tv news in transition

Thursday, April 6, 2006
5-7 p.m.
Bartos Theater


Abstract

No aspect of television has changed more decisively in recent years than its news programming. The proliferation of news channels, the passing of the last generation of news anchors bred in the era of the broadcast networks, the appearance of partisan outlets such as Fox News, the fragmentation of the audience, the relative indifference of the digital generation to television news programming of any sort - these powerful and perhaps disturbing changes will be among the topics discussed at this Forum. Our speakers have extensive first-hand experience of the recent history of television journalism.

Speakers

Juju Chang has worked in television news since 1991 as a producer and on-air correspondent. She is currently based in New York as a correspondent for ABC’s 20/20.

Neal Shapiro joined NBC News in 1993 after 13 years as a producer and executive at ABC News. At NBC he served as director of news operations of MSNBC where he helped to shape its cable programming and its innovative web site. He was named president of NBC News in 2001, a post he held until September, 2005.

Moderator: Stuart N. Brotman is a visiting scholar in Comparative Media Studies at MIT.   Previously, he was president and CEO of The Museum of Television & Radio. An attorney, Brotman is the author of several books, including Communications Law and Practice, now in its 20th printing.

Summary

[this is an edited summary, not a verbatim transcript]

STUART BROTMAN: This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of television news. The first news broadcasts were in 1946, when WNBC and WCBS began covering local news in New York . Network news followed in 1948. In the early days of network news, two distinct formats arose: the first simply broadcast newsreels that played before films. They were modified somewhat through voiceover narration. The first famous newscaster in this format was John Cameron Swayze. When CBS began building its own news division, Douglas Edwards developed a second format, in which an anchor would sit at a desk and read news on a live broadcast. By 1952, the “morning news” format was introduced by The Today Show, combining elements of talk, news and entertainment. The 1950s marked the ascendancy of CBS, characterized by the work of Edward R. Murrow.

Brotman In 1956, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley developed what is now the standard network news format. Walter Cronkite was not an anchor until 1963, although he had anchored political coverage in 1952, 1956 and 1960. In 1956, videotape was introduced, shaping both the coverage and presentation of news. The 1960s saw the development of the half-hour newscast, when Walter Cronkite went from 15 minutes to 30 in 1963; NBC soon followed suit. ABC had traditionally been a bit of a step-child in the news business, frequently changing its staff, making Peter Jennings anchor at age 26. Documentaries were very important in the 1960s, moving into the modern era in the 1970s. I'd like to start by asking Neal and Juju about their entry into the television news business.

JUJU CHANG: I'm 40 years old, but when I tell you about my career, I'll seem older. I graduated from college in 1987, and went to work as a desk assistant, or “gopher,” at ABC. My job mostly entailed ripping Telex machines, essentially separating and sorting copies of telegrams from foreign bureaus. I advanced from desk assistant to researcher to production assistant, getting my first portable phone; an enormous thing that rarely worked, but was still a potent status symbol. I became a producer-reporter.

In the 90s, shooting “live” was considered incredibly important, and consequently we went live every night, whether or not it was actually warranted. Airing news live was still somewhat rare, as we tended to gather the news from the day and report it at set times, ignoring any news that happened in between. The advent of cable news changed the nature of deadlines. I was at local news in San Francisco , and then came back to Washington as a hybrid, doing live stories on behalf of the network, but working for local stations. I came back to New York and commuted for a few years, working in a variety of areas with a variety of technologies. After having children, I worked for 20/20 part-time, and filed other stories occasionally.

NEAL SHAPIRO: I was a glorified intern when I started at ABC, working on a number of different shows, including Primetime Live, later going to NBC to work on Dateline. When I started at ABC, it was still in last place, and the management was very eager to change this, making extraordinary resources available to us. All three networks were still owned by fairly small companies focused primarily on broadcasting at the time. I was working at NBC when General Electric took over, and things changed. There are more resources, but broadcasting and broadcast news isn't the owners' main concern. News divisions had traditionally lost money, but corporate ownership placed a renewed emphasis on profit.

BROTMAN: Success wasn't measured by profit? How did you perceive you would be measured?

SHAPIRO: There were ratings, which were to some extent considered a measure of success. From a macro point of view, that's always been a target. At the individual level, it was about being smart, accurate and innovative. I don't think it's changed that much at the individual level.

