The Sham Wow conventions

I teach two classes — mass communication and news writing — at UNC-Chapel Hill. They are filled with inquisitive, bright and focused students. Some want to be journalists, some want to go into a communications-related field, some are in other disciplines and some are undecided.

I asked both classes if they were paying much attention to the Republican National Convention. A few said they were. I asked if any were watching it on television, either cable or the one-hour network programming. Zero response. It’s not that they are especially disengaged, although school has just started and many are involved in sorority rush. They simply get so little of their information from TV news. That’s close to what’s happening outside the walls of academia, too, according to Reuters.

“But the biggest problem for the Republicans was less the hurricane and more dwindling interest in convention-watching by the general public, experts said.

“Isaac is sucking out a lot of the oxygen but that’s because there wasn’t much oxygen in the first place,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy. “Voters and certainly the media are aware these conventions have become hour-long infomercials. There is very little suspense.”

Makes you wonder why the networks even bother. Supposedly, 15,000 journalists are in Tampa and the same are expected in Charlotte for the DNC. Imagine the stories those journalists could be doing if they weren’t covering “informercials.”

I do like the fact-checking that news orgs are doing on the convention speeches. But now that the networks know they are broadcasting so many lies and deceptions presented as truth, shouldn’t they classify the conventions under “entertainment programming?” Or, better yet, tell the two parties that if you continue to disseminate disinformation, you can do it on someone else’s airwaves.

Romney in High Point, for the win

There’s this saying — which I know isn’t entirely true or false — that morning television news has to await for the morning paper to get its news.

This morning at 6 a.m. I went out to pick up the paper. In the house, I had the Good Morning Show on. I stood and listened to the program’s two-minute news update in which the announcer said that Mitt Romney was going to visit North Carolina on his bus tour this weekend. But, she added, the specific cities on his itinerary hadn’t been announced yet.

I unrolled the paper and the lead story on the front page was the announcement that Romney will be in High Point on Sunday.

As a friend noted on Twitter, the TV news folks’ paper must have gotten wet in the morning rain.

Of course, the information about the cities Romney will visit wasn’t part of an announcement from the campaign. It came from old-school reporting so good on the newspaper.

By the way, the information about Romney’s visit was posted on the paper’s website at 5:30 p.m. Monday. It apparently didn’t go up on any of the television websites until this morning. News Channel 14 still says there are no details on where the buses will visit, and I can’t find it at all on WFMY’s website. That should put to rest the fear in some newspaper newsrooms that TV competitors scour the paper’s website for new news “to steal.”

Earth to NBC: The Internet is here

Smarter people than I will write about this, but I’m interested so….

Is NBC aware that the Internet and social media has changed the world of news? It’s hard to tell.

* Last night, Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera claimed not to know who Sir Tim Berners-Lee is. As a result, they embarrassed themselves and the network to millions of viewers.

* The first big event of the Olympics was the 400 medley pitting Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps. Did NBC, which half-a-dozen channels at its disposal, show the race live? No. But damned if you couldn’t watch endless cycling, soccer, volleyball, fencing, etc.

* At the 6:30 p.m. nightly news broadcast, Brian Williams apologized to viewers for being a spoiler and announced that Ryan Lochte won the 400 buttterfly medley earlier in the day. Awkward for a newsman announcing the day’s top story, but OK. Then the network doesn’t actually show film of the race itself. Shows only stills.

* At 7:30 p.m. the network promotes the 400 butterfly as “tonight’s race” between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, even as it — and many viewers — knew that Lochte already won the race. Difference between the news division and entertainment? Embarrassing? Absolutely. The local affiliate, WXII, did the same in its special report preceding the 8 p.m. Olympics coverage.

* At 8 p.m. Bob Costas, to his credit, announces that everything the network is showing is taped and that the network is not going to announce results before it shows the races. No spoilers, he says.

I’m sure there are others. I’ve not watched much of the Olympic so far, but so far I’m not impressed.

Sunday update: Yes, there are better observers. Stacey Higginbotham at GigaOm is one. Jeff Jarvis has another.



“True Believers”

I was 15 in 1967-68; old enough to know and enjoy the revolution going on in this county, and too young to do anything about it. I think about that because I just finished “True Believers” by Kurt Andersen, which is an excellent read. The main character even has an uncle who ran the family department store in Greensboro.

