Revisiting the endangered species of news anchors

One of the most insidious problems with being on television is that one tends to view what one does as defining oneself personally. Trust me, you are not what you do. Nevertheless, the illusion that we are has led many down paths that others wouldn’t even consider in their right minds.

Last night, in what has to be one of the most remarkable of the many signs of the new media times, the primary anchor team of WVII-TV resigned live on the air.

The Bangor Daily News responded with the headline: “Take this job and shove it: Fed-up Bangor TV anchors quit on air.”

“We figured if we had tendered our resignations off the air, we would not have been allowed to say goodbye to the community on the air and that was really important for us to do that,” said (Cindy) Michaels, the station’s news director, who has spent six of her 15 years in Bangor’s radio and TV market at WVII.

Both Michaels, 46, and (Tony) Consiglio, 28, said frustration over the way they were allowed or told to do their jobs — something that has been steadily mounting for the last four years — became too much for them.

“There was a constant disrespecting and belittling of staff and we both felt there was a lack of knowledge from ownership and upper management in running a newsroom to the extent that I was not allowed to structure and direct them professionally,” Michaels explained. “I couldn’t do everything I wanted to as a news director. There was a regular undoing of decisions.”

The station’s GM, Mike Palmer, responded by referencing the big and positive changes the station has made recently, adding that the on-air resignation was “unfortunate, but not unexpected.”

Folks, let me cut through the crap here for you. This is an example of two anchors frustrated with changes to the industry and at their particular station. Rather than accept changes, they decided unemployment was a better option and that this stunt was somehow justified. It was not. Firstly, you never bolt a job without a job waiting, unless it’s not your option. Secondly, you don’t end with a flurry such as this, unless you really don’t care about ever working again in the industry. The issues that are plaguing WVII-TV are no different than those plaguing any other TV station, so who’s going to hire people that disagree with those struggling to change cultures within a TV station? Moreover, these two people held management functions within the newsroom, and therefore were under the authority of the general manager, who functions as the owner’s representative. If they felt unable to continue in that capacity, then they rightly should have informed management and moved to do something else.

In October of 2003, I published an essay called “TV News Anchors, An Endangered Species” in which I laid out the hows and whys of the lesser importance of anchors in the TV News ecosystem. In 2008, I helped write “Live. Local. BROKEN News.” with AR&D, where we laid out the new role of anchors as “chief journalists” within the newsroom.

Today, I feel that the anchor is the least secure of any position in a newsroom, and that we will soon be emphasizing reporters and reporting over the ability of a nice face to curate the news on our behalf. It just makes no sense anymore in the wake of today’s foundational disruptions in not only how news is gathered, but in how it’s presented. Authenticity demands reports from the scene without a go-between, whether that filter is somebody’s fancy infrastructure or another human being. We’re in the age of participation now, and we’re not all that big on experts, which is what anchors (mostly) pretend to be.

So while I admire the courage of Cindy and Tony in bolting this way, there is sometimes a very fine line between courage and foolishness. This, I’m sorry, crosses that line and proves once again that with an unteachable spirit, everybody loses.

Pity the Poor Anchor

There’s been a swirl of activity in the big money world of network (and local) anchors lately, a part of which includes new demands and skill sets required instead of what used to be just sitting in front of a camera, looking authoritative and reading a teleprompter. Anchors of that ilk are an endangered species, as I first wrote eight years ago, and one of the big reasons is that the job is changing – to one that is much harder. Join me as we visit the changing world of anchors and discover what might lie ahead.

Pity the Poor Anchor

Webcam from the anchor’s desk

Sherri Talley at KTBS has been live on the Web for a couple of days now in an experiment to see how well a single individual on camera can communicate raw information in an on-going story. It has been fascinating. The screen is split with chat on the right and Sherri on the left. She’s at her desk and interviewing local officials, newsroom personnel (even those not normally on camera: photogs, producers), and station meteorologists.