CHANG: As a journalist in the field, I don't worry too much about the bottom line. I get an assignment, and try to do the best I can.

BROTMAN: Juju, you were in a program at ABC News designed to groom correspondents.

CHANG: They were trying to identify people with not just television backgrounds, but print and radio backgrounds, as well as minorities. I had been a producer. They wanted to teach me on-air skills, the skills of a reporter. Reporter skills don't differ much between television and film. It was my first on-air job, and a big market for a test case like me.

BROTMAN: Let's talk a bit about the culture of newsrooms. How are stories decided?

SHAPIRO: Generally, decisions on what to pursue and what to air are made on two levels. The first level is, what will you cover? Networks rely on affiliates and wire services for ideas in this area. The second level is, what will we air? Those decisions are made by executive producers. Other places such as 60 Minutes are driven more by correspondents, rather than management. In the best places, ideas for stories from the bottom of the hierarchy are encouraged.

Chang and Shapiro

CHANG: There's a lot of competitiveness, especially in local news, since you're all working in cubicles, so there's very little privacy. Stories that touch on diversity are always an issue. I was frequently put on stories about working mothers or other “girl” issues. When I was a producer, I was sent with an African-American correspondent to cover the Brooklyn riots between Koreans and blacks. I ended up bending over backwards to take the Koreans' perspective, and he ended up bending over backwards to take the blacks' perspective. Newsroom culture is kind of a family dynamic. In terms of ratings, everyone knows the ratings in general, but the specific minute-by-minute breakdowns are known to the producers and not the rank-and-file.

BROTMAN: I talked about signature broadcasts, but now the concept has evolved into genres of TV news. Let's start with newsmagazines. What does having a signature newsmagazine do for a news division?

SHAPIRO: Newsmagazines are one of the signs that TV news is changing. At one time there were five separate Datelines airing in a given week. Part of the appeal of newsmagazines was that networks wanted shows they could own, as opposed to shows that came from other studios. With an hour to play with, newsmagazines can tell more complex stories. There can be a greater variety in content, and if a big story comes along, you can expand it. After 9/11, I had just taken over NBC. I took all the Dateline people and put them on the breaking news segments.

CHANG: Dateline was failing when Neal took over. Neal oversaw the expansions that followed. 20/20 soon followed suit, as did 60 Minutes. What's happened since? Reality TV. If you watch reality TV, it has a lot in common with newsmagazines. The stories are long, dramatic and compelling, and increasingly aspirational. Many people who used to work in newsmagazines have gone on to reality TV.

BROTMAN: Will there always be newsmagazines?

CHANG: I think so. 60 Minutes was incredibly influential in public discourse, and Dateline did some incredible documentaries.

SHAPIRO: There will always be a place for long-form storytelling. In addition, broadcast news still holds the highest audience numbers.

BROTMAN: Neal mentioned the importance of money. Morning news is the most profitable genre, so let's look at mornings, blending hard news with softer news elements. Broadcasts go for three hours now, and now air on weekends in addition to weekdays.

SHAPIRO: In terms of audiences, the one area of growth is morning news, as people are getting up earlier. In addition, after 9/11, there's a greater understanding that news can happen at any time and radically change your life. Morning news shows also hit multiple audiences: commuters watch it while getting ready for work, and housewives continue watching it afterwards. They're more spontaneous, and more personality-driven.

CHANG: When I began at ABC, the flagship news program was World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. It was more prestigious within ABC than outside. Back then, I always wore a blazer, but I rarely do now. A kind of “casualization” has taken place in TV news, putting the emphasis on the news itself instead of the presenter. Now, news can be presented by someone like Katie Couric, someone who can appear as Marilyn Monroe one day and read the news the next day without ruining her credibility. I think that shows that the culture has changed.

BROTMAN: What about the evening news? Maureen Dowd recently said it's an anachronism. All three of the iconic anchors are gone. The networks are all changing their evening news dramatically. What's going to happen?

SHAPIRO: I've always been asked, will evening news survive? So far, the audience for evening news is still enormous. All the cable audiences combined are still far less than that of a network evening newscast. News used to be just politics. Now, things like health care and education are considered important. The changes tend to reflect the personalities of the anchors: Cronkite was passionate about space, Tom Brokaw loved the American West, and Peter Jennings was very interested in foreign affairs. Their interests affected their newscasts.

