February 27, 2010

JOURNALISM WATCH: THE DEATH OF FULL COVERAGE POSSIBILITIES (ONLY THAT WE CALL IT A NEW AGE OF DIGITAL REPORTING)

ABC News President David Westin confirmed in an interview Friday that the network's ranks of bureau correspondents, which currently number several dozen, would be cut in half and be replaced with "digital" journalists who would be expected to shoot and edit their own stories.
“We will have as many total journalists as we do now,” he said.
Although the network will keep a minimal staff presence in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami and Boston, it will shut down its bricks-and-mortar bureaus there and ask its remaining employees to work from the local affiliates. The Washington bureau will remain open, but its size will be substantially reduced.

[...]

The mood was grim in Los Angeles, the largest bureau outside of Washington. The 40-plus staffers were told this week that only a few producers would remain and only two correspondents would be assigned to cover the West, down from a total of six who work out of Dallas, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Many functions that had been done out of the bureau will be handled by a “logistics desk” in New York. Demoralized employees, who did not want to be quoted by name for fear of losing their jobs, said the severity of the cuts would make it nearly impossible to swarm major stories such as the perennial wildfires in Southern California.

Westin said the network would cope with the reduced manpower on breaking news stories by hiring freelance crews and making use of its expanded team of digital journalists, staffers who would be able to handle multiple tasks. Although a majority of stories will still be covered by traditional four-person crews, Westin said he expected a “plurality” of pieces would be done by people shooting and editing their own video. The digital journalists will be stationed in two-person teams around the country.
The  latest decision by ABC News, as detailed in this L.A. Times article, is only one of the latest rounds of cuts by management that show how management in pretty much all corporations view journalism. It costs too damn much! It employs too many people! Who the hell needs them? What people really want are glossy pap pictures of celebrities shopping, and fuck, if that can be done with bottom feeder freelancers, why not the real news?

And besides, we have Apple! And Final Cut, and what the hell, anybody can snap a picture these days with a mobile phone anyway, we call it iReporting,  we buy it up from so-called "citizen journalists" (both CNN and – here in Germany, the BILD tabloid paper are big on those things)... and damn the rules and regulations of reporting, we don't have time for fact-checking and supervision anyways!

Such thinking shows the complete disdain any management in the past twenty or so years has shown towards the profession as such. Why? Because management has no fucking clue what it is that reporters and editors actually do.

What they see are people not doing anything! Making phone calls! Eating donuts and Mars bars! Typing a little! Editing a little! They cannot control their work environment, the way these managers have been taught in their little MBA courses (and have dreamt about in their fetish dreams, I'm da man! I can tell these fuckers to do what I want! Rah! Rah! Who's da man?)

While I was at Future Publishing, my own personal nightmare of a Managing Director once called me into his office and told me, and no, I am not making this shit up, that he has a great plan, I repeat, a great plan to cut costs in editorial.

"We'll cut the copy editors," he told me. "They're not needed."

"We what? They're what?" I said.

"Totally not needed," he said. "I edit my emails with Microsoft Word Auto-Correct, and nobody has ever complained. Editorial can do the same."

And for a moment there, I was speechless. And those who know me, they know that this is very difficult to accomplish.

"What?"

"We can save about 10 percent of editorial costs. And like I said, MS Word Auto-Correct works just perfectly in my emails."

I found my words again.

"Yeah," I said, "that's because people don't have to pay to read your shit. Do you have even the tiniest fucking clue what it is a copy editor does? It isn't merely correcting spelling, you ever thought about that? The copy editor is there to be the first reader! If an article has logic issues, if there are things that aren't too clear to the reader, the copy editor sits down with the writer, asks the writer the relevant questions, they check sources, they check facts together, they double and triple check, they turn a rough draft into something that is ready to be published! They are editorial's immune system! If it passes a good copy editor, it is a healthy story! It is a story that we have the right then to charge money for!"

"Oh," he said.

That's right, kids. Oh. That's management for you. For the most part in media these days, they have no fucking clue what it actually is they are responsible for, what product they are producing, what service it is they are providing.

There is a notion, and it is growing and flooding the entire industry, that reporting is just like any other job, in other words, it comes with a prdictable earnings ratio and productivity that can be divided up by hours spent vs. the amount of time or column inches produced.

Such is the way of the accountant, boys and girls. They cannot understand anything that doesn't fit in their SAP-run micro-brains. And they are always looking for a way to make reporting more cost-efficient! More "productive"!. More... fluff, less actual reporting!

Reporting cannot be measured in the "normal" ways of productivity.

As I posted a while back, in Germany the ZDF state TV channel has a political magazine running once a week called Frontal 21. That magazine has an investigative department that works on long-term stories, doing the digging on fraud, on corruption and other news stories of national interest. The reporters there are sometimes working for months, sometimes for years on a story that – in its entirety – might have a running time of maybe 10 minutes.

That's management's nightmare! The earning's ratio just isn't right! What the hell? Ten minutes? And then they see the costs of those ten minutes and compare it with the costs of putting a daily soap and/or a daily talk show on there, and their heads explode.

Isn't any and every minute of TV (and any column inch in a newspaper) the same real estate? Can't we find a formula to make those things cost-efficient? Throw out those who only file three to five stories per year, and be damned if those stories are actually the ones that matter? That gave journalism its reputation of going after the big guys? How long did it take to expose Bernie Madoff? And that was an outsider! Because – hell, who wants to dog a fraud for years? To get one story?

Not cost-efficient, people! Get me Lady Gaga's tits!

(and that is not not disrespect Miss Gaga's ample boobage, of which I have grown rather fond of... they are cute, but they are not the point)

At the same time that management all around the world, without any understanding of the special rules and regulations that come with journalism, do their usual, slash jobs and cut costs... the circulation and reach of their products has been in free fall.

But management doesn't understand why it is in free fall. How could they? They were trained in their MBA courses to see each and every product through the same lense. Manufacturing coke cans? Manufacturing stories? Manufacturing consent?

All the same to them.

And that is why the media is failing.

Failing to live up to its responsibilities with regards to their role within the democratic and social processes. Failing to reach an adequate number of people. Failing to cover those things that matter, locally, regionally, nationally... globally.

And thus journalism is under siege. From all sides. Political parties and hatemongers are attacking, infiltrating and corrupting it from one end, management and accountants are gleefully dismantling it from the other end.

We are in dangerous times, ladies and gentlemen. We have a Fourth Estate that no longer is making good on its mandate to society. We have school systems that have started to produce an entire generation that pursues nothing other than fame and riches and has been given the notion that you don't have to work for it, that all you have to do is to show up at a casting show, and for some reason or another, you don't even need to be very good, you just have to stand out...

... and then the reduced and gossiped-up "news departments" will cover you, thus reinforcing a completely false reflection of reality, all the while the squids in the backrooms of our planet are tightening their grip on the throat of democracy, strangling it, day by day, casting show by casting show, gossip magazine by gossip magazine.

Panis et ludum, we used to call it.

Bread and games.

And with the real global economy in free fall, all we are going to be stuck with is the games.

And when the games are over...

... who knows what is going to happen.