TV News in a Postmodern World

Reinventing News for the 21st Century

by Terry L. Heaton
A friend and I were watching one of those Microsoft Server2003 commercials the other day. You know the ones. The geek IT guy is trying to explain to blank-faced executives how switching to the new servers has improved efficiencies. He gives up and says, "It'll save us 2 million dollars," and everybody gets it. My friend looked at me and said, "That's me. I don't understand any of that stuff."

So it is in trying to explain Postmodern trends to Modernists, who think in terms of order, logic and reason. Postmodernists elevate experience over reason and are perfectly comfortable with chaos. The language of meta narratives and perspectivism can choke even the best of us, and rather than try to understand, many people choose instead to live in a state of denial. In business, this can be fatal, for contempt prior to investigation, and especially in the form of denial, has always been a barrier to growth and progress. Of course, one of the problems in attempting to understand Postmodernism is that it can't be understood through Modernist logic and order. It's the IT geek talking to the sales guy — a different language. To be successful in the business of TV news (or any business) in the 21st century, we're all going to have to learn a different language.

Postmodernists (Pomos) aren't a subculture. They don't exist as an organized group with a set of guidelines for membership. They can't be studied, tracked or monitored. "They," in fact, are really "us." We're all Pomos in the sense that technology has given birth to the Age of Participation. We don't need to study things we can experience for ourselves now. And when it's something a Pomo can't experience, he will ONLY pay attention to someone who's been there and done that RECENTLY. In the trenches. Not the school superintendent who works in the office downtown — the teacher in the classroom. Not the hospital spokesman who works in the office on the first floor — the ER nurse.

Screw the official company line. If it affects my community, I want to hear
from the guy doing the bleeding or mopping up the blood, not the spin doctor.

Young people are vastly more Postmodern than their elders, but age alone doesn't make one Postmodern. It's more a matter of how deep one wishes to live the life made possible by technology. The older a person, the more likely they are to be intimidated by technological advances of the digital revolution and, as such, cling to the tenets of Modernism.

There's an old saying that God won't do for you what you can do for yourself, and technology is permitting us to do a whole lot more for ourselves these days. God-like Modernist institutions of every hue are under attack, or so it seems. Does a recording artist need a record company to sell music to consumers? Does an airline need travel agents to sell tickets? Do consumers always need a doctor's appointment to analyze their symptoms? Do we need to wait until the evening news comes on or the paper is delivered to have our information needs met? There are countless other examples, and yet on many levels, there remains a rather obstinate disregard for this as anything more than a phantom blip on the radar.

At a recent presentation, I was asked if I thought this was just a passing phase. If you're not a liberal by the time you're 20, you have no heart; if you're not a conservative by the time you're 30, you have no brain. That kind of thinking. It's an interesting question, but the problem is it comes from a Modernist understanding of life. After all, haven't young people always been rebellious? Isn't youth always seeking its own identity? Don't people always grow out of these things when they cease to have so much free time? Haven't we been through this kind of thing before?

No, we haven't, because this youthful revolution is driven by technology, and it will only accelerate as time goes by.

Slate columnist, Bob Walker, recently wrote of the battle over downloading music for the New York Times (Turn On. Tune In. Download. 9/21/03). Bob's a smart guy, but he dismisses the entire matter by asserting that the forces behind it are nothing new. He states that youth is the time of experimentation and adds, "Younger people with fewer responsibilities have much more time to devote to pleasure seeking of all sorts than they have disposable income to pay for it. And at college especially, they are part of a tight-budgeted community, and the culture of sharing is stronger at this age in their lives than it will ever be again." Nice and logical. The only exception this time, he writes, is that young people have a greater "facility with technology" than grown-ups. He doesn't speculate what will happen when these young people take their facility into adulthood.

Postmodernism is not a trend. It's not a passing phase or fad. It's a bona fide cultural shift that must be acknowledged before the language of change begins to make any sense.

