The former head of CBS News and now digital media consultant says local TV news has to shed the “show business conventions that were designed to create an aura of credibility.” If they don’t, younger generations will see the newscasts as ironic and broadcasters will be left with “less sophisticated” audiences that have little appeal to advertisers.
Andrew Heyward made his name in television news most notably as the executive producer of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather from 1994 to 1996, and then as president of CBS’s news division until 2005. The network news division won 57 Emmys, 13 Peabodys and 46 RTNDA/Edward R. Murrow awards during his time at the top.
Less conspicuously at the time, Heyward helped usher CBS News onto the Internet with CBSNews.com and CBS Marketwatch, which was ultimately sold to Dow Jones in 2005. Heyward left CBS shortly after Rather took an early retirement following the flawed 60 Minutes II report Rather anchored casting doubts about President George W. Bush’s National Guard service record.
Today, Heyward is senior adviser to Marketspace LLC, a subsidiary of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Monitor Group that helps firms use digital media to transform their businesses. Heyward works with clients to improve online content and develop new business models.
After years hidden in the bunkers at CBS News studios on West 57th Street, he now has an office in the financial district. “For the first time in my career,” he jokes, “I have a view,” in this case, of the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck contributing editor P.J. Bednarski, Heyward shares views of another kind, warning that television news organizations need to strengthen their bond with viewers by using digital media, and understanding that in a new media age, news consumers are increasingly demanding and savvy.
As broadband proliferates, isn’t the typical local television newscast looking a little out of date?
Two things have happened, at least. One is [stations] have to measure themselves against a broader standard because consumers are consuming news from a much broader array of sources and services and the barrier is distribution and the content that created that oligopoly has fallen. So they’re dealing with users who are increasingly sophisticated about finding alternative sources of news and information.
The other thing that’s happened is that the show business conventions that were designed to create an aura of credibility — the big desks and the lighting and the deep voices and the perfect grooming and the ritualistic ersatz relationships among the anchor team and so on — all of those now are going to be seen ironically by the next generation of consumers.
Unless news people deliver real value, they’re increasingly going to find themselves speaking to the less sophisticated portions of the population and those are obviously the segments that advertisers don’t covet.
There’s more news coverage than ever today. Yet, you’d say there’s a lot missing.
I wonder and worry about where the original enterprise reporting of tomorrow is going to come from and how it’s going to be funded. We have an interesting thing going on. You have your 60 Minutes, which this year had one of its best seasons in memory. It was in the top 10 many weeks, a fantastic season, very topical, very high quality, tremendous acceptance and more enthusiasm on the part of the audience. NPR, which also does in-depth original reporting has had very significant growth. All Things Considered and Morning Edition have 27 million listeners every week. That’s an incredible scale of engagement. CBS Sunday Morning, again, highly successful, unique, high quality, very, very distinctive original programming. Look at NBC’s Obama special. I mean NBC went behind the scenes at the White House, and conventional television [wisdom] was, well, who’s going to watch that documentary? Well. guess what? It was a huge, huge hit.
So those are four examples right there. When you see that, it says to me there’s a big appetite for something that’s truly original and worthwhile. Yet, so much of what you see on television news, including on these excellent networks, is not truly fully original. Though it’s skillfully packaged, it doesn’t really move the issues or the debates forward.
Maybe, despite your examples, there’s less appetite than you think.
The urgency should not be about preserving the comfortable life style of every single person working in mainstream journalism now, but not only preserving a thriving culture and business of enterprise reporting, taking advantage of the fact that there is clearly a market for us. This is not some naive [professional], you know, shouting from the roof of the Paley Media Center saying “Gee I wish things were better.” I work in a consulting field now. I work for businesses. There’s a market for this stuff. So we need to figure out how to create in a sustainable valuable way to take advantage of the fact that people do want it.
You gave a speech at Harvard with a colleague in which you noted an ESPN.com commercial that intertwined an ad for a Ford F150 truck in a manner you admitted “would readily make any self-respecting journalist squirm” for seemingly blurring the lines between church and state. Maybe I’m just being naïve, but it seems that people who are in news management positions now have to be much more aware of being aware of who advertisers are or can be. Is that truer now than just a little while ago?
I agree with you on that and the pressures on news executives are even more intense. I’ll answer your question in a roundabout way. The big issue is to never deceive the public. Don’t ever, for example, cover a story because a sponsor wanted you to, or cover a story, god forbid, a certain way or not cover a story because a sponsor didn’t want you to. Now that is the way to journalistic death.
On the other hand, most journalism is advertiser-supported in this country. If the clients don’t want to be there, we’re not going to be there. So we have to figure out a way not to tear down the fire wall, not to eliminate the line between news and commerce, but to create honest open transparent business partnerships that don’t affect the journalism. That’s the key and if content and commerce can’t coexist in a way that’s mutually beneficial, that’s going to lead to the decline of journalistic bottom lines being more rapid and that’s not going to be good for the citizenry. We have to embrace the ambiguity and embrace the complexity, because just to stick by the simple principals that worked in 1979 is not going to work now.
The real villain there is the need to maximize circulation. What happens is, editors and their producers censor themselves by the stories they select because they know that some stories are going to drive ratings, or they’re going to drive people away. So that’s the real arena, that’s the real way in which being commercial media dependent on audience size and audience composition affects content. It’s not because somebody in Procter & Gamble called and said do a story about Huggies. That’s not going to happen. But if you’re going after ratings you’re going to cover stories you think your audience wants to see and sometimes, unfortunately, that’s at the expense of important stories that the public ought to see. That’s a tension in every newsroom.
Let me get back to local news for one last thing. To operate more efficiently, broadcasters have begun sharing news in markets like New York, Philadelphia and Chicago.
A lot of cities are doing it now. I’m in favor of it big time and I would be a hypocrite if I wasn’t because we pioneered similar efforts in our election coverage in arrangements we had with ABC and Fox. The notion is, spend fewer dollars on commoditized coverage so you can spend more on enterprise. That’s the potential benefit of these arrangements. But if the arrangement is just a way to cut costs, it’s just going to keep the grim reaper away from the door for another few quarters. I surely don’t blame them for doing it and I don’t actually think the public suffers from having one camera at the mayor’s news conference instead of three or five.
I do think that ultimately the local stations do have to rethink their value proposition and invest more in enterprise than in ritual reporting. Right now, those local stations are suffering from the double whammy of a cyclical downturn, the recession, but also the secular problem, which is that their value proposition as the only sources of news and sports at 11 o’clock has now been eroded by everybody else.
So a local station needs to redefine its relationship with its community and become part of — pretentious word forgive me– an ‘ecosystem’ of news and information in the community, which is of true value to the people who live there. They need an integrated broadcast and digital strategy, including online and mobile, and must figure out a way to partner with other local journalists and become the place that people can go to for content.
And can they find a way to make their Web presence profitable?
If I’m right, that there is value to be unlocked, then value almost by definition is monetizable. If they can create a real connection with users, users will pay for it or advertisers will pay to be part of that connection. The cost structure has to change and that’s already started and not merely by doing everything you did now with fewer people — inevitably, that just gets harder and harder — but also by reimagining what the roles are in the newsroom.
It’s a very exciting, vibrant time in the media business. There’s a great John Fogarty song, Don’t You Wish It Was True. We can’t just be sitting there looking at our black-and-white pictures of the pioneers of broadcast television. You’ve got to deal with today.