Monthly Archives: March 2009

WNBC Without Chuck Scarborough? NBC Couldn’t Possibly Be That Stupid. Right? Um… right?

Chuck (and Sue)... Somehow Making it Feel Like Nothings Changed

Chuck (and Sue)... Somehow Making it Feel Like Nothing's Changed

At first read, the dramatic Gawker headline was downright laughable: “NBC News to Axe Chuck Scarborough and Paul Moyer?” Uh… Sure. Just go ahead and kill the last shred of respectability at WNBC in the name of saving Chuck’s reported three million beans a year.  The very idea that “content center” suits would make such an astonishingly stupid move seemed simply beyond the realm of believability.

Right?  I mean, we’re talking NBC here.

Oh, no.

For the record, WNBC shot down the Gawker post this way:  “It is not true. He is not being bought out. Chuck is a big part of our station.”  And he is.  He IS the station.  Watching WNBC on a recent JetBlue flight, I thought to myself, my God, without Chuck this would be absolutely unwatchable.  Suave Chuck with his unflappable delivery and that oh so familiar, comforting voice somehow performs magic every day for Channel 4:  he makes it seem like the same old WNBC.  

Take Chuck out of the equation and what’s left?  

Could NBC even float that in the wildest of brainstorming sessions?  

And then I realized sure they could.  Of course they could.  Why wouldn’t they?  

This is the same station that, in the name of cost-cutting and creating a new kind of multiplatform content delivery machine killed off just about every name reporter they had;  it was like the Yankees, in a fit of cost-cutting to pay for their new stadium, had gone into the dugout and started firing their best players…suddenly fielding a team of up-from-the-minors nobodys.  The Yankees hoping to fill seats on the familiar name, the pinstripes, and Derek Jeter.  And yet that’s been the blueprint at WNBC.  

Kill Off the Captain? Fire the Franchise? Seriously?

But fire Jeter?  Chuck is Derek Jeter at WNBC.  Gawker reports:  “It used to be that, in local news at least, the anchor meant everything and was worth outsize salaries some of them have commanded in major markets. If Scarborough and Moyer, both of whom are giants in the business, get axed, it means that ‘NBC is essentially getting out of the local news business,’ one NBC source says.”

If only the managers at NBC were as reliable and focused on truly fielding a winning team as the Yankees. Because you know there’s really no chance anybody’s been brainstorming about saving a few bucks by offloading Derek Jeter.  But then again, the Yankees still perform.  They still sell out at home. And, most important, they have money.  

Lots and lots of money.

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The “Future of Media,” Tribune-Style: Local TV Newsers Take Over Print

So they just named a new publisher of the Hartford Courant.  The Courant’s a Pulitzer-Prize winner, and the nation’s oldest continuously published newspaper, according to The New York Times, and is owned by the bankrupt Tribune Company (insert your own joke there).  

So who’s taking the helm at the Courant?  It’s Richard Graziano.  His newspaper knowledge?  Uh… taking stories from the paper and making TV stories out of them, maybe?  See, Graziano’s the GM of Hartford’s WTIC and WTXX, now set to move into the Courant’s building, where Tribune plans to build a new, HD studio and expand newscasts.  You can just imagine how delighted the print guys are about their new boss and roommates, right?

WTIC/Hartford

WTIC/Hartford

Anyway, this, Tribune says, is “the future of media.”  Randy Michaels, Tribune’s COO, explains:  “Whether in print, over the air, or online–the delivery mechanism isn’t as important as the unique, rich nature of the content provided.”

In an article posted on the courant.com website, Tribune admits that its efforts to leverage print and TV ownership in other markets has been a “mixed success” and suggests that this kind of full broadcast and print meld with a TV guy running the show (and adding Publisher to his business cards) will make things work.

WTXX/Hartford

WTXX/Hartford

You might have a tough time selling that in the shell-shocked Courant newsroom, where staff has been cut nearly in half (45%) since last year, and the “future of media” apparently didn’t even come with a timetable or step-by-step owner’s manual. Kenneth Gosselin, who wrote the story for the Courant from the soon-to-be-billed “WTIC-Courant” newsroom, was forced to explain it all this way:  “The Courant remains the largest newsgathering operation covering Connecticut, and the combined WTIC-Courant newsroom will be by far the largest in the state. It remains unclear how, when and whether news reporting operations will be combined.”

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Filed under Local News 2.0

WUSA/DC Local Newser Puts Himself on “Permanent Furlough” via Blistering Resignation Letter

Alan Henney said what others clearly felt:  something’s changed–and not for the better–at WUSA/DC.  “We are doing less news gathering these days and more information posting,” Henney writes in a memo to the WUSA news staff posted on DCRTV.  “Somebody needs to be driving the news machine at all times, actively pursuing news leads. We’ve lost our focus.”

WUSA, as most who follow the evolution of local TV news already know, recently replaced traditional news crews with one-man-bands, and converted its newsroom into an “information center” devoted to fast-paced, multiplatform news production:  getting the story told fast, in a variety of ways, from Twitter, to blogging, and sometimes even on a regular old newscast.

