Fall 2011 Issue

'And that's the way it is'

Barry communication professors, all experienced reporters, describe how the news business has changed – and where it may be headed

By Richard Webster

Once upon a time, the 6 p.m. evening news was king. There were three channels and every night families across the country gathered around the television to watch their favorite broadcast.

Besides the daily newspaper, it was their main source of information, their friend and confidant, giving them the scoop on everything from national elections and foreign wars to corruption in the local motor vehicle department and the upcoming Strawberry Festival.

"I remember living in suburban Chicago, and when my dad came home from work he would put on Channel 2 news at 5 o'clock," said Craig Stevens, an adjunct professor of communication at Barry University and the evening anchor for WSVN-TV, the FOX affiliate in Miami. "To me it was background noise but it had an effect, because later I discovered I was interested in the whole notion of communicating ideas through words and pictures."

But times have changed and the evening news is no longer appointment television. More people are getting their news through the Internet, cell phones or social media, says Gene Eklund, an adjunct professor and manager of sales production at ABC affiliate WPLG-TV.

In the late '70s, evening newscasts in Miami typically scored a 33 share, which means that 33 percent of the people watching TV were watching that newscast. Today, those numbers have dipped into the single digits, Eklund says.

"I don't think any of the students I've bumped into at Barry watch a traditional news show at 6 or 6:30. I'm not so sure they know they exist. I'm not so sure they think it's relevant to their world."

The picture isn't any prettier in the newspaper industry. The migration of newspapers and their readers to the Internet has diminished the importance of the print product, causing circulation and advertising revenue to drop. In 2008 alone, daily newspapers shed 5,900 newsroom jobs, according to the American Society of News Editors.

"People over 40 still like the newspaper in their hands. I do," says Michael Sallah, an adjunct professor of communication at Barry and the investigations editor at The Miami Herald. "But there are kids in college who have probably picked up a newspaper maybe half a dozen times in their entire life, sad to say."

One-man bands

Recent graduate Elena Marte '11 admits that she doesn't know a single person her age who reads newspapers, and few, if any, who watch the local evening news. But the knowledge didn't dissuade her from earning a bachelor's degree in broadcast communication, or pursuing a job at WFOR television, the CBS affiliate in Miami, where she was hired as an associate producer a few months before graduation. And now that she's been on the job for a few months, she understands why people continue to be drawn to journalism.

"Despite what some say, no matter what's going on, somebody needs to report the news," she says. "A lot of the reporters who have been in the field for a long time, they tell me the thing that keeps them around is the adrenalin. As a reporter, you're the first person to know something. You're able to stand somewhere no one else can stand and bring them to where you are visually or with the words you use. It's incredibly rewarding."

And that's the key, says Kellie Butler, an adjunct professor of communication for Barry and freelance reporter for WPLG-TV. Advancements in technology may have created shockwaves in the industry, but they have also expanded the tools a reporter can use to tell a more compelling story. Audio and video components can be added to online articles in addition to slideshows and downloadable documents such as court records.

And young reporters working in the profession today are given more autonomy over their work. When students enter the field, many times they will be expected to be self-contained units doing the interview, shooting the video, editing it on a laptop and feeding it back to the studio, Butler says.

"When I started, it was myself, a photographer and a truck operator on the scene. It was a whole production just to get one story. But now we're seeing one-man bands, even in big markets. As a news organization, you can double your coverage by having these self-contained reporters," Butler says.

The 'two-headed' techno-monster

The upside of the one-man band is that reporters are now forced to be multi-skilled, said Connie Hicks, an assistant professor of communication and a former Emmy award-winning reporter with WPLG-TV. The downside, she says, is that no one excels in one area and as a result the quality of journalism has suffered with both print and broadcast stories being shorter, more superficial, with less background or context.

"Some of my students are better at editing and shooting than I'll ever be because I never had to do it," Hicks says. "But I still stress to them that, as reporters, the most important thing they need to have are very strong writing skills. You need to get the details and know how to interview people and convey it in a compelling way. The basics remain."

