Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Bad News and Good News

No, nothing personal or professional - Bad News is the name of Tom Fenton's book. It's a rant about the decline of the media, especially broadcast news. It's a pretty good rant, but as a proposal for fixing the system, leaves a lot to be desired.

Fenton is a (now retired) foreign correspondent for CBS News. He's from the heyday of foreign correspondents - the 1970s - when money wasn't an object, and foreign correspondents were respected and enabled inside their organizations. He rants about all the usual suspects - the discovery that news can make money, the rise of the bean counters, sycophantic White House reporters, lazy reporters, dumb (or myopic) producers, and a public that would rather be entertained than informed.

Fenton believes, and I agree, that foreign news is incredibly important and that it's drastically underplayed in American media, even including the New York Times, but especially broadcast television news, which is where he spent his career. I also agree that there's no substitute for boots (or birkenstocks or galoshes or whatever foreign correspondents wear) on the ground, and that building an understanding of a culture takes time and effort - years, in fact, maybe decades.

But his proposed solution is backwards-looking. He mentions bloggers several times, talks about how laptops and DVD camcorders make filing reports from the field cheaper. But he demonstrates in his proposals that he Just Doesn't Get It about how completely the world has changed. I'm not talking about U.S. politics, geopolitics, or the news business, I'm talking about the technology.

I'm not totally enamored of all the things the brave new world we're creating bring us (see David Brin's Transparent Society), but I'm pretty certain that a great many of them are going to happen anyway. And most of the ones affecting news are going to be good (I've got a good rant on how narrowcasting means that the world doesn't appear the same to any two people, but we'll do that one another time). The problem is, Fenton has no particular plans to take advantage of anything but the most basic advances.

Fenton's proposals amount to, roughly, three things:

  • Recreate the foreign bureaus of the major news organizations.
  • Build a grassroots organization that will monitor and push for quality of news reporting.
  • Extend the nightly news to an hour, so there's room for in-depth reporting.

That's about it. None of them are bad things (and all have been tried, to one extent or another), but none of them demonstrate the least grasp of what is about to happen to media over the next decade or two.

For an extremely crude idea, see, say, the New York Times' coverage of Harriet Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court, or CNN's web site every day. Text stories, photos, multimedia slide shows with audio, video clips, and links to background data, both inside and outside their own websites. (Don't get me started ranting about proprietary data formats.)

Now project out a decade (don't put too much faith into that timeline). How about this:

It's six ten, and you sit down in your car to drive home (we'll assume one of those old-fashioned drive-it-yourself cars). It's a forty minute commute, and you always do the evening news. You don't sweat the fact that the broadcast started ten minutes ago, your in-car box time shifts. You get forty minutes of radio, pausing to take a phone call and replaying part of one story, so you only cover thirty minutes of the broadcast.

You pull into the driveway, go inside the house and start cooking dinner. The box in the kitchen offers to pick up where you left off on the radio broadcast and give you the last half hour, or go back and show you the video clips associated with the stories you heard in the car. You elect the video clips; the box plays them with abbreviated commentary, since it has kept track of what you've already heard. You take a couple of the offered backgrounders, getting several minutes on, say, the political flap over Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine back when China and Japan were rivals. Partway through, your spouse comes in with kids, so you switch it off.

After the kids are in bed, as you're getting ready for bed, you catch the last few minutes. You tell the box to compress down to five minutes, you're tired. It edits down several stories, including a brief update on one of the ones you heard earlier.

Would I commit an hour a day to media like that? You bet. I don't do much TV, but I probably spend better than an hour a day with the Daily Yomiuri and the New York Times, my two top sources.

Fenton needs to realize that the network news broadcast is an anachronism. It'll be gone before he cashes his first social security check. Here's what I think a news package delivered to the viewer needs:

  • It must work across all media - text, images, sound, video - and all viewing and delivery platforms - HDTV, cell phone video, cell phone audio, PDA text, car radio. (Call this variable width, if you like.)
  • It has to retain context as you move from box to box (car radio to kitchen TV) and session to session (e.g., updates without repeating the whole story the next morning).
  • It has to offer variable depth; the same story should be available in one-, three-, and ten-minute formats. Creating and managing this variable depth is critical and difficult.
  • It has to offer still more depth, including the provenance of all of the data, access to multiple viewpoints on the same events, multiple translations of foreign-language text and speech, as well as the originals. For edited video of, say, a riot, the fifteen seconds shown in the organized report should link back to the hour of raw footage in a useful fashion.

There have been lots of other discussions on how searchable and customizable it has to be; I won't go into those. Nick Negroponte has been talking since the founding of the Media Lab about viewing a baseball game from the point of view of the baseball; toss that in, too.

What does a news organization need to provide this kind of content? A few tools, especially for creating the rich, variable depth. Nothing I don't expect to come along - advertisers will enjoy having that at least as much as news producers. Those are technical considerations, what about the people? A foreign correspondent is no longer the source of much original content, even today, let alone a decade from now, when raw footage will coming from everyone with a cell phone with a camera. What a foreign correspondent is is a guide to the torrent of available information. He or she organizes it, makes a story out of it, culls the important material, knows who the people are. That's what takes a truly broad and deep understanding of the issue at hand. Much of that work can, in theory, be done in London or New York, but you won't build the personal relationships and gut-level feel for the places, people and events without being there.

Anyway, just a few thoughts about the future of the news. Fenton has lots of worthwhile anecdotes on how sordid the behavior is on all sides of the Middle East and Central Asia theaters, but I'll leave those for another time, too.


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