News obituary – the audience is dying and so is the programming as we have known it

Older audiences for network newscasts may signal the death of the evening news – oh wait, maybe this obituary is already past due for newscasts that cost too much to produce for too little profit for too small an audience.  That is a trifecta representing the end of news as we know it.

Audiences are aging and networks have largely failed to capture the attention or loyalty of the younger Gen X, Gen Y, Millenials, Gen R and other audiences.  As the network news audience ages the doom and gloom around those once proud organizations becomes more intense.

I’ve heard an internal number at ABC News shows the average World News Tonight audience is 61.3 years old.  Public numbers are not as venerable.  At that increasing age medical-pharmaceutical and a few other advertisers are about the only ones who will find this audience at all desirable.

It foretells the end of the evening news as we know it today. Is that a bad thing? Is this just another evolutionary step? In the cafeteria era of news, will the end even be noticed?

From TVNewser, “Report: Broadcast TV Aging Faster than the Population.

Broadcast television viewers are getting older at a faster rate than the general population, according to a new report from analyst Steve Sternberg.
The report does not mean that literally, of course, but rather the median age of network TV viewers continues to rise every year, outpacing the general public.

The median age for CBS last season as 55, with ABC at 51 and NBC 49. Fox, which does not have a network news division, was the youngest of the big four at 44 years old.

So what does it mean for broadcast TV news?

For network news divisions, the aging is troubling, but unlikely to affect their economics in the short term. With the proliferation of cable news outlets, broadcasters have already been hit hard, and seen their audiences erode over the last few years…
As a result CBS News and ABC News, which do not have cable networks to prop them up, have been through a series of devastating layoffs and cutbacks.

Because news shows typically sell ads targeting viewers 25-54 years old, it gives them more room to maneuver as the networks continue to age upward. Only CBS has a median age above the key demo.

Longer-term however, it is a troubling prospect. The entertainment programming typically drives most of the profits at the broadcasters, and as they age up and the audiences decline, the profits will get smaller.

Smaller profits means that the network will look for more ways to cut back. Those cutbacks could end up coming from the news divisions, with its already small margins.”

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“Stupid is as Stupid does”

A new study about the use of media by college students and young graduates, those known as Generation Z, raises serious concerns about how little they know, how devoid of curiosity they appear to be, and how willing they are to settle for single-sourced information. It purports to have us believe that young people read very little, what they do read they accept unquestionably with little skepticism or doubt, and that when they search online the most superficial results happily suffice.

If they are in fact as under-informed and happy in their apparent ignorance, then the future is truly in play.  If they demand so little and are so easily pleased, then it is just-as-likely to be true that they will never demand more from the media they consume or rely on to make key decisions.

The New York Times So-Called ‘Digital Natives’ Not Media Savvy, New Study Shows reports the study by Northwestern University found “that college students have a decided lack of Web savvy, especially when it comes to search engines and the ability to determine the credibility of search results. Apparently, the students favor search engine rankings above all other factors. The only thing that matters is that something is the top search result, not that it’s legit.”

The study reports 25% students willingly accept the first site that appeared in search. Only 10% felt it was necessary to credit the source of their information or the credentials, and apparently none actually sought to verify that information independently. Additionally Google trumps Yahoo and both surpass Wikipedia in trust.

And there is little knowledge of even the most fundamental aspects of web management; again, from the New York Times, ” “Some students even thought that a .org domain name meant a site was inherently trustworthy – they weren’t aware that the .org extension can be freely registered just like .com.”

The Northwestern study concludes with this last graph, “While some have made overarching assumptions about young people’s universal savvy with digital media due to their lifelong exposure to them, as our study suggests, empirical evidence does not necessarily support this position. As our findings show, students are not always turning to the most relevant cues to determine the credibility of online content…”

The need for an informed citizenry, for a connected and discerning electorate, for an educated elite in business and the public sector demands individuals who are in fact trained, schooled and very savvy.

If in fact they are not curious, not inclined to push their knowledge and awareness, then in fact they are the epitome of “Stupid is as stupid does” and Forrest Gump was never so right.

Is BP Buying Off Media Coverage?