Sallah imparts the same advice to his students looking to become newspaper writers: Do not let the technology distract you from the heart of what makes a great story. The Internet has made research fast and efficient, but too often young reporters rely on it almost exclusively. To be truly good journalists they have to turn off their computers, get up from their desks and hit the streets. Those who don't will create lazy, weak stories, he says.

"Nothing takes the place of shoe-leather reporting. You can only get some information online but you have to get your butt out and into the field to bring it all home," he says. "However, combining those two elements is something that is very exciting about journalism today."

Here today, here tomorrow

One of the most important elements in the 21st century newsroom is obviously social media. In a time of decreasing viewership it is the most effective way to reach people who may not be typical consumers of the conventional evening broadcast. This is where his students, who came of age in the Facebook and Twitter era, have an advantage over some old-school reporters who refuse to embrace these new tools of communication, Stevens notes.

"They are a great way to cultivate relationships with people, to get them to sample us more, to promote our work. I also have people who send me leads over Twitter all the time and sometimes they turn out to be good stories," he says.

This instantaneous interaction between reporters and their readers, however, can sometimes be a painful exercise.

"I tell my students you better have very thick skin if you're going into this business. In the old days, someone would have to pick up the phone and call the station or write you a letter. Now, all they have to do is post a response via Twitter," Butler says. "Sometimes in class I'll read my students some of the messages I get and they'll say, 'Wow, that was a really mean thing that person said.' But it's human nature. We tend to dwell on the negative."

Susan Nesmith, faculty advisor to the Barry Buccaneer student newspaper and a freelance reporter for Bloomberg news, considers herself an old-school print reporter. But she is also a strong proponent of what the digital age adds to her craft having worked as the multimedia coordinator for The Miami Herald. However, there is one invention of the digital age, increasingly popular among her students, that she hasn't fully embraced — blogging. While there are exceptions to the rule, she sees many bloggers as wannabe journalists operating without any accountability.

"Bloggers won't go to the city commission meeting and sit there through whole thing and pull the documents. The city commission reporter is still the only person who will do that. As a society, we lose out if we don't figure out a way to fund those people," Nesmith says.

The same technology that has given rise to blogging has made the margin for error much slimmer for journalists. For television reporters, any little mistake has the possibility of achieving eternal life.

"When I was starting out, if something happened during a live shot, or if it was terrible, or something funny but embarrassing happened, it was done once it aired. Nobody else saw it. Now it's on YouTube for everyone to see," Butler notes.

Some mistakes can be humorous while others can ruin a reporter's reputation. The latter, in the age of the Internet, is usually committed out of the all-consuming desire to feed the beast, i.e., the website.

"There is this need to get information on the web as fast as possible but you have to take extra care to make sure it's factual and not rush to put things on there," Butler says. "Everything now travels so quickly. You can have a story with some factual errors and all of a sudden, before you know it, it's on websites all over the country."

In her first few months as an associate producer, Marte was still adjusting to the fast-paced action of the newsroom and misspelled a word for an on-air graphic. When it splashed across the television screen, she says she wanted to cry until a seasoned producer gave her some comforting words: "He said the good thing about news is that the next day it's old and people forget what happened yesterday."

Not quite extinct

However, Marte found that the hardest part of the job was the shock she experienced upon seeing her first images of violence and death.

She had to write a story about a teenager who jumped off a bridge. She sat down in the editing booth, rolled the video and watched as rescue divers disappeared under the black water to cut the dead boy free from a tangle of seaweed.

"I saw the body float to the top and my face went pale," she says. "I was so not ready for it. A class can't fully prepare you for the psychological aspects of being a reporter. It's just something you have to experience. Now I see car accidents and I'm not even phased by it anymore. I'm not callous but it's my job now."

And that job, despite the recent turmoil and changing landscape, remains as vital as it was 20 years ago, Stevens says.

He tells his students to discount all the doomsayers predicting the end of journalism, because when something momentous or terrible happens, the world turns to newspapers and the evening news, to reporters and anchors to learn the truth.