CHANG: How many of you in the audience regularly watch Jon Stewart on The Daily Show? Now how many of you regularly watch the evening news? (There are more hands for Stewart than the evening news.) That mini-poll seems to demonstrate the issue: young people, the demographic advertisers want, are not getting their news from evening newscasts on networks. I'm surprised Les Moonves is so adamant about this recent move, putting Katie Couric on the evening news. I wouldn't be surprised if she presents herself differently.

BROTMAN: Let's talk about that transition from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams on NBC.

SHAPIRO: I began with two great journalists. Others in the industry had low expectations about the transition. We called it early, announcing Brokaw's retirement and replacement two years in advance, to stop network infighting. We tried to show off Brian's abilities whenever we could. So far, it seems to have worked out very well.

BROTMAN: What about web and mobile integration? What sort of thinking is going on in that area?

SHAPIRO: From the macro level, we look at what to do with our infrastructure. We're trying to use that infrastructure to reach people in new ways. We do a lot of nagging our correspondents to blog and provide other content, but that tends to stress them out. Content needs differ from medium to medium.

CHANG: Even when I was in college, we had classes about convergence, the idea that televisions, computers and cell phones were all going to start merging. I think it's finally starting to happen, but it's still very slow. Webcasts are expensive to produce, and very few people watch them. We try to make content available for multiple delivery streams. In one particular story about rock star Jon Bon Jovi, we showed unused material on the web.

BROTMAN: How strong is the pressure to repurpose?

CHANG: At ABC, there's a real sense that “digital is the future,” and yet, airing something on 20/20 is radically different from anything we could do on a podcast.

Discussion

audience memberEMILY GILOTTI: Do you realize how much kids and young adults get their news online, simply because they don't have time to wait for a specific newscast?

SHAPIRO: We definitely realize it, and we're trying to work with it. But we also want to serve the millions who are still watching network news. We're trying to find ways to make online news better, something more involving than just clicking on text but less passive than watching TV.

STEVE SCHULTZ: To what extent does the idea of participatory media affect modern television news? I'm also curious about public broadcasting.

SHAPIRO: Viewer feedback is important, but we're still trying to figure out how to implement the ideas. Email is very important to journalists. It's become impossible even for executives to ignore feedback. I think PBS does some wonderful work, and I'm glad it's there.

CHANG: I've done pieces for PBS. For me, it's like cross-training. The pace is different; they're always telling me to slow down. It's what they're used to, since they tend to focus on dense topics that the networks often stay away from. Timeshifting is a major factor in the success of online news, of course, but I worry that if people can choose to view only the news they're interested in, they might only eat dessert, so to speak, and miss out on important stories they consider boring.

QUESTION: Did you go to a formal journalism program?

CHANG: No, I didn't. There's a weird bias against journalism school among journalists; we tend to think of journalism as more of a trade than a profession, something that has to be learned on the job. I majored in political science and communication.

ED EMBER: In Bob Schafer's show, viewers vote on which stories they want to see. Have you tossed that kind of idea around?

SHAPIRO: It's easy to obtain that kind of data, but I'd be hesitant to put that kind of idea into practice, because I worry that people might only watch news they like. We did an interactive murder mystery once, offering viewers a chance to decide what they wanted to see next. The ratings dropped with each episode.

CHANG: At ABC, we get a daily email about the most popular online stories. They're almost always the major stories and the weird, offbeat stories. People tend to click on the most bizarre story, not necessarily the most important.

BROTMAN: We've just been talking about broadcasting so far, but what about cable? Cable obviously has an enormously influential role. How has that affected broadcast television?

SHAPIRO: In network news, there used to be a kind of arrogance due to lack of competition. The news cycle stopped when the network said it stopped. If a story happened between newscasts, there was no need to cover it, because nobody else was covering it either. Now, with 24-hour cable news, there's no waiting. One result of this is that the op-ed seems to have moved into prime-time. The anchors have distinct points of view and the shows are more concerned with entertainment than information.

CHANG: I remember being at a plane crash, it must have been Pan-Am 103, and I couldn't un-cable from the satellite truck to investigate the story, because I had to report live to compete with CNN. There are benefits as well. If you get a scoop, you can put it on the network's website and not wait until you air.

