All of the major newspapers cover the departure last night of Tom Brokaw from the anchor desk of NBC News. (MSNBC has posted a transcript
of his final remarks.) Tom Shales writes about it for the Washington Post
, saying this may be a pivotal development in the evolution of the news business:
Brokaw's exit is indeed significant, though probably not for any of the reasons fawning and toadying NBC personalities have stated.
With Dan Rather, anchor of "The CBS Evening News," set to follow Brokaw out the door next spring, abdicating a job he once said was the most important at any network, the whole idea of the anchor as a network's top gun and flag-bearer is looking shaky and frail, and perhaps irrelevant. Jennings will be the only veteran in an anchor chair after Rather leaves, and instead of the earth shuddering at that prospect, there's a disheartening aura of "so what?"
Sources of news have gone through a population explosion since Brokaw plunked himself down in the anchor chair those roughly two decades ago, and though the broadcast networks' evening news shows still draw large audiences and make big profits, the days when they could stomp and swagger and make people of power cower seem to be irreversibly over.
Scott Collins chimes in for the Los Angeles Times
with a similar note, but also examines some of the macro-level issues affecting the news business. Brokaw's departure signals not just a change in the broadcast news delivery format, but also marks a point on the trend towards a more Balkanized news business in general.
Everything seems to be on the table. Networks might push newscasts to later in the evening to adapt to family schedules and commuters. Anchors such as Williams will increasingly turn up on early morning shows and Internet chat rooms to gain more exposure, and broadcast executives hope, viewers. And yes, they will make frequent guest appearances on entertainment programs like "The Daily Show," which has become a proxy newscast for many young viewers. Eugene Volokh
"When Brokaw and Rather and [ABC anchor Peter] Jennings were hired, the purpose of the evening newscast was to give viewers what the gatekeepers thought was important, with a stamp of approval from seasoned professionals," said Marty Kaplan, associate dean of USC's Annenberg School for Communication.
"Now, I'm not sure the audience believes in the legitimacy of the gatekeepers or even cares what they have to say.... I don't think the new anchors will be inhabiting the same set of assumptions as before."
Entertainment values — employed fully by Fox News Channel in its successful decade-long battle against CNN — are becoming paramount.
Jonathan Klein, the former Internet executive named as CNN chief last month, warned against an overabundance of fluff but emphasized the need to engage viewers in prime time. CBS chief Leslie Moonves joked to reporters this week that the evening news might be anchored by the cast of "Friends." But he quickly turned serious, saying: "People are going to have to look at news differently, and certainly we are."
There are signs of change already.
This year, for the first time, cable's opinion-heavy Fox News frequently beat broadcast networks in the ratings during coverage of the national political conventions. The political gatherings were once marquee events for broadcasters; NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley became household names guiding viewers through the 1964 conventions. But this year, the networks trimmed convention coverage to no more than one hour per night in prime time — opting instead to air their usual entertainment lineups.
That's a trend some find alarming.
Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, is convinced the new strategies will reduce the quality of news programming. He noted the networks' obsession with ratings, which drive advertising rates.
"I don't see a silver lining," he said. "We're in a period where the market trumps all.... You could see the network news vanish."
, under whom I studied First Amendment law at UCLA, offers another piece of the puzzle in a New York Times op-ed
this morning (albeit on a different subject). Writing about journalistic privileges and bloggers, Eugene opines that we need a new rule to encompass the new face of journalism.
... the situation is a mess - and it's getting messier. Because of the Internet, anyone can be a journalist. Some so-called Weblogs - Internet-based opinion columns published by ordinary people - have hundreds of thousands of readers. I run a blog with more than 10,000 daily readers. We often publish news tips from friends or readers, some of which come with a condition of confidentiality.Analysis
The First Amendment can't give special rights to the established news media and not to upstart outlets like ours. Freedom of the press should apply to people equally, regardless of who they are, why they write or how popular they are.