Is coverage of the gulf oil spill declining, especially from local TV? And if so, why?  And if so, is there a reason to follow the money which might logically  lead to the BP advertising juggernaut?

In the days and weeks immediately following the oil spill there was a gush of coverage on both network and local TV.  Regional and national reporters crisscrossed from Louisiana to Florida.  Today, 100 days since the disaster, the urgency except for  spill-impacted areas, has naturally diminished.  But is that due to an editorial decision or is it due to the huge buy of advertising time by BP?

This is my question… is there any relationship between BP’s advertising buy and the decision by stations to turn down the spotlight’s glare?  These are economic tough times in the ad world.  On local stations where the community’s automotive dealers were once counted on the purchase up to 30% of the local advertising space, and where nothing else has become a one-for-one replacement for the absence of such dealer ads, BP has obviously found a welcomed reception for its branded ad campaign about what it’s doing to repair the damage and sustain the environment.  Was there a quid pro quo?  Was there a condition, or a wink between the station and the media buyer that stipulated the news department scale back its oil spill coverage?  In exchange for a media buy was there a request, a demand for kinder editorial treatment?

I am not suggesting stations are choosing not to cover the spill but have they scaled back from two or three stories a night to a single story, often not even the lead story?  Is this coincident?  Or is the story fading on its own merit?  That is, except for efforts at sea to cap the well, there really isn’t much that seems substantively different from stories produced a week, two weeks or even three weeks ago.  Is this an editorial decision that with fewer new stories there is less to report, less reason to invest precious air time, or is there something more sinister at play?

We know that TV has limited commitment to many stories.  TV media hs been criticized for having the attention span of a small child.  And as a colleague has critically said about complicated stories, “TV does not handle complex carbohydrates well.”  And perhaps it is simply a case that audiences appear satiated on the spill story; perhaps minute by minute ratings provide evidence that many audiences have ‘tuned out’ from the story and therefore, with less interest comes decreased demand and fewer stories.

But is there something more?  I don’t know.  I haven’t access to such proprietary information on either side.  I am just wondering if any one has information to prove whether this is real, coincident, or unfounded.

Shut Out & Shut Down but Media Refuse to Shut Up as Public Officials Behave Badly

Preventing access as a form of censorship is a dangerous point on the slippery slope toward despotism and government gone wrong. The latest slip and slide in this direction was written last week at the Regents of the University of California meeting in San Francisco when a journalist with a camera was barred from their public event.  The Regent’s defensive argument was he didn’t have a press credential; the weakness to their argument is the press credential per se wasn’t required.  Credentialed or not  any one is entitled to make pictures at a public meeting under Bagley-Keene, a California law since 1967.
To make matters worse UC police instructed that no one was allowed to make pictures of them doing their job, in this case acting as gatekeepers to enforce a decision which was against the law. This is a chilling thought, one I wrote about on June 9th “Use a Camera, Go to Jail” as it seems many jurisdictions are increasingly less interested in public scrutiny of their work than ever before.

From Saturday’s San Francisco Chronicle, UC Regents baring of filmmaker draws protest “State law is clear – any member of the public has a right to film and record public meetings of state bodies,” Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, wrote to UC President Mark Yudof.

Yee, who chairs the Senate’s committee on Public Records and Open Meeting Laws, asked Yudof to explain not only why filmmaker Ric Chavez was barred from taking his video camera into the meeting, but why UC policy – which makes no provision for the public’s right to film public meetings – “is in complete contradiction to state law.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of the UC system being difficult toward news coverage. A Santa Barbara based cameraman has written to me about the UC campus there requiring fees for news coverage and offering limited access. This is a public school open to the world which needs to be reminded that coverage of news stories doesn’t come at the point of a pen writing a check.

What happens when something really serious happens… will institutions first ask who’s there to cover it, what their intentions are, their motives?  Perhaps they’d like to see examples of prior work?  How much will be required and how far back would they like to review? Should a network include coverage of the student massacre at Kent State? How about carnage at Virginia Tech?  Neither of those stories is likely to sway an administration’s decision toward openness?  UC Regents would be hard pressed to review the free speech movement at Sproul Hall at UCBerkeley – ah the halcyon days of tear gas in the plaza and riot-helmeted cops in the hallways when the sound of clicking handcuffs rivaled that of chalk on blackboards.