Henney, a weekend assignment editor at Channel 9, says the “shock and awe” digital campaign has come at a cost in the most basic of places:  doing the news.  “WUSA frequently lacks the discussion that is vital to the success of a vibrant news operation and falls into this model. Many of us are reluctant to say anything, and the suggestion box on the first floor is not enough. The consultants and out-of-touch corporate management have ruined the newscasts with repetitive Web clutter, endless sidebar packages, and their preoccupation with the Internet. You won’t find a blog anywhere that will generate enough revenue to support a news operation of this size, there are simply too many. We’ve heard regular speak of “Web Winners,” but what ever happened to the “News Winners?” A dying breed?”

Web Alert:  Is Anybody Doing the News?

Web Alert: Is Anybody Doing the News?

Henney’s letter has sparked a massive debate on the dcrtv site, and among DC local newsers.  It’s an important discussion, and sadly sparked by a man who felt his only option was to walk out, leaving the weekend desk after nearly a decade.  “Any corporation that allows employees to blog as an excuse for not reporting to work on time is not an organization with which I want to be associated. Effective immediately, I am placing myself on permanent furlough from the Gannett Corp,” he wrote.

DC newsers:  if you’ve watched the content coming from the Info Center, do you agree?  Has WUSA traded reporting for Twittering?  Can stations successfully do both?

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Filed under Cutbacks, Furloughs, Local News 2.0, Social Media

Mysteries of Local TV News: What’s With the Bum’s Rush?

I must admit this is one I’ve always been puzzled by:  why, when managers decide they’re getting rid of someone, does the axe drop so swiftly–without warning in many cases–and the body, still warm, get carted off the premises so damn quickly?

It happened today in Minneapolis.  WCCO anchor Jeanette Trompeter thought she’d be doing her regular gig on the anchor desk at 5 p.m.  Instead, she got the axe–and ten minutes later, she was shown the door.  She was talking to Star-Tribune reporter C.J. a few minutes after that, apologizing for crying about the sudden loss of her job.  “I feel like a wimp,” she told C.J.  “In this economy you’re stupid if you’re on TV and you don’t know it’s a possibility.  All I’ve ever asked for was give me a head start to go look for something else.  I didn’t think I’d have to leave ten minutes after.  I thought I’d be doing the five o’clock news tonight.”

WCCOs Trompeter

WCCO's Trompeter

She didn’t.  Why?  “They said, ‘you’re no longer an employee.'”

Welcome to the Kinder and Gentler Street, where we all know the business is in trouble, and obviously, some cuts will be made.  But surely we can do this like professionals and with some degree of tact and grace.  Or, maybe it’s just easier to jump somebody with their IFB in and their scripts in hand and divert them away from the studio, up to HR, and then out through the loading dock.  Maybe that averts a “scene” or an on-air farewell (Heavens no!  That would let people know we’re a company like other industries where people are being laid off, right?) or maybe just a few days or weeks of having to, you know, work with them.

What’s the rush?  There are anchors in New York who’ve been pulled off the air in a flash, only to be sent home to ride out month after month of a contract–cashing the checks, but doing no work.  Anybody see the logic of cash-strapped companies paying employees to stay home?

Maybe they just are such lousy local newsers it makes better financial sense to get them out of the building at any cost?  Well, not at WCCO.  Trompeter says she got this Kafkaesque sendoff:  “They said, You’re a great employee and this has nothing to do with that. It’s a purely financial decision. I just got a great [job] review about three weeks ago.” 

Ponder that when you’re called into the news director’s office for that review.  You did great!  Might want to take your personal photos home just to be safe, though.  Never know if they’ll let you back to your desk after they fire you.

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Filed under layoffs

Do We Save Local TV News… Or Save Ourselves?

But... We Ruled the World... How Can It Ever End?

But... We Ruled the World... How Can It Ever End?

Clay Shirky’s recent column, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” has earned deserved attention among those of us pondering the question of what happens next, and whether the financial models of newspapering and making local TV news can survive the current economy.  Increasingly, it seems the answer to both questions is “no.”

It no longer seems like madness to suggest that what we’re living through isn’t the toughest times for local TV news as we know it, but rather, a revolution that will wash away the medium we grew up with, and usher in something different.  That’s scary stuff.

Shirky describes the insistence that newspapers must be saved this way:  “When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie. ”

Digital Guru Clay Shirky

Digital Guru Clay Shirky

That is meaty, heavy stuff, and it is as applicable, I believe to local TV news as it is to newspapers.  Anybody who refuses to believe that what we’ve spent our careers doing must continue to exist is at high risk of being rendered irrelevant.  And in TV, as in any business, irrelevant is noplace to be.

The save-the-papers debate, as Shirky points out, boils down to a journalistic truism:  newspapers put asses in seats at city council meetings, and get deeper into stories than local tv newsers have the luxury of doing.  They have more bodies to sift through overnight police reports and court filings.  They are essential to the survival of a healthy society.  If newspapers die, who will do that work?  Certainly not the “you’re live in the noon on the house fire” TV guy.  He’s lucky if he can grab a five-dollar footlong before he starts crashing for his 5 o’clock package.