But that’s not what this post is about. I was struck by the perfect way Andersen described one form of news today.

“In the last forty-five minutes, I’ve listened to a dozen different anchors and experts and commentators and have learned absolutely nothing I didn’t know from reading the story in the newspaper this morning. For a few months last year, when I stopped watching cable news altogether, I think I felt slightly mellower and happier, like when I gave up cigarettes and Diet Coke, or when mosquito season ends. And as with cigarettes, I’ve come to believe cable news is slowly killing us, giving us intellectual emphysema, cancer of the mind. After all, people smoked for the better part of a century before they really knew it could be fatal.”

And, this, later:

“Bill Ayers finally became famous when he was a harmless sixty-three-year-old professor, because now our proliferating electronic media are free to focus on the irrelevant, obliged to fill air time and keep viewers and listeners riled by any means necessary. We’ve given the bad guys — a radical group calling itself al Qaeda — an unprecedented opportunity to scare us silly.”

TV news judgment vs. ratings: who wins?

My friend Jeff Gauger takes note that, on their websites, neither WFMY nor WGHP mention the omission of WXII from the channels offered by Time Warner Cable. I don’t know whether the anchors reported it on the newscasts yesterday or this morning, but I suspect not.

In a conversation about an unrelated topic a few years ago, a local anchor told me why they wouldn’t: “We don’t want to give viewers any reason to change the channel.” The thinking is that if an anchor talks about something happening at another station in the market, it’s possible — even likely — the typical viewer will switch over to that station to see what’s happening. Bad for the ratings.

(In this case, what is happening is that Time Warner has given us the NBC affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, Penn. After watching a snippet of that station’s news, I switched away. Why Wilkes-Barre, as opposed to Charlotte or Raleigh? A Facebook friend told me that TW sent out a message explaining: Certain rules limit our ability to import TV signals from other cities. We have done so where those rules currently permit it.)

Interestingly, News 14 Carolinas — TW’s station — didn’t have a problem reporting what was happening. I bet WXII didn’t either, although I don’t know because I don’t have a TV with an antenna.

Back to the issue over TV ratings vs. news that viewers might find interesting and helpful. I understand the reluctance of competing TV stations to skip over the information about WXII, if they actually did. TV news is fighting the same battle for viewers that newspapers are for readers. Appointment television is becoming a thing of the past, and the latest Gallup Poll results showing a decline in confidence in TV news are troubling. But — and you knew a “but” was coming, didn’t you? — that thinking reveals a terrible blind spot. If you want to be the news leader, to be the most trusted, to be the place people turn, then you have to give them information that’s valued and useful. Otherwise, you force people to do just what Jeff said: Go elsewhere for the news. Why would you want them to do that? In this case, people would have switched to where WXII used to be, seen a totally irrelevant newscast and switched right back, firm in their belief that WGHP or WFMY was serving their needs better.

In addition, the idea that people don’t channel surf during newscasts harkens back to the pre-remote days. I watch a newscast until it hits a story that I know already or doesn’t interest me and I switch. Or I’ll hunt for the weather forecast and stop at whichever station has it, although I don’t stop at WXII’s spot on the dial now because the weather in Wilkes-Barre isn’t helpful.

All that said, if WGHP or WFMY reported the WXII troubles on the air, then never mind.

I believe this will be resolved soon because those WXII viewers are getting used to turning to WGHP, WFMY and News 14 for their news. I can’t imagine that WXII wants new viewing habits to take hold.



Answers for TV & newspapers

“No one in charge wants to fail, of course. But the hesitation to boldly address this emergency is a failure of leadership. Maybe some are waiting for the economy to turn around. The economy isn’t helping matters, but that’s not the problem anymore. Much more fundamental. It’s been called a culture of inertia in the print world.”

Those are the words of a former TV news director, who is actually talking about TV news, not newspapers. TV is following the same path newspapers blazed a few years ago: chasing new customers with an old product, trying to make the audience come to the TV rather than going to where the audience is when it’s there, and chasing news that has only incidental relevance to people’s lives.

