Pity the Poor Anchor

April 14, 2011

In October of 2003, I published an essay called "News Anchors, an Endangered Species that included this paragraph:

The industry's obsession with celebrity and the easy marketing thereof is meaningless in a Postmodern world that has demystified the industry and its hype, rejects elitism and doesn't need its information spoon fed by good-looking faces anyway. As the world of video news shifts to a broadband environment, where users can pick and choose what they want to watch and when they want to watch it, there are powerful forces at work that will make news anchors unnecessary.

Katie Couric, Matt Laurer and Meredith VieiraEvents since proved those words to be prophetic, and they are even moreso today. The news of Katie Couric's imminent departure from the CBS Evening News anchor desk, followed by similar announcements from Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer from NBC's Today Show, have prompted a host of analytical pieces about the changing role of anchors in today's disruptive newsroom environment. The endangered species is scrambling to avoid the inevitable, and when it comes to Couric, it's even bringing out teeth. Mediaite reported on Fox News’ Liz Trotta's scathing commentary claiming the perception of Couric as a journalist is "ridiculous," and that her failure proved that "there’s a very big difference between doing the news, even if you’re a woman, and giggling all the time."

"There seems to be an awful lot of speculation around news anchors these days, and it's not our practice to comment on any of it," NBC said in a statement to ABCNews.com. While explaining that he doesn't think an era is ending, Syracuse professor and go-to outside expert on media Bob Thompson told ABC that "these shows are still relevant."

"My guess is some of these superstar salaries may not be the model of these programs as much as before," he said. "The economics of the business have changed. Katie Couric's superstar salary didn't work that well for CBS...to bring it up out of third place."

The L.A. Times echoed that, saying that the era of big salaries is coming to an end.

The growth of cable and the Internet has also provided more diversity in analysis and opinion if not actual news coverage. For those who feel the network news programs are slanted one way or another, there are now options to find news with different views. Why go to a big supermarket hoping to find what you are looking for when there is a tiny store down the street that specializes in exactly what you want?

Then there's Anderson Cooper, who’s made a deal for a syndicated talk show outside of CNN; Keith Olbermann, who bolted from MSNBC last winter; and Glenn Beck who split from Fox on last week, according to The Wrap.

What’s going on? Seems like it’s just not as much fun anymore to get up at 3 am to keep America informed -- even if the prize is a salary as much as $15 million a year.

The decline of network audiences, the migration of the news agenda to the internet and the desire for star anchors to build their own brands -- instead of building cable or broadcast brands -- are all to blame.

"The prestige has diminished, the money has diminished and the audience has diminished," Mark Feldstein, a professor of broadcast journalism at George Washington University, told TheWrap.

Mike James, Newsblues editorWhile it's the network changes that get all the ink, local news anchors have been "retiring" with what feels like an increasing pace of late. The daily snarkfest of industry comings and goings, Newsblues, reports every week about some local anchor somewhere who's retiring, it seems, rather than be shown the door. Mike James, who writes and edits Newsblues (as the "Surly" Editor) agrees that we're seeing more retirements these days, because the job just isn't as "fun" anymore.

I think veteran anchors tend to be less flexible and less willing to "do more with less." They're having to front more hours in the studio while, at the same time, news managers are pressing to reduce operating expenses. That means younger, less-experienced, lower-paid staffers are producing, writing, and reporting the bulk of the news content...which invariably leads to increased frustration among the older, more-experienced, higher-paid anchors, who are often dissatisfied with the quality of journalism being produced.

Factor in the repetitive nature of reading the same stories in back-to-back-to-back news blocks, the lack of downtime between newscasts to regroup because of the need to satisfy social media, and the pressing obligation to make public appearances to represent the station...it's easy to see why veteran anchors say the business "isn't fun anymore."

I agree with Mike's insight and that the job isn't as "fun" as it used to be, but there's another factor involved. Before I go there, let me say that any serious attempt to examine the job of anchor is hurt by sweeping generalizations. There are many extremely talented and hard-working people in the anchor chair at both the network and local levels. It takes guts to risk humiliation day-after-day, and many a producer has been "saved" by the quick-thinking performance of his or her anchors.

