A Challenge to the (Dwindling) Media Writer Class…

Is the Golden Age of Media Writing over? Based on recent history, one could make that argument. Back in 2005 when I first started blogging for ICN, I would spend hours each morning running the web reading all the media related websites looking for the latest stories. The list of websites was long and all encompassing; Ad Week, TV Week, Broadcasting & Cable, The New York Observer, The New York Daily News, Media Week, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Editor and Publisher, The Huffington Post’s Eat The Press, Brian Stelter’s TVNewser, New York Magazine’s Daily Intel, Romenesko, Page Six, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post’s Media Section, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and on and on. It was a lot of work but it would guarantee I would have three or four different things to talk about on ICN each day.

Those days of endless web surfing are long gone now. I spend about 1/5 the time I used to reading 1/10 the sites I did previously. It’s not so much that I cut back because I wanted to throttle back on my reading but that I throttled back on my reading because there was less of an insightful nature to read and I whittled my blogroll down to focus on the organizations that were still churning out quality articles.

The decline in volume of print and online journalism has triggered a corresponding decline in frequency of quality media coverage of the media as many of the writers who were really plugged in to the TV news industry, my niche, either moved on to other things by their own volition or were forced to move on or otherwise cut back on their media writing output for reasons not under their control. Gail Shister was the first big domino to fall and many more followed suit; Rebecca Dana, Paul J. Gough, Michael Learmonth, Jeff Bercovici, Rachel Sklar, Michele Greppi, Jon Lafayette, Anne Becker, James Hibbard, Felix Gillette, Rush and Molloy, Anne Schroeder Mullins, Patrick Gavin, Matea Gold…and that list, unfortunately, keeps growing.

Even some of those that are still around like the AP’s Frazier Moore and David Bauder aren’t as prolific as they once were. Howard Kurtz left The Post for the Internet and still churns out in depth pieces now and again but not anywhere close to the rate he used to. The New York Times is still plugging away with Bill Carter and Brian Stelter but the Times seems to be rather picky about what it’ll write about and I’ve seen a lot of good stories pass The Times by without any mention.

All of this has had a cumulative effect on the quality of writing that’s come out regarding TV News from those who are still on the beat. It used to be that if something happened concerning cable news, we’d invariably get some kind of process story from someone that filled in the blanks as to why it happened. Now such writing tends to be reserved for only two events; 1) the most earth shattering of stories like Keith Olbermann leaving MSNBC or Glenn Beck leaving FNC, and 2) whenever Gabriel Sherman turns his keyboard at the industry and everyone, and I do mean everyone, stops what they’re doing and just gawks at the magnificence of the resultant output.

A few months ago Rebecca Diamond and FBN/FNC went their separate ways. And how did we find out about that? Someone sent me an email containing something Diamond wrote on her Facebook page. But why did it happen? Was it a non-renewal? Did Diamond opt to leave? We don’t know because nobody bothered to dig. Granted, Diamond is not a big gun like Olbermann but the story, or rather the non-story, of Diamond’s departure is emblematic of the way the media writer pack as a whole is operating these days. Five years ago, we would have heard about Diamond’s departure before it ever reached Facebook.

Here’s another example. At the height of the Fukushima nuclear reactor trouble in Japan after the mega-earthquake, NBC pulled a bunch of its people home suddenly. On MSNBC the next day a report aired that called the pullback an evacuation. I saw it and noted it on Twitter. A few hours later a story came out with an NBC spokesperson saying “We are not evacuating people”. And that was that. Except it wasn’t “that”. It turned out that a statement had been issued to some media outlets at the time. A few days later the New York Times included part or all of the statement (which may or may not have been part of the first commentary on the matter a few days prior).

“NBC said in a statement that it had ‘downsized the number of folks on the ground, to limit exposure to the danger of the power plant,’ and that the people who stayed had done so voluntarily.”

This far more revealing statement, which to my knowledge only showed up in The Times but had been distributed to at least one other outlet that I am aware of, seems to suggest that though NBC publicly disliked the term “evacuate” that’s precisely what it was doing when it pulled its people out as a result of the dangers at the power plant. You don’t leave “volunteers” behind if it’s a standard redeployment. You do if it’s an evacuation.

Nobody picked up on this nuance. Nobody followed through. They just moved on. This probably would not have happened five years ago. This was a good process story; a network pulls many of its people – justifiably in my opinion given the facts on the ground at the time – out of a potentially dangerous situation? That’s news. Five years ago it would have been written about on blogs and in some newspapers/trades.

