Journalism’s true challenge

Journalism is facing perhaps its biggest crisis yet but we need good news people more than ever.

Julian Assange smug 311 REUTERS (photo credit: REUTERS)
Julian Assange smug 311 REUTERS
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week, the US website CareerCast published its annual ranking of the best and worst jobs in the American market.
The site, an industry leader on the subject of employment trends, examined 200 professions and compiled the list taking into account factors including work environment, stress, physical demands, hiring outlook and salary.
The results were not promising for folks in the news business. For the first time in the site’s history, two key media positions could be found in the bottom 10; newspaper reporters and radio/TV broadcasters.
To quote the site: “As the digital world continues to take over, the need for print newspapers and daily newscasts is diminishing. Both jobs once seemed glamorous, but on-the-job stress, declining opportunities and income levels are what landed them on the Worst Jobs list.”
Much has been written over the past few years about the economics of producing the news and how the Internet has eaten into traditional media’s revenue streams, and that’s true. What many of these writers have overlooked is the fact that producing news was never a particularly profitable business to begin with.
The truth is that it’s a huge operation and breaking even on the balance sheets has been an uncommon event for quite a while. News is the most expensive kind of television to produce. The staff, logistics and resources needed doesn’t come cheap and networks would just as soon try out a new series. The alternatives now found on the Internet only made a bad situation worse.
One thing that has changed drastically in news organizations is their ability to differentiate themselves from their competitors. What will keep people coming back to a specific newspaper or newscast? That has been the main question which has been burned into every news executive’s mind. The answer, of course, has varied from cost-cutting to finding good stories and conducting thorough investigative journalism.
One tried and true method of building and retaining an audience is to hire and develop journalists and broadcasters with the hope they develop a rapport with the public.
At the end of the day, it was always a matter of trust and likability. Who would you let into your living room every night? If a reader or viewer had a positive emotional reaction that increased the chances they would be back.
But might that be changing as well? Over the past couple of weeks, two high-profile news personalities from different eras were the topic of much discussion that just might indicate another reason the profession of a broadcaster is now considered a poor career choice.
First, the broadcast world lost Mike Wallace earlier this month. The iconic CBS newsman spent a mind boggling 65 years on television and followed in the footsteps of such TV icons as Walter Winchell and Edward R. Murrow. First, Wallace paid his dues by doing commercials and hosting local TV shows. Then he went on to spend four decades with 60 Minutes, which is arguably America’s top news magazine, thanks in part to him. He was meticulous, pulling no punches. Over the years he locked horns with some of world’s most notorious leaders.
I spent time watching some of his interviews. He had no problem finding a nice way to ask a really tough question and sticking with it until he got a response. Wallace was part of a different generation of journalists who worked within the system and the confines of a certain set of journalistic ethics. People respected him, even those whom he went after.
On the other hand, last week we got the much hyped debut of WikiLeaks Editor in Chief Julian Assange’s new TV program, The World Tomorrow, in which he interviewed Hezbollah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah. Nasrallah hadn’t sat down for an interview with a Western journalist since 2006 so it was a coup for Assange, even though it was done via videolink and was heavily edited.
Putting aside the speculations about Assange’s agendas, the interview itself was poor. Nasrallah got a free pass to spew his lies about Israel. When asked how he can support the Syrian regime at a time when Damascus is slaughtering its own people, Nasrallah came up with the excuse that because Assad has supported the “resistance” (i.e. the destruction of Israel), he should stay in power.
Contradiction after contradiction, lie after lie and Assange did nothing.
The one time he tried to press Nasrallah it didn’t work and the Hezbollah leader had the upper hand throughout the interview. Assange might have gotten people talking about his show, but it came at the cost of the truth and any sense of balance that should be an integral part of a production like this.
Assange is, without a doubt, the most controversial name in journalism today. He has taken on a clandestine, subversive strategy to disseminate huge amounts of information.
Democracies are scratching their heads over what to do about him but news organizations have an even bigger, perhaps existential, dilemma on their hands. Either stoop to the level of WikiLeaks (i.e. steal information by hacking, encourage whistle-blowing) to get good stories or face the risk of being left behind. Often that is a chance that outlets can’t afford to take, especially in today’s poor economic climate.
So journalism is facing perhaps its biggest crisis yet but we need good news people more than ever. The reason for that is the abundance of data. Right now, the amount of material available to the general public on the Internet is staggering.
Some of it is true while some is exaggerated or just plain false. If in the past, we needed reporters and producers to uncover information, now we need them to sift through and verify it while cluing us in on what’s important. We need those responsible individuals, with a strong moral compass, to provide us with context on matters we know little or nothing about. These are the tasks we need the new generation of journalists to perform, but based on CareerCast’s predictions we might be on our own sooner than later.
The writer is an independent media consultant and a former producer at the Fox News Channel. [email protected]