Network news doing less with less

Cutbacks require operations to rethink everything

Brian Rooney recently interviewed me for a piece about latenight TV, but I have never actually met the ABC News correspondent.

How did we manage that? Easy. Rooney posed questions via cellphone, while an ABC cameraman taped the response.

It’s a minor example, really, of a trend in TV news — a push to accomplish more with fewer people, capitalizing on new technologies to replace body and head count. And while it worked well enough for Rooney’s purposes on “Good Morning America” (why waste a senior correspondent’s time for a 20-second sound bite?), the financial pressures behind the practices threaten to make broadcast journalism even more paper-thin than it already is.

Newspapers — indeed, journalism in general — are also struggling with the need to “do more with less,” as the honchos like to say. But the latest round of cuts in television — including at least 350 jobs at ABC News, or roughly 25% of its personnel — will likely hasten a scenario where reporters don’t so much report as invest the minimum amount of resources necessary to produce precisely the story they were dispatched to bring back.

What’s lost, in this scenario, is the potential for discovery associated with reporting, the idea that a correspondent might encounter facts that transform a piece, enrich it, or (heaven forbid) alter its preconceived assumptions. When reporters are tasked with delivering the most rudimentary coverage, those possibilities — the serendipity of stumbling onto a story bigger or better than what the boss thought it might be — go out the window.

The outcome, invariably, will be to seek out the most obvious talking heads, the most available “experts” and public officials. It’s a generic prescription for once-over-lightly journalism, destined to render in-depth examination of complex issues — hardly a TV news staple now — that much more scarce.

Not that you’d know any of this from listening to news executives, who have acknowledged that money’s an issue while stressing the motivating role of technological advances. Digital equipment has made what are known as “one-man bands” more feasible, enabling reporters to wear multiple hats as producer, camera operator and editor, while excising other members of a traditional crew.

Equally significant is the evolving nature of consumption, highlighted by the Pew Research Center’s latest findings about news being more portable (a third of cellphone owners say they access news via their phone) and participatory, reflecting the wave known as “citizen journalism.”

For all the talk about efficiency and adaptability, though, economic concerns fueled by audience fragmentation remain at the heart of the cutbacks — and in the foreseeable future will yield shallower news, not merely “more, done differently,” as ABC News chief David Westin characterized the shift to the Wall Street Journal.

CNN possesses the global resources to cover the world in a way others can’t, which has made the cable network the de facto master of faraway disaster. While this configuration has its occasional advantages, it’s not an especially reliable business model, as the channel’s ratings indicate.

After that, with fewer correspondents and bureaus, the quality and depth of news appears certain to erode. Reporters (often working alone) will be compelled to parachute into locales where merely getting up to speed on logistics will provide a formidable challenge. Given the expedited pace of coverage, they’ll also be asked to file faster and more frequently, leaving even less time to report out a story.

A final nail in the coffin is the popularity of personality-driven opinion programs, which foster less incentive to undertake the time and expense associated with investigative reporting. ABC anchor Diane Sawyer recently told Parade magazine, “I love the expression of personality that cable invites,” which is at best myopic, inasmuch as whatever ambitions “World News” harbors to merit that lofty name are blunted by the success of cable’s studio-bound hosts.

In such an inhospitable environment, it doesn’t take much for tabloid scandals that occur in the U.S., such as the recent frenzy surrounding Tiger Woods, to squeeze out serious reporting. Besides, pop culture and celebrity stories are attractively cheap to produce and seen as an effective bridge to younger and more casual news viewers.

So while reshaping news divisions might be fiscally prudent, it’s a troubling formula for more absentee, cut-rate, mailed-in journalism. Or put another way, see you around, Tiger.

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