TV News in a Postmodern World

Stations Must Embrace Personal Tools

by Terry L. Heaton
J.D. Lasica, author of Darknet: Hollywood's War Against the Digital Generation, calls the citizens media movement the "personal media revolution." I've adopted the term, because I think it's more fitting as regards what's happening in our culture today. Besides, "citizens media" sounds like it was coined by the Bolsheviks.

I also like it because putting the personal against the professional helps shine a light on one of the great mysteries of our time — why professional media people are so completely ignoring the technologies and concepts that are driving the revolution.

The answer is likely that the great strength — and great weakness — of any profession is specialization. As a class, professionals who view themselves as specialists, easily accept the specialization process and the splitting of tasks and missions. The thinking is that task accomplishment is often better and always safer, if handled by multiple specialists than if one person attempts to do everything alone. This is a strength, because the concept is able to safely climb the mountain of quality. But a system that is designed primarily to protect against error is a weakness in that it is expensive and easily institutionalized.

I do this. You do that. And together we can do great things. This is true until technology becomes one or more of the specialists. Then I'm confronted with a choice that I cannot ignore, especially if others around me are making friends with these new specialists.

Can any human being compete with a calculator?

Consider how this has evolved in the television newsgathering process. Modeled after the only thing available, Hollywood's single camera film style, early TV crews included a specialist reporter, a specialist field producer, a specialist camera operator, a specialist sound operator, and any other specialist that was required. While technology is now able to take the place of nearly every specialist, the industry still hasn't fully accepted the disruptive innovations.

This is because institutionalized professionalism cannot tolerate the notion that if technology can eliminate one specialist, what's to keep it from eliminating everybody. It produces a defensive response, which is really is a dangerous place to be, because it induces occupational paralysis.

But the picture goes beyond simply gathering news for television. It includes the newsgathering and publishing process altogether. In our new convergence world, specialization is a net liability, and this is where the professional news industry is losing ground every day. Workers must be able to multitask, and not just because it's possible. The most important reason is that you can do amazing things with this technology. Others "out there" are doing it already, and one day they will be our competitors.

In the past year, we've witnessed numerous journalistic scoops compliments of a world that professional journalists abhor — the blogosphere. The more famous cases involved the exploding of certain visible news pedestals, such as the one formerly assigned to Dan Rather, but throughout the land, thousands of local issues and stories are being covered by communities springing up within the world of the blog. This is due to Lasica's "personal media revolution," and professional news organizations need to do more than simply pay attention. We need to embrace and master the technologies they're using.

Web researcher Gordon Borrell says, "The deer now have guns," and he's right. With a PC, a $100 web camera, a $200 piece of real-time TV production software that includes a teleprompter, free blog software, FTP access to a server, a small digital camera, editing software, and an imagination, anybody can be a TV station, a newspaper or a multimedia news operation. In order to do so, however, the person running the enterprise needs to know how to do everything.

And here's the amazing thing about that. Those who are learning all these new tools and languages, including simple HTML and CSS, are able to go beyond what specialized professionals can do. In an institutionalized specialization paradigm, the only way to compete with these citizen pioneers is to add more specialists to handle the flexibility that technology has given them. This is the conundrum for the mainstream media.

The "quality" argument pales in comparison with a creative mind at the helm of a control panel like this.

And nowhere is this truer than in the world of television stations and the Web. As long as a station is content to allow third-party companies (specialists) to handle their Internet activities, there is no incentive to leave professional ruts and experiment with the same disruptive technologies that everyday people in their communities are using. This is a grave tactical error, in my judgment, because it limits business opportunities driven by innovation.

Let's examine, for example, the process of building and maintaining a content-rich Website, something every TV station must have. Movable Type is one of the more popular pieces of blog software (there are many), and you can actually get a copy of it free. A licensed version will cost $100. This software — out of the box — can do the following: create dynamic pages, store them in a database for easy retrieval, categorize them, broadcast to the Internet that they are available, deliver them to users via RSS, upload images and pictures, and allow complete customization via stylesheets and templates.

Most television stations have a professional third-party company do this for them, and the pricetag isn't cheap. These companies make compelling arguments about ad networks, reliability, convergence ad packages, and content management, but the truth is these are all things that can be done by the stations themselves. Those who don't at least dabble in this are sitting by as a world they can't even imagine is exploding all around them. This is a real tragedy, for how can an organization that's bound by the rules of professionalism possibly compete with individuals and companies who can do the same job at a fraction of the cost? This is the reality local television will be facing in the not-too-distant-future, unless they choose to explore the brave new world for themselves.

One week with Movable Type, and you'll be asking yourself why you're paying another company $10,000 a month to do this for you.

The technological revolution goes beyond the media and strikes at the heart of all of our professional institutions. Not too many years ago, for example, the number of eyes watching the far heavens were limited to the professionals fortunate enough to work in one of the earth's observatories or a few scattered amateurs with telescopes. Today, nearly all of the significant astronomical discoveries being made include amateurs, because technology has advanced to the point where anybody can probe the far reaches of the universe. The recent discovery of a planet circling a star 15,000 light years away from earth, for example, included two avid amateurs in New Zealand using backyard 14-inch and 10-inch telescopes. This is no longer the exception in a world formerly limited to the few. It is now the norm.

"Amateurs" are making their own commercials, writing their own encyclopedia, making their own music and films, and taking on every institution that calls itself "professional." Along the way, they're building their own communities, all thanks to the technologies that take the place of specialists. This is no insignificant thing.

It's time our engineering departments included Internet programming, XML and RSS, and for our news departments to employ a few nerds. Better yet, I believe everybody needs a little basic HTML and CSS knowledge, so that the tools available right now don't seem so intimidating. Smart stations will bring in experts and teachers to help give their people a competitive edge, because the stations down-the-street might be even deeper into professional ruts than they are. Not to do so runs the very real risk of turning the video news niche over to independent groups of highly flexible journalists who can do anything.

The personal media revolution is a serious threat to the status quo, and it is no respecter of persons. If they can swallow their pride, even professionals can get onboard.

(cross-posted at The Morph Blog)