Organizations – public institutions – nor their officials should not be allowed to use access as a guarantee against positive or negative coverage, scrutiny or assessment by the citizenry of the quality of their work and the decisions they make.  It just isn’t a model which protects our right to know, the right to cover, and the rights of all of us to measure and monitor the government we pay for.

Who should decide – at an institutional level – what deserves coverage and what could be potentially embarrassing or liable? Maybe in spite of the open meeting law Regents and others can impound cameras, take away note books and recorders. Hey, why not just go into hiding entirely, star chambers and executive session.

But this is happening… more and more often.  This is distressing. This is dangerous

Public places – San Francisco’s Ferry Terminal, the passenger piers at San Francisco International airport – both operated with public funds – use both real and rental-cops to move crews off property demanding that they have prior knowledge and approval from management.  This is the same management which uses public funds to operate these public facilities… places where any one public with or without cameras is invited… so why not news coverage?

This decision to close ranks and circle the wagons is mirrored too at the corporate level.  As an example, BP is reportedly making it most difficult to video or film their work in the gulf. Reportedly many local operations, paid for with BP funds, are off-limits to media. It seems curious that BP – already a premium member of the pillory club for the crime itself as well as the initial cover up is now making strides to become more secretive, closed, and manipulative of the media, as far as it can be based on the money it is investing to that end.
More and more often corporations are risk-adverse to speaking on camera or allowing crews in to make pictures of their operations.

We’re seeing the first draft of censorship and limits on freedom of the press.  Sadly the mainstream press has become so emaciated by cuts that there is no one left standing it seems to fight the good fight.  As a public we may not realize what we’re losing until we have lost it.

The Press Failed McChrystal – The Absence of Feet on the Ground and its Consequence to Truth, Knowledge and Discourse

Now that former 4-star U.S. Army General Stanley A. McChrystal has been retired in a maelstrom of debate over disobedience to his President and breach of military protocol, the question remains: why did his happen?  Why did this happen this way?  He was an experienced officer, well-groomed in military-media etiquette; he was arguably a man who would have entertained access to reporters on whatever terms or conditions he deemed.  So why this article – at this time – to Rolling Stone?

It prompts questions – perhaps a riddle – what was it about the traditional role of the press, of open reporting and discussion free from pundits and partisanship that has made this war different from others?  It should prompt tough discourse over what has happened to foreign correspondence, unfettered news gathering in country by trained eyes and ears from journalists trained and experienced in covering both policy and military matters.  It offers a chance to realize the consequences of cost-counting that closes news bureaus at the expense of editorial depth.  When news outlets close and reporters are absent, how does that change both what we know as well as limit the ability of news makers to tell what their sides of the story?

In Vietnam there were literally thousands of reporters – producers – camera people – bureau staff who daily covered both the war and the political scene.  They represented a global audience drawn from papers and networks from Europe, Asia, Australia and both Americas.  There were ex pats and indigenous personnel.  Together they competed and celebrated their scoops and watched each other like hawks lest one be beaten on a story.  Whether an embassy reception or the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MAC-V) briefing there were plenty of reporters working on a range of stories.  Today that has changed.  Most – the vast majority – of American reporters in the Iraq-Afghan theatre are embedded on combat operations and out of Kabul.  News is too often defined in terms of “bang-bang.”  Combat with our troops in action gets a reporter on the air while a contextual, political report veiled in nuance and citing sources is deemed as being dull and is less newsworthy, less likely to either make it in the newspaper or on air.

So what happened with McChrystal?  Did the absence of news outlets in Kabul create an environment where there was no opportunity to share the story as he saw the facts?   Why couldn’t his story be told without such a Draconian consequence to his reputation and career?  Did he have to replicate a Truman-MacArthur show down?  What avenues were closed to him because of the absolute absence of reporters he could trust, on-the-ground with enough in-country experience to appreciate what he had to say?

