TV News in a Postmodern World

The Future is Niche Media

by Terry Heaton
the house I grew up inI grew up in a little house in a working class neighborhood of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The C&O railroad tracks ran on the other side of a field that bordered our backyard and created a nice dividing line between neighborhoods. They went to a different school "over there," so I really experienced firsthand the boyhood curiosity about life on "the other side of the tracks."

This enchantment with looking upwards is one of the things that fascinates me most about life. It is the fruit of capitalism, the bait that's dangled in front of the have-nots as an incentive to work hard, obey the laws, and get ahead. Information about people who live on the other side of the tracks can be quite newsworthy to many of those who live on this side, and likely, to some who live over there, too.

But it's not information that's newsworthy to others — perhaps not even most.

And this is precisely the problem with news organizations who carry the editorial burden of determining what is important to most. It's foolish to think that a single news agency, regardless of its size, can adequately be all things to all people, and yet this is precisely what takes place at every daily editorial meeting in every contemporary newsroom. It's at the core of the disruption being caused by the personal media revolution, for people who feel their interests and needs are not being sufficiently fed are taking matters into their own hands on many levels.

Paris Hilton on Larry King LiveThe case of Paris Hilton and her trouble with the law in Los Angeles County is a textbook example of this that bears examination, for it reveals much about the state of contemporary journalism in America. When MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski declined on-the-air to read a Paris Hilton lead story the day after she was released (a popular video now on YouTube), Mika became the darling of many in the news business — a hero standing up for integrity and news judgment. That the event was a running joke throughout that morning news program is brushed aside by those who want to give her a Peabody or some other distiguished journalism award.

To lead with Paris or not, that is the question.

I'm not what you'd call a Paris Hilton "fan," but I have been deeply intrigued by her life in the month of June 2007. My interest is in her as a person, not a celebrity, for I'm a student of human nature, and here was a fascinating human nature story: someone from the other side of the tracks having everything taken away, albeit for a short season, and I was most curious about how it impacted her, all judgments about her behavior aside.

It's not every day that a person of such "position" is stripped of that position and placed in a situation of extreme conflict. I found the whole mess to be a great study in class bias from every conceivable angle, but most of my curiosity was directed at Paris, the woman herself. All that I knew of her was a media creation, but that boyhood curiosity was still there, so I followed the story.

Paris Hilton on Larry King LiveThis is the chief reason why I was so incredibly disappointed in the shallow, mind-numbing, infantile and idiotic "interview" done by Larry King with Ms. Hilton on the second night of her freedom. King proved (once again) that he is inept beyond words in the ability to ask anything resembling a probing question or to follow-up anything that isn't scripted. Ever glued to his written questions and their predispositions, he doesn't pay attention to what's taking place in front of him. He is a caricature, at best, and no matter how provocative the subject, he always defaults to vapid and insipid irrelevancy.

Some are speculating that King was given a list of areas to talk about as a condition for the interview, but this gives him too much credit. Paris Hilton came with pages of things she had written in jail, so she was clearly prepared to talk about what was of interest to me.

I'm not alone in my beliefs about King. Here's a part of what Jack Myers wrote about King's interview with what he calls "the most recognizable person in the world:"

...You could almost hear the groans of CNN executives as the King of Non Sequiturs failed to ask obvious follow-up questions, repeated irrelevant questions multiple times, pursued a line of questioning on the impact of attention deficit disorder, and neglected issues that might have generated some actual emotion from Paris.

Early in the interview Paris commented that she had "a new outlook on life." Later she added that being in jail had "changed my life forever." King never asked what new outlook or how had it changed her life. When Paris said "I've been immature and made mistakes but I've learned from them," King's follow-up question was about friends Paris had "gotten rid of." When she talked, several times, about her work, King never asked what her companies did and what her role is. When she complained "There's so much more to me than what people think," King asked "Did you write a lot [in prison]?"...

Sure, there were lots of "hard" questions to ask and statements she made that needed challenging, but I'm more concerned that an opportunity to probe a unique event like this was completely missed.

