So there was a big State of the Media report issued earlier this week, by the Committee for Excellence in Journalism. Predictably, the overwhelming conclusion was…well, Howard Kurtz has a way with words, let’s let him sum it up:
Imagine a business that is steadily losing customers, shrinking its work force, cutting back on services and mistrusted by much of the public. That is a snapshot of the news business in 2004.
A-yup. That’s pretty much it. I’ve been thinking about this the last few days, trying to pull together a few thoughts, but I just can’t get excited. It seems futile. Al-Qaeda attacks a western European country and proves it can alter the course of free elections, the U.S. is engaged overseas as never before, and the reaction of American news managers is? Close overseas bureaus. You just think: What’s the point? Forty-seven million Americans without health insurance, almost certainly another major terrorist whacking coming down the pike, and what’s the big issue of the presidential campaign? Gay marriage, of course.
But I rouse myself.
For years, newspapers have been losing readership. Where are all these non-readers getting their local news, information on what their mayor, their city councilmen, their state legislature is up to? Almost certainly from local TV, if they’re interested at all. Now, I work in a small TV market, 103 or so, and I’m here to tell you this: If you’re getting your news from your local newscast, you’re not getting much. When you work for a newspaper, nearly all of which are quietly shrinking their own staffs and newshole, there’s a certain pot/kettle thing going on, but seriously, if your TV stations are entry-level, it’s horrifying. A lawyer I know was embroiled in the midst of a long-running community debate over a hazardous-waste landfill, and a TV reporter came to interview him. She was brand-new in town. The landfill is in New Haven, a small city that butts right up against Fort Wayne. The reporter came in, sat down and said, “Now tell me: Where is New Haven, again?”
For purposes of comparison, this would be like being a Chicago TV reporter unclear on the location of, oh, Evanston.
That’s not to say all TV reporters are fools. There are smart ones out there, quite a few. But they quickly tire of working their asses off for $22,000 a year and move on to larger markets, leaving a vacancy for yet another straight-out-of-college cutie-pie who needs a briefing on the geography of her new beat, and will probably be called upon to offer instant analysis of the school board vote in her stand-up tonight at 11.
Maybe the smart reporter who leaves will end up somewhere like Detroit. She’ll make more money, but be called upon to stick a ruler into a snowdrift on her 11 p.m. stand-up. Her colleague will set up a sting operation, luring filthy-minded adult men to a house to have sex with a “13-year-old girl” the reporter’s been pretending to be in an online chat room. His story will consist of him chasing these men down the street, yelling “Hey, buddy! You want to have sex with children?!?
Are you being served by this? Ask yourself.
Anyway, all this by way of saying today I checked a link on Romenesko. The Columbia Journalism Review was naming stations that ran all or part of the recent phony “news reports” on the new Medicare plan. One was WPTA-TV, Fort Wayne’s own perennial No. 1-rated newscast, with the largest staff of the three network affiliates. “Your home for news.”
No. 8 in the “Eight Major Trends” section of the CEJ report: Those who would manipulate the press and public appear to be gaining leverage over the journalists who cover them.
Now you know.