I submit there were too few reporters on the scene and knowledgeable enough to appreciate the changing political nuance.  I suspect that much of the basic crux of McChrystal’s argument was the tone and nature of the war was changing in a way that was far more profound that could be captured by airport news conferences, Sunday network talk shows, and punditry on cable stations of both the left and right.  That noise was far from the real nature of the war.  In that noise over substance and an inability to articulate the issues as he felt they needed to be heard, for McChrystal it had reached a tipping point.

This isn’t a matter of censorship or war-reporting censorship; that debate isn’t new.  Michael S. Sweeney’ s terrific book, The Military and The Press, An Uneasy Truce is a seminal work documenting government censorship and military coverage.  McChrystal’s self implosion does not seem to be about censorship per se except for the fact that news organizations in this war have exercised self-censorship by their absence from the scene, by their decision to rely on others to cover the date lines, capitols, institutions and individuals who would otherwise be at the center of the story itself.

Former CBS News and long time overseas correspondent Tom Fenton’s Bad News; The Decline of Reporting, The Business of News, and the Danger to Us All is yet further proof documenting the consequences of homogenized news packaged in at a central point at the expense of true understanding of the individuals, policies, politics and knowledge that can only be acquired, managed and challenged by a news office committed to its craft.

The riddle of McChrystal is how he was screwed by the business of news – the absence of reporters – the lack of those who understood the war and had the ears of the editors – who could challenge the assumed beliefs with consequential reporting that might have made a difference.

Yes there is a debate over McChrystal and obedience to protocol.  There is a debate over the persecution of this war.  And there are questions about the business of news gathering and the consequences of a muted press.  I wonder if McChrystal may have thrown himself on a grenade merely to draw temporal attention to a 9-year old war that seems to receive less and less attention in the public eye — except for the bang bang, fear of boogie men known and unseen and an election cycle.  It seems  a very superficial way to cover an epochal event that threatens to bankrupt the nation and bleed her sons and daughters dry.

Disclosures – Michael Sweeney is on the faculty of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University where I am an adjunct instructor.  My father Robert Shaplen was Vietnam correspondent for The New Yorker Magazine from 1945 until 1988.

BP’s Media Management – Brilliant! Insidious but brilliant

Brilliant?  Tony Hayward and the cast of Gilligan’s Island… brilliant?  Well, perhaps as the Skipper he has left a lot to be desired, but virtually everything else the BP media machine is doing is text-book perfect and likely to be studied as a model for crisis communications and disasters of tomorrow.

BP is using the media, the web, social media and is literally crafting stories right before our eyes.  They have mastered the concept of producing and distributing their own media and communications.  Believing in the long tail of the web BP has hired its own reporters to gather news stories under the guise of journalism. Under banner headlines “BP reporters Tom Seslar and Paula Kolmar are on the ground in the Gulf, meeting the people most immediately affected by the oil spill. Read their regular updates” are an apologia of unimaginable guile and proportion featuring heartfelt reports of clean ups and mitigating the severity of the disaster. BP knows that some of these stories will fall into mainstream media either through a lack of checks and balances or an absence of editorial scrutiny. BP knows that while they cannot rebut all the stories produced by the press the corporation can muddy the water by producing and distributing its own look-like news. Clever. Perhaps even diabolical. Effective nonetheless.

Aggregating electronic media is also used to build what masquerades as a social media-oriented site where true news is co-mingled with corporate pieces.  They create and maintain a look so responsible, so balanced and fair.  Why not?  They cannot prevent the cascade of negativity so they might as well co-opt it to fit their presentation and advantage.  And goodness let’s watch them use You Tube as one of the silos to distribute their material to the main stream.

Union Carbide and Exxon were the poster children for how to bumble and fumble corporate responses to a crisis. Johnson & Johnson, Odwalla, even fast food outlets have done a better, more comprehensive and responsive job in managing a crisis over the recent past. But BP has set a new bar in how to handle the media on the ground, when to stonewall, when to provide selective access to those it favors (most notably FOX news, perhaps based on their British Sky News affiliation AKA Rupert Murdoch?), and now creating content thanks to their own news team juggernaut.