Cynics will respond that this was exactly what Paris and her "handlers" wanted, but I don't think so. I think she wanted to be unedited and live, yes, but I sensed a young woman who'd been through something traumatic (for her, but why does that matter?) wanting and willing to talk about it. I was ready to listen. The enormous audience was ready to listen. Our conduit to Ms. Hilton, however, was either unwilling or incapable of it.

And that, my friends, is a much bigger problem for all of journalism than we think.

For the treatment of this story by the press all along has been yet another exercise in journalistic malfeasance — a lesson in how the coverage of the voyeuristic periphery — the "game," if you will (she's here, she's there, she's in, she's out) — leaves everyone dissatisfied and disenchanted. Who got the interview, in the eyes of the press, was a vastly bigger story than the one of a privileged young woman in confinement for 23 days and how that affected her life.

Stories today are colored by the people telling them. That's a simple fact, for in today's world, the storyteller is as important as the story. Those with live programs make their personalities a part of "the show," so I guess Paris chose the path with the least personality. But in so doing, we all lost, and THAT's the problem.

I'll have to wait for the book to judge for myself now, but a book doesn't provide the non-verbal communication that would come from a good interview so soon after the event. That's gone forever.

In its zeal to be all things to all people, the news business regularly churns out a shallowness that, by default, hides everything. In the same way that "general assignment" reporters can't possibily compete with those assigned a specific beat, we probe the simple and turn away from the complex, and niche journalism is its inevitable fruit. We watch as niche specialists grab attention and try desperately to wrestle it away from them. It's a losing battle, because the best we can do is Larry King and a veritable legion of self-promoting "celebrity interviewers."

TMZ.com logoIn the case of Paris Hilton, the entertainment press rose to the occasion. TMZ.com clearly had the inside track on the who, what, why, where, and so forth, and they are now a leader in the hugely important world of entertainment reporting. TMZ.com, I should add, is basically a blog with hundreds, if not thousands, of professional and amateur contributors. The Paris Hilton story, to them and their niche, was the equivalent of Hurricane Katrina (a news blockbuster), and they made the best of it. Good for them.

The Los Angeles Times deserves props for its investigation into the sentence that Ms. Hilton received. This story never got the overall coverage it deserved, because the special interest crowd demanded their usual 15 minutes, and the Times' discovery didn't fit the paradigm that Paris Hilton was getting special treatment. It was too deep, you might say.

And so, we're hung up on the "value" of the story to us (um, did NBC offer a million bucks for the interview or not?) and not the story itself. It's all about the ratings, baby. How sad and pathetic have we become?

We look around us and we see the explosion of people doing media for themselves, and we're astonished that they're doing this without us. People are telling us why, but we don't want to listen.

Earlier this year, Wired Magazine got into a public spat with bloggers over a story they were pursuing about Michael Arrington, the founder of TechCrunch and a very influential fellow in the world of internet start-ups. Two of the people they chose to interview, Jason Calacanis and Dave Winer, both refused a traditional interview and wanted instead to be interviewed via email. That way, they could post the entire interview if they were taken out-of-context, something both felt was a distinct possibility.

Here's a part of what I wrote then:

Itís all about control, folks, not facts.

Think about your own life as a journalist. How comfortable would you be if everyone you interviewed was able to publish the raw interview in some form? You wouldnít, because YOUíRE the one telling "the story." Itís YOUR story, right? (Did you see/read MY story last night?) You need the ability to interject quotes as you see fit in telling "the story," because "the story" is what you say it is.

This is why this whole business of defending the professional press in the wake of the personal media revolution is so problematic. The rules simply have changed. The deer have guns.

Neither Calacanis nor Winer were quoted in the subsequent Wired article, which led Jeff Jarvis to wonder "whether theyíre trying to send a message: i.e., weíre in charge here."

No group is more aware of this than professional athletes, many of whom are turning to or already using the internet as a way to bypass what they view as biased filters and speak directly to fans. Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling's 38pitches.com is there specifically because Schilling doesn't trust the press to present him fairly. Same with Kobe Bryant's kb24.com. Tiger Woods announced the birth of his baby girl and Mark Cuban discussed his colonoscopy on their own websites rather than in the press.

logo from 38pitches.com

The best we can do — as exemplified by Mike Wise in The Washington Post — is make fun of it.

