SPEECH: Why I’ve Left TV News …For Now

I was invited to speak at Jeff Pulver’s #140Conf in New York today.  Jeff has done a very good job of galvanizing a community of interesting people. Not necessarily media types, not necessarily attention-seekers, just interesting people.  I had hoped this would resonate across disciplines. I believe it has.

You can watch it here: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/15422195

Why I’ve Left TV News …For Now
Delivered June 16, 2011
92nd Street Y, New York City

It’s an effing cat in an effing tree!  I was a local TV reporter and that’s how I described on the phone to my wife the story I was assigned to cover.

And it wasn’t just an effing cat in a effing tree: it was a cat that had been in the tree and splashed on the front page of a major newspaper for three days.  Even after the cat came down and scampered away – because after all, that’s what cats do, it was still a story on the 5 o’clock news that night.

So yes, I guess I was mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it.  That was my Howard Beale moment.

I’ve come to believe that local TV news cannot simply be a utility, providing weather and traffic on a spinning wheel.  It has to be AMAZING again.

This was not the industry that I had fallen in love with.  I popped out of the womb with a microphone in my hand and weaseled my way into this business at way-too-early an age and gave it all my time, my holidays, my weekends, my early mornings.

But the game had changed all around:  Newspapers were the first to think differently, forced to by shrinking subscribers and a guy named Craig and his list; the publishing industry, magazines, wire services and radio had all seen massive rethinkings. TV hasn’t really had to.  It’s been formulaic, and that’s worked for many years.

Television news, this beautiful marriage of moving pictures and audio, emerged from the newsreel into a national evening event with Murrow and Cronkite and then Jennings and Couric, and local anchors you grew up watching and, if you were like me, admiring.  But now it’s noise in a field of more noise. Fragmentation has not raised consciousness, only blood pressure.  If you yell loud enough or are better-coifed, you may rise above it. But it has become a caricature of itself.

It has great potential, though, to break the mold and it has the people to make it happen.  Lots of my friends are in the business and they’re great people.  It’s about shifting how the entire industry thinks and where it looks for inspiration.

After the cat came down, I moved on to help rethink the digital side of our newsroom. Then, early last year I joined J-Lab, a journalism catalyst, of sorts, that ignites innovation in journalism.

In the greater field, we see very good things happening, particularly on the local level.  We see journalists embrace collaboration as the new competition.  We see them connect in meaningful ways with audiences.  And we see their work have real impact in communities.

All of this has gotten me thinking about innovation – and how the rest of the news industry can inform how TV news evolves, and how those of you in other industries can evolve:

For one thing, innovation means looking outside oneself. Local TV news tends to look inward, gazing longingly at its bellybutton.  Instead, look outside your industry and design your change from that perspective.  Understand the way other things function and apply that to what you do.

That’s point two: Innovation must seep up in order to trickle down.  When a newsroom leader gets it, the newsroom has no choice but to get it.  If you’re a journalist and your boss doesn’t seem to get it – it’s on you to make the case. Show them why, and when they say no, see if you can do it in your spare time.

In 2005, I convinced some of my colleagues to join me as I started a daily webcast for our division. We worked it into our schedules, even when it meant coming in early.  We really enjoyed experimenting – we had fun doing it – and it was a hit.  It built a small but engaged following and even brought in some extra money for the station. But it showed that we could break the traditional formula and didn’t have to come up from on high.

What it lacked, however, was a broad stage, which is my third thought:  Innovation must not exist only in the digital space.  You can’t say you’re on Twitter and call it a day.  Reading a tweet on-air doesn’t cut it.  That innovation needs to impact your non-digital world.  CBS has launched a new web series with the great Shira Lazar called “What’s trending.”  But I’d argue that should really be on TV, not just on the web. People on the web generally already know what’s trending. Have a conversation with your audience.

That gets me to point four:  Innovation must also improve context.

Edward Tufte, the godfather of information design, notes that the “simplicity of reading derives from context of detailed and complex information properly arranged.”  That is, don’t dumb it down.  We’re actually making viewers or users more passive by simplifying. Instead, with the proper order and context, even the most complex information can provide a clearer picture.

Case in point: The Sunlight Foundation took home J-Lab’s Knight-Batten Award for Innovations in Journalism last year for a new tool that covered live political hearings in a smart way. On the same screen, you’d see a live stream, with live data displayed at appropriate times, with a live chat with journalists, and with filtered information of importance. It’s about providing more in-depth knowledge, rather than shorter, less substantial bursts of news. It’s about relevance.

And there is an audience for this.  Nielsen released research yesterday showing we watch, on average, 158 hours of TV a month.  That’s 40 hours a week. We’re also watching more video online than ever before.  And this is what should alarm broadcasters: In the third quarter of last year, more people watched video not on TV news websites but on newspaper websites.  That’s huge. TV is getting beat at its own game. In fact, TV is now just video.

All of that said, do I have the ultimate answer in my pocket?  No.  – and that’s the point.  If I did, I’d be a gabillionaire.   It takes a whole lotta people doing a whole lotta exploring, thinking creatively and playing around a little bit in the sandbox to figure it out.   It even takes — gasp — failures.  Mistakes.  Risks.

Am I naive enough to think the entire industry will find its awesomesauce?  Not really.  I’m optimistic.  But I’m not defining success by the goalposts of a bygone era.  The days of the Big Three are long gone.  But everyone in this industry should be striving to add bits and pieces of awesomeness.  To think differently.

There will always be effing cats stuck in effing trees, and there will always, always be cat videos online, but this is the time for television news to innovate. Or die. I believe in you, television news. Breathe. Come alive. You can do it. I still love you.  We’ll work together down the road again, I promise.  You can be amazing.

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