Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Journalism is not Dead!

In his recent column, Steve Rosenbaum, of The Huffington Post, cynically declared, "Google didn't kill journalism, Don Hewitt did."

Don Hewitt is the legendary creator of the CBS News program 60 Minutes. Rosenbaum writes, "Up to 60 Minutes, journalism wasn't a business - it was a calling." He then continues, "there was no P&L for journalism, it was what the TV networks did to 'give back' to their communities."

First of all, everyone currently working at 60 Minutes believes journalism is very much alive. So do most journalists working in the profession, whether in television, radio, newspapers, magazines or the Internet. However, there is no denying that journalism is undergoing a rapid transformation that is posing great challenges to news standards and its traditional business models.

Similar challenges have been present throughout the history of journalism. After World War II, the advent of television threatened the powerful radio industry. CBS founder William Paley regularly pressured news executives in the forties, fifties and sixties on budget matters. Back then news was not as costly to produce, salaries were relatively modest, and news organizations were small. Radio and television programs would not be green-lighted unless they had a sponsor, and poorly performing shows would be canceled.

Don Hewitt is a television pioneer who helped define broadcast journalism and he is responsible for many of the production techniques you see today. He created 60 Minutes in the late sixties, and it has been the most successful program in television history. Still today it regularly ranks in the top ten of all television programs. During its lifetime it has earned hundreds of millions of dollars in profits for CBS.

However, here again Rosenbaum is wrong when he asserts, "there was a moment when Hewitt could have insisted that 60 Minutes revenues (profits) went to the news division to fund other worthwhile and less profitable journalism." The fact is that 60 Minutes profits did always go to help cover other news division costs. Regretfully, due to higher production costs and lower revenues, the program's profit margin has declined to a fraction of what it was two decades ago.

Because 60 Minutes was so wildly successful, other newsmagazines began to appear (imitation is the highest form of television). 20/20 and Primetime on ABC, Dateline on NBC, and CBS News created West 57th, Street Stories, Eye to Eye with Connie Chung and 48 Hours. Corporate finance executives supported these programs because they are cheaper to produce than sitcoms or dramas. But entertainment executives resisted expanding the role of newsmagazines because their viewership skews very old, they earn lower rates from advertisers and they take valuable real estate away from traditional entertainment producers.

Rosenbaum recalls "being in the office of the executive producer of 48 Hours when the head of the entertainment division called - screaming...the ratings for the night before...were low...news and entertainment where supposed to be separated by a wall." This happened occasionally at 48 Hours because the entertainment division wanted to kill the program, and the show's executive producer frequently lobbied the west coast to keep the program on the schedule. The conflict existed because a news program slotted in an entertainment time period was judged by the same standards as an entertainment program. Yet more news programming meant more revenues and influence for the news division.

Today, driven by technological advancements and increased competition on multiple platforms, journalism is rapidly evolving. Old business models are dying as advertising revenue is shifting away from traditional media, such as newspapers, magazines, radio and television to the Internet and mobile.

The good news is that journalism is more readily accessible today than it was forty years ago. One challenge has been to produce high quality content more quickly while maintaining accuracy in an era of instant communications. Another is journalists find they need to offer more perspective and analysis to help people sort out the flood of information being unleashed every day. But the key to being successful in journalism still is, in Don Hewitt's own words, "great stories, well-told."

No, journalism is not dying. And Don Hewitt is my hero!

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