The Drowning Pool
July 2009

by Ron Steinman

Journalism is not quite a blood sport, but in the right hands or the wrong hands, depending on your point of view, it is very competitive. Or it should be. But today something is afoot on the land that is fast putting competition to rest.

Covering news, the more mundane concept that describes what we do as journalists, to me is about climbing the next mountain to see what is on the other side. News to me is about competing with another journalist to see who can climb the same mountain, but only faster, tougher, with more alacrity. Then, we see who reaches the top and who gets ready to journey up the next peak. News to me is about the excitement of covering a story that is happening as I cover it.

I am not an investigative journalist. I do not have the patience to work a story through the many documents and a host of interviews that could take months before I get the goods to publish, or present it on the air. Most television reporting does not lend itself to protracted digging. Competition rules. I need the instant fix of and gratification from what comes when covering a riot, a bomb explosion, a war, a good trial, a tough news conference, and an unexpected hearing in City Hall or Washington. Those types of stories get my juices flowing. They allow my competitive edge to flourish. After all, competition is one reason I have remained a journalist more decades than I can count. Lately, though, competition is dying, often because of declining revenues. So, it is with some sadness that I will now discuss a new and dangerous trend in newsgathering that is taking place in many local TV markets.

When thinking about the fate of news in the 21st century, we focus more on print than any other form of journalism. But by doing that, we are missing a very big story. Perhaps this column will help us be more vigilant about what we see on our local TV screens. And in the process, hopefully, we will be cynical about the news programs in our hometowns. I am talking about a concept in journalism called a pool.

Pools are becoming paramount in local news markets across the country. We would be derelict if we allow this new trend to slip quietly into the night without any notice. The idea is that by pooling coverage, meaning one camera crew, usually just a camera person covers an event for everyone in that market and distributes said material equally. Thus, everyone in the region gets the same footage and the bottom line does not suffer. Bottom line is the operative phrase here.

The trend began in late in 2008 when stations in the same market decided it would save money if they used a pool to get certain kinds of stories. A pool is a time-tested means of getting a story, usually when there is limited space or access. One crew or one team or one reporter covers the story and by agreement shares all the information gathered at the event with everyone. This idea of a local TV news pool is in operation in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and Austin. In many instances, local stations for Fox and NBC across the country are now pooling selected coverage. As I write, even more cities are probably joining the fast growing movement.

In these local markets, some of which are small and others, large, where money from advertising is as tight for TV news as it is for newspapers, this major change is another threat to once competitive newsgathering. In the past perhaps as many as three stations sent a cameraperson and usually its own reporter to cover the same event, be it a news conference, a dedication, or whatever else might, on the surface, lack enterprise. When each station played the story it was often impossible to tell the difference between how the story looked, except for the reporter holding the mike. I recognize that enterprise is hard to develop when every frame of footage looks the same. But there is always the chance something unusual will happen. That no longer seems to matter. News directors under pressure to cut costs now use pool coverage to fill their newscasts. The new tune is to put the camera on a tripod, shoot away and share. Every newscast looks the same. Every story has a similar touch and approach. In this case, competition, once the lifeblood of news, no longer exists.

I suspect that if and when the economy improves, the pool concept will not change. Local stations will continue to look at the bottom line with little or no concern for the viewer. Local news on TV is a disaster, anyway. Mostly filled with car crashes and murders, bad weather and any emergency they can find, these newsrooms cover almost nothing of importance, or what I consider important – politics, city hall, health care, you name it. Of course, there are exceptions, especially when stories of merit are too big to ignore, but these are rare. Pooling on such a grand scale and in so many places means it is a sad day for processing information, for journalistic initiative, and the excitement of covering a real story.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an
award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's
bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and
freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions.
Read Ron Steinman's Notebooks at Ron Steinman's

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