Fred Young, the retired chief of news for Hearst Television, tells the FTC journalism gathering that local TV news is functioning at a high level. “We are electronic first informers, providing news and information.” But to maintain that status, he said, broadcasters must open their minds to new outlets, share reporting with other organizations, such as e-news outlets, and concentrate on some of TV news crews’ biggest assets, like investigative reporting. The other panelists agreed that news outlets are at a crucial point, one that warrants both changes and adaptations to new media.
Local TV news is “alive and well” and will survive the advent the Internet and even the loss of Oprah, according to Fred Young, the retired chief of news for Hearst Television.
Representing local broadcasters today at the Federal Trade Commission’s two-day workshop on the troubles of newspapers and other legacy media in the digital age, Young said he is offended by the notion that broadcasters have been in a panic since Oprah Winfrey announced two weeks ago that she would be migrating to cable in 2011.
“You can take this to the bank: if local broadcasters can cover hurricanes, tornados and ice storms; government misdeeds and political campaigns; the tragedies of 9/11 and Fort Hood; health care reform and swine flu epidemics; Super Bowls and steroid scandals, we can deal with Oprah’s retirement.”
According to Young, local TV news is functioning at a high level. “In the language of emergency management, we are electronic first informers, providing news and information in communities across this country. We are there for our viewers and listeners consistently every day. In times of emergencies, we are the major source of information critical to the well being of our citizens.”
And TV stations have embraced the new media. “Our local news brands have been extended to the Internet, mobile and on-demand,” he said. “Every day at stations across the country there is ongoing dialogue about creative new ways to contemporize our products.”
Young stopped short of calling for relaxing of the FCC’s local ownership rules so that station groups could own two stations in small markets.
But he said regulators should take a look at the markets where duopolies have been allowed. “A synergistic approach with multiple stations is attracting new viewers and, in some cases, offering alternative news products in markets across the country.”
Young said he was skeptical of the government’s getting involved in broadcast news. “Such suggestions concern me greatly. They are rife with the potential for mischief and unintended consequences. “
Young said he likes the idea of shared investigative reporting. “But,” he added, “it should be noted that many local broadcasters continue to support their own investigative reporting. My company and many peer group competitors have Peabody and Murrow awards on our shelves reflecting excellent local reporting of local stories for local news viewers. “
Young acknowledge that TV newsrooms have fewer employees than they had a few years ago, but the ones on staff today are getting the job done by working more efficiently. “Good work will always be done by good people.
“There is an excellent future in local TV news. As the economy improves, the advertising dollars that return can be redirected to an even stronger news product.”
“We know there are many ways to get news,” Young continued. “The message today is that we need to stand together and share our enthusiasm for the value of local news coverage rather than predict the death of excitement in journalism while tearing each other down.”
Young was one of several news experts, professional and academic, who at the workshop broached the bigger question of the state of journalism today and tomorrow, analyzing history, business trends and future possibilities to reach a range of conclusions.
Though the panelists came from a range of places and perspectives — print media, college campuses and, in the case of Young, television — all agreed that news outlets are at a crucial point in their ongoing development, one that warrants both changes and adaptations to new media.
Nonetheless, though, the panelists agreed that maintaining the crux of what makes local news outlets unique — investments in communities, investigative reporting skills and commitment to deliver balanced information — is key, even if those assets are transferred to new mediums.
“Journalism is not dead by a long shot,” said Bryan Monroe, a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “It’s in the process of shedding its old skin for a new one.”
Being in that state, however, comes with a slew of challenges for morphing journalism in to its future self, he added.
To Monroe, that means not just mean adapting to a new media landscape, but also to a changing population that may not only have different desires for information but also may consume news in different ways.
With half of American children predicted to be non-whites by 2023 — and with people of color expected to outnumber whites by 2042 — it is essential for news outlets to reach ethnic populations through both content and platform, Monroe said. Reports, for example, show that minority consumers tend to use mobile platforms as a primary news source, meaning traditional outlets will likely have to provide mobile content to best reach that audience, he said.
Though much of the discussion focused on how newspapers — hit hard by economic woes and changing reader habits — panelists did suggest that the future of journalism lies not necessarily in saving one particular medium but furthering traditional news outlets by honing their biggest assets (skilled reporters, for example) and finding the best medium for their content.
“This is an issue that crosses platforms,” said panelist David Westphal, executive in residence at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications & Journalism.
On that larger scale, panelists broached topics such as the value of headlines, particularly for Internet content, as reports show consumers read a vast number more headlines than full stories. Other topics included the question of copyright laws, and whether it’s possible to protect news copy in a Web-enabled age.
Money, of course, also was on panelists’ agenda. Whether news and information can remain free, new economic models, such as paying ISP’s to put content online, and how advertisers will spend their money all are factors that will be weighed as the new shape of journalism emerges, they said.
Some of the issues, however, are actually not all that new, panelists said.
When discussing the import of headlines, for example, Robert Picarard, director of the Media Management and Transformation Centre in Sweden, reminded attendees that question harkens back to the early days of radio, when announcers simply read local news, and TV, when newscasts were 15-minutes long and created without correspondents or bureaus.
The same goes for debating copyright laws, he said, noting that you cannot copyright news facts. “We have been here before,” he said.
Still, panelists agreed that the real key to keeping journalism alive — on whatever platforms ultimately prevails — is maintaining the principles behind it.
Martin Kaiser, president of the American Society of News Editors, put it this way: “What we’re doing is taking a bit of a step back to the future. What we need to do is preserve our well-trained, reasonably well-paid professionals who know how to do journalism” to ensure its survival.