to cover what one internal document calls ‘the ever-hollowing middle between local and national/international topics,’ a void created in part by Texas newspapers’ shuttering of bureaus statewide. The Tribune is amplifying its traditional journalism with innovative, audience-focused twists—equipping readers with searchable data platforms, hosting events, and promoting itself as a brainy digital club of civic-minded Texans.”—Jake Batsell, CJR.

Batsell studied the Texas Tribune for nine months and gave them a thumbs-up. CEO and editor-in-chief Smith was pleased. “Suffice is to say we're gratified to read Jake's kind words. We hope you agree with them, as you've been likewise watching our progress these last nine months,” Smith said in a news release this week. He used the occasion to ask for continued contributions to their journalistic cause.

Smith solicits support for the Trib in “off-the-record events”. “Most nonprofit news organizations host occasional member events, but few have been as aggressive from the outset as the Tribune, which sees events as a key part of its mission ‘to promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, politics, government and other matters of statewide concern.’ At most Tribune events, Smith is the emcee, ringmaster, and salesman,” the CJR article said. (http://www.cjr.org/feature/lone_star_trailblazer.php?page=1)

So, are the Texas Tribune and the Austin Post journalism models for the future? The Tribune urges readers to read their traditional newspapers in addition to Tribune, and the Trib often teams up with newspapers. At the Austin Post, editor Metzler often contributes to the Huffington Post, the online national news site for the most part fueled free by bloggers. Contributors to Austin Post have been cited in stories in the Austin American Statesman.

As a journalism critic, I advocate exposure to as many news sources as possible. It is the only way to arrive at “the truth”. If someone watches only one national news cast, that person is captive to only one interpretation of the truth. If that person watches several local stations and several national newscasts along with several newspapers, “the truth” starts coming into focus. It is not that all media are biased; it is that media see stories through a difference lens. Okay, some of them may be biased too, but readers and viewers can see that bias more clearly in the reflection of other news media.

So, check out both the Post and the Trib, if you haven’t already. You might also check out The Austin Bulldog, another nonprofit/foundation backed investigative reporting site. The model is evolving, and we, the readers, viewers, consumers, and users of media are the witnesses.

© Jim McNabb, 2010

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Where's the Professionalism?

Idle Hands

Just because we have the Internet, just because we have blogs, just because we have opinions, just because we have cameras, just because we have YouTube, just because we have creativity, just because there may have been one too many beers, just because of all of these things and more, journalists—true journalists don’t do goofy satire on the side and keep their jobs in the real world.

Three Arkansas TV news employees (Market size 56) were canned last week after producing an idiotic and vulgar piece posted on YouTube apparently intended to be satire. The news director did the right thing: He fired them all, one of them one over the telephone because he was on vacation in Dallas.

Yes, there has been a sea-change in mass communications. The Internet enables me and others to post their opinions unimpeded. It has enabled ordinary citizens to have an equal voice more than ever before. That’s good. It’s good as long as it exists inside of the boundaries of our communications laws like putting somebody in a false light, libel, and slander.

When people working in the profession of journalism (I believe journalism is a profession.) set aside the tenants and ethics of their calling, they cease to be acting as professionals. All three saw their careers pass before their eyes.

They must have missed a class sometime in college. They must not have had “hard core” mentors and supervisors. They may not have what it takes deep down to be a real “main stream” journalist. Maybe they’ll learn it now, and maybe it won’t be too late to salvage their young careers.

So many college kids come into internships and even the job market saying that they want to be anchors. They have pretty faces, good hair, and serviceable voices. The fit the stereotype of Don Henley’s song “Dirty Laundry”: “I could have been an actor, but I wound up here.” So, without an anchor, they are anchormen and anchorwomen wannabees. Worse, they be actual anchors on the air.

The viewers deserve more than that. It doesn’t matter whether they’re working in a top ten market, 48, 56, or 200. All of the viewers, users, consumers of news and public affairs deserve professionalism, no matter the market size.

Austinites are fortunate here in the 48th market, that for the most part our mainstream media, both broadcast and print, are staffed with professionals. More importantly, the news departments are run by news managers and editors who demand professionalism.

What troubles me still is that scores of experienced and seasoned professional journalists have moved to other fields, retired, or moved on. The management remains solidly in place, but there are a lot of young people working in their second and third jobs on the air in print in Austin main stream media.

Part of this is the phenomenon of baby boomers being bought out or simply hanging it up. Others moved out of journalism into public information. How many familiar faces do you see fronting politicians and other offices? I’ve written about this before, that Austin is a destination for journalists. Many don’t leave Austin. They just leave “the business”.

Austin viewers, readers, consumers, and users of information from the mainstream media also deserve more. Yeah, this is being written on Saturday, July 10, 2010 when some might say nothing much was going on, but at 6 O’clock what one station delivered to my TV after the “Aquapolooza” was yesterday’s news from the newspaper and a BP retread from the network news on the air just minutes before. Don’t give me this crap that there was nothing going on. I worked weekends for a lot of years.

Where does the Austin American-Statesman get most of its weekend stories? They aren’t “breaking news”. Reporters are researching them for publication on the weekend. So, why oh why can’t today’s TV stations get staff members who are just sitting around during the week to dig up something for the weekend new casts? And don’t give me this crap about not having a photographer; if you have a story, you’ll get a photographer. Nowadays, you may be shooting it yourself!

It’s laziness and a lack of creativity with a purpose. The old saw may be true: “Idle hands are the devil’s playground.” So, vapid reporters and photographers sitting around waiting for the next house fire or bank robbery may be okay now. At least that’s better than goofing around producing some tasteless piece for YouTube. Geez.

© Jim McNabb, 2010