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2010 Predictions for the World of Media

By Ben L. Kaufman · January 5th, 2010 · On Second Thought
Local journalists aren’t exempt from the love/hate generated by the command to compile lists of top stories at the end of each year or decade. More than anything, it’s a chance to remind everyone how smart they were when they wrote the first draft of what’s become history.

Done well, reviews can update stories and explain how reporters got it right. Or wrong. Too often, however, the lists are cut-and-paste jobs that fill space or time during painfully slow year-end news weeks. TV with its video archives is not immune.

A particular hazard is to remind audiences of how clueless its beat reporters can be. The latest hilarious example is the professed ignorance or willful blindness among reporters who cover the PGA Tour. They swooned over Tiger Woods’ domination and missed the fornicating claimed by a seemingly endless succession of women.

The Washington Post’s Leonard Shapiro’s mea culpa included the admission by colleagues who said they were “clueless” about Woods’ after-hours activities. As one golf writer put it, not only was there a wall of secrecy around Woods when he was not playing golf, but his reported liaisons were away from the course. Another writer said he didn’t look or see because he thought Woods was too smart for self-destructive behavior.

Recent year-end lists also included stories that beat reporters — supposedly in the know — missed. These included the crash of the financial system whose origins went largely unnoticed and unreported by the financial press, the collapse of Enron and, of course, the jingoism of the major American editors who suspended skepticism when confronted by President Bush’s justifications for attacking a country that had not attacked us.

So rather than remind you of my failings in the past year or decade, let me suggest what 2010 might hold for the news media:

Celebrity rules. Little short of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan or Israel and Iran will distract editors from celebrity missteps: on-camera rants, sexual revelations, adulterous affairs, exposed nipples, seen and unseen sex tapes, beauty contest controversies, etc. Randy governors and senators come and go, and it will be hard for anyone to top Tiger Woods for sustained salacious copy and images. Didn’t we say that about OJ?

Local and national wingnuts will stir fears and anger in the search for broadcast ratings and GOP influence. No insinuation, accusation or misrepresentation will be too extreme or incredible. Meanwhile, reporters and editors are enablers when they fail to challenge these prevaricators; no one wants to get into a pissing match with a skunk.

Republicans will distort the substance and implications of health insurance reform, and Democrats will make incredible claims for the affordability of these plans. Reporters will do their stenographic duty instead of shouting, “You lie,” and challenging partisans to prove their wildest assertions.

Public understanding of science will erode as partisans make the most of scientific uncertainties. Coincidentally, too many Americans will confuse faith and science to the detriment of both. Science is open to new evidence; faith admits no possibility of error. That’s why it’s called “faith.” News media treat these uncertainties and conflicting data as “both sides” of public policy quarrels de jour and fail to distinguish between cause and coincidence, treating every confusion as presenting equally valid viewpoints.

Medical reporting will stress new hope and no hope, reflecting distortions created by marketing demands.

News media will obsess about combat deaths while largely ignoring the dimmed futures of tens of thousands of wounded combat veterans. This is willful ignorance or wrongheaded understanding of patriotism, where the wounded are hidden lest they undermine the home front support for our unending wars. For a stark contrast, look at the British coverage of men and women who survive horrific wounds and make often-heroic rehabilitation efforts.

Similarly, news media will obsess about the risks of terror while ignoring the hundreds of thousands of annual preventable American deaths from preventable causes: obesity, alcohol, tobacco, traffic crashes, AIDS, etc. Compared to those losses, 9/11 was a mere blip in the statistical charts. The difference is that some preventable deaths are acceptable but sudden, violent death at someone else’s hands is not. Along with this, there will be too little attention to the limits of technology in deterring terrorists as governments rush to assure us the latest gizmo will make flying safe again. It’s safe now.

Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will bore editors, whose attention span is even shorter than their audiences’ willingness to stick to a subject. We’ll get much of our “news” from U.S. military handouts and foreign journalists who are cheaper and more expendable than Americans, who have been withdrawn from costly foreign bureaus.

Network anchors will parachute in when marketing calls for a stunt to boost viewer numbers. They can’t be taken seriously; you don’t get local smarts in foreign countries sitting in New York. Exceptions continue to include NPR, BBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post. It’s scary to think how few sources set our nation’s news agenda.

Financial stress on dailies will ease ever-so-slightly if they’re owned by newspaper people who can make the most of any increased income from advertising, circulation or online sites. Papers bought by investors with more money than due diligence — rich jerks who lost their custom-tailored shirts by paying top dollar for a declining industry — will continue to risk failure when debts exceed likelihood repayment. Even survivors will be cash-starved and have trouble providing the local coverage that wins and holds readers. More papers will struggle to find ways to charge for now-free online content.

Wireless text devices that provide news won’t save any industry. Over the Christmas break, we spent about 16 total hours on domestic and international flights. Few under-50s appeared to read anything online. Among under-21s, I saw no book in any format. People who don’t read when they have time don’t care about format. iPhones, smart and not-so-smart cell phones, Blackberrys and similar electronics will offer more news on demand, but with daunting differences in their basic controls. If content/app providers want me to use their products, they must make it easy to use.

Fewer daily journalists will be fired, but bloodletting won’t end. In many newsrooms, furloughs — euphemism for unpaid leave — will continue. This saves money and retains valued employees who’d otherwise be lost to further cost-cutting firings. Fewer dailies will close, but more will try going online at the expense of delivered home papers. Some papers might follow the announced plan at The Dayton Daily News: to save money, some editors will become reporters at lower salaries.

