The pessimistic school, according to former CBS News president Andrew Heyward, sees the Internet as a tool for fragmentation. Adherents to this view believe that in a world where the consumer only gets the news she wants, society won’t be able to get consensus on a broad range of issues. News is going to shrink to fit the small screen of a cell phone. It’s all going to be about celebrities, scandals and gossip. The audience needed for The New York Times or “60 Minutes” will not exist. The funding for journalism won’t be there; media organizations won’t be able to make a profit.
Fortunately, Heyward said, “I’m from the optimistic school.”
Optimists believe the news is as important as ever, he said Sunday, March 12, during a machine-gun fast keynote address to The Poynter Institute’s first-ever “New Habits of News Consumers” seminar.
“My view is that this complicated world is an even bigger market for editors and journalists who can make sense of it all and help you figure out at least some of what’s going on. That’s going to be an important role for journalists. Local newspapers and TV are uniquely qualified for this role. They have the resources.”
Heyward, who held the job of president of CBS News from 1996-2005, longer than anyone in their organization’s history except for Richard Salant, said the fat lady hasn’t approached the stage to sing a final aria for old media, but that if broadcast and print journalism organizations don’t innovate and reconnect with their traditional audiences, the future could be delivered by a shrill, off-key soprano.
“Bloggers will say, ‘News is no longer a lecture like this; it’s a conversation.’ Others will say, ‘Mainstream news is the conversation starter,’ ” said Heyward. “I think there will be a new Darwinism. In an era of authenticity, quality will win out. You’re going to see much more emphasis on the highest quality products winning.”
The challenge, he said, is that consumers don’t seek out and absorb the news the way they once did.
“A lot of things in news have been devalued,” Heyward said. “We are at a critical junction. For the first time I’m hearing something out of media moguls –- humility. They don’t know what’s coming next.”
Heyward cited four trends that devalue the news as it was once perceived:
1. An explosion of choice. “We’ve gone from, ‘Don’t touch that dial’ -– a quaint expression -– to this multi-channel universe and infinite choice.”
2. The empowerment of the consumer. The Internet is the ultimate instrument of consumer empowerment that began with the remote control, Heyward said. “The remote control put the power in the hands of the consumer. Combine these first two trends and you have a dramatic change between the people who create media and the people who consume it.
“People now consume what they want, when they want it.”
3. Disaggregation or bundling of media. “It’s the iPodization of America. Not just in music but in journalism, too. It’s now easy to pick off bits and pieces of newscasts without looking at the whole thing.”
4. Generational Change. “This next generation is just not going to consume mainstream media the way the previous generation did. They’re not as engaged with public life as they are with their own peer group. This generation is pampered by growing up with their own niche media -– Nickelodeon, MTV –- and they communicate in ways that are unique and new. The Pew Institute calls them grazers. I call them ‘Information Impressionists.’ They might see a news story as they log on to AOL when they’re looking for movie times. They’re not regular consumers of news sources.”
An actual conversation can now take place between journalism and its practitioners, Heyward said. The question is whether journalists will listen or continue lecturing.
“The era of omniscience is over. Walter Cronkite used to say, ‘And that’s the way it is.’ An honest newscaster today would say, ‘That’s a little bit of what we did our best to find out tonight.’ You’re not going to suggest you found the answer. We’re in a world of multiple points of view. The world is complicated. The news has had a tendency to oversimplify. That has got to change.”
Heyward did not spare the medium in which he rose to prominence over the last 30 years, TV news, from its share of consumer neglect.
“As you go around the country, it’s almost scary how similar the anchors are. It’s either blond ambition or bland ambition. I’m not sure which,” he said.
Heyward talked about producing spots as a young man for CBS News business reporter Ray Brady. “I remember suggesting a nuance of sorts. He turn his grizzled head to me and said, ‘One idea, Andy. One idea at a time.’ But the idea of ‘One idea’ is archaic now.”
Too much coverage is “artificial and formulaic,” according to Heyward.
“Why are the evening news programs so similar? Adam Smith has got to be spinning in his grave. All these programs should be separating from each other because the audience is splintering. But their content is similar to what it was over the last couple years. There needs to be innovation, more examination of the forms we have. Survival of the samest is a threat to journalism.
