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Seeing into the big, myopic Tiffany eye

CBS.com's Larry Kramer talked about his job, building a new online CBS network, with the San Jose Mercury News recently. He's changing things by not changing much.
Written by Mitch Ratcliffe, Contributor

I picked this up through CyberJournalist.net, which quoted a San Jose Mercury News interview with Larry Kramer, president of CBS Digital Media, on the importance of judgment in newsgathering and the news organization as the "magic" that makes news work:

I definitely think people want judgement (sic)... . In the news gathering, in the news operations, the magic is still a combination of things. It's giving people what they want and what we think they need to know... .

That's basically all you can do, or could until people got their own access to the press through the Web and blogs. In the olden times, It’s not about being engaged with the audience. It’s TV repurposed, which will probably make CBS a lot of money.news organizations acted as a filter and magnifying glass for the people who consume your news.

There's a whole other side to reporting news on the Web today, the role of the reader as participant in the discussion about what the news means, its accuracy and, most critically, telling others in their community what their peers think needs to be talked about. Today's news is part of a democratic conversation, but Kramer's still talking "portalese," the language of networks as monolithic aggregators in the rest of the interview.

When asked what his audience wants, Kramer says:

I think they want the same things. I think we have to give it to them differently. We have to entertain them a little more, we have to make it more visual. They're kids who have grown up in a more visual society, so mixing video and text and interactive graphics is real and it's evolving. 

Basically, that's a "keep 'em passive" approach to doing the news rather than a commitment to hand some control to the audience and involve them in the resulting content.

On other points, Kramer is right that one needn't put a "Web reporter" into a bureau next to a traditional reporter. That's a waste of money. One does, however, have to get the traditional reporter to change her approach to the news to some degree by learning to listen to the audience, explore the avenues that, because of geographic isolation, the audience can't do themselves and, where possible, bring local newsgatherers and newsmakers into more direct contact with the world that is listening to and talking about them. 

Here's the dead giveaway passage that shows the news at CBS is still about promising reporters airtime rather than opening the news process up to more participants:

We have people working 24 hours a day for a 22-minute show basically. So the ability to use them the rest of the day turned out to be not just something we thought would be a good idea, but something they thought would be a good idea. People who work for CBS now get a lot more display on the Web site, and have their video seen. Anybody can go back and see it. They're doing a ton of original content for the Web now, more for the Web than for television. 
That means the reporters are still concerned about talking at the audience, who just sees what they do and, hopefully, the network gives the reporter a better posting in the next year. It's still a matter of working up a ladder at CBS, competing with other journalists in an insular environment. It's not about being engaged with the audience. It's TV repurposed, which will probably make CBS a lot of money, but not as much as it could earn by really changing.

At the same time, I think the competition between journalists is important to honing that essential organization. It worked very well when I ran the news network at ON24 (when it was a news network)—getting reporters excited about a story because they were getting feedback from the audience, even being offered questions the audience wanted answered that sometimes were better than any they had thought of, drove people to work hard and long to get more time with the audience. Just don't encourage journalistic competition in isolation, dabbling in alternative distribution without engaging in the democratic discussion, what Umair Haque calls "edge competencies" (see his devastating critique of The Washington Post's total lack of democratic conversational skills).

CBS isn't the only TV news network that suffers from this mainstream hangover. I've been watching CNN Pipeline, a raw feed service from CNN introduced a couple weeks ago. The network promotes Pipeline with the tagline: "Control it. Watch it. Live." There, you see reporters waiting for the network, killing time, talking about the smell of bugs fried in lighting. It's raw and compelling, like reality television when it is good, but still needs more in terms of control by the "viewer." I only get to pick from among three or four feeds, which are often packages made for air, when there are dozens of feeds coming in simultaneously that should be exposed. Heck, let the viewer see "exclusive footage" as the producer does instead of making them wait, then the viewer can see through the news process to judge the judgment, which is a step in the right direction.

Then, let the viewers start remixing the reports and creating their own Evening News to share with others. Get really edgy and let the viewers mix clips from different sources to deconstruct the judgment they've come to rely on. Then, a lot more viewers will also be eager to acknowledge truly authoritative reporting when it happens. And the network that does the best job will thrive in the midst of a vastly expanded conversation.

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