"We're at our best when things are at their worst, when there is a natural disaster or something like Sept. 11. Then what we do is public service all the way. (We let people know) what's open or closed or where you can get water, food or gas. When that happens, I dare someone to tell us that what we do is not important."

Communication professors today need to honestly address the shortcomings of the media, while recognizing that stellar examples remain, such as "60 Minutes" and The Miami Herald's "rare but always good" investigative pieces, Hicks adds. "Cable television's need to fill a 24-hour news cycle could, eventually, turn viewers off — paving the way for the public to seek out more substantive, less strident information. If that happens, there will be an increased demand for 'old-school' journalists and investigative reporters — Woodward and Bernsteins for the 21st century."

Richard Webster is a staff writer for New Orleans CityBusiness, covering crime and health care.

Top 10 Legendary TV News Anchor Sign Offs

  1. "And that's the way it is."
    Walter Cronkite

    Often referred to as the most trusted man in America, "Uncle Walter" anchored the CBS Evening News for nearly 20 years. He was named anchor in 1962, and the following year launched network television's first 30-minute newscast. He did his final broadcast on March 6, 1981.
  2. "Good night and good luck."
    Edward R. Murrow

    Although many people today may associate the phrase with the 2005 George Clooney film, the real Edward R. Murrow began his career in radio, reporting the Blitz of London during World War II. Murrow also produced a series of TV news reports that helped lead to the censure of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
  3. "See you on the radio."
    Charles Osgood

    Osgood is the creator of the well-known radio broadcast, "The Osgood File." Each three-minute segment focuses on a single story ranging from a national news story to a slice-of-life vignette. He sometimes does the segments in rhyme, which earned him the title "Poet in Residence" at CBS.
  4. "Peace."
    Dave Garroway

    As the first host of the "Today" show on NBC back in the 1950s, Garroway would sign off by saying "peace" and extending the palm of his hand. He is largely credited with being one of the broadcasters who introduced conversational style and tone to television.
  5. "Good night, Chet, Good night, David. And so good night for NBC News."
    Chet Huntley and David Brinkley

    The two men anchored from two different cities and reportedly didn't particularly like each other that well either. The "good nights" that the public assumed was friendly banter was really a cue for the engineers to switch the live transmission from New York City to Washington, D.C., or vice versa.
  6. "Well, that's the story, folks. Glad we could get together."
    John Cameron Swayze

    Swayze was a nightly TV news host on NBC from 1949 until 1956 when he was replaced with Huntley and Brinkley. He was equally known for his two-decade long stint as the Timex watch spokesperson, making famous the slogan, "It takes a licking and keeps on ticking!"
  7. "Bye-bye."
    John McLaughlin

    He created, produces and hosts the long-running political commentary series "The McLaughlin Group" as well as "John McLaughlin's One on One." Known for his quirky, rapid-fire manner of asking questions, he has been the subject of many parodies, including one by Dana Carvey on "Saturday Night Live."
  8. "And so it goes."
    Linda Ellerbee

    Ellerbee used this sign off as the co-anchor of NBC News Overnight, which has been recognized by the jurors of the duPont-Columbia University Awards as "possibly the best written and most intelligent news program ever." She also used it as the title of her 1986 autobiographical book about her experiences in TV news.
  9. "So long, until tomorrow."
    Lowell Thomas

    Thomas' nightly radio news broadcast was an American institution for nearly two generations, and he appeared on television from its earliest days. A war correspondent in Europe and the Middle East, he helped make T.E. Lawrence famous with his exclusive coverage and later with the book "With Lawrence of Arabia" (1924).
  10. "For everyone at ABC News, I'm Peter Jennings. Good night."
    Peter Jennings

    Jennings was the sole anchor of ABC World News Tonight from 1983 until his death from lung cancer in 2005. He was known for his marathon coverage of breaking news stories, staying on the air for 15 or more straight hours during the outbreak of the Gulf War and the Sept. 11 attacks, among other such events.