Frankly, it's a godsend the Internet was invented just the last decade. How many more of us would have no career prospects had blogs been around, say, 200 years ago?

Lewis and Clark: "Wassup Y'all. We're in Montana. Man, they could use a 7-11 around here. Uh-oh. Blackfeet tribe across the river! Gotta jet."

Babe Ruth: "Hit No. 700 today. Ate 12 hot dogs. Met a nice girl on the train. You seen my socks?"

Ali with a blog wouldn't have needed Cosell to tell him, "You're very truculent today, Muhammad." Bundini Brown could have merely typed, "Frazier's be-hind will be mine by Round 9" into a laptop and that would be it. End of Howard.

And that's precisely the point for Mr. Wise and for all of us in the world of news. It isn't about the story; it's about us and our careers and our fame and our fortune. It's about furthering the establishment, and this is precisely why people are taking things into their own hands. The audience is dissatisfied, but we are unable to turn away from fostering that dissatisfaction.

The personal media revolution and its inexpensive tools are enabling people to cover what's important to them for themselves. Another significant event the last week in June should give everybody in the all-things-to-everybody crowd a severe case of the spine chills.

This time, it was the technical community, not the entertainment world, and the event was the long-awaited sale of Apple's iPhone. We saw live "witness reporting" from lines of purchasers who'd gathered to buy one of the coveted phones. Multiple live streams were available, and this has profound ramifications for contemporary journalism.

Duncan Riley of TechCrunch has tagged this phenomenon "eventstreaming," and it's something that bears watching.

Thousands of people who were not lining up for an iPhone, be that because they simply werenít interested in doing so or as in my case were unable to due to geography, experienced the highs and lows of iPhone day vicariously through live streams.
Is this not the essence of live coverage of a newsworthy event? To be eyewitnesses for those who can't be there?

ZoomrtvJeff Jarvis sees this as huge, because the infrastructure to enable more common use of this is already being built. And I guarantee you, it's not being done by the news industry itself.

The infrastructural challenge in this is that we, the audience, wonít necessarily know where to find whatís going on. For a time, there will be portals for live — UStream et al — but itís already hard to find out whatís happening there. Portals donít work. So I imagine that news organizations will need to devote people to combing all the live video to see whatís happening out in the world. The real value will then be alerting all the rest of us that something is going on now so we can watch on the internet . . . or perhaps on our iPhones.
While I agree with Jeff that this is a challenge for news organizations, the truth is it's more than that. A whole new world of media is springing up around us, people informing themselves and their tribes as a part of the personal media revolution. Traditional professional journalism is really at odds with this, because the ability of groups to do it increasingly shines a light on the shallowness of the all-things-to-all-people paradigm. If I'm interested in the iPhone, I will trust the group that's covering it for themselves. If I'm interested in Paris Hilton, I will trust the group that's covering entertainment in the same way.

The morning news may be able to send a crew to cover the line outside the Apple store, and show producers can stack Paris Hilton "coverage" where they think it ought to be in their shows. But in both cases, the surface is all that can be scratched, and people intuitively know there is so much more. Consider similar treatments for just about everything "in the news," and you begin to understand the source power of the personal media revolution. It isn't at all about amateurs stealing thunder (or jobs) from professionals; it's about the soul of journalism itself — the story.

Jeff's right when he says that "finding out what's happening" is the real challenge ahead, and that's why aggregators are so important to the future of media. What we have today is nothing compared to what entrepreneurs are bringing us in the months and years ahead.

And the real challenge for us as existing local media companies is coming to terms with the basic issues of our communities and dedicating resources to "own" them as niche properties. If not, I'm convinced the people will do it for themselves and leave us out of it completely. Meanwhile, we need to be organizing the local web and building the local infrastructure to enable the personal media revolution in our communities.

This is where our future will be.