“The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; “You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” has never been much of a business model,” Shirky writes.  “So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?  I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it.”

Same again for TV.  It’s gut-check time.  Are you thinking about surviving the downturn?  Or figuring out what’s the new thing–and how to thrive doing it?

The Rocky Said Goodbye After 150 Years

The Rocky Said Goodbye After 150 Years

Shirky writes:  “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead. ”

Society doesn’t need the six o’clock local news either.  But it does need to know what’s happening.  We still have a job to do, it’s just a question of where, and who’s going to pay us.  That’s what I’m anxious to figure out, rather than answer the question of when the dry pipe in the sales department will start gushing cash again and all will be better.  That sounds more than ever like denial.

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Filed under Local News 2.0

Sharing is Caring…Then, Firing. Fewer Local News Choppers for Gotham?

2 Stations Cover Madoff Live, Just 1 Chopper Overhead

2 Stations Cover Madoff Live, Just 1 Chopper Overhead

Sure, in the beginning it sounds like common sense.  It seems like good business.  Why hover two choppers over Bernie Madoff when one will do?  The suits at FOX and NBC were surely satisfied Thursday as the despicable Mr. Madoff made his one-way trip into court in Manhattan, a bevy of birds overhead to capture any fleeting movement that the army of stills and shooters on the ground might somehow miss.

Could the Baddest Bird in Gotham Be Grounded?

Could the Baddest Bird in Gotham Be Grounded?

When WNBC’s Chopper 4 needed to refuel, Channel 4 never lost a second of live overhead pictures–in HD–thanks to new BFF WNYW, with its sleek SkyFOX HD sharing live images with both stations.  “It’s a great plan to share assets and save money,” a FOX spokesperson told the New York Daily News’ Richard Huff.  Well, yes.  But talk to the local newsers who fly those birds, they’ll tell you what’s good for business almost certainly means somebody will lose their job.

“If the plan works out, one of the stations’ helicopters would be grounded completely and the two stations would share the remaining copter’s costs,” Huff reports.  It’s exactly what’s already happened in markets like Phoenix and Chicago, where “sharing” quickly morphed into “eliminating.”

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Filed under Cutbacks

Dispatch from the Front Lines: WUSA’s Scott Broom

A few months ago, Scott Broom, reporter at WUSA/DC got a nifty new title: “digital correspondent.” The Gannett station was busy transforming its old-fashioned “TV newsroom” into an “information center,” and its tired old teams of reporters and photographers into a fleet of shiny new DCs (hey! just like the City! was THAT why WUSA didn’t call them “backpack journalists,” “multiplatform journalists” or “one-man bands?”) like Scott Broom.

The elimination of the traditional reporter and photographer team sent some in the WUSA newsroom rushing to the exits, bemoaning the imminent collapse of the concept of hard local news. Scott Broom, however, is a believer. Profiled on Larry Smith’s BulletproofBlog, Broom says it’s all about staying current and competitive: “This is a web-first philosophy that is designed to make the TV station the primary source of highly-localized, moment-to-moment text, graphic, and video news online as well as on television.”

What a concept. Seeing past the bricks-and-mortar of the traditional TV model to the newsroom as a web-feeding factory. The idea, as Broom and his bosses see it, is nothing less than “a once in a generation opportunity to compete as the dominant media force” in local markets.

This is not a common belief–in fact, it’s a foreign concept–in most local TV newsrooms. You know the places where Facebook remains a “new” idea, and Twitter is, well, not on the radar yet. Broom says WUSA digital bosses like Lane Michaelsen and Patrick O’Brien encourage their reporters to take advantage of all these social media tools: “We know that a constant flow of new updates and content is absolutely essential to survival in the digital age…User comments and submissions of photos and videos are all sources of ‘new’ searchable content,” Broom says.

WUSA's Scott Broom

WUSA's Scott Broom

This kind of talk takes the debate over “content centers” out of the arena of cost-cutting and reporters lugging cameras, and into a new sphere: the idea that the medium itself is changing, and moving far more quickly than many of us may even realize into a web-style world: where news consumers want it fresh (and by fresh, we mean posted within seconds) and want to find it the way they find things online–links and keyword searches, not sitting down at six o’clock to see what streams out of the set at them.

If you’re a local TV reporter, ask yourself this: does Scott Broom inspire you, or scare you? Do you feel like “yes! he gets it!” or do you feel like your own grandparent, trying but failing to understand what it is you mean by this “internet” thing.

Broom admits context can be a casualty in the fight to serve multiple platforms all by himself, going live, blogging, and feeding, feeding, feeding. “The crew is gone. I work alone, shooting and editing my own video. I write and deliver content on all platforms all the time. I file text, video, and photo updates to the Internet throughout the day via wireless broadband. I twitter my followers when anything new occurs to drive traffic.”

So who does context in the content center model? And is this model the prescription for what ails local TV? Or just a low-cost recipe for killing what was good about local TV news in a losing battle against a medium that already works well on its own: the web?

Check out Broom’s complete comments…and then let’s have this discussion. It’s important, and we’ve got to figure this out together.

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Filed under Local News 2.0