Returning to the story of Keith Olbermann’s departure from MSNBC, there was a collective failure by the media writers in not picking up the warning signs and writing about them…and, yes, there were warning signs. There had been persistent stories of internal turmoil at Countdown well before the earth shattering news broke that longtime Countdown Executive Producer Izzy Povich was “moving on” to oversee “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell”. And yet when Olberman exited MSNBC everyone acted like it was such a shock. It wasn’t. Many writers knew or suspected things were going on prior to this but for whatever reason couldn’t or didn’t follow through. This never would have happened five years ago.

As a group, we need to do better. Too often now we operate from a reactive mode. We need to operate more from a proactive mode.

There are two types of media writers out there; there are media critics who just write about what happens on TV News and give out opinions based on such and then there are media writers who write about what happens to TV News (and supposedly why). There is some overlap between the two for some writers but most fall into one of those two categories. The former are still plugging away at it and haven’t dwindled away from the national scene in great numbers.

But the ranks of the latter have been decimated over the last few years. Some of the best in the business who had lots of access; your Shisters and Kurtzs, are now generating a miniscule percentage of their output from five years ago for reasons entirely out of their control. Others who would go where media writers feared to tread; your Danas, Sklars, Bercovicis, and Gillettes, and still others who were always dependable to fill in the blanks; your Golds, Goughs, Learmonths, and Greppis, are out of the game entirely.

The result is an increasing void in TV News process stories that isn’t being addressed. The challenge I therefore lay before the remaining media writer contingent is what are we going to do to try and bridge that gap?

Who is going to address the “why”? To just write the “what” in a story only tells half the story. The “why” matters. Why was an anchor hired or fired? Why was a program added or dropped? Why was an executive bumped up, down, or out? Why did a story make the air? Why is a story that’s on the air important or not? Why should we trust or not trust the spin being given by the networks?

It’s easy to take a pitch from some PR person and go to town. Those stories are never in short supply. Hell, they want you to tell those stories. But what about the stories they don’t want you to tell? Internal discontent? Power struggles? Backstabbing? Open revolt in the newsroom? Talent running amok? Many of those stories are circulating in the industry and are known to writers. Few are told. All are news.

It’s not like many of the media writers, especially the New York based writers, don’t have the access. They go to the junkets. They attend the pressers. They hear things. But too often they keep it to themselves. They have their reasons; potentially burning a source, not wanting to ruffle a network’s feathers and lose access, and not wanting to disturb those network advertising dollars for the organization they work for are a few. However, in the end the question for me isn’t what are they risking by revealing something potentially troublesome but are they doing their readers a disservice by not filling in those missing blanks?

One wonders if anyone would have the guts to write about the Bryant Gumbel Today Show memo as Kevin Goldman did 22 years ago, turning the show and NBC upside down in the process, if it happened today.

The time has come. The old guard of media writers have mostly left the playing field. The next generation needs to step it up and take over. Stop spending so much time writing about what’s happening. Start spending more time on why you think what’s happening is happening that way based on what you know. Stick your neck out. Occasionally you may lose your head in the process but your writing will benefit overall because of it. And your readers will look at you less as a conduit for the networks and more as an independent arbiter of the TV news business.

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14 Responses to “A Challenge to the (Dwindling) Media Writer Class…”

  1. wheresthebeef09 Says:

    zzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzz………….

  2. Geez, beef, that’s rude.

    Great insight Spud. Part of me thinks that quality and in-depth reporting are no longer valued by news consumers.

    And on the reporter side, why write an article when you can just tweet?

    And what exactly does Rachel Sklar do over at Mediaite? Has she written anything lately, or is she just a behind-the-scenes person?

  3. Geez, Beef. You hardly ever comment here, then that’s what you come up with when Spud opines on a subject important to him? I don’t have a comment myself because it covers the issues well on its own, but I did not find it “zzzz”-worthy.

  4. Pardon, Beef.. She’s an MSNBC PR hack and took exception with that part of the writeup! (Yes, I know everything but only care to share some of it.)

    I think the ‘scoops’ dried up under pressure to plug leaks in the cable nets.

  5. wheresthebeef09 Says:

    I’m a MSNBC PR hack…that’s news to me! LOL! I’ve never even made a MSNBC-related post before…….

    And regardless of my posting history on this site, yes, this blog entry WAS boring…the times, they are changing. Time for Spud to face reality instead of moan about how things used to be.