But those special people are all equally impacted by diminishing prestige, money and audience, and the other factor is that the amount of work being asked of anchors has gone up. The problem is that more work is often conveniently framed with greedy ownership, but that fails to acknowledge real changes in the job requirements. News anchoring was simply a lot easier a decade ago, as noted by AR&D president Jerry Gumbert in our 2009 book, Live. Local. BROKEN News.

"The thought that there isn't somehow an entitlement, a right to coast through the rest of one’s career, astounds many. Do they not realize the change taking place around them, the decline of people who no longer watch television news? That it’s not about them any longer and their news desk performance, but about convenience to the viewer? Anchors have become a coddled, protected species where people are afraid to ask them to do something out of the ordinary, and that’s wrong."

For TV anchors to think of themselves today only as TV anchors is career suicide. The day is coming — and it isn't too far away — when the talented, experienced, and highest-paid people in the newsroom will handle the real-time news duties with different kinds of finished, polished "programs" being delivered over-the-air.

Zeynep TufekciIndeed, many anchors today simply "can't" do what's required of them these days, like a new form of anchoring that pertains more to social media than the legacy platforms they have represented all these years. New media moves in real time, and while that's a strength of some TV anchors, it's not for everyone. This difference was articulated beautifully in a fascinating piece by Zeynep Tufekci, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, in her blog Technosociology. It illustrates the differences between anchoring, the broadcast way, and anchoring, the Twitter way — the latter being much more difficult. I strongly recommend reading this piece.

Andy CarvinMs. Tufekci uses the brilliant Twitter work of Andy Carvin, who has been covering events in the Middle East since unrest began in Tunisia, sending hundreds of tweets and retweets per day usually from early morning into the night.

Carvin himself compares his role to that of an anchor, except with his Twitter followers as his producers and his news sources rather than traditional professionals. However, there are significant differences. First, Carvin is immersed in the story. He does not move from unrelated topic to unrelated topic the way a traditional news anchor does. Second, his tweets are his own words so we have a distinct sense of a person between us and the events rather than a figurehead reading words from a teleprompter he or she did not write or think. Third, he does not construct his position as one of distance and uncaring. He is not hiding his opinions or sympathies. Fourth, his news gathering and curation process is transparent—and that evokes a different level of engagement with the story even if you are only a viewer of the tweet stream and never respond or interact. I believe the fourth point is often underappreciated.

The amount of entries that Carvin puts out there has won him praise and admiration throughout the new media world, although most point out that Carvin is unique. Consider, though, the nature of his effort compared to traditional TV anchors, and you begin to understand why the job of anchor isn't as fun as it used to be. Moreover, the job is going to be evolving in another direction, too: if you can't ad-lib with just a few facts, forget it, because in today's real time news world, a script is a luxury, and that doesn't go over well with the crowd that's convinced they were born to "be on TV." No longer is looking good what matters. You need to be able to think on your feet, know grammar and spelling, and grasp the interconnected nature of information these days.

News and information is evolving to real time, and that gets stronger with each passing day. The days of scripted, bundled collections of news items are on the wane, and that is impacting the anchor role, whether at the local or national level. At AR&D, we believe that anchors are now "chief journalists," the people with the most experience and from whom the most is expected.

It has never really been true that the big money "always" went only to the pretty people, although many would disagree with that. The truth is that most anchors are really worth what they're paid, but in the coming months and years, even that's going to be challenged as the news and information business continues to evolve. The camera will always defer to the more cosmetically-gifted, but it will be a different set of skills that really matters.

Pity the poor anchor of today but pity more the communications schools that continue to crank out students passing through the same cookie cutter. It's been a long run for a world built around men and women with over-the-shoulder boxes, but the shift to real-time news, personal branding, the Great Horizontal, the audience desire for substance over style, and other factors means the endangerment of the anchor species is accelerating.