Dancing to a Different Tune
Can Traditional Media Compete With the New Kids on the Block?
Before there were Internet news providers, newspapers rarely published the reporting they gathered more than twice a day. Before 24-hour cable news channels, even extraordinary footage usually had to wait for nightly network programming. But today, so much about the practice and business of journalism is changing that those who still report news using the old-fashioned vehicles of newspapers, magazines, network and local television and radio are finding themselves forced to react to changes not of their own making.
“With all these new technologies comes the speedup of news, and the rest of us just tap-dance really, really fast to keep up,” is how National Public Radio correspondent Cheryl Devall described the new pace of news reporting into which she’s been thrust.
Devall and six other Radcliffe College alumnae addressed the issues involved in this catch-up tap dance now being practiced by members of the traditional media. This conference, entitled “Shaping the Message: News and Entertainment in the Age of New Media,” which was part of the annual Alumnae Council, brought together graduates whose careers span an eclectic range of journalism and entertainment media.
The panelists described a world in which the rules of the game are changing, and traditional media are groping for ways to define what they do in this new, ever-expanding territory of news coverage. Although only a small fraction of journalists work for cable news channels and Internet news outlets, the ability of those media to break stories at any hour of the day or night has created shock waves whose effects reverberate in every corner of the industry.
Soma Golden Behr, Assistant Managing Editor of The New York Times, said the recent speedup of news cycles has changed the ways in which daily journalism is practiced more than any other single factor she’s seen during the past 30 years. “We used to get competition from a handful of top papers that came out once a day. The network news was a kind of competition, but it wasn’t all day. Now I have to keep an eye on dozens of 24 hour news providers…. I still don’t worry about getting beaten on a story by a supermarket tabloid, but I do worry about what Matt Drudge is putting on his nasty Web site…[he] is a master of the sport of Web-based tabloid journalism, but he misses the bull’s eye regularly…. [But] every time he is right, he grows an instant audience,” Behr observed.
Truth, accuracy and fairness in reporting take time. It’s as simple as that, Behr told the audience. The electronic world, on the other hand, moves so quickly that there are doubts that it will be able to maintain the essential values that hold in place the foundation of the best of traditional journalism.
The effects of the accelerated news cycle have not been confined to print journalism. Cable news channels and Internet news sites have raised blood pressures in broadcast journalism, too. Nightly news broadcasts and radio newsmagazines like NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” usually operate on a schedule roughly similar to daily newspapers. They, too, now feel the 24-hour news outlets nipping at their heels, reported Devall.
Before joining NPR’s Miami bureau in 1988, Devall was a city hall and general assignment reporter for The Chicago Tribune. “When I started at NPR and a story broke, we’d usually broadcast our report 24 hours later and call it analysis,” Devall said. “Increasingly, though, our listeners expect us to be there when the plane crashes, when the fighting breaks out, when the verdict is read. It means a lot of work and a lot of moving around for all of us.” Consequently, she added, “our broadcasts just sound different than they used to…. We still try to do a lot of analysis, but that becomes shorter because we have to cover more.”
Are newspapers, nightly news programs, and radio newsmagazines waging a losing battle to keep their pages and minutes filled with timely straight news? Traditional news media are far from obsolete, but as CNN or The Drudge Report breaks the news, fewer fresh stories make the front page of The New York Times. “Given what we have to work with, we sometimes wonder if we wouldn’t do well to refocus,” Devall said.
Should venerable, respected publications even attempt the catch-up tap dance with the new media? Or should traditional media refocus, perhaps by replacing straight news reporting with a stronger emphasis on analysis? Should they, as Devall put it, become “the gourmet food section of the news supermarket?” Moving in this direction, however, would mean admitting defeat, and panelists seemed to agree that this is not the time to overreact since the future does not look so bleak for traditional media.
Behr pointed out that The New York Times has already shifted its focus slightly, including much more news analysis in the past few years. Closely scrutinized news events like the Monica Lewinsky scandal made analysis a necessary part of the coverage, she said. Because reports of every minor development spread rapidly through the Internet and cable channels, breaking news seemed like yesterday’s news before the paper could even reach the newsstands.
Former presidential speechwriter Lissa Muscatine pointed out that the increasing emphasis on commentary over straight news could be dangerous, however. Muscatine worked in the White House from 1993 to January 1998 after spending 12 years as a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. News reporters are becoming news analysts, she said, shedding the cloak of objectivity that once gave the public confidence in their coverage.
“Reporters no longer just report the news; they are hired as ‘experts’ and ‘consultants’ who are paid hefty fees to give their instant opinions on television. They are celebrities who enjoy lucrative speaking engagements, some even paid for by organizations they cover,” Muscatine said.
A refocus on analysis might also make sound business sense for traditional media falling behind in a competitive journalism world. The news market has become what Devall called a “news supermarket”—a bewildering array of news products all aggressively marketed by large news conglomerates whose managers keep a very watchful eye on profits. Muscatine pointed out that only about a dozen giant corporations own the vast majority of influential news outlets in the United States. [They] have become less and less accountable to readers and consumers and more accountable to Wall Street analysts and stockholders,” she said.
Panel moderator A’Lelia Bundles, Deputy Bureau Chief of ABC News in Washington, expressed nostalgia for the journalism world she entered after graduating from Radcliffe in 1974. “Back then…it was okay for a news division to use money if it brought pride and dignity and bragging rights to the network executives,” Bundles said.
But as Muscatine reminded her colleagues on the panel, it is more costly and difficult to report a complicated public policy story than to load up the front page or the nightly news with violence, sex and scandal. “[T]he 24-hour news cycle has increased the pressure on journalists to produce ‘news’ even when nothing newsworthy has happened. One of my former editors used to describe the process as ‘feeding the goat.’ And, as we know, a goat will eat anything,” Muscatine said.
The job of journalists is no longer simply to inform their audiences, panelists agreed. In order to maintain a grasp on an increasingly restless viewing population faced with dozens of news options, even traditional news providers must appeal to the scandal and titillation that arrest attention. In effect, news becomes a mixture of entertainment and information.
Devall traced the movement of celebrity journalism into mainstream news to journalists’ need to “hook” the elusive and impatient viewer. NPR’s coverage of the killing of Gianni Versace in the summer of 1997 was a case in point. “What we would have done 10 years ago was what we did the first day: call people in the fashion industry and have them talk on the air about Versace’s influence on 20th Century fashion. And that would have been it,” Devall said. “Instead, we were on that story for the nine days it took to reach conclusion, and I’m still shaking my head about it. These emergent news values of celebrity and titillation make me a little nervous.”
The journalists on this panel concluded that if competition with the new 24-hour corporate news outlets means that traditional media must further saturate the public with titillating details of Monica Lewinsky’s past, they want to get out of the race. Confronting a disadvantage because of the speedup of the news cycle, their salvation might not come from tap dancing faster but in changing the music and dancing to a different tune of their own making.
Caitlin Anderson is a junior at Harvard College, concentrating in History and Literature. She is currently a News Editor at the Harvard Crimson and will be an Executive Editor during the 1999 calendar year.