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Newsies stretch to cover dual crises

Resources split between Japan, Middle East

As major international stories break in both the Middle East and Japan, network news ops and cable news orgs have split their resources between the unfolding military and humanitarian crisis in Libya and its neighbors, and the devastation of Friday’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan along with potential aftershocks, literal and figurative, around the globe.

For most, the newest story has taken precedence, given the daily outpouring of new and tragic information — imminent nuclear events, catastrophic and increasing loss of life — in Japan. Fox News preempted Glenn Beck, CNN and MSNBC added hours of coverage, and most news orgs interrupted programming to air President Obama’s Friday afternoon address.

On broadcast, CBS had the only TV reporter reporting live from Japan on Friday ayem: Lucy Craft, who was joined by Harry Smith and other CBS correspondents this weekend. ABC moved Christiane Amanpour from Libya to Tokyo, with David Muir and the net’s Clarissa Ward en route to Japan as well.

There is still, however, a news presence in Libya — frequently hampered and delayed by strongman ruler Moammar Gadhafi and his supporters, yet still active. “Absolutely zero cell service in Tobruk #Libya from 0930 to 1230,” tweeted ABC Newser Nick Schiffrin, who has been filing reports from the combat zone. “Totally isolated from rest of world. Residents blame Gadhafi.”

The Libyan conflict is becoming an increasingly difficult story to report — while Gadhafi gave Amanpour a sit-down interview just weeks ago, world opinion has turned so drastically against the Libyan head of state that journos now fear for their lives. Ali Hassan Al Jaber, a cameraman for Al Jazeera, was murdered on Saturday, with Gadhafi supporters suspected.

Much has been made of the emphasis on U.S. politics in TV news, but recent events have driven coverage of natural disasters and foreign political upheavals as well. “You can date it back to the Haiti earthquake — that was a huge turning point,” TV news analyst Andrew Tyndall said.

Although the days of expensive systems of foreign bureaus are over, Tyndall says a news org doesn’t necessarily need a full bureau to generate compelling coverage. News footage can be gathered very quickly without large crews or time-consuming setups using light, easy-to-use equipment like mini HD cameras and quickly transmitted to a Stateside bureau (where it can be professionally edited) thanks to the ubiquity of broadband.

As is frequently the case during big stories, CNN has seen a serious ratings boost during the Japanese disaster. The net is still the place to go for breaking news despite its struggle to maintain second place to perennial ratings leader Fox News in quieter times.

Drawing about five times its normal audience, CNN was the narrow cable leader on a total day basis from 3 a.m. Friday to 3 a.m. Saturday, averaging 2.28 million to 2.10 million for Fox News and 588,000 for MSNBC, according to Nielsen. And CNN was even more dominant in adults 25-54: Its 1.01 million topped the combined delivery of FNC (659,000) and MSNBC (199,000).

Fox drew more total viewers in primetime Friday (2.73 million to 2.65 million for CNN), but again CNN dominated in the core news demo of 25-54 (1.17 million to 757,000 for FNC).

But nets with a smaller U.S. footprint are also likely to come out on top in the wake of large-scale international news. CNNi and the BBC are going to be helped by this, Tyndall predicted. “And Al Jazeera, as we’ve seen, is always helped by international news.” That net is being eyed for wider carriage in the U.S. (Al Jazeera English is available on only a few cable systems and online), as it provides continuous coverage of one of the world’s most volatile areas.

In fact, just as Al Jazeera came to prominence in the U.S. — Stateside viewers began viewing the net online during the protests in the Middle East — Japanese net NHK has begun to see significant American interest. The NHK website’s traffic spiked 610% between Saturday and Sunday, and Cablevision has added TV Japan — a net aimed at the Japanese diaspora that broadcasts NHK content, including several English-language programs — to its iO TV digital cable service until March 17.