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Students at UC Santa Barbara Bravely Tell Media to Go Home

(Courtesy: Los Angeles Times)

(Courtesy: Los Angeles Times)

It is one of the staples of 20th and 21st century life that wherever calamity strikes, the media soon follows with microwave and satellite trucks, camera and audio people, producers and reporters. They take over entire towns or city blocks, create parking headaches and traffic jams and manage to intrude on communities that probably would prefer to suffer, grieve and eventually heal- in silence. All of this is mostly for television and it’s all to give the background scene for the all-important TV stand-up reporters need to do to deliver that definitive air of authenticity.

No sireee, this ain’t no live shot from the in-studio satellite news desk with a reporter reading from barely edited wire-service copy; no- this is where the Channel 11 Action News Team proves there’s no disaster too distant that they cannot intrude on any given community’s pain- instantly and live.

By the way, it’s the immediate suffering and grieving that provides the money shots. We never actually get to the healing part because by then the micro-wave and satellite trucks have left and no one cares much or even remembers the given tragedy that occurred some six months earlier.

At UC Santa Barbara, the students decided to revolt and good for them. Turns out that before taking his own life, Elliot Rodger, the misogynistic 22-year-old who shot, stabbed and rammed six of the students to death, and wounded 13 others in his bloody rampage, killed his final victim at a little shop called the I.V. Deli Mart. It was the perfect place for the media circus to invade and encamp for the next 4 or 5 days that the story still had legs.

But the students started intruding back. They got in the background of the reporter stand-ups and they waved signs. “Our tragedy is not your commodity,” read one. “Stop filming our tears,” read another. “Remembrance not Ratings,” read a third. “Let us Heal!” and “News Crews Go Home!” rounded out the sudden anti-media protests.

Bravo to the UC Santa Barbara students and community. And the next time it happens and the anchorman/woman asks the reporter what that ruckus is in the background, for once I’d like to hear something like this: “Well, those are residents of the devastated community repulsed by the fact we are exploiting their grief and suffering. Back to you, Jim.”

ABC Downsizes & the Revolution Gathers Steam

February 24, 2010 4 comments

My former employer, ABC News, is seeking to cut 20% of its work force. Buy-outs are being offered before layoffs begin. There are some really radical changes coming in terms of news coverage.

More digital reporters- sharp young people who make a lot less money, shooting their own video, filing for the web and probably soon to be appearing on World News. There will be extensive training of all news staff with an eye toward the one-man band approach in which correspondents, producers and probably anybody with two hands and two eyeballs shoots their own video.

Disney is doing ok but the ABC Television division is not as plummeting advertising revenues continue taking their terrible toll on the news business. One can look at stuff like this and CBS’ recent 100 layoffs and be cynical about the kinds of priorities that are being set by the parent companies of these news organizations. Or maybe all of this is simply inevitable and we are headed toward a radically different mainstream media future and we just have to learn to deal with it.

These are but the latest convulsions in a rapidly changing media environment. The business model that held up for more than half a century has been torn to shreds. The advertising market for radio and television and newspapers has simply collapsed. More and more dollars are flowing to the internet. Major sectors like the automotive industry that used to provide about a fifth of all broadcasting ad revenues are gone. Add the worst recession since the Great Depression to the mix and we have arrived where we are today.

We are in the midst of a revolution. It is happening before our very eyes and for those of us who ply our trade in this business, it feels like an earthquake; like there is no safe place. Revolutions have happened before in the media business. Gutenberg and his printing press put town criers out of work. Radio didn’t kill newspapers but it was the dawn of a new age in communications. Television didn’t kill radio but it changed the nature of the medium from a tool of mass communication to a niche form of broadcasting that attracted advertisers for its ability to reach narrow and specific demographic groups. And now the digital age and the new egalitarian nature of multiple consumption choices it has spawned is changing the nature of the television business.

The positive thing about revolutions is that they lead to innovation. The negative is the terrible price that is paid by hard-working, generally altruistic people who pursued what they thought were solid career paths now suddenly having to recalibrate- everything. It is sad in so many ways. But it’s also the cruel and Darwinian nature of a free market-based economy.

What does worry me a great deal is that these aren’t just jobs we’re talking about. That aspect alone is bad enough. But these are people who used to bring us the news. How does a democracy function if the stakeholders no longer have the depth of information they need to make decisions about the course of their lives, their communities and their nation? Will pared-down Radio and TV networks, thin newspapers and the internet and its iterations really fill that void and perform that essential function?

I don’t know. But I sincerely hope our new information world is more than 140 characters in length plus the occasional link to You Tube.