Monday, August 25, 2008

Get Out The Pipecleaners Part II : Robbie the Robot Can't Do News

The newspapers are in trouble? Big whoop. Pass the popcorn and click on another blog.

Maybe the papers will dwindle, but can't the TV stations, the radio and the internet take up the slack? Already we have seen them replace, supplement or stand in for each other, as each has grown and filled its own niche. Where there are gaps things will adjust, right? Well, probably.

The media outlets -- print, radio, video or net -- are not the real bottlenecks of our news supply. Actually there are two bottlenecks, one at each end of the bottle. The first of these are the eyes and minds of the people who actually collect news and prepare it for broadcast.

This stuff called news comes from lots of people. The bottleneck is, how many people, and who's going to pay their salaries?

Imagine a tree. The crown of the tree is what the viewer sees, the trunk is the broadcast technology, the heavy roots are the various media organizations.

But the roots that feed the whole tree are called "root hairs". They're at the last frontier between tree and soil -- tiny, tender, vulnerable and nearly invisible. In the media the root hairs are the frontline reporters, photographers, video shooters and researchers, and everyone else, all the unceasing honeybee activity of news readers, editors, producers, film editors and audio folk, stand on their shoulders. They are the Bill Mauldin foot soldiers of news.

You can lay off some reporters if you want, but there is no compressing their work. One ink-stained wretch working twice as hard cannot gather twice as much news. Either the amount, the quality or the immediacy will suffer -- usually all three. And it's not just hours, they need working brains.

This may sound obvious, but reporters have to know stuff in order to tell us stuff. Like the leaf-litter that nourishes a rain forest, veteran reporters assemble a steaming magpie's nest of trivia, facts, rumours, and their own experiences to take facts and assemble them in a cohesive truthful pattern which, if it can't convey the whole truth, will give the reader a recognizable sketch portrait of it.

Robbie the Robot simply can't do this. Only people can do this, and the best have been doing it a long time.

In mediaeval times, people believed bear cubs had no shape when they were born -- that their mothers had to "lick them into shape" in those first few weeks of life.

Not true for bears, but true for news. News doesn't flow out of a fax machine, ready made. It emerges organically, all random and grubby from the primordial slime of stray facts or apparently unconnected events, and the nose of some reporter twitches, makes a linkage, draws together another few threads, tests them all and fashions a story. Then his editor gets it.

The news story you hear or read has passed under the eyes of at least two experienced people -- reporter, editor, maybe a separate fact checker. All these people can put the story in a larger context where it makes sense. (A topic for another post is to trace how your news -- your painting of the world -- comes to you and what routes and "lickings" it passes through.)

What happens when you skimp on news gatherers? You lose news, or get watered down, non-contextual, hurried, stupid, misleading or repetitive stories. It's like going to an art gallery that cut back on painters by hanging photocopies. It's like buying frozen "wildberry punch" instead of honest juice.

Media convergence comes in here. Driven by a desire for efficiency, the big outfits try to cut back on costs, and often the frontline information gatherers get turfed. Bureau chiefs, together with their bureaus, get carted off to the Goodwill. Where there were three reporters, there are two part-timers. Where there were cynical reporters questioning the police chief (cigars optional) now there's a summer student who reformats press releases. And the news quality hits the skids.

Is this a problem? The pages and the channels are still full of stuff, after all. But often it is the same butter spread over more bread. Xeroxed artwork. A single data point multiplied by many printouts is not more data points.

Fewer foot soldiers means fewer data points and a pixilated or even false view of the world. In a democracy, the people need as complex a data set as they can manage, and more reporters and a greater variety of reporters equals more complex data. But who's going to pay their salaries?

If the media business won't hire sufficient reporters and pay their salaries and provide their profession with long-term stability and resources -- who will? And if no-one does, can we do without them?

This reminds me of the US problem with health care and health insurance. The relationship is not two ended, with a doctor healing a patient and a patient paying a doctor, but three sided, with an insurance company as a go-between. This model isn't especially effective for US health, because health isn't the insurance companies' first concern.

That same triangle shows up in the conglomerated media, with the company trying to get as much money as it can from the buyer (in this case their advertisers) while paying as little as it can for staff and other expenses. The viewers and the news they are seeking, and the reporters and the stories they are trying to tell, are secondary appendages to this process. The staff and the viewers play peek-a-boo around the executives and the advertisers as they wrangle with each other. Neither staff nor viewers, though they are what the whole enterprise is built on, is well served by this arrangement.

Coming next, part three when I cover the bottleneck at the other end of the bottle.

Part I, Get Out The Pipecleaners Part I : You Can Hear Your News Arteries Narrowing, is here.
Part II, Get Out The Pipecleaners Part II : Robbie the Robot Can't Do News , is here.
Part III, Get Out The Pipecleaners Part III : Your Ears Aren't Big Enough, is here.

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