SHAPIRO: The event that changed my life, as a journalist, was Watergate. The Washington Post and the New York Times owned that story. They would send each other their papers' respective front pages, and each would try to catch up in the next 24 hours. Now the idea of the news cycle has accelerated dramatically.

CHANG: Policy makers in particular have always been concerned about news cycles.

QUESTION: What is the role of network television today? There's a great deal of skepticism of American network news. People feel you're only giving a dumbed-down, American perspective on world events.

SHAPIRO: I'd object to the term “dumbed-down,” but we do focus on the American perspective. Most newscasts adopt the perspective of their own country; in coverage of the Iraq war, the British press was much more skeptical of the coalition's success, since the British troops were in a different region of the country than Americans and having a much more difficult time. I hear complaints of one-sidedness from all sides, though. Someone will complain that we're unfair to Palestinians in our reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but then someone else will complain that we're unfair to Israelis on the same topic. We have to look down the middle to provide a balanced perspective.

audience member

DEAN JANSEN: What, in your opinion, is the ultimate value of gatekeepers and moderators in the current media world? Newsvine, for example, is a news organization in which people have become highly trusted sources.

CHANG: It points to the rise of blogs. While they're an interesting development, my concern with blogs is that it's hard to check someone's credentials or bias online.

SHAPIRO: I support anything that gets people more engaged with the news. Given the times in which we live, it's a tragedy that voter turnout is so low. However, it's possible for news sources to develop ideologies that only enforce certain opinions, and it would be a tragedy if people selected their news on that basis.

CHANG: A similar situation exists with Italy 's print media, where there are an extraordinary number of newspapers, but all of them are controlled by political parties.

QUESTION: You asked about The Daily Show earlier. What does it say that so many Americans get their news from a “fake” news show?

SHAPIRO: I don't think it's anything particularly new. People used to go to Johnny Carson for their news. They wanted the news with a funny spin on it.

CHANG: We could do NPR-type stories all the time, but we'd drive away the audience.

HENRY JENKINS: The usual explanation for the success of The Daily Show is that Jon Stewart is funny, but do you think people might be watching because it provides perspectives not seen on network news? The networks only feature commentators from the two major parties, whereas Jon Stewart has interviewed libertarians, conservatives, etc. In addition, Comedy Central had more coverage of the 2004 Democratic and Republican National Conventions than all three major networks combined. I think the question is rather, what is Jon Stewart doing well that the networks are no longer doing?

SHAPIRO: The conventions were covered very well by cable news channels. I think Jon Stewart's appeal is that he presents the news in a funny manner from a lefty-libertarian point of view. I love Jon Stewart, but I think it would be a shame if that was the only way to present the news.

QUESTION: Juju, you're a correspondent for ABC, and have been extremely complimentary of your husband, who works for NBC. What's your marriage like?

CHANG: We were always in different places in our respective news divisions, so we've never had to go head-to-head. There is some occasional rivalry, but it's always friendly. We're not immune to having shop talk at home.

SHAPIRO: There are benefits to marrying someone in the same profession. When 9/11 happened, we knew we wouldn't see each other for a while, it was just understood. We understand each other's struggles and accomplishments.

CHANG: We tried to work together on a few things, when we were both at ABC, and it went terribly badly. I'm in awe of couples that can work together professionally.

BRIAN HENDERSON: First, I used to work at CNN, and I think people don't realize that, in local news, most packages are one minute and thirty seconds, while on CNN they're generally two minutes and thirty seconds. When people talk about the “dumbing down” of news, they don't realize we're trying to summarize a great deal of information into a short amount of time. That's one difference between television and newspapers or magazines. If people complained about something I did, I'd tell them to check out a newspaper. I think you need to make it a point that people can go to the web for more in-depth information. Secondly, speaking of gatekeepers, since 9/11 and the rise of Fox News, news seems much more “Americentric.” I'd like to see more foreign news that isn't about people killing each other, so Americans won't think of themselves as being on an island. CNN was considering shrinking the foreign bureaus before 9/11. Are there any plans to beef up your foreign bureaus?

