Incompetence in our Local Newsrooms: Why Google Isn't the Only One to Blame

"It is also true that your ultimate success as an industry is essential to the success of our democracy -- it's what makes this thing work." - President Barack Obama addressing journalists at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner.

Journalism, as we know it today, is in the midst of an almost irreversible collapse. Without some kind of sweeping legislative initiative or major management overhaul, our nation's single greatest checks and balances is headed for a perilous death. Most people could care less, and rightfully so. They have to worry about keeping their jobs (if they're lucky enough to have one), paying the bills, and feeding their families. But while we worry about our immediate future, let's not forget about the long-term implications of a weakened journalistic infrastructure.

Without good investigatory journalism, would we have ever had found out about Eliot Spitzer, Gary Condit, Marion Barry, or Richard Nixon? Would the war in Vietnam have ever ended had we just listened to politicians "tell" us how the war was going and not seen for ourselves the startling images taken along the front lines of civilian casualties and those of weary, exhausted American soldiers? If history is any indicator, politicians will always paint the picture that will help promote their agenda. Democrats and Republicans are both guilty. Journalism informs the public of what happens with their tax dollars and what is NOT happening with their tax dollars.

But it's not just about government regulations, it's about humanity. Journalism tells us what is right and what is wrong in our society. They paint a picture of crime and they humanize its victims. Would we feel the same anger and urgency in the search for the truth, were it not for emotional testimony, interviews, and images of Laci Peterson and her family? What about Elizabeth Smart? Would we care or volunteer our time to search for strangers missing for days if we had no one to paint the picture of who it is we're missing? Would criminals run more rampant if they didn't see what happens to those who molest children or murder otherwise faceless victims? Would our idols in the sports world transcend the screen to influence our children and future leaders of tomorrow with the acceptance of cheating and illegal drug abuse, if not for the demonization of those who looked into the camera and lied to our faces?

Journalism is not flawless. It has its faults. The leaders and management have grossly, and stubbornly refused to pay attention to a changing landscape of technology and deliverance of news. Some of its reporters can have an air of authority that borders on the edge of arrogance and pompousness, but these are small flaws in a humbling industry, desperately in need of resources to perform its important function in our society. While old media management slowly drags its ten-ton feet by making sweeping cuts across the board, old media management stays intact as those that are the pillars of our democracy are shown the door.

Journalism will be reinvented, only with far smaller resources, even less pay than before, and a dwindling talent pool - as bright college students choose a career with a less-debatable future. While the big networks and papers are making some important (and sometimes impressive) changes, it's the locally-owned affiliates and dailies that cover our nation that are truly in need of help. They will continue to be several steps behind if their big-pocketed, big-media parents don't help out in an aggressive way. Many of these affiliates have old-school media types heading their news teams. I personally worked for several who wouldn't be caught dead on an online social network.

I can tell you this much for sure: adding your station call letters or newspaper to Twitter and Facebook will not answer anything unless you understand how these sites are becoming so addictive to a new generation. The solution is a management that is willing to swallow its pride and ask a much younger constituent what it means to them when they add a link to their Facebook profile. The solution is making way to hire an MIT grad, or a Stanford GSB student every couple of years to understand the changing technologies and be one step ahead. The solution is to make your television show a subtle, virtual landscape that allows you to "follow" reporters as they go on a story through constant Twitter-like updates and on-body cameras during breaking news. The solution is real events as they're unfolding and the thoughts as they're being uncovered. The solution is a more interactive news product with real-time pageview statistics that will allow you to figure out what story will lead your newscast or cover the front page.

And finally, news organizations must realize that Google is a window to their content. With very few news organizations a destination website, there is no other way around it. A new generation of news seekers get their news through a search engine search. Take for instance these two stories from two local stations in the Bay Area (KTVU and KNTV) on the same story:

KNTV: http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/Cell-Video-Key-in-BART-Shooting-Case-Hearing-Today.html

KTVU: http://www.ktvu.com/news/19491244/detail.html

Notice major differences in the URL? One station has major "searchable" words in the URL: "Cell" "Video" "Key" "BART" "Shooting" "Hearing".

The other station? "19491244". Which station's story do you think will show up in a search engine? These are basics in the web world that have been employed for years! And the station in question is in the nation's #5 ranked news market of San Francisco. If a news station can't get it right in SILICON VALLEY - of all places - what hope do we have for news organizations in, say, Pocatello, Idaho?

The other day, I sat around with a group of journalists over dinner and listened intently as they spoke about the murdered journalist and editor of the Oakland Post, Chauncey Bailey. Bailey had been researching and preparing a story on violence and financial fraud of Your Black Muslim Bakery, which has since been found to be linked to 8 unsolved murders. Bailey's courage and integrity in investigating such a dangerous organization, should be commended. At the dinner table, I was engrossed in the natural story-telling ability of these journalists - some of whom were continuing Chauncey Bailey's research, and had uncovered decades worth of possible criminal activity and unsolved murders from the bakery.

When faced with adversity, these journalists heeded the call to not let our strongest pillar of democracy weaken through the cowardly act of others. Journalists have faced many struggles in bringing us the truth in countries fighting for the democracy and rights we have in places like China, Darfur, Burma, Iraq, and Afghanistan - many times paying with their lives. My journalism friends have faced far worse adversity than what they have seen in the current woes of their industry, but this time, the enemy is in front of them. The adversary is the the News Director and the ones they who put them in place. Unfortunately, unlike the auto and financial industry, Congress cannot hold this group accountable.

They are destined to make more cuts and consolidate their staff, lowering the quality of our journalism and the strength of our democracy, when they have no one to blame but themselves. What I've outlined will not be a cure-all, but it's proactive, rather than reactive. It's too bad our nation's journalists can't investigate and report on the incompetence at the head of their own newsrooms. It would be a pretty darn-good story to read.

Sincerely,
Kevin Leu

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4 comments :

  1. wow- the searchable words in news story URLs was a real astute point that i hadn't considered or even noticed before, but you are totally correct about it.

    Double wow, Kevin- you are right! Now that is some breaking news.

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  2. Passionate & tight!
    I enjoyed the changes...Spitzer though?!
    Are ND's really the enemy or is it the GM's? -- could it also be the new breed that get in to journalism to be second rate celebrities (didn't have the stomach for Holly Wood)....won't bore you but I think these changes are societal. What you talk about is symptomatic of a society that doesn't care, as a result the old guard (journalists) are suffering.

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  3. "The solution is a more interactive news product with real-time pageview statistics that will allow you to figure out what story will lead your newscast or cover the front page."Do we really want to leave choice of headlines to the statistics of a mob mentality that is already ill-educated on what's really going on in the world? The new-world mentality you propose will still need a little of that old-world mentality to help educate us by choosing what they think is more important news (ie. war in Africa vs. who won American Idol).

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  4. @Gooders Girl There is definitely more than one culprit here. NDs, GMs, parent companies... they all share the blame. Someone HAS to take the initiative though, and only ONE person is in charge of JUST the news product - the News Director.

    @iggyviola I totally agree. There needs to be a balance and not some young Mark Zuckerberg or old disconnected news professional calling all the shots. The main point of that statement is that no station out there even know what analytics or tracking means.

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