When it Comes to News, Why Won't People Eat Their Vegetables?

Chris Lee thinks that people don't get enough news they need, as opposed to want.

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One of the basic questions in journalism these days is, “What news do consumers actually want?” Chris Lee believes that today’s citizenry is getting too much of what they want, and too little of what they need. With the Tools of Change for Publishing conference approaching, it seemed appropriate to talk to Lee, who has spent his professional life in the trenches of broadcast journalism, about where the industry is going and what the future of news looks like.

James Turner: Why don’t you give us your background.

Chris Lee: I’ve been a journalist for most of my career, or at least the first part of my career. Then I gradually got interested in the technology, and have tended to go back and forth between the journalism and news management side, and the production technology side; asking what are the new devices that stations and journalists could use. I haven’t been frightened of the technology like most journalists have been along the way. Sometimes you can see things earlier, or you understand how to turn something sideways and turn it into a new newsgathering tool.

James Turner: So, clearly print journalism is on the ropes right now.

Chris Lee: And TV, also. Local TV, in particular, in the United States.

Tools of Change

James Turner: What are the factors playing into that in your mind?

Chris Lee: Well, on the newspaper side, you start with Craigslist. This is all pretty well-documented, but the audience is gone. They can’t support the news organizations on the ad revenue, given that there are fewer eyeballs watching the ads on the newspaper side. And frankly, on television, it’s the same story. It’s caused not by Craigslist, although other internet sites have contributed, but largely through the boom of cable television. Thirty years ago, cable was a way to get a cleaner, clearer picture. Now basic cable channels beat the broadcast networks quite handily in primetime ratings.

James Turner: We have started to see that even in the “news networks,” MSNBC, CNN, and FOX, they’re shutting down their bureaus. They’re consolidating because even they don’t seem to have the budget for it.

Chris Lee: I can’t speak to what’s going on right now in detail at CNN. MSNBC has some GE issues, and now change of ownership issues, so you might need to exclude them. But whatever’s happening at the basic cable channel CNN-like level is far kinder than what’s happening at the networks or the local stations, meaning broadcast networks. In the end, the broadcast networks are only as healthy as the station business, and the station business is in big trouble.

The whole delivery concept in the United States, where you would have an affiliate that accepts the network programming, adds some of its own things, and then passes it on to local viewers, is a distinctly American approach. These individual local transmitters in most of the rest of the world aren’t separate businesses; they’re just relay points. So you’ve got these separate local transmitters that were once very important in our culture. That’s the channel I watch Walter Cronkite on, or what have you. Now they’re unnecessary technologically.

You’ve got 2/3 or 3/4, depending on where you live, of the households watching other signal instead of theirs, via cable TV or DBS [direct broadcast satellite]. And it’s just that much more competition. These guys, all of a sudden, used to have four other people to fight and now they’ve got 400.

James Turner: Just to play devil’s advocate though, I could say, “You know something? The local news was never really anything to write home about anyway. And maybe we can get by with what remains of print journalism in a city, that does all of the real investigative work, which isn’t six things that could give you cancer at 11:00.”

Chris Lee: I’m not going to disagree. I think one of the reasons local news is where it is today is because they didn’t respect their audience enough in these teases and this sensationalism, “Can bikinis cause cancer? Tune in in February when it’s a ratings hook.” In the end, that stuff helped erode an audience. But as business, it was quite profitable.

People used to watch local news and read newspapers in great number. Now there are many more ways to get information or choose not to get information, because there’s so many other media out there. Or you can get information that’s specific to you rather than the news of the day, if you will. I think the really interesting and kind of scary question is so just how much consumption of what we traditionally call news is still a requirement of citizenship (I don’t mean in the immigration sense), of being a productive member of a community. It’s as if people were in the habit of eating their vegetables, but now there’s so many other good things out there that they skip them.

James Turner: The other interesting question is that if you say, “Okay, great. I’m going to have my customized news feed that’s going to give me my local news, maybe even based on my geolocation, and it’s going to give me whatever the national news is,” where is this content going to come from once everything has dried up?

Chris Lee: Good question. You rightly observe that when people go to alternate sources to look for news, they’re very frequently looking at news produced by people who get paid by organizations that aren’t making any money from that particular viewer choosing to read or consume that article. In the end, you’re right. Those people go away, unless they’re replaced by something else.

Citizen journalism has its place, it ought to be one of the tools in any professional journalism organization’s outfit. That doesn’t mean you take something an unknown person does and necessarily publish it immediately, or maybe you put it on a website, but you indicate it’s not yet vetted and then you fact-check. If you can really get volunteers out there who know a community and can start the newsgathering machine, I think that’s good.

But I think what we’ve seen by and large is that if you look at what citizen journalists are typically doing, they’re opining; they’re not reporting. Those who are reporting often have an ax to grind, and that ax is not necessarily out there and for all to see. I find it hard to argue that we don’t need real journalists. I think we got into a war because we didn’t have enough real journalists, or all of the real journalists were working on a deadline because there wasn’t enough money to give somebody more time to think about or ask one more question.

