Local Newsers: What’s It Going to Be? Innovate or Die? (Huh? You Sure You Don’t Want to Pick “Innovate?”)

3125936268_d71b8a90a1_oIf you haven’t yet read Jeff Jarvis’ excellent book, What Would Google Do?, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy.

Jarvis is a new media guru who produces content across multiple platforms (his BuzzMachine blog is required reading, and his new Guardian podcast is fantastic) and teaches digital media at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism.  His book “reverse-engineers” Google to see what secrets we can uncover, and then implement, perhaps fueling a new style of journalism that will keep all of us working into the next decade.

In a discussion of financial models, and how Google transcended them, Jarvis writes:  the “winner is likely to be a new player, not one trying to protect old revenue streams and assets.”  Think about that for a moment.  Look at your own company.  Is it innovating into the future?  Or desperately, blindly, obsessively trying to make what’s always worked still work?

In New York last week, News Corp announced its latest round of firings and buyouts, cutting twenty staffers at WNYW and WWOR, cuts that affected traditional news operations and the stations’ web team.  That jumped out at me.  The web, without question, is the future.  What does it say about a company making cuts and deciding to pull back on the one area of the business with a clear, huge and critical role in the years ahead?

My answer:  they’re doing whatever they can do to cut costs and stay alive until the economy improves.  Then they’ll go back to that internet stuff.

Jeff Jarvis

Jeff Jarvis

Jarvis calls this the “Cash Cow in the Coal Mine:”  “Cash flow can blind you to the strategic necessity of change, tough decisions, and innovation…How many companies and industries fail to heed the warnings they know are there but refuse to see?”

Local news refuses to see.  As Jarvis writes, station owners are losing their “destinies” because they want to “preserve their pasts.”  And you know it’s true.  As I’ve written here, there is incredible innovation happening in the world of video storytelling and news.  It’s just not being done by television stations.  Newspapers are trying new ways of including multimedia content to make their reporting more impactful, interesting and different. In cities across the country, folks are creating web-based newscasts that look nothing like the stuff stations continue to produce–just the way they always have.

Watch this promo for a new Australian newscast that debuts this month.  Aside from the cliche-ridden nature of the promo itself, is there anything here that couldn’t have been done 25 years ago?

Think about it.  What’s so different about the six o’clock news?  Sure, it starts in some cities at 4.  It’s shot in HD.  And… well, beyond that, it’s the same product we’ve been selling for decades. That reminds me of senior citizens who will buy a new version of the same old car time after time because that’s what they like.  And looking at the demographics of a lot of news, these are the same reliable viewers keeping some local newscasts alive.

Where’s the innovation?  What’s one new thing that would’ve been unimaginable to the Action News teams of the 1970’s?  Doppler radar?  That’s an improvement of the same old thing.  New ways of doing liveshots?  What am I missing?

Take the computers out of the newsroom and put typewriters back, replace the cell phones with hard lines, put the AP wire back into a noisy printer in the corner, and go retro with the set, the over-the-shoulder graphics (FIRE!) and men’s lapels, and this is the same old cereal in a new box.

It’s depressing, when you look at the environment we’re in:  a once-in-a-career time of change, with a life-or-death incentive to innovate, and yet stations still believe in the tried and true rules of innovation in local news:

1)  New Set

2)  New Graphics

3)  New Anchors

4)  New News Director

Seriously, people.  News isn’t dying.  Someone’s going to be making money giving our viewers the information they want.  But there’s no reason to believe it’s going to be us.

I guess times are just too tight to risk taking chances.  And we’ll staff the web team back up when the car dealers start spending again.  Sound good?  Yeah, that’ll work.

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