Already lean weeklies, whether community or business, will prosper, according to Kaufman’s Corollary: media size and credibility often are inversely related. People like their neighborhood weekly because its news is closer to the lives they know; niche publications like The Business Courier serve readers who are invested in their coverage.

Local TV news will remain weak, relying on stories that produce easy images and demand little or no enterprise. WLWT’s search for an enduing primetime anchor team will pause to see if its newest combo works. The thin supply of local news will continue to be spread over something approach 24/7. Look for more shared stories, further reducing the sources of news. That probably means even more redundant weather, sports, traffic and filler in every newscast.

At least two independent local online news efforts will begin in the new year. Each complements local news media. It will fascinating to see if broadcasters and The Enquirer use their images and stories. This isn’t the Hydra mistakenly called “citizen journalism.” That term was coined to anoint wannabees with cell phone cameras and to make users feel better about using unpaid work during hard times for working and unemployed journalists. Better to call such audio/video clips “viewer content” or “reader content.”

The two new local news gathering efforts involve otherwise unemployed, retired or freelance journalists from print and broadcast and/or journalism students. They have startup money. Survival requires a business plan that generates even the relatively modest sums needed to compensate contributors and editors. That probably means ads. Foundations and other sources love startups but tend to shun operating costs beyond a year or two.

Local news media will continue to look for ways to deliver content that can produce income. They’ll also struggle with the uncertain role of Twitter; does urgency trump accuracy and verification in tweets and when tweets might be inappropriate? So long as tweets come from identified sources, the tweets reflect on an entire newsroom operation and its integrity.

My best guess for The Enquirer is for slowed decline if advertising begins to return, even if subscribers do not. I wouldn’t be surprised if the paper began charging for some online content. I jokingly wrote a few weeks ago that no one would be nutty enough to pay for coverage of the luckless Bengals. Maybe I was wrong. The Bengals found a way to become winners, and I’m almost ready to eat my $25 stadium crow with tartar sauce if the paper decides to charge for some of that coverage. Maybe Bearcats football, too. I only wish The Enquirer would make their site and archives more easily searchable before venturing into pay-to-read technology.

If The Enquirer goes to pay-to-read, I have a suggestion: Provide free online content to print edition subscribers. There’s no nice way to put this: Print is a habit of the aging. That includes baby boomers. Don’t dissuade us from subscribing and don’t expect us to go online for our local news.

Curmudgeon Notes

• I teach an intro course on environment reporting, and preparing for recent trip with a microbiologist to Ecuador (Andes, Amazonia, eco-lodge) brought home an awful new truth: Film is an endangered medium. I wanted professional color print film for my just-rebuilt 35mm underwater/rainforest camera and Kodak’s standard black and white professional film, Tri-X, for my other 35 mm cameras. Cord had the color, but I couldn’t find Tri-X. Not so long ago, the late Provident Camera would have pulled “bricks” of 10 or 20 rolls from the cooler. Cord and Ritz — unsure when Tri-X would arrive — told me to order online from B&H in New York. I did.

• TSA’s online guide to carrying film through airport security must have been written by a committee. It suggests leaving film wrapped in original packaging and taking it out of original packaging. My online query elicited an equally confusing response from TSA headquarters … 11 days after we left for Ecuador. However, my voice mail query at TSA at CVG got a quick, savvy response from a living person: carry unwrapped film in a clear bag. Inspectors want to see and test each roll, not Kodak’s wrapper. Otherwise, as TSA inspectors at CVG confirmed, they would have made me unwrap every roll.

• Because I loathe darkroom work, I’m delighted that Andrew Ward, who developed my black-and-white film at Provident, still provides that service at his Northside lab. I could do it, but I don’t want to. I burned out on darkroom work decades ago. It’s a complementary art for which I have little talent.

• It’s been a long time since I was out of touch with the news, but there were no TV, radio or newspaper in Amazonia and the same-day International Edition of The Miami Herald required a treasure hunt in towns and cities. Sometimes I caught CNN in Quito, but my Spanish is limited to little more than reading the onscreen headlines if they involved U.S. news. We flew home Dec. 26 and didn’t understand why Ecuador airport security repeated so many searches, singling me out for a final, total carry-on and wand search at the gate and escorting Harriet back to original security for a fourth and final search. In Miami, random selection of additional security continued. We still didn’t know why. It wasn’t until the next day we heard about the attempted bombing of the jetliner over Detroit on Christmas.

To the credit of TSA and the Ecuadorians, they agreed to hand swipe the 35mm film for explosives rather than running it through destructive X-ray machines. Catching up on the news after two weeks recalled the Kingston Trio’s timeless rendition of the 1950s “Merry Minuet:”

They’re rioting in Africa. They’re starving in Spain. There’s hurricanes in Florida, and Texas needs rain.

The whole world is festering with unhappy souls. The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles.

Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch. And I don’t like anybody very much!

But we can be tranquil and thankful and proud, for man’s been endowed with a mushroom-shaped cloud.

And we know for certain that some lovely day, someone will set the spark off … and we will all be blown away.

They’re rioting in Africa. There’s strife in Iran. What nature doesn’t do to us … will be done by our fellow man.



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