James Turner: What I have observed is that “citizen journalism” is really good for breaking news. You can see that with the Haiti today. A guy with a cell phone takes a picture; he is better than any reporter sitting at a desk at that moment because —

Chris Lee: Oh, absolutely.

James Turner: — he’s got the picture. If he’s taking a picture of a bridge that collapsed somewhere, that’s great. But he’s not going to do the six-month investigative on why there was faulty cement in that bridge.

Chris Lee: Exactly. There are those huge investigative things, but the truth is, with very few exceptions, nobody’s doing that today. There are, maybe, the big national news organizations and some of this foundation-funded stuff that’s starting. I think the bigger worry is the nuts and bolts. As you know, the meat and potatoes of daily journalism is that you’ve got to ask six people the same question; you’ve got to go to a council meeting. People get paid to do it for a reason. But I would agree.

And that’s why I say, certainly, if a citizen journalist is at a scene and has a camera and can take some video or you can interview them, by all means, you do it. But that’s not to say that some network of citizen journalists is going to tell you why your education system doesn’t work.

James Turner: When you were talking about bias earlier, it struck a chord, because this is something that I run into a lot. I hear people say all the time, “Yeah, but every news organization is biased, too.”

Chris Lee: I think the bias of almost all news organizations is a bias about the economy in which they operate. A local TV newsroom today has a bias to assign a story that they have a high confidence can be completed in a short number of hours because they can’t afford to send people out on stories that fall apart. That’s the reason why the TV news doesn’t cover complicated things, or doesn’t do the investigation on why the bad cement was in the bridge. But I really don’t think, with the possible exception of two national news channels I will say that come from a political left and right perspective, there aren’t very many news organizations where you can organize a bias and drive it through the organization and have people fall in line. I really don’t believe that happens.

James Turner: I wanted to turn to another one of your interests, and how it ties into this. We’ve heard for a long time about how we’re going to have this conjunction between traditional media, set top devices, computers, networking; it’s all going to come together. It’s all going to be one device. With things like Boxee and Hulu, we’re starting to see that occur now. To some extent that means, for example, if you had all of your CNN segments for the last two days on Hulu, you could watch it on demand whenever you wanted. Does that basically turn broadcast or cable news into the same reaggregated content that we’re seeing with print news now?

Chris Lee: Well, the first thing I’ve got to say is what you describe I love. I have built one of those or two of those, and want to be able to one day sit down in front of my television set or my computer screen or whatever and say, “Show me a newscast.” That newscast should not require me to lean forward and push a button every time I want a next thing to happen, and the newscast should be some mix of the things I need and the things I want, just like news has always been.

Having worked on some of those schemes, and some other simpler things that would integrate broadcast television and the cable television infrastructure, the problem is there’s lower-hanging fruit that is more profitable. There’s not much attention to how to deliver customized news via Boxee or anything else, because they’ve all got their eye on the prize of how to deliver Hollywood movies. People have demonstrated they’ll pay for that. And if anything, what’s happening right now in consumer behavior makes you wonder whether people will watch news that’s free, let alone news that they would have to pay for or that would be sponsored.

James Turner: That brings us around to another thing that’s happened recently which is that we’ve seen Rupert Murdock say, “Well, I’m just going to paywall all of my stuff.” In the past, the New York Times tried to paywall their site, failed, and had to end up making it a registration-only site. The only sites I know of that really has a successful paywall is the Wall Street Journal, professional journals and things like that.

Chris Lee: I would bet you most of those journal subscriptions are being put on somebody’s expense account.

James Turner: The thing we always heard was that micropayments would be the solution there, and you’d buy the stories you wanted for a couple of cents a piece. The reality is when you look at how much they charge per article today, it’s usually a buck or more. So they’re charging you more than the cost of buying the newspaper.

Chris Lee: They forgot the micro.

James Turner: Well, part of it was the reality of credit card processing, that a two-cent transaction didn’t make any sense. And it’s only through things like PayPal, that can aggregate it, that they’re starting to see a solution. But do you think that paywalls can work? Advertising doesn’t seem to have worked as a model, the click-view model. Not getting paid at all doesn’t seem to be a good revenue model. So is paywalling going to be the way that we get some news generated in the future?

Chris Lee: Well, somebody has to figure out a way to pay the journalists. I think there’s a lot of hope, probably overly optimistic hopes, on whether tablets, iSlates, what have you, can come to market as a sort of breakfast table friendly news consuming devices. Whether there, like on the iPhone, consumers will accept that it’s a different device; it’s not a PC, and that some services have subscription fees. If we go the model of all information is free on the web, we’re, I think, going to be beholden to foundations for a lot of our journalism. And that does not make it bias-free. Or we can wait for some of these start-ups that are working on hyper-local to try to develop into something that is sort of nominally paying someone’s salary and get our news there.

James Turner: Do you think there would be a place for a model where I said, “I know more about Derry, New Hampshire than anybody else who can report about it. So I will just start a subscription site for anybody who wants to know about Derry”? Essentially, launch my own online newspaper by subscription and charge little enough that I’m making it up on volume. Could that work, or is that going to suffer from the same “getting the word out” problem that all the other disintermediation strategies seem to be hitting?

