The bright lights and big egos of my first television station held me entranced for much of my twenties. Back then, the anchors were prophets, the local newspaper scripture and police scanners burped the voice of God. How incredibly important it all seemed. As I aged however, my appetite for the artifice of modern day broadcasting waned considerably. Sure, I’ll always love the visceral thrill of combining sights, sound and words to tell stories big and small. But the canned banter, the infatuation with feigned urgency, the whole crime and grime paradigm…those newscast facets I can live without. Which is why I’m so excited about what the internet. Far more than a confusing series of tubes, Al Gore’s greatest invention has the power to save TV news, by forcing its myopic practitioners to reinvent it. Hear me out...
Since the first test pattern was beamed into living rooms, viewers at home have watched the world through a rigid template. Avuncular anchors clamoring for gravitas bring us the days’ events in predictable patterns: breathless headlines, a smattering of hard news, Commercials, super-duper dorked-up weather, Commercials, big board sports!, More Commercials, then back to the studio for a wide shot of the Channel X elders chortling over something inane. Viewers knew the blueprints, but they still had to be led by hand from room to room before they found what they were looking for in a back closet. No more. Now the audience can wander around unencumbered, explore hidden crevices and cross well-traveled corridors - all while marveling at the architecture. Or better yet, deciding where to re-decorate.
My own employer is a good example. A charter member of a global communications dynasty, we have benefited from our uptown cousins with a powerful new website. Now, viewers who were once resigned to looking from the outside in can fling open the cyber-doors and poke around the property. Weather geeks can peruse radar and satellites without having to wait for a dapper meteorologist’s smarmy permission. News nerds can cue up that story they missed when the dog soiled the rug - without having to sit through endless teases rife with close-ups and clichés. Best of all, newscast consumers can file a complaint, register a request, or add to the subject matter at hand with wisdom and insight once deemed unworthy of inclusion. The end result: a deeper, more detail-oriented news product - one that boasts the immediacy of moving images, the analysis of long-form print and the interactivity found only in a hyper-linked world. And we’re just getting started.
But the metamorphosis won’t come without a few growing pains. Despite our claims of cutting edge abandon, your local broadcast newsroom is really a rather staid place, a highly segmented landscape where job descriptions form borders and individual disciplines rarely mix. Reporters write, photogs shoot, anchors gesticulate and never the twain shall meet. No more. Technology is breaking down age-old walls and forcing both scribes and technicians to learn new skills. No longer married to one particular medium, the denizens of newsrooms everywhere will soon have to learn the skills of their co-workers if they want to stay in the game. Not everyone will survive, but in order to survive the great unbundling of media, we must all abandon the priesthood of our particular tools and learn how to tell stories in a smattering of formats - before a newly empowered audience decides the self-appointed gatekeepers of the fourth estate are little more than crumbling statues of a pompous age.