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Newsies weigh costs of war

They face the daunting task of covering covert enemy globally

While the rest of America worries where the next terrorist attack will occur and when exactly the U.S. military will go to war, journos are wondering how they’ll pay to cover all of that.

As the round-the-clock newsies and network news divisions gear up for the long haul , they face several pressing challenges:

  • Huge financial costs at a time when budgets are stretched to the limit.

    Aside from the ad revenue that the nets lost during the first four days of the crisis when they broadcast without commercials, they’ve also had to spend millions in order to bolster international coverage, hire staff and replace transmitters located atop the World Trade Center. CNN alone spent $1 million in the first day of covering the story.

  • Balancing objective journalism with patriotism. Since Sept. 11, many newsies have — like many Americans– rallied around the flag. The Stars and Stripes have been conspicuously displayed in the logos of most of the news nets, and some anchors — Fox News’ Brit Hume and NBC’s Tim Russert, for example — have taken to wearing flag pins on their lapels.

  • Finding a focus for coverage. Unlike the Gulf War, the coming conflict features no clear enemy in a single location. There’s also the question of whether viewers will lose interest in a story without a clear beginning, middle and end.

  • Deciding what to report and when. Information may be scarce as the nets try to balance the public’s right to know with issues of national security. News execs have already vowed that they will not put lives in danger in order to get a scoop.

‘Loose lips sink ships’

NBC News VP Bill Wheatley recently issued a memo to staffers reminding them of the World War II truism, “Loose lips sink ships.” He emphasized it’s essential to take “great care to make sure that our broadcasts don’t inadvertently pass along information that could prove helpful to those who would do harm to our citizens, our officials and our military.”

Eason Jordan, president of newsgathering and chief news exec at CNN News Group, says the White House and the Pentagon have already set up some restrictions for journos.

“We recognize that this is an unconventional conflict that will require extraordinary rules,” Jordan notes. “If they’re unreasonable, we’ll fight them.”

News nets aren’t just worried about the Pentagon. Because this conflict could be fought in numerous countries, access to “war zones” could be tricky.

For example, CNN is the only network with reporters inside Afghanistan — and it’s unclear how long they’ll be allowed to stay there.

Nic Robertson had reported for CNN from Afghanistan until Sept. 17, when he was forced to leave after the Taliban told him they couldn’t guarantee his safety. CNN still has about a dozen staffers in Afghanistan, including correspondent Steve Harrigan, who is in northern Afghanistan with a two-person news crew.

“All of us will try to get as close to the action as we can,” says MSNBC prexy and general manager Erik Sorenson. “But the fact that you can show up inside the borders of a certain country doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing any reporting. It’s not enough just to be somewhere.”

Where to from here?

Even more difficult for news execs: Figuring out just where they need to send their staffers.

“The Persian Gulf War was essentially covered live,” says Aaron Brown, who began his daily job as a CNN anchor the day of the terrorist attacks. “The battle was in front of us, and we could show it. We’re not entirely sure where ‘there’ is now.”

The first week’s coverage after the Sept. 11 events focused primarily on the initial attacks, the screens repeatedly filled with images of the jetliners striking the World Trade Center and the buildings collapsing. Later, there were grieving relatives to interview. But now news execs are left to weigh future actions that might not be accompanied by video images.

“This war certainly won’t unfold before our eyes,” says CBS News prexy Andrew Heyward. “We have to be prepared for a protracted campaign. It isn’t going to look like a videogame.”

And it isn’t going to be cheap to cover.

A recent report by Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. media analyst Tom Wolzien estimates the three major network news divisions each have annual budgets of between $400 million and $500 million, while CNN’s budget is about $700 million annually.

Wolzien, a former NBC News exec, predicts that each net will have to boost its budget by 35% over the next few years, partially in order to set up new international bureaus.

“It’s expensive to cover a world war. I don’t think any of us have our brain yet around that,” Sorenson says.

While it may be a challenge to cover, the recent crisis has overall injected new vitality into the news fray.

“This is arguably the most important story we’ve ever covered,” Heyward says. “We’re not going to stint on coverage even if it’s expensive.”

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