Yet when everyone is a journalist, a broad journalist's privilege becomes especially costly. The I.R.S. agent, for example, no longer needs to risk approaching many mainstream journalists, some of whom may turn him in. He can just ask a friend who has a blog and a political ax to grind. The friend can then post the leaked information and claim the journalist's privilege to prevent the agent from being identified. If the privilege is upheld, the friend and the agent will be safe - but our privacy will be lost.
What's the answer? On the one hand, tips from confidential sources often help journalists (print or electronic) uncover crime and misconduct. If journalists had to reveal such sources, many of these sources would stop talking. On the other hand, some tips are rightly made illegal.
The best solution may be to borrow a principle from other privileges, like those for confidential communications to lawyers, psychotherapists and spouses. The law has generally recognized that protecting the confidentiality of such communications is more important than forcing a person's testimony.
But it has also limited the privilege. Communications that facilitate crime or fraud, for example, are not protected. I may confess my crimes to a lawyer, but if I try to hire him to help me commit my crime, he may be obligated to testify against me.
Maybe a journalist's privilege should likewise be limited. Lawmakers could pass legislation that protects leakers who lawfully reveal information, like those who blow the whistle on governmental or corporate misconduct. But if a leaker tries to use a journalist as part of an illegal act - for example, by disclosing a tax return or the name of a C.I.A. agent so that it can be published - then the journalist may be ordered to testify.
Such a rule may well deter some sources from coming forward. But they will be the very sources that society should want to deter, to protect privacy and safety. In any event, the rules should be the same for old media and new, professional and amateur. Any journalist's privilege should extend to every journalist.
: I'm hardly the first person to say this, but I believe that we are entering an era where form is becoming ancillary to content. To borrow a buzzphrase from former-NYT editor Howell Raines, many news consumers are now "format agnostic". It matters little to me whether I read my morning Wall Street Journal online or in print. Often, the reason for my choice of online or print is something completely unrelated to the news, like whether I arrived early at the office and had time to read and enjoy the print version. What does
matter to me is the content — an article by Jess Bravin or Chris Cooper or Greg Jaffe is the same regardless of whether it's on paper or on my laptop screen. Form is becoming secondary to content; it's the ideas that count, not the number of trees you kill to print them.
To some extent, I think this trend mirrors others in our economy. The trend towards outsourcing in some industries, such as call centers, has been driven by a realization that it matters little to the consumer whether an operator works in Killeen, Texas, or Mumbai, India. (It matters a great deal for our economy, but that's another discussion.) Similarly, the intellectual property explosion of the last 15 years is evidence that ideas may be the next big thing in business. Indeed, as Newsweek reported a couple of weeks ago, there are entire businesses now dedicated to the acquisition, preservation, marketing and licensing of patents. The most important form of property in the 21st Century may turn out to be the idea — not the form which that idea takes.
If the news business is to survive in any recognizable form, it must adapt to this new reality. News organizations which make their content available in multiple formats, such as CNN.Com or the major newspapers, will likely do well. Print publications that cling to dead trees will fare poorly. Those that spring to adapt to new technologies, such as RSS feeds and PDA availability, among others, may experience rapid growth as consumers who use those items flock to them. But in the end, the most essential lesson will be this: he or she who publishes the best content, in the most diverse array of formats, will win. News organizations that force their readers to use antiquated or unfriendly formats will lose; news organizations that publish second-rate content will also lose.
The departure of Tom Brokaw comes at a time when the news business stands at a crossroads. The old style of anchor-driven broadcast journalism is probably dead. No one is going to believe a broadcast simply because the anchor said it — the days of Cronkite are long gone. (See, e.g., the Killian memo fiasco) Today, the challenge for news organizations to put out the best content in the best format possible. I'm surprised to see NBC taking such an incrementalist approach here, by replacing Mr. Brokaw with what is essentially a younger clone. I can think of few better opportunities for true change than right now. At the very least, I would have expected some demographic base-covering — perhaps a change from a news anchor to a team approach which included women and minorities. One might also expect more real-time news and analysis, or even a blog from the anchor, to generate more quality content in different formats. But I suppose NBC is taking the conservative route for largely financial reasons... and we'll have to wait for someone else to take up the mantle of change.
(Photo Credit: AP/NBC)