SHAPIRO: There's not a lot of foreign news on television, and one reason is that the big stories tend to eat up a lot of airtime. In addition, the world has changed. The Cold War provided a framework that made foreign news relevant to Americans. Between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, that went away, and foreign news became more economic. I'd have liked to put on more foreign news, but those stories always got the lowest ratings. Now, the most important issue to any viewer seems to be, “Am I safe?” This leads to the tone of the foreign news you mentioned.

HENDERSON: Do you think people were surprised by 9/11 because of a general failure to understand foreign news?

CHANG: I think everyone was surprised by 9/11, no matter how informed they were about foreign news.

DAVID THORBURN: I have two questions. The first is about the response to 9/11. “Am I safe” is certainly the question on everyone's mind, but only because of the news media. The national response to 9/11 seemed to be dictated to the news media by the Bush administration, and consequently, America panicked and continues to panic in a way that countries like England and Israel, that have lived with the threat of terrorism day in and day out for decades, manage to avoid. Many critics of American journalism suggest that American journalists have been relatively abject in accepting a partisan account of 9/11, helping to create a climate of fear that trumps concerns over civil liberties. Do you feel this indictment is accurate?

SHAPIRO: It would be great if journalists could, like historians, take a wider view, but they can't. Everyone I knew tried to get the best picture we could. However, the current presidential administration is highly secretive, and its members are very loyal to one another. Since we can only report what we hear, it puts us in a difficult position. Only now, three years into the war, are generals starting to come forward. We'd have put them on if they had been talking then.

THORBURN: But there were ordinary citizens such as Noam Chomsky, who were speaking. The overwhelming majority of the world had doubts about the Bush administration line; there were certainly people to be interviewed.

SHAPIRO: I don't disagree, but while there were certainly people talking about their suspicions, reporters hadn't uncovered anything of that type, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

THORBURN: My second question is about the polarization of the news. You both agree that there's a downside to the new media environment, in which people can select the news they know will reinforce their existing opinions. I would say that this problem is also apparent in television news, especially on cable. Fox News is one example, another being Anderson Cooper's replacement of Aaron Brown as anchor—Aaron Brown was an intellectual who tried to get perspective on the news, whereas Cooper's show is incredibly personal, focusing not on the news but on how people feel about the news. How serious do you think this trend is, and do you think it will end, or get worse?

SHAPIRO: There are two things going on. I think Cooper represents the authenticity side of where news might be going. Cooper's reporting on Katrina felt authentic, he was reacting to what he saw, not reading from a script, and seemed offended when people would try to spin him. That's different, and seems to be what young people seem to like about news. That doesn't bother me as much; it might just be where reporting is going. Reporting with a policy point of view, however, is different. When a news community decides that policy A is wrong, and looks at the news through that prism, ignoring evidence to the contrary, that's a problem. I don't even mind cable news shows where people clearly have that kind of point of view, but it bothers me when the line begins to blur.

CHANG: Lou Dobbs has recently garnered some attention for his opinions on the current immigration debate, and he's now going to Mexico to meet with Vincente Fox on the issue. Not only is he a newsman stating his opinions as news, but he's actively trying to influence policy. I think you're going to see more of that.

THORBURN: Do you think that Lou Dobbs is trying to define himself or CNN as the anti-Fox, of sorts?

CHANG: I don't know if it's a calculated measure.

SHAPIRO: CNN is changing a lot, but I think it would be a mistake to say that one show defines a network.

KENT JACKSON: You mentioned party-owned newspapers in Italy and partisan news sources in general. I think that can be useful at times to energize the citizenry, but how do you, as reporters, identify and avoid bias in your own reporting?

SHAPIRO: I think it's a fun debate to have in newsrooms. Sometimes we'll try to imagine how Fox would run a particular story. Bernie Goldberg writes about media bias, and he says most of it is unconscious. It's important to keep in mind.

BROTMAN: Five years out, what does the television news landscape look like?

SHAPIRO: In five years, you'll get more news, in more places, in many different ways. The challenge will be to figure out what makes each type of broadcast special, because the basic information will be the same.

CHANG: I think television news will continue to rely on big names to draw in audiences. It'll fragment audiences across different media, but draw them together with personalities.

BROTMAN: Do you think the networks will still have central roles?

SHAPIRO: Five years from now, CBS, ABC and NBC will remain big powers in news.

CHANG: I have to agree.

--compiled by Peter Rauch
--photos by Marie Thibault


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