After Katrina all the networks pledged to establish and maintain news bureaus in New Orleans in response to what was perceived to be the national anguish over the tragedy. Slowly but steadily the New York based, east coast centric news producer’s interest waned until the economic costs of sustaining gulf coverage was deemed to be too high with respect to the newsness and news value of what was produced. No network executive wanted to blink first, that is to be perceived as caring less about the minority impacted city, but inevitably the networks scaled back and withdrew their staffs. Watch for the same in the gulf… the story will move from just Louisiana on to Mississippi, Alabama and ultimately the prize jewel Florida. As the floating story sails the gulf the reports will migrate too, a nomadic news team on the prowl for the oils next landfall. Meanwhile the audience’s attention to oil soaked birds and families-with-ruined-lives will become tiresome. The birds will be featured in pieces on Nat Geo. The families will become features on anniversary occasions and special events such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Cynical perhaps but predictive too. And as time passes the only ones covering the story, crafting and creating faux news will be the one organization with the most money to spend and the most reputation to change… BP.
Watch it and weep.

Politics, Partiansanship and Priorities – why doesn’t the media focus debate on what is seriously threatening the bulwarks of government and democracy?

Announcing his intention not to seek re-election to the U.S. Senate, Indiana’s Evan Bayh (D-IN) said, “After all these years, my passion for service to my fellow citizens is undiminished, but my desire to do so by serving in Congress has waned. For some time, I have had a growing conviction that Congress is not operating as it should. There is too much partisanship and not enough progress — too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving. Even at a time of enormous challenge, the peoples’ business is not being done.”

What a sad admission.  What a sorry state of the Congress as articulated by one of its insiders.  Too much partisanship? Too politicized? Not enough of the people’s work is being done?
At first I applauded Sen. Bayh for his conviction but the more I think about this the more unsettled I become. Why not fight the prevailing wind?  Too Quixotic?  Unwinable?  Pointless, a fight not worth fighting?   How sad that seems.
Senator Bayh can do what he chooses, to fight what he believes is worth fighting, to take a stand where he believes one must draw a line, stand and fight.  I am however reminded of former Congressman Robert Drinan (D-MA) who always believed that the means was every bit as important as the end, that the way legislation was crafted and implemented was as important as its end result. Congressman Drinan was also a Jesuit and that might explain his unyielding commitment and personal focus. Ultimately Pope John Paul II compelled Bob Drinan to choose between his collar and calling and his seat in Congress, and Father Drinan returned to academic and ecclesiastical positions.
I applauded Evan Bayh for taking his stand and calling attention to his frustration.  But the more I think about it, I am concerned if this is the easy way out?  I am struck by the thought that if people whose convictions are truly noble are being compelled to leave the Congress, aren’t we all as a nation at a loss for their departure?

The media isn’t helping… it is polarizing too.  Whether to the right (FOX) or left (MSNBC) or the muddled middle (CNN), the public is not being served by dispassionate debate and articulation of the facts.  There is a rah-rah quality to many presentations that neither serves democratic discourse or perpetuates sober debate in lieu of screaming and emotion.  The health care debate, the public meetings, the posturing and promoting of personal agenda would seem to more the sufficient evidence to indict both politicians and much of the media.

Of course there will be calls for restructuring, just as there have been calls for campaign finance reform as if this will be the cure-all, the panacea for what ails us.  I think it might be deeper than that, deeper even the the pockets of wealthy candidates who seem intent on spending personal fortunes to win their election.  Deeper too than just positioning and spin.  Much deeper than what can be squeezed into a 30 second attack ad or single column op-ed.

The real problem is tolerance.  Until we work to reform the process, unless we all agree that the means matters, until we stop the rhetoric and bombast at the expense of listening, then there will be only greater partisanship and discord, tumult and disharmony.  From sound bites and quotes, to commercial messages which banter about words like “liberal” or “conservative” with such venom as to make each totally unpalatable, we will continue to alienate audiences, to turn people off, and to polarize listeners and viewers who will believe only in what they are already convinced about, supporting sides they favor and eschew all other viewpoints.

That is the true loss we face.  We should report on that.