“I believe too few people know what to do, and the ones who do aren’t being given the money and authority, along with the time needed, to create the disruptive change.”

Right now, TV’s solution seems to be “make people like you.” Jeff Jarvis comes to the rescue with a more helpful — but much harder — to-do list. This list is not just for TV; newspaper journalists — and newspaper leadership — can easily adapt Jeff’s list to their purposes. It will be difficult and frightening, but not as difficult and frightening as the current path we’re on appears to be.

Revisiting the View from Nowhere

Back in the day, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite was known as the “most trusted man in America.” It was the highest praise a journalist could get because, at its core, the relationship between a journalist and his or her audience is nothing without trust.

A friend of mine in the TV news business told me the other day that the emphasis has shifted. Now it is more important for viewers to like the announcer than to trust him or her. That’s one reason that anchors in local news seem so darned friendly and nice. (Another reason is that they are friendly and nice.)

Aren’t the trust and likability two sides of the same coin? If you like someone, doesn’t that lead to trusting him? No. I like Bill Clinton but don’t trust him. I like Bill O’Reilly, but don’t trust him, either. When I was in college, I liked a lot of people who were entertaining and fun to be around. But I only trusted a few.

For most of the time I was editor of a newspaper, we emphasized trustworthiness. We asked questions about it on annual surveys. We created action plans to improve our trust ratings. It was a big deal. Being liked? Being liked wasn’t important. When you’re writing about topics that made some readers uncomfortable — same-sex marriage, to take a recent example — likability wasn’t in the cards. Did Woodward and Bernstein worry about being liked when the Republic was at stake? (Remember the look on Bernstein’s face in the movie “All the President’s Men” when Woodward told a source that he was a Republican?) Anyway, how can you worry about being liked when you take it as a creed to afflict the comfortable?

That’s one reason why I clung to the “View from Nowhere.” My thought, along with many traditionalists, was that if we’re straight down the middle, then readers couldn’t fault us for being unfair. (That didn’t work, of course. Many readers did accuse us of being biased.) It was easier, too, in many ways.

But if you believe that viewers — and presumably readers — prefer journalists they like, then perhaps it’s time to drop the View from Nowhere. Perhaps it’s time for the journalists to establish their authority in a different way. Letting people know where you stand may well make them like you and, eventually, trust you. From Jay Rosen, the NYU professor who champions challenging the journalistic View from Nowhere:  “If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it.”

It is too late for me, dammit, to challenge the View from Nowhere in a newsroom. But it’s not too late for you to experiment with it. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, either.

Jay, again: “Let some in the press continue on with the mask of impartiality, which has advantages for cultivating sources and soothing advertisers. Let others experiment with transparency as the basis for trust. When you click on their by-line it takes you to a disclosure page where there is a bio, a kind of mission statement, and a creative attempt to say: here’s where I’m coming from (one example) along with campaign contributions, any affiliations or memberships, and–I’m just speculating now–a list of heroes and villains, or major influences, along with an archive of the work, plus anything else that might assist the user in placing this person on the user’s mattering map.”

Lex Alexander proposed this approach years ago, and I didn’t pay him much attention. (Sorry, Lex, for my short-sightedness.) But you can be smarter than I was. Besides, given the media’s low trust rating and newspapers’ declining circulation nunbers, what do you have to lose?

Am I making too much of a leap that crashing the View from Nowhere will improve likability and then lead to increased trust? I don’t think so. Try this experiment: Google “most trusted man in America.” Go ahead. I’ll wait.

If your filter bubble is like mine, Cronkite’s name comes up on five of the first 10 links. Jon Stewart, a funny, likable faux newsman, a guy who explodes the View from Nowhere, comes up with four.

And that’s the way it is.

Teens having sex at home!!! Oh my! Oh. Wait.

You know it’s sweeps week for local TV when they do stories that seem, well, a bit sensational. That’s what WFMY’s story on parents who let their teens have sex at home seemed to me. It also seemed unlikely that this is a trend in the Piedmont or North Carolina…particularly a North Carolina that just voted the way it did.

So, I turned to Google. Here is the beginning of WFMY’s story that aired last night. Patty Skudlarek told her 18-year-old son that if he wants to have sex, she’s not only OK with him having sex in the family home, she actually prefers that he do it there.