“Jon Stewart and ‘The Colbert Report’ –- their appeal is that they’re funny. But they’re also not formulaic, recycling the usual clichés. They’re making fun of them. They’re not worrying about being bland; they get to the heart of the matter. People understand; Jon understands that he provides insight, authenticity. The Katrina coverage –- you saw the veneer these newscasts had been trained to cover themselves with was slipping away. It was Anderson Cooper, Brian Williams. They looked at the lies officials were telling and they didn’t let them get away with it. It was appropriate to have outrage there. How do you maintain authenticity in a complicated spectrum of political views? Katrina resonated because blandness slipped away and you saw human beings.”
Today’s young consumer grew up without dominant news brands in their lives, according to Heyward. They don’t rely on the local newspaper to brace them for the day or the 6 o’clock news to summarize events at day’s end. “The newspaper that was so important to their parents is not important to them,” he warned. “What’s important to them is what’s cool. News outlets have to earn respect in ways that are new as opposed to assuming these young consumers will come to them because of whatever your history is.”
The widespread arrival of broadband Internet video delivery will change newspapers and journalists from without, Heyward predicted, because consumers will expect rich media from print. (Picture the print newspaper passed around in the movie “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” that features a menacing front page video of Sirius Black on the front page.) “Some people still want to consume journalism passively. Others want to go to links or talk back to you.” And if print doesn’t cooperate and deliver, they’ll look for it elsewhere.
“Absorb these new trends into your work,” Heyward admonished his audience. “You have to understand what you don’t understand and not be afraid of it.”
Another new habit to watch: community journalism, also known by a term Heyward disdained, “citizen journalism.”
“Citizen-created content is going to be increasingly important. But it’s not a substitute; it’s a complement,” he said. “Side by side, you’re going to have professional journalism and citizen-created journalism. Order vs. chaos –- this is a world that is chaotic compared to what we’re used to. It’s not neat. Get used to it. Chaos is going to co-exist with order in the media world.”
Presenting facts, he told journalists, will still be an area of opportunity for news organizations in the splintered media future.
“Facts vs. opinions,” he said. “There’s a temptation to say that to be sexy you have to have point of view. There’s lots of opinion out there; there aren’t a lot of hard, dug-up facts.
“Hype and spin will be less important,” Heyward continued. “The exaggerations, especially in television –- ‘A “20/20” you’ll never forget’ -– that sort of thing is going to slip away. It’s not credible. Merely hyping your way to success is not going to happen.
“Also, there’s a new credibility. We saw this at CBS when we screwed up the Memogate story. We have an entire online encyclopedia based on the wisdom of crowds. These people, the bloggers, are holding us accountable, which is a good thing.
“The chance to interact with our audience is an opportunity, not a threat. ‘Content is king’ is the cliché, but I think content needs to be emphasized. If content is king, then connectedness is queen. If we don’t embarace both, we’re going to be royally screwed. And if you can combine sound and pictures with search, you’ll have a new community. Most people don’t get to invent something new. We’re at the brink of being able to do that. I’m sorry I’m not starting out now. I hope to get a piece of the action in whatever time is left to me.”
“Aggregators are major forces in news,” he said. “Yahoo! is an enormously important news site, along with CNN. Google is an up and coming news site coming together with algorithms. Because they’re cool, they’re very popular. There is something to me sterile and lifeless to the Google News site, yet they’re a threat to traditional news brands. I would argue that most of the news you get from them is fungible and commoditized. Most of what you see –- a car bombing photo from Iraq, for example –- you don’t care if it came from Reuters, ABC or CBS. That’s not good for Reuters, ABC or CBS.”
Amidst the great rush to embrace new media, new habits and new Web sites and delivery devices, Heyward managed to step back and briefly unearth the old familiar dinosaurs of old media, pointing out that the original dinosaurs ruled the earth for millions of years.
“It’s easy to get swept up in new media and forget the core audience that still buys and subscribes in large numbers,” he said. “You need that audience to fund media in the future. Knight Ridder, for example, had enormous cash flow. In the case of every new medium that has historically been heralded as the downfall of an old one, both are still around. Each of the outlets still has an important place. And the new media relies on the old ones for their viability.
“A new platform will be built on rigorous adherence to fact; fairness will be important; transparency will be more important,” Heyward concluded. “There has to be a new credibility based on honesty. Embrace this new world order without being intimidated by it. Our bosses are intimidated by it. They don’t like that the tectonic plates are shifting. There’s plenty we can do and a contribution we can make. This is a jittery phase. Anxiety will spark creativity.”