Chris Lee: I don’t know. I’d like to see it work. I guess I’m skeptical. I think one of the observations about how consumers are behaving in the past five years that has surprised me the most is, again, this lack of feeling responsible for knowing the news of their country and their local government of that day. I don’t think it’s just a technology question. I think if you asked people now versus the same age group 20 years ago, I think they’d be stunningly less informed now about boring news, and tremendously more knowledgeable about bits of news that really interest them.

I’m not sure that’s entirely bad. But the guy in Darien, Connecticut is going to be churning out a lot of news of the day. And if everybody’d rather dig into their little content niche for what they really care about, Mr. Darien’s going to have trouble making money.

James Turner: One of the other strategies we’ve been hearing a lot about lately is automated news generation. Taking things that are available out there as public information and grinding it into news. So, for example, I saw that there’s a project now that’ll take the line from a baseball game and turn it into news copy.

Chris Lee: [Laughter]

James Turner: We’ve also heard about experiments where people tried to outsource the reporting of town council meetings to people in India, or other places, because it was just watching the meeting and then reporting on it.

Chris Lee: Yeah. And there another thing that I think of that’s happening in a lot of government agencies, and most prominently I think in professional sports. I’m a San Francisco Giants fan and my son is, too. My son just goes to SFGiants.com to find out what’s going on. I go to the people who blog for the newspapers who are beat writers. There are a lot of people who don’t grasp that the news you get from, in effect, the officialdom that you’re interested in is not without its biases. I think that’s a real concern.

James Turner: I can remember a few years ago there was this whole thing with local news outlets running these reports which were essentially given to them by the government.

Chris Lee: Oh, yeah. That was bad. In reality, in probably 80 percent of the cases, they were just ripping off the file tape and talking over the pictures. I can’t speak to newspapers so much. But I’m sure the same thing is going on. Actually, television in some respects is worse because the news hole hasn’t gotten any smaller. The business gets bad in the newspaper and you print fewer pages.

In broadcast journalism, the problem is you’ve got a smaller staff. The same amount of time has to be filled. There’s more pressure. And it leads to more corner-cutting. It’s not just running video news releases, but it’s doing these stories that are guaranteed to work, which means they’re probably boring; you’ve seen them 50 times before. There’s no chances. There’s no risk-taking. It’s no wonder people aren’t watching local news because these evergreens that we’re putting on don’t have much to them.

James Turner: I have to say I was very pleased to see that AP actually did a really nice piece of investigative journalism recently about cadmium and toys. Maybe it’s because they are still a big enough resource, they really are almost like an aggregator. But they are an aggregator that can make some money off their content. So what’s different with AP?

Chris Lee: Well, AP is such a weird business model, you almost have to throw them out in terms of how they make their money. But you’re right. There’s an advantage of scale. If you’ve still got a lot of reporters, you can afford to have a couple of them not file a story this week. That’s really what it comes down to, how many reporters do you need filing a story today to fill the hole? In a lot of news organizations, I’d say probably almost every local news organization of any media around the country, you pretty much need everybody to file everyday. That means there’s not much extra time to do investigations or news that’s just harder to dig up.

James Turner: So it sounds like you don’t have an answer for where this goes in, say the next five or ten years?

Chris Lee: I think what ends up happening is that the magazine people and the newspapers begin to figure out how to make money. They’re not going to let all content be free on the slates, and they begin to make some revenue there. I don’t know whether they really make any revenue from paywalls on the web or not. I think the local news organizations in each American market will dwindle. Where there’s four or five doing news now, they’ll maybe do two.

If the television stations were smart, there would be some real opportunities for A, making content that would be useful and interesting on the web and B, understanding how to build websites and RSS services that would allow people to see those stories. I’ve tried, but it’s hard to make the dinosaurs learn. I don’t think they’re going to get there.

A real key for making money out of video news is to enable a smart aggregation device that will select the stories, hopefully not just what you want but also some of the stories that you need to know, what’s going on in the world, and combine those in a personalized newscast. And the reason that’s useful is, I think, twofold. One, I don’t think people want to lean forward and click every time to watch a news story, particularly if they’re watching it on a big screen. And the other thing is, that provides a context where a commercial or a commercial break seems fair and reasonable and is what they’re expecting, based on years of viewing. So it gives you a context where maybe you can make some money.

James Turner: Isn’t the danger of that, though, that you can get even more of an echo chamber effect than you get today if people really can personalize?

Chris Lee: Oh, absolutely. I built this little system in 1994. The thing that the journalists all liked the most about it is there were several knobs you could twist to make different sorts of newscasts come out. There was one knob that, on one end of the scale would give them what they want; on the other end of the scale, give them what they need. You can set it anywhere you want and you’ll get out a newscast that has a different level of ultra personalized versus important.

In the end, it’s not really a technology issue. It comes down to viewer behavior, because there are fewer and fewer people out there in journalism management who are prepared to spin the dial anywhere but where it will make the most revenue. I look everyday for a sign that we as a culture are interested in a little bit of news that we need, not just the news that we want.

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