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Do We Save Local TV News… Or Save Ourselves?

But... We Ruled the World... How Can It Ever End?

But... We Ruled the World... How Can It Ever End?

Clay Shirky's recent column, "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable," has earned deserved attention among those of us pondering the question of what happens next, and whether the financial models of newspapering and making local TV news can survive the current economy.  Increasingly, it seems the answer to both questions is "no."

It no longer seems like madness to suggest that what we're living through isn't the toughest times for local TV news as we know it, but rather, a revolution that will wash away the medium we grew up with, and usher in something different.  That's scary stuff.

Shirky describes the insistence that newspapers must be saved this way:  "When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie. "

Digital Guru Clay Shirky

Digital Guru Clay Shirky

That is meaty, heavy stuff, and it is as applicable, I believe to local TV news as it is to newspapers.  Anybody who refuses to believe that what we've spent our careers doing must continue to exist is at high risk of being rendered irrelevant.  And in TV, as in any business, irrelevant is noplace to be.

The save-the-papers debate, as Shirky points out, boils down to a journalistic truism:  newspapers put asses in seats at city council meetings, and get deeper into stories than local tv newsers have the luxury of doing.  They have more bodies to sift through overnight police reports and court filings.  They are essential to the survival of a healthy society.  If newspapers die, who will do that work?  Certainly not the "you're live in the noon on the house fire" TV guy.  He's lucky if he can grab a five-dollar footlong before he starts crashing for his 5 o'clock package.

"The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; “You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” has never been much of a business model," Shirky writes.  "So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?  I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it."

Same again for TV.  It's gut-check time.  Are you thinking about surviving the downturn?  Or figuring out what's the new thing--and how to thrive doing it?

The Rocky Said Goodbye After 150 Years

Shirky writes:  "Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead. "

Society doesn't need the six o'clock local news either.  But it does need to know what's happening.  We still have a job to do, it's just a question of where, and who's going to pay us.  That's what I'm anxious to figure out, rather than answer the question of when the dry pipe in the sales department will start gushing cash again and all will be better.  That sounds more than ever like denial.

Comments (8) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Local TV news will die without newspapers to do the heavy lifting.

  2. I think we work to try and do both and see what happens in the end.

  3. Thanks for posting this and I thanks for also making the very clear and strong connection to broadcasting and television. As Grace Slick sang a few years back (like about 40 I think) Gotta Revolution, Gotta a Revolution, Go To Revolution…We need journalists that can move past the fear and understand the absolute necessity of re-inventing themselves into multi dimensional story tellers. Completely distribution platform agnostic. Its not how the story gets out there, its whether or not it is accurate, balanced and worth someone’s time to engage with it.

  4. Dan,

    I wholeheartedly agree. While there is much to be afraid of in the current climate, with co-workers being laid off and uncertainty and cutbacks abound, the upside is that what we do IS essential and good storytelling is timeless. The trick is adapting to new ways of doing what we do, and not sinking our claws into the deck of a ship that may end up on the sea floor.

    I’m enthusiastic and bullish on news, but very reserved about the current model, which in many cases is as tired and lacking in creativity as ever. And that’s not how to attract new consumers; it’s a way to propel the ones we still have to find new sources of information.

    So get pumped and get creative and get out there and be a pioneer. Some of us are going to look back at this as the most exciting time of our careers.


  5. I read Clay’s article yesterday and immediately sent it to everyone in my company. After spending 3 days at the NAA conference last week (which was relatively empty) these are indeed revolutionary times in newspapers and local TV. I agree that the total solution is a work in progress but I also believe pieces are already out there for us to take advantage of. I envision a bundling of emerging technology along with innovation from the very people who need it the most out in the field. I’m encouraged by the belief the answer is out there and have faith in those searching for it.

  6. I recently watched ‘Anchorman’ with Will Farrell and I thought it was absolutely hilarious…the caricatures of TV news personnel-whether right-on or totally off-base-made for a great comedy. I never paid much attention to this movie when it came out, but did the TV news business generally laugh along me at this movie, or did they get offended at the way ‘they’ were being portrayed?

  7. I’ve heard some talk about journalism becoming the exclusive arm of non-profits, as corporate giants realize, there’s no more blood to get from this stone (or at least to maintain a healthy profit margin). But with even PBS laying people off, who’s going to bankroll investigative journalists? Who’ll pay someone to check police blotters?

  8. Some of my favorite people are commenting here, (Dan, Eric) so I thought I’d join the party.

    The Shirky article is one of the most important this year — not simply because of its excellence, but also because he has spawned such good dialogue. We need journalism - and we will have it.

    The “you’ll miss us when we’re gone” talk is bitter and doesn’t help resolve the most important question: How will we get news and how we will pay people for it?

    I’m all for the latter discussion and I just don’t engage any longer in the former.

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