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TV News in a Postmodern World
The Future Is Multimedia
Much to the dismay of friends and advisors, I was always much more the grasshopper than the ant when I was young. I played my banjo and sang on TV while my classmates all went off to do their studies. Of course, the draft board didn't have an exemption for banjo players, so I wound up in the service when Lyndon Johnson ordered troop buildups in Vietnam. You'd think I would've learned.
But most of my TV news career was the same way. Settle down? Nah. The adventure of new markets and new challenges drove me. I was a "fixer" news director, not a maintainer. And when I retired in 1998, with no 401k, little cash tucked away, and the business I used to love changing rapidly, I found myself needing to nurture my inner ant and quickly learn some new tricks.
Today, as a grown-up grasshopper-cum-ant, I can clearly see what old Aesop meant when he wrote of the wisdom of preparing for days of necessity. And as I survey the television news landscape these days, I find a lot of floundering grasshoppers (a few ants too!) who are stuck in desperate situations, taking pay cuts with longer hours, and working with no sense of where they're going — probably wondering why they ever got into "the biz" in the first place.
So it is with change, especially the type that pulls the rug right out from underneath you. My heart goes out to these people, and it is to them that this missive is really addressed.
That cliff you're running towards is life, post-broadcasting. The whole idea of mass marketing is being turned on its ear, and the handwriting on the wall is saying you've invested your entire self in a dying industry. As a friend of mine puts it, it's like being drawn to the tar pits by those who enthusiastically shout, "Hey, c'mon. There's food here." Extinction, thy name is mass media.
Ad people are just starting to get it. Kathy Sharpe of Sharpe Partners in New York wrote an op-ed piece for Media Daily News smacking her contemporaries for living in denial. "This is a serious and angry denial involving high-paid executives and threatened litigation, and just about everyone scrambling for cover. But it's still denial, a massive group-think to figure out how to fix the ratings, replace Nielsen, punish Nielsen, or just find out why — specifically — men aren't watching TV anymore."
Ms. Sharpe added that the entire TV ad industry was based on rather elaborate myths and that people are beginning to discover that the foundation isn't just crumbling; it was never there in the first place. But she offers hope through the Internet.
"Despite the best efforts of a few misguided media folks to market it as the proxy for TV, the Internet really is the stand-in for the next generation of TV. It is viewer-controlled, interactive, and thus completely responsive to reality. It is what TV viewers are doing today — already — and in a far more thorough scale."
This post-mass media threat is real not only to broadcasters but print journalists as well, despite the pronouncements of those like Toronto Star publisher, John Honderich. "More and more newspapers are becoming the sole mass medium," he told the Advertising Club of Toronto recently, "particularly for advertising, as television becomes more and more fragmented." This is a shallow and self-serving observation, for even Mr. Honderich knows the preferences of young people, preferences they won't give up when they get older and replace his subscriber base.
My children are the last generation that will know what it's like to wash newsprint ink from their hands. David Card of New York-based Jupiter Research says the future of newspapers is multimedia. "Printed newspapers are not going away in our lifetime," Card told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "But I doubt that a lot of young people who grew up on TV and the Internet are going to retreat to the printed newspaper as they settle into middle age."
Card is right. The future for news people of every hue is a world called multimedia that exists in the interactive conduit we now call the Internet. It may look a lot like TV, but with the user in control, all of the rules are different, and a variety of multimedia skills are absolutely essential for those who will work therein.
The definition of "multimedia" depends on who's writing it, but it's generally thought of as a communication that uses a combination of different media, including text, spoken audio, music, images, animation and video. A newscast is a form of multimedia presentation, with its audio, video, music and graphics, but in the new world, the multiple specialities of the control room required for real-time broadcasting are reduced to a computer with a single operator — you. It means a modified skill set for journalists, but one that offers unlimited creative possibilities in communicating their stories to people.
In a multimedia environment, the story — and how it's communicated — is all that matters. We don't care about a reporter's walkin', talkin', shuckin' & jivin' stand up. In fact, we could go through the whole story without seeing what the reporter looks like. Some things may be best presented solely as text. Perhaps a slide show with music will do for others. As I've previously written, the days of celebrity anchors are numbered. Along with that will go the media's obsession with personality and presentation over content. Young people will stop going to school only because they "want to be on TV," and we might actually see a return to journalism as a trade for those wishing to make a difference instead of a profession of elite celebrities who don't want to get their hands dirty.
We'll never again be "filling time," because time (rightly) belongs to those with whom we are attempting to communicate. The clock will remain a constant enemy in a competitive environment, but the deadline will be how quickly we can get the story to the people, not one arbitrarily based on the time of day.
In a multimedia news world, there are many ways to tell stories or portions of stories, and we should be welcoming this instead of ignoring it or running from it. The rush of "the story" remains exactly the same as it was in a mass-media world; the only differences are immediacy, form and format. Frankly, it's an environment that would bring me to work every day with a smile on my face.
For existing news people — and I'm specifically referring to those in TV News — you have two choices. Carry on and begin looking for what you really want to do for a living downstream or begin developing the skill set you'll need in the new world. For those who choose the latter, here are 10 recommendations.
© Terry L. Heaton
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