Sherri Talley live from her desk

Most fascinating to me has been the dialog in the chat window, which proves, once again, that the Web is a social tool, even in a crisis.

If you go take a look, this is definitely not TV. It’s raw and, in a strange way, compelling. The audience has been extremely pleased. Think about it. You have a question and can ask it directly of the main anchor in the newsroom. It doesn’t get much more interactive than this.

(FOLLOW) Aaron notes in the comments that the application doesn’t work in Firefox, and that’s bad. It was a last-minute add, and we’ll get it fixed for next time. KTBS is a client of mine.

Are you working on your personal brand?

If you’re not, you should be.

Jeremiah OwyangJeremiah Owyang, a senior analyst for Forrester Research and one of the smartest web guys around, has a provocative post on his blog about the honing of one’s personal brand. I’ve been thinking a lot about this myself, because I see the struggle between anchors and reporters who blog and the companies they represent. The media companies want their brands reflected in the work of “their” employees, but it may be smarter for these people to be allowed to develop their own.

Let’s face it; the day is coming when independent journalists will offer their goods and services to media companies, instead of the companies actually employing them. This is already happening on a small scale, but I expect it will increase as fiscal pressures squeeze the life out of media companies. Hard-working independent contractors can make good money, and it will cost media companies less to purchase their work.

And so my advice to journalists is to develop your own brands, and Jeremiah’s entry gives lots of good advice. Here’s just some:

There are so many brands now, in fact with the introduction of websites, and blogs in particular, many are developing personal brands, something not as easy to accomplish (as) in past years. With this profileration of brands, it becomes so much more difficult for brand to stand out from the millions of others. Sure, you’re thinking the long tail solves this, and well yes, in a way. In reality there are leaders and followers being created in each sub-niche, so the rules of getting noticed still apply.

He advises people to:

  • Have a goal
  • Develop a unique brand
  • Get personal
  • Attend local events
  • Lead events
  • Be interesting
  • Archive your achievements

There’s also great advice in the comments.

If you work for a local media company, I strongly recommend you start blogging and building your brand. If you’re a local media company, I strongly recommend you let your people blog, although you might want to own the domains that drive their brands.

Anchor blogs bring viewers into their lives

At WKRN-TV in Nashville, just about everybody blogs, including morning anchor Heather Orne and her husband, Prime Time anchor Neil Orne. Neil was one of the first bloggers at the station, and Heather joined him just a few months later.

Heather is nine months pregnant, and they’ve been using their blogs to let viewers in on the progress of her pregnancy. Page views, as you can imagine, have skyrocketed.

On Wednesday, Heather was involved in a little fender bender, and it scared the crap out of everybody, including the driver of the other car. You see, he’s a fan and has been following Heather’s condition.

Neil posted a picture of the two cars stuck together. Here is Heather’s blog.

Do yourself a favor and read the comments. Then ask yourself why your anchors aren’t blogging.

Tears for Ed Bradley

I was at lunch today with friends from WKRN-TV, and the conversation ultimately turned to the death of Ed Bradley. People were complaining about the over-the-top, lead story coverage, and how certain anchors and friends were all weepy on-the-air. While grieving is understandable, there was consensus that this was a bit much. I mean, the guy was an anchor, not the Pope.

Perhaps we’re weeping for more than just the loss of a person. Maybe that with the passing of each of these anchors, we’re reminded of our own mortality and, more significantly, of the period in history that’s closing. Sensing the approach of your own death is one thing, but the loss of a whole way of life?

Television news of the sort that produced the big name anchors and the local celebrities of today is slowly headed into the sunset. Like the photograph in Back To The Future, the image of an era that dominated my own life is fading, but unlike the movie, there’s nothing we can do to stop it.

While I’m certainly optimistic and upbeat about the opportunities that lie before us, Bradley’s death does give me pause. The tears for Ed Bradley are, in part, tears for all of us.