This is absolutely critical for local television and especially TV news, as broadcasting faces challenges that were unthinkable just a few years ago. Cultural historian, Leonard Sweet, writes, "Postmodernism is a change-or-be-changed world. The word is out: Reinvent yourself for the 21st century or die! Some would rather die than change." The way many make that choice is to deny the evidence. TV News executives who continue to force 20th century philosophies and methods on their viewers will soon find themselves out of work. If you're in the TV news business, it's not too late to reinvent yourself. Here are 10 things you can do today.

  1. Get off your pedestal, please! The anchor-in-charge-of-everything image is offensive to Pomos, who shun authority as nothing special. Elitism is fingernails-on-the-chalkboard to Pomos. We're just not as important as we think we are, and climbing off the pedestal helps us view our audience with the respect they now demand.
  2. Get out of your box, and, managers, LET people get out of the box. "I can't go over 1:20 on a package." "The research shows people want it this way." "The meters don't lie." Meanwhile, you're losing viewers with every book.
  3. Get relevant! And start by defining relevance. There are a lot of reasons young people don't watch the news, but the biggest one is there's nothing on that's relevant to them. Pomos have information needs. What are they? How do you meet them?
  4. Get involved in your community. Why are we so afraid to take a position on an issue and go after it? Pomos see through the artificial journalistic hegemony called objectivity, so why can't we? Pomos like a little argument with their information, as evidenced by the variety of information portals Internet users seek to develop their own opinions. Local news Websites aren't among them.
  5. Get local! Forget about what "worked" in Pittsburgh or Miami or Dallas. The homogeneity generated by news consultants has taken the local out of local news and replaced it with franchised fear. Watching the news in Anytown, USA is like a drive through the suburbs. It all looks the same.
  6. Empower your viewers to participate. Oh My News! in South Korea has hundreds of users reporting the news and is turning the whole concept of journalism on its ear. You don't have to go this far, but get your audience involved in what you do day in and day out. Remember, Postmodernism is the Age of Participation.
  7. Rethink and reinvent the art of the tease. You can't force people to move from one daypart to another anymore. It's insulting to Pomos, who want what they want when they want it, and you're pushing people away while trying to attract them.
  8. Seize control of your Website. I've written extensively about this, but it bears mentioning again here. You are missing your best chance to recruit Pomo viewers by giving content control of your Website over to somebody who doesn't necessarily have your best interests at heart. The technology exists for you to do quality Video News on Demand online. Seize it.
  9. Think multi-media at all levels in the news gathering process. TV News and Newspaper news are converging online. Your greatest future threat is not your television competitors, but your local paper, assuming they're actively pursuing an online business model. There are only failures of creativity when it comes to digital communications, because if you can think of it, you can do it. Text, slide shows, video, graphics. These are all tools at the disposal of a news reporter in a digital world.
  10. Embrace the VJ and Platypus movements. Michael Rosenblum and Dirck Halstead are rewriting the rules for electronic news gathering by putting small cameras and laptop edit systems in the hands of journalists. Stations that embrace the technology will find new opportunities and a staff more inclined to reporting than entertaining.
There's no magic formula for TV News success in a Postmodern world, because everything's disposable and there are no guarantees in an environment that rejects the rules of order. It's not that Pomos are inherently cynical, even though they distrust authority. They just want to experience before accepting. "Show me," doesn't work anymore. It's more, "Let me do it myself." For example, in the case of the recording industry, a Forrester study showed that those most inclined to download music (the bad guys) were actually the most inclined to buy CDs, too (the good guys)! That kind of chaotic thinking makes no sense to Modernist recording company executives, who're beating their heads against the wall trying to figure out how to stop what they view as an evil. TV stations do the same thing when they emphasize stealing viewers from competitors instead of exploring multi-media, digital options to recruit new ones.

Reinvent yourself for the 21st century. It's not too late.