  6. @Josh: Rachel has said a few times that she’s stepped back from Mediaite and isn’t involved with its day-to-day operations. She does occasionally write a post, but in his (excellent) treatise, I assume Spud is mostly referring to her time at the Huffington Post (“Eat the Press”) in addition to Mediaite, along with her stints at FishbowlNY & the Daily Beast.

  7. starbroker Says:

    Wow, so the dude who works at the burger joint comes to whine about Spuds remarks.

    I guess he has to attack something since he was probably devasted to find out FBN hit breakeven in the last fiscal year. A full year ahead of schedule.

    Spud’s right…this trend has happened for years and years. I’ve seen numerous friends of mine get canned from their jobs at places like Variety, Billboard, Hollywood Reporter, LA Times etc. These people actually knew the business.

    But they were replaced by young 20 somethings at a fraction of the price the others were paid.

    Then these publications wonder why all their subscribers are deserting them. Heck, these days you can read EW and get about the same kind of garbage as you’d get at the Hollywood Reporter. It’s pathetic.

    Take the stage collapse in Indiana. I don’t think I’ve seen one story on who the major players are in the insurance sector that insurance concerts/festivals etc.

    For the record– CSI is the best.

    Not in any of the stories, I read or saw where their any implications of whats covered/what’s not in the cancellation policy. They probably had a policy covering the show being cancelled if there was (X) amount of rain during a time period. But gusts of winds at 60 MPH. They probably weren’t covered for that. So–the show goes on because they don’t want to be out all that money. That’s what a reporter who knows his business would have gone after at Billboard or HR etc 10 years ago. These days, these punk 25 year olds don’t have a clue.

  8. Now all we need is a CNN PR hack to make this a full house.

  9. I knew this would suck in both Star and Beef though not exactly in this way.

    And Terance Beef is not an MSNBC PR hack.

  10. I’ll back up ICN here… it’s true that TV News writers have gone off the boil…. but I think it is more to to with the experience I get, which is eluded to in ICN’s piece, which is, if you piss off a network, they send you nothing. It is almost becoming a child’s game.

    The networks are now behaving as if they are the power-brokers, and can tell the writers what the rules are.

    I’m aiming to change this, and I’m getting marginal success. I say marginal, because the matters that I talk about, and email other TV News-writers about, don’t follow me in stacking on the pressure.

    I will use a story that I wrote last week about CNN International for example…. A presenter at CNN International is clearly implicit in bringing CNNi into disrepute, but no-one, other than a political site (politico) will go with it. The evidence is there… it should be more widely reported.

    Another instance… trying to garner information from PR types at news and business channels, is like trying to get blood from a stone… they are all busy in meetings (for what?) and busy preparing papers (for what?).

    Life as a TV News reporter has changed dramatically, it seems the balance has shifted to the networks, reporting what they WANT you to report on the threat of not giving you anymore info.

    I agree with ICN… That has to change… and now.

    I’d take a tougher stance, if I knew the rest would back me up… that backing isn’t there, and vanished some years ago.

  11. I don’t know enough about the details of media writing to have an opinion, but I saw this entry earlier today and found it to be an interesting and informative change-of-pace.

    Perhaps consider handing out free smarty phones to cable news non-PR types to help with garnering the scoops…

  12. starbroker Says:

    What did you expect me to say ICN. I’ve been griping about this same thing for a while now.

    The other point that was left out is…..too many writers for the mags today just slightly tweek a press release and throw their name on it and thats what passes for journalism.

  13. I will use a story that I wrote last week about CNN International for example…. A presenter at CNN International is clearly implicit in bringing CNNi into disrepute, but no-one, other than a political site (politico) will go with it.

    Well I did link to the Politico piece but I didn’t yours because it contained pretty much the same material…which is a reason why one should always publish their story first before handing the facts out to others…you risk getting beaten to the punch.

    I’d take a tougher stance, if I knew the rest would back me up… that backing isn’t there, and vanished some years ago.

    Yeah…you’d be wasting your time. I could rail more about media writing but it would get me nowhere.

    I’d take a tougher stance, if I knew the rest would back me up… that backing isn’t there, and vanished some years ago.

    Nothing new there. That’s been going on as long as I’ve been blogging. But what’s changed is too many of the good writers are gone. So now it appears that by comparison there’s more release regurgitation when the reality is there’s less analysis and insight.

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    […]A Challenge to the (Dwindling) Media Writer Class… « Inside Cable News[…]…

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