17 February 2015

Lighter and Lighter #nlpoli

Three separate stories over the past three days highlight changes to the local media world.

On Saturday, Telegram editor Russell Wangersky slammed the publicly funded CBC Radio for turning its morning show into the sort of light, fluffy morning program heard on commercial radio.

(Is "We're broadcasting from Tim Horton's" really that much different than that old private radio staple, "We're broadcasting live from L&M Carpeting, your best carpet buy in the tri-state area"?)

There are stupid host and guest tricks: let's make the mayor of Mount Pearl, Randy Simms, wear a party hat for that city's 60th birthday. Let's make him blow on a party horn. Let's Tweet the pictures. Let's dress someone up as a turkey and film them doing tricks.

He’s right.

But Russell is also wrong.

Bleeding Readers

On Monday,  the Telegram unveiled its new print format.  There’s a lot less to the paper.  It’s narrow, for one thing.  The corporate sales point is that the more compact paper is easier to read during the morning commute.  Undoubtedly all those folks speeding down the Outer Ring Road will find it easier to drive with one hand while holding the Telly in the other.  They’re not, of course. 

The Telegram is cutting the size of its paper to cut costs.  Full stop.  The sale pitch is just a pitch. There’s a lot less on each page.  That’s also a way of cutting costs.  Of the 28 pages in the Monday paper,  eight were full page ads.  Three of them belonged to the Telly itself. 

Of course, the readership for the weekly editions of the Telly have dropped dramatically in the last 15 years. That’s the reason the paper is lighter and lighter in just about every respect.  Eyeballs are going elsewhere.

It’s the same thing in the radio business.  While the CBC is publicly funded, money there is tighter as well, just as it is in the private sector.  The Ceeb uses ratings as a way of allocating resources so it’s not surprising that they have turned to many of the same radio marketing gurus to rejig their formats into ratings generators.

The same thing has happened on television. The half hour shorty version of the news at 5:30 was part of the trend. The live hits came from that Americanised re-tooling of the news.  Now that is being abandoned by the CBC as part of further cost cuts.

What Russell missed, incidentally, is that the radio shift hasn’t been in one direction.  VOCM hired Fred Hutton as part of what has obviously been an effort to rejig its morning show on the flagship VOCM station.  The result is that VOCM is lot less fluffy in the peak audience time between about 7:45 and 8:15.  Their advertising puts Hutton  - and hence news - at the centre of the morning team. 

On any given day on any given week,  Hutton is doing the hard news that used to be CBC’s exclusive domain in the mornings.  It doesn’t seem to have hurt their ratings, especially given the number of politically stories Fred has broken.

Public Choices

As much as we all like to pretend otherwise, the reality of the local media market is that it is a market. Newspapers, radio, and television are chasing an audience that is shifting. The bigger font size in the Telegram is a sign of that:  readers are getting older and we find it easier to read bigger print.

More importantly, though, the local media outlets are trying to find what the audience wants in a world where the audience can actually make choices.  They don’t have to take what the editors dish out.  They can tune out altogether from radio and television and get news from the Internet.  They can read the Telly on line, if  they need to read it at all.

The shift in content and format that Russell bemoans is a function of local media trying to find out what viewers want. The Telly’s been running a “what’s hot online” section for a while now in its print edition.   CBC and NTV have been using the same thing but – not surprisingly – with a heavy emphasis on video.

Overall, the local media has been shedding hard news at a high rate of speed largely because they believe the audience doesn’t want to hear the sort of detailed, in-depth, informative stuff that fills news junkies’ fantasies. The lust after superficial crap.

Good people,  stupid things

The best illustration of that was the third media story coming out of the weekend:  Danny Williams and Mark Critch locked in a kiss at Saturday night’s Ice Caps game. The Telegram seems to be the only outlet that didn’t cover it.  VO, CBC, and NTV were all over the bit of twaddle.  The story also took off nationally.

You can put the Don Cherry barbarian seal-eaters story in the same category.  The weather fetish at NTV and CBC is the same thing.  It’s what the audience apparently wants and it is cheap and easy to deliver.  An analysis of the province’s budget problems is way too costly and way too boring.

Think of it as another manifestation of the orchestra pit theory of political news coverage. Two candidates at the same event. One guy announces he’s found a cure for cancer. The other guy falls off the stage into the orchestra pit.  The video of the guy in the pit goes viral.

Say what you will about Danny Williams but the guy was a master at delivering what the news media really wanted.  His entire political success was built on delivering drama that the local newsrooms ate up, unquestioningly.  No one was interested – even at the Telly – in digging behind Williams’ ravings to figure out what was really going on.  They just drooled whenever he was in front of a microphone.

Despite what you might think, that’s not a criticism of either the news media or Williams.  Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of the deeply-rooted relationship between the two.  They fed off each other in a sort of co-dependent – sometimes abusive - way.  Williams and his posse weren’t above abusing the media when it suited his purposes.

Each fall, Williams would bash the local media, especially the CBC, even though they were often more fawning of his gloriousness than VOCM ever dreamed of being.  And when NTV broke the story of Williams’ heart surgery in early 2010,  Williams and his entourage laced into the Mother Corp with a vengeance, blaming them for an invasion of Williams’ privacy.

No matter how hard he beat them or how hard he beat their fellows, the reporters always came back to Williams and the editors and producers fawned over him when he quit politics. They heaped tons of praise on him for things he’d never done, for things other people did, and for things that hadn’t happened yet. None of that mattered. They were really thanking him for the good copied he’d always supplied.

You’ve got “good people doing stupid things,”  Wangersky said to scold the crowd running the local CBC factory over on the Parkway.  That’s certainly true.  You could say much the same thing of pretty well any newsroom in town these days. The only difference among them might be one of degree.  But even then, the degree of variation would be small. 

The reason the variation is small is because they are all trying to make a buck. They are all trying to keep their audience.

And the audience likes its news like it loves its politicians:  the lighter the better.