Here is the beginning of ABC News’ story that aired last year. Patty Skudlarek strives to be a responsible parent. That’s why she says she told her 18-year-old son that if he wants to have sex, not only is she okay with it, but she’d prefer that he do it in the family home.

Here is the beginning of a Tampa Bay television station’s report last November. TAMPA BAY, Fla. — Patty Skudlarek strives to be a responsible parent. That’s why she says she told her 18-year-old son that if he wants to have sex she’s not only okay with him having sex in the home, she’d prefer it.

WFMY never says that the story is local. But it never says it isn’t. Best I can tell, the parents interviewed in the studio aren’t from here either. (They are the same ones interviewed in the ABC report below.) In fact, at the end of the online story, it shares credit with the Tampa story.

YouTube Preview Image

I suppose this kind of racy story gets ratings and the sweeps period is when you want ratings. But, to me, it is just the sort of story that erodes trust in the media. No evidence of this as a trend happening here. No suggestion that the people pictured are not from around here. And a story that gives the impression that society is going to hell with loose morals and bad parenting.

Twitter in the news

Mathew Ingram tweeted what I’ve thought about a lot of news stories on television: it’s amazing how much TV coverage of Whitney Houston’s death consists of some news anchor just reading tweets on the air.

I’m a proponent of big media’s efforts to interact with people watching and reading their news reports. Anything that can make us listen to people, talk with them and learn from them is sorely needed. That said, as a viewer of a lot of television news, I haven’t ever seen a viewer’s response that resonated or added to my understanding of an event, including Houston’s.

Local and national television news shows use Twitter and Facebook posts on the air to, to, to, well, I don’t know what they do it for. Most of the time, the people tweeting aren’t identified by real name or location. My favorites are the controversial topics that have  multiple “sides.” The announcers make sure that all sides are represented from the Facebook and Twitter commenters.

I understand the desire to involve people in newscasts. Newspapers let readers have 200+ words to write their reflections on any manner of civic issues and the papers publish them as letters to the editor.

News programs insert the Twitter and Facebook reactions in their newscasts. Shouldn’t the inclusion of such stuff add to the story in some way? It is possible to write a penetrating thought in 140 characters. Perhaps television stations have put them on the air. I just haven’t seen any.

Newspaper stories that waste time and energy

Updated below

When I was a young editor, I used to roll my eyes at the older editor who restricted us to one photograph in October of pumpkins and who would promote stories about medical conditions affecting older people (like him), such as dementia and prostate cancer.

Naturally, when I became the older editor, I had my own quirky pet peeves. I don’t care for weather stories. Unless it is a heavy snow storm that keeps people in their homes or temperatures above 105 and people are dying, it is just weather. People know it. Besides, local TV, with their weather reports every few minutes, own weather anyway. Why waste staff time and space writing about it?

Another is marking the increase or decrease of gas prices with a story. If you drive, you know, generally, what the price of gas is. It’s gone up a nickel per gallon in the past seven days. OK. I got that when I gassed up yesterday. Use that staff time to tell me something useful..

A third are stories about the fluctuations in the stock market. Goes up 100 points or down 100 points, investors who care about that information on a day-to-day basis know it already. And while I’m wandering down this dark and ugly path, the release of the monthly unemployment figures don’t do much for me, either. Changes of .2 percent don’t help me understand what’s happening in the local economy.

Oh, we wrote those stories, partly out of habit, partly out of lack of imagination and partly to fill the paper. But I never kidded myself that they were of great use to the reader. It took me awhile to understand that that type of news had become a commodity — that the Weather Channel,, any of a zillion stock websites and cable channels could deliver specific bits of information people want better than the local newspaper.

It wasn’t a leap to understand that we could use our staff better telling people things they don’t know about.

What other stories are printed in papers or aired on television that aren’t immediately helpful to you?

(Hat tip to Teresa Prout and Ben Villarreal for reminding me of my often irritating news judgment.)

Update: Some good contributions from friends:

Angie Muhs — Most anniversary stories

Guy Lucas — Quarterly earnings stories

Luis Perez — Stories rating “the most stolen cars”

And I’ll add two more: Holiday shopping stories and holiday traffic stories.